Steal Like an Artist

“All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.” – Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist is described as “an inspiring guide to creativity in the digital age,” and although the book addresses technology, most of its wisdom would benefit writers and other artists in any age.

This little treasure of a book is compact and comfortable. I’ve become used to reading on a Kindle, but the paperback edition of Steal Like an Artist was easy to hold. Each page is visually, intellectually, and creatively engaging with photos and artwork interspersed throughout short essays that offer a range of tips and principles for living a creative life. I’m a fan of using quotes from the experts to underscore various ideas, and this book offers plenty of those. Yet some of the most quoteworthy material came from Austin Kleon’s own words:

“In my experience, it’s the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are.” – Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

What You Get

Sometimes we need a hard-boiled, practical book from which we can build our skills — a grammar guide or a primary on literary devices. Other times, what we need is some fire — a book that ignites our passion, strikes our curiosity, or enflames our creativity.

This book is the latter. It’s not a writing resource in the sense that it imparts hard skills; rather, it relays the soft skills of successful creative living — not successful in terms of money and fame — but success in terms of living a good life. To wit: this book encourages readers to learn how to manage money as soon as possible (something you simply don’t encounter in books aimed at creative people). This is a testament to the fact that being any kind of artist, including a writer, goes beyond the work we do at a desk. Our writing is just one component of a broader life, and we should be cognizant of how we build that life.

Yet there’s also plenty of creative advice that directly addresses the work of an artist. One of my favorite tips dealt with balancing analog and digital work. Kleon recommends setting up two workstations (if you can) and alternating between them, with the analog desk being a space for paper and pens and glue while the digital desk is where we do our computer work.

I read the entire book on a day of extreme weather that kept me indoors. Throughout the day, I’d pick up the book, read a section, and then set it down. Some time later, I’d pick it up and read another section. By evening, I’d read the entire thing. it’s a fast, fun read. It put me in a good mood, and it motivated me. With each reading session, I wanted to get stuff done. And there’s a lot to do.

“You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.” – Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

What it Covers

Each of the ten sections in the book covers a different principle. Here is the table of contents, which corresponds to the ten principles:

  1. Steal like an artist
  2. Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started
  3. Write the book you want to read
  4. Use your hands
  5. Side projects and hobbies are important
  6. The secret: do good work and share it with people
  7. Geography is no longer our master
  8. Be nice (the world is a small town)
  9. Be boring (it’s the only way to get work done)
  10. Creativity is subtraction

This gives you a pretty good sense of what to expect, but there are many gems tucked into the pages of this book that take you much deeper into these principles. “use your hands” isn’t just about writing and drawing with physical (rather than digital) materials — it’s about getting into the world and experiencing it firsthand. Yet for all the endorsements of analog living and creativity, Kleon also expresses appreciation for what digital tools can do for us in this day and age.

“Collect books…Nothing is more important than an unread library.” – Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

Steal Like an Artist is a delightful read packed with good advice and valuable wisdom. Some of the tips in the book might not be for you, and that’s okay. Kleon himself says, “Take what you can use and leave the rest.” I’m certain you’ll find inspiration and motivation within these pages, so I recommend picking up a copy. Austin Kleon has some other books (Show Your Work and Keep Going), which I’m looking forward to devouring.

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