The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin: Summary & Notes

Reading Time: 10 minutes


Legendary music producer Rick Rubin’s The Creative Act: A Way of Being is a mind-bending series of meditations on what it means to be an artist and creator. Through 78 philosophical musings, Rubin shares the wisdom that we are all artists, offers helpful mental frames for creating and moving through roadblocks, and helps you develop an understanding of what it means to operate as an artist in the world. His book offers an endless stream of timeless wisdom that makes it one to revisit many times over the years.

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Key Takeaways

Creativity is universal

“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.”

We are all creative. Some people may be more attuned to their creativity than others, but creativity in various forms exists within everyone. Rubin’s book is a meandering guide for helping you understand and cultivate the potential of your creativity.

What is an artist?

“To live as an artist is a way of being in the world. A way of perceiving. A practice of paying attention. Refining our sensitivity to tune in to the more subtle notes. Looking for what draws us in and what pushes us away. Noticing what feeling tones arise and where they lead.”

Art in all of its forms – music, poetry, painting, and so on – comes from paying attention to the world and letting the inputs of your experience emerge into some form of art.

“Living life as an artist is a practice. You are either engaging in the practice or you’re not. It makes no sense to say you’re not good at it. It’s like saying, “I’m not good at being a monk.” You are either living as a monk or you’re not. We tend to think of the artist’s work as the output. The real work of the artist is a way of being in the world.”

Being an artist is about how you are in the world, not how prolific you are or how much success you attain. It’s a way of being that helps you tap into your unique creativity and share a piece of your inner landscape with the world.

Every idea has a time

Have you ever had the experience where you thought about a great business or product that solves a problem that you have, don’t do anything about it, and then see your idea emerge in the world in the next year? That’s a fairly common occurrence, to see your ideas come to life from another person when you don’t act on them. That’s not because the other person stole your idea, but because every idea has a time, and the time for the idea has come.

Creation is not about commerce

“We aren’t creating to produce or sell material products. The act of creation is an attempt to enter a mysterious realm. A longing to transcend. What we create allows us to share glimpses of an inner landscape, one that is beyond our understanding. Art is our portal to the unseen world.”

The act of creation is not about selling some number of books or getting some number of people to listen to your song. If you create for that purpose, it’s unlikely that you will make your best work. Instead, creation is about becoming attuned to the experience you have in the world and letting that experience move through you into a form of art that helps communicate more than you otherwise could.

Nature and our inner world

“Our inner world is every bit as interesting, beautiful, and surprising as nature itself. It is, after all, born of nature. When we go inside, we are processing what’s going on outside. We’re no longer separate. We’re connected. We are one.”

Imagine how many shades of green exist in the trees of a single forest, or how many colors you find in the fish of the ocean. Even a small fraction of the natural world provides a limitless number of unique variations, colors, sequences, and ineffable beauty that we could not understand fully even if we spent our entire lives trying to do so. Like nature, our inner world is infinitely rich, complicated, mysterious, and beautiful. And a big part of being a maker in the world is learning to be in touch with the abundance of your inner landscape.

Follow your energy

“To the best of my ability, I’ve followed my intuition to make career turns, and been recommended against doing so every time. It helps to realize that it’s better to follow the universe than those around you.”

Many people make decisions by following the guideposts and advice of other people in their lives. Sometimes this works, but often it leads to spending a lot of time going in directions that may take us away from the path. To live outside the cultural gravity of the world around you, you need to develop a deep appreciation and trust for your intuition, the wise mind within you that tells you what to do even when you don’t know exactly why you need to do it.

Getting unstuck

“Consider moving forward with the more accurate point of view that it’s a small work, a beginning. The mission is to complete the project so you can move on to the next. That next one is a stepping-stone to the following work. And so it continues in productive rhythm for the entirety of your creative life.”

