“The Creative Act” by Rick Rubin is More Art Than Craft

Rubin explores creativity through nuggets of inspiration and insight  

September 30, 2023 | Denise Gifford

Photo of the cover of "The Creative Act"Creativity is an in-demand business skill. It’s always been important, but as more companies seek to leverage the power of technology, especially AI, creativity is a must-have to stay competitive and know how to best leverage the new tech capabilities. “Boosting your creativity quotient… will put all of us in a much better place in terms of how we interface with AI and technology in general,” Paul McDonagh-Smith, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan, recently argued during an MIT webinar.

But how to build that creativity quotient? And can creativity help us gain insight into the artistic mind? “The Creative Act: A Way of Being,” by Rick Rubin, seeks to help us do just that.

Unlike many books on creativity, “The Creative Act” is not a handbook of tips and techniques. Rubin, a music producer and record executive, has seen the creative process firsthand over a multi-decade career. He’s known for producing hit records by a variety of artists (the Beastie Boys, Metallica, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to name just a few), and in a variety of genres. In “The Creative Act,” he shares his musings about the nature of creativity. He says that the book is “a reflection on what I’ve noticed—not facts as much as thoughts,” and that “some ideas may resonate, some may not.” He notes that everyone creates; it is part of being human. We may not think that what we create is all that special. Perhaps we think it’s merely a solution to a problem, or a new way of thinking of things. But these are examples of everyday creations.

When we are challenged to become more creative, what resources, insights, or knowledge can we draw on? Rubin asks us to think of ourselves as creative creatures and let the possibilities emerge. One way to do this is to be open to the new and the unknown.

“Begin with a question mark and embark on a journey of discovery,” Rubin writes. In his work with musicians, he’s observed that “when presented with new instrumental tracks for the first time, some vocalists record the first sounds out of their mouths, with no thought or preparation.” Rubin says that these artists are using their subconscious to create on a subconscious level. Tapping into this “source” is available to anyone, he says. He suggests keeping a dream journal, for example, to get in touch with our subconscious.

One of the strongest sections of the book has to do with crafting the creative work. Rubin’s experience as a producer, coaxing the best performances out of artists, is valuable here. He really comes into his own when he talks about how to develop different perspectives by experimenting, changing the conditions, circumstances, or environment. When the creative process hits a wall, strategies to get things unblocked can restore momentum. For example, to help a songwriter gain a different perspective, Rubin might ask them to write for someone else. “Imagine that a favorite artist asked you to write a song for their next album. What would that song sound like?” To get a different performance from a singer, Rubin might experiment by having the microphone in a different position or recording at a different time of day.

However, the reader looking for a primer on how to create will be disappointed. This book is a collection of musings, with “how-tos” few and far between and buried amidst the seemingly random thoughts. It is a book targeted at the artist, one whose primary aim is self-expression. That’s very different from the creative whose goal is to come up with a new innovative product, a solution to a business problem, or a change in a process.

But there’s benefit to be gained in this exploration of the artistic mind. For example, Rubin’s advice to the artist who is “stuck” can apply to any project: “Complete as many elements of the project as you can without getting hung up. It’s much easier to circle back once the workload is reduced. Often the knowledge we gain from finishing the other pieces becomes a key to overcoming earlier obstacles.” His insight into artistic collaboration also applies to any team effort: “Each time we cooperate, we’re exposed to different ways of working and problem-solving, which can inform our creative process going forward.”

While this book can feel very disconnected for those of us wanting more of a tutorial, there are little gems peppered throughout (such as “Living in discovery is at all times preferable to living through assumptions”). This is the kind of book that’s worth paging through to spark ideas. In fact, Rubin notes that when he reads a book, he likes to go back to a page or paragraph and re-read it slowly, so that he can gain new insights or inspiration. That seems like good advice for readers of “The Creative Act.”

Our rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

“The Creative Act: A Way of Being”                                                                               (paid link)

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  • About The Author
  • Denise Gifford is the managing editor of InfoWorks.com. She was a co-founder of InfoWorks International, a consulting firm that trained thousands worldwide in project management, leadership, business management, and related skills. Prior to heading InfoWorks, Denise worked in marketing, financial services, and consulting. She holds her MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.