February 14, 2021

Book Notes

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon | Book Notes

A New Way of Operating

“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”
– John Cleese
  • Comedian Steve Martin famously dodges these questions with the advice, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” If you just focus on getting really good, Martin says, people will come to you.
  • You don’t really find an audience for your work; they find you. But it’s not enough to be good. In order to be found, you have to be findable.
  • 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.
  • Imagine losing your job but having a social network of people familiar with your work and ready to help you find a new one.
  • 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

Find a Scenius

“Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.”
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • There’s a healthier way of thinking about creativity that the musician Brian Eno refers to as “scenius.”
  • Under this model, great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals—artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers—who make up an “ecology of talent.”
  • Scenius doesn’t take away from the achievements of those great individuals; it just acknowledges that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds.
  • Blogs, social media sites, email groups, discussion boards, forums—they’re all the same thing: virtual scenes where people go to hang out and talk about the things they care about.

Be an Amateur

“That’s all any of us are: amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else.”
– Charlie Chaplin
  • Because they have little to lose, amateurs are willing to try anything and share the results. They take chances, experiment, and follow their whims.
  • “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” said Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki. “In the expert’s mind, there are few.”
  • Amateurs are not afraid to make mistakes or look ridiculous in public.
  • “On the spectrum of creative work, the difference between the mediocre and the good is vast. Mediocrity is, however, still on the spectrum; you can move from mediocre to good in increments. The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something.”
  • Even for professionals, the best way to flourish is to retain an amateur’s spirit and embrace uncertainty and the unknown.
  • The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to 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.
  • Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.

You can't find your voice if you don't use it

  • Talk about the things you love. Your voice will follow.
  • in this day and age, if your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.
  • If you want people to know about what you do and the things you care about, you have to share.

Read Obituaries

  • Obituaries are like near-death experiences for cowards.

2. Think Process, Not Product

Take people behind the scenes

“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
  • As in all kinds of work, there is a distinction between the painter’s process, and the products of her process.
  • But today, by taking advantage of the Internet and social media, an artist can share whatever she wants, whenever she wants, at almost no cost.
  • By sharing her day-to-day process—the thing she really cares about—she can form a unique bond with her audience.
  • “By putting things out there, consistently, you can form a relationship with your customers. It allows them to see the person behind the products.”
  • By letting go of our egos and sharing our process, we allow for the possibility of people having an ongoing connection with us and our work, which helps us move more of our product.

Become a documentarian of what you do

“In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen—really seen.”
– Brené Brown
  • How can you show your work even when you have nothing to show? The first step is to scoop up the scraps and the residue of your process and shape them into some interesting bit of media that you can share.
  • “You have to make stuff,” said journalist David Carr when he was asked if he had any advice for students. “No one is going to give a damn about your résumé; they want to see what you have made with your own little fingers.”
  • Become a documentarian of what you do. Start a work journal: Write your thoughts down in a notebook, or speak them into an audio recorder. Keep a scrapbook. Take a lot of photographs of your work at different stages in your process. Shoot video of you working. This isn’t about making art, it’s about simply keeping track of what’s going on around you. Take advantage of all the cheap, easy tools at your disposal—these days, most of us carry a fully functional multimedia studio around in our smartphones.
  • documenting and recording your process as you go along has its own rewards: 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

Send out a daily dispatch

“Put yourself, and your work, out there every day, and you’ll start meeting some amazing people.”
—Bobby Solomon
  • Overnight success is a myth.
  • Once a day, after you’ve done your day’s work, go back to your documentation and find one little piece of your process that you can share.
  • If you’ve just completed a project, show the final product, share scraps from the cutting-room floor, or write about what you learned.
  • A daily dispatch is even better than a résumé or a portfolio, because it shows what we’re working on right now.
  • Your daily dispatch can be anything you want—a blog post, an email, a tweet, a YouTube video, or some other little bit of media.
  • Don’t show your lunch or your latte; show your work.
  • Science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once said that 90 percent of everything is crap.

The "So What" Test

  • anything you post to the Internet has now become public.
  • “Post as though everyone who can read it has the power to fire you.”
  • Be open, share imperfect and unfinished work that you want feedback on, but don’t share absolutely everything. There’s a big, big difference between sharing and over-sharing.
  • The save as draft button is like a prophylactic—it might not feel as good in the moment, but you’ll be glad you used it in the morning.

Turn your flow into stock

“If you work on something a little bit every day, you end up with something that is massive.”
—Kenneth Goldsmith
  • “Stock and flow” is an economic concept that writer Robin Sloan has adapted into a metaphor for media: “Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people you exist. Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.”
  • stock is best made by collecting, organizing, and expanding upon your flow.
  • Once you make sharing part of your daily routine, you’ll notice themes and trends emerging in what you share. You’ll find patterns in your flow.
  • You can turn your flow into stock. For example, a lot of the ideas in this book started out as tweets, which then became blog posts, which then became book chapters.

