Ken Coleman: We are coming to you from the Music City. This is the podcast of leaders by leaders for leaders. It’s our privilege to have you with us. We take your ears very seriously. Fun podcast coming up.
One of my favorite books of all time is a book called Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. Austin Kleon is the author of this book. It’s a New York Times best-selling book and I absolutely love it. I cannot wait for you to hear that conversation. This is fun.
About once a month, Dave Ramsey does a small-business hour where the entire hour is dedicated to small-business questions. Questions from entrepreneurs like you men and women who are listening. And so Eric, the producer, went back into the vault. And from a recent small business hour on The Dave Ramsey Show, we’re going to play a few of the calls and Dave’s answers. You’re going to love that.
And, of course, Clate Mask from Infusionsoft stops by with a business tip for you. So it’s going to be good stuff.
I wanted to do a quick qualifier here. Because if you consider yourself to be creative, you’re going to love this conversation. But more so, I want to speak to you who would not define yourselves as creatives. You think, Oh, I’m not creative. I hire creatives. I got a whole division or team of creatives, but I’m not a creative person.
Yes, you are. Because if there is one unifying commonality between entrepreneurs, it is that you see problems and you believe there could be a solution. And you believe there should be a solution. And thus, you’re in the business of solutions. I mean, at the end of the day, that’s true.
And so for those of you who don’t consider yourself creative, this conversation is going to be huge for you. The book is a must read. It’s 140 pages. I believe it was three years ago, I’m on a trip and in an airport waiting for a plane. I go in to get a book or a magazine, or something to read on a cross-country flight. And this little black book—it looks like he wrote Steal Like an Artist, you know, with one of those white oil pens on a black canvas—it just jumped off the shelf. 140 pages.
And I’m telling you, it’s so great. Steal Like an Artist, what does that mean? It does not mean to plagiarize. He goes in great detail, so don’t be alarmed. This is a fantastic book and it is a must read. So get out your pens, get out something to write on. This is Austin Kleon talking with me about Steal Like an Artist.
Austin, the book Steal Like an Artist, I think is mandatory reading for anybody who aspires to create something. They may not even call themselves a creative, but if they need to create something, I think this book is something they ought to start with. And I read it multiple, multiple times. I pass it out to as many people as I possibly can.
There was a quote that jumped off the page, page 15 for those of you following it at home. You talk about this idea of when we steal like an artist and how we go about it. You wrote “Chew on one thinker, a writer, an artist, an activist, role model, someone you really love. Study everything there is to know about that thinker and then find three people that thinker loved and find out everything about them. Repeat this as many times as you can.”
I think this is breakthrough stuff because it really speaks to what we love and what moves us and then kinda gets those creative juices rolling. I want you to expound on that. I think that’s such a powerful thing. And talk about how this process worked for you.
Austin: I think when you start, whether you’re running a business or trying to make art, or you’re just trying to go about your job, you know, it can be fairly lonely, I think. The idea of just being like one singular person and trying to take on this great task, you know. It feels like too much.
And the thing I like about building a kind of creative family tree is that you feel like you have this kind of background, you know? This kind of history behind you. When we talk about innovation or creativity, there’s so much emphasis on newness.
And yeah, we’re trying to get to something new. We’re trying to make something that nobody has ever seen before. But a lot of innovation and creativity is about knowing what came before you—looking at what everyone else has at their disposal but they’re not looking at—and seeing the parts that no one’s put together before.
And so I think Stealing Like an Artist is really about saturating yourself with the right influences, picking and choosing your influences, finding out all there is to know about the particular worlds you’re interested in. And that’s the first step to then being able to pick and choose the parts that you want to reconfigure and make into your own work.
Ken: See, that’s what I love about this book so much. You give us a game plan and you really kind of uncover all of the myths and misnomers about copying and stealing. Because what this does is it helps us find our own voice. By studying the voices that move us, we then find our voice. Correct?
Austin: Yeah. Billy Collins, the poet, has a great way of putting it. He said, you know it seems contradictory, but, the way to be original is to actually become a kind of mash-up of six or eight different voices.
That’s kinda how you find your voice as a poet. So, you know, you take a little bit from Emily Dickinson, take a little bit from Walt Whitman. You know, here and there.
Ken: That’s right.
Austin: Throw it in the mixer and then you come up with something unique of your own. But I think people start out in the beginning. They say “I have to find my voice in order to make stuff.”
