The Mind of Bob Dylan: How Creativity Works

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Bob Dylan with fellow musician Joan Baez.

How many lifetimes would it take for someone to be as prolific as Bob Dylan? The man, after all, is a cultural icon that’s never been content to sit back and rest on his laurels.

The legendary musician first made a name for himself during the 1960s, where he becomes the voice of social unrest during that period. Despite his popularity, he was never really a pop artist. He wrote his own songs and infused them with meaning. His unparalleled lyrical abilities landed him a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 (not to mention an earlier Oscar.) After more than 30 albums and at 75 years old, Dylan is still tour and putting out well-received music.

There’s no disputing the fact, whether you’re a diehard fan or just can’t stand his raspy voice, that Dylan is a once in a generation talent. He sets the bar high, but there are ways for you or me to tap into a modicum of the talent Dylan possesses. His never-ending creative process offers some valuable lessons in how to be great.

Yet how much of Dylan’s genius can be attributed to his work ethic and creative process compared to natural ability? The bad news is that learning from Dylan’s personal habits might only take us so far. Research suggests that the brains of people like Dylan could be wired differently than most.

Some research disputes the premise of the creative right hemisphere and logical left hemisphere of the brain. However, it seems the minds of Dylan and other artists are pre-disposed to inspired creativity by the way they brainstorm ideas.

How Bob Dylan Works

Despite Bob Dylan’s creative output, he often made himself elusive both to the press and his fans. While he gives interviews from time to time, Dylan expressed outright disdain to the media and turned increasingly taciturn over the years. Like many artists, Dylan is a tough nut to crack. However, there have been many insights into how Dylan works and overcomes creative lulls.

No Regrets

For starters, Dylan has never been one to dwell on the past. While his songs often express feelings of regret or longing, he doesn’t let previous failures get in the way of what he’s working on. The 1967 documentary on Dylan, appropriately titled Don’t Look Back, delves into his creative process. Director P.A. Pennebaker said, “Dylan gets on with it, he never looks back, he always looks ahead. The artist should be looking ahead and into the unknown.”

That mental toughness is how elite athletes think. They put everything they have in the moment and don’t let past failures or successes get in the way of what they’re doing in the present.

Avoiding Overthinking

Songs often come fairly easily to Dylan, as his prolific discography proves. His best songs — at least the best ones in his opinions — are ones that come particularly quickly. In his own words:

“The best songs to me — my best songs — are songs which were written very quickly. Yeah, very, very quickly. Just about as much time as it takes to write it down is about as long as it takes to write it.”

It’s no coincidence that Dylan’s best work came in moments where he avoided overthinking. He simply wrote what came to his mind. While there are advantages to thinking of all the aspects related to a problem, overthinking has the potential to cripple productivity. Thinking decisively is often more important — especially when Dylan is writing his music.

The Right Side of Dylan’s Mind

While Dylan works hard and knows his craft, he might have a big advantage over his peers — how he uses his brain.

There’s this common belief that some people are more “right-brained,” meaning they use the right side of their brain to foster creativity. The left side of the brain is dedicated to logic (think math and sciences). That theory is at best an oversimplification. At worst, it’s an outright myth.

Even though the theory may be overstated, it’s quite possible that Dylan possesses some advantages when to the right side of his mind. As it turns out, the right side of the brain doesn’t necessarily make someone more creative, but it does lead a person to valuable insights.

Researchers working to isolate brain activity and determine what each part of the brain does found that sudden insight — let’s call it the eureka moment— seems to come from the right side of the brain.

That eureka moment doesn’t just appear out of thin air. Follow-up research showed that both right and left sides of the brain have a part in coming up with a revelation. The left hemisphere starts looking for answers to a puzzle. When that fails, the right side searches for answers in a new way by exploring associations.

This more abstract and less tangible form of searching for answers can be especially useful for writing.  Dylan lets his guard down and simply lets his mind explore words and themes. By doing so he’s letting the right side of his brain bring his works to new and interesting places.

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