5 Things You Can Learn About The Creative Process From Rick Rubin

I’m obsessed with Rick Rubin.

The legendary music producer who’s worked with everybody from Run DMC, to Metallica, to Johnny Cash may have the most impressive resume of all time.

Seriously, look at these credits:

But what fascinates me most about Rubin is his ability to create great work with such a wide range of artists and styles.

His success and experience with all sorts of different artists suggests he may have unparalleled wisdom when it comes to the creative process.

So, I studied him to see what I could learn.

Here are five lessons you can learn from Rubin’s approach to creative work.

1. Acknowledge what’s in your control and what isn’t.

No matter how talented or experienced we may be, we can never fully control the act of creation or the magic that comes from it.

Rubin believes it’s important to recognize this and instead focus on elements we can control.

As he explains here:

“I spend time with the artist and see where they’re at.

I try to imagine what them at their best is, and then try to set up whatever situations we can to allow that to happen.

Because we really have no control over it happening.

It’s a frustrating job in many respects because it’s like fishing — you can go out fishing, but you can’t say ‘I’m going to catch three fish today.’

We have very little control over this process. It’s magic.”

2. You have to believe you can create your best work in order to do so.

Expectations are powerful and Rubin believes in order to create your best work you must first believe that’s possible.

In working with lots of established talent over the years, he’s found that too often artists believe their best work is behind them.

They set out to create something good, but without belief that their next project can be better than their iconic success of the past.

As he explains here:

“I can remember having a conversation with Johnny Cash on our first album and saying, ‘You’re going to make the best album you ever made.’

He looked at me like I was insane.

He felt like he hadn’t made a good record in probably 25 years and had been discarded.

At the time that I met him, he had been playing dinner theaters and had been dropped by two labels and nobody cared.

So the idea was reframing the experience to not just, ‘Let’s do an album,’ but, ‘Let’s do whatever it takes to make the best album you’ve ever made.’

What would that sound like? How would that work? How much work would go into it?

Are you willing to commit to that? Because it’s not easy.”

3. Recognize your way may not be the best way.

Rubin’s known to be a stickler for the details and in the early part of his career he tended to want everything done his way.

But as his career evolved, he’s learned that’s not an effective approach to creative work. He now believes it’s important to be open to other possibilities in a collaboration.

As he explains here:

“I trust the artists I work with and I like them to feel like they’re making this thing themselves.

I don’t want them to feel like they’re making my record — I want them to feel like this is their record. And to be invested in it in a very personal way.

Early in my career, that was a flaw of the way I worked — I wanted it my way. And it led to not good relationships with the early bands I worked with because it had to be my way.

I’ve learned through making a lot of records and collaborating that it can be much better than my way. I didn’t know that in the beginning.

Now I know I have a way, but it may not be the best way.

And I want to hear everybody else’s way — maybe before I even suggest my way.”

4. Pursue what moves YOU.

If Rubin had followed the path others suggested for his career, who knows how things may have turned out because he says people always tried to talk him out of doing the things he did.

He believes it’s important to pursue projects you like, regardless of the conventional wisdom or opinions others may have about your career choices.

As he explains here:

“It was always about music I liked, finding good things, and whatever moved me.

Pretty much every step of the way people tried to talk me out of what I was doing next.”

5. Approach creations like chapters in your life.

Rubin sees art as a reflection of a moment in time within your life and believes it’s as important to capture that moment as it is to move on to the next one.

He compares it to a chapter in a book, as he explains here:

“A great piece of work is a chapter or a moment in your life. If you go past that and into the next moment of your life, the music is going to change.

There is something about keeping the chapters coming because, if you wait too long, you’re just going to be missing chapters. It’s not that now you’re finally making the great thing that you started eight years before; you’re probably just making the eighth year’s chapter at that point.

There is something about keeping some sort of a flow and working as hard as you can to make the best stuff you can, and if the material is not there, go back and write more.

There is something about there being another chapter and saying, ‘This is where I am now. And this is where I am tomorrow. And this is where I am next time.’”

One more thing…

Each week I share a collection of 10 ideas like this to help you learn, do, and become better at your work, art, and life.

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