From Broken Record: Rick Rubin in Conversation with Malcolm Gladwell - Transcripts
In which Malcolm reunites with his colleague, friend and fellow host of Broken Record (not to mention a music icon in his own right), Rick Rubin.
This month Rick released his first book, called "The Creative Act: A Way Of Being." In it he shares practical principles on how anyone can generate creative authenticity and ultimately find their voice.
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It's been way too long. In case you're curious, we are hard at work cooking up all sorts of mischief for you. Already, I've been to Alabama twice. That's how deep we're going this year. But while we wait for all those new episodes, I wanted to share with you an interview I did with my friend and colleague, Rick Rubin. If you know your Pushkin shows, you'll know that Rick is the driving force behind our music podcast, Broken Record, in addition, of course, to being maybe the most important music producer of his generation. I mean, he's worked with Metallica, Adele, Johnny Cash, The Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, The Chili Peppers, Neil Young, on and on. I met Rick years ago, and I've been out to Shangri-La many times, which is the famous recording studio Rick runs up in Malibu. Rick and I once interviewed Bruce Springsteen together, which is an experience I'll never forget. If you meet Rick, you'll understand immediately what makes him such a brilliant producer, because he's one of the most open and generous listeners I've ever met. Anyway, over the last couple of years, very quietly, Rick's been working on a book about creativity, called The Creative Act, A Way of Being. I read it in one sitting.
I loved it. And I called up Rick and I asked him, can we talk about it? And what follows is that interview, which I wanted to share with all of you. We ran it in the Broken Record feed for the music diehards, but I thought it made sense to run it again here, because although it's a book about creativity by a music producer, and many of the examples Rick talks about are about music, it's not a music book. It's this beautiful exploration about how to open up your imagination that I believe has useful insights for all of us. Anyway, here goes our conversation. I hope you enjoy it. Rick. Hey. So I have a million questions. And I thought the fun thing to do would be to go through and I would just read you things I underlined, because they're things that I would love for you to talk, that we could talk about, but to you in particular. But one of the fantastic things about this book is that I've almost rarely read a book where I felt like I was being invited to contribute.
Do you know what I mean? Every time you made a point, I was like, oh, I have something to add about that. Or this, I mean, I've never read a book like that, where I'm like, half the time I'm talking to myself as I'm reading it. So that's what, I thought we would get into that as well, a little bit, but- That's great.
Every time you made a... Yes. That's great. That's great. I'm so happy. First of all, I'm happy. You like it. Happy you read it. Happy you like it. And I'm happy that it had that affect on you. And there was, I will tell you, there was a version of the book, an unsuccessful version of the book maybe four years ago that talked about a lot of the same stuff that the book talks about. was similar and the writing was beautiful, but it wouldn't have elicited the reaction that you had and that's why it didn't come out then.
And from the beginning, the purpose of the book was always, I want people to make great things. I want as much beautiful art in the world as possible. I'm a fan of beautiful things and exciting things and new things happening all the time. And the book was like a call to arms to go out
and make something beautiful, change the world, you know? So I have a million questions, but I wanted to start with a very general one, which is because you're in a world of music, we're reading a lot of this through the lens of music. We're assuming you're talking about musicians and you give examples of musicians from time to time. From time to time, you also talk about visual artists. You add that into the mix. But I was curious about, are we really talking about all art here or is there a difference in the way that music and visual art are done
that you're specifically speaking to? I think it's how all creative choices are made. So not only does it include the visual arts, it includes starting a new business, a new recipe you're making as a chef, architectural choices you might make, solving a problem in life where you're not getting along with a family member and you wanna get closer to them and have better communication. Originally, I thought of it as more of a how-to book
about creativity and it became a book about how to be,
how to be in the world to allow creativity to happen. And as it turns out, how to be in the world
that allows creativity to happen solves a lot of issues. I did feel like about halfway through, I began to forget you were in music and I felt like he was starting to talk more broadly about everyone. It's hard to escape the assumption that this is gonna be a book about music at the very beginning. But there's a couple, I wanna start reading to you some things and getting you to talk about them a little bit. One is, without the spiritual components, this is from the chapter called The Unseen. Without the spiritual component,
the artist works with a crucial disadvantage.
And it's a really, really interesting idea. And one, really that I hadn't heard that phrase that way before. What is a disadvantage here? And what do you meaning by the term spiritual component?
The spiritual component is belief in something bigger, something different, whatever it is. It could be believing in some universal power, believing that if you walk under a ladder, you'll have bad luck. It could be anything that takes you out of the ordinary to allow you to see a wilder potential is good when you're making art. The goal of making art is not to show you just what everybody else sees. It's to see what's possible. And what's possible is radical. It really is radical. It's like we've built very, very small worlds for ourselves with our reason. Have you ever had a mystical experience in your life?
Okay, do you wanna describe it at all? Oh, well, I mean, maybe my definition of mystical,
I have had-
I'm open, I'm wide open, however you describe it. I mean, I've had moments, probably around the death of my father would be an example of, the death of my father was a lot more than just about the death of my father. I guess that's the best way. You become aware in that moment that, oh, he's part of joining, going somewhere, whatever, much, much, much, much, much larger and older than we would have imagined. That was probably the closest I came to that. That I saw that in the gift of my grief was that. Yes.
