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Book: Steal Like an Artist

Vikrant Duggal
Vikrant Duggal
• 14 min read

From time to time I'll read a book that a highly recommend. If you are thinking about creating something, or actively creating something check this book out from your local library, or order it today.

Favorite quote:

"You might be scared to start. That's natural. There's this very real thing that runs rampant in educated people. It's called "imposter syndrome."

What I changed my mind about:

As an independent professional it's harder to find your crew in the beginning. I'm lucky to have created friends through my consulting practice and through Consulting Club. I think Austin Kleon has created an asset that can sit by your side like a coworker or friend. I've read a number of books that are great to training new beliefs, but not one that I felt could be a companion during the doing parts.

What inspired me:

There's a lot of information out there and I capture much of it. But I'm inspired to think of myself as a collector as opposed to a hoarder. What I capture. Going forward I plan to capture information that fits one of the following criteria:

  • Might inspire me in the future
  • Practical for a specific project (now, or in the future)
  • Surprising (Claude Shannon: “information is that which surprises you”)
  • Personal (experiential knowledge - learnings and failures)

If what I capture begins to fit these criteria there are 4 ways it could enhance my creative thinking:

  1. Unusual connections between different notes
  2. Make ideas visual so I can interact with them
  3. Incubate ideas over long periods of time
  4. Produce raw material: I'll get a reservoir of examples, illustrations, photos, screenshots, evidence, mind maps, diagrams, notes, and quotes to name a few

You can order Steal Like an Artist on Amazon.

I've included all my highlights from the book below.

“Art is theft.” —Pablo Picasso (Location 21)

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.” —T. S. Eliot (Location 23)

These ideas apply to anyone who’s trying to inject some creativity into their life and their work. (That should describe all of us.) (Location 32)

First, you figure out what’s worth stealing, then you move on to the next thing. (Location 42)

When you look at the world this way, you stop worrying about what’s “good” and what’s “bad”—there’s only stuff worth stealing, and stuff that’s not worth stealing. Everything is up for grabs. If you don’t find something worth stealing today, you might find it worth stealing tomorrow or a month or a year from now. (Location 43)

“The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.” —David Bowie (Location 47)

Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas. Here’s a trick they teach you in art school. Draw two parallel lines on a piece of paper: How many lines are there? There’s the first line, the second line, but then there’s a line of negative space that runs between them. See it? 1 + 1 = 3. (Location 58)

You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences. The German writer Goethe said, “We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.” (Location 69)

The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect things that they really love. (Location 76)

I think the same thing is true of our idea incomes. You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with. My mom used to say to me, “Garbage in, garbage out.” It used to drive me nuts. But now I know what she meant. (Location 79)

“Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.” —Jim Jarmusch (Location 82)

Instead, chew on one thinker—writer, artist, activist, role model—you really love. Study everything there is to know about that thinker. Then find three people that thinker loved, and find out everything about them. Repeat this as many times as you can. Climb up the tree as far as you can go. Once you build your tree, it’s time to start your own branch. (Location 89)

Seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone as you start making your own stuff. I hang pictures of my favorite artists in my studio. They’re like friendly ghosts. I can almost feel them pushing me forward as I’m hunched over my desk. The great thing about dead or remote masters is that they can’t refuse you as an apprentice. You can learn whatever you want from them. They left their lesson plans in their work. (Location 93)

“Whether I went to school or not, I would always study.” —RZA (Location 107)

Carry a notebook and a pen with you wherever you go. (Location 109)

Record overheard conversations. Doodle when you’re on the phone. (Location 111)

Keep a swipe file. It’s just what it sounds like—a file to keep track of the stuff you’ve swiped from others. It can be digital or analog—it doesn’t matter what form it takes, as long as it works. You can keep a scrapbook and cut and paste things into it, or you can just take pictures of things with your camera phone. (Location 114)

“It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.” —Mark Twain (Location 119)

You might be scared to start. That’s natural. There’s this very real thing that runs rampant in educated people. It’s called “impostor syndrome.” (Location 128)

The clinical definition is a “psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments.” 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. (Location 129)

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 to do their thing. Every day. (Location 131)

Fake it ’til you make it. I love this phrase. There are two ways to read it: 1. Pretend to be something you’re not until you are—fake it until you’re successful, until everybody sees you the way you want them to; or 2. Pretend to be making something until you actually make something. (Location 140)

“You start out as a phony and become real.” —Glenn O’Brien (Location 148)

The point is: All the world’s a stage. Creative work is a kind of theater. The stage is your studio, your desk, or your workstation. The costume is your outfit—your painting pants, your business suit, or that funny hat that helps you think. The props are your materials, your tools, and your medium. The script is just plain old time. An hour here, or an hour there—just time measured out for things to happen. Fake it ’til you make it. (Location 154)

“Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self.” (Location 159)

We learn to write by copying down the alphabet. Musicians learn to play by practicing scales. Painters learn to paint by reproducing masterpieces. Remember: Even The Beatles started as a cover band. Paul McCartney has said, “I emulated Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis. We all did.” McCartney and his partner John Lennon became one of the greatest songwriting teams in history, but as McCartney recalls, they only started writing their own songs “as a way to avoid other bands being able to play our set.” As Salvador Dalí said, “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” (Location 165)

