Rick Rubin
The Creative Act: A Way of Being

The Creative Act: A Way of Being

by Rick Rubin, 418 pages

Finished on 27th of January, 2023
🛒 Buy here
🎧 Listen to the podcast

With aesthetically pleasing outer form, the content is thinly spread out over 400 pages and superficial/obvious at times. It’s lacking humor, but there are valuable insights and it gets you thinking. The book is worth reading for creative individuals.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. Whether you think of yourself as a creative person or not, you are one – creativity plays a big role in every human’s daily life.
  2. Deliberately creating art of all types requires a general openness and receptiveness to what’s happening around us.
  3. Counter-intuitively, rules, habits, and discipline are an ally in the act of creation.

🎨 Impressions

This is Rick Rubin’s first full self-authored book. He had some help writing it from Neil Strauss, who I know to be a great writer, and that’s apparent. Sentences are clear and concise, not longer than necessary, it all has a very pretty outer form.

And that’s one of my main points. To me, it seems like the outer form of the book, including the choice of chapter lengths, titles’ wording style, and last not least the material the book itself is made of and its cover art, were put at the highest level of priority here. It is pretty, that’s obvious, and part of me hopes I could have had the real book in my hands as opposed to the kindle device which I used to read it on.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s just that when reading the actual chapters, I feel like the content, or the message of the book itself, was very thinly spread out over a 400 page long book. Rick has been a guest on several podcasts I regularly listen to in order to promote this book, and during those interviews I already had a hunch that he might be out of his comfort zone here. I think it’s brave to try and write a book on the topic of how to be creative, because it’s very hard to explain. With his easy-going attitude and buddhistic tranquility, he seemed to have accomplished this task better than most, I suppose, but I don’t think it’s actually that helpful to read.

Ninety percent of the sentences at first felt like I could have highlighted them, but upon closer inspection I realized, the sentences do not bring anything valuable or significantly new to the table. Not that this has to be the purpose of every book of this kind, but since the book’s purpose is clearly to explain creativity, I think it fails for the most part by putting superficial words next to each other. Or maybe I’m just not the right person reading it, of course that’s a possibility.

I remember to have been quite intrigued by the unusual style for the first 20 or so percent of the book, but that excitement diminished over time until after about 50 percent it all felt rather repetitive. Another thing is the complete lack of humor. It all comes across as definitive and serious truth – not saying that what he’s saying isn’t true in general, it’s just quite dry and could have profited from a few more happy anecdotes.

As far as I’m aware Rick is a practicing Buddhist, and that religion clearly incorporates humor and laughter and not taking yourself too seriously into its message.

It’s not unusual that a person thinks of their own choice of profession as an important one, maybe more important than society thinks. There’s nothing wrong with that and clearly producing music and creating art in general are important because it makes people happy and enjoy their lives more, I don’t think it’s that important to be completely serious about it.

It’s a difficult question to answer: Can our society live without art? It seems so much like a fun addition to culture, but as CGP Grey says in his essay video on automation:

There can’t be such a thing as a poem- and painting-based economy, art will always be just a tiny fraction of the human population.

I wouldn’t like to live in a world without art and without Rick Rubin produced music. I’m a fan of the records he produced for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I am in awe of what he did to System of a Down’s albums Toxicity and Mezmerize. And listening to the old Johnny Cash singing Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt, which was his idea and production, still gives me goosebumps and sometimes brings tears to my eyes. The guy clearly is a genius at what he does.

It was interesting to read his chapter on the topic of Success, while I was thinking about how this book might be a case of a incredibly successful person thinking they can do everything just because they excelled at one thing, as the case with Elon Musk recently. Rick does distance himself from the success of his work, and he didn’t even go to the ceremonies to accept his 9 Grammy awards, saying the success is out of his control and just a coincidence, but still I think he fell victim to the believe here by writing this particular book, at least in part.

That’s the negative, but there’s a lot of positive to take from the book, too.

First off, it made me think. As you can see from the length of this review’s text, the book really moved me.

