Book Notes: The Steal Like An Artist Trilogy by Austin Kleon

Get creative, be public, keep going.

I struggled a lot with creativity in life, and I'm not even an artist.

At 20-something, I noticed a weird thing about myself. All of a sudden, it felt like my thoughts and actions were getting dumber.

I was becoming more basic, simple, crude. Less creative.

It manifested itself in a few ways:

  • Talking to people made me feel dumb. No matter the topic, I only had a few replies in my head: "Hmm", "Yeah", "Huh", "Tsk", "Really!".
  • My decision-making and problem-solving skills went downhill. I just couldn't come up with any solutions beyond the most obvious ones.

It's not like I'd been a great conversationalist and problems solver before, but this new experience was awful even by my standards.

It felt like I had my speech and intelligence points reset to zero.

Long story short, I kinda-sorta figured this out. It's been mostly caused by years of overwork, stress, and complete neglect of my own well-being. (Entrepreneurship does that to you if you're not careful.)

A major identity crisis later, I got my speech and intelligence points back. I could finally start thinking about creativity again. And that's how I got to Austin Kleon.

The Steal Like an Artist Trilogy consists of three of Kleon's books:

  • Steal Like an Artist
  • Show Your Work
  • Keep Going

It isn't about overcoming identity crises and getting your shit back together. If you're at that stage in life, allow me to suggest something like Feeling Good, Mindset, or Upward Spiral instead.

However, Kleon's books will give you plenty of useful advice and inspiration to become a more prolific creator. They're written by an artist for artists, but you'll find them useful no matter who you are.

Some say they're shallow. And sure, you could summarize the whole trilogy as "Imitate others to find your style, share your work in public, and have a process to keep going in the face of uncertainty". But you can summarize lots of books in a single sentence, and that doesn't make them worse.

For my part, I enjoyed the trilogy. You get 30 ideas to sharpen your creative skills, plenty of inspirational quotes, and the author's personal stories to boot.

It's a nice little read for those days when you aren't exactly ready for Flow or Creativity Inc. and just want something light and actionable.


Why I liked these books

  • Great ideas, with implementation tips. Being creative, prolific, and popular isn't the result of magic. It's the result of working hard, smart, and in public.
  • Short, simple, and to the point. What really grinds my gears are superfluous books that pretend to be deep by being too long. The trilogy is light and doesn't pretend to be more complex than it is.
  • Full of quotes. Seriously, there's a whole bunch of great quotes in here. I've listed some of my favorite ones below.

My favorite ideas

Collect > imitate > transform

If you struggle with uniqueness, repeat after me:

  • Nothing is original.
  • Nothing happens out of nowhere.
  • Everything's created on top of what came before.

Great artists are born from copying the masters of old. Today's scientific discoveries are made by advancing the science of yesterday. New inventions emerge from the combinations and improvements of what's already existed.

No one's born perfect, you get better by learning from the best. The sooner you realize this, the easier you'll make life for yourself. So forget about perfectionism and just start.

Start by searching for the best people you can learn from. Keep imitating them until you understand what you're doing. Then start improving and transforming.

A quick personal story:

About a decade ago, I had a brief period of having digital art as my hobby. I sketched a lot in high school and college and finally decided to become better at it. And since deliberate practice wasn't a thing for me back then, I decided to get better by simply imitating others.

It worked to some extent, but I found one aspect of this challenging. It was that imitating others didn't magically make a unique style of my own emerge. My drawings looked exactly like those of the people I was imitating. And I hated this!

Thinking about it today, I was hating the natural process of learning.

It's fine to learn by copying others. It's expected, in fact. Just keep in mind that you're copying to understand, not to reproduce. Steal authentically. Once you've copied enough to understand, you're ready to start getting transformed.

In this regard, creativity is like genetics. Just like you're a remix of your ancestors as a human, you're a remix of your influences as a creator.

A few relevant quotes I liked:

  • What is originality? Undetected plagiarism. — William Ralph Inge
  • More like a tasteful thief. The only art I'll ever study is stuff that I can steal from. — David Bowie
  • Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing. — Salvador Dali
  • Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find yourself." — Yohji Yamamoto

Work in public to get discovered

You don't toil in obscurity to emerge as a star, you get discovered by being visible.

There's no way around it, really. The lone genius is a myth, the reality is the scenius. Good work isn't created in a vacuum, it's created in groups. It's created by contributing and being contributed to.

Another quick personal story:

When I got into the startup field in the early 2010's, the fabled origin stories of Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and others were all the rage. A lone genius or two drop out of college to work in their parents' garages and to emerge as billionaire unicorns.

This appealed to the 20-something introverted developer me a lot! The idea of spending my life with my laptop never talking to people and somehow ending up rich and successful was a dream come true.

It was of course a pipe dream, but I didn't know better back then. And since I feared publicity and avoided feedback and criticism, I ended up wasting way too much time doing things that didn't matter. Eventually, my bubble finally burst, making me come to grips with reality in the most painful way possible.

The experience made me into who I am today, but it might have as well ended me altogether, literally and figuratively. I'm grateful for coming out of this a better person and a more capable professional, but I don't suggest following my steps.

So forget about the idea of being the lone genius. If you want to get discovered, be visible. Work in public. Document what you do. Share your process. Do things in front of others.

And learn to tell a great story to stand out. Your work doesn't speak for itself, so become a storyteller to speak for it. You can't find your voice if you don't use it.

And learn to not take criticism personally.

A few relevant quotes I liked:

  • That's all any of us are: amateurs. We don't live long enough to be anything else. — Charlie Chaplin
  • In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few. — Shunryu Suzuki
  • Find your voice, shout it from the rooftops, and keep doing it until the people that are looking for you find you. — Dan Harmon

Keep going, stay playful, stay generous

Life isn't all sunshine and rainbows. You'll have good and bad days. The best way to deal with the bad ones is to not take them seriously. Keep going, and let them pass.

Keep going by living one day at a time, not ever after. Having a daily routine makes it easier to keep going when you don't feel like it.

Keep going by being playful. Easier said than done, but don't take your life and work too seriously. Have hobbies, not side hustles. Practice being dumb. Make mistakes. Take time off. Stay light, don't get bogged down.

Keep going by being generous. Make something special and give it away. Teach those around you. Don't hoard your knowledge, share it. Be nice to people.

My last quick personal story for today is short:

I spent most of my life being too serious about all the things that didn't matter. (which is most of them).

When you're too serious about everything, you become slow. Heavy. Stern. Rigid.

And as we already know, whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.

Learning to be playful transformed my life, and if there's one tip I could give to the 20-something me it would be "stop being so god damn serious all the time".

(NB Being playful doesn't mean being careless. You can be mindful and attentive without being serious.)

A few relevant quotes I liked:

  • None of us know what will happen. Don't spend time worrying about it. Make the most beautiful thing you can. Try to do that every day. That's it. — Laurie Anderson
  • Any man can fight the battles of just one day. It is only when you and I add the burdens of those two awful eternities – yesterday and tomorrow – that we break down. Richard Walker (?)
  • Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Every day is a new deal. Keep working and maybe something will turn up. —Harvey Pekar
  • You go diving for pearls every night but sometimes you end up with clams. ― Jerry Garcia.
  • Try to do some bad work — the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell — you are not responsible for the world — you are only responsible for your work — so do it. ― Sol LeWitt