Was becoming aware of that. Would you say that based on that you have been able to live at times in a deeper way based on that experience, that it opened something in you to allow you to see more than you saw
before? Yes, I absolutely. I would count that experience as one of the most crucial of my life. And in a million years, I would never have thought that the death of someone I loved
more than anyone else would open me up in that way. That would be an example of touching something, I would say spiritual, something unseen, something from beyond, something that wouldn't have made sense to you before it happened. If someone would have described it to you, you might've thought that doesn't really make sense to me. But then you got to feel it, and then you understood. And belief is that way. There's a part in the book that talks about what you believe in doesn't have to be true. That doesn't really matter, but belief has a power, and belief allows you to go further than you thought you can go. And there are a lot of tools in the book that talk about overcoming voices that tell us we can't do things because we've learned we can't do things. We've learned what's possible and what's impossible, and if we accept what's possible and what's impossible, we can't go beyond. If the Wright Brothers accepted it was impossible for man to fly, we still wouldn't be flying. All of the great revolutions that have happened have happened because someone believed in
something that everyone thought wasn't possible. This taps into a larger theme in your book, which I thought was really powerful, which is, time and again, you come back to the idea that one of the artist's jobs or obligations is to look outside of him or herself. You do talk about how you need... There's a chapter where you talk about the importance of paying very close attention to what's going on inside your own head and heart. Here's an example, not long after that first quote. When looking for a solution to a creative problem, pay close attention to what's happening around you. What I love about that is, it's not that you think back over your history, remember some important thing you read five years ago written by some genius. You're talking about in the moment, look around and you can find solutions, clues, what have you, just in the most prosaic details of your existence at that moment, in the room where
you are. Now, I can't say it works 100% of the time. It's not saying that. It's saying that if you live in a way where you're really open and paying attention to everything around you, the answers you're looking for are knocking on the door all the time. They don't come when you're searching for them. They come when you're open and allow them to come. One of the things that I talk about in the book is, if you have a problem to solve, instead of thinking about it, hold the question in your awareness and go for a walk or swim or do something that takes your mind off of what you're trying to solve and engages you in something else. And most often when you're engaged in something else, the part of you that's in the way of solving the problem loses its control over you and through whatever it is, you can find a way to go for a drive. Something where you have to pay attention enough, if you're driving, you can sort of drive on autopilot without really paying attention. But if you're really not paying attention, you'll crash. You can tune out that much.
So there is some part of you that's occupied when you're driving with the work at hand. The reason I thought that was interesting was, I wondered, and one thing that struck me, and I could be totally wrong, but my sense is that increasingly in a lot of creative fields, creativity is defined as something that is internal and deliberate. You look within yourself and your own experience and you mind them for, and you're talking about something that is in part external and unconscious. And I have a good friend who's a screenwriter and I think by virtue of being my friend and watching, I'm a reporter, a journalist, you know, I call people up and interview them and record what they say. He's changed the way he writes screenplays. Now he does as much reporting as he does as much as someone who's writing a nonfiction book. And he's doing it not because he's just cutting and pasting what he hears in the world into his, but he's doing a version of what you're talking about, which is he's opening himself up to the, if he wants to talk about scientists, he goes and talks to lots and lots of scientists and it opens him up to the way they think and feel. And that kind of approach to creativity strikes me as being one that seems out of vogue in a certain way. I mean, it's not what they're teaching in writing schools.
No, it's not what they're teaching. And there was a line in the book and I only know it because I was working on the audio book yesterday and I read it yesterday. And it's, again, it's a funny counterintuitive line that self-expression is not about you And it's just such a, and when I read it, you know, it stopped me in my tracks, even though it's an idea from several years ago, but it hit me hard again,
you know, recognizing it.
And it's just such a, so everything we are comes from outside of us. The data that we take in from which we make, whatever it is that we make comes from outside of us, all of it, none of it starts with us. Everything starts outside of us. So we have a storehouse of all of the stuff that we've experienced over the course of our lives. And then we can find connections between those things. And we can find connections between those things from the past and these things happening now, whatever it may be. And when you're looking for it, it's surprising
how often the answers are right there, there. Yeah, this is another one of my favorite lines. Distraction is not procrastination. Procrastination consistently undermines our ability to make things. Distraction is a strategy in service of the work, which is to your point. So a lot of what this exposure to the world outside of us is about is a kind of productive distraction, right?
That's what you're saying with that. It's a combination. There's a productive distraction and an inspiration. The connection with the outside world also can be really inspiring. It can be inspiring if you pick places that are inspiring. I try to pick places to be where I find inspiration
on a daily basis. You have a little moment where you're talking about how different, all of us have different strategies for that kind of inspirational place. And you said, Andy Warhol was said to create with a television radio and record player all on simultaneously. For Eminem, the noise of a single TV set is his preferred backdrop. Marcel Proust lined his walls with sound absorbing cork, clothes, the drapes, and warrior plugs. And I was curious, what's yours?
Do you have a kind of mode like that? I would say I like to be in a quiet place, big, beautiful nature, less people.
