Steal Like an Artist โ€” Austin Kleon | Summary & notes

Amazon link to buy it

My thoughts ๐Ÿ’ญ

The most crucial lesson in this book is the one behind the title: nothing is 100% new. As I also mentioned in one article, every idea or creation is born from what already exists. “Stealing,” then, is not only legitimate but also unavoidable.

Kleon defines his advice as “autobiographical.” Therefore there’s no presumption of universal validity. It’s a small text, and, as such, it has no time to go deep. But this makes it an easy read.

I suggest this book to those who are not accustomed to the genre and are interested in starting creating something but think they have nothing original to say.

Summary & notes ๐Ÿ““

1. Steal like an artist

Every artist steals. Good artists are those that can distinguish what is worth stealing and what is not.

This concept can be extended beyond art because nothing is entirely original. Originality = mixing preexisting ideas in novel ways.

It’s worth curating what you consume. If what you do is based on what already exists, then the quality of what you consume influences what you produce.

Be curious and take care of your education. Learn to explore, ask yourself why, dig deep. This is how you make progress. Reading a lot is a great way to put this advice into practice.

Collect everything you deem worthy of remembering and/or stealing. Note your thoughts, save passages from books, write down interesting situations that happen to you. Even if you don’t need this material right now, it may become helpful in the future.

2. Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started

You don’t need to know who you are (whatever that means) to start. Instead, it’s by doing that you’ll discover who you are. What we do defines who we are.

So start producing something.

Starting can be scary. You could experience the imposter syndrome because you’re convinced that you’re not adequate or that you don’t know what you’re doing. The truth is that nobody fully knows. A creative person finds ideas and insights during the process.

Fake it until you make it. It means behaving like the person you want to become would. You’ll become that person with time.

Therefore, linking back at suggestion #1: start stealing. Steal not from one, but from all those you admire.

If you have one person you’re influenced by, everyone will say you’re the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone will say you’re so original! โ€” Gary Panter

When you steal, you don’t want to steal only from the object itself. Instead, you should try to steal also from the thought behind. You want to learn to see things from the perspective of the original author and think like them. This is how you understand what’s behind the piece and why it is like it is.

When you steal, your version will never be perfectly equal to the original. This is good because differences identify you; they’re your mark. To develop your style, find and amplify those differences.

3. Write the book you want to read

To the question “what do I write about?” the classical answer is “about what you know.” By following this advice, you usually end up with uninteresting products.

Instead, write about what you love. Imagine you’re making fan fiction: this is your opportunity to create the story you want to read. Your passion transforms into creative drive.

Of course, this holds true not only for writing but for any creative endeavor. Think about the pieces of work you love and reflect on what they miss, how you would continue them, how they could be improved. Then, put into practice the result of your reflection.

4. Use your hands

Move more. A computer is a great tool to carry out your projects, but you also need to involve your body in the creative process. Movement stimulates your brain.

A computer puts you into editor mode: it pushes you to want perfection from the get-go. This is an excellent way to waste your time fixing, rewriting, and adjusting. You don’t give yourself the freedom to brainstorm and draft. Therefore, while a computer is good to finalize your work, it’s better to rely on analog tools during the creative phase.

You could have two workstations: one full of analog materials (paper, pens, post-itsโ€ฆ), where you carry out the inventive step. Another one you use after ideas came, and you only need to refine them to a shape that can be published.

5. Side projects and hobbies are important

Having multiple projects in parallel can help you: when you don’t want to work on one, you can work on another. It’s “productive procrastination.”

Even boredom is important: ideas and insights often come when you’re bored. Personal aside: this is true not only for boredom but for any moment where you are not focused on anything in particular. In these moments, your brain can switch to what is known as “diffused mode.”

Don’t worry about finding a unifying vision that “justifies” your interests, and that could lead you to abandon some of them. Instead, if you have various interests and projects, you’ll get the chance to see connections between apparently different fields. This could result in something original. Moreover, the unifying ingredient is the fact that it’s you doing your work.

6. The secret: do good work and share it with people

When you start, nobody knows you, and it’s better like that. You can try, experiment, make mistakes, and (almost) nobody will be there to see you. It’s an opportunity to exploit.

The formula to emerge from anonymity is: do good work and share it with people.

The tricky part is doing good work. You’ll improve with time, going through an inevitable ton of awful products. Sharing, instead, is super easy thanks to the Internet. Exploit it by publishing your secrets: fragments of your creative process, passages from books you read, tips from your personal experience, etc. When sharing, always ask yourself what could be interesting to other people.

7. Geography is no longer our master

Your geographical position is not as important as it was before. It doesn’t matter where you are anymore. With the Internet, you’re not limited to the physical space around you. You can get in touch with people from all around the world. And you can also build your little world by choosing what to surround yourself with.

Don’t let your brain live in comfort for too long. Expose it to new stimuli. Move elsewhere to change your environment, live inside different cultures, read new books, change circle when you become the smartest person in the room.

8. Be nice (the world is a small town)

This advice was valid before, but it’s even more relevant today. The Internet has shrunk the world. When you talk about someone online, it’s much easier than before that they’ll stumble upon your words sooner or later.

So ignore who you don’t like and speak well of the rest, particularly those you admire. You could write public “admiration letters.” E.g., a video or article where you talk about a book you’ve enjoyed.

Moreover, on the Internet is extremely easy to get mad and fall into endless “trying to prove you’re right” discussions. It’s pointless. Instead, exploit your anger as a creative drive and produce something.

Don’t think you can control what you produce and stop looking for external approval. You have control only over what you do, so on your work until it’s published. You can’t decide how others will interpret it. As a matter of fact, not everyone will understand what you wanted to communicate.

9. Be boring (it’s the only way to get the work done)

Take care of yourself so that you are healthy and have enough energy to work on your art.

Have respect for your ordinary job. Even if you want to make your projects your income source. Your regular job sustains you until you succeed. From that job, you gain not only money but also relationships and habits. And even if it occupies a big chunk of your time, it does it regularly, so it’s easier to organize your other activities around it. This helps you build habits: this could have a more significant impact on your life than just having more time.

Keep a logbook where you note what you did during your day: what you worked on, which movies you watched, who you met.

10. Creativity is subtraction

Swimming in information abundance like we are, it’s essential to learn to choose what is worthy of your attention. Too much choice can lead to analysis paralysis.

A bit of counterintuitive advice: when you feel stuck, try to impose limitations on yourself. Make a video with only your smartphone or paint a picture with a single color. Restrictions encourage you to be more creative.