The Rick Rubin Of Advice: How To Have A Creative Second Act

The weirdest question I was ever asked, maybe in my entire life, was, “Can you make this sound more yellow?” The weirdest answer I’ve ever given to the weirdest question was, “Yes.” I replay that conversation in my head all of the time. There’s a perfectly good and teachable reason I was able to answer it. But to teach you that magic trick, we have to talk about Rick Rubin.

I quit playing the “I liked that band before they were cool” game a while ago. I still feel it, I just don’t get all uppity about it anymore. I like to think of myself as a celebrator of personal successes, full stop. 

I got proper excited for Lizzo when she finally broke. I’ve been celebrating Jason Isbell’s post-Truckers success for a minute now too. But while I’m way more comfortable bandwagoning than I used to be, I’ve gotta be honest – Rick Rubin releasing The Creative Act threw me for a philosophical loop. 

I figured when he started working on podcasts with Malcolm Gladwell that a book was inevitably coming. I just didn’t know how excited people were going to get. And I should have known better. Granted, Rubin wasn’t a stage-fronting artist like Lizzo or Isbell, but for a behind-the-scenes guy, he was well overdue for a moment. I just didn’t know it was going to exist outside of music at this level. 

Rick Rubin’s been a career role model for me. For a looonnnnng time. My first genuine career attempt, my “look mom, no schools” dream, was to be a music producer. And it was largely inspired by him. He didn’t incept the idea, but he was definitely there since the inception of the idea in my head – emphasis on the Def. 

Some of you are probably wondering what a producer even does. Berklee’s got a pretty straightforward explanation. Here’s what the famed music college says about the producer’s job (FYI, you can basically use music producer, record producer, and producer interchangeably for sake of the rest of this essay):

Music production is the process by which music is created, captured, manipulated, and preserved so that it can be distributed and enjoyed. All of the recorded music that you know and love exists because it went through the production process, no matter how well-known or underground a recording may be, and no matter how minimalist or maximalist it sounds.

Professional music production is creative and technical. It requires well-developed listening skills, a good handle on recording technology, a deep musical knowledge, and effective project management and leadership skills by a music producer, also known as a record producer.

At some point in a music nerd’s life, you start reading liner notes. You start wondering who had the idea to add strings, or get the girls to put that “doot doot doo” part in the 2nd verse. People start telling you about how George Martin was the real 5th Beatle and you start realizing they’re right. 

But being a 90s teen and not a 60s teen, Martin wasn’t my generation’s guy. That Keyser Soze moment came for me when I started pulling the Rubin thread. The liner notes didn’t lie. 

He was the visionary behind the Aerosmith/Run-DMC collaboration I found so mesmerizing on our little black-and-white TV set. He got Anthony Kiedis to dive into old journals and then helped the Chili Peppers unearth “Under the Bridge,” in all of its multi-sectioned glory. He took Johnny Cash – the guy from my parent’s stack of 45s I used to obsess over, who blew my mind when I realized he was playing Shel Silverstein poems as songs – and got him to do this transcendental coffee shop thing with kid poems replaced by Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails.

<insert the sounds of me excitedly screaming here>

And the list just goes on and on on. Slayer, Tom Petty, Sir Mix-a-Lot, etc.. Like his tastes, his effectiveness as producer knew no boundaries. Over and over again he’d show up in the liner notes of records I loved, only to leave me saying, “Again? Of course!”

Rubin slowly became my career role model because of this breadth. Nobody else crossed genres so expansively and so influentially. It was like he was anticipating my tastes. No, it’s like he was anticipating everyone’s tastes – even friends from completely different circles. Sure, a magician could pull rabbits out of a hat, but opening liner notes and finding his name – for decades now – it’s like, “Here’s a rabbit in a Kangol! Here’s a rabbit in a trucker hat! Here’s a rabbit in a bucket hat!”

Look at the Berklee definition again – he was somehow creative and technical, with well-developed listening skills, a handle on the tech, depth of real knowledge, and the ability to get projects to the finish line. Anybody who’s hung with artists knows how hard that last one is too. 

Why my music production journey ended is another story. The point of this story is my Rick Rubin influence didn’t stop when I stalled on music. I carried all the Rubin lessons to my next chapter: finance. 

In the privacy of my head, since my financial career beginnings – when I had no real idea of what I was even doing, I’d get calm and centered by telling myself, “OK, you’re an advisor now. Whatever that means, since you clearly aren’t like most of these people. Just be the Rick Rubin of advice.” 

Feels kind of pretentious now. But for years, it’s like nobody – and I mean NOBODY – really knew him. I would use him as a party trick, where I’d tell people about him and reference random video appearances (“the cool bearded white guy in “99 Problems”) or the catalogs of more modern works (Dixie Chicks! Adele! Shakira!). People would say, “Oh that’s wild, I didn’t know he did all those.” Nobody knew him and nobody knew me, it was a perfect fit. 

As my northstar, I started to reinterpret my understanding of his talents to take to work:

Rubin Talent #1: listen to others. 

