Show Your Work! — Austin Kleon | Summary & notes
My thoughts 💭
Show Your Work! is a collection of ideas on how to get discovered without going the self-promotion route. I subscribe 100% to the philosophy as I hate self-promoting. 👀
In the book, Kleon talks about “art” and “artists,” but almost everything he says applies to any job, passion, or hobby.
Among the ideas I consider most important:
- Creativity is more similar to collaboration than perfect originality.
- There’s a profound difference between doing something vs. nothing.
- Focus on the process, not only on the product.
- There are beauty and benefits in creating your personal space where you share your content.
- The context around what you produce does matter.
My conclusions are similar to those I drew from Steal like an artist. The book doesn’t go too deep, but it’s easy to read. I suggest reading it if you’re not yet sold on the benefits of sharing your work.
Summary & notes 📓
Self-promotion sucks. Networking sucks. Being discovered is so much better. But to be found, you need to be discoverable. So, other than focusing on your work, you also need to learn to show it.
Make sharing a habit and talk openly about your work. Use the Internet to share fragments of what you’re doing, thinking, or learning.
1. You Don’t Have to Be a Genius
Many think that creativity belongs to the lone genius. According to this myth, geniuses create their work independently from the rest of humanity.
But this is not true. Instead, creativity is based on the work of a multitude of people. There is no lone and independent genius. Every creation builds on top of what came before. It’s the result of collaboration between different minds (similarly to what I mentioned in my article on the Zettelkasten method and in my notes from Steal like an artist.)
You don’t even need to be an expert. Instead, amateurs have the advantage of working out of a passion for their art; they don’t need to worry about fame or career. Moreover, with practice, they’ll move towards quality.
Mediocrity and quality are not binary states but points on a spectrum. The critical difference is not between mediocrity and quality but between doing nothing and doing something.
Where to start? Think about what you want to learn and start learning in public. Find your area of interest, watch what other people share, and try to fill the gaps.
And don’t worry about knowing from the start what your voice is. You’ll find it by producing and sharing. It’s what you do that defines who you are.
2. Think Process, Not Product
When you choose what to share, remember that you can show not only the product of your work but also the process itself. People love to peek between the curtains and feel part of the creative process. Tell them regularly what you do, and they’ll want to get closer.
Document. You can keep a logbook of your thoughts, take photos of the different stages of your process, make videos. The means don’t matter; the important part is capturing what happens to you. Documenting allows you to track what you do, see your progress, and accumulate material you can use when you want to share something.
3. Share Something Small Everyday
Try to share a small piece of your documentation every day. Work that inspired you, something you learned, your current progress, the reaction of your audience.
This daily update can be of any form. The Internet makes it easy to find the best medium: a tweet, a story on Instagram, a video on YouTube, a post on your blog.
Remember that what you publish can be shared and read by anyone. So “post as though everyone who can read it has the power to fire you.” Sharing something every day doesn’t mean sharing everything. Share what could be helpful or interesting.
- Is it helpful or interesting?
- Yes → share it
- No → trash it
- I don’t know → save it for later
There are two types of content: flow and stock.
Flow is what you share on social media: a feed of brief and continuous updates. Stock is less immediate but more long-lasting. It’s evergreen content. Example: an article on your blog.
Try and turn your flow into stock. Sharing on social media is like filling a notebook. You can get back to it and draw ideas to transform into more structured content.
The best place to publish this evergreen content is your personal space. Buy a domain name and start a blog. It’s your small land of the Internet. You can shape it however you choose and fill it with your ideas and things that interest you. A blog post alone is nothing, but write a thousand in ten years, and it will turn into your life’s work.
4. Open Up Your Cabinet of Curiosities
Be a curator. Don’t stop at the collection step. Show who you are by showing what you like and what influences you.
When you do that, remember to mention the original author. A link goes a long way. Tell where that original work comes from, how you found it, why they caught your interest.
5. Tell Good Stories
It is not only what you produce that’s important, but also the story you tell. Your work doesn’t speak for itself. The context influences the value that people attribute to it. Why is a forgery worth nothing compared to the original, not even if it’s a perfect copy? That’s because of the context around the original.
Learn storytelling. A good narrative structure helps you tell stories better.
Fairy tales structure:
Once upon a time, there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
A character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.
Or even the structure of a pitch. This is useful when you want to convince someone, and the story hasn’t ended yet.
- Past: what you want, why, what you did up until now.
- Present: where you are now, what you are doing, which resources you are employing.
- Future: where you want to get and how those reading you or listening to you can help.
6. Teach What You Know
Teach. If you learn something, you can teach it. And don’t worry that by doing so the competition is going to increase. Knowing a technique doesn’t mean being able to apply it. Between knowledge and skill, there’s a big gap that only practice can fill. Most people won’t bother.
Teaching helps you draw those who share your interests. They will learn from you, and you will have the opportunity to learn from them.
7. Don’t Turn Into Human Spam
The spectrum of sharing contains those who hoard, those who contribute, and those who spam.
- The hoarder sits at the bottom end of the spectrum and listens without ever speaking.
- The spammer sits on the other side and wants to be heard but doesn’t want to listen to other people.
- The contributor, instead, tries to participate in the discussion, add value, and collaborate with others ← this is where you want to be.
Don’t worry about numbers and stats. If you want to be followed, become someone worth following. To become interesting, be interested. By doing so, you will attract people that share your passions.
8. Learn to Take a Punch
Criticism is part of the game. The more people stumble upon your work and the more criticism you get. You need to learn to take a punch. To do so:
- Keep in mind that criticism is not the end of the world.
- Share as much as you can so you get more criticism, and you get used to it.
- Consciously choose how to react to each piece of criticism.
- Protect your most vulnerable parts (but don’t do that too much, or you’re never going to share anything about yourself).
- Remember that work is what you do, and it’s not the entirety of who you are.
Don’t feed the trolls. The Internet is full of people who like provoking others. There’s no point in arguing with them. Take the punch and move on.
9. Sell Out
Everyone needs money to live. Still, for some reason, people expect artists to never ask for it. If they do, they get called sellouts.
But there’s nothing wrong. If you want to make your art, whatever that is, your job, you have to find a way to get paid.
Keeping a mailing list can help you create a direct communication channel with those who appreciate you and are probably more willing to support you, even financially. In any case, always respect who gave you their email and trust. (PS I do have a newsletter you can subscribe to 👀)
When you are successful, pay it forward—praise those who helped you, your mentors, your colleagues, your supporters. Help them as much as you can, but always keep in mind to stay selfish enough to complete your work.
10. Stick Around
You’ll go through ups and downs, but don’t quit. Persevering is a competitive advantage. Keep doing your job day after day.
Use the technique of the chain smoker who lights the next cigarette before finishing the one he’s smoking. Keep the momentum going. Start your next project as soon as you finish the current one. Think about what it misses and how you would improve it, and use the answers to go back to work.
At other times, instead, a sabbatical is what you need. If you can’t afford a togo-long pause, take shorter breaks. Turn off your brain while you commute or exercise, or immerse yourself in nature. Remember to keep work separate from the rest of your life.
And when you come back, don’t be afraid that you’ll be starting from the beginning again, as what you did and learned will be there influencing what you do.