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Book Summary: The Creative Act – A Way of Being

In this book summary, you’ll learn how to enter a creative state and create work that stands out.

“To create is to bring something into existence that wasn’t there before.” – Rick Rubin


Work that stands out and stands the test of time comes from working in a creative state. Seeking a creative state can often be like turning a dial on an old radio ‐ most of the time you get static, but occasionally you land on a station you like.

After reading “The Creative Act” by Rick Rubin (a legendary music producer), I’ve realized there are four states that consistently lead to creative work. Understanding each state is like programming four go‐to stations into your radio to skip the static and listen to music you love.

Book Summary: The Creative Act - A Way of Being

The Experimental State

Enter an experimental state by asking as many “What if…?” questions as you can and be on the lookout for surprises. Jerome Robbins created one of the best Broadway shows ever by asking, “What if Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was set in 1950s New York and based on two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds?” What followed was “West Side Story.”

Paradoxically, asking “What if…?” questions that include constraints tend to open new creative avenues. When you give AI chatbots creative constraints – like rewrite this paragraph in fewer than 40 words or rewrite this sentence with the word spontaneous – you typically get interesting results. When I write, I like to ask: “What if I had to explain this book in one sentence?”

As you explore various “What if…?” questions, stay open to unexpected outcomes. Ancient Chinese alchemists searching for immortality accidentally found that saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal led to a combustible substance called gunpowder. Over the last 120 years, chemists experimenting in the lab have unexpectedly invented penicillin, plastic, and post‐it notes. Rick Rubin says, “Consider how many innovations that might have changed the world have been lost because someone was so focused on their goal, they missed the revelation right in front of them.”

The Clean Slate State

When you work on something for too long, you become blind to the ways you can make it better. But if you step away and return to your work a week later, you’ll see new ways to iterate your work that you failed to spot before.

Thankfully, we don’t need to step away from work for a week to clean our mental slate and adopt a fresh perspective. If we can cultivate a sense of awe during everyday experiences and condition our minds to see things most people overlook, we can go into every work session with a clean slate. When you walk through your neighborhood, actively notice things you’ve been overlooking ‐ the design of a house or different leaves on a tree. When you listen to a familiar song, pretend you’re hearing it for the first time and listen for lyrics or instrumentals you’ve never noticed. The beauty of trying to see things for the first time is that you stop telling yourself stories about the way things are or should be, and open yourself up to new experiences.

The Inspired State

Enter in an inspired state by imitating work you admire. Imitating is a creative act because as you imitate work you put it through your filter of unique experiences and create work that only you could make. Rubin says, “The Beatles were inspired by American rock and roll, artists like Chuck Berry and the Shirelles. But when they played, it was different. It wasn’t different because they wanted it to be so. It was different because they were different.”

Imagine that every piece of work that inspires you is challenging you to elevate your game and inviting you to use it as a launchpad to make your next creation. The more distant your inspirations, the better. A classical musician inspired by a heavy metal band will be more likely to produce something original than a classical musician inspired by another classical musician.

The Novel Approach State

If you’re stuck on a creative project, don’t try harder and continue beating your head against the wall – instead, switch it up (think of switching it up like a fisherman changing his bait or moving to another part of the lake to catch a big fish). Here are a few “switch‐ups” that may produce creative insight effortlessly:

  • Lower the stakes: make the work smaller and less significant. Rubin likes to tell stuck songwriters to come back into the studio tomorrow with just one new line. If you’re struggling to think of a good business idea, generate ten bad business ideas. Soon you’ll have idea momentum and turn your focus back to producing good business ideas.
  • Change the environment: go to a noisy coffee shop, work on a park bench, or go home to a quiet office to see what new insights come your way. Andy Warhol allegedly painted his best work with a television, radio, and record player playing simultaneously in the background. Rubin has found that turning the lights off in his recording studio while bands play unfinished songs often leads to creative breakthroughs.
  • Inject imagery: imagine someone you love or imagine a scene from a movie while you work to see if it sparks creativity. Rubin once told a struggling keyboardist, “Imagine there’s a beautiful green hill covered in trees and flora, just breathtaking, and a battle has just ended. Smoke drifts off the hill and reveals wounded soldiers scattered along it, waiting for help to arrive ‐ Play the solo like that.” The music that followed was beautiful.

About the author

Rick Rubin is a nine-time GRAMMY-winning producer, named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time and the most successful producer in any genre by Rolling Stone. He has collaborated with artists from Tom Petty to Adele, Johnny Cash to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys to Slayer, Kanye West to the Strokes, and System of a Down to Jay-Z.