RICK RUBIN has been called “the most important [music] producer of the last 20 years” by MTV. Rick’s résumé includes everyone from Johnny Cash to Jay- Z. His metal artists include groups like Black Sabbath, Slayer, System of a Down, Metallica, and Rage Against the Machine. He’s worked with pop artists like Shakira, Adele, Sheryl Crow, Lana Del Rey, and Lady Gaga. He’s also been credited with helping to popularize hip-hop with artists like LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Eminem, Jay-Z, and Kanye West. Believe it or not, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why?
The book I’ve gifted most is Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching: ancient Taoist wisdom applicable to anything. It can be read at different times in your life, and every time it’s revisited, it takes on entirely new meanings.
The wisdom in it is timeless: how to be a good leader, a good person, a good parent, a good artist—how to be good at anything. It’s a beautiful read that awakens aspects of the brain in a really nice way.
Another one is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are. It’s a wonderful book from 1994. The beauty of it is that it can spark the desire in a nonmeditator to take up the practice. [At the same time] you could be a lifelong meditator, read it, and still learn a tremendous amount. Thinking about it now inspires me to read it again.
A third book is Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution. I continue to give it to friends because it really helped me know what was healthy to eat and how our bodies process different foods. There is a plethora of misinformation on diet out there. I became vegan for two decades because of that information. This book makes it easy to make good choices by teaching the dangers of so many foods that are widely available and often touted as healthy. It’s very clear and fun to read, and my experience is that it inspires a healthy life.
What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
The Nasaline nasal irrigator. It’s a big plastic syringe, like a turkey baster. It gets filled with saline solution. I usually use it in the tub or shower. You squirt water up one nostril and it comes out the other nostril, and then repeat back and forth. Typically, you use one cup of water and one spoon of this solution, but I do two cups. It not only clears out all the mucus, but if you do it every day, or a couple of times a day, it shrinks the inner lining of your sinuses so that you have more space and a better capacity to breathe.
I used to have trouble flying and equalizing to counter the pressure changes, and hyperbaric chambers would hurt my ears. But since using this sinus cleaner, I haven’t had those problems.
Warning: If you forget to put in the salt, it’s horribly painful.
Another item, probably a little more than $100, is the HumanCharger. The HumanCharger shoots light in your ears to help alleviate jet lag (other devices shine bright lights into your eyes, which can be uncomfortable and damaging to the eyes). The HumanCharger can also be used for other things like meditation. If you have to be alert for a meeting, appointment, or training session, you can wear it on the way.
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
The first one that comes to mind is this: The first few albums I made were very, very successful. So, based on those early successes and being young, I assumed that’s what happened every time. Then the first time I had an album that was less successful, it was really traumatic.
It took a few more successful albums, and some unsuccessful ones, to understand that the success of a project very often has nothing to do with the quality of a project. Sometimes really good projects fail commercially. And sometimes projects that might not have artistically hit the mark as I would have liked have had great commercial success.
There are so many elements that go into making something successful—all of which are out of your control. You’re in control of making your project the best it can possibly be for you, but you are powerless over most of what happens after that. Even if you do your best in terms of marketing and promotion, you have no control over how people react to it.
Seeing an album that I felt was really good not do well commercially taught me the reality of the ups and the downs of honest work, and that has served me since.
If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere, what would it say?
What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
When I was 14 years old, my neck hurt, and my pediatrician suggested Transcendental Meditation. The time spent meditating since then has been my most worthwhile investment.
Building up that reservoir at an age when time was much freer in my life significantly changed me for the better. It plays a big role in who I am and everything that I do.
Some of the more specific effects it’s had on my life include the ability to focus—to be one-pointed. It’s also a way to get yourself out of the way and see things for what they are, without the narrative that we put on them.
When I was in college, I stopped meditating, then restarted soon after I moved to California. That was the moment when I realized how much of an impact meditation had on me. When I started up again, it was so familiar to me. I was like a plant that didn’t know it needed water, but when watered, just sucks in the nourishment. It felt so right and integral in my life. And it was really luck that I started meditating in the first place.
What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
I’ve been a pro wrestling fan my whole life and continue to be. It’s an absurd performance art, not dissimilar from Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, and Monty Python. It uses the trappings of a sporting event to make a bigger commentary about existence and the human heart.
In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
It’s been a little more than five years, but movement and exercise have most improved my life. I was a sedentary person before that. But then I started standup paddling, weight training, exercising on the beach, pool training, doing sauna and ice contrast training, and having different physical experiences. Prior to all that, I never had any physical experiences. It’s helped me be in my body instead of just in my head. [Note from Tim: Rick has lost more than 100 pounds since his peak weight. He often works out in the same group as Neil Strauss.]
What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore? I would ignore most anything you learn in school and ignore all accepted standards. Free yourself to try anything. The best ideas are revolutionary.
If you’re searching for wisdom, try to find it from people who’ve done it more than from people who teach it. Ask a lot of questions.
In addition, focus on something you love, because you have a far greater chance of succeeding by doing something you love, and regardless of whether you succeed or not, your life will be better. So you can’t really lose by dedicating yourself to what you love.
Also, work tirelessly. I feel very lucky and blessed in my life, and I know this is because I totally submerged myself in what I was doing. I spent my every waking hour, every day, enjoying it when I was doing it and truly living it. In a sense, it wasn’t a job because it was my whole life. In retrospect, I probably missed a lot of life because of it, but that’s the give and take.
As I think about it, that might be what it takes to start something, but not necessarily to sustain it. So when you start something new, it’s okay to do it in an unsustainable way. Once you achieve it, then you can devote your time to figuring out how to sustain it. They’re two different playbooks.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
Anything having to do with commercial success. Anything having to do with testing things, doing polls, or getting public opinion on your work so you can change it. Anything suggesting a safe path and anything suggesting a stable situation, especially in the beginning.
When you start out doing something, you’re likely charting uncharted territory, and it’s good to ask a lot of questions from people in the industry and to learn from them. Remember, though, when people give you advice, they’re giving you advice based on their particular skills, experiences, and perspectives. So know that when you get expert advice, it’s often people telling you about their journey, and every journey is different.
This doesn’t mean to not listen to the wisdom of others, but to really try it on for size and ask yourself, “Does this fit me mentally and physically?” Some people go through abusive situations to get what they think they want and can lose their souls in the process.
Every person who goes on these journeys takes a different path. It’s not, “Well, when you get to the corner, make a left.” In fact, if you’re on the exact same path, something’s wrong. It’s not meant to be the same path. You need to tune in to yourself to know what works for you.
In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to?
I don’t know if I can answer this one. I’m probably not so good at saying no.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?
I try to take a break. I’ll go for a walk or do something to clear my head. It could be doing deep breathing, alternate nostril breathing, meditating, or something physical. I don’t always remember to do these things, but when I do, it really works.
I think probably the most important thing for me to remember when I get overwhelmed is to not feel the need to continue on and push through. It doesn’t necessarily benefit whatever it is I’m working on. It’s almost always better to take a break.