And it’s like, well, actually, you have to start making stuff and start throwing stuff into the pot, you know, and mixing it up before you can actually find what it is that’s yours.
Ken: So, our audience also knows that I’m a curiosity nerd. I wrote a book about questions. I’m a professional question ask-er. But I just don’t think we can spend enough time talking about the value—or rather the importance—of curiosity.
And I’d love for you to just sound off on that in your own life and work. And then of course you study great artists. You extol the importance of studying people who create great things. Talk about curiosity and how very viable it is that we keep that inner antenna, if you will, raised.
Austin: You know, my favorite quote is from RZA, one of the members of the Wu-Tang Clan. He said, “Even when I didn’t go to school, I would always study.”
Ken: That’s great.
Austin: I think that if you can learn how to be a self-propelled learner—if you can learn to be someone who any hunch you come across, any little tidbit, any little factoid that like sounds a little bell in your head—if you can then learn to follow those leads and to research. And not only research, but search, you know.
I think curiosity is about being on the lookout for things, and I think we’re such a shallow culture. On the whole, everyone is kind of reading the same blogs and reading the same books and, you know, spreading around the same information.
I think it’s a matter of efforts. If you just throw a little bit of effort into the search, if you just dive a little bit deeper than the average Joe or the average person in your field, it’s amazing what you can dig up.
Austin: You know? And so, I think it’s just pushing yourself to go on further than most people go. David Foster Wallace said that the difference between a great nonfiction writer and just a regular person was that the writer spent more time thinking about a subject than the other person.
Ken: That’s right.
Austin: Just put in more time.
Ken: You know, I want to get you to comment on something else. I don’t know if you have kids yet. Do you have kids by any chance?
Austin: I do. I have a 2-year-old son and I have another son who is due here in about a month.
Ken: Okay. Perfect. You are perfectly qualified. You were already, but now you’re extra qualified for this question. This is a little bit of a rabbit trail, but I really want the leaders here to lock in on something. I’m going to kinda ask a parenting question, but this is a personal growth question as well. And it ties in to what you were just talking about.
I did some research a couple years ago when I wrote my book. From the University of Michigan, a basic study came out that said that by the time the average American reaches the eighth grade, we’re only asking two to three questions a day.
And you have a 2-year-old and another child on the way. You know this inherently. We come in to this world hardwired asking thousands of questions it seems. And then by the time we reach the eighth grade, we’re asking two to three. Now this is the average American according to this research. And I don’t want to get on a soapbox.
I just want you to speak to this. But I feel like our Western education at large is kind of still toward teaching kids how to answer questions. And we have forgotten the art of just being curious, which is what you’re talking about.
Would you speak to that issue about how we, as leaders, as parents, can foster that true curiosity and make sure that the fire never burns out?
Austin: Gosh. That’s such a great question. I think that for me personally, practicing an art form is one way to keep that curiosity alive. It’s gonna be kind of a hard connection, but I’m going to go for it.
Ken: I love it.
Austin: You know, all children draw. All children can make marks from a page. And if you ask like a 5-year-old to draw you a picture, there will be no problem.
Yeah, sure. Here you go. Take it. I don’t care what you do with it, you know. It’s not a big deal. And then, like you said, about around middle school or eighth grade, all of a sudden if you ask someone to draw a picture for you, they’ll say, “Oh well, I’m not really an artist.”
Or I’m not really a drawer. Something happens in between when we’re children and when we hit about middle school that things start to kind of, you know, solidify or petrify in a way.
And I think that’s a good word—petrify—because it means to harden, but it also means you get scared all of a sudden. It’s like something happens where the world becomes less about asking questions and discovering and just getting the right answer.
You know, someone has the right answer and I just get it and I regurgitate it and I’m done, you know. And so, I think one of the things about art—really great art—is that it doesn’t actually solve any problems. It just asks questions. It pushes us to ask questions.
And I think the act of drawing in particular, if you keep drawing in your life, that means that you constantly have to look at things and you have to really look at them in order to be able to draw them. And simply in the act of looking very closely at the world, these questions arise.
So I think, in some ways, the arts—which are constantly being devalued in our culture and particular the act of drawing, which is just one of my favorites—can keep that curiosity in mind and keep your mind alive and keep you looking at the world and asking questions.
Ken: Love that by the way. I think that’s so good for all of us. The last chapter of the book, Steal Like an Artist, is really a breakthrough for so many creatives and it’s simply titled “Creativity Is Subtraction.” I’m gonna let you explain what that means and what that looks like.