When you’re working on something important, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by your desire to make something great. In fact, that desire can paralyze and overwhelm you if you don’t learn how to zoom out to the bigger picture. The truth is that whatever you’re working on is only a seed, something you plant and hope to see grow with time. As to what the seed will become and how that will influence other domains of your life, you simply don’t know. If you’re stuck, consider thinking of a project as something that you need to finish so that you can move on to the next seed you will plant.

Creativity is free play

It’s helpful to know that there are no real rules to making art. There is no right or wrong way to be creative. Like being a young child learning about the world for the first time, creativity is simply free play for adults. It’s easier to find joy in the process of creating when you stop binding yourself to a specific set of rules or ways of doing things.

Two types of doubt

There are two types of doubt. The first is self-doubt, or not believing that you are capable of the art you want to create. This type of doubt often leads to a paralyzing sense of hopelessness that can impede you from creating entirely or impair the quality of your work.

The other type of doubt is doubting the quality of your work. While this too can be harmful, it can also motivate you to find ways to improve your work. And little by little, as you remove the doubts about the quality of your work, you can create something great.

“You” are not one thing

“The “self” has many distinct aspects. It’s possible to create a piece, love it, and then look at it the next day and feel completely different about it. The inspired-artist aspect of your self may be in conflict with the craftsperson aspect, disappointed that the craftsperson is unable to create the physical embodiment of the inspired artist’s vision. This is a common conflict for creators, since there is no direct conversion from abstract thought to the material world. The work is always an interpretation.”

Limit the rules

It’s helpful to create with a beginner’s mind, a childlike innocence about the world and people around you. When you bring too many rules to your work, you limit your imagination and often create more of what’s done before, instead of creating something that is true to your inner landscape and unique to your experience in the world. Rules can be helpful guideposts, but most forms of art have many conventions that can go unrecognized and prevent you from seeing your path clearly.

Changing it up

Sometimes when you’re stuck, it can be helpful to shake up your process or the way that you’re viewing the work. There are many practices for doing this, but the truth is you will need to experiment to see what works for you at a given moment. A few ideas to work with:

  • Small steps. If you’re a writer and blocked, try writing one sentence every day. Break your work into the smallest possible sense of progress as a means for getting traction.
  • Change your environment. Go somewhere new, rearrange your furniture, or play with lighting. Do things that shake up the environment in which you create.
  • Change the stakes. Imagine this is the last time you will ever paint again. Then paint.
  • Alter the perspective. Double the font on the pages you’re reviewing, or increase the sound of the song you’re listening to.
  • Play with imagery. Add visuals to your work that may not be necessary or otherwise there. See what it does to your mind.

Vary your inputs

“To vary your inspiration, consider varying your inputs. Turn the sound off to watch a film, listen to the same song on repeat, read only the first word of each sentence in a short story, arrange stones by size or color, learn to lucid dream.”

Test your ideas

Some ideas may seem great in your mind, but fall flat in reality. Instead of using your mind to evaluate ideas, create small experiments to test them. As you begin to execute, you’ll see what ideas work or don’t work, or which ones have more potential than others. Look for the best idea while you do this, using your intuitive sense instead of your analytical mind.

Phases of creation

“Art may only exist, and the artist may only evolve, by completing the work.”

To bring a work into the world, you must move an idea from its inception to a completed work. There are four distinct phases to this process, each of which requires something different from the artist.

  1. Seeds: This is where you collect as many ideas as you can. You open your attention to the world, letting inspiration and the world around you collect seeds that you can later plant. The job here is not to judge the ideas or think too much about them. Just to collect them so that you can reflect later.
  2. Experimentation: This is where you play with some of the high-potential seeds, exploring them in whatever ways you can imagine so that you can start seeing which ones have the most potential life. You’re not doing any editing here, just a lot of experimental play to see where you may focus your attention in later stages. Your level of excitement over time is a good metric for selecting what seeds to focus on.
  3. Crafting: This is the phase when you have ideated, experimented freely, and have a clear sense of direction. You may find yourself rotating back to the experimentation phase as you begin to refine your ideas, learning more information that helps you direct the art. So while you’re executing in this phase, you’re still open and adaptive to the many possibilities of your work.
  4. Completion: This is the final phase of your work, one that can be supported by a deadline to help bring your art to the world. This is more about refining the material so that it is complete, which means that it is the best that you can make it. It’s less about discovery and building, as those are for earlier stages. It’s helpful not to extend this stage for too long, as you may lose a sense of connection to the work.

