Are you an artist who often suffers from a creative block because of the constant pressure to create something brand new from nothing? Then this book is for you. In this summary of Steal like an artist by Austin Kleon, I have put together the author’s best advice to help you master creativity in today’s digital age.
ONE PARAGRAPH SUMMARY: Steal Like an Artist is a quick and easy read that explores the concept that all art is a remix of what already exists and that there is no such thing as purely original work. Through illustrations and curated quotes from famous creatives, Austin Kleon provides a fresh perspective on what it means to be a good artist.
The 8 practical takeaways are:
Let’s dive deep into each takeaway below.
1. Carry a notebook everywhere you go
“All creative work builds on what came before.”
In the world of art and writing, the pressure to create something completely original can be overwhelming. However, the truth is that nothing is truly original but rather a remix of existing ideas.
So, our job as creatives is to collect as many good ideas (ie. ideas that are worth stealing) as possible that we can then use to create our own. This is called a ‘swipe file‘ – a collection of all the things that inspire us.
This can be digital, like Apple notes, or physical, like carrying around a notebook. The important thing is to carry it with you everywhere you go so you have it whenever inspiration strikes.
Tips for building your swipe file
- Curate your input to improve your output – You are the sum of your influences so choose wisely – Who you follow on social media, the music you listen to, and the books you read.
- Create a family tree of your heroes – Identify one person in your desired field of discipline – an artist, thinker, creative, or songwriter – whom you admire. Dive deep into learning everything you can about that person. Then, discover three people who influenced them and explore their work. Repeat this process to create an ancestral tree of ideas and inspiration that you can draw from.
- Dive deep into curiosity – Google everything and surround yourself with books. When learning about something, go deeper than anyone else. This is how you gain an advantage. Curiosity often fuels creativity.
2. Just start
“It’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are.”
Some people feel afraid to start because they don’t know how or where they’re going. However, Kleon argues that you don’t need to know where you’re going or who you are to get started.
For those who suffer from imposter syndrome (like myself), you can begin by pretending to be like your heroes. Trying to emulate others and ultimately failing is where we will discover our own unique voice. And if all else fails, fake it till you make it.
“Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives. That is how we evolve. 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.“
The goal in copying our heroes and role models is not to plagiarise their work but to reverse engineer it, like pulling apart a car to see how it works.
The aim is to dissect how they think and see the world through their eyes. And use this information to create something better.
The objective is to add something to the world that only we can.
3. Get physical
“Art that only comes from the head isn’t any good.”
While digital note-taking is more convenient because we can simply press the delete key, it’s precisely for that reason that it’s hard to feel completely free while creating.
According to the author, the ability to edit everything as we generate ideas brings out our perfectionist tendencies and stifles our creativity.
The solution? Go analog! Step away from the screens and give your hands some extra attention. Use sticky notes and highlighters to unleash your creativity.
If you have the space, create a separate analog desk where you can transfer ideas from your mind onto physical paper. Embrace scrapbooks, glue, tape, and markers to make the process more playful.
Once you have your ideas ready, then you can grab your laptop to polish it.
Think of analog as idea generation and digital as idea refinement.
4. Take time to be bored
Procrastination isn’t always a bad thing. Give your mind time to be bored. A wandering mind produces some of the best ideas. Go for a walk, take on some side projects, or simply stare at the wall for an extended period.
I often get a lot of ideas while I’m doing the dishes and reflecting on the day’s events in my head. By allowing my mind to wander freely while my hands are occupied with the dishes, I even manage to find solutions to problems that have been bothering me all day or come up with fresh ideas for my blog.
5. Create quality content worth sharing
There are two steps to getting discovered on the internet – do good work and share it with the world.
Initially, no one will care about what you think or what you have to say. As harsh as this may be, it’s a good thing. You want to avoid getting discovered while still figuring out your voice and creative style.
Obscurity gives you the freedom to experiment and learn from your failures without the pressure of creating something great.
Imagine the pressure celebrities like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift feel to produce hit songs constantly.
“When you’re unknown, there’s nothing to distract you from getting better.”
Remember to always share value with your audience as you get farther into your creative journey. The more value you give out for free, the more trust your readers will have in you to purchase something from you down the line.
6. Seek novelty
If you can travel, it’s always a good idea to explore new places and experience different cultures. New environments make the brain uncomfortable, which is necessary for it to grow.
“We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.” ~ Jonah Lehrer
If traveling is outside your budget, like me, try a new coffee shop or restaurant. I have even gotten some good ideas by simply working down by the beach.
7. Keep a ‘Praise File’
When putting your work out into the world, it’s important to remember that you cannot control how others perceive it. There will always be people who like it and people who don’t.
Instead of seeking external validation, focus on creating the best art you can and accept that not everyone will appreciate it.
But as much as we are told to not look for external validation, it’s hard to deny the little ego boost we get when someone praises our work.
Because of this, Kleon advises creating a ‘praise file‘– a collection of all the good comments and accolades you have gotten so you can return to it whenever you feel that pesky imposter syndrome creeping up on you or need a little pick me up.
8. Be boring
When we think of artists, we often think of suffering young musicians who are partying, doing drugs, and sleeping around. But this image is often a misconception.
Creativity requires a lot of energy, so energy needs to be conserved as much as possible. So it’s important to take care of your physical health.
Stay out of debt and keep your day job (if you have one), so you have the financial freedom to experiment more creatively.
“If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do.” ~ Bill Cunningham
As you build your career, keep a logbook to record your daily activities – the projects you worked on, the meals you ate, and the highlights of your day. Looking back on it, you can see how far you have come.
“Steal Like an Artist: 10 things nobody told you about being creative” provides valuable insights for the creative process, highlighting the significance of external influences, embracing moments of boredom, and forging our own distinctive path.
Whether you’re just starting your creative journey or simply feeling stuck, I hope these practical lessons will help you in your creative pursuits.
And if this Steal Like an Artist summary has inspired you to buy the book, then grab your copy on Amazon (not affiliate link).
What is the lesson of Steal like an artist?
The main lesson is that no art is completely original. Everything is a remix of ideas and work that already exists. And if you believe something is original, chances are you simply don’t know the original sources.
Who wrote Steal like an artist?
Austin Kleon – a writer who draws.
He’s also the author of Newspaper Blackout, a collection of poems made by redacting the newspaper with a permanent marker. His books have been translated into dozens of languages and have sold over a million copies worldwide.
In previous lives, he worked as a librarian, a web designer, and an advertising copywriter. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and sons.
Excerpt taken from www.austinkleon.com
Is Steal like an artist worth reading?
I think this book is an excellent option for creatives who feel stuck or are under pressure to constantly come up with original ideas.
Although some of the lessons in this book are commonly known, such as finding a hobby for mental well-being, seeking new experiences, and taking the first step towards your goals, Kleon presents them in a refreshing and engaging way.
One of my favorite aspects of this book is the illustrations. They are simple yet effective.
How many pages does Steal like an artist have?
Who should read Steal like an artist?
If you happen to be a creative or an artist seeking a fresh perspective on approaching your work, then I highly recommend giving this book a go.
It’s also perfect for readers who prefer a quick and easy read with lots of delightful illustrations.