Highlights from the “Steal like an Artist” series

Venkatesh-Prasad Ranganath
8 min readSep 24, 2023

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Over the last few weeks, I have managed to get out of my reading slump :) The first book that I read upon this exit was Smartcuts by Shane Snow. It was a interesting quick read, and I will post its highlights shortly.

Next, chipping away at the pile of books on creative work, I read three books by Austin Kleon: Steal like an Artist, Show Your Work, and Keep Going.

Cover image of “Steal Like an Artist”

These books were thoroughly enjoyable book. The recommendations in these books were very similar to what is books like “The War of the Art” or “The Creative Habit”. So, these reading sessions served like refreshers. The the books were quick reads with no fillers but still insightful. I liked the choice of quotes from past creatives captured in these books. The only downside, if I may call it so, was that the earlier books in the series were more engaging and insightful than the later books in the series.

While these books are a decade old, they contain tips and tricks that are still applicable. So, if you are into books on creative work, then give them a read!

Highlights

  1. The great things about dead or remote masters is that they can’t refuse you a an apprentice. You can learn whatever you want from them. They left their lesson plans in their work.
  2. In my experience, it’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure who we are.
  3. You’re ready. Start making stuff.
  4. 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.
  5. You have to dress for the job you want, not the job you have, and you have to start doing the work you want to be doing.
  6. 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 you heroes.
  7. In O’Brien’s words, “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.”
  8. Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives . That is how we evolve.
  9. Merely imitating your heroes is not flattering them. Transforming their work into something of your own is how you flatter them. Adding something to the world that only you can add.
  10. Whenever you’re at a loss for what move to make next, just ask yourself, “What would make a better story?”
  11. Do the work you want to see done.
  12. “The work you do while you procrastinate is probably that work you should be doing for the rest of your life.” — Jessica Hische
  13. A hobby is something creative that’s just for you.
  14. Don’t throw any of yourself away. Don’t worry about a grand scheme or unified vision for your work. Don’t worry about unity — what unifies your work is that fact that you made it. On day, you’ll look back and it will all make sense.
  15. You should wonder at the things nobody else is wondering about.
  16. You don’t put yourself online only because you have something to say — you can put yourself online to find something to say.
  17. 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.
  18. Travel makes the world look new, and when that world looks new, our brains work harder.
  19. You have to find a place that feeds you — creatively, socially, spiritually, and literally.
  20. Go, get angry. But keep your mouth shut and go do your work.
  21. “Complain about the way other people make software by making software.” — Andre Torrez
  22. “The best way to get approval is to not need it” — Hugh MacLeod (BTW: Hugh’s books “Ignore Everybody” and “Evil Plans” are awesome.)
  23. Really good work often appears to be effortless.
  24. Get comfortable with being misunderstood, disparaged, or ignored — the trick is to be too busy doing your work to care.
  25. “Be regular and ordering in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” — Gustave Flaubert
  26. It takes a lot of energy to be creative. You don’t have that energy if you waste it on other stuff.
  27. “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do”. (Kinda similar to the FUM concept coined by of Nassim Taleb.)
  28. The corollary to Parkinson’s Law is usually true: Work gets done in the time available.
  29. A good partner keeps you grounded. (I believe this applies to your innermost circle.)
  30. To execute a creative project is to carry out a kind of death sentence. I do the work of putting the words and the pictures on the page, but once I finish a book, it’s pretty much dead to me.
  31. “Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  32. “You’re only as good as your record collection.” — DJ Spooky
  33. “I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you fucking like something, like it.” — Dave Grohl
  34. 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 to able to go.
  35. When you find things you genuinely enjoy, don’t let anyone else make you feel bad about it. Don’t feel guilty about that pleasure you take in the things you enjoy. Celebrate them. When you share your tast and your influences, have the guts to own all of it. Don’t give in to the pressure to self-edit too much. Don’t be the lame guys at the record store arguing over who’s the more “authentic” punk rock band. 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.
  36. “Do what you do best and link to the rest.” — Jeff Jarvis
  37. “Don’t share things you can’t properly credit. Find the right credit, or don’t share.”
  38. 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.
  39. 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.
  40. 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.
  41. “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
  42. No one has ever died from a bad review.
  43. Sometimes when people hate something about your work, it’s fun to push that element even further.
  44. “Compulsive avoidance of embarrassment is a form of suicide.” — Colin Marshall.
  45. You have to remember that your work is something you do, not who you are.
  46. The worst troll is the one that lives in your head.
  47. “When you get to the end of a book, you don’t have to see what everyone else thought of it.”
  48. “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.” — Walt Disney
  49. You just have to be as generous as you can, but selfish enough to get your work done.
  50. “Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You own a debt, and not to your gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.” — Michael Lewis
  51. “You gotta play till the ninth inning, man.”
  52. Instead of taking a break in between projects, waiting for feedback, and worrying about what’s next, use the end of one projects to light up the next one. Just do the work that’s n front of you, and when it’s finished, ask yourself what you missed, and what you could’ve done better, or what you couldn’t get to, and jump right into the next project.
  53. “Anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough.” — Alain de Botton
  54. We have so little control over our lives. The only thing we can really control is what we spend our days on.
  55. “Any man can fight the battles of just one day. It is only when you and I add the burden of those two awful eternities, yesterday and tomorrow, that we break down. It is not the experience of today that drives men mad. It is remorse or bitterness for something which happened yesterday or the dread of what tomorrow may bring. Let us therefore do our bets to live but one day at a time.” — Richmond Walker in Twenty-Four Hours as Day.
  56. A little imprisonment — if it’s of your own making — can set you free.
  57. “The phone gives us a lot but it takes away three key elements of discovery: loneliness, uncertainty, and boredom. Those have always been where creative ideas come from.” — Lynda Barry
  58. Job titles aren’t really for you, they’re for others.
  59. The great artists are able to retain this sense of playfulness throughout their careers. Art and the artist both suffer most when the artists gets too heavy, too focused on results.
  60. “You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to DO … Try to do some BAD work — the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell — you are not responsible for the world — you are only responsible for your work — do DO IT.” — Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse
  61. Making gifts puts us in touch with our gifts.
  62. “Let’s slow down, not in pace or wordage but in nerves.” — John Steinbeck
  63. “For anyone trying to discern what to do with their life: PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU PAY ATTENTION TO. That’s pretty much all the info you need.” — Any Krouse Rosenthal
  64. You’re often most creative when you’re the least productive.
  65. “There is no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the feat that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, lean it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!” — Rainer Maria Rilke

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Venkatesh-Prasad Ranganath

Engineer / Ex-Academic / Ex-Researcher who is curious about software and computing.