The Creative Act by Rick Rubin

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The Creative Act by Rick Rubin, cover art


Creativity is not a rare ability but a fundamental aspect of being human. It is accessible to everyone and goes beyond the realm of art. It could be bringing something new into existence, whether it's a conversation, a solution to a problem, or a simple rearrangement of furniture.

Any creative work is a snapshot of who you are, and how you see the world, at a certain moment in time. It’s something you do for yourself and no one else. Honor the work as much as possible, give it your best. That’s the only metric of success you should care about. Then release it, let it go, and move onto the next one.

Book Notes

Everyone is creative

Creativity is not a rare ability. It is not difficult to access. Creativity is a fundamental aspect of being human. It’s our birthright. And it’s for all of us. Creativity doesn’t exclusively relate to making art. We all engage in this act on a daily basis. To create is to bring something into existence that wasn’t there before. It could be a conversation, the solution to a problem, a note to a friend, the rearrangement of furniture in a room, a new route home to avoid a traffic jam. What you make doesn’t have to be witnessed, recorded, sold, or encased in glass for it to be a work of art.

The higher nature of creativity

These rhythms are not set by us. We are all participating in a larger creative act we are not conducting. We are being conducted. The artist is on a cosmic timetable, just like all of nature. If you have an idea you’re excited about and you don’t bring it to life, it’s not uncommon for the idea to find its voice through another maker. This isn’t because the other artist stole your idea, but because the idea’s time has come.

The creative source is inexhaustible

The Source is out there. A wisdom surrounding us, an inexhaustible offering that is always available. We either sense it, remember it, or tune in to it. Not only through our experiences. It may also be dreams, intuitions, subliminal fragments, or other ways still unknown by which the outside finds its way inside.

Material for our work surrounds us at every turn. It’s woven into conversation, nature, chance encounters, and existing works of art. When looking for a solution to a creative problem, pay close attention to what’s happening around you. Look for clues pointing to new methods or ways to further develop current ideas. A writer may be in a coffee shop, working on a scene and unsure what a character is going to say next. A phrase might be overheard in the chatter from another table that provides a direct answer, or at least a glimpse of a possible direction. We receive these types of messages all the time, if we remain open to them. We might read a book and find a quote leaping off the page, or watch a movie and notice a line that moves us to pause and rewind. Sometimes it’s the exact answer we’ve been looking for.

When clues present themselves, it can sometimes feel like the delicate mechanism of a clock at work. As if the universe is nudging you with little reminders that it’s on your side and wants to provide everything you need to complete your mission.

For example, you can try an anger-releasing exercise where you beat on a pillow for five minutes. It’s more difficult than you might think to do this for the full duration. Time yourself and go hard. Then immediately fill five pages with whatever comes out. The objective is to not think about it, to avoid directing the content in any way. Just write whatever words spill forth. There’s an abundant reservoir of high-quality information in our subconscious, and finding ways to access it can spark new material to draw from.

On those overcast days, it helps to tune in to the fact that the sun is still there. It’s just hidden behind a thicker layer of clouds. At noon, the sun is high in the sky, regardless of how light or dark it is outside. In the same way, regardless of how much we’re paying attention, the information we seek is out there.

Insecurity and fear of judgment

Self-doubt lives in all of us. And while we may wish it gone, it is there to serve us. Flaws are human, and the attraction of art is the humanity held in it. If we were machinelike, the art wouldn’t resonate. It would be soulless. With life comes pain, insecurity, and fear. We’re all different and we’re all imperfect, and the imperfections are what makes each of us and our work interesting. We create pieces reflective of who we are, and if insecurity is part of who we are, then our work will have a greater degree of truth in it as a result. The making of art is not a competitive act. Our work is representative of the self.

Ultimately, your desire to create must be greater than your fear of it. Even for some of the greatest artists, that fear never goes away. One legendary singer, despite performing for over five decades, was never able to eliminate his stage fright. Despite a terror so strong it made him sick to his stomach, he still stepped into the spotlight each night and performed a spellbinding show. By accepting self-doubt, rather than trying to eliminate or repress it, we lessen its energy and interference.

Finding idea seeds

In the first phase of the creative process, we are to be completely open, collecting anything we find of interest. We can call this the Seed phase. We’re searching for potential starting points that, with love and care, can grow into something beautiful. At this stage, we are not comparing them to find the best seed. We simply gather them.

Placing too much emphasis on a seed or dismissing it prematurely can interfere with its natural growth. The temptation to insert too much of yourself in this first phase can undermine the entire enterprise. Be wary of taking shortcuts or crossing items off your list too quickly. The seed that doesn’t get watered cannot reveal its ability to bear fruit. Collect many seeds and then, over time, look back and see which ones resonate.

