“Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying.”
Steal Like an Artist Short Summary
One of my favorites books about creativity in the digital age. In Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon argues that nothing is original and all artists steal. By embracing your influences, you’ll become a master of your craft by learning from your heroes.
1. Steal Like an Artist
“Art is theft.”—Pablo Picasso
All artists steal. First, they figure out what’s worth stealing, then they move on to the next thing.
When you look at the world this way, you stop worrying about what’s “good” or “bad”—there’s only stuff worth or not worth stealing.
You stop trying to make something out of nothing, and embrace influence instead of running away from it.
Good artists know nothing is original. All creative work builds on what came before. Every new idea is a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas.
You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with. So your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.
The artist is a selective collector of the things they love. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.
How to study your craft:
- Chew on one thinker you really love. Study everything there is to know about that thinker
- Then find three people that thinker loved, and find out everything about them
Repeat as many times as you can. Climb up the tree as far as you can go. Once you build your tree, it’s time to start your own branch.
Always have a notebook and a pen with you wherever you go. Get used to jotting down your thoughts and observations.
Keep a swipe file. If you see something worth stealing, put it in the swipe file. Use it when you need inspiration.
2. Don’t Wait Until You Know Who You Are to Get Started
It’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are. You’re ready. Start making stuff.
It’s natural to be scared to start—to feel “impostor syndrome.” Every creative knows this feeling. They don’t know where the good stuff comes from. They just show up to do their thing. Every day.
Nobody is born with a style or a voice. In the beginning, we learn by copying from our heroes.
Don’t just steal from one of your heroes. Steal from all of them.
“If you steal from one author it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many it’s research.“—Wilson Mizner
Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. It’s not about looking like your heroes but instead seeing like your heroes. You want to internalize their way of looking at the world.
At some point, you’ll have to move from imitating your heroes to emulating them. Imitation is about copying. Emulation is when imitation goes one step further, breaking through into your own thing.
Copy your heroes. Examine where you fall short. What’s in there that makes you different? That’s what you should amplify and transform into your own work.
Transforming the work of your heroes into something of your own is how you flatter them. Adding something to the world that only you can add.
3. Write the Book You Want to Read
Don’t write what you know, write what you like. Write the story you want to read.
Whenever you’re at a loss for what move to make next, just ask yourself, “What would make a better story?”
Think about your favorite work and your creative heroes. What did they miss? What didn’t they make? And what could’ve been made better? If they were still alive, what would they be making today? If all your favorite makers got together and collaborated, what would they make with you leading the crew? Go make that stuff.
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.
4. Use Your Hands
“We don’t know where we get our ideas from. What we do know is that we do not get them from our laptops.” —John Cleese
Your hands are the original digital devices. Use them. Find a way to bring your body into your work.
The computer is really good for editing your ideas and publishing them into the world. But it’s not really good for generating ideas. There are too many opportunities to hit the delete key. The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us—we start editing ideas before we have them.
A solution for this might be to have two desks in your office—one for “analog” and one for “digital.”
5. Side Projects and Hobbies Are Important
“The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.” —Jessica Hische
It’s the side projects—the stuff that you thought was just messing around— that really take off.
It’s good to have a lot of projects going at once so you can bounce between them. When you get sick of one project, move over to another, and when you’re sick of that one, move back to the project you left. Practice productive procrastination.
If you have two or three real passions, don’t feel like you have to pick and choose between them. Don’t discard. Keep all your passions in your life.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.”—Steve Jobs
It’s important to have a hobby, something creative that’s just for you. You do it because it makes you happy. Something that gives but doesn’t take.
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.
6. The Secret: Do Good Work and Share It with People
When you’re unknown, there’s no pressure. You can do what you want. Experiment. Do things just for the fun of it.
You’ll never get that freedom back again once people start paying you attention, and especially not once they start paying you money. Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts. Use it.
To become known:
- Do good work. Make stuff every day. Know you’re going to suck for a while. Fail. Get better.
- Share it with people. Put your stuff on the Internet.
The more open you are about sharing your passions, the closer people will feel to your work.
People love it when you give your secrets away, and sometimes, if you’re smart about it, they’ll reward you by buying the things you’re selling.
When you open up your process and invite people in, you learn.
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 the stuff that you thought was just messing around, a birthing center for developing work that you haven’t started yet.
You don’t need to share everything—in fact, sometimes it’s much better if you don’t. Show just a little bit of what you’re working on.
7. Geography Is No Longer Our Master
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 time—a place to work, and some time to do it; a little self-imposed solitude and temporary captivity.
Your brain gets too comfortable in your everyday surroundings. You need to make it uncomfortable. Spend some time in another land, among people that do things differently than you. Travel makes the world look new, and when the world looks new, our brains work harder.
Find a place that feeds you—creatively, socially, spiritually, and literally. Even if you set up a new home, you need to leave it now and then. And at some point, you might need to just move on. The good news is that nowadays, a lot of your peers are right where you left them—on the Internet.
8. Be Nice (The World Is a Small Town)
Be nice. This golden rule is even more golden in our hyperconnected world.
You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with. Follow the people who are way smarter and better than you, the people who are doing the really interesting work. Pay attention to what they’re talking about, what they’re doing, what they’re linking to.
“Find the most talented person in the room, and if it’s not you, go stand next to him. Hang out with him. Try to be helpful.”—Harold Ramis
If you’re the most talented person in the room, find another room.
Write public fan letters. Make something and dedicate it to your hero. Show your appreciation without expecting anything in return, and that you get new work out of the appreciation.
Validation is for parking. Don’t look for validation from external sources. Once you put your work into the world, you have no control over the way people will react to it. Ironically, really good work often appears to be effortless.
Get comfortable with being misunderstood, disparaged, or ignored—the trick is to be too busy doing your work to care.
When someone says something nice about your work, put it in a special folder—a praise file. Use it when you need the lift. And then get back to work.
9. Be Boring (It’s the Only Way to Get Work Done)
“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”—Gustave Flaubert
Amassing a body of work or building a career is a lot about the slow accumulation of little bits of effort over time. One page a day is not much. But do it for 365 days and you have enough to fill a novel.
To stick to your daily routine, use Jerry Seinfeld’s calendar method (I wrote about it here):
- Get a wall calendar that shows you the whole year
- Break your work into daily chunks
- Each day, when you’re finished with your work, make a big fat X in the day’s box
After a few days, you’ll have a chain. Keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain. Your only job next is to not break the chain.
To chart past events, use a logbook. List the things you do every day (I like to do interstitial journaling). This daily record is helpful as the small details will help you remember the big details. You keep track of how far you’ve traveled.
For cheerful introspection, ask yourself every day: “What’s the best thing that happened today?“ (instead of “What happened today?”).
10. Creativity Is Subtraction
In this 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. Derek Sivers—one of my heroes—talks about subtraction here.
To get over creative blocks, place some constraints on yourself. When it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom.
Make things with the time, space, and materials you have, right now. The right constraints can lead to your very best work.
Dr. Seuss wrote “The Cat in the Hat” with only 236 different words, so his editor bet him he couldn’t write a book with only 50 different words. Dr. Seuss came back and won the bet with Green Eggs and Ham, one of the bestselling children’s books of all time.
It’s often what an artist chooses to leave out that makes the art interesting. What isn’t shown versus what is.
You must embrace your limitations and keep moving. In the end, creativity isn’t just the things we choose to put in, it’s the things we choose to leave out. Choose wisely. And have fun.