Steal like an artist - 10 things nobody told you about being creative


How much did I enjoy reading it? 9/10

Austin Kleon is one of the rare author to write books in a concise way. No superficial sentences or paragraph where you get lost. Almost every bit of text is relevant, and much is profound. Like a meditation, you want to be reminded with most of them. You want to get penetrated with this book's ideas. You want to absorb the content, digest it, for it to become yours.


“Art is theft.”

-- Pablo Picasso

All advice is autobiographical

when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.


1. Steal like an artist

Is it worth stealing? Yes / No : move to the next thing.

How to look at the world like an artist

Every artist gets asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”
The honest artist answers, “I steal them.”

How does an artist look at the world?
First, you figure out what’s worth stealing, then you move on to the next thing.
When you look at the world this way, there’s only stuff worth stealing, and stuff that’s not worth stealing.

Nothing is original

when people call something “original,” they just don’t know the references or the original sources.
All creative work builds on what came before.
“There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”

-- André Gide

We can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.

The genealogy of ideas

Draw two parallel lines on a piece of paper.
There’s the first line, the second line, but then there’s a line of negative space that runs between them.
1 + 1 = 3

You’re a remix of your mom and dad and all of your ancestors.
Just as you have a familial genealogy, you also have a genealogy of ideas.
You don’t get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers, friends, music, books, movies.
You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences

“We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.”

-- Goethe

Garbage in, garbage out

The artist is a collector.
artists collect selectively. They only collect things that they really love.

You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.
Your job is to collect good ideas.

“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 that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”

-- Jim Jarmusch

Climb your own family tree

chew on one thinker 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.

I hang pictures of my favorite artists in my studio. They’re like friendly ghosts. I can almost feel them pushing me forward as I’m hunched over my desk.
they can’t refuse you as an apprentice. You can learn whatever you want from them. They left their lesson plans in their work.

School yourself

Whether you’re in school or not, it’s always your job to get yourself an education.
You have to be curious about the world in which you live. Go deeper than anybody else—that’s how you’ll get ahead.
Google everything. I mean everything. Google your dreams, Google your problems.
Go to the library. There’s magic in being surrounded by books.
Collect books, even if you don’t plan on reading them right away.

Save your thefts for later

Carry a notebook and a pen with you wherever you go. Get used to pulling it out and jotting down your thoughts and observations. Copy your favorite passages out of books.
See something worth stealing? Put it in the swipe file. Need a little inspiration? Open up the swipe file.
Your morgue file is where you keep the dead things that you’ll later reanimate in your work.

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

-- Mark Twain


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

Make things, Know thyself

it’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are.
Start making stuff.

“impostor syndrome.”
you feel like a phony, you really don’t have any idea what you’re doing.
Guess what: None of us do. Ask anybody doing truly creative work, and they’ll tell you the truth: They don’t know where the good stuff comes from. They just show up to do their thing. Every day.

Fake it til you make it

All the world’s a stage.

  1. Pretend to be something you’re not until you are. fake it until you’re successful, until everybody sees you the way you want them to.
  2. Pretend to be making something until you actually make something.

you have to dress for the job you want, not the job you have, and you have to start doing the work you want to be doing.

“You start out as a phony and become real.”

-- Glenn O’Brien

Start copying

“Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self.”

-- Yohji Yamamoto

We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are.
We learn by copying.
It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.

The human hand is incapable of making a perfect copy.
We learn to write by copying down the alphabet. Musicians learn to play by practicing scales. Painters learn to paint by reproducing masterpieces.
Even The Beatles started as a cover band. Paul McCartney has said, “I emulated Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis. We all did.”

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

-- Salvador Dalí

You copy your heroes—the people you love, the people you’re inspired by, the people you want to be.
if you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many, it’s research.
if you rip off a hundred people, everyone will say you’re so original

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.
to internalize their way of looking at the world.

Imitation is not flattery

“We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice. And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you.”

-- Francis Ford Coppola

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.

Kobe Bryant has admitted that all of his moves on the court were stolen from watching tapes of his heroes.
But he didn’t have the same body type as the guys he was thieving from. He had to adapt the moves to make them his own.

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

-- O’Brien

Good theft:

Bad thefts:

A wonderful flaw about human beings is that we’re incapable of making perfect copies. Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives. That is how we evolve.

So: Copy your heroes. Examine where you fall short. What’s in there that makes you different? That’s what you should amplify and transform into your own work.

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.

“I have stolen all of these moves from all these great players. I just try to do them proud, the guys who came before, because I learned so much from them. It’s all in the name of the game. It’s a lot bigger than me.”

-- Kobe Bryant


3. Write the book you want to read

Write what you like (not what you know)

“My interest in making music has been to create something that does not exist that I would like to listen to. I wanted to hear music that had not yet happened, by putting together things that suggested a new thing which did not yet exist.”

-- Brian Eno

Think about your favorite work and your creative heroes. What did they miss? What didn’t they make? What could’ve been made better? If they were still alive, what would they be making today? If all your favorite makers got together and collaborated, what would they make with you leading the crew?

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.


4. Use your hands

Step away from the screen

Your hands are the original digital devices. Use them.
computers have robbed us of the feeling that we’re actually making things.

Just watch someone at their computer. They’re so still, so immobile. You don’t need a scientific study (of which there are a few) to tell you that sitting in front of a computer all day is killing you, and killing your work. We need to move, to feel like we’re making something with our bodies, not just our heads.

Work that only comes from the head isn’t any good.
Watch a great musician play a show. Watch a great leader give a speech.

You need to find a way to bring your body into your work. Our nerves aren’t a one-way street—our bodies can tell our brains as much as our brains tell our bodies.

If we just start going through the motions, if we strum a guitar, or shuffle sticky notes around a conference table, or start kneading clay, the motion kickstarts our brain into thinking.

It wasn’t until I started bringing analog tools back into my process that making things became fun again and my work started to improve.

The computer is really good for editing your ideas, 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

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

-- Jessica Hische