Art is a snapshot of the Self

The goal of art isn’t to attain perfection. The goal is to share who we are. And how we see the world.

Art is a reflection of the artist’s inner and outer world during the period of creation.

When to release your work

In the end, you are the only one who has to love it. This work is for you.

When you believe the work before you is the single piece that will forever define you, it’s difficult to let it go. The urge for perfection is overwhelming. It’s too much. We are frozen, and sometimes end up convincing ourselves that discarding the entire work is the only way to move forward.

Part of the process of letting go is releasing any thoughts of how you or your piece will be received. When making art, the audience comes last. Let’s not consider how a piece will be received or our release strategy until the work is finished and we love it.

Imagine going to live on a mountaintop by yourself, forever. You build a home that no one will ever visit. Still, you invest the time and effort to shape the space in which you’ll spend your days. The wood, the plates, the pillows—all magnificent. Curated to your taste. This is the essence of great art. We make it for no other purpose than creating our version of the beautiful, bringing all of ourself to every project, whatever its parameters and constraints. Consider it an offering, a devotional act. We do the best, as we see the best—with our own taste. No one else’s. We create our art so we may inhabit it ourselves. Measurement of greatness is subjective, like art itself. There is no hard metric. We are performing for an audience of one. If you think, “I don’t like it but someone else will,” you are not making art for yourself.

Abundance of ideas

In the abundant mindset, the river never runs dry. Ideas are always coming through. And an artist is free to release them with the faith that more will arrive. If we live in a mindset of scarcity, we hoard great ideas. A comedian may be presented with a perfect opportunity to tell a favorite new joke they’ve written, but instead will hold it back waiting for a more high-profile occasion. When we use our material, new content comes through. And the more we share, the more our skills improve.

A musician may delay releasing an album for fear they haven’t taken the songs as far as they can go. Yet an album is only a diary entry of a moment of time, a snapshot reflection of who the artist is for that period. And no one diary entry is our life story. Our life’s work is far greater than any individual container. The works we do are at most chapters.

How to measure creative work

There is no more valid metric to predict what someone else might enjoy than us liking it ourselves. Fear of criticism. Attachment to a commercial result. Competing with past work. Time and resource constraints. The aspiration of wanting to change the world. And any story beyond “I want to make the best thing I can make, whatever it is” are all undermining forces in the quest for greatness. Instead of focusing on what making this will bring you, focus on what you contribute to this art to make it the best it could possibly be, with no limitation.

How shall we measure success? It isn’t popularity, money, or critical esteem. Success occurs in the privacy of the soul. It comes in the moment you decide to release the work, before exposure to a single opinion. When you’ve done all you can to bring out the work’s greatest potential. When you’re pleased and ready to let go. Success has nothing to do with variables outside yourself.

To move forward is an aspect of success. This happens when we finish a work, share it, and begin a new project. Whatever comes after this quiet feeling of accomplishment is subject to market conditions. Conditions beyond us. Our calling is to make beautiful works to the best of our ability. Sometimes they will be applauded or rewarded, sometimes not. If we second-guess our inner knowing to attempt to predict what others may like, our best work will never appear. Popular success is a poor barometer of work and worth. In order for a work to connect commercially, stars must align and none of them relate to how good the project is. It might be the timing, the distribution mechanism, the mood of the culture, or a connection to current events. If a global catastrophe happens on the same day a project comes out, the project might be overshadowed. If you’ve made a stylistic change, your fans may not initially be receptive to it. If a highly anticipated work by another artist is released on the same day, your project may not land with the same impact. Most variables are completely out of our control. The only ones we can control are doing our best work, sharing it, starting the next, and not looking back.

Other random bits of wisdom

If you’ve truly created an innovative work, it’s likely to alienate as many people as it attracts. The best art divides the audience. If everyone likes it, you probably haven’t gone far enough.

Look for what you notice but no one else sees.

There’s a reason we are drawn to gazing at the ocean. It is said the ocean provides a closer reflection of who we are than any mirror.

It’s nourishing to be in a community of people who are enthusiastic about art, who you can have long discussions with, and with whom you can trade feedback on the work. Being part of an artistic community can be one of the great joys of life.

Often, the most innovative ideas come from those who master the rules to such a degree that they can see past them or from those who never learned them at all.

Our thoughts, feelings, processes, and unconscious beliefs have an energy that is hidden in the work. This unseen, unmeasurable force gives each piece its magnetism.

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