Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative

by Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon writes, “All advice in autobiographical… This book is me talking to a previous version of myself… These ideas apply to anyone who’s trying to inject some creativity into their life and their work. (That should describe all of us.)” The book is thoughtfully written and designed in a creative six-inch by six-inch format.

The idea behind stealing like an artist is that “nothing is completely original… All creative work builds on what came before… 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.”

“We learn by copying. We’re talking about practice here, not plagiarism—plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse engineering… Remember: Even The Beatles started as a cover band.”

“You are the sum of your influences… Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by… Seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone as you start making your own stuff… You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes… That’s what you really want—to internalize their way of looking at the world… It is the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are.”

“You have to be curious about the world in which you live… Always be reading…. Don’t worry about doing research. Just search.”

“You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with… If you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.”

“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.”

The author urges readers to “step away from the screen… You need to find a way to bring your body into your work… If we strum a guitar, or shuffle sticky notes around a conference table, or start kneading clay, the motion kickstarts our brain into thinking… The computer is really good for editing your ideas… but it’s not really good for generating ideas. There are too many opportunities to hit the delete key.”

Kleon points out the value of side projects and hobbies in sparking creativity. “By side projects I mean the stuff that you thought was just messing around. Stuff that’s just play. That’s actually the good stuff. That’s when the magic happens… I think it’s good to have a lot of projects going on at once so you can bounce between them. When you get sick of one project, move over to another… Practice productive procrastination.” The author quotes playwright Steven Tomlinson about having diverse interests: “Let them talk to each other. Something will begin to happen.”

“Creativity is subtraction.” The answer to information overload is to “figure out what to leave out” so you can focus on what’s most important to you. “It seems contradictory, but when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom… Establishing and keeping a routine can be even more important than having a lot of time.”

Kleon touches on the theme of his second book, Show Your Work. “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. It’s a two-step process… Not everyone will get it… So get comfortable with being misunderstood, disparaged, or ignored—the trick is to be too busy doing your work to care.” That said, the author says to, “enjoy your obscurity while it lasts… 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 your form getting better.”

On a final note, Kleon writes, “Your mileage may vary… Feel free to take what you can use and leave the rest.”

Kleon, Austin. Steal like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You about Being Creative. New York: Workman Pub., 2012. Buy from

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