Show Your Work!
Austin Kleon | ISBN: 076117897X & 978-0761178972 | Rating: 10/10
Austin Kleon’s incredible book Steal Like an Artist paved the way for his equally good Show Your Work! In Steal Like an Artist, Austin showed us how we could pull inspiration from everything around us. It gave us 10 examples of how we can be more creative as artists and creatives.
Show Your Work! is more of a companion book than a sequel to Steal Like an Artist. It explains why creatives need to show their work if they want to be “discovered.” In it, Kleon gives 10 examples of how we can share our creativity to grow an audience of passionate fans.
The reason you should read this along side Steal Like an Artist is, while Steal tells you how to boost your creativity, Show Your Work tells you how to share it. Both elements are necessary for living the optimum creative life.
If you start sharing your work from the beginning, there’s a timeline of your progress as an artist. There’s proof of your growth as an artist and everything it took to get to where you are.
It’s a way for fans to connect with you more deeply as you discover your own creative expression. It acts as a living creative journal of your progress.
With all that being said, here are my thoughts on each section of the book:
1. You Don’t Have to be a Genius
Find a Scenius
One of the very first points Kleon makes in the book is reminding us that the “lone genius” is a myth. We have this false perception that we, as artists, need to do everything ourselves, but that simply is not true.
In fact, he advocates becoming part of a scenius. Scenius is a term coined by musician Brian Eno that advocates surrounding yourself with other creatives: artists, curators, thinkers, etc.
Being a part of a scenius doesn’t take away from our work as creators, it adds to it. Austin believes “creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds.” We need to find our own tribes so we can become more productive and successful artists.
In this age, it’s easier to join a scenius than ever. The internet is the perfect place to do it. You can connect with people around the world despite our physical locations. Anyone can make a contribution. On the internet, the artist, curator, and amateur can all contribute something.
Being in a scenius can not only make the group stronger, it can spark your own creativity as well.
Be an Amateur
When many people think of the word amateur, they think it’s a bad thing. They think of someone who isn’t good enough to be a professional. They think of someone who just dabbles on the side. But that doesn’t mean it’s true. In fact, thinking like an amateur can be a good thing.
Amateurs take chances. They are unafraid of the consequences of experimenting. They love exploring their craft. They are unafraid of making mistakes. “Amateurs know that contributing something is better than contributing nothing.”
Amateurs are lifelong learners. They learn from their failures and successes. They love exploring possibilities. “They’ll use whatever tools they can get their hands on to try to get their ideas into the world.”
Amateurs are enthusiastic. They embrace uncertainty. “They’re just regular people who get obsessed by something and spend a ton of time thinking out loud about it.”
You Can’t Find Your Voice if You Don’t Use It
No one will hear you if you don’t share your thoughts with the world. The only way to get your message out there is if you use your voice.
Kleon gives the example of film critic Roger Ebert who lost his ability to speak. Ebert made a living through his television show, so you might think losing his voice would force him to quit in frustration. Instead, he did the opposite.
He used social media and blogging to churn out thousands of words about everything he could think of. And it worked. Hundreds of people responded to his posts and he responded back.
For Ebert blogging was “a matter of being heard, or not being heard. A matter of existing or not existing,” Kleon explains. “If you want people to know about what you do and the things you care about, you have to share.”
The inevitable fact is, one day we will all be dead. Many people only come to this realization when they have a near death experience. Others will come to that conclusion on their own.
The sad reality of it is, some of us will only listen to our inner creative voice once we realize our own mortality. Kleon mentions a few of those notable examples in the book.
George Lucas almost died in a car accident as a kid and dedicated the rest of his life to making movies. The lead singer of The Flaming Lips was working a Long John Silver when he realized he was going to die and it changed him. Cartoonist and essayist Tim Kreider said getting stabbed was the best thing to ever happen to him. The year after his near death experience he lived a blissful life.
The thing is, we don’t need near death experiences or life altering realizations to come to grips with our own mortality. Kleon advocates reading obituaries as a reminder.
“It’s for this reason that I read the obituaries every morning. Obituaries are like near-death experiences for cowards. Reading them is a way for me to think about death while also keeping it at arm’s length,” Kleon explains. “Reading about people who are dead now and did things with their lives makes me want to get up and do something decent with mine. Thinking about death every morning makes me want to live.”
2. Think Process, Not Product
Take People Behind the Scenes
There are two distinct things artists mean when they talk about their “work.” The first is the artwork, the finished product, the thing you hang up in a gallery. The second is the art work, the thing you work at all day, the creation, the process.
In the world before the internet, all your audience could see was the artwork. They only saw the finished product. But today, things are different. You can share anything and everything about your process.
That shift in the way artists work can make a profound difference. Austin believes by sharing our process, we can connect with our audience on a deeper level. “By sharing her day-to-day process— the thing she really cares about— she can form a unique bond with her audience.”
Many artists who grew up before the internet are scared to open up about their work, but our audiences love the inside glimpse into the way our minds work. Here’s how Kleon sums it up, “Audiences not only want to stumble across great work, but they, too, long to be creative and part of the creative process. By letting go of our egos and sharing our process, we allow for the possibility of people having an ongoing connection with us and our work, which helps us move more of our product.”
Become a Documentarian of What You Do
It doesn’t matter what type of art you create, there’s an art to what you do, and people are interested in seeing how you do it. Austin gives the example of astronaut Chris Hadfield.
While Hadfield is not an artist in the traditional sense, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from him. During one of his missions, Hadfield turned to social media to give people a glimpse of what it’s like to be an astronaut.
He tweeted and answered questions from followers. He posted pictures of Earth. He recorded music and he filmed YouTube videos showing him doing everyday tasks. He became hugely popular with millions of people tuning in to see what it’s like to be an astronaut.
While your work might not be as unique as an astronaut’s, that doesn’t mean people won’t tune in. Most people aren’t artists and have no idea how artists work. Use that to your advantage.
Like Kleon says, you need to be a documentarian of your work. Write your thoughts in a journal or record your thoughts on tape. Take photos or record videos of your work in progress. Keep track of what you do. While it may not seem interesting to us, it is for other people.
How great would it be of you could watch Walt Disney creating Mickey Mouse or watch Jim Henson craft his puppets? There’s a reason people are fascinated with Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks. They give you a glimpse into his mind, his ideas, and his process.
Documenting your work creates a historical archive of your art. People can see your progress as an artist. They can get an idea of what your art is about. They can see what inspired and moved you.
3. Share Something Small Every Day
Send a Daily Dispatch
Many of us still believe in the myth of the overnight success. But that’s exactly what it is, a myth. No one consequential ever got where they are instantaneously. They spent years working at their craft before they ever got “noticed.”
That is why you need to build a body of work to show your progress and persistence. Kleon advocates focusing on each day. Thinking in terms of months or years can be too nebulous. The only thing we can control is what we do today.
That is why he recommends documenting and sharing “one little piece of your process” with your audience every day. You can share any part of your process from your influences to your finished paintings and everything in between.
Austin believes the daily dispatch is better than a portfolio because it shows what you are working on right now. He likens it to the extras on a DVD. “A good daily dispatch is like getting all the DVD extras before a movie comes out— you get to watch deleted scenes and listen to director’s commentary while the movie is being made.”
Social media is probably the best place to share your daily updates. But don’t use every single social media platform. Find the one that best suits your work and make it work for you.
Also, don’t worry about being perfect. As the creators, we are too close to our work to judge how it will be perceived. Post your work, then gauge the reaction to it. Don’t judge your work before getting valuable feedback first.
Another excuse people use is, there isn’t enough time. If you truly love the work you do, you will find the time for it. There are 24 hours in a day, and you aren’t busy during every minute of those hours. You must find the time if you want to engage your audience.
The “So What?” Test
One thing to remember when sharing your work is to be selective about what you share. You should only share work you want other people to read or see because once something is on the internet, it has the potential to stay there forever. Do not share things that aren’t ready to be shared.
Kleon believes sharing is an act of generosity, and I agree. You should only post things that are either helpful or entertaining. Otherwise, what’s the point? This story perfectly illustrates his point.
“I had a professor in college who returned our graded essays, walked up to the chalkboard, and wrote in huge letters: ‘SO WHAT?’ She threw the piece of chalk down and said, ‘Ask yourself that every time you turn in a piece of writing.’ It’s a lesson I never forgot.”
