One-sentence summary: Steal Like an Artist is a guide to becoming wildly creative by owning your influences rather than running from them.
Author: Austin Kleon
Date Completed: February 9th, 2020
Tags: Writing, Career, Routine, Habit, Life Strategy, Creativity
Hot take: Fewer people should read The War of Art. Read Steal Like An Artist instead.
Nothing is original.
- Nothing comes from nowhere. If we stop trying to do something completely new and novel, we can lean into our influences and make better stuff in the process.
- “Writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something ‘original,’ nine times out of ten they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved.”
- “Everything that needs to be said has been said already. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” -Andre Gide
- Instead, good artists collect things. They collect things they love – not just hoarding ideas, but taking the excellent stuff and saving it for later.
- To do this, keep a “swipe file” of ideas you’ve stolen from other people. I do this in the form of a commonplace book in Roam Research, but there are many other useful formats to use.
Start creating by imitating others.
- Most artists start as borderline imitators of their influences. I know my writing started that way – it probably still has echoes of the five or six most influential writers in my life.
- Even the Beatles started as a cover band. They stole from Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, etc. Paul McCartney admits they began writing original songs “as a way to avoid other bands being able to play our set.”
- “If you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many, it’s research.” -Wilson Mizner
Don’t ignore any part of yourself.
- “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.”
- Don’t worry about the unifying theme of your work or whether one topic relates to the other. The unifying theme is that it’s your work. As Steve Jobs said, our lives are like a series of dots between which we jump. It’s almost impossible to connect the dots forward, but they all make sense if you look backward.
- If you love different things, just keep spending time with them. “Let them talk to each other. Something will begin to happen.” -Steven Tomlinson
In the beginning, it’s good to have no audience.
- Make stuff every day, but recognize that you’re going to suck for a while. Keep working until you don’t suck as much. The hard part is hanging in until you get good, not figuring out how to draw an audience. Plus, you don’t want an audience before your work is good.
- “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 e-mails from your agent. No hangers on.
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.”
If you want to be wildly creative, be boring.
- “That whole romantic image of the creative genius doing drugs and running around and sleeping with everyone is played out. It’s for the superhuman and the people who want to die young. 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.”
- Going along with this, you should keep your day job. For most people, making a living doing what they love is a long-term goal. In the near-term, we need to get paid. It’s not just a practical thing, either. Not worrying about where your next paycheck is coming from can help improve your art.
- “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do.” -Bill Cunningham
- The day job can offer a useful set of constraints. Instead of spending all day messing around with an idea, you have maybe three hours each evening to work. You need to make them count, so you have to stay in the chair. This time pressure helps you develop a daily, weekly, and monthly rhythm.
- “The solution is really simple: Figure out what time you can carve out, what time you can steal, and stick to your routine. Do the work every day, no matter what. No holidays, no sick days. Don’t stop. What you’ll probably find is that the corollary to Parkinson’s Law is usually true: Work gets done in the time available.”
- The goal is to find a day job that doesn’t suck too much of your time, energy, or willpower. It’s the stable end of Nassim Taleb’s parallel barbell strategy – a regular, 9-5 type job with low cognitive demand and that ceases to exist when you leave the office. Pair that with highly speculative side hustles or creative endeavors, and you’ve got a recipe for success.
Bits and pieces
- Write fan letters to your heroes and publish them. “Maybe your hero will see your work, maybe he or she won’t. Maybe they’ll respond to you, maybe not. The important thing is that you show your appreciation without expecting anything in return, and that you get new work out of the appreciation.”
- Don’t expect validation. “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.” Get comfortable with people not getting what you do and being dismissed. If you immerse yourself in the next project or the next idea, you won’t care what people think.
- Choosing what to leave out is every bit as important as what to put in. As Richard Meadows, Jocko Willink, and others write, constraints can increase your freedom rather than reduce it. “Don’t make excuses for not working – make things with the time, space, and materials you have, right now.”
The library will loan you this book for free. If you’d like to buy a copy (and support the site), you can purchase it here.