Some insights or highlights of the book are fantastic advice and I’m glad I read it. The rating I would give the book went on a rollercoaster ride, which tells me it was an unusual and interesting book, starting at a 5/5 in the first half, down to a 3/5 right after finishing, and back up to a 4/5 when I went through my notes and started writing this review. It’s a worthwhile book if you’re active as a creative person – be it as a hobby or a profession –, but I think it’s also worth considering to read if you don’t think of yourself as a creative person. I like Rick’s main message about how everyone has creativity in them and applies it throughout every day, whether aware of it or not, and that tuning into that creativity with more awareness for the world surrounding us will lead to a more fulfilled day, and life.

🍀 How the Book Changed Me

  • In the day-to-day, I don’t think about the professional work I do as running a web design company as having a lot to do with being creative or artistic, but this book changed that. As a CEO, there’s creative problem-solving, for one. And the production of websites involves creative input from me, as well, whether I’m aware of that or not. Now I am.
  • It was refreshing for me to realize that many of the things I do daily don’t just serve a defined purpose as I usually thought, but can be reframed as creative acts. The way I interact with my children, for example, but also writing and coding on this blog is a creative outlet for me I didn’t think of as particularly creative before. As an act of self-expression, activities like these do already serve a purpose.

📔 Highlights & Notes

Everyone Is a Creator

Creativity is a fundamental aspect of being human.

The outside universe we perceive doesn’t exist as such. Through a series of electrical and chemical reactions, we generate a reality internally.

To live as an artist is a way of being in the world. A way of perceiving. A practice of paying attention.

Tuning In

Just as trees grow flowers and fruits, humanity creates works of art. The Golden Gate Bridge, the White Album, Guernica, Hagia Sophia, the Sphinx, the space shuttle, the Autobahn, “Clair de lune,” the Colosseum in Rome, the Phillips screwdriver, the iPad, Philadelphia cheesesteak.

[Claire de Lune is a piece by Claude Debussy, it’s brilliantly beautiful – listen to it here]


Awareness is not a state you force. There is little effort involved, though persistence is key. It’s something you actively allow to happen.

The Unseen

The things we believe carry a charge regardless of whether they can be proven or not.

Pay particular attention to the moments that take your breath away—a beautiful sunset, an unusual eye color, a moving piece of music, the elegant design of a complex machine.


Awareness needs constant refreshing. If it becomes a habit, even a good habit, it will need to be reinvented again and again. Until one day, you notice that you are always in the practice of awareness, at all times, in all places, living your life in a state of constant openness to receiving.

Submerge (The Great Works)

The objective is not to learn to mimic greatness, but to calibrate our internal meter for greatness.


If you see tremendous beauty or tremendous pain where other people see little or nothing at all, you’re confronted with big feelings all the time. These emotions can be confusing and overwhelming.

Make It Up

All art is a work in progress. It’s helpful to see the piece we’re working on as an experiment. One in which we can’t predict the outcome.

We’re not playing to win, we’re playing to play. And ultimately, playing is fun. Perfectionism gets in the way of fun.

However, doubting the quality of your work might, at times, help to improve it. You can doubt your way to excellence.


Distraction is not procrastination. Procrastination consistently undermines our ability to make things. Distraction is a strategy in service of the work.


If the artist is happy with the work they’re creating and the viewer is enlivened by the work they’re experiencing, it doesn’t matter if they see it in the same way.

What’s considered art is simply an agreement. And none of it is true.


All kinds of assumptions masquerade as laws: a suggestion from a self-help book, something heard in an interview, your favorite artist’s best tip, an expression in the culture, or something a teacher once told you.

Rules direct us to average behaviors. If we’re aiming to create works that are exceptional, most rules don’t apply. Average is nothing to aspire to.

Often, the most innovative ideas come from those who master the rules to such a degree that they can see past them or from those who never learned them at all.

Beware of the assumption that the way you work is the best way simply because it’s the way you’ve done it before.


Formulating an opinion is not listening. Neither is preparing a response, or defending our position or attacking another’s. To listen impatiently is to hear nothing at all.

Many of our beliefs were learned before we had a choice in what we were taught. Some of them might go back generations and may no longer apply. Some may never have applied.


Time is something that we have no control over. So patience begins with acceptance of natural rhythms.

