Rick Rubin doesn’t write music. Or lyrics. He says he can “barely” play an instrument. When it comes to recording, “I have no technical ability,” he told an interviewer. Which is remarkable considering he has won nine Grammy Awards, founded Def Jam Recordings, co-headed Columbia Records, and produced Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jay-Z, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, The Chicks, Neil Young and Lady Gaga.
Rubin goes by feel, says he’s hired for his taste, and calls himself a reducer not a producer. “Perfection is finally attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away,” he once said.
There’s something to having a beginner’s mindset when you’re creating or collaborating. To being open-minded, listening without prejudice, remaining curious, forgetting what you know, forgetting about expectations and breaking the rules.
Earlier this year, Rubin released a book called The Creative Act: A Way of Being. I just finished it. The book isn’t a memoir. There are no stories about studio sessions or his famous friends and colleagues. Instead, Rubin ruminates about where creativity comes from and how to cultivate it.
He explains that creativity doesn’t just pertain to making art. “To create,” he writes, “is to bring something into existence that wasn’t there before. It could be a conversation, the solution to a problem, a note to a friend, the rearrangement of furniture in a room, a new route home to avoid a traffic jam. Through the ordinary state of being, we’re already creators in the most profound way, creating our experience of reality and composing the world we perceive.”
One chapter that struck me was where Rubin discussed the idea of the beginner’s mind. He wrote about the strategic board game called Go, which uses a 19×19 grid of lines that contains 361 points. Players take turns placing pieces on vacant intersections. I don’t know Go, but it’s apparently one of the most complex games, and the oldest board game ever designed that’s still played. Go has been around for about 3,000 years. As Rubin writes, “The number of possible configurations on the board is larger than the number of atoms in the universe.”
He describes how a team of technologists built an artificial intelligence program called AlphaGo. How did it learn? Not by humans teaching it – and this is key – but by studying 100,000 past games and then playing against itself. One day in March 2016, AlphaGo was pitted against Lee Sedol, who began playing Go at age five and at the time ranked second in international titles. Here’s what happened.
“In move 37 of the second match, the machine was faced with a decision that would determine the way the rest of the game would be played,” writes Rubin. “There were two apparent choices to be made. Choice A was the kind of move that would signal the computer was playing a game of offence. Choice B would signal it was playing a defensive game. Instead, the computer decided to make a third move, a move no one steeped in the game had ever made in thousands of years of play.”
It looked like a mistake. Lee had to leave the room for 15 minutes to gather himself, as the move was so unexpected. AlphaGo won the game, and took four of five matches. Move 37 became storied. Lee announced his retirement from competition a few months later, saying he could never beat AI.
Hearing about move 37 brought Rubin to tears, and left him “confused by this sudden swell of emotions”. He came to realize that the AlphaGo story is about the power of purity in the creative act. The AI didn’t win because it was smarter. It won, he suggests, because it learned Go from scratch.
“No coach, no human intervention, no lesson based on an expert’s past experience. It didn’t accept the narrative of how to properly play the game. It wasn’t held back by limiting beliefs. With a clean slate, AlphaGo was able to innovate. This is the beginner’s mind – one of the most difficult states of being to dwell in, precisely because it involves letting go what our experience has taught us.”
Whether in your art or your life, there’s something potent about not knowing, he suggests. Magic can occur when people access a childlike spirit and try to experience everything as it is for the first time.
That’s tough to do. But when brainstorming, engaged in the act of creation or faced with any challenging task, try to approach it with ignorance, says Rubin. “Remove the barricade of knowledge blocking progress.”
Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More original posts coming regularly about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.
August 2, 2023