Saturday, September 15, 2012

Book Review: Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told you About Being Creative by Austin Kleon

(Austin Kleon)

            You’ve probably seen this book at your local Barnes & Noble, stacked on a table of “Gifts for Grads, ” right next to Oh the Places You Will Go by Dr. Suess, or under a sign declaring “Good Advice” alongside the latest release from a Real Housewife. It is a chunky little block of a book with bold handwritten text throughout, by a young author (yes, in the advice game, 29 is young). You might be tempted to dismiss it as just a cute little bon bon, a feel-good gift book destined to collect dust on the coffee table.
            But there’s serious thinking behind Austin Kleon’s “10 Things,” drawn not only from his experiences but broadly sourced from the experiences of countless creative practitioners who have influenced him. Kleon is a self-described “writer who draws,” a prolific producer of poetry and other writings as well as a promoter of visual thinking. He quotes Picasso, T.S. Eliot and David Bowie to support one of his key assertions — “Nothing is original” — but he could just as easily have drawn from the works of more academic heavyweights like Mel Rhodes, Arthur Koestler or Keith Sawyer.
            Born as a blog post that was shaped into a commencement speech that turned into another blog post that became an internet sensation, Steal Like an Artist is a modern-day manifesto: Kleon’s public declaration that we all have the potential to be creative (King, 2012).[1] “These ideas apply to anyone who’s trying to inject some creativity into their life and their work,” he writes, adding, “(That should describe all of us.)” (p. 1).
            It’s not just a book you read: it’s a book you experience. It’s fun to look at, optimistically declaring its advice on bold little billboards, in pithy poems and through quirky line drawings.

(Austin Kleon)

            So what are the “10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative”?
            1) Steal like an artist.
Embrace your influences, learn from the work of others and transform those influences into original work of your own. Kleon uses the analogy of genetics: we are made up of the people who came before us, both physically and intellectually. And there’s creative power in accepting that.

(Austin Kleon)

2) Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.
You discover who you are by doing. In doing, you learn what’s worth stealing. But “stealing” is not about copying. “Don’t just steal the style,” he writes. “Steal the thinking behind the style” (p. 35).

(Austin Kleon)

3) Write the book you want to read.
The age-old advice about “writing what you know” is wrong. Kleon asserts you need to write (or draw, or otherwise create) not what is but what you want to be. “...Do the work you want to see done” (p. 48).
4) Use your hands.
The computer is, by its nature, an editing tool, Kleon says. Creativity can’t just happen in our heads or on a screen; you need to physically make something, be it words written by hand on a page or an actual object.
5) Side projects and hobbies are important.
What some call “incubation,” Kleon calls “productive procrastination,” and he encourages the practice of it, along with the pursuit of passions. (p. 65, p. 69).[2] “One day,” he writes, “You’ll look back and it will all make sense” (p. 71).

(Austin Kleon)

            6) The secret: do good work and share it with people.
There’s no need to be miserly with your ideas: sharing is a learning experience. And the internet makes it easy to share. “Step 1: Wonder at something,” he writes. “Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you” (p. 80).
7) Geography is no longer our master.
Thanks to the internet, we can all live in two worlds (or more): the one we physically inhabit, and the one(s) we create through shared interests. But you have to leave these “homes” at some point: “Your brain gets too comfortable in your everyday surroundings,” Kleon says. “You need to make it uncomfortable. You need to spend some time in another land, among people that do things differently than you” (p. 93).

(Austin Kleon)

8) Be nice. (The world is a small town.)
Kleon advocates active niceness: seek out talented people, write fan letters, “don’t pick fights.” (Instead, use anger as motivation to create.) At the same time, he encourages being nice to yourself as well: keep a praise file, but don’t expect validation from others.
9) Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)
“That whole romantic image of the creative genius doing drugs and running around and sleeping with everyone is played out,” Kleon writes (p. 119). Take care of yourself so you have the energy to create.
10) Creativity is subtraction.
Despite what we’ve all been led to believe, constraints are, in fact, freeing. “Nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities,” says Kleon. “The idea that you can do anything is absolutely terrifying” (p. 137).

(Austin Kleon)

            Steal Like an Artist is wise and practical: advice not just on being creative, but on how to live. Kleon wraps it up with a useful list of action steps — “take a walk,” “buy a notebook and use it,” etc. — to get the reader out of the book and into creative action. As the drumbeat for creative thinking and innovation grows louder in across many sectors, from corporations to schools to government and more, its content is both timely and timeless.  
            Steal Like an Artist reframes the concept of creativity for those who have been held back by their belief that you can only be considered creative if you have “original” ideas. It has the power to provide hope to people who think that “growing up” means they have to give up their creative pursuits. It would, in fact, make a great gift for a recent grad or for a lost creative soul looking for good advice. So I guess the merchandisers at Barnes & Noble are onto something.

All images courtesy of Austin Kleon ( from the Steal Like An Artist blogger kit (


King, A. (2012, August 26). Theft as art, art as theft: an interview with Austin Kleon. The Kenyon Review. Retrieved from

Kleon, A. (2012). Steal like an artist: 10 things nobody told you about being creative. New York, NY: Workman Publishing.

[1] The original blog post:
The Jonathan Lethem article referenced in the original blog post:
[2] And ample alliterative use of the letter p.


Jody Fisher is the Ideation Strategist on the Innovation Team at Nestlé Purina PetCare. In this role, she helps feed the company’s innovation pipeline and manages the company’s internal idea network. Prior to joining Purina’s Innovation Team, Jody was a copywriter for 15 years, working on brands like Friskies, Purina ONE, Gatorade, Pizza Hut and more. Jody earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from The Colorado College, and expects to finish her Master’s of Science in Creativity and Change Leadership at the ICSC in December, 2013.

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