A summary of the books by Austin Kleon

[Disclosure: Bear in mind that some links in this post are affiliate links and when you go through them and make a purchase, I will earn a commission.]

This January (in 2021), I read (tbh binge-read) the three books of Austin Kleon I heard about. These were Steal Like an Artist, Show Your Work and Keep Going. The books tell you how you can be creative, grow as a creative professional and keep producing creative building blocks.

These three books by Austin have several tips about figuring out what’s the best for you, finding your tribe, improving your skills and many more.

And here, I have summarised the important lessons and quotes from the books.

Steal Like an Artist

Chapter 1 – Steal Like an Artist

The first chapter talked about the art of stealing.

As per Austin, when people call something original, they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved. And that’s kinda true. All creative work builds on what came before.

Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.

“What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.”
– William Ralph Inge

First you figure out what’s worth stealing, then you move on to the next thing. Everything is up for grabs. If you don’t find something worth stealing today, you might find it worth stealing tomorrow or a month or a year from now.

“Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, music, books, paintings, photographs, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”
– Jim Jarmush

Study everything about one artist. Then find three people that the thinker loved, and find out everything about them. Repeat!

School yourself. Look things up. Chase down every reference. Go deeper than anybody else. Don’t worry about doing research. Just search. See something worth stealing? Put it in the swipe file. Need a little inspiration? Open the swipe file.

“It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.”
– Mark Twain

Chapter 2 – Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started

In the second chapter, Austin said that it’s in the act of making things and doing your work that you figure out who you are.

Most people don’t know where the good stuff comes from. They just show up to do their thing. Every day. And it’s true for many people I know.

They do their work, and in the process, get more creative ideas to keep continuing. So, start doing the work you want to be doing.

Another thing Austin clarified: stealing is not plagiarising; stealing is copying.

Plagiarising is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse-engineering. So, don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style.

Imitate and emulate.

Imitation is about copying. Emulation is when imitation goes one step further, breaking through into your own thing. Copy your heroes and examine where you fall short. Transform that into something of your own.

Add something to the world that only you can add. I have been doing the same. I started writing. Then, I imitated the writing styles of the authors, content writers and storytellers I liked, and slowly developed my own.

Chapter 3 – Write the book you want to read

The gist of the entire chapter is: write the book you want to read. Write what you want to read and do the work you want to be seen done. If you can’t find something specific, check other’s work, find relevant content and create your own art.

Chapter 4 – Use your hands

Well, you probably already practice this. If not, bring your body into work.

Whether you’re a digital artist or pen-paper artist, make the process as hands-on as possible.

Austin said he set up two workspaces – one analog and one digital. You can do the same or have your entire workspace in one place. But make sure you also use your hands for your art; and not only a digital device.

I recently began taking notes on paper again. And to be honest, it’s refreshing.

Chapter 5 – Side projects and hobbies are important

In this chapter, Austin suggested keeping all your passions in your life.

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, move over to another and so on. Practice productive procrastination.

It’s something I have been practicing too.

When I don’t feel like working on a project, I work on another one, and switch back to it a few minutes/hours later. These might be client’s content or for my personal projects, but I like to work on different projects.

And if I don’t feel like writing altogether, I would be doing something else. Every such project comes through some inspiration, some stealing here and there.

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

Chapter 6 – Do good work and share it with people

It is the next tip from Austin.

OK, what you have to do is to make stuff every day. You can work on something new, or on one of your ditched projects from the past.

Know you’re going to suck for a while. Fail. Get better. You can do what you want. Experiment.

Do things just for the fun of it. And put those stuff on the Internet. You don’t have to share everything if you don’t want to. Show just a little bit of what you’re working on.

Chapter 7 – Geography is no longer for our master

Austin said artists should be a part of a community, and there’s a community of people out there to connect with.

You can find them online.

But at some point, you have to leave home. You need to make your brain uncomfortable. It gets too comfortable in your everyday surroundings.

So, find a place that feeds you; creatively, socially, spiritually and literally. For me, such places exist online – in WhatsApp messages, Twitter feed and others. Yours can be an actual place on the earth.

Chapter 8 – Be Nice

Say nice things about people and make friends. Why? Because you’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with. And if you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, find another room.

Another suggestion from Austin was to keep a praise file.

