Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

Book Discussion

Source: Austin Kleon


Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work is a good framework to follow in a digital age if you want to be recognized for your work. Instead of focusing on grandeur, Kleon encourages creatives to start sharing small and build up your name to a story. His framework provides 10 practical points with many sub-points in between to start sharing what you have to offer.

Review and Discussion

Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work tries to debunk current myths about being a creative. This book functions like a manifesto to help aspiring creatives (designers, entrepreneurs, software engineers, etc.) keep their fire and show their work instead of being demotivated and obscure by, quite frankly, toxic myths.

Kleon distills this down into 10 points:

  1. You don’t have to be a genius.
  2. Think process, not product.
  3. Share something small everyday.
  4. Open up your cabinet of curiosities.
  5. Tell good stories.
  6. Teach what you know.
  7. Don’t turn into human spam.
  8. Learn to take a punch.
  9. Sell out.
  10. Stick around.

The idea to for creatives to put themselves out there but how? How do you get your stuff out there? How do you get noticed? How do you find an audience? (All questions for me, too).

Kleon starts off in his intro, “A New Way of Operating” with a quote by Comedian Steve Martin, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” This also happens to be at the title of a book on my shelf by Cal Newport. So, how do you become “good?” By doing whatever it is you do.

But Kleon argues that you have to share what you do to be discoverable. So, while you’re trying to get “so good, you can’t be ignored”, you need to leave a trail of breadcrumbs during the process. Kleon created another manifesto called “Steal Like an Artist” in which he argues that you should steal influence from other people (don’t forget to give credit). “Show Your Work” is a book about how to influence others by letting them steal from you.

“But what about my unicorn idea?” Well, I don’t think Kleon says share everything but do share somethings that matter to people. The reality is that most likely your idea is already something someone or some people thought about. You don’t have to reveal your grand master unicorn idea, but be open of what you are learning because while in the middle of implementation, you will be learning a lot and “getting good”. The network already exists, just show your work.

You Don’t Have to be a Genius

Kleon argues that the “lone genius” perspective is one of the most toxic myths out there. I tend to agree. It’s easy to pawn off the people who “made it “as “geniuses” and the media perpetuates that thought process. While it is true that some people are actually geniuses, many others put their nose to the grindstone and “got good”. The truth is most of these people have had their specific group of people that has helped them along their paths. They probably read a lot of works from previous generations and worked with people from the current generations to formulate what it is they are an industry leader in. They more than likely have put lots of hours into the work they do but it’s just easy to pawn it off as “genius”. But the other side of it as mentioned is that they probably took works from previous generations and worked with people from the current generations, which is described a “scenius” or “a scene of people who were supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas and contributing ideas.”

You have something to contribute? Show it! Kleon argues that we shouldn’t be afraid to be “revealed as amateurs”.

I’m an amateur at blogging and even as a software engineer, the tech world is moving so fast, I become more of an amateur everyday. I used to be afraid of this and then I realized that this is okay because I love learning. You should, too. We don’t have the formal training but we learn through iteration and when we show what we have done, others after us can have good starting points.

I am currently writing a post about getting in the mindset of a software engineer. I have mucked up my journey so badly but that’s what I am trying to show anyone who wants to be one. I want to show my mistakes and what my takeaways are. If I help even one person with my post, then that’s a win for me.

We all have limited time on this earth so in the words of Shia LeBeouf and Nike, “JUST DO IT.

Think Process, Not Product

I’m pretty sure with the amount of people online saying this specific saying, it is getting quite annoying to read. But from personal experience, when you’re focused on some grand plan, you burn out easily when you’re trying to implement it. The process is where you learn the most and that end plan can change as you go along the process. In addition, you want to build an audience. You don’t have to expose yourself fully but giving people a “behind the scenes” look can help you form a bond with your audience. You want your audience to stay. One of the best ways to do that is show a bit of behind the scenes work.

I try to do this with the “In Between” posts. One thing I learned is that blogging is extremely difficult. My brain fires at a billion times a second, I have a day job and have other things I need to do so it’s hard to churn out posts consistently. But I thought of the “In Between” posts (and quite frankly some of my satirical posts because they are usually quick writes) to show you guys I didn’t just disappear off the face of the earth. I have 88 followers on my “main” account and 4 on the publication but I want to establish reliability to even one person.

With the “In Between” posts, you can see what I am working on and I focus more on the process of creating the work than the finished product. There is less anxiety and the product usually changes over time so here I am showing you the “version ones”. This leads into the his next point:

Share Something Small Everyday

Kleon has this subsection in this section called “Send out a daily dispatch”, which I basically described as my “In Between” posts. He says it’s easier to measure in days than far out in the future, which is true. After 30 days, you see the progress you have made. I might do a daily dispatch of takeaways and lessons I have learned during practice, especially since I’m still radio silent on tech posts. They will be like a paragraph long, at most but when I am ready to send out a bigger post, you can see the build up to it. 
Disclaimer: I am actually rereading Kleon’s book as I write this.

Also, by the way, 90% of what I do will be crap according to Theodore Sturgeon, which I actually describe a bit of in the “So, You Want to be a Software Engineer” post. One of my takeaways is, “Don’t be too attached to your code”. As I mentioned before, I am still an amateur so a lot of what I code will be crap, especially in the beginning. But I am totally willing to take criticisms and lessons from other people.

This brings me back to the point mentioned earlier about sharing everything. Don’t do that. Ask yourself, “So what?” Is whatever you are sharing something you want to actually put out there?

