Book Summary: Steal Like An Artist

Book Cover

If you’ve ever thought you needed permission to steal ideas, Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon is your permission slip. In this book, the author urges creatives to ditch the notion of generating ideas from nothing and instead find good ideas to build upon.

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

— André Gide.

Ready? Here we go:

Idea 1: Steal like an artist

  • Nothing is original: If you think something is original, it’s only because you haven’t found the original sources.
  • The genealogy of ideas (1 + 1 = 3): Every new idea is just a remix of one or more previous ideas. Take genetics for example. You are a product of your father and mother. But the sum of you is bigger than their parts. This is because you are a remix of your father, mother, and all your ancestors. This is the same with ideas. You are the sum of what you choose to let into your life. Therefore, pick your influences wisely.
  • Garbage in, garbage out: Your job as a creative is to collect good ideas. The more ideas you have, the more options you have to be influenced by.
  • Climb your own family tree: Don’t try to devour the history of your discipline all at once. Instead, pick an artist you love and study all there is to know about them. Find three people the artist loves and learn about them. Repeat as many times as you can.
  • School yourself: You are responsible for your own education. Always stay curious.
  • Save your thefts for later: Get used to jotting down your thoughts and observations. Keep a swipe file — a file to keep track of the things you swipe from others. Each time you see something worth stealing, put it in the swipe file. Need inspiration? Open the swipe file.

Idea 2: Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started

  • Make things, know thyself: It is in making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are. If you are afraid to start, take courage in the fact that no one knows exactly what they are doing.
  • Fake it until you make it: Pretend to be making something until you are actually making something. You have to dress for the job you want, not the job you have to start doing the work you want to be doing.
  • Start copying: No one is born with a style or voice. We all learn by copying. So, copy your heroes. But 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.
  • Imitation is not flattery: At some point, we have to move from imitation to emulation. Copy your heroes and find where you fall short. What’s in there that makes you different? Amplify that and transform it into your own work.

You flatter your heroes by transforming their work into something of your own, not by merely imitating them.

Idea 3: Write the book you want to read

  • Write what you like (not what you know): If you’re wondering what to write about, the simple answer is: Write what you like. Write the story you want to read, build the product you want to use, draw the art you want to see — do the work you want to see done.

Idea 4: Use your hands

  • Step away from the screen: While the computer is really good for editing your ideas and getting them ready for publishing out into the world, it is not really good for generating ideas. Start your work the good ol’ analog way. Scribble on paper, cut it up, and tape the pieces back together. Stand up while you’re working. Move things around. Once you get your ideas, you can move over to your computer to help you edit and publish them.

Idea 5: Side projects and hobbies are important

“The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.”

— Jessica Hische

  • Practice productive procrastination: It’s often the side projects that take off — the ones that look like play. Have multiple projects at once and bounce back and forth between them. If you’re out of ideas, do something boring like washing the dishes. Some of the best ideas often come to you in your boredom. So, take time to be bored. You never know where it may lead you.
  • Don’t throw any of yourself away: If you have multiple passions, don’t feel like you have to pick between them. Keep all your passions in your life. Don’t worry about unity from piece to piece. What unifies all of your work is the fact that you made it. One day, you’ll look back and it will all make sense.

Idea 6: The secret — Do good work and share it with people

  • In the beginning, obscurity is good: When you are unknown, there is no pressure to produce “perfect” work because no one is watching. You have freedom. Enjoy this freedom while it lasts, as once you start getting noticed, you’ll never get that freedom back.
  • The not-so-secret formula for becoming known: Step 1: Do good work, and Step 2: Share it with people (the internet has made this step easy). Don’t put yourself online only because you have something to say — you can put yourself online to find something to say. When you open up your process and invite people in, you learn.

“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

Idea 7: Geography is longer our master

  • Build your own world: You don’t have to live anywhere other than where you are to start connecting with the world you want to be in. If you are not into the world you live in, you can build your own world around you.
  • Leave home: Where we choose to live has a huge impact on the work we do. Your brain gets too comfy in your everyday surroundings. Make it uncomfortable. Spend some time in another land. Travel makes the world look new. When the world looks new, your brain works harder.

Idea 8: Be nice (the world is a small town)

  • Make friends, ignore enemies: The best way to fend off your enemies on the internet? Ignore them. The best way to make friends on the internet? Say nice things about them.
  • Stand next to the talent: You are only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with.

“Find the most talented person in the room, and if it’s not you, go stand next to him. Hang out with him. Try to be helpful.”

— Harold Ramis.

  • Quit picking fights and go make something: When something annoys you, channel that energy to your work.
  • Write fan letters: According to Hugh MacLeod, “The best way to get approval is to not need it.” If you genuinely love someone’s work, you shouldn’t need a response from them. So, write public fan letters to your heroes without expecting a response.
  • Validation is for parking: Once you put your work out there, you have no control over how people react to it. Stop looking for validation from external sources. Be too busy doing your work to care.
  • Keep a praise file: Put every nice email or comment you receive from people in a special folder. When you have a dark day and need a boost, go to that folder. However, use it sparingly so as not to get caught up in past glory.

Idea 9: Be boring (it’s the only way to get work done)

  • Take care of yourself: Look after your health. Don’t burn yourself out.
  • Stay out of debt
  • Keep your day job: Freedom from financial stress also means freedom in your art. As Bill Cunningham put it, “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do.”
  • Get yourself a calendar: Little chunks of work done consistently over a while can produce a big body of work. So, keep a wall calendar. For every day you put in the effort towards your goal, check the box. After a while of being consistent, a chain will begin to form. Try not to break the chain.
  • Keep a logbook: This is a little book in which you list the things you do every day, e.g. projects, events, movies you saw, etc.
  • Marry well: Who you marry is the most important decision you will ever make. “Marry well” doesn’t just mean your life partner — it also means who you do business with, who you befriend, or choose to be around. Relationships can make or mar you.

Idea 10: Creativity is subtraction

  • Choose what to leave out: Nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities. Placing some constraints on yourself helps overcome creative blocks.

And… That’s it! Now, you have your permission slip to steal ideas to your heart’s content.

If you found this book helpful, you might also like:

Big Magic: How to Live a Creative Life, and Let Go of Your Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert



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Chinwe Uzegbu

UX Designer, Writer & Culinary Enthusiast |Medium Top Writer | Contributor: Muzli Design, Bootcamp, UX Planet, Code Like a Girl