We’ve been rereading one of our favorite books, Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, and getting as much — or more — out of it the second time than we did the first.
Austin has a talent for taking big, scary concepts (like how to become an artist, for example) and making them approachable and intuitive. His illustrations are quirky, borderline childish. His aphorisms are funny and commonsensical. It’s as if Austin’s whole point is simply to say, Hey everybody, let’s calm down here and stop taking ourselves so seriously — art is fun! His approach works. Not only is the book great, it’s also a New York Times bestseller. You can buy it in Urban Outfitters, for goodness’ sake.
But even with its ubiquity, there were a lot of ideas that we had forgotten. Coming back to them has been good for us. So we thought we would share a few of them with you.
Stay in School
“Whether you’re in school or not,” Austin writes, “it’s always your job to get yourself an education.” Although most of us start off with this mind-set — ravenously learning everything we can about our craft, staying up all night watching YouTube tutorials, renting movies nobody has ever heard of — our enthusiasm usually fades. We get the basics down, learn a few tricks that can get us out of a bind, and then we start to coast.
But coasting is death to a creative. There’s no such thing as coasting, only forward or backward motion. So whatever “school” looks like to you, stay in it. If you’re not interested in anything, you haven’t been digging. Learning inspires learning. You just have to keep the ball rolling.
Work with a Sense of Play
When Austin was first trying to be a writer, he wrote in Microsoft Word with double-spaced 12pt Times New Roman font. And in his own words, “…my stuff was just terrible. Writing has ceased to be any fun for me.” It wasn’t until he started working with his hands — blacking out newspaper articles and finding poems within — that a sense of play returned to his work. “Things became fun again, and my work started to improve.”
Austin’s point here is that it’s important to work with your hands. And we agree. But what strikes us even more is that it’s important to work with a sense of play. Our work should always be at least a little bit fun.
It’s easy to assume there is some sort of nobility in powering through. When the work gets hard, we work harder. We grit our teeth and force our way forward. But this rarely leads to good work and almost always leads to burnout. Our best work is often a strange mix of effort and effortlessness. Grit and nonchalance. Work and play.
“Don’t worry about unity from piece to piece,” Austin writes. “What unifies your work is the fact that you made it.”
It’s hard enough coming up with ideas. But it can be debilitating trying to vet those ideas through the filter of how you want to be perceived in the world. Is this me? you wonder before any work has even been done. You wonder how all your films will look side by side on Vimeo. You wonder how all your photos will look in your Instagram feed. You start thinking about your “brand.” Your “aesthetic.” And then your work gets really, really boring.
To Austin’s point: You don’t have to wonder if what you’re creating “is you.” It is. It always is. Just make it. Who you are is the accumulation of the things you make, not the other way around.
“What unifies your work is the fact that you made it.”
We all already know this, but then we turn around and immediately forget it: Constraints are a good thing. Constraints are an inspiration. In Austin’s words, “Nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities.” The best way around creative blocks is by putting ourselves in a box.
The Cat in the Hat only includes 236 different words, Austin reminds us. Green Eggs and Ham: 50.
We sometimes mistake living wildly with being wildly creative. But the fact is that being prolifically creative takes a lot of energy, it takes clear thinking, it takes discipline, and it takes financial freedom. It’s a long game. For Austin, that means living in a quiet neighborhood with his wife and dog and working a 9 to 5 job. It means going to the doctor. It means thinking about retirement and staying out of debt. Rather than enslaving you to middle-class monotony, living a healthy, “boring” life frees you to be wildly creative for a long, long time.
Austin even implores his readers not to quit their day job. Because, despite how it seems, it’s your day job that gives you the freedom to make anything you want without worrying about getting paid for it. It’s your day job that forces your life into a routine (and routine is creativity’s friend). “The trick is to find a day job that pays decently, doesn’t make you want to vomit, and leaves you with enough energy to make things in your spare time.”
The Secret to Success
Austin says it’s a two-step process:
- Do good work.
- Share it with people. Simple. Difficult. And incredibly effective.
Every once in a while it’s good to stop, take a deep breath, and remember some of the fundamentals of living a creative life. Remember that it can be fun. That it can be simple. That constraints are good and doctor visits are even better. Steal Like an Artist has been a great reminder of that lately. Pick up a copy for yourself. They’re literally everywhere.