Our Wise Guide: Most people believe that they’re not creative. That the life of the artist belongs to someone else. Someone who lives in Hollywood, or who grew up in a well-connected family, or who won writing competitions at the age of 12.
But the truth is that we’re all creative and we can all learn to tap into our talents. We just need to doggedly cultivate a creative practice.
Award-winning producer Rick Rubin, author of The Creative Act, has been living a creative life for decades. In this summary, we’ll detail some of the most powerful strategies he’s used to embrace his inner artist.
Along the way, you’ll discover how to hone your own awareness and become receptive to all sorts of unlikely inspiration. You’ll also find how you can nurture your creative “seeds” and turn them into works of art. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you’ll discover how to embrace making art purely for the reason that it makes you happy.
Key idea 1
Open yourself up to creative inspiration.
Think of a mighty peach tree standing tall in your garden. The tree creates a harvest of peaches every summer. It doesn’t try to grow the peaches. It doesn’t agonize over whether it is, in fact, worthy enough to be a peach-maker. It just allows the force of creation to move through it. It does what it was born to do, easily and efficiently, moving with the rhythms of the universe.
We are all like that peach tree. We’re all naturally creative. We all have the urge to make things, whether that’s a sculpture, a song, a peach pie, or an innovative project at our company. And, like that tree, we’d do well to put our doubts aside and let the creative forces of the universe do their work.
All we need to do is open ourselves up.
OK, but this might be easier said than done. How can you move toward making this a reality?
The first step is easy. Start by noticing what’s going on in the world around you. The next time you get the train home or take a walk around your neighborhood, put down your phone. Pry those headphones from your ears.
Feel the sharp kiss of the wind on your cheek. Listen to the juicy morsels of gossip your fellow passengers are whispering about. Check out the wild outfit your neighbor wears while he’s mowing the lawn. Appreciate the barren beauty of even the most wintery forest.
There’s so much to notice in the world if you only allow yourself to look.
The work of an artist is to cultivate an openness to the world around you. To sharpen your sense of awareness so that you become receptive to the surprises and clues and nudges the universe is trying to give you – all the time. We do ourselves a disservice when we imagine that we create art purely by ourselves. In reality, you’re always accompanied.
So, the next time you’re struggling with a creative problem, ask the universe for help and look for the clues. Open a book to a random page and see if you get inspired by a quote. Or pick a movie at random and see what moves you while you’re watching. Or spend 15 minutes in a shop you’d never normally enter. Being receptive to clues is more poetry than science. It’s about recognizing that every facet of your life can contain wonder and that inspiration can lie in unlikely places.
The best way to cultivate the practice of awareness is by looking for regular moments in your day when you can take the time to pause. Try taking a few extra minutes in bed each morning, drawing deep breaths, and checking in with the sensations of your body. Or make it a daily ritual to walk the few blocks to your office instead of taking a cab. Or end every evening by listening to music with your eyes closed. By hooking the habit of awareness onto your existing routine, you can start to integrate it into your life. Then, after enough practice, you’ll notice that it’s become second nature.
Key idea 2
Monitor your inflow.
From the moment we wake up in the morning to the second we fall asleep, we’re bombarded by information: upsetting news from all over the planet; photos from random acquaintances; and the ever-urgent emails that ping in our mailboxes.
As an artist, you need to become rigorous about monitoring your in-flow. Your attention and awareness are the most valuable things that you have. You can’t allow other people to fill up that space with input that you don’t really need or want.
Imagine that instead of reading the news every day, you read a few pages of a great work of literature. Rather than playing the songs you know by heart, you challenge yourself to listen to music by influential composers you’ve never heard before.
Of course, you don’t necessarily need to be inspired by a great author. Maybe trashy romance novels are what does it for you. In the same vein, you may not get activated by a walk through a beautiful forest. Maybe what makes you feel alive is being in a crush of people watching the game at a football stadium. That’s all fine. Whatever your choice, the point is that it’s your choice. That you’re not passively imbibing the dregs of the internet that some algorithm chooses to serve up to you. That you’re making choices that point you towards wonder, instead of making you numb. Monitor your inflow. It matters.
Key idea 3
Feel the fear and do it anyway.
Many of the most talented artists are also the most insecure. The same sensitivity that allows people to make art can make them deeply sensitive to criticism.
Artists don’t create work in the absence of doubt and insecurity. They create in spite of it. In fact, Rubin discusses one famous performer who still experiences terrible stage fright, even after performing for five decades. He walks onto the stage each even though he feels sick to his stomach with nerves. The only thing that makes him keep going is that his drive to share his art is more powerful than his fear of screwing up.
Often people are scared to make creative work because they’re worried that they’ll screw it up. That it won’t live up to the perfect picture they have in their heads. But here’s the thing: there’s nothing interesting about perfection. Think of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This architectural wonder is actually the result of a mistake that some architects made long ago. They didn’t design a leaning tower. Someone screwed up the plans. But the fact that it does lean has made it one of the most recognizable buildings in the world – and delighted millions of tourists taking comical selfies.
Another artistic practice that values imperfection is the Japanese pottery tradition known as kintsugi. This is a method for fixing broken objects by inserting a seam of gold into the crack. The damage is highlighted instead of hidden in this repair job; the “mistake” becomes the most beautiful thing about the pottery.