You copy your heroes—the people you love, the people you’re inspired by, the people you want to be. The songwriter Nick Lowe says, “You start out by rewriting your hero’s catalog.” And you don’t just steal from one of your heroes, you steal from all of them. The writer Wilson Mizner said if you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many, it’s research. I once heard the cartoonist Gary Panter say, “If you have one person you’re influenced by, everyone will say you’re the next whoever. (Location 171)

“There isn’t a move that’s a new move.” The basketball star Kobe Bryant has admitted that all of his moves on the court were stolen from watching tapes of his heroes. But initially, when Bryant stole a lot of those moves, he realized he couldn’t completely pull them off because he didn’t have the same body type as the guys he was thieving from. He had to adapt the moves to make them his own. (Location 186)

In the end, merely imitating your heroes is not flattering them. Transforming their work into something of your own is how you flatter them. Adding something to the world that only you can add. (Location 197)

“I have stolen all of these moves from all these great players. I just try to do them proud, the guys who came before, because I learned so much from them. It’s all in the name of the game. It’s a lot bigger than me.” —Kobe Bryant (Location 199)

The best advice is not to write what you know, it’s to write what you like. (Location 218)

The manifesto is this: Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use—do the work you want to see done. (Location 229)

“We don’t know where we get our ideas from. What we do know is that we do not get them from our laptops.” —John Cleese (Location 234)

You need to find a way to bring your body into your work. Our nerves aren’t a one-way street—our bodies can tell our brains as much as our brains tell our bodies. You know that phrase, “going through the motions”? That’s what’s so great about creative work: If we just start going through the motions, if we strum a guitar, or shuffle sticky notes around a conference table, or start kneading clay, the motion kickstarts our brain into thinking. (Location 246)

“I have stared long enough at the glowing flat rectangles of computer screens. Let us give more time for doing things in the real world . . . plant a plant, walk the dogs, read a real book, go to the opera.” —Edward Tufte (Location 250)

The poet Kay Ryan says, “In the old days before creative writing programs, a workshop was a place, often a basement, where you sawed or hammered, drilled or planed something.” The writer Brian Kiteley says he tries to make his workshops true to the original sense of the word: “a light, airy room full of tools and raw materials where most of the work is hands-on.” (Location 254)

The computer is really good for editing your ideas, and it’s really good for getting your ideas ready for publishing out into the world, but it’s not really good for generating ideas. (Location 262)

That’s how I try to do all my work now. I have two desks in my office—one is “analog” and one is “digital.” The analog desk has nothing but markers, pens, pencils, paper, index cards, and newspaper. Nothing electronic is allowed on that desk. This is where most of my work is born, and all over the desk are physical traces, scraps, and residue from my process. (Unlike a hard drive, paper doesn’t crash.) The digital desk has my laptop, my monitor, my scanner, and my drawing tablet. This is where I edit and publish my work. (Location 270)

One thing I’ve learned in my brief career: It’s the side projects that really take off. (Location 285)

If you have two or three real passions, don’t feel like you have to pick and choose between them. Don’t discard. Keep all your passions in your life. This is something I learned from the playwright Steven Tomlinson. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.” —Steve Jobs (Location 295)

Tomlinson suggests that if you love different things, you just keep spending time with them. “Let them talk to each other. Something will begin to happen.” (Location 302)

Soon after, you learn that most of the world doesn’t necessarily care about what you think. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. As the writer Steven Pressfield says, “It’s not that people are mean or cruel, they’re just busy.” (Location 324)

This is actually a good thing, because you want attention only after you’re doing really good work. There’s no pressure when you’re unknown. You can do what you want. Experiment. Do things just for the fun of it. When you’re unknown, there’s nothing to distract you from getting better. No public image to manage. No huge paycheck on the line. No stockholders. No e-mails from your agent. No hangers-on. (Location 326)

Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts. Use it. (Location 331)

If there was a secret formula for becoming known, I would give it to you. But there’s only one not-so-secret formula that I know: Do good work and share it with people. It’s a two-step process. Step one, “do good work,” is incredibly hard. There are no shortcuts. Make stuff every day. Know you’re going to suck for a while. Fail. Get better. Step two, “share it with people,” was really hard up until about ten years ago or so. Now, it’s very simple: “Put your stuff on the Internet.” I tell people this, and then they ask me, “What’s the secret of the Internet?” (Location 333)

Step 1: Wonder at something. Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you. You should wonder at the things nobody else is wondering about. If everybody’s wondering about apples, go wonder about oranges. The more open you are about sharing your passions, the closer people will feel to your work. Artists aren’t magicians. There’s no penalty for revealing your secrets. (Location 339)

Believe it or not, I get a lot of inspiration from people like Bob Ross and Martha Stewart. Remember Bob Ross? The painter on PBS with the ’fro and the happy little trees? Bob Ross taught people how to paint. He gave his secrets away. Martha Stewart teaches you how to make your house and your life awesome. She gives her secrets away. 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. (Location 342)

