Steal Like An Artist

by Austin Kleon

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: March 04, 2024
Steal Like An Artist
Steal Like An Artist

What are the big ideas? 1. Embrace the Unique Value of Imitation: This book advocates for learning from others and building upon existing ideas rather than focusing

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What are the big ideas?

  1. Embrace the Unique Value of Imitation: This book advocates for learning from others and building upon existing ideas rather than focusing solely on originality. It suggests that every new idea is a remix or mashup of previous ideas, and encourages readers to study and learn from the work of artists, writers, activists, and role models who inspire them (Chapter 1).
  2. Productive Procrastination through Side Projects: The book emphasizes the importance of side projects and hobbies in personal growth and creativity. It suggests that bouncing between multiple projects and taking time for boredom can lead to good work and new ideas (Chapter 5).
  3. Sharing Work Online for Creative Growth: The book encourages readers to share their work with others online to receive feedback, collaboration, and inspiration. It emphasizes the importance of building a supportive community in the digital space and using social media as a tool for creative growth (Chapter 6).
  4. Finding Creativity in Limitation: This book argues that constraints and limitations can actually lead to some of the best creative work. It challenges readers to use available time, space, and resources wisely and find joy in the struggle against limitations (Chapter 10).
  5. The Power of Niceness in the Digital World: The book emphasizes the importance of being nice and building positive relationships online. It suggests that saying nice things about others and writing public fan letters can lead to meaningful connections and inspiration (Chapter 8).




  • Embrace the idea that "art is theft" and learn from others
  • Don't wait to start creating, even if you don't know your identity
  • Write the book or create the art that resonates with you
  • Use your hands in your creative process
  • Side projects and hobbies are essential for personal growth
  • Share your work with others to make it better or different
  • Geography is no longer a limitation to creativity
  • Be nice and remember that the world is interconnected
  • Be boring and focus on getting work done.
  • Creativity comes from subtraction, not addition.


“It’s one of my theories that when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.”

“Read deeply. Stay open. Continue to wonder.”

1. Steal Like an Artist.


  • An artist sees the world as a collection of ideas worth stealing and building upon, rather than focusing on what is "good" or "bad." (David Bowie)
  • Originality is an illusion, and all creative work is influenced by what came before. (Jonathan Lethem)
  • Every new idea is a remix or mashup of previous ideas.
  • Surround yourself with good ideas to be influenced by and collect selectively. (Jim Jarmusch)
  • Study and learn from the work of artists, writers, activists, and role models who inspire you.
  • Curiosity and continuous learning are essential for personal growth and development.
  • Carry a notebook and a pen to record thoughts, observations, and inspirations.
  • Keep a swipe file or morgue file to store ideas worth stealing for future use. (Mark Twain)


“What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.”

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”

“What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.”

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

“You don’t get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see. 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 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.”

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

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

“The great thing about remote or dead masters is that they can't refuse you as an apprentice. You can learn whatever you want from them. They left their lesson plans in their work.”

“School is one thing. Education is another. The two don’t always overlap. Whether you’re in school or not, it’s always your job to get yourself an education.”

“Be curious about the world in which you live. Look things up. Chase down every reference. Go deeper than anybody else--that's how you'll get ahead.”

“Google everything. I mean everything. Google your dreams, Google your problems. Don’t ask a question before you Google it. You’ll either find the answer or you’ll come up with a better question.”

“Always be reading. Go to the library. There’s magic in being surrounded by books. Get lost in the stacks. Read bibliographies. It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to. Collect books, even if you don’t plan on reading them right away. Filmmaker John Waters has said, “Nothing is more important than an unread library.” Don’t worry about doing research. Just search.”

2. Don’t Wait Until You Know Who You Are to Get Started.


  • Start creating before figuring out who you are
  • Embrace impostor syndrome and understand that none of us truly know what we're doing
  • Fake it till you make it: pretend to be making something until you actually create something
  • Learn by copying the work of those you admire, but don't just mimic their style, strive to understand their thought process
  • Imitation leads to evolution and discovering what makes you unique
  • Emulate your heroes by adapting their work to make it your own
  • Our failure to perfectly copy our heroes is where we find our unique voice and contribution.


“Don't wait until you know who you are to get started. If I'd waited to know who I was or what I was about before I started "being creative," well, I'd be sitting around trying to figure myself out instead of making things. In my experience, it's in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are. You're ready. Start making stuff.”

“Pretend to be something you’re not until you are—fake it until you’re successful, until everybody sees you the way you want them.”

“Pretend to be making something until you actually make something.”

“dress for the job you want, not the job you have, and you have to start doing the work you want to be doing.”

“Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self.”

“Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don't out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying.”

“Copying is about reverse-engineering.”

“As Salvador Dalí said, “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”

“If you have one person you’re influenced by, everyone will say you’re the next whoever. But if you rip off a hundred people, everyone will say you're so original.”

“The reason to copy your heroes and their style is so that you might somehow get a glimpse into their minds. That's what you really want - to internalize their way of looking at the wold. If you just mimic the surface of somebody's work without understanding where they are coming from, your work will never be anything more that a knockoff.”

“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.”

