Better Living Through Kanye
What can the megastar teach us about living our best lives?
Kanye West is a lot of things to a lot of people: gadfly, playboy, provocateur, demagogue, genius. To that list, I humbly suggest one more: self-actualization guru. Because in the beautiful swirl that now surrounds his album cycles, there is an implicit lesson on how to Live Our Best Lives waiting to be told. And that lesson is this: Set insane deadlines. Then execute.
At least twice now—with The Life of Pablo and its predecessor, Yeezus—Kanye has created big, beautiful, thorny albums by establishing, and then fulfilling, seemingly-impossible deadlines. Before we’d even had a chance to digest the mass of Yeezus, we learned that it was transformed in the weeks before its release. The gentle spirit of Rick Rubin arrived, and stripped the thing to the bone; lyrics were shot off in a fury, all the better to channel the primal scream at their core. With TLOP, we watched the process play out in real time.
On January 8th, Kanye tweeted out a release date, February 11th, that technically he would hit: that was the day of TLOP’s messy, dramatic reveal at Madison Square Garden. In the weeks between that tweet and the staggered release, we saw tracklists and tracks appear, disappear, shape-shift, and bloom. It was a mad dash to a finish line of Kanye’s own imagining. The tweet was the motivation: if you say it out loud, you have to do it.
From inside, the process appears to have been even more hectic.
“Some people think they’re more creative with crazy deadlines... Most of us are not able to produce artistic gold with this method.” —Laura Vanderkam
Days after TLOP’s release, R&B soldier Kelly Price told The FADER about her experience recording on the sublime “Ultralight Beam": “I did my [demo vocals] and I got it back. [Kanye] listened to it, they were freaking. They loved it … That was on a Tuesday. When he called me back he was like, ‘I’m going to need to you to fly to L.A. on Friday.’ He’s like, ‘OK, someone is going to call you in a couple of hours and get you a flight.’ It literally moved that fast. That was like three weeks ago.”
Andrew Dawson was one of several engineers who worked in shifts, around the clock, on TLOP; in the last few weeks of the process, he told Billboard, recording was going 24 hours a day. Kanye, apparently, did not sleep? “This last month was kind of like a rollercoaster ride where you're blindfolded and you just gotta hold on,” Dawson said.
‘Ye has not really addressed the latter day franticness of his approach (that’s understandable. There’s been a lot of other stuff to address). But in 2008, speaking to The FADER, he bore down on his mission statement: “So many people do good in crunch time. So why not do everything on crunch time?”
At this point, you are perhaps thinking, but that is Kanye West, and I am not Kanye West. And you have a point. Is the “crunch time” mandate actually tenable for us normal people? Can you really set insane deadlines for yourself to spur creativity and productivity? The published common wisdom says oh God no.
In 2002, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile reported early results from a ten-year study on “how time pressure in a corporate setting affects employee creativity.” Over a number of years, a large group of employees were asked to fill out a brief daily diary as they made their way through a creative project. The conclusions were that the best motivations were positive ones like “stimulants to creativity,” “sufficient resources” and “supervisory encouragement.” Overall, “very high levels of time pressure should be avoided if you want to foster creativity on a consistent basis.”
What’s more: “our participants were giving evidence of less creative thinking on time-pressured days, [but] they reported feeling more creative on those days.” In other words, the employees believed that their harsh deadlines were inspiring. And they were wrong.
John Drexel, a professor of psychology at Drexel University, told the Washington Post last year that “having a deadline, which carries with it the implicit threat of a negative consequence if you don’t meet it, can create anxiety and shift your cognitive strategy into a more analytical mode of thought.”
Richard Boyatzis, a cognitive science professor at Case Western Reserve University, said much the same to the Wall Street Journal in 2014: “The research shows us that the more stressful a deadline is, the less open you are to other ways of approaching the problem. The very moments when in organizations we want people to think outside the box, they can't even see the box.”
I reached out to Boyatzis, and ran my pet theory of everyday Kanyeism by him on email. He politely explained that he didn’t have time to respond, as he was currently on his way to Germany. But he did have time to effectively subtweet my man: in a postscript to his email, he added, “Sometimes, people who have little self discipline cannot plan and use deadlines as a catalyst for action.”
And I thought—Professor Boyatzis, you actually get it.
Because that’s what this is about: a catalyst to action for us undisciplined people. One might imagine Kanye as a man with too many ideas. One might imagine deadlines as an arbitrary marker to pin down all those thoughts pinging around. And one might see how one might apply that same strategy to one’s own life.
Laura Vanderkam writes the kind of self-actualization guides you may have, at one point or another, scoffed at. They have silly titles—What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast; I Know How She Does It—and they make grandiose promises of unlocking hidden potential. You may have also been secretly intrigued by this particular part of the bookstore. Do I have secret potential?! Can I unlock it?!!
“I think the key distinction here is whether the deadlines are self-imposed,” Vanderkam told me over email. “There is evidence that crazy deadlines imposed by, say, a boss are often counter-productive. People become laser-focused on meeting the deadline but in the process miss creative solutions. If it’s your own deadline, though, and you are in charge of the process, the fear is likely missing, and it’s fear that crowds out creativity.”
Vanderkam argues that “some people think they’re more creative with crazy deadlines” because “they suffer from perfectionism ... A tight deadline forces focus. [And] you get something down, improve it, iterate and go for it. Done is always better than perfect, because perfect doesn’t exist. Things have to be out of your head and on paper (or recorded) for you to decide what works and what doesn’t.”
She pointed me to something called National Novel Writing Month. It’s a cutesy challenge: participants are tasked with writing 50,000 words in November alone. Vanderkam herself has taken part the last two years running. “That said, most novels that come out of NaNoWriMo are a lot less good than Kanye West albums,” she adds. “Most of us are not able to produce artistic gold with this method.”
Vanderkam is right on that. But for those of us who suffer from our lack of execution—who dream of one day doing more—there are lessons to be gleaned from the method. In the Yeezian model, it creates epochal records. In our hands, maybe it leads to a crap—but completed!—novel. Practically speaking, it’s about insanely hard work: recalling finishing Yeezus in that crunch time, Rick Rubin says, “we ended up working probably 15 days, 16 days, long hours, no days off, 15 hours a day. I was panicked the whole time.” On a grander scale, it’s a dream: force yourself into crunchtime, and be sent off on some kind of ultralight beam.
In that same 2008 interview with The FADER, Kanye sketched out some of the results of his philosophy. He said he’d re-done the European leg of his Glow In The Dark tour in three weeks. He said there’d be days he’d be in the studio in Hawaii working on 808s & Heartbreak where he'd show up and shout at his gathered mercenaries, “We're gonna finish the fucking album today.”
He went on: “People are always like, I got time; the label had my release date in February. But why? I'm like, No, push my release date up to the closest possible thing, and if you tell me we have to have this shit mastered by next week, I will get it done. Cause I have to get it done, and it is what it is.”
Social science doesn’t seem to believe in the affects of the Yeezian Deadline. But actual self-actualization guru Laura Vanderkam does. And so do I, and so does Rick Rubin, and so does, of course, Yeezy himself. And so maybe social science just hasn’t yet caught up to the teachings of Kanye West.