Design Matters at 15: Austin Kleon
Austin Kleon exists at the brilliant intersection of word and image—but as a schoolkid in the small town of Circleville, Ohio, the two were neatly torn into “art” and “English.” It stayed that way for Kleon until he had an epiphany while studying a Charles Dickens novel at Cambridge University. As he told The Great Discontent, “I was trying to explain what the book was like, so I took out a piece of notebook paper and drew a map of London; as I drew, I said, ‘Here is what happens when the characters are in these parts of London, and this is how the narrative maps.’ It was a really crude map, but my professor looked at it and said, ‘This is better than anything you’ve turned in for me.’ That crummy map was better than any of the writing I had done! I knew that I had to bring drawing back into my life, so I bought a sketchbook and started drawing again.”
After graduating from Miami University, Kleon began making poems by redacting lines of text in the newspaper—leading to his first book, Newspaper Blackout. And then, he gave a talk outlining 10 things he wished he had known when he was younger, dubbed “Steal Like an Artist.” It went viral, and launched Kleon’s career as we know it today—the sage of word and image, author of the subsequent books Steal Like an Artist; Show Your Work!; and his latest, Keep Going, which Kleon says he wrote because he needed to read it.
Rather than wax philosophical about Kleon, here, we steal his words (within Fair Use limits, of course). As a complement to this episode of Design Matters, what follows is a sampling of his books—and the many wisdoms you can find therein.
Every artist gets asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” The honest artist answers, “I steal them.” How does an artist look at the world? First, you figure out what’s worth stealing, then you move on to the next thing. That’s about all there is to it.
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.
Nothing is original.
The writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something “original,” nine out of ten times they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved. What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.
It’s right there in the Bible: “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
Some people find this idea depressing, but it fills me with hope. As the French writer Andre Gide put it, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”
If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.
(Bonus: Click here for Kleon’s TED Talk on artistic thievery.)
We’re all terrified of being revealed as amateurs, but in fact, today it is the amateur—the enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love (in French, the word means “lover”), regardless of the potential for fame, money or career—who often has the advantage over the professional. Because they have little to lose, amateurs are willing to try anything and share the results. They take chances, experiment and follow their whims. Sometimes, in the process of doing things in an unprofessional way, they make new discoveries. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” said Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki. “In the expert’s mind, there are few.”
Amateurs are not afraid to make mistakes or look ridiculous in public. They’re in love, so they don’t hesitate to do work that others think of as silly or just plain stupid. “The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act,” writes Clay Shirky in his book Cognitive Surplus. “On the spectrum of creative work, the difference between the mediocre and the good is vast. Mediocrity is, however, still on the spectrum; you can move from mediocre to good in increments. The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something.” Amateurs know that contributing something is better than contributing nothing.
… Sometimes, amateurs have more to teach us than experts. “It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can,” wrote author C.S. Lewis. “The fellow pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago he has forgotten.” Watching amateurs at work can also inspire us to attempt the work ourselves. “I saw the Sex Pistols,” said New Order frontman Bernard Sumner. “They were terrible … I wanted to go up and be terrible with them.” Raw enthusiasm is contagious.
The world is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s turning us all into amateurs. Even for professionals, the best way to flourish is to retain an amateur’s spirit and embrace uncertainty and the unknown. When Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke was asked what he thought his greatest strength was, he answered, “That I don’t know what I’m doing.” Like one of his heroes, Tom Waits, whenever Yorke feels like his songwriting is getting to comfortable or stale, he’ll pick up an instrument he doesn’t know how to play and try to write with it. This is yet another trait of amateurs—they’ll use whatever tools they can get their hands on to try to get their ideas into the world. “I’m an artist, man,” said John Lennon. “Give me a tuba, and I’ll get you something out of it.”
The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others. … Don’t worry, for now, about how you’ll make money or a career off it. Forget about being an expert or a professional, and wear your amateurism (your heart, your love) on your sleeve. Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.
When I’m working on my art, I don’t feel like Odysseus. I feel more like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the hill. When I’m working, I don’t feel like Luke Skywalker. I feel more like Phil Connors in the movie Groundhog Day.
For those of you who haven’t seen it or need your memory refreshed, Groundhog Day is a 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a weatherman who gets stuck in a time loop and wakes up every morning on February 2nd—Groundhog Day—in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, home of Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog who, depending on if he sees his shadow or not, predicts whether there will be six more weeks of winter. Phil, the weatherman, hates Punxsutawney, and the town becomes a kind of purgatory for him. He tries everything he can think of, but he can’t make it out of town, and he can’t get to February 3rd. Winter, for Phil, is endless. No matter what he does, he still wakes up in the same bed every morning to face the same day.
In a moment of despair, Phil turns to a couple drunks at a bowling alley bar and asks them, “what would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
It’s the question Phil has to answer to advance the plot of the movie, but it’s also the question we have to answer to advance the plot of our lives.
I think how you answer this question is your art.
… The reason is this: The creative life is not linear. It’s not a straight line from Point A to Point B. It’s more like a loop, or a spiral, in which you keep coming back to a new starting point after every project. No matter how successful you get, no matter what level of achievement you reach, you will never really “arrive.” Other than death, there is no finish line or retirement for the creative person. “Even after you have achieved greatness,” writes musician Ian Svenonius, “the infinitesimal cadre who even noticed will ask, ‘What’s next?’”
The truly prolific artists I know always have that question answered, because they have figured out a daily practice—a repeatable way of working that insulates them from success, failure and the chaos of the outside world. They have all identified what they want to spend their time on, and they work at it every day, no matter what. Whether their latest thing is universally rejected, ignored or acclaimed, they know they’ll still get up tomorrow and do their work.
We have so little control over our lives. The only thing we can really control is what we spend our days on. What we work on and how hard we work on it. It might seem like a stretch, but I really think the best thing you can do if you want to make art is to pretend you’re starring in your own remake of Groundhog Day: Yesterday’s over, tomorrow may never come, there’s just today and what you can do with it.
All excerpts © Austin Kleon / Workman Publishing.
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