Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative — Book Notes

Published: 2012

What This Book Is About:

This book will dispel myths about being creative, and also teach you 10 different ways you can use today to become MORE creative.

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Big Lessons (or tl;dr version):

  • Keep working, don’t stop. Inspire yourself by keeping a praise file.
  • Limitations inspire creativity.
  • Collect good ideas. Steal them. An artist is but a collector of great ideas and a master of remixing.
  • Create the thing you want to see.
  • Use your hands. Create something physical.
  • You can learn from anyone, be inspired by anyone, talk to anyone. With the Internet, geography is no longer our master.

Quotes Compilation from this book:

“Art is theft.”

  • Pablo Picasso

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.”

  • T.S Eliot

“All advice is autobiographical.”

  • Austin Kleon

“What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.”

  • William Ralph Inge

“The only art I’ll ever study is stuff I can steal from.”

  • David Bowie

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”

  • Andre Gide

“It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to.”

  • Austin Kleon

“You have to dress for the job you want, not the job you have.”

  • Austin Kleon

“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”

  • Salvador Dali

“If you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism. If you copy from many, it’s research.”

  • Wilson Mizner

“It’s not that people are mean or cruel, they’re just busy.”

  • Steven Pressfield

“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

  • Howard Aiken

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

  • Gustave Flaubert


Chapter 1: Steal Like An Artist

  • The honest artist answers the question, “Where do you get your ideas from?” with “I steal them.”
  • You figure out what is worth stealing, then you move on to the next thing.
  • When you look at the world this way, you stop worrying about what is good or bad, but rather what is “worth stealing” and what is “not worth stealing”.

Nothing Is Original

  • When something is called “original”, 9 out of 10 times is simply because they don’t know the reference or the source.
  • All creative work builds on what came before.
  • Nothing is completely original.
  • If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and start embracing influence.

The Genealogy of Ideas

  • Every new idea is a mashup of 1 or more previous ideas.
  • You are a mashup of what you let into your life, e.g friends, music, books, movies etc.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

  • Artists are collectors who collect selectively.
  • You’re only going to be as good what you surround yourself with.
  • Your job is collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose to be influenced from.

Climb Your Own Family Tree

  • Chew on one thinker you really love. Study everything there is to know about that thinker.
  • Find 3 people the thinker loved and find out everything about them.
  • Climb up the tree as far as you can go.

School Yourself

  • It’s always your job to get yourself an education, even if you’re not in school.
  • Be curious about the world you live in.
  • Always be reading. Go to the library. Read bibliographies.
  • Collect books.

Save Your Thefts For Later

  • Carry a notebook and pen wherever you go.
  • Get used to pulling it out and jotting down your thoughts and observations.
  • Keep a swipe file — a file full of stuff you stole from others.

Chapter 2: Don’t Wait Until You Know Who You Are To Get Started

  • It’s the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are.
  • You’re ready. Start making stuff.

Fake It Till You Make It

  • Pretend to be something you’re not until you are
  • Pretend to be making something until you actually make something.

Start Copying

  • Nobody is born with a style or a voice.
  • In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying.
  • Copying is reverse-engineering.
  • The human hand is incapable of making a perfect copy.
  • You have to figure out who to copy. Then figure out what to copy.
  • Who to copy is easy. You copy your heroes: the people you love, people you’re inspired by, the people you want to be.
  • 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 original!
  • What to copy: don’t steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style.
  • What you want is to internalize your heroes way of looking at the world.

Imitation Is Not Flattery

  • At some point, you’ll have to move from imitating your heroes to emulating them.
  • Emulation is when imitation goes one step further, breaking through into your own thing.
  • It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and make us unique.
  • Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover our own thing.
  • Transforming your heroes work into something of your own is how you flatter your heroes.
  • Add something to the world that only you can add.

Chapter 3: Write The Book You Want To Read

  • The best advice is not to write what you know, but write what you like.
  • The same applies for your life. Whenever you’re at a loss for what move to make next, ask yourself, “What would make a better story?”
  • Think about your favourite work and your creative heroes. What did they miss? What didn’t they make? What could have been made better? If you were still alive, what would they be making today? If all your favourite makers got together and collaborated, what would they make with you leading?
  • Go make that stuff.

Chapter 4: Use Your Hands

  • You need to find a way to bring your body into your work.
  • The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us — we start editing ideas before we have them.
  • If you have space, set up 2 workstations: one digital, one analog. Keep out anything electronic in your analog workstation.

Chapter 5: Side Projects And Hobbies Are Important

  • Practice productive procrastination.
  • Austin thinks 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, you can move over to another.
  • Take time to be bored. Take time to mess around. Get lost. Wander.

