You Can Learn By Stealing

My last blog post was on the value of a higher education. Now, lets flip the concept of a formal degree on its head.  I want to share with you some learnings from a book that has really inspired me. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon is a wonderful collection of thoughts around the theme of developing your art through, well, the blatant copying of others. Sound like simple plagiarism? It’s not. Read on.

Steal Like an Artist

Reading the book you are struck by the fact that it is not a typical ‘self help’ or ‘productivity’ book. It is a compendium of thoughts and graphics and quotations that serve to illustrate the point that you can develop and create better art of whatever kind (writing, music, dance, visual, theatre) by actively studying and copying the work of the greats who have gone before you, the greats you may wish to eventually join ranks with.

LEARNING #1: Don’t worry about good or bad stuff, only stuff worth stealing or not.

Should everything be subject to theft? No. You have to first be able to discern what is worthy of stealing. The author notes, “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.”

LEARNING #2: Copy from your heroes, the ones you love or who inspire you.

So then how do you decide what to copy, what to steal? Salvador Dalí pondered this and said, “First, you have to figure out who to copy. Second, you have to figure out what to copy. Who to copy is easy. You copy your heroes—the people you love, the people you’re inspired by, the people you want to be.”

LEARNING #3: Copy less of the thing and more of the thinking behind the thing.

Now that you know who to copy, the harder part lies ahead. What to copy. This, the author notes, is a much harder proposition. “Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.” This point is key. You steal to learn the thinking that went into the piece, the way the brushstrokes curved, the unique turn of phrase. This understanding in turn helps to inform your own original art, with the style of your heroes.

LEARNING #5: Carry a notebook and actively note your observations.

As a writer or a painter or other creative person how can you develop the skills of an artistic thief? The author advises that you “should carry a notebook and a pen with you wherever you go. Get used to pulling it out and jotting down your thoughts and observations. Copy your favorite passages out of books. Record overheard conversations. Doodle when you’re on the phone.” Basically, observe the world and take note of it.  And what are you doing as you take the advice of the travelling notebook? You are developing your voice. You are nurturing your own unique style, built on a foundation laid down by your own heroes.

LEARNING #6: Don’t pass copied work as your own, copy as practice.

So, this stealing, this blatant copying, is it really just another name for plagiarism? Another resounding no. What the author notes is that we are really “talking about practice here, not plagiarism. Plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.”

Now that you have done the stealing, what is the ‘not-so-secret’ formula for ensuring success in your artistic endevour?  It all flows from 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 the people‘” is the relatively easy part with the most ready means is now available to most of us – PUT IT ON THE INTERNET.

Finally, the author outlines what he calls a manifesto.  It is a powerful call to action for us to follow:

  1. Draw the art you want to see,
  2. Start the business you want to run,
  3. Play the music you want to hear,
  4. Write the books you want to read,
  5. Build the products you want to use,
  6. Do the work you want to see done.

Overall, the book is a light, quick read, that leave one inspired to try a little harder, to do better work.  Take some time to read it if this quick overview has you wanting a bit more.

How do you develop your creativity, the techniques of your art?  Have you used the techniques outlined here?  If so how did you grow from it?  I always appreciate feedback in the form of a comment on the post and welcome you to share other related ideas on this subject.

I live in the Cayman Islands and I'm married to Christina. We have two incredible children, Ryan, attending Northeastern University in Boston, MA, and Taylor, attending Trinity College School, in Port Hope, Ontario, Canada. I own several businesses in Cayman. My list of 'pasts' include past chairman of the Cayman Islands Special Economic Zone Authority, past president of the Rotary Club of Grand Cayman, and past president of the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce.

Please note: I moderate comments and reserve the right to delete or edit those that are offensive or off-topic.

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3 thoughts on “You Can Learn By Stealing

  1. Great article, David!

    I’ve used almost every one. I constantly read newletters, books, magazines or articles from people and sites I admire or that provide useful information on developing my craft and career.

    I treat my career as a writer like a business, going so far as to develop a business plan. Constant study and personal development, to me, is an important part of developing my life long writing career.

    Example of above techniques:

    (2) I’m a big fan of Nora Roberts. Not just her books, but how she handles her career. I admire her achievements, sustainablity, and all the things she’s strived for and continually strives for. Much of her professional acheivements are my long term goals.

    (5) I carry a journal in my handbag so I can write down my thoughts no matter where I am. I also carry my monthly calendar and a project notebook. You never know when or where inspiration will hit.

    I’ve heard that in order to achieve success 20% of your time should be spent on personal development. I truly believe that. For me, utilizing that study time sparks my creativity, generate ideas for not just my writing, but on how to develop my career.