• Austin Kleon
  • July 26, 2020
    Read, recorded or researched
Most books are too long. This one isn't. You can read it in a few hours - it's short and well illustrated - and really packs a punch. It demystifies a lot of things people get stuck on, like coming up with original ideas or waiting for the right moment, and it offers interesting ideas to get round those problems. You'll find a lot of wisdom in this book.

The Best Points

Steal Like an Artist

What is This?

  • It’s one of my theories that when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past. This book is me talking to a previous version of myself.
  • These are things I’ve learned over almost a decade of trying to figure out how to make art, but a funny thing happened when I started sharing them with others—I realized that they aren’t just for artists. They’re for everyone.
  • These ideas apply to anyone who’s trying to inject some creativity into their life and their work.

Steal Like an Artist.

  • 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.
  • What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.
  • It’s right there in the Bible: “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1: 9)
  • Some people find this idea depressing, but it fills me with hope. 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.
  • A good example is genetics. You have a mother and you have a father. You possess features from both of them, but the sum of you is bigger than their parts.
  • Just as you have a familial genealogy, you also have a genealogy of ideas. You don’t get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see. 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.”
  • 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.
  • 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
  • If you try to devour the history of your discipline all at once, you’ll choke. 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. Climb up the tree as far as you can go. Once you build your tree, it’s time to start your own branch.
  • Seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone as you start making your own stuff. I hang pictures of my favorite artists in my studio.
  • You have to be curious about the world in which you live. Look things up. Chase down every reference. Go deeper than anybody else—that’s how you’ll get ahead.
  • Go to whatever lengths necessary to make sure you always have paper on you. Artist David Hockney had all the inside pockets of his suit jackets tailored to fit a sketchbook. The musician Arthur Russell liked to wear shirts with two front pockets so he could fill them with scraps of score sheets.
  • See something worth stealing? Put it in the swipe file. Need a little inspiration? Open up the swipe file.

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

  • If I’d waited to know who I was or what I was about before I started “being creative,” well, I’d still be sitting around trying to figure myself out instead of making things. In my experience, it’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are.
  • 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.
  • Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. We learn by pretending to be our heroes. 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. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.
  • We learn to write by copying down the alphabet. Musicians learn to play by practicing scales. Painters learn to paint by reproducing masterpieces. Remember: Even The Beatles started as a cover band. Paul McCartney has said, “I emulated Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis. We all did.” McCartney and his partner John Lennon became one of the greatest songwriting teams in history, but as McCartney recalls, they only started writing their own songs “as a way to avoid other bands being able to play our set.”
  • As Salvador Dalí said, “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” First, you have to figure out who to copy. Second, you have to figure out what to copy.
  • 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.
  • I once heard the cartoonist Gary Panter say, “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!”
  • What to copy is a little bit trickier. 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.
  • So: Copy your heroes. Examine where you fall short. What’s in there that makes you different? That’s what you should amplify and transform into your own work.
  • Write the Book You Want to Read.
  • The best advice is not to write what you know, it’s to write what you like. Write the kind of story you like best—write the story you want to read. The same principle applies to your life and your career: Whenever you’re at a loss for what move to make next, just ask yourself, “What would make a better story?”
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.

Use Your Hands.

  • My favorite cartoonist, Lynda Barry, has this saying: “In the digital age, don’t forget to use your digits!” Your hands are the original digital devices. Use them.
  • Watch someone at their computer. They’re so still, so immobile. You don’t need a scientific study (of which there are a few) to tell you that sitting in front of a computer all day is killing you, and killing your work.
  • We need to move, to feel like we’re making something with our bodies, not just our heads. Work that only comes from the head isn’t any good. Watch a great musician play a show. Watch a great leader give a speech. You’ll see what I mean.
  • You need to find a way to bring your body into your work. Our nerves aren’t a one-way street—our bodies can tell our brains as much as our brains tell our bodies. You know that phrase, “going through the motions”? That’s what’s so great about creative work: If we just start going through the motions, 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, 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. There are too many opportunities to hit the delete key. The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us—we start editing ideas before we have them.
  • The cartoonist Tom Gauld says he stays away from the computer until he’s done most of the thinking for his strips, because once the computer is involved, “things are on an inevitable path to being finished. Whereas in my sketchbook the possibilities are endless.”
  • That’s how I try to do all my work now. I have two desks in my office—one is “analog” and one is “digital.” The analog desk has nothing but markers, pens, pencils, paper, index cards, and newspaper. Nothing electronic is allowed on that desk. This is where most of my work is born, and all over the desk are physical traces, scraps, and residue from my process.
  • Try it: If you have the space, set up two workstations, one analog and one digital. For your analog station, keep out anything electronic.
  • When you get back to your analog station, pretend it’s craft time. Scribble on paper, cut it up, and tape the pieces back together. Stand up while you’re working. Pin things on the walls and look for patterns. Spread things around your space and sort through them. Once you start getting your ideas, then you can move over to your digital station and use the computer to help you execute and publish them. When you start to lose steam, head back to the analog station and play.