Rubin Talent #2: trust the feelings and emotions listening evokes, in yourself and others.

Rubin Talent #3: relentlessly repeat the first two talents until you finish any project (and you must finish or nothing else counts!)

On my new “financial services” career path, it quickly became clear most people confuse advice with sales. It’s the finished project or product you can measure and point to as your result. It’s all persuasion for profit, be it in terms of status or financial gains.  

Which sucks. Here I was worrying my whole life about sell-out artists, and now, as I looked at my suited-up self in the mirror each morning, it was me. I sold out. Not for money or fame, but for health insurance and a semi-steady paycheck. 

The party trick of talking about him was me trying to convenience myself, “Hey, Rubin made all those records. He sold lots of finished product indirectly, so why couldn’t I sell without selling out too?” Projection is a funny thing. 

Eventually, I found my unlock. 

Advice that doesn’t suck, like good music production, is a reflection of a conversation between the creator and their audience. 

Founders and their employees. Executives and their colleagues. Parents and their kids, grandkids, and beyond. Retirees and the reality of what it means not to “work” anymore. I was here to facilitate all the listening to get the truth on record.

If I didn’t make it about selling, if I just focused on making it not suck – there was a way. It was a production job all over again. But not “producer” like my employer called it while they counted product-driven commissions. “Producer” like what Rick Rubin was called. 

Advice is not a conversation. Advice is one side of a conversation. It’s the occasional result of two people talking and it’s only “good” if the speaker is properly heard.  

So I went back to obsessing over the way the conversation was captured. I had to forget selling mirrors and focus on offering reflections. The goal of listening is to experience the feelings and emotions invoked and evoked. How that’s packaged and sold is a separate step. In other words, I had to relearn to be creative and technical, with well-developed listening skills, a handle on the tech, depth of real knowledge, and the ability to get projects to the finish line. 

Well s***. Look mom, I have a degree in that. Maybe not all my clients would be musicians, maybe we weren’t making albums, but as Rubin says, “However you frame yourself as an artist, the frame is too small.” Now that’s good advice – to receive and to share. 

My head (and my heart) always go back to the one time I genuinely believed I might make it as a music producer. I was working with an artist and they asked me, “Can you make this sound more… yellow?” At the time, I remember feeling a moment of frustration (“yellow?!”), then a moment of confused panic (“…yellow…?), and then, in some flash of divine inspiration, I just got it. 

“You mean, like this?” I added some more reverb, tweaked a compressor and increased the delay, all while bringing some background instruments up louder in the mix. “Yes. Now, can you do an even muddier yellow?” “Sure can.” 

Magic tricks. But not mystical at all. It’s about the process. Read my assessed talents list above one more time. And let’s add Rubin’s definition of talent to the mix now too: “Talent is the ability to let ideas manifest themselves through you.” 

I had put in the work. I was listening. I was in touch with the artist’s feelings and emotions, and I was in touch with my own. We were determined to get the project done. We were determined to get the colors right. We were all there. Present. Reflected and reflecting. 

The “yellow” question wouldn’t have worked without all the pre-work. I couldn’t have answered it without listening to all the source influences. I couldn’t have answered it without recording demos and mapping out the parts of every song. I couldn’t have answered it without putting the time in. Without having the conversations, without listening. 

Of course I knew what “yellow” meant. 

I’m cool with not being a music producer. I’m especially cool with not being labeled a “producer” in financial services anymore too. My all-time favorite Rubinism explains why: I’m not a producer, I’m a reducer. 

Listening isn’t talking over. It’s not waiting for someone to stop talking so you can get your opinion out. True listening is about letting the noise fall away to reveal a core essence. Rubin relates it to spirituality, as “a way of looking at a world where you’re not alone.” It’s a playful game of noticing connections and where they lead. 

I know now it’s why I knew what “yellow” meant. I know now it’s why I grew to love my current work. Most importantly, I know now that none of my career choices have or will define who I am. I’m not a producer either. I’m a reducer too.    

True listening is true reflecting. The cues come to you. Or as he puts it, “The more open you are, the more clues you will find and the less effort you’ll need to exert.”

So maybe I got a little bitter when The Creative Act was released. I’m human after all, and this post is me working it out in public. I’m happy to report – those feelings are long gone. 

I’ve still got my beloved stats and stories in my head. Find me at a party, I’ll tell you all about it. But now I have another liner note credit to add in his name – this time in another medium, with Rubin as “author” instead of “producer.” I f***ing love this book. I love that it’s so much bigger than music and not solely about the stats and stories of his career. 

I love celebrating Rubin’s success and knowing it’s transcending lives. Reflectively. As more of us get to reflect on his reflections.  

To my advice industry friends, to my music industry friends, to my friends, family, and people: We are all creators. The creative act is a way of being. We have so much to talk about, and more importantly – we have so much to hear. 

Did you read The Creative Act yet? How are you applying it? Need more Rick Rubin links and have you seen my list yet? Need some advice of your own? And, of course, heard any great music lately?

*This post also appeared on Epsilon Theory*

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