Yeah, I'd say natural beauty and less people. It's funny, I'm exactly the opposite. I had a very productive morning in a coffee shop. It was crowded and I was sitting like literally right up against this six foot four kid, I think it was like 22 years old, sitting next to his parents. And the kid was super interesting and he was talking about the PLO in the 1970s and Yasser Arafat. And there was something about like, I don't know, I can't put my finger on what that kind of triggered. After a while, I kind of, he became my background noise, but it was such a different voice that I was fixing a chapter of something I was working on. And I just suddenly saw the solution. And I think it was what we were talking about. It was some combination of... There's something about that being surrounded by unusual voices that really wakes me up to the range of solutions. I'm reminded, oh, there was this kid who was thinking about something I don't think about in a context I'm not in, who's super interesting, like, wow, so there's a solution out there.
It was funny, because I had just read your chapter
which talks about that and I was in that situation.
Is that a place that you go to every day? Many days. I like, I need many days. I need, so I need voices. I need noise and voices and activity in order to be able to create. During the pandemic, I had one Sturgill Simpson album that I played over and over and over again. He was my voice. Was it Metamodern? What is that? Albums? Fantastic album, whatever it was. So good.
He's great. He is great. I don't know. If he's out there, he helped me through many, many lean times during the pandemic. But that idea, I almost feel like you're describing the things you have learned by working with elite practitioners of the art of creativity. But I'm struck by the gap between what you've learned from the top performers and what we're teaching to people at the outset. And that, it concerned me. I almost feel like there's a gap between what we're telling people
and what the truly creative are doing.
I need so much. Awesome, yes.
Yes, that's true. On this same point, on this gap, there's a moment when you're talking about, it's actually my favorite part of the book, when you're talking about strategies for unblocking yourself and talking about all the different ways that you think about that or approach that when you're working with people. And one of them was writing right in the voice someone else. That's what we said. And Rick, once again, in the world we live in, that is an incendiary thought. That's called appropriation. And you have this beautiful, I want to quote, in a similar vein, you say, there are countless examples of imitation turning into legitimate innovation. Having a romanticized vision of an artist genre or tradition may allow you to create something new because you see it from a different perspective than those closer to it. So not only you saying that it can be really useful to inhabit someone else's voice or tradition, you're also saying that that can spark a whole new, more beautiful, greater kind of innovation because you're approaching it from your own perspective. You talk about Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns being a good example of that, that they transform our understanding of what a western is. I thought a lot about the audio book we did with Paul Simon when he's talking about Graceland, which is that.
Yes, 100%. Or Talking Heads, Remain in Light or Fear of Music, those were inspired by African rhythms. There's a great tradition in doing this. Pretty much the best of everything was based on something else, always. Then it's through the new interpretations. Like the Beatles were doing American Motown music, but because they were English and because of the distance, they weren't trying to do it different. They did it different because they were different, and that was the beauty of it. That's how the Beatles became the Beatles. They became the Beatles because they are the Beatles, but the music they were doing was they were trying to
was they were trying to do Motown. Or as you point out, the Ramones were trying to be
the Bay City Rollers. Yes, which is a true... Yeah, Johnny Ramone told me that himself.
So I know that to be true. That is so hilarious. For those of you who don't know the Bay City Rollers, they were just about the dumbest bubble gum band of the... They were like the boy band of
the early 70s. And the Ramones think that they're... Well, they had that song S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y. That's right. Nine. S-A-T-U-R. And then if you listen to the Ramones, they have those type of
Gabby Gabby, similar types of chants. Yes, that's right. Yeah, they take it and they twist it in this brilliant, beautiful, revolutionary way. But so, look at that, sort of harp on us, but how do we get away from that notion? So it is legitimately the case. And I know this because there are examples of people who I know who are legitimately terrified of even so much as dipping their toe in another tradition or voice for fear of being criticized. It's almost like we're terrified of the sources of creativity. We're terrified to admit to ourselves what we're doing in the name of
creativity. The reason someone imitates someone else is because they love someone else. That's why it's only flattery. When someone is inspired by someone else, if you decided to write because someone else wrote and you like their writing and you decide to become a writer, that's not against them. That doesn't take anything away from them. That's a tribute to them. And all All of the music that gets made based on loving someone else's music is a tribute to them, whether it be people of the same color or different color. Doesn't matter. It has nothing to do with that. That's not what it's about. It's a current misread of the situation.
Yeah. Yes. You know what it is? And it goes to something else. You talk a little bit, you talk about the abundance mindset. Getting to that part of the book, you talk about the importance of understanding the number of ideas, essentially the number of ideas out there is infinite, not finite. Yes. When you understand it's infinite, then you're not scared of imitating someone because you're like, there's a million things out there. We don't have to hold tightly to what we've done and react in a hostile manner if someone tries to imitate us because there's a million fish in the sea. It's fine. I think the idea that the number of new ideas is infinite has kind of fallen out of favor
somehow. Yeah. It's just odd. I mean, people can be wrong and it's okay. That's fine. In some ways, the fact that it's fallen out of favor means the people who embrace the tried and true methods that have worked will find greater success and there'll be less
stuff in between. Is your understanding of this notion of abundance, is it a product of having worked for, I don't know how many years you've been in the industry, many decades, did you feel the same way when you were 21? In other words, is it natural for the very young to be much more jealous, to much more jealous they guard their ideas because they haven't had years and years of experience in seeing the kind of waterfall of ideas that's out there.