3. Write the Book You Want to Read.


  • Write stories based on characters you're inspired by, even if they already exist (fan fiction)
  • Don't write what you know, write what you like and want to read
  • Be inspired by creative heroes and imagine what they could have made
  • Channel desire for sequels into productive work
  • Create art, businesses, music, books, products based on your passions.


“The best advice is not to write what you know, it’s to write what you like. Write the kind of story you like best—write the story you want to read. The same principle applies to your life and your career:”

“Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use – do the work you want to see done.”

4. Use Your Hands.


  • Use your hands in the digital age by drawing, writing, or creating physically to spark ideas and improve work.
  • Computers can be isolating and limit the feeling of making things with your body.
  • Engage multiple senses in the creative process for a more enjoyable and productive experience.
  • Analog tools, like paper and pens, can help bring creativity back to life by providing a hands-on, tactile experience.
  • Sequence and edit ideas on a computer while generating them through analog methods.
  • Set up two workstations: one for hands-on, analog activities, and the other for digital editing and publishing.
  • Use physical materials like paper, pens, and index cards to brainstorm ideas and create patterns.
  • Return to the analog station when feeling uninspired or stuck in the creative process.

5. Side Projects and Hobbies Are Important.


  • Side projects, or "messing around," can lead to good work and creativity
  • Practice productive procrastination by bouncing between multiple projects
  • Take time for boredom and daydreaming to stimulate creativity
  • Keep all your passions in your life and let them interact with each other
  • Having a hobby that brings joy without pressure or expectation is important.


“I think it’s good to have a lot of projects going at once so you can bounce between them. 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.”

“Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing. I get some of my best ideas when I'm bored, which is why I never take my shirts to the cleaners. I love ironing my shirts-it's so boring, I almost always get good ideas. If you're out of ideas, wash the dishes. Take really long walk. Stare at a spot on the wall for as long as you can. As the artist Maira Kalman says, "Avoiding work is the way to focus my mind.”

“If you feel like you have two or three real passions, don't pick and choose between them. Don't discard. Keep all your passions in your life.”

6. The Secret: Do Good Work and Share It with People.


  • Use your obscurity to experiment and improve without distractions or pressure
  • Do good work and share it with people by putting it online
  • Wonder at unique things and invite others to join you
  • Give away secrets to learn and inspire others, potentially gaining rewards
  • Build a website, blog, and social media presence to showcase your work and connect with like-minded individuals
  • Share glimpses of your process and valuable information to engage and grow your audience
  • Don't worry about giving away ideas; focus on effectively communicating them


“You’ll never get that freedom back again once people start paying you attention, and especially not once they start paying you money.”

“Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts.”

“Step 1: Wonder at something. Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you. You should wonder at the things nobody else is wondering about.”

“Show just a little bit of what you’re working on.”

“If you’re worried about giving your secrets away, you can share your dots without connecting them.”

7. Geography Is No Longer Our Master.


  • Connect with a global community through the internet, regardless of where you live.
  • Build your own world around you with things that inspire you.
  • Find solitude and temporary captivity in various places to fuel creativity.
  • Travel to new places to broaden perspectives and challenge comfort zones.
  • Consider factors like weather, interesting people, and good food when choosing a place to live.
  • Regularly leave your current environment for new experiences and growth.


“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.”

“Your brain gets too comfortable in your everyday surroundings. You need to make it uncomfortable. You need to spend some time in another land, among people that do things differently than you. Travel makes the world look new, and when the world looks new, our brains work harder.”

8. Be Nice. (The World Is a Small Town.)


  • Make friends online by saying nice things about people instead of talking negatively about them.
  • Surround yourself with talented individuals in the digital space to improve yourself.
  • Channel anger into creative work rather than engaging in online arguments.
  • Write public fan letters as a way to show appreciation without expecting a response.
  • Understand that good creative work may be misunderstood or ignored, and focus on doing your best work regardless of external validation.
  • Keep a folder of nice emails or messages for motivation during difficult times.


“Find the most talented person in the room, and if it’s not you, go stand next to him.”

“If you ever find that you're the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.”

“So go on, get angry. But keep your mouth shut and go do your work.”

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

“Ironically, really good work often appears to be effortless. People will say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” They won’t see the years of toil and sweat that went into 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.”

“Validation is for parking.”

9. Be Boring. (It’s the Only Way to Get Work Done.)


  • Maintain a regular and orderly life to have energy for creative work
  • Learn about money and budgeting to secure financial stability
  • Find a stable day job that leaves you enough energy for creative pursuits
  • Establish a routine and stick to it, even if it means living a double life
  • Keep track of your daily progress with a calendar or logbook
  • Choose relationships wisely, especially those in business and marriage, as they can greatly impact your success.


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

“The thing is: It takes a lot of energy to be creative. You don’t have that energy if you waste it on other stuff.”

“Eat breakfast. Do some push-ups. Go for long walks. Get plenty of sleep.”

10. Creativity Is Subtraction.


  • Embrace limitations for creative growth and productivity.
  • Constraints can lead to your best work, as demonstrated by Dr. Seuss's example.
  • Don't make excuses for not creating; use available time, space, and resources.
  • The struggle against limitations makes art interesting and adds depth to people's stories.
  • Creativity involves choosing what to include and what to leave out wisely.
  • Have fun in the creative process.


“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.”

“In the end, creativity isn’t just the things we choose to put in, it’s the things we choose to leave out.”


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