Before sharing something, put it through the “So What?” Test. Ask yourself if it is helpful, entertaining, thought provoking, or worthy of being shared. If you don’t know, let it sit for 24 hours and ask yourself again. One thing to remember is, saving your work for later is okay. You can always perfect it. Just don’t share something you will regret later.
Turn Your Flow Into Stock
Kleon explains “Stock and Flow” through writer Robin Sloan. Robin took the economic principle and turned it into a media metaphor.
Flow is your feed. It’s the posts, tweets, and updates you put out there every day. Stock is the content you produce. It’s the stuff that people discover. It builds your fan base.
Austin believes “stock is best made by collecting, organizing, and expanding upon your flow.” He believes social media acts as a public notebook. It lets us think out loud, but he also believes we need to revisit our notebooks to make the best use of them. “You have to flip back through old ideas to see what you’ve been thinking.”
When sharing is a part of your daily routine you’ll begin to notice themes. “You’ll find patterns in your flow.” It is only when you start adding all these small pieces together that you can build something bigger. You turn your flow into stock.
As an example, Austin says many of his idea start off as tweets or blog posts. But when expanded upon, they became chapters in his book.
Build a Good (Domain) Name
One big mistake many people make is only putting their content on other people’s networks. If you built your online presence on MySpace, you would be dead in the water. That’s why you need a place to call your own. When you own your own domain, you have “a place that you control, a place that no one can take away from you, a world headquarters where people can always find you.”
Austin bought his domain over 10 years ago, and when he started, it was “bare bones and ugly.” But what he found was, blogs are the “ideal machine for turning flow into stock.” It’s proof of your life’s work and is yours to keep. This statement from Kleon is probably the most telling example of why you should start your own blog, “Absolutely everything good that has happened in my career can be traced back to my blog.”
If you are opposed to heavy self-promotion, Kleon has an answer for that too. Instead of thinking of your website as a self-promotion machine, think of it as a self-invention machine. Post your work. Post things you care about. Post your ideas. And most crucially, don’t give up on it.
The last point he makes is, your blog is your own. You aren’t censored. You don’t need to do what other people want you to do. You can do whatever you want with it, and you can evolve it any way you see fit.
4. Open Up Your Cabinet of Curiosities
Don’t be a Hoarder
Kleon opens this section with a wonderful quote from Paul Arden, “The problem with hoarding is you end up living off your reserves. Eventually, you’ll become stale. If you give away everything you have, you are left with nothing. This forces you to look, to be aware, to replenish. . . . Somehow the more you give away, the more comes back to you.”
The point he is trying to make is that instead of keeping all the good ideas to ourselves, we should share them with the world. As we are growing as artists and developing our skills, there’s a gap between our tastes and the work we create. Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, explains the gap perfectly. “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer.”
Thus, Austin advocates sharing your tastes and influences before sharing your own work. Become a curator first, then become a creator. “Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do— sometimes even more than your own work.”
No Guilty Pleasures
As the saying goes, One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Everyone’s taste is different, and that’s a good thing. The things that you enjoy are the things that make you who you are. They influence your style, your taste, and the type of art you create.
In fact, Austin encourages artists to dumpster dive. “‘Dumpster diving’ is one of the jobs of the artist— finding the treasure in other people’s trash, sifting through the debris of our culture, paying attention to the stuff that everyone else is ignoring, and taking inspiration from the stuff that people have tossed aside for whatever reasons.”
But in order to do this, we must be keenly aware of where to look. “All it takes to uncover hidden gems is a clear eye, an open mind, and a willingness to search for inspiration in places other people aren’t willing or able to go.”
One thing you will encounter when declaring your love for certain things is that other people will vehemently disagree with you. But you can’t let that discourage you from loving something. “You have to have the courage to keep loving your garbage, because what makes us unique is the diversity and breadth of our influences.”
You must be willing to stick by the things you like. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. “When you find things you genuinely enjoy, don’t let anyone else make you feel bad about it. Don’t feel guilty about the pleasure you take in the things you enjoy. Celebrate them.”
We must have the courage and conviction to stick by our so called guilty pleasures. If we don’t, what kind of person would that make us? We must embrace all the things that make us who we are, even if others don’t agree.
Credit is Always Due
One of the problems with the way the internet works is that, often times, creators don’t get credit for what they do. There are many examples of people, all over the internet, who use an image on their site without crediting the artist.
Let’s for a moment forget about the legal ramifications of such an act. It is just common decency to credit the artist with the work they created, especially if you like it.
Kleon believes when you don’t give credit to the original creator, you are not only robbing them, but you are also robbing your audience. “[I]f you fail to properly attribute work that you share, you not only rob the person who made it, you rob all the people you’ve shared it with. Without attribution, they have no way to dig deeper into the work or find more of it.
He also believes we should provide as much context as possible when sharing someone else’s work. “Attribution is all about providing context for what you’re sharing: what the work is, who made it, how they made it, when and where it was made, why you’re sharing it, why people should care about it, and where people can see some more work like it.”
If you truly respect the work of another artist, it is your duty to share as much as you can about their work. It all comes back to the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If you like the work of another artist, share their story. In return others will be more compelled to do the same for you.
5. Tell Good Stories
Work Doesn’t Speak for Itself
One of the most surprising facts about art is that art does not speak for itself. To start off this section, Austin talked about two identical looking paintings on a wall. Without knowing the stories behind them, you would think they were created by the same person. But when you learn about the paintings, you discover one was created by a 17th century Dutch master and the other was a forgery by an art student. At that moment, your perception immediately shifts.
Another example he gives is from the book Significant Objects, where Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker created an experiment to test the power of stories. Their hypothesis was: “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.” So they went out to thrift stores and flea markets and paid a total of $128.74 for some objects with an average cost of $1.25. Then they went onto eBay and invented stories for each object and listed them for the original price they paid. By the end of the experiment, they sold those same objects for $3,612.51.
As artists, we believe our work speaks for itself, but that simply is not the case. Kleon explains it succinctly, “Human beings want to know where things came from, how they were made, and who made them. The stories you tell about the work you do have a huge effect on how people feel and what they understand about your work, and how people feel and what they understand about your work effects how they value it.”
Since our art doesn’t speak for itself, we have to learn to tell better stories. “If you want to be more effective when sharing yourself and your work, you need to become a better storyteller. You need to know what a good story is and how to tell one.”
Structure is Everything.
Telling our own stories is extremely important and also quite difficult. While good stories are tidy and logical, life is messy and illogical. The best thing we can do is try to crop and edit our lives into something that looks like a story.
Kleon distills stories into three parts: the initial problem, the work to solve the problem, and the solution. This sounds great in theory, but the difficulty lies in the fact that, when we’re in the middle of our story, we don’t know we’re in a story at all. We don’t know how far we are into the journey or how that journey is going to end.
Luckily, there’s a way to tell open-ended stories where we acknowledge that fact. Here’s how Austin explains it, “Every client presentation, every personal essay, every cover letter, every fund-raising request— they’re all pitches. They’re stories with the endings chopped off.” He goes on by showing how our pitches fit a story’s structure, “A good pitch is set up in three acts: The first act is the past, the second act is the present, and the third act is the future.”
He ends this section with some advice on telling a good story, “Whether you’re telling a finished or unfinished story, always keep your audience in mind. Speak to them directly in plain language. Value their time. Be brief. Learn to speak. Learn to write.”
Storytelling does not come easy to everyone. It’s something that can take a lifetime to master. You just have to study great stories and create some of your own.
Talk About Yourself at Parties.
One of the most uncomfortable situations you can have at a party is fumbling to find an answer when someone asks you what you do. “Am I a painter?” “Am I an artist?” “How do I explain my work?”
Austin recommends treating these situations as opportunities to connect with people instead of treating them like interrogations. We need to be able to explain our work to anybody who is interested. “You should be able to explain your work to a kindergartner, a senior citizen, and everybody in between.”
One thing you need to always keep in mind is who your audience is. The introduction you make at a party is completely different than one you would make at a networking event.
Another thing you need to do is put yourself in the shoes of your audience. Most people won’t know what you do, even when you explain your work to them. Here’s some great advice from Austin, “Have empathy for your audience. Anticipate blank stares. Be ready for more questions. Answer patiently and politely.”
