Show Your Work By Austin Kleon Is Fantastic
Show Your Work is the first thing I’ve read from Austin Kleon. Everybody was recommending Steal Like An Artist, and I went contrarian and resisted reading it. However, I had to pick up Show Your Work after listening to James Altucher’s podcast with Kleon.
He seemed pretty cool and was making a ton of sense. Plus, Show Your Work is a very quick read with really smart ideas.
Here are some of the things that really stuck out that I can take and apply to my life and work.
Let People Into the Workshop
First off, the whole theme is to always be sharing what you’re working on. Don’t worry that people will steal it or that you’ll be ostracized for half-baked ideas. Just let people know what you’re up to, because there’s a power and magic to it. People will help you. They’ll give you juice to improve the project and go down paths you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.
This serves the dual purpose of getting people to be invested in your work. They’re part of it. They’re helping. They want to know how it turns out. So, now you have attention, which is invaluable to an artist (or even knowledge worker).
Kleon’s book is driven by thought provoking little nuggets, including his own writing and quotes from others. Here are some of my favorites.
“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.” – John Cleese
That is a great quote and inspiring in that I have never really seriously pursued being a creative person, but this kind of inspires me to do it, because it suggests you don’t have to be cosmically ordained to be creative, you just have to apply a process and mindset, and diligently practice your craft.
This is the same notion as the title of the first chapter: “You Don’t Have to Be a Genius.”
Join a Scenius
“Good work isn’t created in a vacuum.” Kleon says the myth of the lonely artist mixing up a heady brew of creativity in a studio is romantic, but isn’t often the case. More often, creatives on the same wavelength come together, inspire each other, contribute to each other’s work, and form a “scenius” as Brian Eno refers to it.
This part kind of bums me out, because collaborating with people is hard for me, and I have very few friends, and a paltry network, because I’m a hermit. How in the hell am I going to make these connections with like-minded individuals?
Well, actually, the answer to that is showing my work. Because people that are into my developing work will probably be my kind of people, and I can align and collaborate with them. I’m still a little skeptical on this, because, seriously, making connections is not my strong suit.
Be An Amateur
This notion is also very freeing. Nothing to lose. Willing to try anything and share results. Willing to make public mistakes.
“Amateurs know that contributing something is better than contributing nothing.”
I like the notion that amateurs having more to teach because they are going through the same sorts of struggles as the seekers of information, rather than a master, who has trouble remembering what it was like to be a newbie.
Figure Out What To Do
This book applies to art, but the advice also works well for writing non-fiction or any number of professions. You just have to commit, put in the work, and show people what you’re doing.
I like this quote from David Foster Wallace about why he likes good non-fiction. It gives me kind of a blueprint for how to do work that is worth following:
“…watch somebody reasonably bright but also reasonably average pay far closer attention and think at far more length about all sorts of different stuff than most of us have a chance to in our daily lives.”
I like this from Kleon: “The best way to get started on the path of sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others.”
He also mentions that once you find that thing, look for things that people aren’t sharing. Look for voids that you can fill with your stuff. Basically, look for a niche within the niche.
Get Motivated By Inevitable Death
Kleon recommends reading obituaries. He quotes Steve Jobs: “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.”
Kleon likes learning about people’s lives in the obituaries, seeing what they were able to accomplish, and remembering his mortality daily.
This is sorta morbid, but makes a lot of sense if you’re prone to putting things off.
Gotta Open Up
“In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen–really seen.” – Brene Brown
This is along the same lines of really opening up and letting people into your feelings, emotions, flaws, process, mistakes, and successes. This is not easy. It’s natural to want to hide stuff (at least for me). Showing your work is a process that naturally moves you to a more transparent place, which is where the magic starts to happen. Altucher mentions this a lot. He didn’t really start having sustainable success until he started being brutally honest in his writing.
“Share Something Small Every Day”
Because of Altucher I’m really working on a daily practice business. There’s a lot of power in doing something positive every day. Cumulative effects can be awesome over time.
I love Kleon’s idea of sharing something every day, and especially his terrific advice for what to share. It depends on where you are in the process.
“If you’re in the very early stages, share your influences and what’s inspiring you. If you’re in the middle of executing a project, write about your methods or share works in progress. If you’ve just completed a project, show the final product, share scraps from the cutting-room floor, or write about what you learned. if you have lots of projects out into the world, you can report on how they’re doing–you can tell stories about how people are interacting with your work.”
