Show Your Work! By Austin Kleon: Summary and Lessons

show your work

“Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple.”

Rating: 9/10

Related: Steal Like an Artist, Keep Going, The War of Art, Ignore Everybody, The Practice, The Creative Habit

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Show Your Work! Short Summary

In Show Your Work, Austin Kleon helps artists who hate the idea of self-promotion become findable. Steal Like an Artist was about stealing influence and ideas from other people. Show your work is about how to influence others by letting them steal from you. Highly recommended reading for artists and creative people.

A New Way of Operating

“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”—John Cleese

When I have the privilege of talking to my readers, the most common questions they ask me are about self-promotion.

It’s not enough to be good. In order to be found, you have to be findable. I think there’s an easy way of putting your work out there and making it discoverable while you’re focused on getting really good at what you do.

Almost all of the people I look up to and try to steal from today, regardless of their profession, have built sharing into their routine.

Instead of maintaining absolute secrecy and hoarding their work, they’re open about what they’re working on, and they’re consistently posting bits and pieces of their work, their ideas, and what they’re learning online. Instead of wasting their time “networking,” they’re taking advantage of the network. By generously sharing their ideas and their knowledge, they often gain an audience that they can then leverage when they need it—for fellowship, feedback, or patronage.

A book for people who hate the very idea of self-promotion. An alternative, if you will, to self-promotion. How to think about your work as a never-ending process, how to share your process in a way that attracts people who might be interested in what you do, and how to deal with the ups and downs of putting yourself and your work out in the world.

Or imagine something simpler and just as satisfying: spending the majority of your time, energy, and attention practicing a craft, learning a trade, or running a business, while also allowing for the possibility that your work might attract a group of people who share your interests. All you have to do is show your work.

1. You Don’t Have to Be a Genius

Good work isn’t created in a vacuum but rather a result of a mind connected to other minds. Creatives aren’t genius but part of “scenius”.

Sceniuses: places where people talk about the things they care about. Blogs, social media sites, email groups, discussion boards, forums—are all virtual scenius.

Being an amateur has advantages over the professional:

  • You’re willing to try anything and share the results
  • Because you’re not afraid to make mistakes, you can learn in the open so others can learn from your failures and successes
  • You’re better able to explain difficulties since you recently met them

How to show your work:

  • Think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others
  • Find a scenius, pay attention to what others are sharing, and then start taking note of what they’re not sharing
  • Be on the lookout for voids that you can fill with your own efforts, no matter how bad they are at first

2. Think Process, Not Product

“A lot of people are so used to just seeing the outcome of work. They never see the side of the work you go through to produce the outcome.”—Michael Jackson

Share your journey:

  • This creates a unique bond with your audience. People want to see how the sausage gets made and the person behind the products
  • Most valuable if
    • The products of your work aren’t easily shared
    • If you’re still in the apprentice stage of your work
    • If your process doesn’t necessarily lead to tangible finished products
  • Turn your process into interesting bits of media that you can share

Become a Documentarian:

  • Work journal: write your thoughts down in a notebook, or speak them into an audio recorder
  • Scrapbook: take a lot of photographs of your work at different stages in your process
  • Shoot videos of you working
  • As a reward, you’ll start to see the work you’re doing more clearly and feel like you’re making progress. And when you’re ready to share, you’ll have a surplus of material to choose from.

3. Share Something Small Everyday

The Daily Dispatch: find one little piece of your process that you can share every day.

  • Early-stage: your influences and what’s inspiring you
  • Middle of a project: your methods or share works in progress
  • Completed a project: show the final product, share scraps from the cutting-room floor, or write about what you learned

Don’t worry about being perfect. Get things in front of others and see how they react.

The “So What?” Test: ask this question on everything you share

“Stock and flow”:

  • Flow: the feed, the posts, and the tweets
  • Stock: the durable stuff, what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time

Your stock is best made by collecting, organizing, and expanding upon your flow. Maintain your flow while working on your stock in the background.

With time, you’ll find patterns in your flow that you can turn into stock.

A blog is the ideal machine for turning flow into stock: one little blog post is nothing on its own, but publish a thousand blog posts over a decade, and it turns into your life’s work.

4. Open Up Your Cabinet of Curiosities

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer.”—Ira Glass

Before sharing your own work, you can share your tastes in the work of others:

  • Where do you get your inspiration?
  • What sorts of things do you fill your head with?
  • What sites do you visit on the Internet?
  • Who’s done work that you admire?
  • Who do you steal ideas from?
  • Do you have any heroes?

Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do—sometimes even more than your own work.

Find hidden gems. Search for inspiration in places other people aren’t willing or able to go.

Give credit:

  • Link to the the website of the original creator of the work
  • If you can’t properly credit, don’t share

5. Tell Good Stories

The stories you tell about the work you do have a huge effect on how people feel and what they understand about your work, and how people feel and what they understand about your work effects how they value it.

A simple story structure formula:

  • The initial problem
  • The work done to solve the problem
  • The solution.

If it’s an open-ended story, acknowledge that you’re in the middle of a story and don’t know how it all ends.

A good pitch formula:

  • First act: the past. Where you’ve been—what you want, how you came to want it, and what you’ve done so far to get it
  • Second act: the present. Where you are now in your work and how you’ve worked hard and used up most of your resources
  • Third act: the future. Where you’re going, and how exactly the person you’re pitching can help you get there

6. Teach What You Know

The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others. Take people step-by-step through part of your process. Make people better at something they want to be better at.

Teaching people doesn’t subtract value from what you do, it actually adds to it. When you teach someone how to do your work, you are, in effect, generating more interest in your work. People feel closer to your work because you’re letting them in on what you know.

7. Don’t Turn Into Human Spam

If you want fans, you have to be a fan first. To be accepted by a community, you have to first be a good citizen of that community. If you want to get, you have to give. If you want to be noticed, you have to notice.

Stop worrying about how many people follow you online and start worrying about the quality of people who follow you.

If you want followers, be someone worth following. If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested.

Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff.

8. Learn to Take a Punch

The more people come across your work, the more criticism you’ll face. Learn to take punches. Practice getting hit a lot. The more criticism you take, the more you realize it can’t hurt you.

You can’t control what sort of criticism you receive, but you can control how you react to it. S

If you spend your life avoiding vulnerability, you and your work will never truly connect with other people.

Remember that your work is something you do, not who you are.

“The trick is not caring what EVERYBODY thinks of you and just caring about what the RIGHT people think of you.”—Brian Michael Bendis

Evaluate feedback based on who it came from. You want feedback from people who care about you and what you do. Anybody outside that circle is a troll. Don’t feed them, and they’ll usually go away.

The worst troll is the one that lives in your head. It’s the voice that tells you you’re not good enough, that you suck, and that you’ll never amount to anything.

9. Sell Out

Paul McCartney has said that he and John Lennon used to sit down before a Beatles songwriting session and say, “Now, let’s write a swimming pool.”

Everybody says they want artists to make money, and then when they do, everybody hates them for it.

Beware of selling the things that you love: when people are asked to get out their wallets, you find out how much they really value what you do.

Asking for money in return for your work is a leap you want to take only when you feel confident that you’re putting work out into the world that you think is truly worth something. Don’t be afraid to charge for your work, but put a price on it that you think is fair.

Don’t have anything to sell right now? Collect emails and build a list.

If an opportunity comes along that will allow you to do more of the kind of work you want to do, say Yes. If an opportunity comes along that would mean more money, but less of the kind of work you want to do, say No.

At some point, you have to switch from saying “yes” a lot to saying “no” a lot. Be as generous as you can, but selfish enough to get your work done.

10. Stick Around

The people who get what they’re after are very often the ones who just stick around long enough. It’s very important not to quit prematurely.

“Work is never finished, only abandoned.”—Paul Valéry

A successful or failed project is no guarantee of another success or failure. Whether you’ve just won big or lost big, you still have to face the question “What’s next?”

If you look at artists who’ve managed to achieve lifelong careers, you detect the same pattern: They all have been able to persevere, regardless of success or failure.

Avoid stalling out in your career by never losing momentum. Instead of taking a break in between projects, waiting for feedback, and worrying about what’s next, use the end of one project to light up the next one.

Just do the work that’s in front of you, and when it’s finished, ask yourself what you missed, what you could’ve done better, or what you couldn’t get to, and jump right into the next project.

If you burn out, take a sabbatical. Also take practical sabbaticals—daily, weekly, or monthly breaks where you walk away from our work completely.

When you feel like you’ve learned whatever there is to learn from what you’re doing, it’s time to change course and find something new to learn so that you can move forward.

You can’t be content with mastery; you have to push yourself to become a student again.

When you throw out old work, what you’re really doing is making room for new work. You have to have the courage to get rid of work and rethink things completely.

So don’t think of it as starting over. Think of it as beginning again. Become an amateur again.