Is that fair? No, it's fair. I have always felt this way because I see it. I see all of the ideas, I want to learn everything. There's no time. There's no time to learn all the things I want to learn. I'm endlessly curious and I'm always looking. I'm thinking back to, it's really more about what we were just talking about but the reason I learned about reggae music was because of the clash. If it weren't for the clash, I don't know if I would have ever come in contact with reggae music. Is it bad that the Clash did reggae music? Because they turned on a whole generation of people who otherwise may not have ever heard about it? Do you know, it's like, it's a crazy idea to think that not to be inspired by the things that are inspiring us and to show it and to own it and to fly the flag of these great trends or genres is nothing more beautiful.
Yeah, gonna pause for a quick break and then we'll be back with more from Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell.
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We're back with more from Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell.
I remember pretty early in my writing career when I was unhappy, I thought I was limited as a writer and I remember sitting down with, I've forgotten which book it was, one of Michael Lewis's books and one of Janet Malcolm's books. Two narrative nonfiction writers who are extraordinarily good at, the one thing I thought I was weak at, which is character. Literally sitting down and studying them like they were the Talmud. Like, what's he doing here? How much time does he spend, literally measuring, how much time does he spend describing someone? I was getting itchy feet. I would introduce a character and I think, oh, you must be bored of the character list. And then I read Michael Lewis and I was like, he has the same character, the whole book, and we're not bored of him. How does he do that, right? Or Janet Malcolm would like peel one layer after another off the onion and you'd be like, there can't be any onion left. There was always onion left. I was like, how does she do that?
To your point about, you like that lovely thing about the back and forth between the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Bryan Wilson sees white album and says,
is it white album that inspires him, only knows Paul has the idea for Sgt. Pepper.
Robert Sull. Yeah. And the point that I make there is not, they weren't doing that at a competition. It was out of love and inspiration and it was an upward spiral between them of inspire a reaction, inspire a reaction, in spite lifting the level, lifting the level. They made each other better. They weren't trying to beat each other. It was different than that.
They loved each other.
Yeah. Explain to me, it's sort of obvious, but I'd love for you to talk about it. Why is it important that it comes out of love and not competition? What is it about a competitive drive that is more limiting than a drive of love?
Well, first of all, we're talking about majority of what we're talking about is art. And the way that I see art is it really is about our own self-expression. So I'll give you an example. I just wrote a book. You write a lot of books. The idea of Rick's book competing with Malcolm's book is an insane idea. You write a Malcolm book, I write a Rick book. No one but Malcolm can write a Malcolm book. No one but Rick can write a Rick book. They're mutually exclusive things. Everything is like that. So if you're focused on beating someone else, it makes me think you're not actually playing same game that I'm playing.
The game that I'm playing is, I wanna make the best thing that I can make for me. That's all. And if someone else likes it, it's great. There's a chapter in the book about success, which is success is when you feel good enough about it, a piece of work you've made to share it in the world. That's the moment of success. Whatever happens after that, it's completely out of our control. But the moment that you sign off, it's like, you're okay, here we go, and then move on to your next project, that's where success lies. So to work on a vibration of competition, it's one thing if it's about running a race, this is not running a race.
This really is always apples and oranges. Yeah. Although, you know, it's funny, I think you're selling your idea a little short. I was thinking about this when I read that part, I'm a big fan of cars. And there's a very particular moment in the early aughts, when car design goes through a stage that I think everyone who loves cars thinks was one of a kind of extraordinary moment of, it was a kind of, when cars started to look very kind of Bauhaus-y, I don't know how well you know cars, but there was a very beautiful E-Class that Mercedes put out in the early aughts, which is very, very clean lines, round headlights. At the same time, Audi put out the first iteration of the style they're still in, but it was very clean and very, they all were doing this, a very similar aesthetic, which was a rejection of a lot of the kind of clutter and complication that had gone on in the previous generation of car design. And you could see it across all the kind of elite car makers. And, you know, normally you would say, these are guys who really are in competition with each other. They are battling over a finite marketplace. They're making the same thing, cars that people drive, but they weren't all pursuing this Bauhaus design strategy. It was out of love. Absolutely.
The guy at Audi saw that E-Class and is like, oh my God, that's a gorgeous car. I want to do my version of it. I mean, there was no, it wasn't like, let's take market share from, you know, at that level, I mean, maybe it was in the marketing group, but at the level of the designer, it was clearly, they all fell in love. Yes. With this particular, so I think it goes beyond what we think of as the art, narrowly as the arts. I think you see it everywhere that fundamentally in a million different ways, even people who are locked in competition with each other, sometimes push that aside and do things out of a genuine affection for what, they're just blown away by something they see. And they're like, oh my God.
Houston, even more metaphysical version of that, where the same thing happens, but it's not a reaction. So in the example you gave, Mercedes came out with a beautiful new design and Audi inspired by that design, made something new. There are also throughout history, examples of two or three similar novel approaches entering at the same time. Yeah. It's not based on seeing each other. Yeah.
Just based on it's time for this.
Yeah, yeah. And maybe it's possible that the thing that inspired Mercedes to wanna do it is the thing that inspired Audi to wanna do it, but that's different than Audi wanting to copy what Mercedes did. Yeah. And that's a fascinating thing when there are these movements of art where it just springs up all over the planet at the same time, not because they saw it and wanna do it, but because now is the time for this new thing,
whatever it is, whatever it is. But at its root, it's the same thing because they are falling in love with the same idea in the world simultaneously. You could not have fallen in love with what Joe Across the Pond is doing or me and Joe can fall in love with something in the world of ideas that's really beautiful and novel. But I think the engine is the same, which is its love.