Austin: Well I think we have this idea if only we had more time, or if we had better tools, or if we had more education, we could start making the things that we wanna make or run the business we wanna run. But creativity is about making do with what you’ve got.
You know, the true act of creativity is taking what’s at your disposal and turning it into something that you need or you want to use or something that we’ve never seen, you know. And so, I think what people need to do is realize that creativity isn’t about having this immense set of options available to you. Creativity is really about setting some limits on yourself.
You know, Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat with like 230 words I think, or something like that, or even smaller than that. But you know the idea is like go ahead. Like what kind of business could you start with $100?
Could you shoot a film with your iPhone on your lunch break, you know? Could you draw a good picture with a ballpoint pen in your legal pad at work? You know? That kind of thing. Like just to jump in and really go for it and to know that it’s really the limitations on creativity. It’s the constraints that push us to really come up with the interesting work.
Ken: Folks, that right there is worth the entire conversation because I’m such an Austin nerd and I told him this ahead of time. So, he’s not feeling strange. But folks, from page 138 of his book, he talked about the Dr. Seuss thing.
Listen to the follow-up. Of course, Austin, you know where I’m going. Actually, you were right. 236 words. So, impressive memory. Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat with 236 words. So, this is the part that I love that Austin shares on page 138.
So his editor comes back and bets him he can’t write a book with 50 words. So, Dr. Seuss doubles down and wins with Green Eggs and Ham. 50 words. 50 different words. So, I mean, it just really illustrates your point. And I love this. You also gave us a Jack White quote. Being in Nashville, the Music City, Jack White is a big presence here.
Austin: There you go.
Ken: He said, “Telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all of the money in the world, all the colors in the palate, anything you want, that just kills creativity.” Of course, you just illustrated that for us.
Boy, that’s so very true. So, let me put it to you. Let’s go practical here, Austin. We have a bunch of entrepreneurs, people who are solving problems. And by solving problems, they make money because they provide the solutions to solving those problems.
From a business standpoint, how do they put limits on themselves as they’re creating new businesses?
Austin: You know, I think of myself primarily as an artist. So, the business stuff to me is a little bit hard to sort out sometimes. So, what I see when I meet entrepreneurs is this kind of scrappiness, you know, with the really good ones. The idea of just kind of like doing what you can with what you’ve got and kind of—I guess the term is—bootstrapping.
But the people I really look up to are those people who don’t have to go out and look for a bunch of venture capital funds. They somehow figure out how to get a business off the ground out of almost raw necessity. You know, I said I’m not a business person, but actually, that’s not true. I mean, I do run my own business. I am my own business. And there are just certain principles like “Creativity Is Subtraction,” right?
I have always found that the key to a beautiful life is low overhead and no debt, you know. And so, there’s a great quote from the photographer Bill Cunningham. He said, “If you don’t take their money, they can’t tell you what to do.”
You know? So if you want creative freedom in your work and in your business, you know, you have to have that kind of business sense to, you know, not extend yourself too much and try to make do.
Ken: Well in the book Steal Like an Artist you talk about being boring. And there’s a phenomenal quote you give us in the book from Gustave . . . I guess it’s Flaubert if I’m saying that correct.
Austin: Yup. Flaubert. You got it.
Ken: Look at that. I’m hooked on phonics. Unbelievable. I did not test that out. But he says be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work. I got goose bumps when I read that.
Austin: Oh, it’s like one my favorites, you know. Just one of my favorite quotes of all time. A perfect example of that is the artist René Magritte, the guy who paints the bowler hat with apples in front of the guys’ faces.
Here’s one of the pinnacle guys of surrealism. Probably painted some of the weirdest paintings we’ve ever seen and yet he lived this very orderly life in his house with his wife of many years and he just lived this very suburban, quiet existence, you know?
That’s what I love. I love to see people who are spending their energy on their work and in the meantime living a quiet kind of humble life.
There’s a great documentary called Jiro Dreams of Sushi that is kind of a great portrait of a master like that. A guy who is very humble and keeps his overhead low and just puts everything he’s got into doing his work. And I love that.
Ken: Absolutely. You know, I wasn’t planning on asking you this, but you just said something that made me think about this idea.
You know, in 2015, Austin, we see less and less master craftsman. You know, people who really work their entire life trying to master something. And the irony of that whole deal is they never really do it, but then they become masters at what they do. What are your thoughts on that?
