AR Rahman on technology, tolerance, and the creative process

Embracing the confusion and constraints in your life might be the way to finding focus and fulfilling work.


AR Rahman
is a world renowned composer, winner of two Academy Awards, two Grammy awards, and numerous regional and national awards in India. In June 2015, he visited San Jose on ‘The Intimate Concert Tour” and participated in a fireside chat at Google. In this conversation, Rahman talks about the experiences and influences that shaped his work; from the use of technology, dealing with confusion, and the need for tolerance in the world, all tying together to present a few ideals we can all aspire to live by.

My philosophy about using technology is you have to master them. It needs to work for you. (14:15)

There’s a blurry line that separates use and abuse of technology and most of us tend to be on the wrong side of this line. We are ruthlessly efficient with our tasks but rarely take the time to consider if the work was necessary at all (one reason why we’re busy all the time!). These same principles cut across to our use of gadgets, apps, and other technological innovations; we use them not to solve a problem, but simply because they are available. Instead of using technology to enrich our lives, we let it encroach our lives; we become slaves.

If you’re half heartedly doing something and you don’t give it enough time, it’s not worth it. But if you don’t even think about sustenance and become a master, people will come after you. (16:00)

In making the statement above, Rahman alludes to two pervasive maladies of modern society; a failure to be present in the moment and impatience. We want every minute of every day to be interesting. And when it is not, we start questioning the merits of the relevant external forces; our families, friends, colleagues, organizations, the task at hand, the weather, never considering that (our) lack of attention might be the biggest contributor to this disconnect.

There is no line of work that can guarantee every minute to be exhilarating. That simply does not exist. The same is true for everyday life. These experiences suggest the want, need even, for a feeling of accomplishment but without doing any of the work; like being a writer without actually writing.

Boredom and tedium are required parts of the creative process. Boredom is not a sign that there is nothing interesting going on in our lives; it is a sign that we are not paying attention. So when work, or life, gets tough or boring, we should consider this a sign to start paying more attention. The difference between those who in excel in life and those who meander through it is the quality and duration of their attention.

If we are more patient, more open and non-judgmental, the world will be a better place. (17:30)

In the introduction, the interviewer describes Rahman as a deep humanist. In response to a question about what he would ask of his fans to make the world a better place, he asks simply for tolerance. This was fantastic for its timeliness and simplicity. And, it can be put to use immediately by anyone. Sadly, the comment and the examples he quotes also echo the senselessness of the “have keyboard, will type” attitude of most media consumers. A moment of reflection before that angry response to the news article, YouTube video, Amazon review, or Facebook post could save so much time and energy. Before we invest ourselves (the moment we make a statement we become invested) in an online debate we should ask if it is really necessary. Have we understood everything that is being discussed? Are we adding any value to the creator or the conversation? Are we presenting a new perspective on the topic?  If we add a few checkpoints to our interactions, online and in-person, the world will indeed become a much better (at least, calmer) place.

I was really confused. (21:00)

Most of us have the impression that those who have made it (insert your definition here), always knew where they were headed. Connecting the dots is easier looking back. But even those who go on to become great had to grapple with confusion and insecurity. Understanding that the confusion is a normal and essential part of development will keep us sane when things get tough. These confusions arise from the conflicts between our ideals and expectations of the real world. Instead of feeling paralyzed, allow your inner voice to guide you; another nod to paying attention to the moment.

There’s no other job I knew. (21:28)

Midway through the interview Rahman jokingly mentions he remained a musician because he had no other skills. Basically, he had no choice. This seeming disadvantage, which turns out to be a great advantage, is prevalent amongst self-made men and women; they knew one thing and kept working at it until they reached their goals.

 If we’re not deliberate about when to be selective, choices can be numbing and force us to spend more time evaluating decisions; time that could have used to make progress. When used judiciously constraints allow us to stay focused and get stuff done. It certainly worked for Rahman. Don’t have any natural constraints in your work/life? Introduce a few yourself. If you abide by your rules, you will notice increased levels of creativity in solving problems.

For another perspective on leading an interesting life read Paul Graham’s ‘How To Do What You Love.’