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Steal Like an Artist

10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative

By: Austin Kleon

Reviewed By: Ramona Sukhraj

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

This famous quote by Picasso is the premise for Austin Kleon’s renowned book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative.

Based on his 2012 Tedx Talk, Kleon shows us how to “steal” ideas from everything around us, combine them with each other (along with our own ideas) to create something entirely new.

It is a quick, but informative, read that is focused on being actionable, wastes no time with fluff, and uses graphic illustrations and typography to engage the reader.

Steal Like an Artist is 10 chapters long, which act more like 10 secrets to achieving the same goal -- stealing like a great artist.

Below is a brief summary of each lesson and how you can implement them into your life as a marketer, designer, writer, or creative in general.  

1. Steal like an artist

It was Mark Twain who once said:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely, but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

Nothing is original. Every piece of art or creative work has and always will have been influenced by something else.

What Can You Do?

Rather than trying to be original, focus on how you can remix, transform, and improve existing ideas -- build upon them, advance them.

steal-like-an-artist-thief.gifCredit: Austin Kleon, 

Create your art through things you collect daily. Steal ideas from your friends, family, peers, music, movies, books, current events, and everything else you encounter.

By pulling inspiration from a variety of sources, you will not only come up with an idea that is unique, but rich in value and meaning. 


2. Don’t wait until you know who you are to start making things

Whether you are writing, creating a new product, designing a website, or strategizing how to solve a problem, the only prerequisite to get started in creating is to forget who you are.

What Can You Do?

Copy your influencers when you first start out. Tap into the mind of those you copy and figure out who and what inspired them. Study their influencers, as well.

Eventually, you will adapt their ideas to your own approach and you will have evolved from copying. Once your own style is formed, others will begin copying you. 


3. Write the book you want to read

There is a misconception that you should write a book based on the area you have the most knowledge. As an expert on a particular subject, the book will be a good read, right?

Not necessarily.

What Can You Do?

Many of us often have knowledge in areas of low interest to mainstream audiences -- perhaps our professions or things we learned in school. Instead of succumbing to a textbook on these subjects, write the book that you’re dying to read yourself.

Your genuine enthusiasm and passion for the subject matter will make you dig deeper and create something greater than you originally thought possible. It will help draw more greatly from your personal thoughts and ideas than a professional piece reiterating what many have said before you. 


4. Use your hands

According to Kleon, “computers have robbed us of the feeling that we are making things.”

We have two working modes, digital and analog, to stimulate all areas of your mind and he suggests that modern creatives are losing sight of the latter.

What Can You Do?

Schedule time away from the computer and internet to use your hands. Write, draw, build, craft -- do anything physical that creates a tangible result.

Something as simple as taking notes on paper during your next team meeting rather than on a tablet can help you channel this energy (or consider picking up a copy of Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist Journal like I did.)



Sit at your desk and listen #stealjournal

A photo posted by Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) on


As Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris, told NYTimes,  “when we [hand] write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated…. There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain...Learning is made easier.”


5. Side projects & hobbies are important

Practice productive procrastination by working on side projects and hobbies that take your mind off work and serve no purpose to make money.

Hobbies like these act as a form of meditation and give your brain a chance to rest and recharge.

What Can You Do?

Don’t throw any parts of yourself away. We are often compelled to drop hobbies that don’t fit into the ideal public depiction of ourselves and pick up ones we think we should.  Instead, let the aspects of what make you unique flourish and in turn, they will aid your ”required” tasks and projects. 


6. Do good work & put it where people can see it

Appreciate the small audience you have in the beginning. Fewer eyes on your work relieves pressure and allows you to tinker and experiment until you get it right, but don’t be afraid to open up your audience.

What Can You Do?

Create great work, consistently improve, and share it with as many people as you can. Though there will be critics, sharing our work with others also helps us find like-minded people we wouldn’t likely have met. It helps us get new perspectives and improve our work even further.

While they vary from industry to industry look for communities both online and in-person to share your work.

Austin Kleon himself outlines 10 more tips on how to show your work and get discovered here, but here are some popular online communities/platforms for marketers and designers that I suggest you check out:

7. Geography is no longer our master

“Travel makes the world look new, and when the world looks new, our brains work harder,” Kleon states.

So, don’t be contained to your office. The further you travel, the more insights you gain and can add to your work. However, he notes that constraints can often be a blessing in disguise.

A bad weather season can keep you locked in your office for months at a time, diligently creating your next masterpiece.


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

Focus on making new friends and ignore the haters.

It’s easy to get distracted and worked up over negative comments about you or your work, but this is unproductive.

What Can You Do?

Surround yourself with creative and successful people who you aspire to be like. When you are around the best, you adapt to their level. Write fan letters to those you admire. Everyone needs praise from time to time and if you enjoy someone’s work, you should let them know.

Showing a genuine appreciation for someone else’s work (even if it’s that of a competitor) can open the door to co-branded webinars, offer, or other forms of mutually-beneficial collaboration.  


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

The people who are most productive usually live the most boring lives.

All of the excitement and drama that’s typically associated with an artist’s life isn’t practical for long-term success.

Creativity requires the majority of your energy, so you have to take care of yourself through diet, exercise, and sleep. Predictable routines, good health and energy levels allow you to be most productive.

What Can You Do?

Note: I used to be an artist when I was a child, but when my older brother told me they starve, I dropped that dream pretty much immediately.

So, live within your means until you have money to spend. While it might be romantic to quit your job and thrust yourself into a new career as an artist, it’s not realistic. Stay out of debt and avoid being a starving artist.

Keep your day job. While it may not be your dream, it allows you to pay the bills and create a stable routine where you can work on your craft every day. It builds momentum and creates habits that will benefit you now and in the future.

Also, keep a journal or a physical log of your work. Think of it as the opposite of a to-do list -- a “done list.” This helps you visualize your progress when you feel bogged down or frustrated that you haven’t accomplished anything.


10. Creativity is subtraction

We’ve all fallen victim to information overload and over-thinking a task so much that we never end up starting.

What Can You Do?

To combat this, Kleon suggests creating limits or constraints on ourselves to remove distractions and create greater focus on our work.

He notes an example of how Dr. Seuss forced himself to write Green Eggs and Ham using only 50 different words. Art is more interesting when you leave out the unnecessary and focus on one goal.


Key Takeaway

Creativity isn’t simply just a personality trait you are born with, it’s a conscious habit. Use Austin Kleon’s 10 secrets above to start building a routine of creativity and delivering more novel ideas than ever before.

Featured Image Source: Culture N Lifestyle