These same principles apply when you are writing your bio. Stop embellishing your words. Kleon believes bios should be short and to the point.”Bios are not the place to practice your creativity… a two-sentence explanation is usually what the world wants from us. Keep it short and sweet.”
6. Teach What You Know.
Share Your Trade Secrets.
Many of us are afraid to share our process with the world. We believe that once we share our knowledge, people won’t need to buy our work. We believe we’ll create competition for ourselves. But that’s not the way it works. If you are great at your craft, it likely took you years to get there.
Austin believes you can only master something through practice. “There’s an intuition that you only gain through the repetition of practice.” And he’s right. Have you ever tried something new and were immediately great at it? Probably not.
In the book, Kleon gives the example of the owner of a barbecue stop. The owner was taping a segment with the local PBS station and he was walking people through every step of his barbecue process. While most people would be afraid of sharing their secrets with the world, the BBQ stop owner knew it would take years to master his cooking style. He knew that if people attempted to follow his process exactly, they still wouldn’t be able replicate the same taste. Instead of detracting people from buying from him, he attracted even more people because it is so hard to replicate his food.
This is how Austin explains it, “Teaching doesn’t mean instant competition. Just because you know the master’s technique doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to emulate it right away.” Instead, he believes you should share everything you learn. “The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others.” When you do this you add value to and generate interest in your work. “People feel closer to your work because you’re letting them in on what you know.”
7. Don’t Turn Into Human Spam.
Shut Up and Listen.
If you are someone who just shoves your art in front of people without learning how the art market works, you are in for some trouble. Austin calls these people human spam. “They’re everywhere, and they exist in every profession. They don’t want to pay their dues, they want their piece right here, right now. They don’t want to listen to your ideas; they want to tell you theirs.”
You don’t want to be human spam. These people are only interested in themselves. They can’t find the time to be interested in anything else.
Instead of always pushing your own work, find out how you can be a collaborator. “No matter how famous they get, the forward-thinking artists of today aren’t just looking for fans or passive consumers of their work, they’re looking for potential collaborators, or co-conspirators. These artists acknowledge that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that the experience of art is always a two-way street, incomplete without feedback,” says Kleon.
One of the best pieces of advice Austin gives is on how to build your fan base and community. “If you want fans, you have to be a fan first. If you want to be accepted by a community, you have to first be a good citizen of that community. If you’re only pointing to your own stuff online, you’re doing it wrong. You have to be a connector.”
Connectors are the ones who make messages spread like wildfire. They are the ones who can make an introduction for you at a moment’s notice. They are the ones who help communities grow and flourish. Don’t be human spam. Be a connector.
You Want Hearts, Not Eyeballs.
One of the misconceptions artists have about building their presence online is they think the key to success is having a lot of followers. While it does help to have followers, you should worry more about the quality of your followers.
Here is what Austin has to say about the quality vs. the quantity of your followers. “Stop worrying about how many people follow you online and start worrying about the quality of people who follow you. Don’t waste your time reading articles about how to get more followers. Don’t waste time following people online just because you think it’ll get you somewhere.” I agree. It is more helpful to have 100 passionate fans than it is to have 1,000 tepid fans.
The best way to do this is to be someone worth following. Your work needs to be so good that people want to talk about it, and the only way you can do that is to make great work and talk about it. “Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple.”
Identify Your Fellow Knuckleballers.
In this section, Kleon talks about the brotherhood of knuckleball pitchers in baseball. While most pitchers guard the secrets behind their pitches, knuckleballers share tips with each other. “Knuckleball pitchers are basically the ugly ducklings of baseball. Because there are so few of them, they actually form a kind of brotherhood, and they often get together and share tips with one another.”
Most artists try to guard their secrets from everyone else, but there are a few who are open and willing to teach you what they know. These are the knuckleballers of the art world. They are your friends.
Austin believes you should befriend them because we are all on a shared mission. These are the people who “share your obsessions, the people who share a similar mission to your own, the people with whom you share a mutual respect.”
You need to befriend them because their are so few of them. “Do what you can to nurture your relationships with these people. Sing their praises to the universe. Invite them to collaborate. Show them work before you show anybody else. Call them on the phone and share your secrets. Keep them as close as you can.”
Meet Up in Meatspace.
One of the great things about building your presence online is, you are becoming part of a community. Austin believes the relationships we form allow us to ignore the small talk and get right to the big ideas. “There’s never any small talk— we know all about one another and what one another does. We can just sip beer or some other social lubricant and talk about big ideas.”
Another benefit is, you can meet up with people you’ve met online when you’re traveling. “If you’re traveling, let your online friends know you’re going to be in town. I like asking my artist friends to take me to their favorite art museums and asking my writer friends to take me to their favorite bookstore. If we get sick of talking to one another, we can browse, and if we get sick of browsing, we can grab a coffee in the café.”
Turn your online friendships into real life friends. It will make your travel much more fun and it will strengthen your friendships. “Meeting people online is awesome, but turning them into IRL friends is even better.”
8. Learn to Take a Punch
Let ‘Em Take Their Best Shot.
Criticism is a touchy subject for artists. Although we know it is necessary, it doesn’t make it any easier to take. But if you want to become a successful artist, you have to take the bad with the good, and that means learning to take criticism. “When you put your work out into the world, you have to be ready for the good, the bad, and the ugly. The more people come across your work, the more criticism you’ll face.” says Kleon.
Luckily he has some helpful tips for us:
Relax and breathe. Instead of dwelling on good or bad reviews, accept whatever comes.
Strengthen your neck. Put out a lot of work and let people criticize it. The best way to overcome criticism is to get used to it.
Roll with the punches. Continue creating work no matter what. You can’t stop people from criticizing your work, but you can control your reaction to that criticism.
Protect your vulnerable areas. Keep vulnerable details hidden from public view, but remember, vulnerability also connects us with others. Find the right balance of vulnerability and secrecy.
Keep your balance. Remember that you are not your work. Stay close with those who care about you and will support you no matter what.
Don’t Feed the Trolls.
One of the beautiful things about being an artist is that many people get to see your work. It also leads to one of the biggest negatives of being an artist, the trolls that come out when you release your work. “A troll is a person who isn’t interested in improving your work, only provoking you with hateful, aggressive, or upsetting talk.”
That’s why Austin stresses the need to be wary about who we listen to. “The first step in evaluating feedback is sizing up who it came from. You want feedback from people who care about you and what you do. Be extra wary of feedback from anybody who falls outside of that circle.”
While we can filter out most of the people who try to tear us down, there is one troll that is hard not to listen to: ourselves. “The worst trolls is the one that lives in your head. It’s the voice that tells you you’re not good enough, that you suck, and that you’ll never amount to anything.”
Austin recommends using the block button on social media sites. We need to delete nasty comments from our lives because if we listen to them, they can paralyze us. You also have the option of removing the ability to comment all together. “Let people contact you directly or let them copy your work over to their own spaces and talk about it all they want.”
9. Sell Out
Even the Renaissance Had to be Funded.
This statement about money and art by Austin has to be one of the most profound things I’ve ever read. “Whether an artist makes money off his work or not, money has to come from somewhere, be it a day job, a wealthy spouse, a trust fund, an arts grant, or a patron.”
This concept is often overlooked by artists who want to make a career out of their art: artists need money to create. You can continue to make art for arts sake, but at a certain point, if you want to become a working artist, you need money to do it.
Austin blames the starving artist mindset. “We all have to get over our ‘starving artist’ romanticism and the idea that touching money inherently corrupts creativity.” He’s right. How do you think he was able to write his books?
Austin even gives some great examples of artists making money. Michelangelo was commissioned by the Pope to paint the Sistine Chapel. Mario Puzo wrote the Godfather because he owed people money. Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote songs to pay for things like swimming pools.
Another great point he makes is that everyone wants artists to make money but “when they do, everybody hates them for it.” This type of thinking needs to end. We need to stop calling people sellouts. Instead let’s aspire to sell out of our work.
Pass Around the Hat.
When your work starts to gain attention, it might be time to get paid for it. There are a few ways you can do this:
Asking for Donations
If you put a donation button on your site, remember to make it sound more human. Austin suggest something along the lines of “Like this? Buy me a coffee.”
