23 lessons from The Beatles on the creative process

This week I watched a 7+ hour documentary on The Beatles that was recently released, and kept finding little lessons for writers and artists on the creative process and marketing. Below are 23 lessons that I think will address a lot of common challenges that people face when not only creating, but considering how to balance marketing into the mix. The documentary covers a one-month period when The Beatles were recording much of their final two albums. In case you need a refresher, there are four members of The Beatles which I will be referring to by name:


Okay, let’s dig in…

Sometimes we feel left out of the creative process because we don’t show up all the way.
During these sessions, there is a point where George quits the band. He clearly feels at odds with the process the group is taking with the new album. But the thing is, before this happened, the documentary shows us that he mentions that he has all these new songs he’s written, but he doesn’t want to share them because he worries that these sessions won’t do them justice. The lesson for creators here is that if you want to feel a part of something — perhaps it is a certain community of writers, or a social media platform — you have to show up all the way. You have to be open to sharing part of who you are, and connect with others with a sense of empathy.

Creativity can be a mess. Consistency solves for that.
The recording session starts out with tensions and diverging ideas. But then something really, well, ordinary happens. The group just keeps showing up every day. Sure, there are some pivot points, such as George quitting and returning, and later a change of venue. But the songs started coming together because the group just kept showing up. Then, small moments of connection turned into powerful songs. The lesson for creators is that if you feel like your creative process is a mess, or if you keep missing the goals you set out for, keep trying. Try small tweaks to approach your creative work in a new way.

You don’t need to work in isolation.
In watching the documentary, I was surprised by how many other people are constantly in the shot. Not just the film crew, but spouses, kids, friends, business partners, staff, and so much more. At times, it feels like random people I had never heard of are influencing the music. The recording engineer basically arranges parts of Let It Be in a super casual way. At other times, their assistant is helping to decide specific lyrics in one of Paul’s songs. The lesson for creators is that oftentimes we feel that our work needs to happen in isolation, and that any outside influence corrupts “the purity of the creative process.” But the film shows that creativity can be amplified when others are involved.

Even legendary artists have impostor’s syndrome.
It was amazing to watch George describe Eric Clapton’s guitar playing again and again as being something much better than George himself could do. It wasn’t just “Eric is great.” It was often in the context of “I can’t do what we need, I’m not good enough. We need someone like Eric.” The lesson for creators is that if you ever feel like you can’t do your work as good as someone else, don’t worry about it. You offer something unique that no one else can. This is part of what I liked about how long the documentary was. These musicians began to seem like just four people in a room, struggling to make things work. Then at one point I see a shot of George with three of his now priceless guitars, just as he is starting to write “Something,” and I remember, “Oh, I am watching music history happen.”

Being in charge can be a very confusing process.
At times I felt like Paul was clearly the leader, holding the band together. But other times, it felt as if he was being far too controlling of the band. Then later, he confides that he has always felt John was the leader. At other times they mention that their former manager who passed away was the de facto leader, and they feel a bit rudderless without him. Throughout the documentary, you can feel the struggle of leadership, with different members taking a different tact with it. The lesson for creators here is that if things ever feel out of control or not optimal in a collaboration, know that this is a common part of the process. Communication and empathy are critical to find common ground and a path forward.

Indecision permeates the creative process.
For days and days, there are discussions, disagreements, and indecision around a major component of their plans: where to play a show after they write these songs. No one agrees for awhile. New ideas come up, old ideas are pushed again and again, other ideas are explored in detail, then abandoned. Here you have four of the most creative minds of their generation, plus a group of trusted advisors and professionals, and a huge budget…. and no one can figure it out. The lesson for creators is that if you ever feel stuck in the creative process, or frustrated that a collaborator hasn’t magically fixed everything perfectly, that this is a normal part of the creative process.

Marketing is a part of being a professional.
Surrounding everything in the documentary are discussions of marketing and business dealings. The first location is a film studio, then a brand new studio that The Beatles built. There are huge film crews and equipment around them. They are making complicated concert plans, and throughout there are discussions about promotion, business dealing, business partners, etc. This all happens not just near to where they are playing, but something while they are playing. There is no hard line between the two. The lesson for creators is that if you want part of your creative life to have professional aspirations, that the two things may overlap very often. That is just the nature of managing two difficult processes: creativity and marketing.

Even the best artists can feel desperate for material.
It was funny to watch John and Paul feeling desperate for material so they could make their deadline. They kept diving into old songs they abandoned years ago because they were already written. They pulled out songs they wrote when they were teenagers, and kept bringing up cover versions of songs. The lesson for creators is to not always feel pressure to have some wild new breakthrough that no one has ever heard before. Embrace the totality of your creative journey, including ideas you may have abandoned long ago. They may still be a source of inspiration and progress.

The creative process can require patience.
It was amazing to watch people try to fill time while The Beatles wrote music. Ringo shows incredible patience waiting for lyrics to be written or others to work out parts of the song. Yoko Ono can be seen reading a newspaper, Linda McCartney taking photos, and there are constantly people milling about. For much of it, you can see John and Paul goofing around to fill the time. It feels very ordinary at many instances. The lesson for creators here is that not every moment needs to feel like you are making huge creative breakthroughs. Work through the boring parts.