Source: Austin Kleon

Open Up Your Cabinet of Curiosities

I’m just going to quote Kleon here:

“Where do you get your inspiration? What sorts of things do you fill your head with? What do you read? Do you subscribe to anything? What sites do you visit on the Internet? What music do you listen to? What movies do you see? Do you look at art? What do you collect?…”

I got a little exhausted at typing out what he wrote on pages 76–77 in his book.

But the takeaway here is share your influences and don’t be afraid of who you are and own it. Just please, when you share your influences, truly give credit to who or what they are.

Source: Austin Kleon

Tell Good Stories

Kleon claims that artists like to say “My work speaks for itself” and he argues that it doesn’t. As a software engineer this is true (attachment to code and not documenting code) and it is tiresome when you’re looking at it from an outside perspective. Many-a-time I’ve been given a code base or something that isn’t documented and I’m left reading through entire code bases that can be thousands to ten thousands of lines of code. It can be a marvelous piece of work but I won’t know until I take the time to try to get into the previous developer’s head and see why things are made they way they were. While a “traditional” story can be left out of this example, please, show some kind of structured roadmap of how you got the end the result. It will save many people a lot of time and quite frankly a lot of pain. Be a good storyteller, which is obviously easier said than done. But much like everything else, good storytelling comes with time.

Teach What You Know

I wrote a post called “Introducing The Prose” which is meant to introduce the idea I had about book/article discussions. Inside the post, I talk about the “protege effect” and “the learning pyramid” and how teaching helps confirm what we have learned. I love idea sharing and discussion. I learn a lot from online tutorials and books and like what I am doing here with this discussion, I am trying to show you what I have learned. I will say that I do believe in some secrecy because I don’t want to show things I still don’t have a strong foundation for but overall, if you learn something and you love it, teach it. You can inspire the next generation of awesome thinkers.

Don’t Turn Into Human Spam

Kleon introduces this section talking about a fellow classmate in a creative writing workshop in college. This classmate claimed “I love to write but I don’t like to read.” That’s not a good recipe for success. There’s a lot of hubris in that statement that this classmate wants to be published into a journal or magazine but not even read some of the content in said journal or magazine. They shout their ideas at you but if you want to get a word in, they refuse to listen to your ideas. We all know some of these kinds of people. Their way or the highway. Be a connector and a contributor. Have an open mind. We can all learn from each other.

Kleon has a subsection in this part called “The Vampire Test” and it’s something that rings true to me personally but I believe can ring true for many people. If someone or something is actually draining your energy with toxicity, drop it. This may make you seem like an asshole. Trust me, you won’t be. When you’re paying more attention to toxicity than something or someone that is actually worth it, you’re only destroying yourself (and your positive relationships) more. The hard part here is to identify what is worth it. But it’s quite easy to find the vampire(s) in your life.

Learn to Take a Punch

I mentioned before about not being too attached to your code (as a software engineer). It’s your work and your effort and I know it’s hard not to get too attached but leave some room to take criticism. Good criticism is definitely hard to find. There are a lot of toxic people out there but the good criticism is what will help you grow. If there is something that work you can’t detach yourself from at all, keep it hidden. One of the common themes in this book is not overshare. So, if it’s something that it’s too close to chest and you’re not comfortable with sharing, don’t. Kleon includes a quote from Brian Michael Bendis, “The trick is not caring what everybody thinks of you and just caring about what the right people think of you.” Haters gonna hate. So let them.

Sell Out

R’oh-oh. There are so many negative things associated with “selling out.” This idea of “starving artist” is also kind of toxic. Kleon says,

“Whether an artists makes money off his work or not, money has to come from somewhere, be it a day job, a wealthy spouse, a trust find, an arts grant, or a patron.”

I have a day job as a software engineer for a bank (And I will use software engineer very lightly here). It’s a well paying job and pays the bills. Is it my life’s work? No (If my manager is reading this, sorry man). People love to romanticize the starving artist for not selling out as a badge of honor. Truthfully, if you’re able to get by unscathed, then by all means. But actively aiming to be a starving artist will probably not help your cause. You can’t do your best work all the time when you’re worried about where the food money is going to come from.

Also, don’t be bitter about someone else’s success whether it’s a friend’s or someone you read/listened to “before they were famous”. You are in danger of becoming that “human spam” mentioned earlier.

In addition, don’t be afraid of asking donations. I think everyone who does good work deserves at least a cup of coffee from their followers especially since many people are doing their work for free. But be fair with what you ask for.

Put yourself in a position to do more of the work you love doing. Encourage all your peers to do the same. As mentioned before, haters gonna hate and will probably be the ones stuck hating on success instead of encouraging more good work and staying stagnant in their own lives.

Finally, pay it forward. If there are people who have helped you along the way, (by this point, you should know that most success isn’t created in a vacuum), give back. Of course, your time is limited so give back as much as you can such that it doesn’t impede doing your work.

Stick Around

“Work is never finished, only abandoned.” — Paul Valery

The question you should always ask yourself is, “What’s next?”
Kleon has a subsection here states, “Go Away So You Can Come Back.” Keep it healthy. Whatever your life’s work is, you still need some practical time. Learn when to unplug and come back stronger than ever to begin the grind again.

Final Thoughts

In the “Share Something Small Everyday” section, Kleon talks about “building a name for yourself.” I didn’t talk about it there because I believe it is an appropriate conclusion to follow “stick around”. Kleon believes you should carve out a name for yourself on the internet. Get a domain name of your name or nickname or whatever you want to be known as and start building your brand. Build yourself up as a good worker that loves to share and cares about doing good work. Show your work and come back again to start the grind all over again.

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