Yes. It seems more magical when there isn't, when you don't see one like it first. Yeah. There's something about it when, I don't know if it's ever happened to you, it has happened to me, where I'll have an idea for something and I don't act on that right away. And then within six months or a year, someone else does it. They didn't steal my idea. Yeah. It was time for that to happen.
Yeah. Let's keep going. There's so much wonderful stuff here. I want to give listeners more of a taste of, it was several moments when I was either surprised and in one case really genuinely wanted more of a explanation. And that was when the work has five mistakes, it's not yet completed. When it has eight mistakes, it might be. Yes. Rick, what does that mean?
We get hung up on the idea of perfection and we think perfection is what we're looking for. When really what we're looking for is something with emotion in it, something with humanity in it. And humanity has flaws. So we can use the example of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. At the time that it was made, it was a mistake. And now it's one of the most visited buildings in the world and it's visited purely because of the mistake. We collect old Persian rugs that were handmade and that had been lived in. Whereas you can buy a new machine made rug now that's more perfect than that, but it doesn't have the same humanity in it. And the reason I use the example of five and eight are, they're random choices. Those are not specific. Those are not, if you have five, you got to get to eight for it to work. But it's a way of thinking where we're not looking to make it perfect, we're looking for the soulful version.
That could either be going further towards perfection or backwards away from it. And it might just as well be backwards away from it
for it to feel good when we're making art. Yeah, those are not the. Can you think about a project you've worked on that you think is beautiful and authentic in precisely this imperfect
way that has mistakes that you think it benefited from? I can give you an example close to both of our hearts, which is interesting. When we had the broken record logo designed, it was originally done, it was designed on a computer and it was of a very formal design, graphic design. And a friend of mine suggested, you want to try doing that by hand? Yeah. And then we suggested to the designer, try it by hand. And the one that we ended up picking was the one done by hand. It was less
perfect than the original version, but it had more personality. Yeah. Yeah. It's very clarifying because I think it's very easy to lose sight of what the audience for a work of art wants. They want the creator. It's a way of looking into the mind or heart of the creator. They don't want some abstract thing that fits every criteria of perfection. We're looking for, to give the example back of when I went through my period where I was obsessively reading Michael Lewis and Janet Malcolm. Janet Malcolm is a good example of this or both. When you read them, you feel like you know the two of those writers when you read their writing. At the end of a Michael Lewis book, you feel like you've been hanging out with him and have a window into his world. Janet Malcolm's books are weird and quirky and sometimes disturbing, but you love that because you're like, oh, she's such a kind of fascinating character.
And my worry when I was reading them was that people weren't having that. That was not the experience my readers were having, that they were getting something that was too abstract. They were getting information, but not that kind of, they weren't really getting me, you know? Yeah. It took a long time, we're talking about that thing I'm describing was 20 years into my writing career. And what
you're talking about is really moving away from classical journalism. Yeah. Because my understanding of journalism is the writer's invisible. It's only the story and it's just, you know, just the facts. That's all it is. Yeah. So in a way, this would be a bastardization of journalism, of journalism, but that's why it's engaging and that's why it's interesting and that's why it's popular. It's not regular journalism. It's journalism through your filter, the personal filter. There's a documentarian named Nick Broomfield, who I love, who makes these crazy movies. He tends to pick outrageous characters to focus on, but he always ends up part of the movie. Mm-hmm.
And usually when documentarians make a movie, you just see the subject, but he ensconces himself into the, finds a way to insinuate himself into the story. And it's wild and bizarre and it's unusual for the director of a documentary to become a main character in every one of the documentaries he makes about different people. It's fascinating. Yeah. So I
love it. Yeah. So I love it. Yeah. Wait, a couple of other things I want to make sure we, you had this little section that I love when you're talking about AlphaGo, the AI software system that was designed to master the game of the Japanese game of Go and how there's this famous showdown between the computer and a Go-Gran master and the computer wins by making a move that had never occurred to any Go player. Most Go players would have considered A or B choice and the computer went to C and it blew everyone's mind. And you said, when you read about that,
that you cried. I did. And it wasn't, I didn't read about it. I watched a documentary about it. Oh, you watched a documentary. Yeah. I was watching a documentary about it and it made me cry. And and when I cried, I didn't understand it at first. It took a while. I thought about it more. My reaction forced me to think about it more. It's like, why am I crying?
I'm not invested. I don't play Go. I'm not invested in this story at all. Yet I'm crying. And originally my first thought was, am I crying because machines are beating humans? No, that's not what it is. I'm crying because the way that the computer won wasn't by knowing more than the grand master, the computer won because it knew less than the grand master. And that's what made me cry. It's that the computer didn't have all of the baggage and cultural dogma of how you're supposed to play Go. It only knew these are the rules of the game. I'm playing the rules of the game. And it was fascinating to me because it made me realize if we can let go of the beliefs of what we're, how we're supposed to do things, anything may be possible.
It's the tip of the iceberg for the game Go for sure. But maybe it's the tip of the iceberg for everything. And if we can get back to that beginner's mind of not knowing, of accepting that we don't know, we can break through in ways never understood before.