Side Projects and Hobbies Are Important.

  • 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.
  • Take time to be bored. One time I heard a coworker say, “When I get busy, I get stupid.” Ain’t that the truth. Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing.
  • Take time to mess around. Get lost. Wander. You never know where it’s going to lead you.
  • It’s so important to have a hobby. A hobby is something 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. While my art is for the world to see, music is only for me and my friends. No pressure, no plans. It’s regenerative.

The Secret: Do Good Work and Share It with People.

  • Relish the time your work isn’t seen. It’s actually a good thing, because you want attention only after you’re doing really good work. 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. No public image to manage. No huge paycheck on the line. No stockholders. No emails from your agent. No hangers-on.
  • Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts. Use it. There’s only one not-so-secret formula for becoming known: do good work and share it with people.

It’s a two-step process.

  1. Step one: “do good work” is incredibly hard. There are no shortcuts. Make stuff every day. Know you’re going to suck for a while. Fail. Get better.
  2. Step two: “share it with people” was really hard until about ten years ago or so. Now it’s very simple. Put your stuff online.

What’s the secret of the internet?

  1. Wonder at something.
  2. Invite others to wonder with you. You should wonder at the things nobody else is wondering about. The more open you are about sharing your passions, the closer people will feel to your work. Artists aren’t magicians. There’s no penalty for revealing your secrets.  

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. When you open up your process and invite people in, you learn.

Geography Is No Longer Our Master.

  • Most of my thinking and conversation and art-related fellowship is online. Instead of a geographical art scene, I have Twitter buddies and Google Reader.
  • You don’t have to live anywhere other than the place you are to start connecting with the world you want to be in.
  • Surround yourself with books and objects you love. Tape things up on the wall. Create your own world.
  • 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.

Be Nice. (The World Is a Small Town.)

  • You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with. Follow the best people. Pay attention to what they’re talking about, what they’re doing, what they’re linking to.
  • Write fan letters. If you truly love somebody’s work, you shouldn’t need a response from them. 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 their work and share it online.
  • “Modern art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn’t.” Craig Damrauer
  • Get comfortable with being misunderstood, disparaged, or ignored – the trick is to be too busy doing your work to care.
  • Life is a lonely business, often filled with discouragement and rejection. When you’re on a high and having a good week or two, don’t be surprised when it comes to an end. Everything passes. Take it in your stride.
  • A praise file, where you keep compliments and evidence of success, can help.

Be Boring. (It’s the Only Way to Get Work Done.)

  • Most people I know hate to think about money. Do yourself a favour: Learn about money as soon as you can.
  • My grandpa used to tell my dad, “Son, it’s not the money you make, it’s the money you hold on to.” Make yourself a budget. Live within your means. Pack your lunch. Pinch pennies. Save as much as you can. Get the education you need for as cheap as you can get it. The art of holding on to money is all about saying no to consumer culture.
  • A day job gives you money, a connection to the world, and a routine. Freedom from financial stress also means freedom in your art.
  • As photographer Bill Cunningham says, “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do.”
  • A day job puts you in the path of other human beings. Learn from them, steal from them. I’ve tried to take jobs where I can learn things that I can use in my work later – library job for research, a web design job to build websites, and copy writing taught me how to sell things with words.
  • The worst thing a day job does is take time away from you, but it makes up for that by giving you a daily routine in which you can schedule a regular time for your creative pursuits.
  • Establishing and keeping a routine can be even more important than having a lot of time. Inertia is the death of creativity.
  • Get a calendar. Fill the boxes. Don’t break the chain.
  • A calendar helps you plan your work, gives you concrete goals, and keeps you on track. Get a wall calendar that shows you the whole year. Break your work into daily chunks. Each day, when you’re finished with your work, make a big fat X in the day’s box. Every day your goal is to just fill a box. Soon, you’ll have a chain.

Creativity Is Subtraction.

  • 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.
  • Nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities. The idea that you can do anything is absolutely terrifying.  
  • The way to get over your creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself. It seems contradictory, but when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom.

What now?

  • Take a walk.
  • Start your swipe file.
  • Go to the library.
  • Buy a notebook and use it.
  • Get yourself a calendar.
  • Start your logbook.
  • Give a copy of this book away.
  • Start a blog.
  • Take a nap.