“Steal Like an Artist” book summary

We’ve read one of the best-sellers of 2012 for our last session of free discussion. It was “Steal Like an Artist” by Autsin Kleon. This book is an autobiography telling us about the conclusions about creative work the author has come to over the past ten years of his life. Although his main concentration was in drawing and writing what he has been enlightened of can be generalized to everything we do and we need creativity in.


Austin Kleon is a New York Times best-selling author having three best-sellers: “Steal Like an Artist”, “Newspaper Blackout” and “Show Your Work”. His top priority nowadays in his work is creativity in today’s world.

I’m gonna go over this book of his and extract the most important parts in my opinion and write them here in my own words and mix my own thoughts into it . . in other words I’m gonna steal from Austin as he has told us to do . .

Well, isn’t using other people’s ideas stealing? Aren’t good thieves creative ones? So we should start to think like good thieves!

“Every artist gets asked the question,

Where do you get your ideas?

The honest artist answers,

I steal them.
–quoting from “Steal Like an Artist”

When you think this way, there’s no good and bad, there’s only things that worth stealing and ones which does not. People always worry about originality, they wanna make things out of nothing, it’s possible but not wise, there’s a quotation from Isaac Newton which says “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”, you can easily see from this that newton was a thief too! The method Austin introduce here is you should take your ideas from other people(big people, giants) and see further or in other words add to them. This is an alleged way of thinking that whenever we don’t know the origin of something we think that thing was original. But think about it, approximately nothing is original, even your decisions aren’t! you make your decisions depending on what you’ve seen, hear or felt before. Every idea is a mashup of other former ideas, just like genes, you have a mashup of the genes of your ancestors.
The advice given here is to embrace the influence.

Remember that you’re going to be as good as the things you surround yourself with, so mind what you let in, and what you let out. Surround yourself with big ideas, your heroes, the way of thinking that the biggest men of history thought. “The more good ideas you collect, the more ideas you can choose to be influenced by . . .”
For this, you can climb a tree! Don’t worry, not a real one of course, but the tree of your heroes. Start by reading everything about your heroes and then start to read everything about their heroes and the people they were influenced by. Remember, you’re as good as the ideas you surround yourself with!
when you read all about your heroes and the people they were fascinated by, it’s the time to start choosing from all of these people and ideas. When you made a collection then is the time to make a remix of them and make an imperfect copy of your own originality. Don’t make a new idea that you should, or that you know about! You should make new ideas that you like! (You should write your own story.)

The other important thing is to be schooled. It doesn’t matter if you’re attending a course or not, the only important thing is to keep being curious and search and find about different things, read newspapers and be aware of what is happening around you. Knowing more stuff puts more juice in your creativity engine.

Another point from this book, always have a pen and a paper (or a smartphone app for taking notes) with you so any time something passes through your mind you wanna know more about or you have some creative ideas or as this book suggests if you want to steal from somebody and etc. you have something to take notes so you don’t forget about them. The other thing is that you should have a scrap book or simply a camera or a smartphone with you which you can use to gather pictures with the same purpose as the paper.

Remember, you are ready. Waste no time and start whatever you should do right away. Some people want to decipher who they really are first and then start doing whatever it is they wanna do. This is a creativity killer and surely can be an obstacle in the path to your goals.
There’s a rule I’m sure you’ve benefited from at least a couple of times in your life, it is “fake it ‘till you make it”. It’s advantageous both for who you wanna be and what you wanna make. For instance if you wanna be a great painter, fake Leonardo da Vinci until you can make artworks of your own and it’s logical that after each time you copy some artwork of him, you’ll pick up something new, discover some other aspect of the artworks of him and ultimately you can use all the things you’ve picked up to make an masterpiece of your own.

Human’s hand, mind and etc. is incapable of making perfect copies, so when you copy something, you copy it in your own manner. That’s exactly where you make errors in your copying and this is what gives your copy an originality in the world of copies(and you know from the latter part where this leads). Sometimes these errors are so strong that people don’t see that you’re copying and say that it was such an original idea. You imitate to that point when your imitation turns into emulation (that’s when you imitate your heroes but a step further, closer to an original idea)

Good theft : honor, study, steal from many, credit, transform, remix

Bad theft : degrade, skim, steal from one, plagiarize, imitate, rip off

One of the bad influences on your creativity is always sitting behind your laptop, it’s better to experience stuff and get your hands dirty. Feeling the real stuff would make you feel more involved in your work and you may have better new ideas. Use pen and paper more, computers are great for editing what you’re making before it’s even close to finalization. This way you have your wrong ideas you can use later to the end of the process that you wanna enter your idea into your computer.

It’s great to have side project. You have an ultimate goal, ultimate project that you follow mainly. But sometimes you get tired and procrastinate, that’s when you should have a side project and work on that. Waste no time, put all your energy on yourself, when you’re up for your main project, you’ll work on it, and when you’re not you work on sth else that’s good. For instance you’re studying in your university, the main project you’re following is studying and scoring fine in your exams, But you have a side project which is helping in experimental research of one of your professors or maybe learning programming or etc. These side projects keep you productive even when you’re tired of what you normally do. This is called “productive procrastination” in this book.

