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Six Tools for Shaping a Creative Life from Questlove

"To this day, I love that book — I probably have 50 blank copies of it in storage."

In an interview with the New York Times, the multi-talented author and musician, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, was asked about his favorite childhood book. His answer was, "Dr. Seuss’ My Book About Me". He's got fifty copies to prove it. (Read about it here.) As a fellow children's book enthusiast, his intense attraction had my attention. There are a few works of children's literature that I have also deemed worthy of multiple purchases.

The Times interview compelled me to read Creative Quest, Questlove's deep dive into the emergence and sustenance of his own creative journey. As Annie Dillard writes, "How we spend our days is how we spend our lives". Questlove has spent his life immersed in possibilities. His writing style makes you feel like you've taken a seat for a personal conversation. You will be inspired to spend your days in the "perfectly imperfect process of creating".

The book is dedicated to his father:

"To my father, my first mentor. Thank you for teaching me how to be creative, how to be focused, how to be resilient - how to be."


As we live, we are constantly faced with making choices about how to spend our time. The author's advice about the creative process is transferable to methods for shaping your own best days. I have long been intrigued by the mystery behind his enigmatic smile. Watching him in his lead spot of The Tonight Show's band pit; his subtle, cool demeanor reveals at once a sense of indifference and a deep assessment of what's going on around him. He says:

"You have to be both entirely consumed by the moment and also a million miles away."

Like many creative people, Questlove leads in several spots. He is the long-time DJ and front man for The Roots, three-time author, professor, producer and more. (Check out his Wiki page, which he says he obsesses over.) Wherever he leads, he uses tools available to any person who wants to take charge of his or her life and live it fully.

Six Tools for Shaping a Creative Life . . .

1. Surround Yourself With a Diverse Tribe

"If you're feeling like things aren't going anywhere, hang out with people from different disciplines."

Questlove's unique perspective on creativity began its development in a childhood filled with music. His mother and father sang in the doo-wop group, "Lee Andrews and the Hearts". He toured with them, becoming their drummer at age 13 when the former drummer got injured just before a pressing gig at Radio City Music Hall. Under his father's mentorship, music soaked into his soul along with a love for the creative process. His childhood experiences helped him see possibilities and create opportunities. Throughout his life he has continued to search out and surround himself with a creative tribe made up of people from various genres who help him do the same.

As we get older we tend to gravitate toward people of our own age and thinking. Form your own intergenerational, diverse tribe for fresh perspectives.

2. Keep a Beginners' Mind

"That's one thing about being creative. Don't be too set in your own ways. Be suggestible from time to time."

In spite of all of his pursuits and successes, Questlove still questions whether he is creative. The tension of "not knowing" keeps him in the best seat, the beginners seat. He remains an explorer. Stay curious and willing to be surprised. When you think you know it all, you can get stuck in unproductive thinking.

3. Spend Time in Silence

"Dare I hesitate to say that creativity might be in jeopardy because one of the key components of being creative is boredom and silence and isolation."

To stoke his creative energy, Questlove devotes thirty minutes a day to meditation. He also considers micro-meditations to be a powerful tool - taking a short step back from a situation. He calls it his Jedi mind trick. It's essential to make a daily time for reflection - take a pulse of the quality of your days. Awareness creates discernment for the next right step.

4. Reduce, Reuse, Recyle

"That's another thing that creative is - taking the existing world and making something new from it."

Like in Austin Kleon's, Steal Like an Artist, Questlove encourages you to study, learn and put your own spin on great works by others. For his book on food, he visited chefs all over the world to understand their thought processes. He encourages us to look back through our own life and find ways to rework previous efforts.

5. Fail and Learn

“I cry over record reviews and have done horrible projects. It’s important to let people know.”

A lifetime of creative pursuits is sure to have some misses. We are not always going to get it right. There are days we waste time on unproductive, even harmful pursuits. Questlove is quick to admit that he has had a few failures - some on grand levels.

Watch his interview with Jimmy Fallon about the night President Obamba almost made him quit DJ-ing.

He got the call for the gig of a lifetime - DJ for a White House party. Many hours were spent curating a masterpiece music playlist for the event. It was an artistic expression of his lifelong collection and knowledge of songs and their power to excite, instill intrigue and set a pace for the crowd. Yet, mid-party the president came up to his DJ booth, asked him to change what he created and do something different. Instead of quitting, Questlove says the whole experience changed the way he makes music for a new generation.

Imagine having curated from your vast collection of experiences and deep wisdom what you considered to be a representation of your best talents - only to have it criticized and dismissed. Perhaps you have had the experience of carefully preparing project for a volunteer role you assumed or organizing a family, church, community or neighborhood function. Then, for some reason, something happens. Everything goes sideways and turns into a failure. Questlove says; "failure is liberation".

Try another way.

6. Make Things

"All the advice in the world won't help if you don't get out there and start the perfectly imperfect process of creating."

This final advice from the author holds the perfect parting words.

Go on, do your best life!

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