Book notes: Steal like an artist

Min Chen
3 min readFeb 21, 2022


As a relaxing Sunday afternoon reading, I picked up the 10th-anniversary version of the book “Steal like an artist” written by Austin Kleon. I finished it in one afternoon and got inspired a lot. It is a light book with 10 tips to “be creative”. As Austin wrote, “These ideas apply to anyone who’s trying to inject some creativity into their life and their work. (That should describe all of us).” I like this sentence. All of us should remind ourselves to be creative about our life and work. Write, paint, build, even take a photo, whatever ways; as an artist, an office worker, or a bus driver, whatever professions.

But what does it mean to be creative? Face the fact: nothing is truly original.

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

The only thing new is you finding out about it. The key is to steal from many, remix, transform into something unique by you.

Build up yourself by selecting what and who to learn from

Who are you? You are a mashup of what you choose to let into your life (teacher, friend, music, books, etc).

“We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.” — Goethe

You are only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with. “Garbage in, garbage out”. So surround yourself with books and objects that you love. Tape things up on the wall. For example, hang pictures of your favorite artists in your studio, letting you feel pushed forward by them.

Hero is an important concept in Austin’s book. He suggested,

  • Chew on one artist, and find three people that thinker loved, to climb your own family tree.
  • Internalize their way of looking at the world.
  • Not just copy one of them, but tens of them. That becomes research.
  • Copy your heroes. Examine where you fall short. That’s your chance to transform into your own work.
  • Write public fan letters. Make something and dedicate it to your heroes. Answer a question they’ve asked, solve a problem for them, or improve on their work, and share it online.

When choosing people around you, “find the most talented person in the room, and if it’s not you, go stand next to him. Hang out with him. If you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.”

In the end, it is all about your own choices! You are responsible for schooling yourself. Chase down every reference and go deeper than anybody else– that’s how you’ll get ahead. Keep a “swipe file”. All of these are your curations of YOURSELF.

Manage your life

The core is shaping yourself. Besides that, the book also gives a bunch of great suggestions.

  1. Live regular and orderly life

It takes a lot of energy to be creative. You don’t have that energy if you waste it on other stuff. “I’m a boring guy with a nine-to-five job who lives in a quiet neighborhood with his wife and his dog.” This is how the author describes himself.

2. Enjoy boring

“When I get busy, I get stupid”.

“I love ironing shirts –it’s so boring, I almost always get good ideas.”

3. Digital vs. analog workspace

When you want to be creative, stand up and use your hands. Find yourself an analog workspace, with markers, paper… It’s craft time. Scribble on paper, cut it up, tape the pieces back together. Spread things and sort through. “It felt like play”. Once you get your ideas, then you move to the computer to execute and publish. Otherwise, go back and play.

4. Share your dots, when you are not yet connecting them.

Open up your process and invite people in. The internet can be more than just a resting place to publish your finished ideas–it can also be an incubator for ideas that aren’t fully formed, a birthing center for developing work that you haven’t started yet.



Min Chen

User experience designer @Ginetta, from Shanghai to Zurich