February 14, 2021

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon | Book Notes

1. Steal Like an Artist

How to look at the world (like an artist)

  • How does an artist look at the world? First, you figure out what’s worth stealing, then you move on to the next thing.
  • Everything is up for grabs. If you don’t find something worth stealing today, you might find it worth stealing tomorrow or a month or a year from now.
“The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.”
—David Bowie

Nothing is original

  • The writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something “original,” nine out of ten times they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved.
  • All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.
  • As the French writer André Gide put it, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”
  • If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.
“What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.”
—William Ralph Inge

The genealogy of ideas

  • Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas.
  • You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences. The German writer Goethe said, “We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.”

Garbage in, garbage out

  • The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect things that they really love.
  • You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.
  • Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.
“Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”
—Jim Jarmusch

Climb your own family tree

  • Marcel Duchamp said, “I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists.”
  • Instead, chew on one thinker—writer, artist, activist, role model—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 this as many times as you can.

School yourself

  • School is one thing. Education is another. The two don’t always overlap.
  • Google everything. I mean everything. Google your dreams, Google your problems. Don’t ask a question before you Google it. You’ll either find the answer or you’ll come up with a better question.

Save your thefts for later

  • Carry a notebook and a pen with you wherever you go. Get used to pulling it out and jotting down your thoughts and observations.
  • Keep a swipe file. It’s just what it sounds like—a file to keep track of the stuff you’ve swiped from others. It can be digital or analog—it doesn’t matter what form it takes, as long as it works.
  • See something worth stealing? Put it in the swipe file. Need a little inspiration? Open up the swipe file.
  • Newspaper reporters call this a “morgue file”—I like that name even better. Your morgue file is where you keep the dead things that you’ll later reanimate in your work.

2. Don't Wait Until You Know Who You Are to Get Started

Make things, know thyself

  • In my experience, it’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are.

Fake it till you make it

  • Fake it ’til you make it. I love this phrase. There are two ways to read it: 1. Pretend to be something you’re not until you are—fake it until you’re successful, until everybody sees you the way you want them to; or 2. Pretend to be making something until you actually make something.
  • you have to dress for the job you want, not the job you have, and you have to start doing the work you want to be doing.

Start copying

“Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self.”
—Yohji Yamamoto
  • plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.
  • As Salvador Dalí said, “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”
  • Who to copy is easy. You copy your heroes—the people you love, the people you’re inspired by, the people you want to be.
  • The writer Wilson Mizner said if you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many, it’s research.
  • Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.
  • The reason to copy your heroes and their style is so that you might somehow get a glimpse into their minds. That’s what you really want—to internalize their way of looking at the world.

Imitation is not flattery

  • 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.
  • Conan O’Brien has talked about how comedians try to emulate their heroes, fall short, and end up doing their own thing. Johnny Carson tried to be Jack Benny but ended up Johnny Carson. David Letterman tried to copy Johnny Carson but ended up David Letterman. And Conan O’Brien tried to be David Letterman but ended up Conan O’Brien. In O’Brien’s words, “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.”
  • A wonderful flaw about human beings is that we’re incapable of making perfect copies. Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives. That is how we evolve.

3. Write The Book You Want to Read

Write what you like

  • All fiction, in fact, is fan fiction.
  • When we love a piece of work, we’re desperate for more. We crave sequels. Why not channel that desire into something productive?
  • The manifesto is this: 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

Step away from the screen

  • The computer is really good for editing your ideas, and it’s really good for getting your ideas ready for publishing out into the world, but it’s not really good for generating ideas.
  • The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us—we start editing ideas before we have them.
  • Try it: If you have the space, set up two workstations, one analog and one digital. For your analog station, keep out anything electronic.

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

Practice productive procrastination

  • I think 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.
  • Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing.
  • If you’re out of ideas, wash the dishes.
  • As the artist Maira Kalman says, “Avoiding work is the way to focus my mind.”

Don't throw any of yourself away

  • 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
  • Tomlinson suggests that if you love different things, you just keep spending time with them. “Let them talk to each other. Something will begin to happen.”
  • It’s so important to have a hobby. A hobby is something creative that’s just for you. You don’t try to make money or get famous off it, you just do it because it makes you happy. A hobby is something that gives but doesn’t take.