If you want upfront capital, you can use platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo who offer fund-raising campaigns with tiered rewards for donors. One successful example of an artist using crowdfunding is Amanda Palmer. After sharing her work and cultivating relationships with her fans, she asked for $100,000 to help record her album, but she ended up raising more than a million dollars.
The Old-Fashioned Way
You can also use the old-fashioned model and sell your work on your site. This is the method that Kleon uses on his sites. Instead of donation buttons, he has buy now and hire me buttons. Even so, he tries to incorporate some of the principles from crowdfunding. “I try to be open about my process, connect with my audience, and ask them to support me by buying the things I’m selling.”
One thing to remember when attempting to make money from your work is, you have to put out work that has value. “Whether you ask for donations, crowdfund, or sell your products or services, asking for money in return for your work is a leap you want to take only when you feel confident that you’re putting work out into the world that you think is truly worth something. Don’t be afraid to charge for your work, but put a price on it that you think is fair.”
Keep a Mailing List.
People will often cite the death of the email list, yet it just keep on chugging along. Austin believes we need to have an email list even if we aren’t selling anything yet. “Even if you don’t have anything to sell right now, you should always be collecting email addresses from people who come across your work and want to stay in touch.”
There are people who run multi-million-dollar businesses from their mailing list by simply giving away great information on their sites, collecting emails, and sending emails when they have something remarkable to share or sell.
All you need to do is sign up for a newsletter account with a company like Mailchimp. Then add a sign-up widget to every page on your site. But also remember to encourage people to sign up by giving them a clear reason to do so. You should also consider mentioning how often you will be sending updates.
One thing Austin has discovered about his email list is “The People who sign up for your list will be some of your biggest supporters.” So just remember “Don’t betray their trust and don’t push your luck. Build your list and treat it with respect.”
Make More Work for Yourself.
If there’s one important thing we can take away from Austin, it’s that selling out is not a thing. “Some awful people use the term sellout to include any artist who dares to have any ambition whatsoever.”
Just because you want to advance your career and make a living from your art does not mean you are selling out. What we should focus on is creating good work and taking the opportunities that come to us.
Our lives and our art are about evolution and change. Without either, you will stay stagnant or become dispassionate. All the great artists of the world had phases where they grew and evolved their artistic style. “A life of creativity is all about change—moving forward, taking chances, exploring new frontiers,” says Kleon.
We need to develop a growth mindset instead of a mindset of scarcity. Austin ends this section with these wise words, “Be ambitious. Keep yourself busy. Think bigger. Expand your audience. Don’t hobble yourself in the name of ‘keeping it real,’ or ‘not selling out.'”
And he gives some great advice for determining whether you should take an opportunity. “Try new things. If an opportunity comes along that will allow you to do more of the kind of work you want to do, say Yes. If an opportunity comes along that would mean more money, but less of the kind of work you want to do, say No.”
Pay It Forward.
When you achieve success, it is better to share what you’ve found. Just like what Austin does with his books, and just like I’m trying to do with my own writing. “When you have success it’s important to use any dough, clout, or platform you’ve acquired to help along the work of the people who’ve helped you get to where you are,” says Kleon.
Of course this comes with a caveat. You have to spend your time wisely as well. At a certain point, you have to decide what you want to say yes to and what to say no to. The way Austin overcomes this is by offering office hours on his site. “Once a month, I make myself available so that anybody can ask me anything on my website, and I try to give thoughtful answers that I then post so anyone can see.”
Austin believes the key is finding the balance between your work and giving. “You just have to be as generous as you can, but selfish enough to get your work done.”
10. Stick Around
Don’t Quit Your Show.
I know you’ve thought about doing it many times before, but don’t quit. It’s so easy to give up, to let other people take your spot, to let go of your dreams.
We all have the capacity to succeed. It’s usually a matter of when, not if. Just like every success story, you don’t know where you are in your journey until you look back on it. Kleon believes many of us are just in the middle of our stories. “Every career is full of ups and downs, and just like with stories, when you’re in the middle of living out your life and career, you don’t know whether you’re up or down or what’s about to happen next.”
Austin believes the most important thing is not to give up prematurely. “The people who get what they’re after are very often the ones who just stick around long enough. It’s very important not to quit prematurely.”
After all we can’t expect success, but we can be open to it. “You can’t count on success; you can only leave open the possibility for it, and be ready to jump on and take the ride when it comes for you.”
So stop worrying about your lack of success. If it is meant to be, it will come. If you want something bad enough, you have to be willing to wait long enough to get it.
Have you ever finished a project and thought ‘Now what?’ Have you ever worked on a project for so long that you let it make or break you? Have you ever wondered how successful creators keep making such great work?
If you’ve ever been stuck after finishing a project, Austin has an answer that will solve your problems. It’s not sexy or glamorous ,but it will work regardless of whether your last project was a success or failure. It’s been the formula for every creator who has had success, “If you look to artists who’ve managed to achieve lifelong careers, you detect the same pattern: They all have been able to persevere, regardless of success or failure,” says Kleon.
The thing that all these artists have in common is something Austin calls chain-smoking. You can stop your career from stalling by never losing momentum, and here’s how: “Instead of taking a break in between projects, waiting for feedback, and worrying about what’s next, use the end of one project to light up the next one. Just do the work that’s in front of you, and when it’s finished, ask yourself what you missed, what you could’ve done better, or what you couldn’t get to, and jump right into the next project.”
Don’t wait for inspiration or the Muse to come to you. Take the momentum from your previous project and let it feed into your next one. It’s how every successful creative person is able to sustain their careers.
Go Away So You Can Come Back.
The problem with constantly working on your next project is, at some point, you will burn out. The best thing you can do at that point is taking a sabbatical.
Austin points to Stefan Sagmeister as an example of how sabbaticals can be extremely helpful. Every seven years, the award winning designer shuts down his studio and takes a year off. Here’s what Sagmeister says about sabbaticals, “Everything that we designed in the seven years following the first sabbatical had its roots in thinking done during that sabbatical.”
Not everyone can take a year long sabbatical every seven years, but we can take what Kleon calls practical sabbaticals: daily, weekly, or monthly breaks where we completely walk away from our work.
Here are some ways to do it:
Commute. If you take a train or subway to work, take that time to write, doodle, or read. You can also listen to audio books if you drive to work.
Exercise. When we exercise our bodies, it gives our minds a break and opens us up to new thoughts.
Nature. Go outside and disconnect from anything electronic. This gives us a nice break from our digital lives.
Start Over. Begin Again.
Have you ever felt like you got so good at doing something that you were no longer creatively fulfilled by it? If you have, then it is time to move on and learn something new. Austin believes this is the best way to evolve. “When you feel like you’ve learned whatever there is to learn from what you’re doing, it’s time to change course and find something new to learn so that you can move forward. You can’t be content with mastery; you have to push yourself to become a student again.”
The only way to do this is to push your old work aside and start something new. Making way for new work pushes you further and helps you create something better. “You have to have the courage to get rid of work and rethink things completely,” says Kleon.
Besides, you are never really starting over. The lessons you’ve learned along the way are all still with you, and they make your work better. Instead of thinking of it as starting over, think of it as beginning again. Approach it from the mindset of an amateur.
Austin ends the book beautifully by telling us to all become beginners again.
“Look for something new to learn, and when you find it, dedicate yourself to learning it out in the open. Document your progress and share as you go so that others can learn along with you. Show your work, and when the right people show up, pay close attention to them, because they’ll have a lot to show you.”
As you can see, Show Your Work! is a beautiful primer for artists who want to make it in the ever growing ever competitive art world. While other artists continue trying to keep their art and their lives a guarded secret, Austin advocates sharing yourself with the world. When you do this you build a stronger connection with your fans and followers. You create a cycle of giving and sharing that reaches beyond your own audience. It helps give permission to other artists to do this same. If you enjoyed this review, I highly recommend checking out Austin’s book. It’s well worth the investment.
Show Your Work! Kindle Highlights
“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.” —John Cleese
You don’t really find an audience for your work; they find you. But it’s not enough to be good. In order to be found, you have to be findable.
Almost all of the people I look up to and try to steal from today, regardless of their profession, have built sharing into their routine.
They’re cranking away in their studios, their laboratories, or their cubicles, but instead of maintaining absolute secrecy and hoarding their work, they’re open about what they’re working on, and they’re consistently posting bits and pieces of their work, their ideas, and what they’re learning online.
