Rick Rubin’s Creative Process: The Art of Getting Out of Your Own Way


I just watched the Showtime documentary on Rick Rubin and his recording studio in Malibu. It’s a fascinating look into the creative process of some of the most talented artists in the world. But more interestingly, it’s a fascinating look at Rick Rubin’s process of bringing the best out of these artists.

If you’re not familiar with Rick Rubin, he’s one of the most accomplished and renowned music producers of all time. He’s known both for breaking new artists, hearing something special in them before others do, and reviving artists who have had success earlier in their careers but have hit a plateau.

These artists come to Rick to fuel their artistry and infuse magic into their work, and he does it consistently. The process is fascinating. His recording studio’s physical space is designed to be a blank canvas. There’s no art on the wall, it’s very sparse and minimalist, heavily integrated with the nature. When you think of most recording studios, they’re windowless boxes. Here he really opens the space up.

But most interesting is his thinking about the process. In one conversation with a philosopher friend, they discuss the idea that it’s “the art of not being there, the art of getting out of the way so that something within you can express itself, so it has room to speak.” It’s “the art of creating space”, creating a void that needs to be filled.

When we come to a creative challenge or need to come up with a new idea, whether it’s for business or for an artistic pursuit, we want to tap something deep within ourselves that speaks from our hearts and connects with other peoples’ more primal instincts. But typically, we just bring packaged preconceived notions, trying to anticipate what others will like. We’re trying to bring fragments of things we’ve seen elsewhere and plug them into our own work — because they were successful in the context where we discovered them. We want a piece of that charm, that spark. We bring these fragments of partially assembled ideas, copying elements we’ve seen here and there. This is an instinct. We assemble these fragments in part to get there faster, it’s the way we’re wired, putting these little models together. While this approach enables us to get a result faster, it produces a cookie cutter result, it doesn’t produce something that speaks to the heart and the soul. It doesn’t produce something that connects with other people on a primal level. It produces a safe result that checks off the box. It may be fine, but it’s not exceptional, and it’s not going to generate the kind of excitement that we’re really hoping for when we want to do something great.

This idea of opening an empty space as a prerequisite for creating great work is fascinating to me. I’ve found it to be true in the instances where I’ve done my best work, both in a professional business context and in an artistic or creative context — the need to remove yourself, the art of not being there. Not removing yourself physically, but rather removing your sense of identity, your sense of ego from the process so you can let things within fill the space without filtering and censoring.

Your ego and sense of identity has a self-preservation instinct, a desire to protect “you” (i.e., itself) from embarrassment, to protect you/it from failure. And while those impulses can be successful at minimizing the downside, they also cap the upside because we don’t take risks, because we don’t reach — and we don’t let the void be filled by something deep within us. We’re just piecing together safe elements, the pieces that we know have worked and we know are going to be acceptable.

It’s so much easier said than done. If we learn to create this emptiness and just let things come into it, sure, sometimes we’ll fail. And sometimes we’ll discover things that we had no idea were within us, find them rising when we had no idea we had the ability to generate these ideas or the ability to articulate them as we watch the space fill. They take their own shape, but if you don’t create that space, that’s not going to happen. Or if to some extent that deeper stuff starts bubbling up, you’re not even going notice it because there’s so much noise and clutter and you’re so focused on these little pieces you’re trying to plug in from preconceived notions.

We must let ideas and creative impulses fill the space. In order to do that we have to create that void by removing ourselves, removing our ego, removing our preconceived notions.

I find that’s consistently how I’ve done my best work with clients, when I help them create this openness. It’s magical what they do with it, it’s exciting to watch.

And it’s not just an intellectual process — you must be aware of it intellectually to pursue it, but then it’s even harder to let your physiology open itself up. It takes practice, you must be doing it on a regular basis — daily, really. Make a conscious effort to just remove yourself and be empty on a regular basis.

If you’re trying to come up with something to express, just sit down with a blank piece of paper or a blank microphone or blank camera or blank spreadsheet. You need to have emptiness, ditch the preconceived notions. Just sit with that emptiness and see what comes up. I think that’s a necessary prerequisite to create exceptional work that speaks to people on deeper level.


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