Steal These Ideas: Austin Kleon, Creativity, Art, and Learning

If we need a reminder of how much all of us are products of our own experiences, we need go no further than Austin Kleon’s playfully engaging new book Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. And while Kleon jolts us all a bit with his use of “steal” in that title, his intent clearly is to help us understand that “stealing like an artist” suggests a level of interaction with our sources of inspiration that leaves no room or encouragement for outright acts of plagiarism.

Steal begins with David Bowie’s admission that “The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from”; gathers steam with Yohji Yamamoto’s advice to “Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self”; and leads us to a list of recommended readings that should, if it is not already, be familiar to any of us interested in taking a creative approach to all we undertake.

Along the way, Kleon leads us through his 10 thoughts on the theme of unlocking our creativity, including “write the book you want to read” (which for trainer-teacher-learners could easily be recast as “design and offer the learning opportunity you wish you could attend”); “do good work and share it with people,” “be nice (the world is a small town),” “be boring (it’s the only way to get work done),” and “creativity is subtraction”—a reminder that it is as important to deliberately choose what we leave out of our work as it is to choose what we include.

And while much of what he has written is far from novel to those of us who have been exploring creativity for many years—more than one of my favorite writers has suggested that if we can’t find the book we want to read, we need to write it ourselves—Steal is cleverly presented and serves as an homage both to sources he acknowledges and others he may not yet personally have encountered. Even the presentation—a smaller than normal format combining hand-written chapter and section titles, informally sketched illustrations, several photographs that complement and supplement the typeset text, and the pull-quotes that are spread throughout the book—is reminiscent of another equally engaging book: Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s Rework (a work cited in Kleon’s recommended readings).

But the fact that we might recognize some of these things nobody previously told us doesn’t undercut the value of the book. The point is that creativity exists within a continuum of creative works ranging from Ranier Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and the Darte Publishing release Letters to a Young Artist to David Bayles and Ted Orland’s  Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking and numerous other scientists, artists and writers who have written about the act of writing.

At least one unexpected level of engagement that Kleon inspired me to pursue was to actually respond, in writing within the white spaces on the pages of his book, to the ideas he proposes. And in this way, he inadvertently led me to produce a unique copy of the book—which includes my own references to writers who have traveled paths that Kleon leads us through. This reinforced, for me, an idea I use with learners I am guiding: providing them with time, during and after attending onsite or online workshops, to add to previously developed materials in ways that further increase the breadth and scope and reach of those materials while giving learner-contributor-creators a sense of ownership. An example: if we’re helping learners improve their skills in using social media tools, we can encourage them to join in Twitter chats designed around a learning theme (e.g., how to market their organizations or how to increase the reach of the services and/or products they provide) and then show them how to edit those chat sessions into documents shared on blogs or other sites as learning objects to be further developed by other learners. Or, if we are trying to foster a community of learning that co-exists onsite and online, we can encourage participants to document their best practices by contributing to a wiki that grows through the ongoing efforts of current and future learners.

Kleon, admittedly “talking to a previous version of myself,” could as easily (in the spirit of what he is doing) have called his book Letters from a Young Artist to an Even Younger Artist if he wanted to engage in the playful stealing-that-is-less-than-outright-stealing he encourages all of us to pursue. If we accept the invitation he proffers, we’re very likely to contribute to the continuum of creativity his book has joined.

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