Keep Going by Austin Kleon: Summary and Notes

keep going“Creativity is about connections, and connections are not made by siloing everything off into its own space. New ideas are formed by interesting juxtapositions, and interesting juxtapositions happen when things are out of place.”

Rating: 8/10

Related: Steal Like an Artist, Show Your Work, The War of Art, Ignore Everybody, The Practice, The Creative Habit

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Keep Going Short Summary

The work of a creative person is never finished. Instead of having a finish line, it’s more like a loop, in which you keep coming back to a new starting point after every project. In Keep Going, Austin Kleon writes about designing a system to be creative every day and keep moving on to the next project, regardless of success or failure.

1. Every Day is Ground Hog Day

The creative life is not linear. It’s more like a loop, or a spiral, in which you keep coming back to a new starting point after every project. No matter how successful you get, no matter what level of achievement you reach, you will never really “arrive.” Other than death, there is no finish line or retirement for the creative person.

The best thing you can do if you want to make art is to pretend you’re starring in your own remake of Groundhog Day: Yesterday’s over, tomorrow may never come, there’s just today and what you can do with it.

A daily routine will get you through the day and help you make the most of it.

There is no perfect, universal routine for creative work. To establish your own routine, you have to spend some time observing your days and your moods:

  • Where are the free spaces in your schedule?
  • What could you cut out of your day to make time?
  • Are you an early riser or a night owl?
  • Are there silly rituals or superstitions that get you in a creative mood?

Rather than restricting your freedom, a routine gives you freedom by protecting you from the ups and downs of life and helping you take advantage of your limited time, energy, and talent. A routine establishes good habits that can lead to your best work.

Before you go to bed, make a list of anything you did accomplish, and write down a list of what you want to get done tomorrow. Then forget about it.

2. Build a Bliss Station

Creativity is about connection—you must be connected to others in order to be inspired and share your own work—but it is also about disconnection. You must retreat from the world long enough to think, practice your art, and bring forth something worth sharing with others.

Build a “bliss station”, a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. A bliss station can be not just a where, but also a when. Not just a sacred space, but also a sacred time.

You don’t need to be on a plane to practice airplane mode: Pop in some cheap earplugs and switch your phone or tablet to airplane mode, and you can transform any mundane commute or stretch of captive time into an opportunity to reconnect with yourself and your work. Airplane mode is not just a setting on your phone: it can be a whole way of life.

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes—including you.”—Anne Lamott

In order to protect your sacred space and time, you have to learn how to decline all sorts of invitations from the world. You must learn how to say “no.”

It helps if you can have a “no thanks” email template handy. Thank the sender for thinking of you, decline, and, if you can, offer another form of support.

3. Forget the Noun, Do the Verb

Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work. Let go of the thing that you’re trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb). Doing the verb will take you someplace further and far more interesting.

Play is the work of the child and it is also the work of the artist.

Great artists are able to retain this sense of playfulness throughout their careers. Art and the artist both suffer most when the artist gets too heavy, too focused on results.

There are some tricks to staying light and getting back to that childlike play state.

If you’ve lost your playfulness, practice for practice’s sake:

  • Musicians can jam without making a recording
  • Writers and artists can type or draw out a page and throw it away
  • Photographers can take photos and immediately delete them

Nothing makes play more fun than some new toys. Seek out unfamiliar tools and materials. Find something new to fiddle with. Another trick: When nothing’s fun anymore, try to make the worst thing you can.

Making intentionally bad art is a ton of fun.

4. Make Gifts

One of the easiest ways to hate something you love is to turn it into your job: taking the thing that keeps you alive spiritually and turning it into the thing that keeps you alive literally.

When you start making a living from your work, resist the urge to monetize every single bit of your creative practice. Be sure there’s at least a tiny part of you that’s off-limits to the marketplace. Some little piece that you keep for yourself.

And remember: if you want maximum artistic freedom, keep your overhead low. A free creative life is not about living within your means, it’s about living below your means.

“Do what you love” + low overhead = a good life

If you share work online, try to ignore the numbers at least every once in a while. Increase the time between your sharing and receiving feedback.

