Originally published in Forbes.
You sit, eyes closed, and turn your attention inward. You focus your attention on an immediate experience, perhaps your breath or a mantra. You become more aware of yourself as a body breathing. When thoughts or emotions come up, you observe them with curiosity, openness and acceptance. Then you bring your attention back to the present. Each moment is a new experience. You enter an intense state of relaxation and alertness.
What does this have to do with producing hit records? According to Rick Rubin, a lot.
Rick Rubin has produced numerous platinum-selling and award winning albums. Some of the albums he produced are considered classics, like thrash-metal band Slayer’s Reign in Blood or early hip-hop albums by the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC and LL Cool J. He has produced career-rejuvenating comeback albums by Johnny Cash, Black Sabbath and the Dixie Chicks. He initiated genre-bending collaborations, such as the rap-rock hybrid “Walk This Way” by Run-DMC and Aerosmith, and Johnny Cash’s covering of a Nine Inch Nails song. According to Eminem, who worked with Rubin on The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Rubin has an uncanny ability “to dip in and out of different genres of music and master all of them.”
Rick Rubin. Photo by Annabel Mehran
But what’s really impressive is how he gets people’s best work out of them. As Metallica’s James Hetfield said, when they wanted to people “to really hear Metallica,” they brought in Rick Rubin to produce. This ability to bring out the full potential of others is essential to all managers and leaders. How does Rubin do this so consistently and with such diverse people? By applying his experience as a life-long practitioner of meditation.
When people meditate, they pay attention in a particular way: “On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a founding member of the Cambridge Zen Center and creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Practicing this type of attention helped Rubin become a better listener.
“Many people don’t listen,” Rubin told me. “If you listen carefully, people explain to you what it is that they need.” Rubin gets artists to open up about their deeper motives. “I’ll spend time with an artist and listen very carefully to what they tell me and get them to talk about their true goals, their highest, highest goals,” he said. “We’ll go back to the heart of why they started doing what they are doing in the first place.”
Meditation helps people accept the full range of their experience, the good as well as the bad, the light as well as the dark. Rubin applies this non-judgment stance to help the artists he works with open up their creativity. “One of the main things I always try to do is to create an environment where the artist feels pretty comfortable being naked,” he said. “That kind of a safety zone where their guard is completely let down and they can truly be themselves and feel open to exposing themselves. It’s very powerful when people do that, when people really open up.”
Based on his conversations with each artist, Rubin figures out how to support their strengths and downplay their weaknesses. Which is how he can work with such a wide spectrum of artists. For example, he encourages some artists to write while they are driving because that the attention they devote to driving prevents them from second-guessing themselves. For one artist who was struggling with lyrics, he invented a game with magnetic poetry to help him access his intuition about what the songs meant to him.
Sometimes just changing the context of the work—for example, by recording in a house rather than a recording studio, as the Red Hot Chili Peppers did while recording Blood Sugar Sex Magik—helps break artists out of their automatic habits and allows something new to happen. “Sometimes it’s about making it more comfortable. The distraction of less comfort can bring about a really good idea,” he said. One thing he likes to do is to have walking meetings on the beach. “It’s a remarkably different meeting,” he said. “The walking meetings tend to be much, much more productive than meetings sitting in an office.”
“The more time you spend being quiet and looking in, your intuition grows and you trust it more,” he said. “Messages come if you’re looking for them. Through meditation I developed the skill to know what to ask for. It’s like a knowing.”
This abstract “knowing” that Rubin is referring to is well documented in academic research on meditation. “Meditation creates a state of equilibrium, of peace, of calm, of openness that really allows an opportunity to be both an open canvas but also a calm and neutral canvas,” told me Vered Hankin, Research Assistant Professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, who conducts clinical research on meditation. “It is a jumping point for knowing.” By quieting the chatter in the mind, “every once in a while you have a moment of connection, a moment of insight, a moment of the real feeling like it comes from some other part of you that you might not be accessing if you weren’t in that connected space,” she said.
Rubin recognizes that ego can make it hard for successful people to do good work. When artists become successful, they are less likely to hear the truth. “The same thing happens with people who run successful companies,” Rubin said. “They have a lot of people around them telling them how great everything is and it’s not conducive to work being better. If everyone around you tells you everything you do is great, if there’s no editorial information, it leaves you a little lost.”
How to give feedback without making people defensive is one of the biggest leadership challenges. For Rubin, it goes back to non-judgment. “When I’m giving criticism, it’s very matter-of-fact, like analyzing a math problem and questioning whether this is the best formula to get to the answer that you’re looking for,” he said. “I’m helping them through this discovery process and questioning whether this is their best work. And as a fan I can say, ‘I don’t believe this is your best work.’ Now, again, that’s as a fan and that’s my opinion. There is nothing in stone.” Meditation takes baggage out of feedback, says Rubin—the ego, the I-know-better-than-you, the judging—all the things that trip up managers when they give feedback. The math problem analogy works because in math there is no ego, just better or more elegant solutions. And by presenting himself as a fan, Rubin reminds the artists that he has their highest goal in mind, and he maintains credibility for when he gives them praise.
At the end of the day, Rubin’s method is leadership by example. He helps artists create platinum-selling and Grammy-winning albums because he helps create a more meditative state in others even if they don’t practice meditation themselves, a process Hankin refers to as dyadic meditation. “There’s nothing better than someone really and truly being with and present with you in a dyadic kind of meditative state,” she said. When you’re with someone who is paying attention with intention, who is grounded and aware, then you become more grounded and aware. Research shows that we pick up on the mental state of the people we are close to. Even if they cannot verbalize it, artists probably pick up on Rubin’s focus and openness. The meditative state of “awakeness,” as it is often described, is contagious.