You don’t put yourself online only because you have something to say—you can put yourself online to find something to say. The Internet can be more than just a resting place to publish your finished ideas—it can also be an incubator for ideas that aren’t fully formed, a birthing center for developing work that you haven’t started yet. (Location 348)

I just look at my website and ask myself, “What can I fill this with?” (Location 354)

Learn to code. Figure out how to make a website. Figure out blogging. Figure out Twitter and social media and all that other stuff. Find people on the Internet who love the same things as you and connect with them. Share things with them. (Location 357)

“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” —Howard Aiken (Location 364)

Surround yourself with books and objects that you love. Tape things up on the wall. Create your own world. (Location 378)

Now I have a car and a mobile phone. I’m always connected, never alone or captive. So, I ride the bus to and from work, even though it’s 20 minutes faster to drive. I go to a barbershop that’s first-come, first-served, without Wi-Fi, and always busy with a wait of a few hours. I keep my laptop shut down at the airport. I hang out in the library. I always carry a book, a pen, and a notepad, and I always enjoy my solitude and temporary captivity. (Location 386)

It helps to live around interesting people, and not necessarily people who do what you do. I feel a little incestuous when I hang out with only writers and artists, so I enjoy the many filmmakers, musicians, and tech geeks who live in Austin. Oh, and food. The food should be good. You have to find a place that feeds you—creatively, socially, spiritually, and literally. (Location 406)

“The only mofos in my circle are people that I can learn from.” —Questlove (Location 420)

In the digital space, that means following the best people online—the people who are way smarter and better than you, the people who are doing the really interesting work. Pay attention to what they’re talking about, what they’re doing, what they’re linking to. (Location 424)

I recommend public fan letters. The Internet is really good for this. Write a blog post about someone’s work that you admire and link to their site. Make something and dedicate it to your hero. Answer a question they’ve asked, solve a problem for them, or improve on their work and share it online. (Location 446)

Maybe your hero will see your work, maybe he or she won’t. Maybe they’ll respond to you, maybe not. The important thing is that you show your appreciation without expecting anything in return, and that you get new work out of the appreciation. (Location 449)

Life is a lonely business, often filled with discouragement and rejection. Yes, validation is for parking, but it’s still a tremendous boost when people say nice things about our work. (Location 461)

That’s why I put every really nice e-mail I get in a special folder. (Nasty e-mails get deleted immediately.) When those dark days roll around and I need a boost, I open that folder and read through a couple e-mails. Then I get back to work. Try it: Instead of keeping a rejection file, keep a praise file. Use it sparingly—don’t get lost in past glory—but keep it around for when you need the lift. (Location 466)

Most people I know hate to think about money. Do yourself a favor: Learn about money as soon as you can. (Location 482)

My grandpa used to tell my dad, “Son, it’s not the money you make, it’s the money you hold on to.” Make yourself a budget. Live within your means. Pack your lunch. Pinch pennies. Save as much as you can. Get the education you need for as cheap as you can get it. The art of holding on to money is all about saying no to consumer culture. Saying no to takeout, $4 lattes, and that shiny new computer when the old one still works fine. (Location 483)

The solution is really simple: Figure out what time you can carve out, what time you can steal, and stick to your routine. Do the work every day, no matter what. No holidays, no sick days. Don’t stop. What you’ll probably find is that the corollary to Parkinson’s Law is usually true: Work gets done in the time available. (Location 499)

A calendar helps you plan work, gives you concrete goals, and keeps you on track. The comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a calendar method that helps him stick to his daily joke writing. He suggests that you get a wall calendar that shows you the whole year. Then, you break your work into daily chunks. Each day, when you’re finished with your work, make a big fat X in the day’s box. Every day, instead of just getting work done, your goal is to just fill a box. “After a few days you’ll have a chain,” Seinfeld says. (Location 510)

“If you ask yourself ‘What’s the best thing that happened today?’ it actually forces a certain kind of cheerful retrospection that pulls up from the recent past things to write about that you wouldn’t otherwise think about. If you ask yourself ‘What happened today?’ it’s very likely that you’re going to remember the worst thing, because you’ve had to deal with it—you’ve had to rush somewhere or somebody said something mean to you—that’s what you’re going to remember. But if you ask what the best thing is, it’s going to be some particular slant of light, or some wonderful expression somebody had, or some particularly delicious salad.” —Nicholson Baker (Location 522)

good partner keeps you grounded. A friend once remarked that living with an artist must make our house very inspiring. My wife joked, “Oh yeah, it’s like living with da Vinci.” She’s the best. (Location 536)

In this age of information abundance and overload, those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out, so they can concentrate on what’s really important to them. Nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities. The idea that you can do anything is absolutely terrifying. (Location 542)

What Now? Take a walk Start your swipe file Go to the library Buy a notebook and use it Get yourself a calendar Start your logbook Give a copy of this book away Start a blog Take a nap (Location 562)

Recommended Reading Linda Barry, What It Is Hugh MacLeod, Ignore Everybody Jason Fried + David Heinemeier Hansson, Rework Lewis Hyde, The Gift Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence David Shields, Reality Hunger Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow Ed Emberley, Make a World (Location 565)