By generously sharing their ideas and their knowledge, they often gain an audience that they can then leverage when they need it—for fellowship, feedback, or patronage.
“Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
There are a lot of destructive myths about creativity, but one of the most dangerous is the “lone genius” myth: An individual with superhuman talents appears out of nowhere at certain points in history, free of influences or precedent, with a direct connection to God or The Muse. When inspiration comes, it strikes like a lightning bolt, a lightbulb switches on in his head, and then he spends the rest of his time toiling away in his studio, shaping this idea into a finished masterpiece that he releases into the world to great fanfare.
There’s a healthier way of thinking about creativity that the musician Brian Eno refers to as “scenius.” Under this model, great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals—artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers—who make up an “ecology of talent.”
Scenius doesn’t take away from the achievements of those great individuals; it just acknowledges that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds.
Being a valuable part of a scenius is not necessarily about how smart or talented you are, but about what you have to contribute—the ideas you share, the quality of the connections you make, and the conversations you start.
forget about genius and think more about how we can nurture and contribute to a scenius,
adjust our own expectations
stop asking what others can do for us, and start asking what we can do for others.
We live in an age where it’s easier than ever to join a scenius. The Internet is basically a bunch of sceniuses connected together, divorced from physical geography.
There’s no bouncer, no gatekeeper, and no barrier to entering these scenes:
Online, everyone—the artist and the curator, the master and the apprentice, the expert and the amateur—has the ability to contribute something.
“That’s all any of us are: amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else.” —Charlie Chaplin
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.
they have little to lose, amateurs are willing to try anything and share the results. They take chances, experiment, and follow their whims.
they make new discoveries.
Amateurs are not afraid to make mistakes or look ridiculous in public.
“The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act,” writes Clay Shirky
“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.
Amateurs might lack formal training, but they’re all lifelong learners, and they make a point of learning in the open, so that others can learn from their failures and successes.
Amateurs fit the same bill: They’re just regular people who get obsessed by something and spend a ton of time thinking out loud about it.
Sometimes, amateurs have more to teach us than experts.
“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.”
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.”
whenever Yorke feels like his songwriting is getting too comfortable or stale, he’ll pick up an instrument he doesn’t know how to play and try to write with it.
amateurs—they’ll use whatever tools they can get their hands on to try to get their ideas into the world.
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.
Find a scenius, pay attention to what others are sharing, and then start taking note of what they’re not sharing.
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.
“Find your voice, shout it from the rooftops, and keep doing it until the people that are looking for you find you.” — Dan Harmon
the only way to find your voice is to use it.
Talk about the things you love. Your voice will follow.
When the late film critic Roger Ebert went through several intense surgeries to treat his cancer, he lost the ability to speak.
Cut off from everyday conversation, he poured himself into tweeting, posting to Facebook, and blogging
He ripped out posts at a breakneck speed, writing thousands and thousands of words about everything he could think of—his
Hundreds and hundreds of people would respond to his posts, and he would respond back. Blogging became his primary way of communicating with the world.
“Mr. Ebert writes as if it were a matter of life and death,” wrote journalist Janet Maslin, “because it is.” Ebert was blogging because he had to blog—because it was a matter of being heard, or not being heard. A matter of existing or not existing.
in this day and age, if your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.
If you want people to know about what you do and the things you care about, you have to share.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.” —Steve Jobs
One day you’ll be dead. Most of us prefer to ignore this most basic fact of life, but thinking about our inevitable end has a way of putting everything into perspective.
I’m not going to sit here and wait for things to happen, I’m going to make them happen, and if people think I’m an idiot I don’t care.”
if you could walk around like that all the time, to really have that awareness that it’s actually going to end. That’s the trick.”
Unfortunately, I am a coward. As much as I would like the existential euphoria that comes with it, I don’t really want a near-death experience.
But I do somehow want to remember that it’s coming for me.
Obituaries are like near-death experiences for cowards. Reading them is a way for me to think about death while also keeping it at arm’s length.
Obituaries aren’t really about death; they’re about life. “The sum of every obituary is how heroic people are, and how noble,” writes artist Maira Kalman.
Thinking about death every morning makes me want to live.
Take inspiration from the people who muddled through life before you—they all started out as amateurs, and they got where they were going by making do with what they were given, and having the guts to put themselves out there.
“A lot of people are so used to just seeing the outcome of work. They never see the side of the work you go through to produce the outcome.” —Michael Jackson
When a painter talks about her “work,” she could be talking about two different things: There’s the artwork, the finished piece, framed and hung on a gallery wall, and there’s the art work, all the day-to-day stuff that goes on behind the scenes in her studio: looking for inspiration, getting an idea, applying oil to a canvas, etc.
As in all kinds of work, there is a distinction between the painter’s process, and the products of her process.
Traditionally, the artist has been trained to regard her creative process as something that should be kept to herself.
David Bayles and Ted Orland in their book, Art and Fear: “To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping the artwork.”
“The private details of artmaking are utterly uninteresting to audiences,” write Bayles and Orland, “because they’re almost never visible—or even knowable—from examining the finished work.”
This all made sense in a pre-digital age,
But today, by taking advantage of the Internet and social media, an artist can share whatever she wants, whenever she wants, at almost no cost. She can decide exactly how much or how little of her work and herself she will share, and she can be as open about her process as she wants to—she
By sharing her day-to-day process—the thing she really cares about—she can form a unique bond with her audience.
To many artists, particularly those who grew up in the pre-digital era, this kind of openness and the potential vulnerability that goes along with sharing one’s process is a terrifying idea.
human beings are interested in other human beings and what other human beings do. “People really do want to see how the sausage gets made.” That’s how designers Dan Provost and Tom Gerhardt put it in their book on entrepreneurship, It Will Be Exhilarating.
“By putting things out there, consistently, you can form a relationship with your customers. It allows them to see the person behind the products.”
Audiences not only want to stumble across great work, but they, too, long to be creative and part of the creative process.
By letting go of our egos and sharing our process, we allow for the possibility of people having an ongoing connection with us and our work, which helps us move more of our product.
“In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen—really seen.” —Brené Brown
Hadfield and his family were sitting around the dinner table, trying to figure out ways to generate interest for the Canadian Space Agency,
Things fell into place when his sons explained social media to him and got him set up on Twitter and other social networks.
During his next five-month mission, while performing all his regular astronautical duties, he tweeted, answered questions from his followers, posted pictures he’d taken of Earth, recorded music, and filmed YouTube videos of himself clipping his nails, brushing his teeth, sleeping, and even performing maintenance on the space station. Millions of people ate it all up,
whatever the nature of your work, there is an art to what you do, and there are people who would be interested in that art, if only you presented it to them in the right way.
sharing your process might actually be most valuable if the products of your work aren’t easily shared,
How can you show your work even when you have nothing to show? The first step is to scoop up the scraps and the residue of your process and shape them into some interesting bit of media that you can share. You have to turn the invisible into something other people can see.
Become a documentarian of what you do. Start a work journal: Write your thoughts down in a notebook, or speak them into an audio recorder. Keep a scrapbook. Take a lot of photographs of your work at different stages in your process.
This isn’t about making art, it’s about simply keeping track of what’s going on around you. Take advantage of all the cheap, easy tools at your disposal—these days,
Whether you share it or not, documenting and recording your process as you go along has its own rewards: You’ll start to see the work you’re doing more clearly and feel like you’re making progress.
“Put yourself, and your work, out there every day, and you’ll start meeting some amazing people.” —Bobby Solomon
Overnight success is a myth. Dig into almost every overnight success story and you’ll find about a decade’s worth of hard work and perseverance.
Building a substantial body of work takes a long time—a lifetime,
you don’t need that time all in one big chunk.
Focus on days.
The day is the only unit of time that I can really get my head around. Seasons change, weeks are completely human-made, but the day has a rhythm.
Once a day, after you’ve done your day’s work, go back to your documentation and find one little piece of your process that you can share.
A daily dispatch is even better than a résumé or a portfolio, because it shows what we’re working on right now.
A good daily dispatch is like getting all the DVD extras before a movie comes out—you get to watch deleted scenes and listen to director’s commentary while the movie is being made.