Keep it around for when you need the lift. And it sure works. I started doing it recently. My file consists of screenshots of all the testimonials, recommendations and good words I receive.

Also, get comfortable with being misunderstood, disparaged or ignored. Get too busy to care. The best way to get approval is to not need it.

You, of course, can get angry. But keep your mouth shut and channel it into your work.

Chapter 9 – Be Boring

Austin said it takes a lot of energy to be creative. You don’t have that energy if you waste it on other stuff. And establishing and keeping a routine can be even more important than having a lot of time.

If you notice, writing a page each day doesn’t seem like much. But do it for 365 days and you have enough to fill a novel. So, keep a log book to track how far your ship has sailed.

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

Chapter 10 – Creativity is subtraction

The last chapter of the book talked about creativity, in brief.

Austin said creativity isn’t just the things you choose to put in; it’s the things you choose to leave out.

Also, the way to get over a creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself. Yes, stop wondering. Just keep in mind that you need to do that work.

“Telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colours in the pallet, anything you want – that just kills creativity.”
– Jack White

OK, that was all from the book Steal Like an Artist.

Want to read the complete book?

Buy Steal Like an Artist from Amazon

Show Your Work

Chapter 1 – You don’t have to be a genius

One of the mantras I live by – Learn, apply, share the knowledge.

“Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.”
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

So, the trick is to be an amateur; amateurs have little to lose.

Be willing to try anything and share the results. Take chances, experiment, and follow your whims. Be on the lookout for voids that you can fill with your own efforts, no matter how bad they’re at first.

Austin suggested taking inspiration from the people who muddled through life before you. Because artists are people who support each other, look at each other’s work, copy from each other and steal ideas. Oh, they also contribute ideas.

Chapter 2 – Think process, not product

Austin said whatever the nature of your work, it has an art. And people are interested in that art.

By sharing your process, you have the possibility for people to have an ongoing connection with you and your work. I have tried, and it works fo sho.

Chapter 3 – Share something small every day

Well, focus on days, one day at a time. Once a day, after you’re done with it, find one little piece of your process to share.

Go through your documentation, check what you did, and share one piece. Oh, don’t show your lunch or your latte; show your work.

But don’t share absolutely everything. Ask “So what?” every time you turn in a piece of writing. Be open, share imperfect and unfinished work that you want feedback on.

Detect patterns, start gathering these bits and pieces, and turn them into something bigger and more substantial.

Better own a space online; go register a domain name. Your website doesn’t have to look pretty; it just has to exist.

“One day at a time. It sounds so simple. It actually is simple, but it isn’t easy. It requires incredible support and fastidious structuring.”
– Russell Brand

Chapter 4 – Open up your cabinet of curiosities

When you find things you genuinely enjoy, don’t let anyone else make you feel bad about it. Don’t feel guilty about the pleasure you take in the things you enjoy. Celebrate them.

Being open and honest about what you like is the best way to connect with people who, too, like these things.

Also, share other’s work, treating it with respect and care. Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you’re and what you do.

Chapter 5 – Tell good stories

Well, what you tell about an object, deeply affects people’s assessment of it. Human beings want to know where things came from, how they were made and who made them.

“To fake a photograph, all you have to do is change the caption. To fake a painting, change the attribution.”
– Errol Morris

Similarly, you can tell stories about yourself and your work.

A simple formula to apply: There’s the initial problem, the work done to solve the problem, and the solution. Don’t brag; just state the facts, when you’re introducing yourself.

Chapter 6 – Teach what you know

You should definitely start sharing what you know. By teaching, you are, by no means attracting competition. You’re just taking people step-by-step through part of your process.

And people feel closer to your work because you’re letting them in on what you know.

Chapter 7 – Don’t turn into human spam

While it’s good to show your work and talk about it, the experience of art is always a two-way street.

If you want fans, you have to be a fan first. So, be a part of a community, and be a good citizen. You have to be a connector.

Shut up and listen once in a while. If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested.

Also, if after hanging out with someone you feel worn out and dilapidated, banish them from your life. Instead, hang out with someone with whom you still feel full of energy.

“It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others.”
– Susan Sontag

As you put yourself and your work out there, you will run into your real peers.

