« Show Your Work

July 29, 2018 • 4 min read

Book Review

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Show Your Work makes for a great follow-on to Steal Like an Artist that I reviewed last week. Austin sums it up aptly, “If Steal Like an Artist was a book about stealing influence from other people, this book is about how to influence others by letting them steal from you.” I’ll follow a similar format for this one, and leave you with my favorite quotes from the book.

You don’t have to be a genius

There are a lot of destructive myths about creativity, but one of the most dangerous is the “lone genius” myth. There’s a healthier way of thinking about creativity that the musician Brian Eno refers to as “scenius” (scene+genius.) Under this model, great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals — artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers — who make up an “ecology of talent.” The internet is basically a bunch of sceniuses connected together, divorced from physical geography. Be an amateur — don’t be afraid to make mistakes or look ridiculous in public. The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others.

Think Process. Not Product.

Take people behind the scenes. Become a documentarian of what you do. Take a lot of photographs of your work at different stages in your process. Shoot video of you working. This isn’t about making art, it’s about simply keeping track of what’s going on around you. Whether you share it or not, documenting and recording your process as you go along has its own rewards: You’ll start to see the work you’re doing more clearly and feel like you’re making progress. And when you’re ready to share, you’ll have a surplus of material to choose from.

Share something small every day

Send out a daily dispatch. It’s even better than a resume or a portfolio, because it shows what you’re working on right now. The form of what you share doesn’t matter. Your daily dispatch can be anything you want — a blog post, an email, a tweet, a YouTube video, or some other little bit of media. Over time, you’ll be able to convert your flow into stock — the durable stuff that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. Before you send out this daily dispatch, follow the “So What” test:

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Finally, own your domain name, build your website, and don’t abandon it for the newest, shiniest social network.

Open up your cabinet of curiosities

Don’t be a hoarder. Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do — sometimes even more than your own work. When you share your taste and your influences, have the guts to own all of it. Don’t give in to the pressure to self-edit too much. Finally credit is always due. If you don’t know where something came from or who made it, don’t share it unless you find the right credit.

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Tell good stories

If you want to be more effective when sharing yourself and your work, you need to become a better storyteller. You need to know what a good story is and how to tell one. Your work doesn’t exist in a vaccuum. Whether you realize it or not, you’re already telling a story about your work. Everybody loves a good story, but good storytelling doesn’t come easy to everybody. It’s a skill that takes a lifetime to master.

Teach what you know

Share your trade secerts. Think about what you can share from your process that would inform the people you’re trying to reach. Have you learned a craft? What are your techniques? Are you skilled at using certain tools and materials? What kind of knowledge comes along with your job?

Don’t turn into human spam

If you want fans, you have to be a fan first. If you want to be a accepted by a community, you have to first be a good citizen of that community. If you’re only pointing to your own stuff online, you’re doing it wrong. You have to be a connector, an open node. Be thoughtful. Be considerate. Don’t turn into human spam.

When deciding who to hang out with, follow the Vampire Test. If, after hanging out with someone you feel worn out and depleted, that person is a vampire. Should you find yourself in the presence of a vampire, banish it from your life forever.

Meeting people online is awesome, but turning them into IRL friends is even better.

Learn to take a punch

When you put your work out into the world, you have to be ready for the good, the bad, and the ugly. Relax and breathe, strengthen your neck, roll with the punches, protect your vulnerable areas, and keep your balance. The first step in evaluating feedback is sizing up who it came from. You want feedback from people who care about you and what you do. Don’t feed the trolls.

Sell out

Everybody says they want artists to make money, and then when they do, everybody hates them for it. The word sellout is spit out by the bitterest, smallest parts of ourselves.

When an audience starts gathering for the work that you’re freely putting into the world, you might eventually want to take the leap of turning them into patrons. The easiest way to do this is to simply ask for donations: Put a little virtual tip jar or “Donate now” button on your website. Patreon, Kickstarter, Indiegogo — all are great tools to support creators like you.

Keep a mailing list. The people who sign up fro your list will be some of your biggest supporters, just by the simple fact that they signed up for the potential to be spammed by you. Don’t betray their trust and don’t push your luck. Build your list and treat it with respect. It will come in handy.

“Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.” — Michael Lewis

Stick around

Don’t quit your show. If you look around, you’ll notice that not only are there seconds acts, there are third, fourth, and even fifth ones. Instead of taking a break in between projects, waiting for feedback, and worrying about what’s next, use the end of one project to light up the next one.


Finally, credit where it’s due: if you liked this collection of quotes from the book, you should check out Austin Kleon’s site and his other works. This is a good place to start: https://austinkleon.com/show-your-work/

This is #29 in a series of book reviews published weekly on this site.