Unexpected surprises become part of the genius of creativity.
One day, musician Billy Preston just happened to stop by because he was in town for a few days for a TV show. The band invites him to sit in on the day’s session, and he immediate begins adding these amazing parts on piano to their songs. Quickly, it just becomes assumed that he will be part of the band. At one point they even ask if anyone confirmed with Billy that they want him back each day. Even beyond the music, Billy’s presence totally lifts the spirits of the group. It is a huge shift of joy and appreciation for the creative aspects of music. The lesson for creators is to be open to welcoming others into your process, and be on the lookout for those lucky moments when genius walks in the door.

Even the best artists have stuff littering the cutting room floor.
It was fascinating to hear entire songs in the documentary that I had never heard before, as well as alternate versions. The lesson here is that we like to think that anything we put effort into should find an audience. But not everything can. Some ideas are “good” but not “good enough” to put your maximum effort to publish.

The creative process is emotional.
Early in the sessions, Paul was trying to get everyone organized — he was the cheerleader trying to get it all in order. But once the group hit their stride a week later, Paul sometimes seemed more distant and uncertain. The lesson for creators is that group dynamics can constantly change, and even effect your own emotions in the process. The creative process is a rollercoaster; get on board.

Marketing is mixed with creation.
There is no obvious line between creativity and marketing in how The Beatles are recording these albums. They are surrounded by a huge film crew, photographers, business colleagues, and so many others. The promotional aspects of the sessions are actually what brought them together: to make a film and album. They are shaping their creative process to meet marketing deadlines. At one point George mentions that he hasn’t played this much music in awhile, so it could be viewed as the marketing aspects actually encouraging creativity. Throughout the sessions, they are constantly talking about marketing decisions for where to play a show, what kind of film this will be and so much else. The lesson for creators is that it can be difficult to put a firm line between “creativity” and “marketing,” and that the reality is that sometimes each benefits the other.

Creativity is expensive.
It was funny to hear the recording engineer ask to delete versions of songs they just recorded. This is the kind of stuff that fans would love to hear. But there is a reality of the time that we are reminded of when the engineer says: “You do realize this tape is costing your two schillings a foot.” Here they are in their own recording studio, with their own staff, wealthy and successful, and they are being reminded of the cost of tape for recording their art. But of course, they are investing in their creativity process. The lesson for creators here is that there is often a constant balance between following your creative vision and the finite resources you have to do so.

Creative work is mixed with real life.
At one point in the film, the band is under an immense deadline of finishing 10+ songs within three days, and then perform them live in front of an audience. Yet the next day, Paul’s young daughter shows up, and lots of the footage from that day shows her playing alongside every member of the band. The lesson for creators is that real life is often mixed with creative and business life. These two things don’t have to be viewed as interruptions, but part of the process.

Deadlines can fuel creativity.
There is constant talk of various deadlines throughout the sessions. What was interesting is that they seemed to fuel the creativity of the band. The lesson for creators is that all great art is created with serious boundaries. Embracing them can fuel your work in powerful ways.

Creativity takes time.
The length of the documentary (7+ hours) allows us to watch the creative process unfold. It takes time. But there are other indications of this as George says he has been working on his song “Something” for more than 6 months. While sometimes creativity can “just happen,” oftentimes it is a slow process that we have to choose to show up to.

Everyone may have different creative goals.
There is a discussion near the end, where they are talking about the goals of each individual member of the band for the songs they are recording. George is happy to just make an album, but Paul wants something more. He keeps asking where this is leading. He wants more than an album, something new and exciting. That is paid off later on when they are playing the rooftop concert, and Paul turns around to see the cops arrived. A huge smile comes across his face and he dances. This is the new thing he wanted, the payoff. To be doing something new and dangerous. Whereas George didn’t even want to go on the roof, but he obliged. The lesson for creators is to take the time to talk with your collaborators about what success looks like to them.

Creativity and sharing is filled with uncertainty.
There is loads of uncertainty up until the last minute to doing what became a legendary moment: the rooftop concert. Even when you have teams of people working, when you have mostly agreement, everything can still feel completely up in the air, on a whims notice.

Collaborations are complex.
At one point, George Harrison tells John he wants to record a solo album. He shares that allowing each member to do solo albums would sustain The Beatles long term, because they wouldn’t worry that all of their creative output could only go into the band. John heartily agreed. Yet, they broke up soon after. Within about a year, each member of the band released their own solo album. The lesson for creators is that it can be difficult to plot out a logical strategy that takes into account every individual goal.

The power of art.
The movie ends with the rooftop concert. They are disturbing the peace, and the police are intent on shutting it down. When the officers finally make it up to the roof, they do something surprising: nothing. It’s as if once they see John, Paul, George, and Ringo mid-performance, they are powerless against the art. It’s as thought it is a living force that the police can’t stop. The lesson here: take creative chances. The result may be different than you expect.

The story of creative work is what we make of it.
Years ago a different movie was made from this film footage, and it told a very different story. One of a band coming apart at the seams, not getting along, and on the verge of a breakup. The story was that these “messy” recordings were saved after the band left the studio, when others came in to “save” them by layering in other instruments and with creative mixing. But director of this new documentary found a different story when he looked at the raw film footage: a thriving creative process, full of positivity and deep connections. In other words; if you are telling yourself the narrative that you are failing, you may simply have the wrong story. Change it.

The Ultimate Lesson: Create.
As I watched the documentary, I occasionally felt as though I entered a time machine. I got so immersed into the documentary, that it felt like the present, as thought it was happening right now. But then I would go to Wikipedia and look up some of the people in the movie I was unfamiliar with: the engineer, the assistant, etc. It was weird to flash forward 50 years, and see who was still alive, who passed away, and what filled their life. Many died far too young. It was a great reminder that if you want to create, do it now. Time is marching on.