Build a good (domain) name

“Carving out a space for yourself online, somewhere where you can express yourself and share your work, is still one of the best possible investments you can make with your time.”
—Andy Baio
  • nothing beats owning your own space online, a place that you control, a place that no one can take away from you, a world headquarters where people can always find you.
  • 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.
  • Your website doesn’t have to look pretty; it just has to exist.
  • Don’t think of your website as a self-promotion machine, think of it as a self-invention machine.
  • Build a good domain name, keep it clean, and eventually it will be its own currency.

4. Open Up Your Cabinet of Curiosities

Don't be a hoarder

“The problem with hoarding is you end up living off your reserves. Eventually, you’ll become stale. If you give away everything you have, you are left with nothing. This forces you to look, to be aware, to replenish. . . . Somehow the more you give away, the more comes back to you.”
—Paul Arden
  • There’s not as big of a difference between collecting and creating as you might think. A lot of the writers I know see the act of reading and the act of writing as existing on opposite ends of the same spectrum: The reading feeds the writing, which feeds the reading.
  • Before we’re ready to take the leap of sharing our own work with the world, we can share our tastes in the work of others.
  • 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.

No guilty pleasures

  • All it takes to uncover hidden gems is a clear eye, an open mind, and a willingness to search for inspiration in places other people aren’t willing or able to go.
  • When you find things you genuinely enjoy, don’t let anyone else make you feel bad about it.
  • Being open and honest about what you like is the best way to connect with people who like those things, too.

Credit is always due

  • If you share the work of others, it’s your duty to make sure that the creators of that work get proper credit. Crediting work in our copy-and-paste age of reblogs and retweets can seem like a futile effort, but it’s worth it, and it’s the right thing to do.
  • So, what makes for great attribution? Attribution is all about providing context for what you’re sharing: what the work is, who made it, how they made it, when and where it was made, why you’re sharing it, why people should care about it, and where people can see some more work like it. Attribution is about putting little museum labels next to the stuff you share.
  • Online, the most important form of attribution is a hyperlink pointing back to the website of the creator of the work.
  • Don’t share things you can’t properly credit. Find the right credit, or don’t share.

5. Tell Good Stories

Work doesn't speak for itself

  • “When shown an object, or given a food, or shown a face, people’s assessment of it—how much they like it, how valuable it is—is deeply affected by what you tell them about it.”
“To fake a photograph, all you have to do is change the caption. To fake a painting, change the attribution.”
—Errol Morris
  • our work doesn’t speak for itself.
  • Human beings want to know where things came from, how they were made, and who made them. 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 affects how they value it.
  • Your work doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Whether you realize it or not, you’re already telling a story about your work. Every email you send, every text, every conversation, every blog comment, every tweet, every photo, every video—they’re all bits and pieces of a multimedia narrative you’re constantly constructing. If you want to be more effective when sharing yourself and your work, you need to become a better storyteller. You need to know what a good story is and how to tell one.

Structure is Everything

  • Author John Gardner said the basic plot of nearly all stories is this: “A character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.”
  • it’s also the shape of most creative work: You get a great idea, you go through the hard work of executing the idea, and then you release the idea out into the world, coming to a win, lose, or draw. Sometimes the idea succeeds, sometimes it fails, and more often than not, it does nothing at all.
  • Every client presentation, every personal essay, every cover letter, every fund-raising request—they’re all pitches. They’re stories with the endings chopped off. A good pitch is set up in three acts: The first act is the past, the second act is the present, and the third act is the future. The first act is where you’ve been—what you want, how you came to want it, and what you’ve done so far to get it. The second act is where you are now in your work and how you’ve worked hard and used up most of your resources. The third act is where you’re going, and how exactly the person you’re pitching can help you get there.
  • You’re never “keeping it real” with your lack of proofreading and punctuation, you’re keeping it unintelligible.

Talk about yourself at parties

  • You should be able to explain your work to a kindergartener, a senior citizen, and everybody in between.
  • Remember what the author George Orwell wrote: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.”
  • We all like to think we’re more complex than a two-sentence explanation, but a two-sentence explanation is usually what the world wants from us.
  • Strike all the adjectives from your bio.
  • Unless you are actually a ninja, a guru, or a rock star, don’t ever use any of those terms in your bio. Ever.

6. Teach What You Know

Share your trade secrets

“The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
—Annie Dillard
  • Think about what you can share from your process that would inform the people you’re trying to reach. Have you learned a craft? What are your techniques? Are you skilled at using certain tools and materials? What kind of knowledge comes along with your job?
  • The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others. Share your reading list. Point to helpful reference materials. Create some tutorials and post them online. Use pictures, words, and video. Take people step-by-step through part of your process.