Social media sites are the perfect place to share daily updates. Don’t worry about being on every platform; pick and choose based on what you do and the people you’re trying to reach.
The landscape is constantly changing, and new platforms are always popping up . . . and disappearing.
Don’t be afraid to be an early adopter—jump on a new platform and see if there’s something interesting you can do with it.
Don’t worry about everything you post being perfect.
The trouble is, we don’t always know what’s good and what sucks. That’s why it’s important to get things in front of others and see how they react.
Don’t say you don’t have enough time. We’re all busy, but we all get 24 hours a day.
People often ask me, “How do you find the time for all this?” And I answer, “I look for it.” You find time the same place you find spare change: in the nooks and crannies.
I like to work while the world is sleeping, and share while the world is at work.
Of course, don’t let sharing your work take precedence over actually doing your work.
“One day at a time. It sounds so simple. It actually is simple but it isn’t easy: It requires incredible support and fastidious structuring.” —Russell Brand
“Make no mistake: This is not your diary. You are not letting it all hang out. You are picking and choosing every single word.” —Dani Shapiro
Always remember that anything you post to the Internet has now become public.
Ideally, you want the work you post online to be copied and spread to every corner of the Internet, so don’t post things online that you’re not ready for everyone in the world to see.
Be open, share imperfect and unfinished work that you want feedback on, but don’t share absolutely everything.
The act of sharing is one of generosity—you’re putting something out there because you think it might be helpful or entertaining to someone on the other side of the screen.
Always be sure to run everything you share with others through The “So What?” Test.
If you’re unsure about whether to share something, let it sit for 24 hours. Put it in a drawer and walk out the door. The next day, take it out and look at it with fresh eyes. Ask yourself, “Is this helpful? Is it entertaining? Is it something I’d be comfortable with my boss or my mother seeing?”
“If you work on something a little bit every day, you end up with something that is massive.” —Kenneth Goldsmith
“Stock and flow” is an economic concept that writer Robin Sloan has adapted into a metaphor for media: “Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people you exist. Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.”
maintain your flow while working on your stock in the background.
stock is best made by collecting, organizing, and expanding upon your flow.
the thing about keeping notebooks is that you have to revisit them in order to make the most out of them. You have to flip back through old ideas to see what you’ve been thinking.
find patterns in your flow.
a lot of the ideas in this book started out as tweets, which then became blog posts, which then became book chapters. Small things, over time, can get big.
“Carving out a space for yourself online, somewhere where you can express yourself and share your work, is still one of the best possible investments you can make with your time.” —Andy Baio
If you’re really interested in sharing your work and expressing yourself, nothing beats owning your own space online, a place that you control, a place that no one can take away from you, a world headquarters where people can always find you.
I was a complete amateur with no skills when I began building my website: It started off bare bones and ugly.
A blog is the ideal machine for turning flow into stock: One little blog post is nothing on its own, but publish a thousand blog posts over a decade, and it turns into your life’s work.
Absolutely everything good that has happened in my career can be traced back to my blog.
Don’t think of your website as a self-promotion machine, think of it as a self-invention machine. Online, you can become the person you really want to be. Fill your website with your work and your ideas and the stuff you care about.
Stick with it, maintain it, and let it change with you over time.
Patti Smith got this advice from William Burroughs: “Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises. Don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful. Be concerned with doing good work . . . and if you can build a good name, eventually that name will be its own currency.”
The beauty of owning your own turf is that you can do whatever you want with it.
Whether people show up or they don’t, you’re out there, doing your thing, ready whenever they are.
“The problem with hoarding is you end up living off your reserves. Eventually, you’ll become stale. If you give away everything you have, you are left with nothing. This forces you to look, to be aware, to replenish. . . . Somehow the more you give away, the more comes back to you.” —Paul Arden
If you happened to be wealthy
and educated and alive in 16th- and 17th-century Europe, it was fashionable to have a Wunderkammern, a “wonder chamber,” or a “cabinet of curiosities” in your house—a room filled with rare and remarkable objects
These collections often juxtaposed both natural and human-made marvels, revealing a kind of mash-up of handiwork by both God and human beings.
We all have our own treasured collections.
We all carry around the weird and wonderful things we’ve come across while doing our work and living our lives. These mental scrapbooks form our tastes, and our tastes influence our work.
reading feeds the writing, which feeds the reading. “I’m basically a curator,” says the writer and former bookseller Jonathan Lethem. “Making books has always felt very connected to my bookselling experience, that of wanting to draw people’s attention to things that I liked, to shape things that I liked into new shapes.”
Our tastes make us what we are, but they can also cast a shadow over our own work.
there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer.”
Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do—sometimes even more than your own work.
“I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you f—ing like something, like it.” —Dave Grohl
“Dumpster diving” is one of the jobs of the artist—finding the treasure in other people’s trash, sifting through the debris of our culture, paying attention to the stuff that everyone else is ignoring, and taking inspiration from the stuff that people have tossed aside for whatever reasons.
Michel de Montaigne, in his essay “On Experience,” wrote, “In my opinion, the most ordinary things, the most common and familiar, if we could see them in their true light, would turn out to be the grandest miracles . . . and the most marvelous examples.”
All it takes to uncover hidden gems is a clear eye, an open mind, and a willingness to search for inspiration in places other people aren’t willing or able to go.
You have to have the courage to keep loving your garbage, because what makes us unique is the diversity and breadth of our influences,
When you find things you genuinely enjoy, don’t let anyone else make you feel bad about it. Don’t feel guilty about the pleasure you take in the things you enjoy. Celebrate them.
Don’t give in to the pressure to self-edit too much.
Don’t try to be hip or cool. Being open and honest about what you like is the best way to connect with people who like those things, too.
“Do what you do best and link to the rest.” —Jeff Jarvis
If you share the work of others, it’s your duty to make sure that the creators of that work get proper credit.
You should always share the work of others as if it were your own, treating it with respect and care.
When we make the case for crediting our sources, most of us concentrate on the plight of the original creator of the work. But that’s only half of the story—if you fail to properly attribute work that you share, you not only rob the person who made it, you rob all the people you’ve shared it with.
Attribution is all about providing context for what you’re sharing: what the work is, who made it, how they made it, when and where it was made, why you’re sharing it, why people should care about it, and where people can see some more work like it.
Another form of attribution that we often neglect is where we found the work that we’re sharing.
Online, the most important form of attribution is a hyperlink pointing back to the website of the creator of the work.
Art forgery is a strange phenomenon. “You might think that the pleasure you get from a painting depends on its color and its shape and its pattern,” says psychology professor Paul Bloom. “And if that’s right, it shouldn’t matter whether it’s an original or a forgery.” But our brains don’t work that way. “When shown an object, or given a food, or shown a face, people’s assessment of it—how much they like it, how valuable it is—is deeply affected by what you tell them about it.”
In their book, Significant Objects, Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker recount an experiment in which they set out to test this hypothesis: “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.”
By the end of the experiment, they had sold $128.74 worth of trinkets for $3,612.51.
“To fake a photograph, all you have to do is change the caption. To fake a painting, change the attribution.” —Errol Morris
Words matter. Artists love to trot out the tired line, “My work speaks for itself,” but the truth is, our work doesn’t speak for itself.
Human beings want to know where things came from, how they were made, and who made them. The stories you tell about the work you do have a huge effect on how people feel and what they understand about your work, and how people feel and what they understand about your work effects how they value it.
“Why should we describe the frustrations and turning points in the lab,
asks artist Rachel Sussman. “Because, rarified exceptions aside, our audience is a human one, and humans want to connect. Personal stories can make the complex more tangible, spark associations, and offer entry into things that might otherwise leave one cold.”
Your work doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Whether you realize it or not, you’re already telling a story about your work.
If you want to be more effective when sharing yourself and your work, you need to become a better storyteller. You need to know what a good story is and how to tell one.
The most important part of a story is its structure. A good story structure is tidy, sturdy, and logical. Unfortunately, most of life is messy, uncertain, and illogical.
Sometimes we have to do a lot of cropping and editing to fit our lives into something that resembles a story.
Emma Coats, a former storyboard artist at Pixar, outlined the basic structure of a fairy tale as a kind of Mad Lib that you can fill in with your own elements: “Once upon a time, there was _____. Every day, _____. One day, _____. Because of that, _____. Because of that, _____. Until finally, _____.”