When you ignore quantitative measurements for a bit, you can get back to qualitative measurements. Is it good? Really good? Do you like it? You can also focus more on what the work does that can’t be measured. What it does to your soul.

When you feel as though you’ve lost or you’re losing your gift, the quickest way to recover is to step outside the marketplace and make gifts.

Try it: If you’re bummed out and hating your work, pick somebody special in your life and make something for them. If you have a big audience, make them something special and give it away. Or maybe even better: Volunteer your time and teach someone else how to make what you make and do what you do.

Making gifts puts us in touch with our gifts.

5. The Ordinary + Extra Attention = The Extraordinary

The first step toward transforming your life into art is to start paying more attention to it.

When your job is to see things other people don’t, you have to slow down enough that you can actually look.

Your attention is one of the most valuable things you possess, which is why everyone wants to steal it from you. First you must protect it, and then you must point it in the right direction.

If art begins with where we point our attention, a life is made out of paying attention to what we pay attention to. Set up a regular time to pay attention to what you’ve paid attention to. Reread your diary. Flip back through your sketchbook.

When you have a system for going back through your work, you can better see the bigger picture of what you’ve been up to, and what you should do next.

6. Slay the Monsters

Art is supposed to make our lives better.

If making your art is ruining anyone’s life, including your own, it is not worth making.

If making your art is adding net misery to the world, walk away and do something else.

The world doesn’t necessarily need more great artists. It needs more decent human beings. Art is for life, not the other way around.

7. You Are Allowed to Change Your Mind

Hope is not about knowing how things will turn out—it is moving forward in the face of uncertainty.

To have hope, you must acknowledge that you don’t know everything and you don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s the only way to keep going and the only way to keep making art: to be open to possibility and allow yourself to be changed.

Of course, to change your mind is to do some real thinking. Thinking requires an environment in which you can try out all sorts of ideas without judgment. To change your mind, you need a good place to have some bad ideas.

If you’re going to change your mind, you might have to go off-brand, and offline is the place to be off-brand. Your bliss station, your studio, a paper journal, a private chat room, a living room full of trusted loved ones: These are the places to really think.

If you really want to explore ideas, you should consider hanging out with people who aren’t so much like-minded as like-hearted.

If you’re having trouble finding people to think with, seek out the dead. They have a lot to say and they are excellent listeners. Read old books.

The Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca said that if you read old books, you get to add all the years the author lived into your own life.

8. When in Doubt, Tidy Up

Creativity is about connections, and connections are not made by siloing everything off into its own space. New ideas are formed by interesting juxtapositions, and interesting juxtapositions happen when things are out of place.

It’s always a mistake to equate productivity and creativity. They are not the same. In fact, they’re frequently at odds with each other: you’re often most creative when you’re the least productive.

There is, of course, such a thing as too much clutter. It’s hard to work if you can’t find the things you need when you need them. French chefs practice something called mise en place, which means “set in place.” It’s about planning and preparation: making sure all the ingredients and tools you need are ready before you set to work.

That’s the key word we can steal from chefs: readiness.

Keep your tools organized and your materials messy.

Tidying up is for when I’m stalled out or stuck.

It’s just a form of productive procrastination. (Avoiding work by doing other work.) The best thing about tidying is that it busies my hands and loosens up my mind so that I either a) get unstuck or solve a new problem in my head, or b) come across something in the mess that leads to new work.

The reason I tidy is not really to clean, but to come into contact with something I’ve forgotten which I can now use.

Tidying in the hope of obtaining perfect order is stressful work. Tidying without worrying too much about the results can be a soothing form of play. When in doubt, tidy up.

9. Demons Hate Fresh Air

Walking really is a magic cure for people who want to think straight.

Walking is good for physical, spiritual, and mental health. “No matter what time you get out of bed, go for a walk,” said director Ingmar Berman to his daughter, Linn Ullmann. “The demons hate it when you get out of bed. Demons hate fresh air.”

Even more important, walking is great for battling our outer demons.

10. Plant Your Garden

You have to pay attention to the rhythms and cycles of your creative output and learn to be patient in the off-seasons. You have to give yourself time to change and observe your own patterns.