Yeah. Never thought possible before. Yeah. It's funny because I didn't see this documentary. And when I read about your description of how much you were moved by that moment, I was also moved, but not for the reasons you were. I was moved because what that told me was that when human beings play Go, they're not playing Go. In other words, the computer saw Go in its entirety, in a technical sense. So every conceivable move you could make made one that would never have occurred to us. When human beings play Go, we're playing this very small parochial version governed not just by the rules and potentials of the board, but by our own assumptions, habits, practices, cultural. And I actually kind of love that about us. In other words, that we've colonized and humanized and brought all of our kind of heart-rending limitations, even to something like a board game, cultural. That's very moving to me.
The computer has the chili impersonal version of Go. And this reminds us we're not playing the chili impersonal version. Our Go bears the imprint of our own limitations and cultural specificities. And I find that really endearing. But it's funny, we both see the same thing and are moved by, I don't think what I'm
saying and what you're saying are incompatible. I think they're actually compatible. I think they're almost opposites. And the fact that they are both something to fall in love
with about the story is amazing. I love that. But this is actually something that you, What I've just described is something you do a lot in this book, which is, there are a lot of moments where it appears that you're making points that contradict each other, but you're not. This is the furthest from black and white, this book. There is a lot of this kind of yinging and yanging in it. I thought it was really very, very you. It's not like you do it this way, not this way. Like the necessity of being both inwardly sensitive and outwardly sensitive, it's not one or the other.
It's like just, there's a balance that you have to kind of observe.
It's not. We'll be right back with the rest of Malcolm Gladwell and Rick Rubin's conversation after
a quick break. We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin.
The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor. What happens to a country under maximum stress?
Just look at America's home front at the dawn of World War II.
When you look at a society that's fighting for its survival, I think you really see the best and the worst come to the top.
I'm Josh Levine. In the fourth season of Slate's podcast one year, we're going back to 1942.
Listen wherever you get your podcasts.
We're back with more from Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell. There's a passage there that I really love what you're talking about. Sometimes there is a musician who you'll listen to when they're trying something radically new. Do you remember this and you're baffled by it the first time you listen and baffled the second time and you keep listening and keep listening and then finally become something you can't live without. Yes.
And I was wondering, was there someone in mind when you... Several. My first experience of that was a group called Trouble Funk. In the early days of hip hop, when I was in high school, the only place you could hear hip hop was once a week, one hour show on WHBI called Mr. Magic's Rap Attack. And that was the only... And I recorded it, I cassette recorded it every week as did all the other hip hop heads in my high school and maybe the six of us. And we would record that every week and then that would be all we would listen to all week because there were at this point in time, there really were no hip hop records available to buy. There may have been the Sugar Hill Gang's Rapper's Delight, but that was the only one. Yet on this radio show, he played all these songs. It's like, I don't even know where they came from and they were all like 12 inch DJ living where I live. It didn't exist. So listen to that every week and hear whatever was going on in rap music.
And again, it was a very tight time because all there was was an hour and plus it had commercials in it for places like Brad's Record Den in the Bronx, which is I guess where you could have bought some of those other songs that I had never gone at that time. I have gone since. And one week in the middle of these all rap songs, he played a Trouble Funk song, which is not rap music, it's go-go music and it's long. And the song was maybe seven or nine minutes long. So a seven or nine non-rap song took up seven to nine minutes of my 60 minutes plus commercials removed my little bit of rap music for the week and I was so angry. And every time I would listen to the cassette, I would forward through the Trouble Funk song to get to the rap music. And I did this and then one time I listened to the Trouble Funk song and then it took time but within a couple of weeks, the only thing I was listening to on that tape was the Trouble Funk song. So that's one example, but I'm sure there are many more. I remember the first time I heard Nine Inch Nails, I didn't like any of the industrial music I had heard up until the point of Nine Inch Nails. And when I heard Nine Inch Nails, my initial reaction to it was, this is that kind of music I don't like. I don't like the production. I don't like those sounds.
And then eventually took probably a year, Nine Inch Nails became my favorite group. But the things that I didn't like about it weren't the things that were good about it. In the case of Nine Inch Nails case, Trent's songwriting was so far superior to anyone else making that kind of music that once I could hear his songs, it didn't matter whether or not I liked the style. And then when I liked the songs, eventually I grew to even like the style because his songs made me like the style.
Oh, I see. It's this interesting thing about for different kinds of experience, the creative experiences, there are different thresholds. The familiar has a very low threshold. The unfamiliar has a much longer threshold. But what's interesting with that story and is very particular to you is that you had the patience to wait long enough so you could reach the threshold of understanding what Trouble Funk was doing or what Trent Reznor was doing. That's unusual. So a lot of what you're talking about in this book really does seem to be things that can be taught and understood and you shift your... What you're describing now is something very, not impossible to teach, but very hard to teach to persist with something you didn't like the Trouble Funk and yet somehow you kept coming back in one way. You didn't dismiss it, you disliked it without dismissing it. That's I guess what I'm trying to say, that 99% of people when they dislike, they dismiss, but you didn't. I want to understand why didn't you?
I may have. Back then I may have dismissed it, but for whatever reason, because it was on a cassette and because I had to keep coming back and forward when it would come on and I might be doing something else in my room, it was able to get through to me. And this, again, we get to the metaphysical aspect of it. The universe wanted me to hear Trouble Funk. That's why I was able to hear it. If it wouldn't have presented itself over and over to me, I wouldn't have. So yes, I allowed it in, but it wasn't all me. I'll give you another example. It's not uncommon when I'm out and about to have someone recommend something that they think I like. And when they recommend it to me, I listen and it sounds like a terrible thing. The kind of thing I don't like, whatever it is. An example would be, it's not a real example.