Innovative work

Anything that’s innovative is likely to polarize people. You will attract as many people as you alienate. If everyone loves what you’re doing, it may not be as good as it can be. A helpful barometer for any work though is to make sure that you love it. That’s the purpose of the art, and without it, you’re not doing your job as an artist.

Don’t hoard ideas

Give every piece of work the best ideas you have. Don’t save those ideas for a later time when you have a bigger audience or so that your creative well does not run dry. Creative material is infinite if you let it run through you. If you live in a scarcity mindset and hold back your good ideas, you risk blocking the boundless creative flow that will help you create good work over the course of your life.

Experimenters vs. finishers

There are two types of artists, experimenters and finishers. Experimenters enjoy playing in the early stage of creation. They like to dream, fiddle with ideas, and plant seeds. They also can struggle to complete their work, as they don’t enjoy that stage. Finishers have a different disposition. They enjoy moving to the end of their work, often without spending enough time in the experimentation phase that will allow them to make their work even better. Whether you’re an experimenter or a finisher, you will need to embrace both qualities to make great art.

Success is internal, not external

“It isn’t popularity, money, or critical esteem. Success occurs in the privacy of the soul.”

Learning to tune out

It’s easy to get distracted by things outside of making your art – deadlines, marketing, your public image, growing your audience – all of these forces and more can come in and distract you from the task at hand. Often, these outside voices can paralyze you and get you trapped into balancing the desire to serve your inner artist and the desire to make wise business decisions.

If this starts to happen, you need to learn to tune out the distractions. Let go of the pressure to live up to any expectations from others and from yourself. It’s helpful to keep in mind that commercial success is outside of your control. Once you accept this fully, you can let go and focus on doing your best.

Wait for the waves

“Just as a surfer can’t control the waves, artists are at the mercy of the creative rhythms of nature. This is why it’s of such great importance to remain aware and present at all times. Watching and waiting.”

Be wary of advice

“Established artists generally draw from their personal experience and recommend the solutions that worked for them. These tend to be specific to their journey, not yours. It’s worth remembering that their way is not the way.”

Advice can be helpful for giving you ideas to experiment with. But remember that adopting the practices and principles of other people does not lead to you creating great art. You have to find what works for you, and that comes from being attuned and experimenting over time. And as you develop as an artist, what worked for you once before may not work again. Staying flexible and open, both to your own practices and those that you try from others, is a helpful way of not letting any guideposts stop your creations from coming to the world.

Follow the excitement

“The call of the artist is to follow the excitement. Where there’s excitement, there’s energy. And where there is energy, there is light.”

Don’t chase the “truth”

“Sincerity, however, is an elusive characteristic. It is different from other goals we may have. Where greatness is a target worthy of our aim, setting our sights on sincerity may be counterproductive. The more we stretch to reach it, the farther away it recedes.”

Art is an imperfect communication of your inner landscape. The truth of your existence, and the ever-changing and fleeting nature of your experience, cannot be captured perfectly in words or any piece of art. What you produce is only a fragment of who you are or what you think at a given moment in time. Striving for a perfect representation of experience will lead you to paralysis and potentially to hollow work that does not resonate. Do your best, and accept the imperfections that make your work resonate.

Final touches

The final phase of editing, when you’re ready to bring a work to completion, is about cutting the work to what is absolutely necessary for it to be its best. That may mean cutting your book in half, or it may mean choosing the best five songs out of the twenty you recorded. The goal is not to hit some arbitrary metric, but rather to choose what’s absolutely essential for this work. And to be ruthless in that process of refining the work to its essence.

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