As an artist, you too will be flawed, and imperfect, and awkward. You’ll be plagued with insecurities. But the fact that you’re insecure doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make art, or that you’re not a true performer. On the contrary, it means that you are sensitive, alive, and deeply human. Share your whole, imperfect self in your work. Share your fears and embarrassing insecurities. Share your desire to be liked and the trauma you carry. Share your own unique brokenness. It won’t take away from your work. In fact, it will actually make it resonate more with other people, who share those feelings.
Often, the hardest step is just to begin.
Key idea 4
Lower the stakes and have some fun.
When you’re feeling too scared to start making something, the best thing you can do is to lower the stakes. Tell yourself you don’t need to create a masterpiece. In fact, give yourself permission to make the shoddiest piece of work you could imagine. Tell yourself that you just need to put in the time. Whatever you make is irrelevant. It won’t impact your career, and you don’t have to share it with anyone else if you don’t want to.
Allow yourself to enjoy the process of creating without being fixated on the results. As long as you’re consistently doing the work, the results will come. All you have to worry about is showing up. And allow yourself to have some fun. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “some things are too important to be taken seriously.” Unfortunately, artists can take themselves very seriously indeed. But if you put too much pressure on yourself, you’ll end up having lots of serious ideas and nothing to show for it. You’ll become paralyzed by self-importance and never actually make anything.
Having fun is the essential ingredient for being able to create new work. A sense of play is what allows for experimentation and innovation. When you hone your receptivity to the world and practice making room for inspiration, you’ll inevitably gather a crop of creative “seeds.” Maybe you saw a mangled umbrella on the street and it gave you the idea for a series of watercolor sketches. Or you saw a movie you loved as a kid and started dreaming about how to adapt it into a children’s play. These creative hunches and intuitions are seeds that could grow into works of art if you look after them carefully.
The second phase of the creative process is to start nurturing those seeds and experimenting with them.
So, how do you nurture the seeds? By giving them the space and room to grow in a supportive environment. Fledgling creative ideas, like seeds, aren’t yet ready to be exposed to the world. They definitely aren’t ready to be exposed to outside criticism. So, in the early stages, keep your ideas to yourself and give yourself space to have fun with them in a low-pressure setting. For example, perhaps you were struck by a great story you could turn into a movie script. Allow yourself to experiment and play around with the story. Try setting it in different historical periods or even on Mars. Ask yourself what would happen if none of the characters spoke a language anyone else could understand. Or try playing with the genre. What would happen if you turned your love story into a murder mystery? At this stage of the game, no idea is too wild or wacky. The point of free experimentation is to tease your imagination and see what lights you up.
Keep these principles in mind when you’re workshopping ideas together with other collaborators as well. Too often, people sit around in brainstorming sessions criticizing each other’s ideas without even trying them out. Then everyone agrees on a safe, mediocre solution. A much better strategy is to give every idea the benefit of the doubt and try it out. Only then can you accurately evaluate if it might work. The best creative collaborations have this spirit of generosity and experimentation.
Once you’ve given some of your creative seeds the chance to flourish, it’s time for the next stage: crafting.
Key idea 5
Craft your ideas into reality.
Crafting is the least glamorous stage of the creative process, but also the most essential. It’s the phase where you get to turn your idea into reality. Crafting is like building your house, brick-by-brick. You make sure the beams are sturdy and the structure holds. You insert the window frames and doors. You progress slowly and steadily, checking that everything works as you go along.
Crafting can be disheartening. Sometimes the glorious visions you had in your head are hard to translate into something more concrete. You may have to accept that your work might not be exactly as you imagined it to be. But that doesn’t mean that your creation has no value. Maybe it’s taken you a step closer to your dreams. Maybe it’s like the first pancake of the batch: not perfect, but a vital practice round that allows you to make a much more delicious second pancake. The point is, you’re making art. You’re allowing yourself to create even though all the scary voices in your head tell you that there’s no point and you’ll never amount to anything.
It’s very useful to set some deadlines for this stage of the process, to keep your momentum up. The last thing you want is to spend years tweaking the work until you can’t even see it anymore – you’re too close to the material. Set yourself a deadline, allow yourself to really finish it, and then let it go. Rest assured that the forces of creativity will still be moving through you. Go back to practicing awareness and gathering seeds. And then start crafting all over again.
Key idea 6
Why do we make art? In order to make art.
Some people claim that art should have a purpose. That it should always be political, or advance the social good. These are noble ideas but they’re also misguided. The purpose of making art is to make art. No more and no less. We can’t control how it lands with a particular audience. And we can’t manufacture work solely to fit a cause.
That kind of art rings hollow because it's born out of pragmatism instead of creative inspiration. It feels didactic and forced.
On the other hand, some of our most playful and experimental artists have created work which went on to have great social impact or political significance. That was never the intention but it was the result. And all because the artist dared to reach deep and transmit their essence to the page.
Making art is a kind of surrender. A surrender to forces that are much bigger than you. Forces that are whispering in your ear all the time if you take the time to listen.
[in a whisper] Create.
If you take the time to tune into the world around you, you’ll discover that it’s filled with creative inspiration. Whenever you’re feeling stuck, ask the universe to send you a nudge, and watch what appears. By allowing yourself to play and experiment with your creative intuitions, you’ll develop your “seeds” into solid ideas. If the creative process scares you, it means you’re doing it right. Just don’t allow your fears to stop you.