The Art of Suspending Disbelief

The templates of the past can be an inspiration in the beginning phases, but it’s helpful to think beyond what’s been done before. The world isn’t waiting for more of the same. – Rick Rubin

Legendary recording producer, Rick Rubin’s new book, The Creative Act: A Way of Being, is an inspiring and remarkably simple, yet powerful guide to living a creative, fulfilling life. In a world in which we are overwhelmed by data, Rubin, much as he does in his production work, strips back the noise around us to provide insightful perspectives on ways of being that can be applied more broadly to organisational and personal contexts. His most illuminating insights ultimately concern themselves with the art of listening and developing a mindset of being open to new possibilities and ways of thinking and doing: the need to allow ideas to flourish before prematurely rejecting them.

In his groundbreaking production work with Johnny Cash, Rubin reinvented the singer through an insistence on the essence of voice and meaning over traditional production values. In the American Recordings sessions, you don’t just hear the unadorned voice of Cash, you hear the fragility of life itself. In a similar vein here, Rubin’s thesis suggests that we need to open our minds to possibilities in a manner that was once our default: ​​”As children, we experience much less interference between receiving ideas and internalising them. We accept new information with delight instead of making comparisons to what we already believe; we live in the moment rather than worrying about future consequences; we are spontaneous more than analytical; we are curious, not jaded.”

Rubin invites us to consciously work to filter the overwhelming data that surrounds us in order to create meaning and to uncover creative possibilities that we might otherwise miss or prematurely dismiss. “Because there’s an endless amount of data available to us and we have a limited bandwidth to conserve, we might consider carefully curating the quality of what we allow in.” The author suggests we need to step back and take the time to truly appreciate the essence of nature and the creative world that surrounds us. It is difficult to argue with his recommendations. “Pay particular attention to the moments that take your breath away—a beautiful sunset, an unusual eye colour, a moving piece of music, the elegant design of a complex machine…. Read the finest literature, watch the masterpieces of cinema, get up close to the most influential paintings, visit architectural landmarks.”

This fundamental wisdom presents potential implications for the development of school culture. While it might not always be possible to create learning experiences that take a student’s breath away, our motivation and practices should surely seek to engage students at a level that is meaningful, inspiring, and relevant to them. When we think of learners today, educators should be drawn to Rubin’s belief that we need “to think beyond what’s been done before … [because] the world isn’t waiting for more of the same.” And yet schools are, all too often, obsessed with more of the same. The alternative – and the thing that sustains and enhances all aspects of life – is a creative way of being. To achieve this, the most critical disposition required is a willingness to step back from what has gone before, what we have experienced ourselves, our personal biases, and to listen to new possibilities and perspectives. “If we can go beyond our reflexive response, we may find there is something more beneath that resonates with us or helps our understanding. The new information might reinforce an idea, slightly alter it, or completely reverse it. Listening without prejudice is how we grow and learn as people. . . Listening … is not just awareness. It’s freedom from accepted limitations.”

Fiction and great literature, we are told, requires “a willing suspension of disbelief”. The same might be said of the creativity it inevitably takes to prepare learners for an unknown future. Certainty is the enemy of possibility. In every space that learning takes place, Rubin’s perspective should be embraced. “Formulating an opinion is not listening. Neither is preparing a response, or defending our position or attacking another’s. To listen impatiently is to hear nothing at all. Listening is suspending disbelief.” The world isn’t waiting for more of the same.

Rubin, Rick. The Creative Act: A Way of Being. Penguin, 2023