Book Notes #9: “Steal Like An Artist” (By Austin Kleon)

by | Jul 20, 2022

Now this is a book! One that I’m happy to have read. One that I’m surprised I hadn’t read before. So many of the concepts resonated with me. And they will you and fellow creatives. This is crisp, clean read with tidy & powerful ideas. It amounts to an inspirational workbook for artists. Read it and read it again.

Steal Like An Artist
By Austin Kleon

Here are 7 takeaways:

  • It’s all in the title – Steal like an artist
    The title is provocative and intentionally so. It’s supposed to shock you so that you realize how art has always been made. By studying, imitation, copying, replication — and eventually, emulation.When I was learning jazz bass, I was told to transcribe the bass solos of Ron Carter. But of course if I did that, I would sound like Ron Carter. Newsflash: it’s virtually impossible to sound like Ron Carter. I also studied the solos of Victor Wooten and Sonny Rollins. So you develop an amalgamated style. In this way, I was stealing. I was taking the best bits of these virtuosos and trying to make it my own.

    You have to steal the thinking behind whomever you admire. When you do this, you’ll have a window to their thought process. This is where there is growth.

    All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original….You’re a remix of your mom and dad and all your ancestors…You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences.

  • Be selective
    Make sure to be very selective and curate what you want to study and learn. Kleon recommends finding an artist and going deep – learning about them and who influenced them. You’ll study that branch of knowledge and eventually create your own. Over time, you’ll learn what and how to study better. And that is the process of refinement of your craft. It’s ok to study with a tutor and also a “dead master” because they can’t refuse to take you on as a student.

    Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.

  • Google everything
    While not deeply philosophical, it’s one of the most practical parts of the book. People ask me questions all the time about factual things. Who plays on this record? When was that book released? Google it!

    Don Cheadle, who narrated Carry On, lists his Twitter name as: Don” ‘t ask me google questions” Cheadle. When it comes to the creative process, google everything. Your teachers, their work, who published their works, their literary agents. Do your research. Imagine you couldn’t ask someone your basic request. Google it!

    Whenever you google something try appending + reddit. If you want to learn about peanuts, you’d write “Peanuts + reddit” and you’d get a reddit discussion (and avoid all those Google ads).


  • Fake it ’til you make it
    We’re all faking it. Has anyone actually mastered anything with their short time here on earth? We’re perpetual students. Kleon’s commentary is blunt and helpful. It’s all about showing up and being consistent.

    It means that you feel like a phony, like you’re just winging it, that 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 and do their thing. Every day.

  • Embrace your side projects
    This validated what I always thought might be true but was self-conscious about.When I had a corporate job, I would always have side projects. Making albums, writing books, etc. I would go home and work on these things. I always felt like my day started *after* my day job ended. When I could work on my craft. I finally got smarter about my music career and started a record label. I would keep making and distributing records and building up an avenue of potential passive income source.

    The day would come when I wouldn’t have a cushy corporate job. And that day came more quickly than I thought. And now my side project – making music – has become my main hustle. I like how Kleon says you shouldn’t throw away your passions. It’s OK to have a few. They can mutually nourish.

    It’s the side projects that really take off. By side projects I mean the stuff that you thought was just messing around. Stuff that’s just play. That’s actually the good stuff. That’s when the magic happens. I think it’s good to have a lot of projects going at once so you can bounce between them.

  • Be Bored
    It’s OK to sit around being bored. I get my best ideas when I travel, am on a plane, or in the shower. What do these have in common? I’m not on my phone. The mind is working and connecting the dots.What’s more, you don’t need to have unity or some giant aesthetic that unifies your work. The unity comes in that it came from you. I’m an oddball, or so I’ve come to think. Because I do a range of things, I don’t have one niche. But that’s OK.

    Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing. I get some of my best ideas when I’m bored, which is why I never take my shirts to the cleaners. I love ironing my shirts — it’s so boring, I almost always get good ideas.

  • Give your secrets away
    This is something I had to learn. I used to be so tightlipped about everything I was doing. I wanted to finish projects wholly and completely. Not afraid that people would steal them. But that the project wouldn’t get completed. And then I’d be someone who didn’t deliver or get something done.But I’ve learned that people want to experience the journey with you. Even better, share your secrets with others. If you’ve learned something, pass it on. You don’t have to connect all the dots. But give folks a glimpse. That’s why I’m blogging more often and writing my Seven Point Sunday newsletter.

    People love it when you give your secrets away, and sometimes, if you’re smart about it, they’ll reward you by buying the things you’re selling…Share a little glimpse of your process.


Submit a Comment