Life Lessons from Kleon’s “Steal like an artist”

When I first heard about Austin Kleon’s book “steal like an artist” a few years ago, I wasn’t immediately so keen about reading it. My reason was simple: I assumed the book would be helpful to upcoming artists, but definitely not me. How wrong was I! In reality, we are all artists – as long as we are doing something creative, whatever it is. This book is a lot different from any other book I have read (in terms of its structure and layout).  This highlights the creativity of the author. This book is one of the most impactful books I have read so far. I have read it twice now and each time has been a whole experience. In this blog post, I would be sharing some crucial life lessons I have gleaned from this book and which you can apply to your life right now.

  • No idea is completely original: There are several occasions when I think about something… In my mind, I feel the concept is so novel and original. Shortly afterwards, I discover that someone else has not only thought about what I was thinking but has put the thought into action. When I was younger, I used to wonder how the person got into my head and stole the idea from me. In reality, every idea has been thought about and possibly implemented in some way already. As humans are incapable of making perfectly identical copies, in a bid to make copies, they come up with some form of originality. This makes me appreciate the importance of being flexible about my ideas and acting on them irrespective of what others are doing around me.

“It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.”

Mark Twain
  • Build and rule your world: You are a product of those you hang out with in terms of your mental state. Find people who love the things that you love, people that think like you – and connect with them. Surround yourself with great people, read great books, attend events that inspire you, listen to great speakers, study great art. These days, the world is a small place. The internet is your tool. You can create your own micro-environment and build the world you want to live in by surrounding yourself with greatness. While at it, do not feel compelled to share everything you know – share the little that would add value to those around you. You have too much to learn from the world. The world also has a lot to learn from you, as well. If you are concerned about sharing too much, you can share your dots without connecting them.
  • Start from somewhere and grow your influence: Start to grow your influence in your field and life systematically using the “family tree” method. This method involves finding one person who inspires you and studying that person thoroughly. Next, you identify three people who that person respects and then study them carefully as well. You would then select three persons which the three people you had earlier chosen respects and continue expanding your influence that way. As you study these persons, copy steal those things you love about them! This is the easy way to grow your influence.

“Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy, you will find yourself.”

Yohji Yamamoto
  • Steal, don’t plagiarise: Learn as much as you can from several persons – and not just from one person. More importantly, learn the motives or principles behind their ways of doing things and adapt these to suit your individuality. If you don’t do this, you will never be more than a knockoff. The truth is, there is no one that you cannot learn at least one thing from. Make learning your goal when you meet and interact with people; steal as much as you can from them.
  • Be curious about the world you live in: Do not be content with the things you know right now. Actively seek ways to expand your current knowledge base: look things up, chase knowledge, go deeper than anyone else has ever gone. That is how you get ahead. As you study, aim to understand the reasoning behind the art. Leverage on the tools that are available to you. Make good use of the internet, especially Google. Asking questions help you find answers. If you do not get answers, you would at least learn a better question to ask.

“…if you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many, it’s research.”

Wilson Mizner
  • Be more! There are so many beautiful things around which could be made better and improved upon; so, do not settle for less. Write the kind of stories you want to read. Dress like the kind of woman you want to be. Pray like the kind of mother you want to have. Start the business you want to run. Make the products you desire to use. Go ahead and fearlessly make things happen. Sometimes, you get your best ideas on how to do things differently when you are bored – so iron clothes, clean up your space, take a long walk, do whatever you find boring, and think through all these activities. You never know where your mind would take you to. When you can, travel! It makes the world look and feel s like a new place, and this has tremendous benefit to our brains. Find places that feed every aspect of you – emotionally, spiritually, creatively.
  • Explore ALL your passions: Many times, we have the tendency to cherry-pick the things we are passionate about and focus on only one of our passions. According to Kleon, this is fundamentally wrong. You should not handpick the things you are passionate about and focus on just a few of them. We must learn to explore all our passions, let them talk to each other, and something beautiful would come out of it. In his words, “don’t throw any of yourself away”. Your mind is your canvas, enjoy it and engage with it. I believe that this is where the concepts of “interdisciplinary” and “multidisciplinary” came about – people marrying their varied interests together. It is immensely important to have hobbies – things you do because they make you happy and not for any extra benefits. Hobbies add depth to your life.

“The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.”

Jessica Hische
  • Do good work, keep working and share it: To make a name for yourself, you need to first of all, do good work and then share your work. The most challenging part is doing good work. You are going to suck for a while, make mistakes, fail – but keep at it until you get better. Do not just start something without finishing it. Do you feel like no one notices your good work? Keep working, making mistakes, learning from them, and continue getting better. This is the best period of your life; make the best use of it. People are bound to look down on you and your work. That’s totally fine. Be too busy working to care about that. After doing good work, don’t hide it. Share it with people. Leverage on the internet. Use it not just as an output for finished “good work”, but also as an incubator to hatch and fine-tune your developing ideas. The more open you are about sharing your passion; the more connected people would feel to you and to your work. Also, when you open up to people, you create opportunities for more learning.
  • Honour your heroes: Lots of people have impacted on you in one way or the other in life. You do not necessarily need to have met them physically. Perhaps you have read their books, listened to their talks, heard about them from bibliographies and so on. They could also be people that you know like your mentors, teachers, leaders, and so on. It is very important to appreciate and honour these people. You don’t need to do anything extraordinary: a little thank-you letter/note or video, or even a token gift would do a long way. You should also commend them publicly if you get a chance to – and it’s as easy as using your social media handles these days. As artists/creatives, feedback is very important. It helps you ascertain areas you are doing great as well as those that need improvement. Do not get discouraged if your efforts are not acknowledged, and you should not expect anything in return while you do this. What you do to others, others would also do to you. When you develop the habit of celebrating others, someday you too would be celebrated.
  • Don’t wait for perfect conditions: It is tempting to wait until conditions are ideal before doing anything. For example, waiting till you feel inspired before writing, waiting to get the right equipment before starting your YouTube channel, and so on. There is always an excuse for not starting what you have to do now. I loved how Kleon explains the life of any project we undertake and also the fact that our best work is not the one we have done previously, but the next one we would do. This is because we get better as we indulge ourselves more in our craft. We must learn to use our “do-it-anyway” muscle and get things done even when we do not feel like it. Start with what you have available now in terms of time, space and resources. A good problem we face in this generation of technology is information overload – discover ways to make the most of what you have available. Determine what is important and let that be your focus. Leave out those things that are not important.

