Steal Like an Artist

date May 25, 2021
authors Austin Kleon
reading time 9 mins

Table of Contents


By T. S. Eliot

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.”

As You Like It by Shakespeare

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.

Repeatations and derivatives are all fine!

As the French writer André Gide put it, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”

Originality vs plagiarism

“What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.” —William Ralph Inge

All advise is autobiographical

What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere.


“The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.” —Jessica Hische


“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” —Howard Aiken

You don’t have to travel far off

Franz Kafka wrote, “It isn’t necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you.” And Kafka was born a century before the Internet!

Distance and difference

“Distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.” —Jonah Lehrer

Discipline, routine, consistency

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” — Gustave Flaubert

Limitless creativity?

“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.” —Jack White

New ideas

All innovations are derivatives and small improvements

All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.

Previous ideas

Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas.

Who are we?

You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences. The German writer Goethe said, “We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.”

The artist


The artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: Hoarders collect indiscriminately, artists collect selectively. They only collect things that they really love.

Huge number of collections

Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.

Part of a bigger picture

Seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone as you start making your own stuff.

Figuring out who we are

In my experience, it’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are.

Show up consistently

Guess what: None of us do. Ask anybody doing truly creative work, and they’ll tell you the truth: They don’t know where the good stuff comes from. They just show up to do their thing. Every day.

There are two ways to read it:

  1. Pretend to be something you’re not until you are — fake
  2. Pretend to be making something until you actually make something

Who to copy and what to copy

First, you have to figure out who to copy. Second, you have to figure out what to copy. Who to copy is easy. You copy your heroes—the people you love, the people you’re inspired by, the people you want to be… 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.


A wonderful flaw about human beings is that we’re incapable of making perfect copies. Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives. That is how we evolve.

Process of creativity

Digital is great for getting ideas ready

The computer is really good for editing your ideas, and it’s really good for getting your ideas ready for publishing out into the world, but it’s not really good for generating ideas.

Analog and digital workspaces

Try it: If you have the space, set up two workstations, one analog and one digital. For your analog station, keep out anything electronic. Take $10, go to the school supply aisle of your local store, and pick up some paper, pens, and sticky notes.

Move from analog to digital for processing the ideas

Once you start getting your ideas, then you can move over to your digital station and use the computer to help you execute and publish them.

Productive Procrastination

When you get sick of one project, move over to another, and when you’re sick of that one, move back to the project you left. Practice productive procrastination.

Boredom is great!

Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing. I get some of my best ideas when I’m bored,

Loving different things reminds me of “skill stacking”

Tomlinson suggests that if you love different things, you just keep spending time with them. “Let them talk to each other. Something will begin to happen.”

Spotlight effect? Peope are just busy with their own lives

Soon after, you learn that most of the world doesn’t necessarily care about what you think. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. As the writer Steven Pressfield says, “It’s not that people are mean or cruel, they’re just busy.”

Early success on the contrary is detrimental

This is actually a good thing, because you want attention only after you’re doing really good work. There’s no pressure when you’re unknown. You can do what you want. Experiment. Do things just for the fun of it. When you’re unknown, there’s nothing to distract you from getting better. No public image to manage.

Use the early stage of being unknown to your advantage!

Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts. Use it.

Focus on great quality work and share them!

But there’s only one not-so-secret formula that I know: Do good work and share it with people.

Sharing your passions, process and thinking about the work you do!

The more open you are about sharing your passions, the closer people will feel to your work. Artists aren’t magicians. There’s no penalty for revealing your secrets.

Using the Internet to share half-baked ideas

The Internet can be more than just a resting place to publish your finished ideas—it can also be an incubator for ideas that aren’t fully formed, a birthing center for developing work that you haven’t started yet.

The environment

All you need is a little space and a little time — a place to work, and some time to do it; a little self-imposed solitude and temporary captivity.

Don’t defame others

The golden rule is even more golden in our hyperconnected world. An important lesson to learn: If you talk about someone on the Internet, they will find out. Everybody has a Google alert on their name.

Another sign of success - you stop looking for validations!

You can’t go looking for validation from external sources. Once you put your work into the world, you have no control over the way people will react to it.

100% of your audience won’t ever be a fan of your work. Expect it. Deal with it.

Not everybody will get it. People will misinterpret you and what you do. They might even call you names. So get comfortable with being misunderstood, disparaged, or ignored — the trick is to be too busy doing your work to care.

Keep a praise file and use it sparingly.

Try it: Instead of keeping a rejection file, keep a praise file. Use it sparingly — don’t get lost in past glory — but keep it around for when you need the lift.


Establishing and keeping a routine can be even more important than having a lot of time. Inertia is the death of creativity.


You have to stay in the groove. When you get out of the groove, you start to dread the work, because you know it’s going to suck for a while — it’s going to suck until you get back into the flow.

Focus and leave out plenty of noise

this age of information abundance and overload, those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out, so they can concentrate on what’s really important to them. Nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities.

Constraints are good

The way to get over creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself. It seems contradictory, but when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom.

Practical steps

  • Take a walk
  • Start your swipe file
  • Go to the library
  • Buy a notebook and use it
  • Get yourself a calendar
  • Start your logbook
  • Start a blog
  • Take a nap