How to Steal Your Way to Creativity
Creative work comes from everything you’ve copied before
I read a book recently called “Steal Like An Artist” by Austin Kleon. It quickly became my favourite book of the year. The key message of the book can be summarized by this quote from page 7.
All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original. — Austin Kleon
Everyone is copying from somewhere or something. We grow up and model after the people we aspire to be like. We write like our favourite authors. We sing like our favourite musicians. And we paint like our favourite artists. Over time we find our own voice, sound, or touch. Our own creative work comes from the accumulation of everything you’ve copied before.
There are 10 chapters in the book:
- Steal like an artist
- Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started
- Write the book you want to read
- Use your hands
- Side projects and hobbies are important
- The Secret: Do good work and share it with people
- Geography is no longer our master
- Be nice (the world is a small town)
- Be boring (it’s the only way to get work done)
- Creativity is subtraction
You’ve probably got a good understanding of what the book is about just from reading that list. You might even have a valuable takeaway from one of those chapter titles. I’m not going to go through each and every chapter. That would feel like stealing — pun intended.
I recommend you go through and check the book out yourself. If you are the creative type, it will, quite literally, change your life. It changed mine. Here’s what I got out of the book and how you can be more creative.
There’s no formula for being creative. No two people have the exact same process when it comes to producing work. It will take time to find out what works for you.
“It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.”— Steven Pressfield
You can do all the thinking and daydreaming and planning you want. Eventually, you have to sit down and do the work. Sometimes you’re not going to feel like it.
Most of the time you won’t feel like it. But you can’t wait until you feel like doing something. You’ll never get it done. Nobody knows where the good stuff comes from. You’ve simply got to show up each day and work on it.
You never want to rely on motivation to get started on something. But sometimes a little nudge over the edge is all you need. Be careful with what you let into your life.
Austin uses the phrase “garbage in, garbage out.” While you don’t get to choose your parents or the country you were born — you do get to choose the type of books you read, the forests you explore, the tracks you run, the music you listen to and the movies you see.
“Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from the speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.” — Jim Jarmusch
Travel the world. Get comfortable in uncomfortable situations. Look up at the stars. Follow your interests. Chase what you love. Be curious. Ask questions. Go deep on a topic. Get to the bottom of it. Then ask a different question.
Copy, copy, copy
“Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying.
We’re talking about practice here, not plagiarism — plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.” — Austin Kleon
Find someone you really admire. Copy their stuff. Try and see the world how they do. Learn all you possibly can about them and then copy who they copied. Eventually, imitation subsides and emulation is left over. Emulation is your own thing. You take what you’ve copied over time and turn it into some new. You make it your own.
“In the end, merely imitating your heroes is not flattering them. Transforming their work into something of your own is how you flatter them. Adding something to the world that only you can add.” — Austin Kleon
Build what you like
This message hit home the most for me. My work over time has been pigeonholed into health and fitness information. I felt like I couldn’t move outside of that. But I’m a human and I have other interests outside barbells and hill sprints.
The advice we’re given is often “write what you know.” Stuff that. Write what you love and learn it along the way. You’re creative because you enjoy being creative. You write because you like writing. You sing because you like music. You paint because you like art. Do that.
“The manifesto is this: Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use — do the work you want to see done.” — Austin Kleon
Ideally with your hands… My best ideas come to me when I’m training. Long-distance runs, heavy barbells and ice baths all seem to bring out the best in my creativity. Physical exertion and manual labour allow your mind to wander. The focus on another task generates ideas in unrelated areas. Write that down. Don’t assume you’ll remember it all.
Don’t feel the need to choose between your passions. If you love music, writing and ultra-running, you can, and should do them all. Bounce from one hobby to the next, to the next, and back again. You’ll find your ability to maintain higher-outputs or “deep work” improves when you do.
You don’t have to make money off your hobbies either. We’re pushed to monetize everything nowadays. How about doing something just for yourself?
Put yourself out there
Once you’ve done the work it’s important to release it out to the world. This is now easier than ever with the age of the internet.
It’s easy to find your niche and your people. Put it out there for everyone to see. You’ll be nervous in the beginning but it’s like a muscle that you train. This topic is new to me. I’m nervous about putting it out. But I’ve published other types of work on different platforms in the past. What’s the worst that could happen?
Maybe your work sucks at the start. Mine did. Some pieces still do. But you’ll never hit a home run unless you swing a few times.
There’s no shortage of places online to post work and find people with the same interests. Pooling together ideas with other people is like a “think tank” for creativity. There’s a social media, blog or newsletter for every niche out there. And if there’s not, what’s stopping you from starting one?
Manners don’t cost a thing. The internet is a small world. You should assume everyone you talk about is going to see it. If that were true, how would you change your approach?
“The best way to make friends on the internet? Say nice things about them … Write a blog post about someone’s work that you admire and link to their site. Make something and dedicate it to your hero … Maybe your hero will see your work, maybe he or she won’t. Maybe they’ll respond to you,maybe not.
The important thing is that you show your appreciation without expecting anything in return, and that you get new work out of the appreciation. ” — Austin Kleon
I heard someone say recently that you should never keep a nice thing you have to say about somebody secret. It’s a gift that makes both of you feel better. In saying that… Tim Denning thanks for inspiring me to start writing on Medium. I read your work religiously and I’ve improved out of sight since doing so. My shout for a pint of draught when you’re in Melbourne next.
To be creative, you need to focus your energy on the work. There’s a romantic notion about creatives partying, taking drugs and creating masterpieces. These are the exceptions. Not the rule.
Take care of your body. Eat good food. Go for a hike. Lift some weights. Get to bed on time. Use a sauna every now and then. Putting energy into these areas feeds energy back to you, with interest.
Too many options and too much time will kill creativity. Cut down the number of things you have on. Focus your energy on creativity. Schedule in time to do the work.
“Discipline equals freedom.” — Jocko Willink
A routine and deadline won’t kill creativity. It gets the work done. Work takes as long as the time you assign it. Shorten that time as much as possible. Set a timer and go to work. When the timer buzzes you mightn’t be finished but you’ve gotten a lot more done. I can promise you that.
There were some honourable ideas I left out of this article to keep it concise, but they’re worth touching on:
- Marry well — be careful who you build relationships with.
- Keep your day job — nothing kills creativity like thinking about paying the bills.
- X marks the sport — mark a big, juicy X on the calendar every day you do the work. Don’t break the chain.
I want to thank Austin Kleon for inspiring me to write this article. I stole some of your ideas and mixed them in with my own. This book fundamentally changed my life and I implore everyone reading this to go out and get it. So how can you start being more creative today?
- Sit down
- Get inspired
- Copy, copy, copy
- Build what you like
- Have hobbies
- Put yourself out there
- Be nice
Don’t wait to feel inspired. Go out and create it for yourself. Forward momentum generates forward momentum. Mood follows action. Good luck and happy creating.