Steal Like an Artist
Posted on April 23, 2012
Have you heard of Austin Kleon’s book “Steal Like an Artist”? It’s a tiny book, filled with pictures and inspiring tid-bits, a nice little kick-start for your brain. Not everyone reading this blog labels himself an “artist.” But you don’t need to identify as one in order to gain something from an artist-like thought process. Too many business people don’t “steal like an artist,” to the detriment of their own growth. Whether you’re launching a new product, coaching others, creating a business proposal or lesson plan, marketing yourself, writing a song or the next great novel, you can benefit from looking at the world around you and stealing the pieces that inspire you.
What exactly does he mean by “stealing”? Isn’t stealing wrong? Kleon posits, as many have before him, that everything has already been said, written, painted, created. Nothing is entirely new. Should that stop us from opining, writing, painting, creating? Of course not. Every masterpiece that we lay eyes on stemmed from the thoughtful work of someone who went before, or beside. Have you ever visited the Musée d’Orsay in Paris? I know of no place that puts this into better perspective. You can view a huge collection of French Impressionist paintings side by side, seeing firsthand how these arists influenced one another, which ones broke away, who stuck closer to tradition. It’s fascinating. And very educational for anyone who’s thinking, “How do I get new ideas?” The answer is all around you, it’s on the canvases sitting right beside your own.
I especially like, and live by, the notion that if you’re stealing from one person, it’s theft, but if you’re stealing from several, it’s creation. If Ernest Hemingway is the only writer you ever read, you’re going to sound like a copycat, a poor imitation of a master. But if you read Hemingway and Styron and Rowling and Bryson and Didion and Dickens and Murakami, you will, if you really study their works, be able to take the best of all of these writers and create something new. Attempting to hermetically seal yourself off in a creative world of your own making is a noble undertaking. But it’s completely unnecessary, even detrimental. You have to expose yourself to a lot of different ideas to learn what appeals to you and, just as importantly, what appeals to the rest of the world. What’s the use of writing a book that no one wants to read (aside from honing your skills in order to one day write a book that people want to read)? Or creating an app that has no mass appeal?
If you’re familiar with the Facebook story, you know just how masterful Mark Zuckerberg was at stealing pieces of ideas and using them to create something wildly successful. Combining his original concept Facemash with the idea of a University-wide social network (the Harvard Connection, which was conceived by three other students), he was able to see a way into the future of online socializing. He recognized a need, took the components, and created something distinctive and interesting. Was it 100% different from that which came before it? No. But it left all of its predecessors in the dust. It can be argued that he should have properly acknowledged the Harvard Connection creators who helped him spark the idea (that’s where giving credit where credit is due comes into play), but Facebook wouldn’t be Facebook without the insight and execution that Zuckerberg brought to it. Period.
Knowing what’s come before is important if you’re going to “steal like an artist.” But it’s also an essential step to rebelling. You can’t break the mold if you don’t know what it looks like. That’s why, whenever anyone asks me for writing advice, I say, “Read. And read. And read. Then write.” Language didn’t pop into our brains on its own. We learned how to communicate by listening, reading, and speaking. It only makes sense that if we’re serious about mastering something, we take the time to learn a lot about it, and then take the further step of picking out the pieces that work for us, using and altering them to our advantage. Some people claim that there’s a mystical, mysterious nature to making art. I don’t buy into that. If I only worked when I felt inspired, I’d produce very little. And I would have no hope of ever reaching my full potential. Let other artists challenge, push, and inspire you. Beat up their ideas, break them into pieces, re-work them, imagine something new, re-introduce something old and forgotten. The future belongs to those who can use what already exists to create something unique and exciting–something that feels new, even if it isn’t.
The writer E.B. White said it best: “You ask, ‘Who cares?’ Everybody cares. You say, ‘It’s been written before.’ Everything has been written before.” Write it anyway.