25 Takeaways From Austin Kleon’s “Steal Like an Artist”

“Immature poets imitate; mature posts steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of a feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” — T.S. Eliot

My nightstand is currently filled with big, dense books. Even the novel I’m reading is laborious 750+ pages. They’re taunting me into submission.

I needed something shorter. Something to jump start my idea muscle and reignite my creativity outside of the day gig. Thankfully, I found Austin Kleon’s “Steal Like an Artist” — an inspiring guide to creativity in the digital age and a book you can easily consume in one sitting.

10 Transformative Principles to Help You Steal Like an Artist

“These are things I’ve learned over almost a decade of trying to figure out how to make art, but a funny thing happened when I started sharing them with others — I realized that they aren’t just for artists. They’re for everyone.” — Austin Kleon

Steal Like an Artist

1.) Nothing is Original

What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.

Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” — Andrè Gide

2.) The Genealogy of Ideas

You are in, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences.

3.) Garbage in, Garbage Out

The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect things they really love.

Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.

[Side note: This is why I read and review books, study mental models, listen to professional interviews and curate all of the best takeaways from the thousands of articles I read.]

4.) School Yourself

You have to be curious about the world in which you live.

Don’t ask a question before you Google it. You’ll either find a the answer or you’ll come up with a better question.

5.) Save Your Thefts for Later

Carry a notebook and a pen with you wherever you go. Get used to pulling it out and jotting down your thoughts and observations. Copy your favorite passages out of books. Record overheard conversations.

Keep a swipe file. It’s just what it sounds like — a file to keep track of the stuff you’ve swiped from others.

Don’t Wait Until You Know You Are To Get Started

6.) Make Things, Know Thyself

It’s the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are. You are ready. Start making stuff.

7.) Fake it ‘Til You Make It

Ask anybody doing truly creative work, and they’ll tell you the truth: They don’t know where the good stuff comes from. They just show up to do their thing. Every day.

8.) Start Copying

Don’t just steal the style. Steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes. You want to see like your heroes.

Good theft vs. Bad Left

9.) Imitation is Not Flattery

Merely imitating your heroes is not flattering them. Transforming their work into something of your own is how you flatter them. Adding something to the world that only you can add.

Write the Book You Want to Read

10.) Write what you like

The best advice is not to write what you know, it’s to write what you like. Write the kind of story you like best — write the story you want to read.

Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use — do the work you want to see done.

Use Your Hands

11.) Step Away From the Screen

You don’t need a scientific study (of which there are a few) to tell you that sitting on front of a computer all day is killing you, and killing your work. We need to move, to feel like we’re making something with our bodies, not just our heads.

Work that only comes from the head isn’t any good. Watch a great musician play a show. Watch a great leader give a speech. You’ll see what I mean.

The computer is really good for editing your ideas, and it’s really good for getting your ideas ready for publishing out into the world, but it’s not really good for generating ideas.

Side Projects and Hobbies are Important

12.) Practice Productive Procrastination

It’s the side projects that really take off. Stuff that’s just play.

Take time to be bored. One time I heard a coworker say, “When I get busy, I get stupid.” Ain’t that the truth.

[For more on the reasons were’ all so busy, click here.]

13.) Don’t Throw Any of Yourself Away

If you have two or three real passions, don’t feel like you have to pick and choose between them. Don’t discard.

It’s important to have a hobby. A hobby is something creative that’s just for you. You don’t try to make money or get famous off it, you just do it because it makes you happy.

Don’t throw yourself away. Don’t worry about a grand scheme or unified vision for your work. Don’t worry about unity — what unifies your work is the fact that you made it. One day, you’ll look back and it will all make sense.

The Secret: Do Good Work and Share it With People

14.) In the Beginning, Obscurity is Good

You learn that most of the world doesn’t necessarily care about what you think. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. As the writer Steven Pressfield says, “It’s not that people are mean or cruel, they’re just busy.” This is actually a good thing, because you want attention only after you’re doing really good work.

Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts. Use it. You’ll never get that freedom back again once people start paying you attention, and especially not once they start paying you money.

15.) The Not-So-Secret Formula

There’s only one no-so-secret formula for becoming known: Do good work and share it with people.

Step one, “do good work,” is incredibly hard. There are no shortcuts. Make stuff every day. Know you’re going to suck for a while. Fail. Get better. Step two, “share it with people,” was really hard up until about ten years ago or so. Now, it’s very simple: “Put your stuff on the Internet.”

You don’t put yourself online only because you have something to say — you can put yourself online to find something to say. The Internet can be more than just a resting place to publish your finished ideas — it can also be an incubator for ideas that aren’t fully formed, a birthing center for developing work that you haven’t started yet.

Having a container can inspire us to fill it. Whenever I’ve become lost over the years, I just look at my website and ask myself, “What can I fill this with?”

Geography is No Longer Our Master

16.) Build Your Own World

You don’t have to live anywhere other than the place you are to start connecting with the world you want to be in.

In the meantime, if you’re not into the world you live in, you can build your own world around you. Surround yourself with books and objects that you love. Tape things up on the wall. Create your own world.

All you need is a little space and a little time — a place to work, and some time to do it; a little self-imposed solitude and temporary captivity.

17.) Leave Home

Your brain gets too comfortable in your everyday surroundings. You need to make it uncomfortable. Travel makes the world look new, and when the world looks new, our brains work harder.

Be Nice. (The World is a Small Town.)

18.) Stand Next to Talent

You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with. In the digital space, that means following the best people online — the people who are way smarter and better than you.

Here are a few of my favorites:

 

19. “Quit Picking Fights and Go Make Something.”

You’re going to see a lot of stupid stuff out there and you’re going to feel like you need to correct it. But instead of wasting your anger on complaining or lasthing out at people, channel it into your work.

Get angry. But keep your mouth shut and go do your work.

20.) Write Fan Letters

I recommend public fan letters. The Internet is really good for this. Write a blog post about someone’s work that you admire and link it to their site. Make something and dedicate it to your hero. Answer a question they’ve asked, solve a problem for them, or improve on their work and share it online.

[For more, check out ‘How to Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple E-mails.’]

[Better yet, write a letter of gratitude to an important person in your life whom you’ve never properly taken the time to thank and then visit that person to present him or her with the letter.]

21. Keep a Praise File

Life is a lonely business, often filled with discouragement and rejection.  Instead of keeping a rejection file, keep a praise file. Use it sparingly — don’t get lost in the past glory — but keep it around for when you need a lift.

Be Boring. (It’s the Only Way to Get Work Done.)

22. Take Care of Yourself

It takes a lot of energy to be creative. You don’t have that energy if you waste it on other stuff. Eat breakfast. Do some push-ups. Go for long walks. Get plenty of sleep.

Neil Young sang, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” I say it’s better to burn slow and see your grand kids.

23. Keep Your Day Job

A day job gives you money, a connection to the world, and a routine. Freedom from financial stress also means freedom in your art.

“If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do.” – Bill Cunningham (Photographer)

The trick is to find a day job that pays decently enough, doesn’t make you want to vomit, and leaves you with enough energy to make things in your spare time.

24. Marry Well

Who you marry is the most important decision you will ever make. Relationships are hard enough, but it takes a real champion of a person to be married to someone who’s obsessed with a creative pursuit. Lots of times you have to be a maid, a cook, a motivational speaker, a mother, and an editor — all at once.

[Thank you, Alaina, for always putting up with me… and especially when I’m writing these posts instead of hanging out with you.]

Creativity is Subtraction

25. Choose What to Leave Out

In the age of information abundance and overload, those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out, so they can concentrate on what’s really important to them.

Don’t make excuses for not working — make things with the time, space, and materials you have, right now.

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If you’re interested, here are my other book reviews. Apologies for the chronological list. That page has grown significantly and is in desperate need of re-organizing.