Author John Gardner said the basic plot of nearly all stories is this: “A character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.”
I like Gardner’s plot formula because it’s also the shape of most creative work: You get a great idea, you go through the hard work of executing the idea, and then you release the idea out into the world, coming to a win, lose, or draw. Sometimes the idea succeeds, sometimes it fails, and more often than not, it does nothing at all.
when you’re in the middle of a story, as most of us in life are, you don’t know if it’s a story at all, because you don’t know how far into it you are, and you don’t know how it’s going to end.
Every client presentation, every personal essay, every cover letter, every fund-raising request—they’re all pitches. They’re stories with the endings chopped off.
A good pitch is set up in three acts: The first act is the past, the second act is the present, and the third act is the future.
Whether you’re telling a finished or unfinished story, always keep your audience in mind. Speak to them directly in plain language. Value their time. Be brief. Learn to speak. Learn to write.
Everybody loves a good story, but good storytelling doesn’t come easy to everybody. It’s a skill that takes a lifetime to master. So study the great stories and then go find some of your own.
You should be able to explain your work to a kindergartner, a senior citizen, and everybody in between. Of course, you always need to keep your audience in mind:
Just because you’re trying to tell a good story about yourself doesn’t mean you’re inventing fiction. Stick to nonfiction. Tell the truth and tell it with dignity and self-respect.
George Orwell wrote: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.”
Have empathy for your audience. Anticipate blank stares. Be ready for more questions. Answer patiently and politely.
All the same principles apply when you start writing your bio. Bios are not the place to practice your creativity.
a two-sentence explanation is usually what the world wants from us. Keep it short and sweet.
Don’t get cute. Don’t brag. Just state the facts.
“Whatever we say, we’re always talking about ourselves.” —Alison Bechdel
“The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” —Annie Dillard
There’s an intuition that you only gain through the repetition of practice.
Teaching doesn’t mean instant competition. Just because you know the master’s technique doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to emulate it right away.
In their book, Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson encourage businesses to emulate chefs by out-teaching their competition. “What do you do? What are your ‘recipes’? What’s your ‘cookbook’? What can you tell the world about how you operate that’s informative, educational, and promotional?” They encourage businesses to figure out the equivalent of their own cooking show.
Think about what you can share from your process that would inform the people you’re trying to reach.
The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others. Share your reading list. Point to helpful reference materials. Create some tutorials and post them online. Use pictures, words, and video. Take people step-by-step through part of your process. As blogger Kathy Sierra says, “Make people better at something they want to be better at.”
Teaching people doesn’t subtract value from what you do, it actually adds to it.
when you share your knowledge and your work with others, you receive an education in return.
Author Christopher Hitchens said that the great thing about putting out a book is that “it brings you into contact with people whose opinions you should have canvassed before you ever pressed pen to paper.
He said that having his work out in the world was “a free education that goes on for a lifetime.”
“When people realize they’re being listened to, they tell you things.” —Richard Ford
As every writer knows, if you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader first.
I call these people human spam. They’re everywhere, and they exist in every profession. They don’t want to pay their dues, they want their piece right here, right now. They don’t want to listen to your ideas; they want to tell you theirs.
They can’t find the time to be interested in anything other than themselves.
No matter how famous they get, the forward-thinking artists of today aren’t just looking for fans or passive consumers of their work, they’re looking for potential collaborators, or co-conspirators. These artists acknowledge that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that the experience of art is always a two-way street, incomplete without feedback.
If you want fans, you have to be a fan first. If you want to be accepted by a community, you have to first be a good citizen of that community.
You have to be a connector. The writer Blake Butler calls this being an open node. If you want to get, you have to give. If you want to be noticed, you have to notice. Shut up and listen once in a while. Be thoughtful. Be considerate.
“What you want is to follow and be followed by human beings who care about issues you care about. This thing we make together. This thing is about hearts and minds, not eyeballs.” —Jeffrey Zeldman
Stop worrying about how many people follow you online and start worrying about the quality of people who follow you.
If you want followers, be someone worth following.
If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested.
It is actually true that life is all about “who you know.” But who you know is largely dependent on who you are and what you do, and the people you know can’t do anything for you if you’re not doing good work.
Albini laments how many people waste time and energy trying to make connections instead of getting good at what they do, when “being good at things is the only thing that earns you clout or connections.”
Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple.
“Whatever excites you, go do it. Whatever drains you, stop doing it.” —Derek Sivers
If, after hanging out with someone you feel worn out and depleted, that person is a vampire.
The Vampire Test works on many things in our lives, not just people—you can apply it to jobs, hobbies, places, etc.
“Part of the act of creating is in discovering your own kind. They are everywhere. But don’t look for them in the wrong places.” —Henry Miller
Knuckleball pitchers are basically the ugly ducklings of baseball. Because there are so few of them, they actually form a kind of brotherhood, and they often get together and share tips with one another.
“Knuckleballers don’t keep secrets. It’s as if we have a greater mission beyond our own fortunes. And that mission is to pass it on, to keep the pitch alive.”
As you put yourself and your work out there, you will run into your fellow knuckleballers. These are your real peers—the people who share your obsessions, the people who share a similar mission to your own, the people with whom you share a mutual respect.
Do what you can to nurture your relationships with these people.
“It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others.” —Susan Sontag
It freaks me out a little bit how many of my very favorite people in the world came into my life as ones and zeros.
There’s never any small talk—we know all about one another and what one another does.
I love the phenomenon of “meetups”—an online community throwing a party at a bar or a restaurant and inviting everybody to show up at a certain place and time.
Meeting people online is awesome, but turning them into IRL friends is even better.
“I ain’t going to give up. Every time you think I’m one place, I’m going to show up someplace else. I come pre-hated. Take your best shot.” —Cyndi Lauper
Designer Mike Monteiro says that the most valuable skill he picked up in art school was learning how to take a punch.
Those vicious critiques taught him not to take criticism personally.
When you put your work out into the world, you have to be ready for the good, the bad, and the ugly. The more people come across your work, the more criticism you’ll face.
Relax and breathe.
The trouble with imaginative people is that we’re good at picturing the worst that could happen to us. Fear is often just the imagination taking a wrong turn.
Take a deep breath and accept whatever comes.
Strengthen your neck.
The way to be able to take a punch is to practice getting hit a lot.
The more criticism you take, the more you realize it can’t hurt you.
Roll with the punches.
Keep moving. Every piece of criticism is an opportunity for new work. You can’t control what sort of criticism you receive, but you can control how you react to it.
Having your work hated by certain people is a badge of honor.
Protect your vulnerable areas.
If you have work that is too sensitive or too close to you to be exposed to criticism, keep it hidden.
Colin Marshall says: “Compulsive avoidance of embarrassment is a form of suicide.” If you spend your life avoiding vulnerability, you and your work will never truly connect with other people.
Keep your balance.
You have to remember that your work is something you do, not who you are.
Keep close to your family, friends, and the people who love you for you, not just the work.
“The trick is not caring what EVERYBODY thinks of you and just caring about what the RIGHT people think of you.” —Brian Michael Bendis
The first step in evaluating feedback is sizing up who it came from. You want feedback from people who care about you and what you do. Be extra wary of feedback from anybody who falls outside of that circle.
A troll is a person who isn’t interested in improving your work, only provoking you with hateful, aggressive, or upsetting talk.
Trolls can come out of nowhere and pop up in unexpected places.
the worst troll is the one that lives in your head. It’s the voice that tells you you’re not good enough, that you suck, and that you’ll never amount to anything.
Do you have a troll problem? Use the block button on social media sites. Delete nasty comments.
Having a form for comments is the same as inviting comments. “There’s never a space under paintings in a gallery where someone writes their opinion,” says cartoonist Natalie Dee.
Let people contact you directly or let them copy your work over to their own spaces and talk about it all they want.
“Sellout . . . I’m not crazy about that word. We’re all entrepreneurs. To me, I don’t care if you own a furniture store or whatever—the best sign you can put up is sold out.” —Bill Withers
Whether an artist makes money off his work or not, money has to come from somewhere, be it a day job, a wealthy spouse, a trust fund, an arts grant, or a patron.
We all have to get over our “starving artist” romanticism and the idea that touching money inherently corrupts creativity.
Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling because the pope commissioned him. Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather to make money:
Paul McCartney has said that he and John Lennon used to sit down before a Beatles songwriting session and say, “Now, let’s write a swimming pool.”
Everybody says they want artists to make money, and then when they do, everybody hates them for it.
Don’t be one of those horrible fans who stops listening to your favorite band just because they have a hit single. Don’t write off your friends because they’ve had a little bit of success. Don’t be jealous when the people you like do well—celebrate their victory as if it’s your own.
“I’d love to sell out completely. It’s just that nobody has been willing to buy.” —John Waters
When an audience starts gathering for the work that you’re freely putting into the world, you might eventually want to take the leap of turning them into patrons.
Put a little virtual tip jar or a donate now button on your website.
if people are digging what you do, they’ll throw a few bucks your way.
If you have work you want to attempt that requires some up-front capital, platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo make it easy to run fund-raising campaigns with tiered rewards for donors.
The musician Amanda Palmer has had wild success turning her audience into patrons: After showing her work, sharing her music freely, and cultivating relationships with her fans, she asked for $100,000 from them to help record her next album. They gave her more than a million dollars.
There are certainly some strings attached to crowdfunding—when people become patrons, they feel, not altogether wrongly, that they should have some say in how their money is being used.
even though I operate more like a traditional salesman, I do use some of the same tactics as crowdfunders: I try to be open about my process, connect with my audience, and ask them to support me by buying the things I’m selling.
Beware of selling the things that you love: When people are asked to get out their wallets, you find out how much they really value what you do.
My friend John T. Unger tells this terrific story from his days as a street poet. He would do a poetry reading and afterward some guy would come up to him and say, “Your poem changed my life, man!” And John would say, “Oh, thanks. Want to buy a book? It’s five dollars.” And the guy would take the book, hand it back to John, and say, “Nah, that’s okay.” To which John would respond, “Geez, how much is your life worth?”
Whether you ask for donations, crowdfund, or sell your products or services, asking for money in return for your work is a leap you want to take only when you feel confident that you’re putting work out into the world that you think is truly worth something.
Even if you don’t have anything to sell right now, you should always be collecting email addresses from people who come across your work and want to stay in touch.
I know people who run multimillion-dollar businesses off of their mailing lists. The model is very simple: They give away great stuff on their sites, they collect emails, and then when they have something remarkable to share or sell, they send an email.
Keep your own list, or get an account with an email newsletter company like MailChimp and put a little sign-up widget on every page of your website.
Never ever add someone’s email address to your mailing list without her permission.
The people who sign up for your list will be some of your biggest supporters,
Don’t betray their trust and don’t push your luck. Build your list and treat it with respect.
“We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.” —Walt Disney
Some awful people use the term sellout to include any artist who dares to have any ambition whatsoever.
“There is a point in one’s life when one cares about selling out and not selling out,” writes author Dave Eggers. “Thankfully, for some, this all passes.” What really matters, Eggers says, is doing good work and taking advantage of every opportunity that comes your way.
a life of creativity is all about change—moving forward, taking chances, exploring new frontiers.
“The real risk is in not changing,” said saxophonist John Coltrane. “I have to feel that I’m after something. If I make money, fine. But I’d rather be striving. It’s the striving, man, it’s that I want.”
Be ambitious. Keep yourself busy. Think bigger. Expand your audience. Don’t hobble yourself in the name of “keeping it real,” or “not selling out.” Try new things.
If an opportunity comes along that will allow you to do more of the kind of work you want to do, say Yes. If an opportunity comes along that would mean more money, but less of the kind of work you want to do, say No.
“There is no misery in art. All art is about saying yes, and all art is about its own making.” —John Currin
When you have success, it’s important to use any dough, clout, or platform you’ve acquired to help along the work of the people who’ve helped you get to where you are.
Give them a chance to share their own work. Throw opportunities their way.
As a human being, you have a finite amount of time and attention. At some point, you have to switch from saying “yes” a lot to saying “no” a lot.
“The biggest problem of success is that the world conspires to stop you doing the thing that you do, because you are successful,” writes author Neil Gaiman.
The way I get over my guilt about not answering email is to hold office hours. Once a month, I make myself available so that anybody can ask me anything on my website, and I try to give thoughtful answers that I then post so anyone can see.
You just have to be as generous as you can, but selfish enough to get your work done.
“Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck—and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.” —Michael Lewis
Every career is full of ups and downs, and just like with stories, when you’re in the middle of living out your life and career, you don’t know whether you’re up or down or what’s about to happen next.
“If you want a happy ending,” actor Orson Welles wrote, “that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
Author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no second acts in American life,” but if you look around you’ll notice that not only are there second acts, there are third, fourth, and even fifth ones.
The people who get what they’re after are very often the ones who just stick around long enough. It’s very important not to quit prematurely.
“In our business you don’t quit,” says comedian Joan Rivers. “You’re holding on to the ladder. When they cut off your hands, hold on with your elbow. When they cut off your arms, hold on with your teeth. You don’t quit because you don’t know where the next job is coming from.”
“Work is never finished, only abandoned.” —Paul Valéry
You can’t plan on anything; you can only go about your work, as Isak Dinesen wrote, “every day, without hope or despair.” You can’t count on success; you can only leave open the possibility for it, and be ready to jump on and take the ride when it comes for you.
As every author knows, your last book isn’t going to write your next one for you. A successful or failed project is no guarantee of another success or failure. Whether you’ve just won big or lost big, you still have to face the question “What’s next?”
If you look to artists who’ve managed to achieve lifelong careers, you detect the same pattern: They all have been able to persevere, regardless of success or failure.
Bob Pollard, the lead singer and songwriter for Guided by Voices, says he never gets writer’s block because he never stops writing.
Author Ernest Hemingway would stop in the middle of a sentence at the end of his day’s work so he knew where to start in the morning.
Add all this together and you get a way of working I call chain-smoking. You avoid stalling out in your career by never losing momentum.
Instead of taking a break in between projects, waiting for feedback, and worrying about what’s next, use the end of one project to light up the next one.
when it’s finished, ask yourself what you missed, what you could’ve done better, or what you couldn’t get to, and jump right into the next project.
“We work because it’s a chain reaction, each subject leads to the next.” —Charles Eames
“The minute you stop wanting something you get it.” —Andy Warhol
at some point, you might burn out and need to go looking for a match. The best time to find one is while taking a sabbatical.
The designer Stefan Sagmeister swears by the power of the sabbatical—every seven years, he shuts down his studio and takes a year off.
“Everything that we designed in the seven years following the first sabbatical had its roots in thinking done during that sabbatical.”
Sagmeister says his first sabbatical took two years of planning and budgeting, and his clients were warned a full year in advance.
we can all take practical sabbaticals—daily, weekly, or monthly breaks where we walk away from our work completely.
Commute. A moving train or subway car is the perfect time to write, doodle, read, or just stare out the window.
Exercise. Using our body relaxes our mind, and when our mind gets relaxed, it opens up to having new thoughts.
Nature. Go to a park. Take a hike. Dig in your garden. Get outside in the fresh air. Disconnect from anything and everything electronic.
It’s very important to separate your work from the rest of your life. As my wife said to me, “If you never go to work, you never get to leave work.”
“Whenever Picasso learned how to do something, he abandoned it.” —Milton Glaser
When you feel like you’ve learned whatever there is to learn from what you’re doing, it’s time to change course and find something new to learn so that you can move forward. You can’t be content with mastery; you have to push yourself to become a student again.
The comedian Louis C.K. worked on the same hour of material for 15 years, until he found out that his hero, George Carlin, threw out his material every year and started from scratch. C.K. was scared to try it, but once he did, it set him free.
When you get rid of old material, you push yourself further and come up with something better. When you throw out old work, what you’re really doing is making room for new work.
You have to have the courage to get rid of work and rethink things completely. “I need to sort of tear down everything I’ve done and rebuild from scratch,” said director Steven Soderbergh
“Not because I’ve figured everything out, I’ve just figured out what I can’t figure out and I need to tear it down and start over again.”
don’t think of it as starting over. Think of it as beginning again. Go back to chapter one—literally!—and become an amateur.
Look for something new to learn, and when you find it, dedicate yourself to learning it out in the open. Document your progress and share as you go so that others can learn along with you.
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