Beginner’s Mind

There’s a great power in not knowing. When faced with a challenging task, we may tell ourselves it’s too difficult, it’s not worth the effort, it’s not the way things are done, it’s not likely to work, or it’s not likely to work for us.

If we approach a task with ignorance, it can remove the barricade of knowledge blocking progress. Curiously, not being aware of a challenge may be just what we need to rise to it.


Discipline and freedom seem like opposites. In reality, they are partners. Discipline is not a lack of freedom, it is a harmonious relationship with time.

The more you reduce your daily life-maintenance tasks, the greater the bandwidth available for creative decisions. Albert Einstein wore the same thing daily: a gray suit.


Failure is the information you need to get where you’re going.


Remain open to doing whatever it takes to make the art as good as it can be, whether this means inserting yourself more into the details of the process or stepping further back from them.

Point of View

The goal of art isn’t to attain perfection. The goal is to share who we are. And how we see the world.


As you collect feedback, the solutions offered may not always seem helpful. Before discarding them, take a moment to see if they’re pointing to an underlying problem you hadn’t noticed.

If you’ve truly created an innovative work, it’s likely to alienate as many people as it attracts. The best art divides the audience.

In the end, you are the only one who has to love it. This work is for you.

How many pages will be left empty because your process was dampened by doubt and deliberation? Keep this question in the front of your mind. It might allow you to move forward more freely.

One of the greatest rewards of making art is our ability to share it. Even if there is no audience to receive it, we build the muscle of making something and putting it out into the world. Finishing our work is a good habit to develop.

The Experimenter and the Finisher

Complete as many elements of the project as you can without getting hung up. It’s much easier to circle back once the workload is reduced.

Temporary Rules

There are no bad rules or good rules. Only rules that fit the situation and serve the art, or those that don’t.


Consider that it might not have been your initial style that attracted success, but your personal passion within it. So if your passion changes course, follow it. Your trust in your instincts and excitement are what resonate with others.

Point of Reference

When a beloved artist thwarts our expectations or a new artist defies known precedents, it can be confusing. Initially, the work may feel unsatisfying or of no interest whatsoever. Once we get over the hump of adapting ourselves to the new palette, these can end up being our favorite works.

Tuning Out (Undermining Voices)

The first step of clearing is acknowledgment. Notice yourself feeling the weight of self-criticism or the pressure to live up to expectations. And remember that commercial success is completely out of your control. All that matters is that you are making something you love, to the best of your ability, here and now.


The system is not here for our benefit. It holds us back as individuals to support its own continued existence.

Expect a Surprise

Release all expectations about what the work will be. Approach the process with humility and the unexpected will visit more often.

Living in discovery is at all times preferable to living through assumptions.


A once-useful routine might, over time, turn into a narrow, fixed way of working. To break out of this mindset, our charge is to soften, to become more porous, and to let more light in.

Surrounding the Lightning Bolt

Do what you can with what you have. Nothing more is needed.

How to Choose

If you’re at an impasse in an A/B test, consider the coin toss method. Decide which option will be heads and which will be tails, then flip the coin. When the coin is spinning in the air, you’ll likely notice a quiet preference or wish for one of the two to come up.


Learning provides more ways to reliably convey your ideas. From our enlarged menu, we can still choose the simplest, most elegant option.


If a four-year-old loses interest in an activity, they don’t try to complete it or force themselves to have fun with it. They just shift gears to a new quest.

Whether the work comes easily through play or with difficulty through struggle, the quality of the finished piece is unaffected.

The Art Habit (Sangha)

If you’re looking for the work to support you, you may be asking too much of it. We create in service to art, not for what we can get from art.

Let It Be

First, do no harm. This credo is the well-known guiding principle of the physician’s oath. Consider it a universal precept.


Healthy tension in a collaboration is not uncommon. Friction allows the fire to come. As long as we’re not attached to having it be our way, we welcome this friction.

Why Make Art?

The reason we’re alive is to express ourselves in the world. And creating art may be the most effective and beautiful method of doing so.


Certain proportions create a sense of holy balance. Our point of reference for beauty is nature.

How do you feel after reading this?

This helps me assess the quality of my writing and improve it.

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