Austin: I’m really torn on the subject right now because I think we’re almost living in this culture that doesn’t necessarily reward masters as much as the kind of scrappy amateurs.
I feel like we’re in this culture where, you know, the people who are going for it, who are trying out the new tools, who are going . . . you know, they’re flapping together a code and they’re throwing up businesses and just kinda going for it. I think those are kind of the people that are finding early success.
What I think is so important about mastery to me is how do you make a life out of this? Because that’s one of the big questions I ask myself. It’s fine to have early success and to get that start-up off the ground, but how do you turn a business? You know, how do you turn that into a business?
Even more than that, a career, something that will last you throughout. And then I think that’s where the mastery comes in. That’s where your 10,000 hours or your decade of work is really gonna come in handy. That idea of having a long sustainable career versus, you know, building a start-up and selling it off right away.
You know, that’s kind of the choice that we’ve got going on these days. And I think in some way mastery is a kind of personal saying. It’s about, you know, what are you pushing yourself toward? Because we’re not just building businesses. You know, we’re building lives for ourselves too.
Austin: And I think there’s a neat balance between being an amateur—someone who tries a lot of different stuff and does things for the love of it and just kind of like jumps in and monkeys around in the garage, you know? And tinkers and tries a lot of different things.
There’s a balance between that and then doing that slow kind of Kung Fu master path to like getting really, really good at something. I think there’s a balance. I wonder if maybe to attempt mastery while retaining an amateur spirit with it all might be the way to go.
Ken: I would tell you something. That’s huge. I’m telling you right now, if no one else gets anything out of this, first of all, you need to check your heart. But Austin, I think you gotta run with that. In fact, I want you to say that again because instead of making people rewind here, I want you folks to write this down. Austin, can you recreate that statement about this idea of attempting mastery, but keeping that amateur spirit?
Austin: Yeah. Let’s change that word “amateur” to “student.”
Ken: I love it.
Austin: To attempt mastery, but to always retain the spirit of a student. Someone who is curious and always trying new things, you know, because the problem with becoming a master is sometimes you get too far into your own mastery. And you lose touch with the world around you and experiencing what’s going on and, like we’ve started the conversation, having that sense of curiosity.
You know, not becoming petrified. Not becoming hardened, but to let yourself stay loose, and open, and curious to new opportunities.
Ken: Yes. Dude, I’m telling you. That’s great stuff. You could write a book on that because you know what it is. It’s about keeping wonder alive and that’s what great artists do. They just wonder.
Austin: We evolve in the experience where once we figure something out, it becomes kind of dead to us.
Austin: So, you have to constantly be pushing yourself to go back to having that kind of childlike wonder.
Ken: So good. All right. Now, the followup book to Steal Like an Artist is Show Your Work and you just need to go buy both of them and just read them in about an hour. Then reread them and tear ‘em apart. You know, I’ve made copies of these books and hung ‘em on the side of a wall, you know, when it hits me right.
Austin: I love that.
Ken: Absolutely. Well, you’ve created in the book these mini posters. If you just go photocopy pages and pin ‘em up with pushpins.
Austin: Yeah. I love that. That was what I was hoping. You know, books are interesting because you kind of collect these little bits and pieces.
And then you kind of shape them into this whole. And then when people get them, they start breaking them apart again back into pieces.
I love that. That’s a lot of the Steal Like an Artist ideas. You take all these bits and pieces and you form them into something and then people will take your work and break it down and turn it into something of their own.
Ken: And while I’m at it, I’ll tell you folks what else I do. You can just take a picture of some of these pages in these books and just Instagram it. And give the man credit because you’re not bright enough to do it, but you’ll get a lot of likes and you’ll inspire people. So, there’s another little freebie.
So, I want to talk about the process because this is huge for anybody, man or woman, who wants to do something that matters. And if you’ve got some ambition—which can be a really good thing, it has some ugly sides to it as well. But I wanna talk about the process because you talk about showing your work along the way.
That’s a big theme in this book Show Your Work. But I want you to describe what you mean by showing it and showing it along the way. I want you to talk about maybe the underside of that, and that’s learning to savor the process even when it doesn’t taste good. You know the failure, the trying part, because that’s a big part of it.
Austin: I think particularly for artists, we’re always told to think process, not product. Like if you’re a painter, you need to fall in love with the act of painting, not just having made a finished painting and hanging it on the wall.
