A few months ago I decided to pick up “Steal Like An Artist” after hearing its name all over the place. I read it on an airplane in less than an hour and was so struck with motivation that I had to start writing things down on napkins in the absence of my faithful notebook (How very J.K. Rowling of me). Yesterday, I decided to read it again, and though the book is packed with advice and information, it took me less than an hour to read the whole thing. It is brief, but says a lot – like a wise friend who only speaks when they have something valuable to say. The book is dense with notes and ideas and picking just 10 things to share was no simple task, but I hope you can find some inspiration in his words, just as I did.
1. “You’re only as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.” Before making this claim, the author, Austin Kleon, mentions the economic theory that if you take the income of your five closest friends and average it, you’ll come get pretty close to how much money you make. The same thing is true of your dreams. We need to surround ourselves with the people and settings that make our dreams feel real. What’s the point of telling your ideas to those who don’t encourage your vision? And likewise, why bother living in a dreary house when you can cover your walls with things that make you come alive. We’re only as good as what we surround ourselves with, so let’s surround ourselves with the best of life that we can find.
2. One at a time. In this case, Austin is referring to the act of finding one thinker, artist, or idol who you love, and researching everything about them. And once you’re done, find a few people that person loved and find out everything about them. Keep going as far up the tree as you can and “[o]nce you build your tree, it’s time to start your own branch.” I don’t know about you, but I find myself looking into a bottomless pit of knowledge and inspiration when I try to find things and people that motivate me. There’s so.much.out.there that it can be overwhelming and I have this craving to know everything. But when we do that, we only learn the aesthetics of beautiful art, but we don’t understand the artist’s relationship with their art and most importantly, what brought them to make it? It’s when I stop reblogging things on Tumblr and start searching for an artist’s past in books and interviews that I truly come to understand what art means to me. The bottomless pit of knowledge becomes a more narrow and specialized road that I love walking down.
3. I love this graphic from the book. And isn’t it so true? Sometimes I get this idea in my head that I just won’t start that fabulous idea I’ve been thinking about because I can’t do it or it’s going to be absolute crap once it’s finished. According to Austin, maybe I’m not completely wrong about that – maybe it will still be kind of crappy, but undoubtedly I’ll learn something in the process. The only way for us to improve upon our vision is to follow it, and we can’t move forward if we stay in one place.
4. “Carry a notebook and a pen with you wherever you go.” I wholeheartedly agree. They need to start making waterproof notebooks so that I can write down everything I think while showering. I really think my best thoughts come when I’m showering. It’s like modern mediation. You just kind of stand there and think. Usually when we do have a notebook and pen, we’re already doing something – writing to-do lists, taking notes, etc. But it’s imperative to carry one with you during those times throughout your day when you’re just walking to your car or staring at varieties of tomatoes in aisle one – basically, when your mind slows down. Bring a notebook with you everywhere and realize the potential of your philosopher quality thoughts.
5. The picture above is one of my favorite sections of the whole book. I think a lot of us carry this fear that what we’re making will suck or that we can’t make good art because we don’t know how to make anything in the first place. But the point Austin makes here is that it’s not about making great stuff from the beginning and it’s not about reaching nirvana before we have any credibility – it’s just about making things. And in that process, we’ll become ourselves. And you know what? So will our art.
6. Google everything. I love that for some reason. Probably because I literally.Google.everything. Sometimes I’m the annoying friend who asks others questions that I already know the answer to simply because I’m curious if they’ll have a different answer. I want to know how people analyze. The great thing about the internet is that the entire world lives on it. You’re not just asking your buddies a few questions – you’re asking a bajillion people (more or less, right?). In Austin’s opinion, what happens when you do this? “You’ll either find the answer or you’ll come up with a better question.” Right on.
7. This one is so dead-on that I’m just going to copy it word for word.
“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. The reason to copy your heroes and their style is so that you might somehow get a glimpse into their minds. That’s what you really want – to internalize their way of looking at the world. If you just mimic the surface of somebody’s work without understanding where they are coming from, your work will never be anything more than a knockoff.”
8. Productive Procrastination. Austin uses a stellar quote from Jessica Hirsche – “The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.” Recently, I read a satirical article from The Onion that urged us to pursue our dreams as more than just a weekend hobby and it really resonated with me. I recently quit a job that all around was not my thing – the people I worked for, the job duties, etc. I would go home everyday feeling very drained and lacking any purpose. Though I’ve always wanted to pursue my dreams in life, this job helped me see that not only is it important – it’s absolutely vital. That was a difficult experience to get through, but now I learned a lesson I’ll always remember – the things I like doing in my spare time are the things I (and you) need to be doing everyday, all day.
9. Routine can be a good thing. There’s a concept called flow that researchers say makes people happy. It’s when you’re so in the groove with whatever you’re doing, that it just feels natural. You’re caught up in the moment. Right now I am imagining Sims who are practicing their painting skills with that green bar above their head (I hope I’m not alone on this). Austin says that “establishing and keeping a routine can be even more important than having a lot of time.” That’s the great thing about desk jobs – you kind of have to be there doing your thing for a certain period of time. When we’re just chilling at home, no one else is watching us to make sure we’re doing our job. It’s up to us to establish our creative routines and stick to them. Even if we have a lot of time, if we don’t use it productively, it’s not doing us any good.
10. Travel. Sounds simple, right? According to Austin, “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.” In my experience, this is absolutely true. I mentioned in a previous article “Why the Hell You Should Travel This Year,” that in our daily lives, we are just maintaining what we know. We don’t really learn anything, but when we travel, we become like the squirrel loving dog from the movie Up – everything is captivating and new. When this happens, we learn. We evolve from a little Charmander into an ever growing Charmeleon.
If you want to buy Steal Like An Artist, it’s less than $9.00 on Amazon!
If you want more, the author, Austin Kleon, did a TED talk based on the principles of this book. Definitely check it out!
Still have some time to kill? Have a look at my favorite TED talks here.