How to Be Creative — A Masterclass in Creative Work from The Beatles Get Back
Revealing Truths About Creativity and Creatives
The Peter Jackson documentary compiled from the 1969 Beatles’ Get Back sessions is a masterclass in the process of creative work. Many people think good art and creative work is magic, requires some unique, innate talent, and comes out as a finished product due to some lightning bolt of inspiration.
The lightning bolt myth goes something like this:
“Oh, it came to me in a dream, and here it is, complete and beautiful.”
Another myth is that only certain people are creative. This myth goes like this:
“I don’t know how people come up with this stuff. I can’t, I’m just not creative.”
However, what the Beatles show us here busts those myths and shows us that the process of creativity is nearly the opposite. In fact, we learn from watching them work that everyone can be creative (or contribute to the collective creation) and that creating something, anything, more closely follows methods laid out by master creators such as Seth Godin in “The Practice” and Steven Pressfield in “The War of Art” and its sisters “Turning Pro” and “The Artist’s Journey.”
Any documentary, this one included, may appear to be a complete and accurate representation of “what really happened,” but is still a creative interpretation. Peter Jackson had about 60-hours of raw footage to present a vision of what happened, and he selectively included or excluded accordingly.
With that in mind, I think you’ll find my observations relatively immune to his interpretation because I’m focusing on the Beatles’ creative process.
To me, the true beauty of this piece of art is that it shows a group of artists at the top of their game (or maybe just on the downside), doing what they do best and how they do it. You, me, and all of us can learn a boatload about how to be creative from watching them work.
Creativity is Workmanlike, Not Lightning Bolts
Start with ideas, and refine them.
Show up and work on it.
Try different things and experiment.
Jackson shows us two poignant examples in the songs Let It Be and Get Back. Throughout, you hear Paul working earnestly on the bits and pieces — struggling and sweating to turn them into finished products. Each starts as an idea and becomes fully formed through effort and time.
He works on them by himself and with the others.
He’s got an idea, but he knows he’s gotta put in the repetitions to work through it to make it complete — workmanlike, not a lightning bolt.
Creativity Requires Acting Like a Pro
One cannot underestimate the simple act of showing up. You can see a few times throughout the process where John or George don’t show up, and everything grinds to a halt.
Creativity is Often a Combination of Personal and Collaborative Effort
Do your homework.
Solicit ideas from your cohort.
Creative energy can feed off one another. Many times, ideas flesh out and find the right direction through collaboration.
Yes, you’ve gotta do your homework and bring an idea to the table. You bring some ideas to the table, and your colleagues do the same, and then you work through them together.
Watching Paul and John feed off of each other seems natural, engaging, and enjoyable for them. One starts, and the other kicks in. Now we know why many of their hits credit “Lennon and McCartney,” regardless of who initially had the idea.
But we also see what happens when someone doesn’t carry their weight. The project suffers from a lack of ideas by John but propels forward by Paul and George’s ideas. Ringo, a relatively minor cog in the wheels of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting engine, is still bringing ideas, giving feedback, and adding his touch to the collaboration.
Creative Tension is Healthy — Up to a Point
Bring your passion with you.
Passion is critical because it drives the project toward quality.
Individual passions within the collective inevitably result in creative tension. Someone doesn’t get their way.
This creative tension can be healthy and result in exponentially better results. However, if it’s not dealt with in a healthy manner, too much can stop it dead.
You see the tension with George. You can almost feel the mountain of ideas he has in his head just waiting to get out. He tries to work together with Paul on some ideas, as he does with John and Ringo, but then enough is enough.
George becomes exasperated with Paul’s overbearingness, to the point that he quit the band for a few days in the middle of the session. No doubt some insight into why the whole collaborative fell apart in the near future.
Creativity is Often Assembly, Not Innovative Genius
Most creative work doesn’t start as a brilliantly unique and innovative whole.
Many times you arrive at the whole through a process of pedestrian assembly. Take this bit, and put it together with that bit and the other bit. Bang! Now we have something unique and whole.
In some ways, this whole project is about assembly. In tandem with their producer, technicians, and advisors, the group is on an assembly journey. Assembling the parts of the project (the songs) and taking those parts to assemble the whole (the album and rooftop show).
The assembly process is at the very heart of the workmanlike approach to creativity. Start with a bunch of ideas. Refine them. Put some together with others. Test it out. Repeat and keep going.
Shit Goes Sideways — It Will Be Hard
You will feel like quitting.
Do it anyway.
Many times throughout the middle, we see them almost quit the project altogether. Lack of ideas, a dislike of the original plan, and band members quitting (or not showing up) all created doubts and thoughts of “is this worth it?”
But of course, it was.
Sometimes it took Paul’s stubbornness or Ringo’s affability or John and George’s personal rededication to the project. Sometimes it took repetition after repetition. Whatever. They’ve been here before, and they know that the only way through is through.
They lace up the boots and walk on through.
You Don’t Need to Know the Destination to Get Started
Start in a direction, even the wrong one.
Don’t let not knowing the big picture derail your start.
The destination will reveal itself.
The song Get Back, which turned into a political protest song, didn’t start that way. Paul mentions that it’s about nothing when he was first fleshing it out, and he wasn’t sure it needed to be about anything. All he had was the chorus, and he just liked the way the words felt with the music. But as he and John started working out verses, the destination became clear.
This was also true of the entire project.
The original destination and timeline were abandoned because the final destination revealed itself through the work and difficulty of the journey.
There are Roles for a Multitude of Skills
Let others help.
You are creative.
Producers, audio techs, business management, directors, girlfriends — all were involved to some degree in creating this beast.
John, Paul, George, and Ringo were the “talent,” which simply means they were the ones who were good at turning the blank sheet of paper into ideas. They were also the ones who had to perform it.
But the entire project and business of the Beatles required a host of supporting characters. Those four guys did their part, and then they let (actually, encourage) the supporting cast to do theirs.
You may not be good at the blank sheet of paper. You may not be the frontman. But that doesn’t that you aren’t creative or don’t have a role in the project.
Creativity Can Thrive Under a Schedule and Deadline
Finish 13 or 14 album-quality songs and then perform the TV special live.
That was the original plan.
The amazing part to me was that nobody threw up their arms and cried, “Impossible!!” They didn’t because they knew they could do it. They knew that the schedule was a framework, and frameworks can help bound the problem.
In the end, they blew up the schedule, but only by a couple of weeks. However, they didn’t blow it up because the deadline itself was the problem for the creative work.
They blew the schedule due to adhering to some of the lessons seen here and temporarily ignoring others. They started with an idea (the TV special) but then changed course. They collaborated and found a new path. But they also spent time not acting like pros and not committing to the work.
A deadline provides a framework, even if artificial. Sometimes artificial frameworks can help spur progress by eliminating some variables and applying just the right amount of pressure.
How to Be Creative
There it is — a masterclass in how to be creative from one of the most impactful groups of artists in our generation.
- Creativity is workmanlike
- Be a Pro
- Creative work can be a result of personal and collaborative effort
- Creative tension can be both healthy and harmful
- Creativity is often assembly
- It will be hard
- You don’t need to know the destination to get started
- Everyone in the group has a role
- Creativity can thrive under a deadline
Seth Godin and Steven Pressfield have been preaching these principles for years, and reading their works allowed me to see the lessons in this wonderful documentary.
If you’ve already seen Get Back but missed all of these golden nuggets, go ahead and watch it again with a new perspective. It’s well worth another six hours.