Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative – Austin Kleon

Sep 1, 2020 4 min read
Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative – Austin Kleon

David Bowie was once asked: "Do you consider yourself an original thinker?" He replied "Not by any means, more like a tasteful thief. The only art I'll ever study is the stuff that I can steal from.". In Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon explains that nothing is original, so embrace influence!

👨 About the Author

Austin Kleon is the author of a trilogy of books about creativity in the digital age. He describes himself as "a writer who draws" and as you can imagine, his books have excellent illustrations while being short and to the point.

I picked up his collection after hearing about his book "Show your Work!" in this video by Ali Abdaal. Here are my thoughts on Steal Like An Artist:

☝️ Principles

Kleon describes ten transformative principles that help readers discover their artistic side and build a more creative life. The first one, and perhaps the most prominent:

"Steal Like An Artist"

Depicts how nothing is original, and when people say original, they often don't know its source or references. You can find this insight in all walks of life. In Mark Ronson's TED talk, "How sampling transformed music",

he shows how over 1000 artists have sampled the song "La Di Da Di" by Slick Rick & Doug E. Fresh. Artists such as Snoop Dogg, Notorious B.I.G, Robbie Williams, Beyonce and Miley Cirus have sampled the song, and I doubt they will be the last. Even La Di Da Di contains samples from 2 pieces. I highly recommend checking out the site and see who inspired your favourite artists.

Ronson also adds that these artists would have had fond memories of the songs they sampled but rather than blatantly stealing the song, they reinterpreted the song for their generation or style of music. He concludes the talk by stating that we live in the post sampling era; we take the things we love and build on them. Musicians merge their musical journey with songs they love to be a part of that musical evolution and to be linked with it once its something new again.


On a similar note, I was recently watching a video about a programming framework RxDart. In the video, Brian Egan tells the story of how he was influenced by the libraries cycle.js and frappe to help improve RxDart. The honouring of influences is prevalent in all fields, including computer programming.

Egan starts his talk by telling us how he began using Flutter and exploring ideas by "throwing spaghetti at the wall", which leads us to another of Kleon's principles:

"Don't wait till you know who you are to get started."

This principle's underlying message is to start making and not to worry about the outcome. We learn by copying whether its the alphabet, times tables or a "Hello World" program, it all starts with action. It could be reverse engineering your hero's work to gain a glimpse into their mind or exploring an idea you combined from two tweets. The main point here is to start exploring, playing or noodling to learn from the work.

The final principle I want to discuss is:

"Creativity is subtraction."

Many people will know the message here, that if you set limits, you can end up with more imaginative results, e.g., filming a movie with only your phone or only using two colours to paint a picture. There is a famous story that Kleon quotes:

"After writing The Cat in the Hat in 1955 using only 223 words, Dr Seuss bet his publisher that he could write a book using only 50 words. Seuss collected on the wager in 1960 with the publication of Green Eggs and Ham."

Showing that it isn't just the things we choose to put in, it's the things we choose to leave out. This selective process tends to lead to the creation of an artificial problem that needs an imaginative solution. I haven't explored this principle yet in my creative process, but I am looking forward to what I could create from using it.

🤔 Final thoughts

This book is concise; you can easily read it in a couple of hours. Some may say this is a bad thing, but I feel this is intentional and is meant to be treated as a reference when you are stuck. Just like the last principle "Creativity is Subtraction", I feel Kleon has deliberately minimised the length of this book to show a different style of creative writing. I think this leaves you to ponder some of the principles thoroughly without too much hand-holding.

I would recommend this book for anyone who is looking to kick start their creative process. I found it useful to try to apply each principle to what I was working on at the time and see if it helped me think about the situation in a different way. One example of this is I always thought everything had to be original and it was terrible to copy from others, now I realise it okay to be inspired by others and build on the idea. There are many more principles in the book, and I would recommend you to get it.

If you have enjoyed this review, I have added my affiliate link to the book here. And if you end up reading it, let me know what you think below!

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