So, you have to love everything. You have to love finding the images, preparing the canvass, mixing the paint, getting the paint on the canvas. It’s the whole process of things.
But up until recently the kind of status quo has always been process is for yourself. Process is something that’s only for you or your internal team or it’s something that you keep hidden. You don’t show people behind the curtains, so to speak.
There’s a great line that we’ve all heard. You don’t wanna know how the sausage is made so to speak. But I think we’re living in this time and age in which people actually do wanna know how the sausage is made and quite literally.
If you think about the Foodie Movement, I mean, think about how important it is for people to have sustainable natural meats and things like that. And so we’re in this era in which if your sausage is made well and the process is good, it makes the sausage even tastier.
And so I think some of the point I’m trying to make is that we’re in this age in which people who interact with our businesses, the story of how our products are made and how we do our work is almost as important to the way people feel about our business as the products themselves.
And so I wanted to write a book about how to show your work. How to show people what you’re doing while you’re doing it. And it’s a very tricky dance, but I think it’s a very powerful one.
Ken: What do you enjoy most, Austin, about the process of taking something from idea to creation and execution?
Austin: I like the surprise. You know, I’m in the process right now of a new project. And when we started out, we had this very defined idea and I said, “Oh great, we can do that.”
And as I started the work, as I actually started to do the work, these interesting connections started happening and the work starts to appear to you. And you know, as much as you have an idea about where you’re going, if you’re doing really interesting creative work, it will lead you somewhere that you didn’t expect.
And so that to me is the most fun of the whole process. It’s just surprising yourself. Now, I think to a lot of people it’s also the scariest part of the process because an idea might get taken somewhere that you weren’t ready to go.
And so then it becomes a matter of staying open but also staying on track. But to me it’s always the surprises that come along in the process. And I think that when you’re showing your work to people, we have to remember the things that surprise us about our work. That kind of energy will come through in the work, and other people will be able to detect it.
Ken: Last question for you, Austin, and this is probably my favorite question. And if you would indulge us, I would love to know: Who are you stealing from right now?
Austin: Oh, my goodness. Who am I stealing from right now?
Ken: Who are you not stealing from probably is the better question.
Austin: Yeah. Who am I not stealing from? Well, I always have my old favorites. I love old cartoonists like Saul Steinberg or Charles Schultz who wrote Peanuts. I’m a big Lynda Barry maniac. The cartoonist Lynda Barry is great.
Right now, I’m really interested in a musician named PJ Harvey. She’s recording her new album behind glass and she sold tickets to her fans. They can come and watch her record this album through the glass, but it’s only one-way glass. She can’t see them.
So it’s very interesting. I love this idea of setting up a way that people can watch you work, but you’re not aware of having an audience. And so, I’m kind of thinking about how to steal that idea right now. But yeah, the great question is maybe who am I not stealing from.
Ken: Yeah. Yeah. I knew that. As soon as I asked it, I knew better.
Austin: I have to think about that. That’s right. I don’t know. But I think that leads to a greater point. I have always emphasized that you have to surround yourself by the best people doing the best work, and that’s how you find things to steal.
But the truth is there’s always something to steal from people who are doing crappy work too. But what you steal might be more like a lesson of what not to do, so there’s always something to steal from somebody.
Ken: Well, Austin, I gotta tell you I love your work. I sincerely mean this when I say I believe that your work, your books are a gift to creators everywhere. We’re grateful for your time and you have a standing invitation to come hang out if you ever get to the Music City.
If I get to Austin, I’ll try to harass you for a couple minutes to come see you. But I really do enjoy your work and I know our audience is better for hearing this conversation.
He is Austin Kleon. The book is Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. Now, we’re gonna give 10 books away right now. You know how to qualify if you’ve been listening for any amount of time. If you’re new, welcome aboard.
Here’s how you qualify to win one of the 10 books. We want you to tweet something about our podcast and mention @EntreLeadership. That is our Twitter handle: @EntreLeadership. And whatever you say—and please make it nice—you have to put in #ConversationThatMatters.
That’s all you do. If you put #ConversationThatMatters in a tweet that mentions @EntreLeadership, you’re automatically qualified. Eric, the producer, will then put all the names in a hat, and 10 of you lucky listeners will win this book, Steal Like an Artist.
And can I just tell you? Go get this book. In fact, I bought a case of these books when I arrived here and gave them out. I think this book is a must read for anybody who is involved at any level in any work. I don’t care if it’s a nonprofit, if it’s a ministry or of course business.