One great advice of this book is to get bored! Visit your relatives with your family, sit through a boring documentary and etc. This way you get bored and that’s when your brain try to think of interesting stuff to flee from the boredom. That’s when you focus on your work.

“Don’t throw any of yourself away.”
You have a passion for something, you should follow it, you don’t always have to choose between your passions and do only one of them! They will help you be more flexible and give your life more dimensions you may use later on in your life.
If you do omit all but one passion of yours, focus on only one of them, it takes no time to get stuck. For instance you put all your energy and time on your university project, it really takes no time you get stuck and procrastinate. When you follow all your passions you feel the connection of those passions when you’re doing them. Not only you will feel less exhausted but you start to get more creative in each one of them. Don’t worry about them not being correlated, you’re the point all of your passions coincide, you’re the unity of them and the uniqueness you mix into what you do.

One other way to boost your creativity is to use other people’s feedback on your work. Although there’s no point in secrecy, Do it smartly, you don’t want people to plagiarize from your work (“share your dots, but do not connect them!”). Getting feedbacks you might find some good ideas you can steal from and remix them into a new idea of your own and maybe use it in your current work. Do it in different levels of your project and it will surely help you get a better result. So “open up and invite people in!”.

These days, you can be in the middle of the wilderness and still be connected to all of your friends, peers and mentors. We have a global village and the people of the farthest point in earth are around the corner. Although there are people who don’t use the social media, more than 90 percent of the people do. So you’re never alone and the best idea that comes to mind is that you can choose the people who are around you in this world! Being in a big city is good because you can find the people you wanna be around in that crowd but you can break this limitation and make your own world through internet and surround yourself with the best people around the globe. So, start building your own world, sit in a deserted corner with your device and enjoy your captivity and “solitude”.

“Leave home!”
It’s correct that geography is less of an burden these days but it’s still important where you do your work and live! Don’t get too comfortable, change the place you do your work in. Changing the things around you helps your brain work harder and so be more active and creative.
This question comes to mind: where should I live? The answer to this question is simple, where you can surround yourself with interesting people and where you can find food! Good food is so important and by this I mean a place where feeds you in all dimensions you have, spiritually, socially, creatively and surely literally.

I’m gonna write this part in the most simple way and you will surely understand it. Be willing to look stupid! If the people around you makes you feel like that, you’re in the right place. If not, and you feel like you’re the most talented and smart person in that group, you should find a new one. Always stand close to the most talented persons.

“Stop picking fight and go make something!”
If you see something that’s wrong, don’t waste energy and time to make it right, complain about it by making something better, complaining and wasting time talking about other’s incorrect stuff won’t help you or most of the time them, so start showing people what is the right way to do it and maybe they find out the problem by seeing that, and if not, it’s their loss.

Do not expect from people to understand you or your work right away, that instance you share your idea with other people there’s no control over how they react to it. Great ideas seem effortless to them but they’re not! By the time people start to understand your work and see what’s valuable about it you’re “either a) bored to death with it or b) dead.”
The trick for this problem is to “get too busy to care about it”.

Nowadays people have a tendency to say YOLO and do whatever. It’s so very important to have this point in mind that being creative and having stuff done takes a lot of energy and time. So be patient and do what you gotta do, put in time and energy. There’s an image in people’s minds that a creative successful person is living a dangerous life, doing drugs and stuff like this. Have a routine plan for your life, take time to do daily stuff according to a plan. Have a calendar, maybe a simple one with small boxes, that you can track the hours you have spent on your main project and side projects and stuff. This calendar helps you keep making you willing to fill the boxes every day and helps you keep a chain of crossed daily boxes.

A smart person knows what to leave out and what to spend his/her time on. The idea of having no limits, being able to do everything is just out of reach and somehow crazy! So we have to choose wisely between the choices we have.
We have other limitations other than time. We can use these limitation in our advantage and create something creative. Think about a world without limitations, in that world it’s pretty hard to be creative, but if you have limitations, you can use them, for example, you are a painter on a trip, you’ve lost all of your belongings and are left with only a pen, that’s when you can paint with only a pen, maybe your pen is a certain kind of blue, you’ve made an anomalous painting! Something new that’s a conclusion of the limitation you had!
So we should embrace our limitations and go on and create, create and create…

There’s not much to conclude from this book for it is a kind of biographical book giving us some points on creativity. There are no steps here, no hierarchy, no ranking and priority. You have to take these points and use them in anything you do in your life. They’re the experience of 10 years of Austin’s life, they work, and are mostly general and applicable to different branches of things we do. We talked about the scientific aspect of the things said in this book and we saw that they’ve been using these stuff starting from a long time ago. So these stuff has been implemented in people, they have been using them from a long time ago and so if you’re reading about this book here you should feel a pretty close connection between your experience and these points.

I hope this summary would be of great help to you guys. I’ll be waiting to hear about your experiences and comments on this book.


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