 “Telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colours in the palette, anything you want—that just kills creativity.”

Jack White
  • Make the most of your calendar: A lot of us have calendars on our phones, PCs, even in our homes but hardly make use of it (I used to be guilty as charged but I am learning to do this more effectively now). If you don’t have one, I would strongly advise that you get one and more importantly, make good use of it. Start your day taking a look at your calendar. Schedule and plan effectively for future events. Set up reminders (don’t think that your brain can recall everything). Keep track of your daily progress, be consistent. This alone would have a profound effect on your productivity.
  • Keep “praise files” and use it sparingly: I have heard people talk about the importance of keeping track of our failures – so that we can look back and evaluate how far we have come on the journey to becoming who we are. I learnt for the first time in this book the importance of keeping a “praise file”. I used to do this unknowingly: on my birthdays, I typically make a video documenting every message, status shoutouts, and the likes I received. It is always heart-warming to go through them periodically. I have now realised that this can be applied to every aspect of my life and not just on special occasions like my birthdays. Take note of daily compliments you receive, past victories, and so on and use these to keep your heads up during your toughest times. The only caveat here is to use this sparingly – you do not want to live in past glory. A wise person once said that the past could be a nice place to visit, but do not live there. Use your praise file to give yourself a boost when you need it and then move on.
  • Keep records: Just a few days ago, I was thinking how swiftly time flies. I recall vividly how a few weeks ago, we exchanged new year pleasantries and already we are in the fourth month of the year! This is the reality of life. Time flies swiftly! Kleon talks about the importance of keeping a daily logbook where you record your everyday activities. Record your thoughts and ideas also. You would be amazed at how much information you have accumulated over time. Always have a notepad with you wherever you go. It does not have to be very detailed or covered with boring texts. Get creative! By all means scribble, doddle, make sketches, paste cut-outs from magazines, do newspaper blackout outs, the list is endless. Do whatever works for you, make this a habit and be as creative as you can be while at it.

“What makes us interesting isn’t just what we’ve experienced, but also what we haven’t experienced.”

Austin Kleon
  • Take good care of yourself: It is often said that you only live once. This is technically untrue because we live every day. In reality, we only die once. However, the way we live every day can determine how soon we die. You only have one life, and it is your responsibility to take proper care of yourself. Eat a healthy breakfast, don’t skip meals, sleep well, go for long walks (I particularly love this), live on a budget, learn as much as you can. Establish a routine that works for you and allows you to make the best use of the time you have. This is not going to be easy, but you can do it! Always remember that nothing good comes easy.
  • Marry well: One of the important decisions you would ever make is who to marry. I can imagine what you are thinking right now – you are probably thinking about a spouse/life partner! Well, this is not limited to that but includes choosing friends, business partners, and so on. Make sure you carefully select the right person(s) as this decision is crucial to your success. It is a common saying that you are as good as the people you surround yourself with; this applies to every sphere of life. If you are the smartest person in your friendship circle or in your organisation, that is the indication that you need to change your circle. Surround yourself with people that inspire you to stretch rather than to be complacent. This does not mean that people who are not in our “core” should be treated shabbily. We must always remember that the world is a small place and we should be kind to everyone – a point which Kleon explained so perfectly.
  • Keep moving: On the journey of life, there are bound to be limitations on our path and many times, we do not have any control over these limitations. Never let these be stumbling blocks. Instead, we must learn to turn our stumbling blocks into climbing stones. When you fall, do not remain on the ground sulking. Look up and get back up as quickly as possible! Acknowledge your limitations, work around them and keep moving… Develop the fine art of channeling negative emotions into positivity. Let these be your driving force and motivation.

 “Complain about the way other people make software by making software.”

Andre Torrez

There are a lot more lessons in the book, so if you can, I would advise you to read it. 😊

I hope you find these lessons insightful, and you enjoy reading this piece as much as I have enjoyed putting it together. Which of these lessons resonated deeply with you, and how can you use this knowledge to improve the quality of your life? Which do you think that you can apply to your life right now? What lessons in the book stood out to you (if you have read the book)? Let’s talk below .

As always, I would love to read from you…

Categories: My Book Reviews

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8 replies

  1. So on point as always. Warm greetings, Prof.


  2. Great write-up. I certainly learned alot👍


  3. Inspiring…as always!

    Most or all of the points were indeed insightful to me; but if I were to choose, the lesson on EXPLORING ALL MY PASSIONS, stood out most for me. It made me think or feel that I did not have to limit myself or deny my abilities in any way…

    Thanks again ma’am!

    Keep up the good work!


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