These are the people who share your obsessions. The people who share a similar mission to your own, the people with whom you share a mutual respect.

Who you know is largely dependent on who you are and what you do.

“Whatever excites you, go do it. Whatever drains you, stop doing it.”
– Derek Sivers

Chapter 8 – Learn to take a punch

Austin said that when you put your work out in the world, be ready for the good, the bad and the ugly. If you aren’t, you won’t be able to show your work out in the open.

Don’t care what everyone thinks of you. You want feedback from only those people who care about you and what you do.

“The trick is not caring what everybody thinks of you and just caring what the right people think about you.”
– Brian Michael Mendis

Chapter 9 – Sell out

Austin suggested not to be jealous when the people you like do well. Instead, celebrate their victory as if it’s your own. It will help you grow your community, and gather more audience.

Also keep collecting email addresses from people who come across your work and want to stay in touch.

And when an audience starts gathering for the work you’re freely putting into the world; you might eventually want to take the leap of turning them into patrons.

Don’t be afraid to charge for your work, but put a price on it that you think is fair. A life of creativity is all about change: moving forward, taking chances, exploring new frontiers.

Be as generous as you can, but selfish enough to get your work done.

Chapter 10 – Stick around

A successful or failed project is no guarantee of another success or failure.

Those who get what they’re after are very often the ones who just stick around long enough. You avoid stalling out in your career by never losing momentum.

“We work because it’s a chain reaction; each subject leads to the next.”
– Charles Eames

And when you feel like you’ve learned whatever there is to learn from what you’re doing, change course and find something new to learn.

When you find something new to learn, dedicate yourself to learning it out in the open. Document your progress and share as you go so that others can learn along with you.

OK, that was all from the book Show Your Work.

Want to read the complete book?

Buy Show Your Work from Amazon

Keep Going

Chapter 1 – Every day is Groundhog Day

Austin mentioned the creative life is not linear. It’s more like a loop or a spiral. You keep coming back to a new starting point after every project.

Yes, that’s how it is for me. Each project, whether personal or professional, is different. I have to begin the entire process all over again. Ideation, creation or promotion, whatever it is, is a repeated process.

So, you must find a repeatable way of working that insulates you from success, failure and the chaos of the outside world. Spend time on it, work at it every day, no matter what.

Yesterday’s over, tomorrow might never come, there’s just today and what you can do with it. And anyone can fight the battles of just one day.

Yes, there will be good days and bad days. days when you feel inspired, and days when you want to walk off a bridge.

But a daily routine will get you through the day and help you make the most of it.

So, make time for whatever you do, and make lists. Get all your ideas out of your head and clear the mental space. This way, you’ll actually be able to do something about them.

The important thing is to make it to the end of the day, no matter what.

“None of us know what will happen. Don’t spend time worrying about it. Make the most beautiful thing you can. Try to do that every day. That’s it.”
– Laurie Anderson

Chapter 2 – Build a bliss station

Austin suggested to build a bliss station; not just a where, but also a when. Make a daily appointment to disconnect from the world to connect with yourselves.

Creativity is about connection.

Of course, you must be connected to others in order to be inspired and share your own work. But you must also retreat from the world long enough to think, practice your art, and bring forth something worth sharing with others.

“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”
– Gertrude Stein

So, pop in some cheap earplugs and switch your phone or tablet to airplane mode. And you can transform any mundane commute or stretch of time into an opportunity to connect with yourself and your work.

Also, learn how to decline all sorts of invitations from the world.

Saying “no” to the world can be really hard. But sometimes it’s the only way to say “yes” to your art and your sanity.

Chapter 3 – Forget the noun, do the verb

Don’t focus on what you’re trying to be. Instead, concentrate on the actual work you need to be doing. As an artist, you don’t have to have a job title. Forget the noun, do the verb.

Play. It is the work of a child; and an artist too.

The great artists are able to retain the sense of playfulness throughout their careers. So, be detached from the results.

Don’t get bogged down. Stay light. Play.

Chapter 4 – Make gifts

Austin said one of the easiest ways to hate something you love is to turn it into your job. And yes, it’s true. When you start making a living from your work, resist the urge to monetise every single bit of your creative practice.

You must be mindful of what potential impact monetising your passions could have on your life.

