Book Notes

Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon7 min read

07/01/2021 5 min read

Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon7 min read

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In writing like designing, coding, woodworking or whatever your craft is, there is no denying it: it’s hard to get started. It’s not that we don’t have ideals… in fact, maybe we even have too many of them. In a world where Leonardo Da Vinci lived, how could we ever expect to be good at painting, to reach his level? Well, there is one answer to that question and it’s quite straightforward: by stealing. In this post, I will dive into the main lessons I learned from reading Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon.

“We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice. And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you.” — Francis Ford Coppola

Table of content

  1. What is the book about?
  2. Key lessons from Steal Like An Artist
  3. Should you read this book?
  4. Go further

What is “Steal Like An Artist” about?

Steal like an Artiste by Austin Kleon

Like in his two other books, Show your work and Keep Going, author Austin Kleon dives into the mindset that comes with being creative, learning, and having a craft of any kind. In less than 200 pages, Kleon deconstructs some of the limitations effectively we tend to put on ourselves when creating something new.

“Modern art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn’t.” — Craig Damrauer


Key lessons from Steal Like An Artist

It’s easy to let our own ego be flattered, thinking that we don’t anyone or anything else, other than our creativity to “create something”. But no one ever does that. As Malcolm Gladwell brilliantly says in Outliers: The Story of Success, “no one — not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses — ever makes it alone.”

Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, Austin Kleon (like many artists, entrepreneurs before him) suggest that we should steal from our idols, our inspirations. Copy, steal, make their work, their ideas, their knowledge your own.

Lesson #1 : Just get started

Against all odds, the author suggests that you don’t wait until you know who you are to get started. Many people, don’t think that they are or can ever be creative (read this post about my story with creativity). We mentally give up, thinking that we will never be like the creative artists who make art out of nothing and know what they are doing. But the truth is that they don’t, no one really knows what he/she is doing. They are just some who are bold enough to experiment and others who aren’t.

“Don’t make excuses for not working—make things with the time, space, and materials you have, right now.”
— Austin Kleon

In the book, Kleon makes an analogy that I particularly like. He writes « All the world is a stage. Creative work is a kind of theater ». It’s not something to take seriously or to give up on, it’s something to play with, changing costumes, playing different roles, and stealing as many hours as we can: being creative is about having fun, no matter how short or often we get to.

Lesson #2 : Steal from your idols and inspirations

We must stop believing that we can come up with ideas that are 100% original. All that which is said today has been said in a different way in the past. And while you might think you had the most brilliant idea, someone else is probably bringing it to life.

“You have to be curious about the world in which you live. Look things up. Chase down every reference. Go deeper than anybody else—that’s how you’ll get ahead.” — Austin Kleon

All the great ideas were told in the past, but no one was listening. Although today anything is accessible easily on the web, barely anyone is watching. So browse, research, look, go deeper than anybody else is going, and give an hommage to your idols by giving new light to their ideas.

We, as humans, are imperfect mirrors. While we may think we see the world as it is, we see it as we are. Inevitably, when we are asked to recreate it, we cannot prevent ourselves from leaving a part of our soul in our craft. That’s how artists are made. They get inspired, they steal, they imitate until they finally find their voice, which one day someone will steal as well.

“It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.” — Conan O’Brien

Lesson #3: Impose limits on yourself

While we may think that freedom and a wild variety of choices is a gift, there is nothing worse for creativity. Creative minds, engineers, and artists thrive in narrow spaces where things seem impossible with the tools at hand until you actually make them possible.

“In the end, creativity isn’t just the things we choose to put in, it’s the things we choose to leave out. Choose wisely. And have fun.” — Austin Kleon

Creativity is about what you choose to leave out. For example, while I cannot make a complete summary of a book, I can still show you what resonated with me, leaving you to decide if you read more about it or not. Once again, as humans, we put a bit of our soul and of our own filers (with which we see the world) inside everything that we do.

Should you read Steal Like an Artist?

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Steal like an artist was very short and easy to read yet filled with interesting tips, stories, and ideas which made me ponder on every page.

Before diving into this book, I had already read Show Your Work by the same author, so I was rather impatient to read this one, and it didn’t deceive me. Austin Kleon doesn’t pretend to pompously teach things that you don’t already know. Instead, it’s rather a digest of ideas, quotes, anecdotes from his inspirations like his own mind and experiences. He first, teaches us how to steal like an artist. In this sense, I think that the book delivered on its promise, and I would definitely suggest you read it as soon as you can, especially if you are in a creative field.

“The reason to copy your heroes and their style is so that you might somehow get a glimpse into their minds. That’s what you really want—to internalize their way of looking at the world. If you just mimic the surface of somebody’s work without understanding where they are coming from, your work will never be anything more than a knockoff.” — Austin Kleon

Go further

If you are interesting in this book, you might consider reading or watching :

Let’s chat

What about you, have you ever read Steal Like An Artist?

What are your resources, tips, and tricks when it comes to creating your craft, what do you do?

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