Legendary music producer Rick Rubin has his own way of connecting with artists before they start working on a project. He starts with a casual conservation where his goal is, “to lock in on what their intentions are.” He says, “people don’t always know what they’re telling you, but if you listen, they’ll tell you what you need to know.” He thinks this is where all of his value comes from. If we take a tip from him, it can be where all of our value comes from too.
As a record producer, a big part of Rubin’s work is finding some glimmer of familiar, human “truth” that resonates with the artist’s experience as well as his own. Rubin’s hunch (and he’s got the track record to prove it) is that if it moves him, it’ll probably move others too. He knows if he can find that special sound or feeling and help put it on display, real magic can happen.*
Let’s think about what Rubin’s really doing here. He’s treating the person across the table like they already have the answer inside them. He doesn’t have a preset solution to bring to them. He doesn’t expect to give them an answer. He sees his job as simply helping them to bring their answer out and into the world.
We all do some version of the same thing in our work. The people we want to help already have the answer inside their hearts and minds. They know what will make them happy, feel relief, or at least make some problem for way. We have to believe in them and understand their perspective in order to help uncover it.
Our job is much less about what we can add and much more about what distractions, obstructions, and interruptions we can take away. Really helping people is all about uncovering a clarity of purpose. It’s what Rubin does so astonishingly well. It’s also what makes his consistency over the past several decades so remarkable.
Rubin says the ultimate sign of a project clicking into place is when the artist asks him, “How did you know?” “It’s simple,” he says. “You said it!” Maybe they don’t say it directly, but by asking the right questions and being interested in understanding what people really want, we can gain our own insight into what we can help them deliver. And that’s good work to do.
Listen to Rick Rubin’s interview with Brian Koppelman on The Moment podcast for this insight and so many more.
*Magic like combining Aerosmith and Run DMC on “Walk This Way,” or putting a microphone in front of Johnny Cash and a guitar and pressing record.