Hypothetical example is, oh, you love this new horror movie. I don't like horror movies. There's no chance I'm going to watch a horror movie, that wouldn't work. If three different people who don't know each other all suggest to me to watch that horror movie, I will watch that horror movie, even though I know it's something I don't like. And the reason is the universe really wants me to be aware of this. People are telling me, why are people telling me? This is not for me. So that's an example of, again, paying attention to the signs around you. If several of your friends tell you the same thing that you initially discounted, it might
be worth the look. This is funny because this goes into one of my, similar to one of my little, I have these implicit rules I carry around in my head. And one of my rules is never say some things that you consume or see or whatever is bad. Only say, I think it's bad right now.
Great. And by the way, the whole world, social media particularly, would be so greatly improved by that rule, right? I don't like what you, I don't like what you said right now. Yes. It's very different from saying what you said is wrong, right? Absolutely. Whole or opposite. And, but adopting that with art, I wonder about how many, it's very, I'm talking now about sort of the critical community. How much criticism, how much it would change our understanding of art if critics universally followed that rule. And in which if they always acknowledged that they may be in a situation that you were in with trouble funk. That the universe wasn't there yet. You weren't there yet.
And also that story about trouble funk is that you weren't looking for trouble funk. You were looking for hip-hop. So like it was an intrusion in the beginning. Yes. It wasn't a treasure. It was something that didn't belong. Yes, it was something that didn't belong and was taking up valuable time. valuable cassette deck space. Yes, because it was only 60 minutes. Did you have the 90s back then
or just the 60s? Is that deck space? Yes, because it was only 60 minutes space.
We had 60s and 90s and eventually 120s. I remember that. 120s were huge. But that idea of building into our critical assessments, some notion about probability that my judgment is conditioned on two things. It is syncretic to me, and it is at this moment. And both of those things may not be true in some future day. That just is so insanely liberating to me. And I don't understand, can we pass this law that says you're only allowed, you must always use I think and right now in any
creative judgment? That's also related to another thing mentioned in the book, the idea of I can't
do that. We never say I can't do that. You can say I haven't done that yet. Yes, that functions the same way. The reason I think a book like this is so important is, this is a little bit of a tangent, but I went to give a talk at a university two weeks ago to the psychology department, and I was talking to these psychologists and they were talking about mental health. And they were talking about. It's a lot of really lovely research right now about how the language that you use to describe your feelings and emotions and traumas and things is enormously important. To describe something this way or that way is not a difference in style. It is actually a difference in the way that you are processing, understanding, recovering, all those kinds of things. One of the things this book did to me was I think this one way of understanding your book is it is in that spirit the categories that we use and the language that we bring to our understanding of creativity really, really matters. Like in that section that I love so much about when you're talking about all the ways you can jog someone out of being stuck. When you're stuck you don't think you can be jogged out by some change in your setting or some, but in truth you can.
You remain acutely sensitive to the influences of your environment and it's so hard for us to understand that those kinds, the influence and impact of those kinds of framing devices and settings and language are framing devices, right? That is often what causes us to suffer unnecessarily.
Absolutely. There's a teacher named Marshall Rosenberg who wrote a book which is not a great book called Nonviolent Communication and he's a great teacher but he's not a great writer and he passed recently unfortunately, but I would suggest people if they're interested in Marshall Rosenberg there is an audio called Speaking Peace that is better than the book and then watch videos of him on YouTube just because the book, I found the book hard to understand, but it's basically all about this. The language of our culture is violent and it's not just violent towards each other, it's violent towards ourselves. Every time we say I should have done that, when you say I should it's called a make wrong. So by saying I should have done it means I was wrong, this is the right way to do it. When at the time you were doing the best you could. So when at the time you're doing the best you can to make yourself wrong isn't helpful. And there's a whole list of trigger words and ways of sharing a vocabulary of feeling that helps us better communicate and when we communicate better we tend to get along better.
It's beautiful, beautiful teaching. It's beautiful. Couple other smaller things. There's a couple of moments in this book where I scribbled in the margins, who is Rick talking about? But there was one that I wanted you to, if you don't mind, you talked about how you were working with an artist on a song which was a love song and you were trying to solve the problem and you finally solve the problem by telling the artist don't think of a romantic partner, think of it as a devotional to God. Who is the song and who
is the artist? Can you tell me? That was Johnny Cash and the song was
the first time ever I saw your face. Oh my goodness. Oh, that's so interesting. I know that version so well. That's totally blowing my mind because that's what it listens like.
