Steal Like An Artist – Book Summary and Notes

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I recently read Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. I saw it in a bookstore and picked it up since the title contained one of my favorite phrases. It was a quick read, but it did a good job on espousing some of the key elements that anyone in any type of creative role should follow (and all roles can be creative somehow!)

Below is an amalgamation of random notes and scribbles I took while reading:

nothing is original

“Instead, chew on one thinker—writer, artist, activist, role model—you really love. Study everything there is to know about that thinker. Then find three people that thinker loved, and find out everything about them. Repeat this as many times as you can. Climb up the (knowledge) tree as far as you can go. Once you build your tree, it’s time to start your own branch.”

This is a beautiful quote: everyone has been influenced by someone else. If you find one person fascinating, it’s likely that person found many other role models equally fascinating. Keep learning as you continue up the tree. I personally am reading the books that Jeff Bezos read in his earlier years.

good theft vs. bad theft

“What to copy is a little bit trickier. Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.”

Key point: stealing the thinking means you’re learning and critically thinking about what you’re doing. This is different vs. pure imitation.

“Work that only comes from the head isn’t any good. Watch a great musician play a show. Watch a great leader give a speech. You’ll see what I mean.”

The creative juices don’t flow very well just sitting down and pounding away at the keyboard. Tangible work (like scribbling notes, doodling or building Lego blocks) activates areas of the brain that would otherwise lie dormant. Your work will become increasingly creative, feel less like work and more like play!

“A lot of artists worry that being online will cause them to make less work, but I’ve found that having a presence online is a kick in the pants.”

See: this site.

unlock your creativity

“[We’re] always connected, never alone or captive. So, I ride the bus to and from work, even though it’s 20 minutes faster to drive. I go to a barbershop that’s first-come, first-served, without Wi-Fi, and always busy with a wait of a few hours. I keep my laptop shut down at the airport. I hang out in the library. I always carry a book, a pen, and a notepad, and I always enjoy my solitude and temporary captivity.”

Environmental changes, sensory deprivation and forced constraints can stimulate the mind in ways that can be difficult in today’s crazy, “always on” world. In fact, this entire blog post was born out of scribbles in an airport seat since I do a ton of creative work while in the air.

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

Don’t bitch about things – build the answers.

you are a mashup

“Write fan letters [to your role models].”

Connect with people you respect, whether via letters or dim sum.

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

Constraints (or fake constraints, like timers utilizing the Pomodoro technique) breeds efficiency and creativity.

constraints equal creativity

Recommended Reading List

Linda Barry, What It Is
Hugh MacLeod, Ignore Everybody
Jason Fried + David Heinemeier Hansson, Rework
Lewis Hyde, The Gift
Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence
David Shields, Reality Hunger
Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

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