6. The Secret: Do Good Work and Share it With People

In the beginning, obscurity is good

  • There’s no pressure when you’re unknown. You can do what you want. Experiment. Do things just for the fun of it. When you’re unknown, there’s nothing to distract you from getting better.
  • 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.

The not so secret formula

  • If there was a secret formula for becoming known, I would give it to you. But there’s only one not-so-secret formula that I know: Do good work and share it with people.
  • 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.
  • The Internet can be more than just a resting place to publish your finished ideas—it can also be an incubator for ideas that aren’t fully formed, a birthing center for developing work that you haven’t started yet.
  • You don’t have 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. Share a sketch or a doodle or a snippet. Share a little glimpse of your process.
“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”
—Howard Aiken

7. Geography is no Longer Our Master

Build your own world

  • In the meantime, if you’re not into the world you live in, you can build your own world around you. (Now would be a good time to put on your headphones and cue up the Beach Boys song “In My Room.”) 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 a little time—a place to work, and some time to do it; a little self-imposed solitude and temporary captivity.

Leave Home

  • Where we choose to live still has a huge impact on the work we do.
  • Your brain gets too comfortable in your everyday surroundings. You need to make it uncomfortable. You need to 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.

8. Be Nice (The World is a Small Town)

Make friends, ignore enemies

  • The best way to vanquish your enemies on the Internet? Ignore them. The best way to make friends on the Internet? Say nice things about them.

Stand next to talent

“The only mofos in my circle are people that I can learn from.”
—Questlove
  • Remember “garbage in, garbage out”? You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with. In the digital space, that means following the best people online—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.”
  • If you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.

Quit picking fights and go make something

  • “Quit picking fights on Twitter and go make something!”
“Complain about the way other people make software by making software.”
—Andre Torrez

Write fan letters

  • So, I recommend public fan letters. The Internet is really good for this. Write a blog post about someone’s work that you admire and link to their site. Make something and dedicate it to your hero. Answer a question they’ve asked, solve a problem for them, or improve on their work and share it online.
  • The important thing is that you show your appreciation without expecting anything in return, and that you get new work out of the appreciation.

Validation is for parking

  • The trouble with creative work: Sometimes by the time people catch on to what’s valuable about what you do, you’re either a) bored to death with it, or b) dead.
  • You can’t go looking for validation from external sources.
  • So get comfortable with being misunderstood, disparaged, or ignored—the trick is to be too busy doing your work to care.

Keep a praise file

  • Try it: Instead of keeping a rejection file, keep a praise file. Use it sparingly—don’t get lost in past glory—but keep it around for when you need the lift.

9. Be Boring (It's The Only Way to Get Work Done)

Take care of yourself

  • The thing is: It takes a lot of energy to be creative. You don’t have that energy if you waste it on other stuff.

Keep your day job

  • The truth is that even if you’re lucky enough to make a living off doing what you truly love, it will probably take you a while to get to that point. Until then, you’ll need a day job.
  • A day job gives you money, a connection to the world, and a routine. Freedom from financial stress also means freedom in your art.
  • Establishing and keeping a routine can be even more important than having a lot of time. Inertia is the death of creativity. You have to stay in the groove.
  • The trick is to find a day job that pays decently, doesn’t make you want to vomit, and leaves you with enough energy to make things in your spare time.

Get yourself a calendar

  • Amassing a body of work or building a career is a lot about the slow accumulation of little bits of effort over time. Writing a page each day doesn’t seem like much, but do it for 365 days and you have enough to fill a novel.
  • A calendar helps you plan work, gives you concrete goals, and keeps you on track. The comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a calendar method that helps him stick to his daily joke writing.

Keep a logbook

  • A logbook isn’t necessarily a diary or a journal, it’s just a little book in which you list the things you do every day. What project you worked on, where you went to lunch, what movie you saw.

10. Creativity is a Subtraction

Choose what to leave out

  • 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.
  • The way to get over creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself. It seems contradictory, but when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom.
“Telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colors in the palette, anything you want—that just kills creativity.”
—Jack White
  • In the end, creativity isn’t just the things we choose to put in, it’s the things we choose to leave out.

Share your thoughts via Twitter DM. Let's have a chat.