Oh my God, it's genius, Rick. That is genius. Oh, and I interviewed Roger McGuinn the other day and he talked about the first bird single was Mr. Tambourine Man. And out of the blue, he said, yeah, when I sang it in the studio, no one knows this, but I sang it as a devotional to God. I said, but the lyrics aren't about that. I was like, yeah, I know. But that's how I was able to
sing it and feel it. And it blew my mind. Oh, that's really interesting. This is why I miss liner notes so much. I feel like this is the functional. But Ray, those two facts about first time I saw your face and Mr. Tambourine Man, those both radically changed the way you hear those songs. Yes. The Cash song makes way more sense. I've almost not understood why I found that song so powerful. Really, in the context of all those ones, it's one of the ones that it pops in this kind of strange way and it's haunting in a way you don't. And now I understand
why he's singing it with a completely different intention than I imagined. Yeah. And if you listen to the original song, it's unbelievable. When I say the original, the popular version, because the popular version is not the original either. It was written by Ewan McCall and it's an Irish folk song. And if you've ever heard the Irish folk song version of it, it's almost like
a yodel. It's very unlike all the versions that were familiar with it. Yeah. I realized when I read that as well that I have a version of that, which is years and years ago, I sat down on an airplane next to a guy who happened to be reading one of my books and I had this very, very long conversation with him. And I still remember what he did. His job was to go around the country, opening Trader Joe's. He was coming from New York. They were opening a store like in Brooklyn or something and he'd just been in Brooklyn for a month. Lived in Atlanta, had two kids, was like 38 years old, business school degree, I think, maybe not. Anyway, I had this lovely chat with him and I realized, oh, that's my reader. And every time I'm stuck, I think about him. Beautiful.
It's for him. He was beautiful. And he said, because he only read, he told me, he said, I'm very, very busy. I teach Sunday school. I'm a coach in my kids' little league and I have this job, which is very demanding. I have time to read three books a year. And I realized, oh, and he's chosen one of mine. I'm one of his three, which is like phenomenally flattering thing. And I realized, oh, if I can keep being one of his three books every year, then I will succeed. Beautiful. And I think about him all the time. That's great.
Yeah. Really, really. But it's insanely liberating to know that's what it's for.
Yes. And the fact that you randomly got assigned that seat. He happened to be reading your book on that particular flight. Yeah. It could be, it's all a coincidence. Yet it's what you needed to hear to be able to keep doing what you've been doing for all these years since then. Maybe it's accidental. Who knows? That's the point. It's like these things happen all the time. Yeah. Maybe they're all accidents.
It's fine. It doesn't matter if they are or not. Yeah. But if they happen and if you can use that information like you do, we all win.
Yeah. All to the better. All right, Rick, one last thing. The last thing I underlined in your book, paid 365. And I was like, wait, I didn't expect this, which was, hold on. Let me just go there. What is it? Makes sense to do it. I don't know why in retrospect I found this so surprising. But you say, when I work with artists, we make an agreement. We continue the process until reaching the point where we are all happy with the work, all is italicized in that. And I was like, I realize, and maybe this is because how badly I needed your book.
It never occurred to me that there would be art on the level that you have been a part of creating without dissent.
Makes sense to do it.
I was just shocked. I was like, wait, you've done all this for so many years with so many different people under an explicit promise of unanimity. That blew my mind.
There'll be dissent along the way, but that just means we haven't gone far enough. It just means if you like it and I don't, it's not good enough. And if I like it and you don't, it's not good enough. And if we can get to the point where we both love it, it's probably better than the one that one of us loved and the other didn't. And if there are five people in a band and if three of them like it and two of them don't, and you get to the point where all five of them like it, chances are it's better.
And not just that you're done. Yes. Yeah. No, it was just such a kind of, I just thought of that idea that what you're building in the end is a kind of harmony among all of the voices is a beautiful way to end a very,
very beautiful book. Yeah. There's a part in the book where we talk about cooperation, which is exactly this working with other people. Historically, I'll say most times that people work together, there's a rivalry of ideas. Each person is arguing to win the debate to have their idea be the one that's chosen. And I'm saying that's not productive. And the best way to do it is for everyone to demonstrate their ideas. It's even better if they're demonstrated in a blind way where we don't even know whose ideas what. We just hear the ideas and then everybody picks. Yeah. And usually it's pretty obvious and it really does happen naturally. And it's only through the ego of wanting it to be my way that there are these conflicts.
But if everyone is working together for it to be the best that it can be, and if we respect each other enough to know if I think it's the best it can be and you think it can be better, I'll go on that ride. And same
the other way. Ultimately, we get to a beautiful place. Rick, that is lovely. And thank you for writing such a beautiful book. Many, many, many, many people enjoy it as much as I have.
Thank you so much. I really appreciate you reading it. It's fantastic. It makes me happy.
I want to thank Rick on the record for taking the time to put his philosophies around creativity in a book. The Creative Act, A Way of Being, is out now. Be sure to check it out. You can subscribe to our YouTube channel at youtube.com slash Broken Record Podcast. We can find all of our new episodes. You can follow us on Twitter at Broken Record. Broken Record is produced with help from Leah Rose, Jason Gambrell, Ben Taladey, and Eric Sandler. Our editor is Sophie Crane. Broken Record is a production of Pushkin Industries. If you love this show and others from Pushkin, consider subscribing to Pushkin Plus. Pushkin Plus is a podcast subscription that offers bonus content and uninterrupted ad-free listening for $4.99 a month. Look for Pushkin Plus on Apple Podcast subscriptions.
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Beets. I'm Justin Richmond. We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. The Japanese have
attacked Pearl Harbor. What happens to a country under maximum stress? Just look at America's
home front at the dawn of World War II. When you look at a society that's fighting for its survival,
I think you really see the best and the worst come to the top. I'm Josh Levine. In the fourth season of Slate's podcast one year, we're going back to 1942. Listen wherever you get your podcasts.