What I Learned from "Steal Like An Artist" by Austin Kleon

Steal Like An Artist is an excellent, though short, book by Austin Kleon who conveniently lives here in Austin, TX. I've never met him before, but I'd like to. Here are a few things I learned from Steal Like An Artist.

Insight grows with distance from home.

Kleon claims that being away from home can bring you insight and spark creativity. It will put you in new and often uncomfortable situations that pack new ideas into your head to work on.

Applied to companies, this might be an argument for remote work environments. Keeping your entire company in the same room week in and week out gets old. Being supportive—to an extent—of remote work lets your employees get out there and live exciting lives for them to come back to work with new perspective and insights.

I'll be first to say that I haven't gone out of my way to put myself into new situations as of late. I tend to stick to the things, people, and places that I know rather than exploring.

Looking back on my life as a whole, everything insightful came from a new experience (because everything I know now was once new). It would be silly not to search for more.

Actionable ideas:

  • Work in new libraries and coffee shops around Austin
  • Take a different route to work
  • Walk more around downtown
  • Say yes to (a few) invitations to events or get-togethers

Validation is for parking.

There's no license to be creative. Nobody will card you on your way to your desk and ask, "Are you of age to do this? Do you have a permit?"

The formula is pretty simple, and it's to do good work and share it with people. Nobody's stopping you from writing an extensive collection of words, refining them, editing them, trashing half of them to rewrite, and then publishing on the internet. If you want to put in the work and write a book, go ahead and do it. You'll learn a lot in the process.

Actionable ideas:

  • I have concepts for books that I'd like to write, but I feel like I shouldn't because I'm not a very good creative nonfiction writer. (@Lee Gutkind, please teach me.) That's no excuse to put off projects and practice. Soon after I print my second book, I'll start on a third. No license necessary.

The Praise File

Swipe files, which Kleon also recommends in the book, are documents, folders, or binders full of inspiration for future use. If you're a type designer, you might take pictures of inspiring letterforms to reference later. If you're a copywriter, you might archive good marketing emails to steal ideas from.

A praise file, on the other hand, is a collection of praise you've gotten for your creative work. It hasn't been enormous for me, but I am so thankful to every person who's ever written me an encouraging tweet, text message, or handwritten note.

Actionable ideas:

  • Find all of the encouragement I've gotten in the recent past and put it in one document.

Creativity is subtraction.

From writing to product development, creating something great is more about what isn't there than what is. This might mean focusing on the things you're good at and are the most impactful. Steve Jobs focused Apple on four core products when he returned in the 1990s and killed tons of unnecessary projects, and the rest is history. Similarly, in creative work such as writing, "cut the fat" is always good advice.

It might also mean giving yourself constraints. For example, Dr. Suess wrote Green Eggs and Ham on a bet with his editor that he couldn't write a book with less than 50 words. It turned into a wild success, of course, and I can't help but think that's in part because of the confines he put his book into.

Actionable idea:

Be more intentional about re-reading and revising my writing and removing all the BS. (I have that problem because sometimes I get lazy and decide not to edit thoroughly. No bueno.)

Spend time in the physical.

One of Kleon's tips is to split your workspace into two areas: one digital, one physical. Creativity, he says, falls flat when it's all in your head.

I take this to mean two things:

  1. There's tremendous value in putting your hands and body into the problem rather than only a computer screen. This can be as simple as diagramming on a whiteboard or printing out a manuscript to make red marks on while editing.
  2. Creatives have to step away from the computer, notebook, or even typewriter to go experience things. It doesn't have to be exciting, but you have to put your mind in different states and allow your thoughts to sort themselves.

Actionable ideas:

  • Take more walks. I've been doing this consistently, and it feels great, even though Austin is hot as hell. It helps me sort issues out that I've been laboring over for too long.
  • Spend more time outlining with a pen, not a keyboard. Using a whiteboard is optimal for me because I enjoy the physical act of writing in various styles. I put a lot of ideas down quickly, and it stimulates my brain while I do it.


Standard disclaimer for when I write what I learned from a book:

I may get different ideas from this book than you got or that the author intended. If you'd like to find out whether I got it all wrong, buy the book. I'd love for you to support their writing.

Diego Segura