Book Review: The Creative Act

The Creative Act book

I picked up The Creative Act because it is Rick Rubin. I was intrigued because it isn’t a memoir of his career in the music industry. The Creative Act is Rick’s take on the act of creativity. It is his advice and approach to the creative flow. With such a heady concept I figured I could find inspiration in it and apply it to my life.

Rick Rubin is a music icon. He’s responsible for launching careers like Run DMC and the Beastie Boys. He’s responsible for cgggggareer pivots like Tom Petty’s first record without the Heartbreakers and Johnny Cash’s American recordings late in his career. Rubin plays no instrument and yet is able to illicit greatness from the artists he works with. The Creative Act is a glimpse into how he’s able to pull greatness out of them.

Let me start with the physical book itself. I walked by it at Barnes and Noble and felt the hardcover. It’s beautiful and feels beautiful. The book is minimalistic with even the UPC being a sticker added afterwards (and removed easily). During checkout the cashier did a double-take when it rang up at $35. “Prices are getting out of control,” she said. It is pricey but it looks and feels like a book deserving of space in your library.

The book is comprised of 78 chapters. The chapters loosely follow a creative flow from inspiration, through creating, and finally delivering. Each chapter is a handful of pages and can be read out of context (like a reference) from the rest of the book. Early chapters cover topics like “Practice”, “Inspiration” and “Experimentation”. The middle portion of the book is about creating - “Crafting” and “Breaking Sameness”. It ends with chapters about “Freedom” and “The Energy (in the work)” which touch on how to move on to a new idea and continue crafting.

In between many chapters are small inspirational quotes. I assume they are directly from Rubin as no other author is attributed. The quotes felt like bite-size consumable points for the upcoming chapter. The quotes themselves weren’t all that insightful but helped punctuate a point.

I chose to read the book from cover to cover to get a sense of the complete process, though it wasn’t necessary. In fact, I think reading chapters out of context would be more impactful. The later chapters repeated points or felt like they were making a mountain out of a mole hill.

Rubin says you must open yourself to take inspiration from anywhere. I agree. While the book focuses the creative process I found many of the points are easily applicable to leadership. I enjoyed finding inspiration in his words that weren’t so specific to software engineering.

Here are a few points that really resonated with me:

  • page 153 - “If you know what you want to do and do it, that’s the work of a craftsman. If you begin with a question and use it to guide adventure and discovery, that’s the work of an artist.” - Seems very akin to the difference between the Discovery and Delivery phases in the SDLC.
  • page 189 - “Limit the information to the barest…” and “If you want creators to bring all of themselves to something, give them the most freedom to create.” - Speaks to empowering teams and individuals to be leaders. Don’t micromanage. Give space for them to do their jobs.
  • page 216 - “If you think, ‘I don’t like it but someone else will’’re in the business of commerce.” - As a leader we are expected to have our own voice. We have been put into a leadership position because of our expertise, not simply to say “yes”.
  • page 226 - “Practice detachment” - The advice is learn how to take a step back from the immediate problem or assumed solution to see the whole picture. Remove whatever attachment you have to the situation so you can more objectively evaluate it.
  • page 236 - “Be aware of strong responses” - What does it mean to have a strong emotional reaction to something? Why are you feeling that way? Realize when it’s happening, lean into the emotion and figure out why you are having it
  • page 295 - “The artists job is of two kinds: the work of doing [and] the work of being.” As a leader you must care about the work and why you are doing the work. You are expected to execute as well as understand the context of the execution.
  • page 306 - “We can …improve our creations through A/B testing” - I love to see a method applied different workflows. While engineering is familiar with A/B testing, it feels like a novel approach when applied to the creative process.
  • page 347 - “The best work is the work you are excited about.” - Amen. It begs the question - how do you do your best work if you aren’t excited?"
  • page 361 - “Creativity is contagious. When we spend time with other artistic people, we absorb and exchange a way of thinking.” - The benefits of an in-person culture have been hard to articulate. Return to office mandates are unpopular and face a lot of resistance. We have to admit that productivity is not driver of RTO…but then what is? I think the concept of a the “artistic community” called an “Sangha” nails it.
  • page 372 - “Competition serves the ego. Cooperation supports the highest outcome.” - I found this very inspirational. A good reminder why it’s better to work as a team vs. against each other. When I find myself fighting for space, priority, alignment, etc…this is a good reminder to take a step back and clarify the outcomes.
  • page 388 - “Making the simple complicated is commonplace. Making the complicated simple, that’s creativity " - Charles Mingus - A kind reminder where the value of a solution exists.

Reading The Creative Act feels like sitting next to Rubin asking for advice. The book is his philosophy, his thought process. It’s not a prescription or description of a specific approach. It feels best used when you are at a crossroads and looking for a push in one direction.

Rubin could have written an autobiography. He could have written a book of stories from the road. He could have written about his specific creative process. Instead, he chose to write about his wisdom. Once I accepted the book for what it was, and let go of what I wanted it to be, I enjoyed it immensely.

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