That’s basically the blueprint right there. Amazing passage. He goes on to say pick one social media platform (so it doesn’t get overwhelming) to share something every day. It’s very important to carve out time to do this, but don’t get caught up doing it for hours. You still have to do the work.
So What Test
Damn. So, I can’t share any old half-assed thing that pops out my mind?
Kleon reminds us to make sure the stuff you share passes the “So What Test.”
“Be open, share imperfect and unfinished work that you want feedback on, but don’t share absolutely everything. There’s a big, big difference between sharing and oversharing.”
Turn Your Flow Into Stock
I love the “turn your flow into stock” idea.
Writer Robin Sloan said: “Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people you exist. Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.”
Sloan says maintain your flow while working on your stock in the background.
Kleon expounds saying “your stock is best made by collecting, organizing, and expanding upon your flow.”
His personal example: “a lot of the ideas in this book started out as tweets, which then became blog posts, which then became book chapters. Small things, over time, can get big.”
Grasping this flow and stock notion also becomes extremely valuable in the beginning stages of your journey.
Love this quote from Ira Glass: “All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste,” says public radio personality Ira Glass. “But there is this gap. For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer.”
Kleon adds “Before we’re ready to take the leap of sharing our own work with the world, we can share our tastes in the work of others.”
So, you get in the game with flow. Showing the world the stuff you love, then gradually you find your own voice and niche, and can start to build stock as well. This is just an absolutely brilliant way to frame this.
When you’re further along in the process this quote from Jeff Jarvis seems very applicable: ”Do what you do best and link to the rest.”
Curation is huge!
Kleon says you should have the guts to share all your tastes…not just hip and cool shit. Looks more authentic. And, never ever forget to add attribution.
Tell Good Stories
Here’s Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. It’s a great way to build a story whether you’re doing fiction or sharing your marketing work or whatever.
- A character is in a zone of comfort
- But they want something
- They enter an unfamiliar situation
- Adapt to it
- Get what they wanted
- Pay a heavy price for it
- Return to their familiar situation
- Having Changed
Kleon says good storytelling is a skill that is applicable to all sorts of situations in your life: making a presentation, selling a product, building relationships, and showing your work.
Share Your Trade Secrets
Kleon says learn and then teach, and goes on to give great examples of company breaking the rules and sharing all their trade secrets, which generated even more interest, goodwill, and, ultimately, more sales.
Find the Sweet Spot
You can go too far with the sharing. He has a nice graphic of a continuum with Hoarder on one end, spammer on the opposite end, and contributor in the middle, which is right where you want to be.
To put this into practice you need to also be a good listener. Go to other people’s shows. Buy other people’s books. Share other people’s blog posts.
“…the forward-thinking artists of today aren’t just looking for fans or passive consumers of their work, they’re looking for potential collaborators, or co-conspirators.”
Make Good Connections By Being Good At What You Do
“Connections don’t mean shit,” says record producer Steve Albini. “I’ve never had any connections that weren’t a natural outgrowth of doing things I was doing anyway….Being good at things is the only thing that earns you clout or connections.”
“Learn To Take a Punch”
Kleon shares a funny anecdote from designer Mike Monteiro’s experience in art school.
“We were basically trying to see if we could get each other to drop out of school.”
Going through this brutal experience taught Monteiro “not to take criticism personally.”
Kleon says you don’t have to share stuff that is too sensitive, but that you have to be able to share stuff that makes you uncomfortable like writer Colin Marshall says:
“Compulsive avoidance of embarrassment is a form of suicide.”
Kleon adds: “If you spend your life avoiding vulnerability, you and your work will never truly connect with other people.”
“The trick is not caring what EVERYBODY thinks of you and just caring about what the RIGHT people think of you.” – Brian Michael Bendis
People gotta eat. Don’t worry that getting paid means you’re no longer legit. It doesn’t lessen the authenticity of your work.
Damn That’s a Lot of Takeaways
For such a short book that’s a lot of takeaways. I feel sort of guilty, because I basically just summarized 72% of the book. There’s even more good stuff in there, so be sure to get a copy for yourself. You will want to refer to it over and over for inspiration.