Don’t Throw Any Of Yourself Away

  • If you have 2 or 3 passions in your life, don’t feel like you have to pick and choose. Keep all your passions in your life.
  • If you love different things, let them keep talking to each other. Something will happen.
  • It’s important to have a hobby.
  • A hobby is something creative just for you. You don’t try to make money or get famous.
  • You do it because it makes you happy.
  • A hobby is something that gives but doesn’t take.
  • Don’t throw any of yourself away. Don’t worry about a grand scheme or unified vision. One day, you’ll look back and it’ll all make sense.

Chapter 6: Do Good Work And Share It With People

  • There is a fallout that happens when you leave college.
  • The classroom is a wonderful but artificial place: your professors get paid to listen to your ideas, and your classmates are paying to pay attention to your ideas. Never again in life will you have such a captive audience.
  • The world doesn’t necessarily care about what you think.
  • It’s good. You only want attention after you’re doing really good work.
  • There’s no pressure when you’re unknown. You can do anything you want. You can experiment. You can do things for the fun of it. There’s no public image to manage. No stockholders. No huge paycheck on the line.
  • You will never get that freedom again once people start paying you attention.

The Not-So-Secret Formula

  • The formula: do good work and share it with people
  • Step 1: Do good work. Make stuff every day. There are no shortcuts. You will suck.
  • Step 2: Share it with people = put it on the Internet.
  • You should wonder at things nobody else is wondering about.
  • People love it when you give your secrets away, and 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.
  • You don’t put yourself online only because you have something to say — you put yourself online to find something to say.
  • You are only as good as your last post.
  • This keeps you on your toes, keeps you thinking about what you can post next.
  • You don’t have to share everything. Show a bit of what you’re working on.
  • If you are worried about giving your secrets away, share your dots without connecting them.

Chapter 7: Geography Is No Longer Our Master

Build Your Own World

  • Surround yourself with books and objects you love. Tape things on the wall. Create your own world. Find the communities you belong to.

Enjoy Captivity

  • All you need is a place to work and some time to do it — some self-imposed solitude and temporary captivity.

Leave Home

  • Your brain gets too comfortable in your everyday surroundings. You need to make it uncomfortable.
  • Spend some time in another land, among people that do things differently from you.
  • Travel makes the world look new, and when the world looks new, our brains work harder.

Chapter 8: Be Nice

Make Friends, Ignore Enemies

  • The golden rule is even more important in this hyperconnected world.
  • The best way to vanquish enemies on the Internet is to ignore them. The best way to make friends is to be nice.

Stand Next To The Talent

  • You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with.
  • In the digital space, it means following the best people online.
  • If you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.

Quit Picking Fights And Go Make Something

  • Anger is one of Austin’s favourite creative resources. But don’t use it on people.
  • Get angry, keep your mouth shut and work.

Write Fan Letters

  • Write public fan letters.
  • 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 on their work and share it online.
  • Important thing is that you show your appreciation without expecting anything in return, and you get new work out of the appreciation.

Keep A Praise File

  • Life is lonely, filled with discouragement and rejection.
  • Sometimes your work gets discovered, and you get praises and you go on a high. But that high tapers off, and soon you’ll be wondering why you even work in the first place.
  • Austin puts every nice email he gets in a special folder.
  • When dark days roll around, he opens that folder and reads it.

Chapter 9: Be Boring

Take Care Of Yourself

  • It takes a lot of energy to be creative. You don’t have that energy if you waste it on other stuff.
  • Eat breakfast. Do pushups. Go for long walks. Get plenty of sleep.

Stay Out Of Debt

  • Learn about money as soon as you can.
  • It’s not the money you make, but the money you hold on to.

Keep Your Day Job

  • Freedom from financial stress means freedom in your art.
  • 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.
  • The trick is to find a day job that pays decently, doesn’t make you want to vomit, and leaves you with enough energy to make things in your spare time.

Get Yourself A Calendar

  • Jerry Seinfeld has a calendar method that helps him stick to his daily joke writing.
  • Get a calendar that shows you the whole year, break up your work into daily chunks, then each day, when you’re finished with your work, mark a big fat X in the day’s box.
  • Each day, instead of getting work done, your goal is to just fill a box.
  • Get a few X’s down, and later, your job next is to not break the chain.

Keep A Logbook

  • A little book where you list the things you do every day. E.g what project you worked on, where you went to lunch, what movie you saw etc.
  • You’ll be amazed at how helpful having a daily record like this can be, especially over several years.
  • The small details can help you remember the big details.

Marry Well

  • Who you marry is the most important decision you’ll ever make.
  • A good partner keeps you grounded.

Chapter 10: Creativity Is Subtraction

  • In this age of information abundance, those who get ahead are the folks who figure out what to leave out, so they can concentrate on what is really important to them.
  • Nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities.
  • The way to get over creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself.
  • Limitation = freedom.
  • It’s often what an artist chooses to leave out that makes the art interesting.
  • What makes humans interesting isn’t just what we’ve experienced, but also what we haven’t experienced.

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