How do you find your talents? Steal Like an Artist Book: Summary and Review

In large white reversed type spread across two undersized black pages, each chapter begins with a simple and often counter-intuitive thought. The square-shaped book isn’t quite pocket-sized, though it’s close. The book in this case is Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon.

Following the book’s lead, I’m going to … borrow … Austin’s 10 thing, letting you know how they’ve worked for me. Following the say “Yes, and…” maxim of improv, I’m also adding my own ideas for you to try.

1. Steal like an artist.

The first chapter begins with a minimalist and powerful diagram that asks “Is it worth stealing?” We borrow ideas. We aren’t the first to create with paper, canvas, clay, or even a computer. Even when those ideas seemed new, artists built work based on ideas that came before them. The idea here isn’t to plagiarise, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s about giving up on worry. Stop worrying that it’s not good enough. We are our own worst critics.

Austin explains beautifully how we are all a unique remix of our parents. Our art is a unique mashup of our influences. Become a selective collector of influences. Concentrate on keeping what you love and throw out the rest. Studies show that a focus on love helps us generate new ideas. Look for who your favorite artists loved and who loved them and take from them what you like best.

Try this: Copy your role models and leaders. Thinking of leadership as an innate trait and not as a learned skill causes anxiety according to research reported by Psychology Today. The study concluded that people only benefit from role models when they acknowledge skills as learnable. Recognize that talents are learnable skills.

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

According to the American Psychological Association impostor phenomenon (or impostor syndrome) was first described in the 1970s. Unable to internalize and accept their success, we often attribute accomplishments to luck instead of ability. There exists a fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.

In this chapter, Keon reminds us that we all fake it until you make it. This reminds me of a TED Talk where we’re told to fake it until you become it. Keep pretending to make something until you make something. Creative work is theatre.

Reverse engineer others work, take apart the pieces to see how it works. Learn their way of looking at the world. This reminds me of a (probably apocryphal) tale of composers George Gershwin and Maurice Ravel. When Gershwin asked Ravel to teach him about composition, Ravel alledgedly replied “Why be a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?”

“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing” Salvador Dali

Try this: Recognize your accomplishments. Lack of confidence in your ability to succeed often creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

3. Write the book you want to read.

Take your favorite parts and use them. Your own art is fan fiction combining the favorite characters and pieces from your favorite stories and images. Create based on the stories you like to read. Ask what would make this better. Think about versions of your favorite work and then what would it be like next. If all your favorite artists collaborated, what would that look like?

How am I writing my own book? I often joke with friends and strangers that when I’m nervous I just imagine I’m someone else. I’m the hero or the villain of the book. Sometimes I feel like I can’t do something. It’s beyond me or for someone else. I’ll be  afraid to act heroic fixing my problems. I’ll be afraid of being villainized and judged. I recognize these fears as imagination and try imagining different ways of looking at it.

Try this: Question your truth and story. Write out your fears and explore reasons they shouldn’t be accepted.

4. Use your hands.

Traditional art has power. Draw! Sketch! Computers are too perfectionist and bring out our inner perfectionist This chapter reminds me of a studies where paper money is psychologically different from using credit cards. Credit cards are abstract and our brain thinks of the money involved differently.

Try this: Sketch, doodle, and write by hand. The tactile experience can help you see and understand problems in new ways. The accidents created by hand movement can help you see new shapes and “feel” the energy of lines. Next time you have a problem, whether it’s an art problem or not, try a sheet of paper.

5. Side projects and hobbies are important.

Productive procrastination is putting off one thing by doing another productive thing. Even the stuff that’s play — messing around — can turn in to something else. Have a lot of projects. What Unifies your work is that you made it.  I always say the best way to procrastinate is to do something else on my “someday maybe list”. The gym, cleaning, a walk. This blog. The podcast. Don’t choose between your passions.

Try this: Find time every month for your side projects. Identify what you consider your side projects, the things you do just for the feel good benefit, and learn to diversify your time investments into happy tasks.

6. The secret: do good work and share it with people.

Obscurity allows you to explore and see what resonates with people . Make stuff, fail, get better, share it. Wonder at something. Invite others to wonder with you. Give away your secrets, your thought process. If you’re worried about sharing too many secrets, share small pieces and leave others to figure out how to connect them.

Try this: Whether it’s with your real life social friends or with established online connections such as this blog, feel more free to share your work.

7. Geography is no longer our master.

Create your own world, surround yourself with objects you love. Enjoy solitude with a pen, notepad, a book. Leave home. Enjoy new surroundings. Enjoy people who don’t do what you do.

Try this: Add mastering the internet fearlessly to your life. Comment on the articles you love. Send thank you notes and appreciation to all the authors, web sites, even celebrities who you really love. Share your artwork and design on any site that has pictures. There are people out there who wish they were as daring as you

8. Be nice (The world is a small town.)

Make friends, ignore enemies. You are a here to make friends, life isn’t a reality show. Say nice things about people . Surround yourself with good people, the best people, who are smarter and better than you.  Be willing to look stupid. Hang out with the most talented people in the room. Channel the energy you’d use on enemies and embarrassment on your art. Keon tells us to keep a record of all the compliments you receive for when you need that. Save any nice emails, comments tweets in one place

Try this: Write fan letters. Not to get a response, just to express your kindness. Public fan letters. Write blog posts about people you admire and link to their site. Make art dedicated to your heroes. Do it for your own sense of gratitude and appreciation. If you’re a big fan of a Rihanna or Beyonce, why not just Tweet to them and let them know you’re a fan. Or handwrite fan mail. The idea that you did something out of appreciation will enrich your own life. You might not get validation. Many artists didn’t until after their lives. The guy who wrote the musical Rent was never able to see its success. Neither did Van Gogh. People usually wont see or understand your struggle, good artwork looks effortless.

9. Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)

Take care of yourself. Your personal finances, your family, and your friends all may need your attention. You need to sleep, eat right, exercise. This gives you energy to act creatively. Stay out of debt. Learn about money, make a budget, spend less than you make, save, get educated for as cheap as possible. Say no to take out and new things to replace things that work. Keep your day job for connection to the world and routine and control over your life. Limiting your time helps you schedule your creativity. “Work gets done when time is available.” Use your calendar and schedule more things until you have most things scheduled.

Try this: Keep a logbook, list what you’ve done every day. Not a diary, just lists, projects, a daily record of small details. Keep track of how far you traveled. What are the best things that happened today? Draw and sketch around your lists. Pick your friends, partner, and even family who you choose to have around you and how much.

10. Creativity is subtraction.

Choose what to leave out.  Place constraints on yourself. Painting with one color. Make things work with what you have. Do with less. Art is struggle against limitations.


If I have one major complaint about the book Steal Like An Artist it’s that it’s too short! However, I’m definitely going to pick up the authors next book: Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered. I love that the book ends with a spread of “deleted scenes” explaining how the book began its life on index cards and showing you what didn’t make the cut.

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Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.