Book Notes

Steal Like an Artist

Print | Ebook | Audiobook

The Book in Three Sentences

Austin Kleon says there is nothing new under the sun, and your creative work isn’t new or unique either, and that’s a good thing. It means you can learn from those who have come before you, those you respect, and choose how you then want to express your own creative ideas. It’s practical and refreshing take on the life of a creator.

The 10 Big Ideas

  1. Steal like an artist.
  2. Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.
  3. Write the book you want to read.
  4. Use your hands.
  5. Side projects and hobbies are important.
  6. The secret: do good work and share it with people.
  7. Geography is no longer our master.
  8. Be nice. (The world is a small town.)
  9. Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)
  10. Creativity is subtraction.

Summary and Notes

Steal Like an Artist.

Nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original. If we understand this then we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original every time. we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.

Austin talks about this interesting idea of The Genealogy of Ideas. The idea that every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas.

Your job is to collect good ideas. You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.

Study one thinker—writer, artist, activist, role model—you really love. Study everything there is to know about that thinker. Then find three people that thinker loved, and find out everything about them. Repeat this as many times as you can. Climb up the tree as far as you can go. Once you build your tree, it’s time to start your own branch.

Don’t Wait Until You Know Who You Are to Get Started.

Don’t wait. Just start. It’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are. Nobody is born with a style or a voice. 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.

The writer Wilson Mizner said if you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many, it’s research. I once heard the cartoonist Gary Panter say, “If you have one person you’re influenced by, everyone will say you’re the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone will say you’re so original!” What to copy is a little bit trickier. 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. The reason to copy your heroes and their style is so that you might somehow get a glimpse into their minds. That’s what you really want—to internalize their way of looking at the world. If you just mimic the surface of somebody’s work without understanding where they are coming from, your work will never be anything more than a knockoff.

At some point, you’ll have to move from imitating your heroes to emulating them. Imitation is about copying. Emulation is when imitation goes one step further, breaking through into your own thing. Find what works for you and abandon the rest.

“It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.”

– Conan O’Brien

Write the Book You Want to Read.

  • The best advice is not to write what you know, it’s to write what you like. Write the kind of story you like best—write the story you want to read.
  • The same principle applies to your life and your career: Whenever you’re at a loss for what move to make next, just ask yourself, ‘What would make a better story?’
  • 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.

Use Your Hands.

The computer is really good for editing your ideas, and it’s really good for getting your ideas ready for publishing out into the world, but it’s not really good for generating ideas. There are too many opportunities to hit the delete key. The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us—we start editing ideas before we have them

Side Projects and Hobbies Are Important.

  • If you’re out of ideas, wash the dishes. Take a really long walk. Stare at a spot on the wall for as long as you can. As the artist Maira Kalman says, “Avoiding work is the way to focus my mind.”
  • Take time to mess around. Get lost. Wander. You never know where it’s going to lead you.
  • If you have two or three real passions, don’t feel like you have to pick and choose between them. Don’t discard. Keep all your passions in your life.
  • Don’t worry about unity—what unifies your work is the fact that you made it.

The Secret: Do Good Work and Share It with People.

  • There’s no pressure when you’re unknown. You can do what you want. Experiment.
  • If there was a secret formula for becoming known, I would give it to you. But there’s only one not-so-secret formula that I know: Do good work and share it with people.
  • Step 1: Wonder at something.
  • Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you. You should wonder at the things nobody else is wondering about.

Geography Is No Longer Our Master.

  • At some point, when you can do it, you have to leave home. You can always come back, but you have to leave at least once.
  • Your brain gets too comfortable in your everyday surroundings.

Be Nice. (The World Is a Small Town.)

  • “There’s only one rule I know of: You’ve got to be kind.” —Kurt Vonnegut
  • You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with
  • If you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room
  • So, I recommend public fan letters. The Internet is really good for this. Write a blog post about someone’s work that you admire and link to their site. Make something and dedicate it to your hero. Answer a question they’ve asked, solve a problem for them, or improve on their work and share it online
  • “Modern art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn’t.” —Craig Damrauer
  • Try it: Instead of keeping a rejection file, keep a praise file. Use it sparingly—don’t get lost in past glory—but keep it around for when you need the lift.

Be Boring. (It’s the Only Way to Get Work Done.)

  • As photographer Bill Cunningham says, “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do.”
  • A day job puts you in the path of other human beings. Learn from them, steal from them. I’ve tried to take jobs where I can learn things that I can use in my work later—my library job taught me how to do research, my Web design job taught me how to build websites, and my copywriting job taught me how to sell things with words.
  • The worst thing a day job does is take time away from you, but it makes up for that by giving you a daily routine in which you can schedule a regular time for your creative pursuits. Establishing and keeping a routine can be even more important than having a lot of time. Inertia is the death of creativity. You have to stay in the groove. When you get out of the groove, you start to dread the work, because you know it’s going to suck for a while—it’s going to suck until you get back into the flow.
  • The solution is really simple: Figure out what time you can carve out, what time you can steal, and stick to your routine. Do the work every day, no matter what.
  • Get a calendar. Fill the boxes. Don’t break the chain.
  • Just as you need a chart of future events, you also need a chart of past events. A logbook isn’t necessarily a diary or a journal, it’s just a little book in which you list the things you do every day. What project you worked on, where you went to lunch, what movie you saw.
  • Who you marry is the most important decision you’ll ever make. And “marry well” doesn’t just mean your life partner—it also means who you do business with, who you befriend, who you choose to be around.

Creativity is Subtraction

  • In this age of information abundance and overload, those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out, so they can concentrate on what’s really important to them
  • The way to get over creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself. It seems contradictory, but when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom. Write a song on your lunch break. Paint a painting with only one color. Start a business without any start-up capital. Shoot a movie with your iPhone and a few of your friends. Build a machine out of spare parts. Don’t make excuses for not working—make things with the time, space, and materials you have, right now.
  • In the end, creativity isn’t just the things we choose to put in, it’s the things we choose to leave out


“If you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.”

“You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life.”

What Now?

  • Talk a walk
  • Start your swipe file
  • Go to the library
  • Buy a notebook and use it
  • Get yourself a calendar
  • Start your logbook
  • Give a copy of this book away
  • Start a blog
  • Take a nap

Recommended Reading

  • Linda Barry, What It Is
  • Hugh MacLeod, Ignore Everybody
  • Jason Fried + David Heinemeier Hansson, Rework
  • Lewis Hyde, The Gift
  • Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence
  • David Shields, Reality Hunger
  • Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics
  • Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow
  • Ed Emberley, Make a World

Thanks for reading

If you have any comments or feedback on this article, I’d love to hear from you. The best way to reach me is on Twitter @samyakr_.

By Samyak

Russian melancholy/Derek Parfit/Doris Lessing/B.R. Ambedkar/Franz Kafka/Sol Lewitt/every film by Satoshi Kon/poetry + writing + a lot of other things.

3 replies on “Steal Like an Artist”

Leave a Reply to Samyak Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s