7. Don't Turn Into Human Spam

Shut Up and Listen

  • I call these people human spam. They’re everywhere, and they exist in every profession. They don’t want to pay their dues, they want their piece right here, right now. They don’t want to listen to your ideas; they want to tell you theirs.
  • If you want fans, you have to be a fan first. If you want to be accepted by a community, you have to first be a good citizen of that community. If you’re only pointing to your own stuff online, you’re doing it wrong. You have to be a connector.
  • If you want to be noticed, you have to notice. Shut up and listen once in a while. Be thoughtful. Be considerate. Don’t turn into human spam. Be an open node.

You want hearts, not eyeballs

  • “being good at things is the only thing that earns you clout or connections.”
  • 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.
  • “Follow me back?” is the saddest question on the Internet.

The Vampire Test

“Whatever excites you, go do it. Whatever drains you, stop doing it.”
—Derek Sivers
  • The Vampire Test. It’s a simple way to know who you should let in and out of your life. If, after hanging out with someone you feel worn out and depleted, that person is a vampire. If, after hanging out with someone you still feel full of energy, that person is not a vampire.

8. Learn to Take a Punch

Let 'em take their best shot

  • When you put your work out into the world, you have to be ready for the good, the bad, and the ugly. The more people come across your work, the more criticism you’ll face.
  • Here’s how to take punches:
  • – Relax and breathe. The trouble with imaginative people is that we’re good at picturing the worst that could happen to us. Fear is often just the imagination taking a wrong turn.
  • – Strengthen your neck. The way to be able to take a punch is to practice getting hit a lot. Put out a lot of work. Let people take their best shot at it. Then make even more work and keep putting it out there. The more criticism you take, the more you realize it can’t hurt you.
  • – Roll with the punches. Keep moving. Every piece of criticism is an opportunity for new work. You can’t control what sort of criticism you receive, but you can control how you react to it. Having your work hated by certain people is a badge of honor.
  • – Protect your vulnerable areas. If you have work that is too sensitive or too close to you to be exposed to criticism, keep it hidden. But remember what writer Colin Marshall says: “Compulsive avoidance of embarrassment is a form of suicide.” If you spend your life avoiding vulnerability, you and your work will never truly connect with other people.
  • – Keep your balance. You have to remember that your work is something you do, not who you are. This is especially hard for artists to accept, as so much of what they do is personal.

Don't feed the trolls

  • The first step in evaluating feedback is sizing up who it came from. You want feedback from people who care about you and what you do.
  • A troll is a person who isn’t interested in improving your work, only provoking you with hateful, aggressive, or upsetting talk.

9. Sellout

Keep a Mailing List

  • Even if you don’t have anything to sell right now, you should always be collecting email addresses from people who come across your work and want to stay in touch.
  • Never ever add someone’s email address to your mailing list without her permission.

Pay it forward

  • When you have success, it’s important to use any dough, clout, or platform you’ve acquired to help along the work of the people who’ve helped you get to where you are.
  • You just have to be as generous as you can, but selfish enough to get your work done.

10. Stick Around

Don't quit your show

  • “In our business (show-business) you don’t quit,” says comedian Joan Rivers. “You’re holding on to the ladder. When they cut off your hands, hold on with your elbow. When they cut off your arms, hold on with your teeth. You don’t quit because you don’t know where the next job is coming from.”
“Work is never finished, only abandoned.”
—Paul Valéry


  • You avoid stalling out in your career by never losing momentum. Here’s how you do it: 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.

Go away so you can come back

“The minute you stop wanting something you get it.”
—Andy Warhol
  • The designer Stefan Sagmeister swears by the power of the sabbatical—every seven years, he shuts down his studio and takes a year off. His thinking is that we dedicate the first 25 years or so of our lives to learning, the next 40 to work, and the last 15 to retirement, so why not take 5 years off retirement and use them to break up the work years?
  • a sabbatical isn’t something you can pull off without any preparation. Sagmeister says his first sabbatical took two years of planning and budgeting, and his clients were warned a full year in advance.
  • Writer Gina Trapani has pointed out three prime spots to turn off our brains and take a break from our connected lives:
  • – Commute. A moving train or subway car is the perfect time to write, doodle, read, or just stare out the window.
  • – Exercise. Using our body relaxes our mind, and when our mind gets relaxed, it opens up to having new thoughts.
  • – Nature. Go to a park. Take a hike. Dig in your garden. Get outside in the fresh air. Disconnect from anything and everything electronic.

Begin Again

“Whenever Picasso learned how to do something, he abandoned it.”
—Milton Glaser
  • “Anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough,” writes author Alain de Botton.
  • When you throw out old work, what you’re really doing is making room for new work.

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