“It’s always good to have a hobby where there’s no way to monetise it. So, follow your dreams, but right up to the point where they become your job, and then run in the other direction.”
– David Rees

Also, money is not the only measurement that can corrupt your creative practice. It’s easy to become as obsessed with online metrics as money.

Been there, done that!

I wrote on LinkedIn just because I got good views (and of course, clients). Both have kinda decreased now, and I don’t get much motivation to post regularly.

“Don’t make stuff because you want to make money. It will never make you enough money. And don’t make stuff because you want to get famous. Because you’ll never feel famous enough. Make gifts for people. And work hard on making those gifts in the hope that those people will notice and like the gifts.”
– John Green

When your art is taken over by market considerations – what’s getting clicks, what’s selling – it can quickly lose the gift element that makes it art.

What to do when that happens?

Ummm pick somebody special in your life and make something special for them. If you have a big audience, make them something special and give it away.

Chapter 5 – The ordinary + extra attention = Extraordinary

Everything you need to make extraordinary art can be found in your everyday life. And the first step towards transforming your life into art is to start paying more attention to it.

So, slow down enough that you can actually look.

Your attention is one of the most valuable things you possess. And if you want to change your life, change what you pay attention to.

“For anyone trying to discern what to do with their life – Pay attention to what you pay attention to. That’s pretty much all the info you need.”
– Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Chapter 6 – Slay the art monsters

What Austin wanted to convey was that great artists help people look at their lives with fresh eyes and a sense of possibility.

So, if your art is adding net misery to the world, walk away and do something else. The world doesn’t necessarily need more great artists. It needs more decent human beings.

Chapter 7 – You’re allowed to change your mind

Well, uncertainty is the very thing art thrives on. So, start each work not knowing exactly where you’re going or where you’ll end up.

That’s the only way to keep going and the only way to keep making art. Be open to possibility and allow yourself to be changed.

“I’m making explorations. I don’t know where they’re going to take me.”
– Marshall McLuhan

Do some real thing. Be in an environment in which you can try out all sorts of ideas and not be judged for them.

The Internet, unfortunately, is no longer a safe place to do any kind of experimental thinking, particularly for someone with an audience or any kind of “brand”.

So, to change your mind, go off-brand, and offline is the best place to be off-brand.

Interact with people who don’t share your perspective. Consider hanging out with those who aren’t like-minded as like-hearted. These are the people who are generous, kind, caring and thoughtful. They think about what you say, rather than just simply react.

And if you’re having trouble people to think with, seek out the dead. Read old books. Just visit the past for a bit.

Chapter 8 – When in doubt, tidy up

Productivity and creativity are not the same.

You’re often the most creative, when you’re the least productive. New ideas are formed by interesting juxtapositions, and interesting juxtapositions happen when things are out of place.

But maintain a balance in between chaos and order in the workspace. Keep your tools organised and your materials messy.

Tidying up is for when you’re stuck. It’s just a form of productive procrastination. Avoiding work by doing other work. And tidying without worrying too much about the results can be a soothing form of play.

It’s a part of your job to help tidy up the place, to make order out of chaos, to turn trash into treasure. Show beauty where others cannot see it.

“What a pity one cannot sleep-write on the ceiling with one’s finger or lifted toe.”
– Denton Welch

Chapter 9 – Demons hate fresh air

Austin said, art requires the full use of your senses. And walking is a way to find possibility in your life when there doesn’t seem to be any left.

Walking is a great way to release the inner demons. And it is even greater to release the outer demons – corporations, marketers, politicians.

Chapter 10 – Plant your garden

As per Austin, a garden is essential to pay attention to the rhythms and cycles of trees.

“Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long.”
– May Sarton

You must pay attention to the rhythms and cycles of your creative output and learn to be patient in the off-seasons. Give yourself time to change and observe your own patterns.

Every day is a potential seed that we can grow into something beautiful.

OK, that was all from the book Keep Going.

Want to read the complete book?

Buy Keep Going from Amazon


Well, that was all from those three books.

I create and distribute book summaries whenever I come across a book worth sharing.

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And if you feel this post helped you today, you can send me a coffee… It’s up to you; you can choose not to.

[Disclosure: Bear in mind that some links in this post are affiliate links and when you go through them and make a purchase, I will earn a commission.]

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