Show Your Work – Austin Kleon

Book Cover of Austin Kleon's "Show Your Work"

Why should you read this book?

If you’re an artist, you’re probably wondering how to get your work noticed. You might hold the view that the work should speak for itself. As Steve Martin said, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” But in the internet age, being good is not enough.

If you want to be discovered, you have to be findable.

You have to share your work and your process openly and generously. It will free you from the tortured artist myth and help you connect to an audience, who are not just your customers, but also lifelong friends, moral support, and valuable feedback source.

This book pushed me to build this website. To show my work. If you’ve gotten any value from here, you know who to thank.

Buy the book.

Don’t be a genius. Find a scenius.

The “lone genius” is the most destructive myth about creativity. It gives the impression that good art comes only from the asocial artist toiling away in self-created solitude, struck by divine inspiration.

There are two problems with that: a) somehow that lone genius is always a dead white male like Einstein, Picasso, or Mozart; and b) it diminishes the contribution of partners, collaborators, patrons, mentors, and influences.

Creativity is almost always a result of an ecology of talent – a “scenius”

The Renaissance was a scenius of sculptors, painters, architects and engineers. The Enlightenment Age was a scenius of scientists, philosophers, writers. The Romantic Era was a scenius of poets and novelists. The Industrial Revolution, Surrealists, Post-modernists, Jazz, Punk Rock, EDM, Silicon Valley – all sceniuses.

A scenius acknowledges that creativity is communal, not individual. It involves artists, thinkers, theorists, and curators. And so, it encourages sharing ideas, making connections, and starting conversations.

Be an amateur.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few” – Zen.

The internet is a giant web of interconnected sceniuses, making it easier than ever before to be creative together. Regardless of whether we’re an obscure amateur or a famous professional, all of us have something to contribute.

Actually, the amateur has an edge over the professional. Amateurs are perpetual enthusiasts with little to lose and everything to gain. So, they experiment more, fail more, and are less afraid of making a fool of themselves.

The world is changing so fast that there’s no such thing as an expert anymore. Expertise has a short expiry. Everyone has to wrestle with and embrace the unknown again and again and again to even stay relevant. Reinvent or retire.

Read obituaries. All of them were amateurs once. But they had the courage to put themselves out there, fail and learn, persevere through difficulties, and generously show up to contribute.

So, embrace the amateur mindset. And learn in the open, so others can learn from your successes and failures. Talk about the things you love. Start sharing.

Document your process.

Earlier, the creative process was private. Artists worked in secrecy and then staged grand reveals of their glorious fruits of labour. There was a difference between “an artwork” and “art work”, “a painting” and “painting” – the product and the process.

Now, the process and the product are inseparable. And if both aren’t online, it’s as good as your work doesn’t exist.

You can strike a balance, though. How open you want to be is up to you. Involving followers in your journey satisfies their curiosity, helps them be vicariously creative, and makes them feel invested in your product.

Documenting your process also helps you discover patterns and themes in it. It’s an evidence of your progress, a tool for keeping you accountable.

It can be overwhelming to think how big our work is and the weeks, months, and years it will take to finish. So, take it day by day. After you’re done with the day’s work, share a snapshot of where you are. It could be an inspiration, a work-in-progress, or just some discarded scraps.

Share your daily progress in whatever format makes sense to you: email, tweet, blog post, photo, video. It’s okay if it’s not perfect. Most of what we produce is garbage anyway.

In fact, publicly sharing online gives you a much better understanding of what your audience likes and doesn’t like. You are not your audience. What you think is garbage maybe gold to them. And what you think is gold may not move them at all. The feedback is important.

Don’t over-complicate the sharing, though. Do it during commute or lunch break or set a short timer and just do it.

Claim your own corner of the Internet.

Social media has immense reach, but it is also ephemeral. Remember MySpace? Twitter or Instagram may become irrelevant in a few years. So, if you’re serious about your art and want to pursue it for decades, get your own website domain.

Austin credits all his success to his website. He didn’t know what he was doing when he started building his website. He just used it as his digital sketchbook and storefront. With time, one post became thousands, thousand posts became books, books became speaking engagements.

So, buy a domain name. Something like http://www.[yourname].com. (Mine is www.minakhimisra.com, Austin’s is www.austinkleon.com) It doesn’t even have to be your real name. A pseudonym is fine.

It’s very easy to build DIY websites these days. You can learn to make one online or hire someone. And just like that you have your own corner of the Internet where you can be whoever you want.

Collect email addresses of people who encounter your work and want to stay connected.

Have a signup widget on every page of your website to encourage viewership.

Send an email when you have something valuable and significant to share or sell.

You may also ask your audience to support your work with donations. It could be a button: “Like this? Buy me coffee” or more direct: “Buy Now” and “Hire Me”.

But be biased towards self-invention than self-promotion. It’s the place you’ve created to be who you want to be. The one place that brings together everything you care about: your work, your ideas, your inspirations.

You don’t control the social media environment. And they come and go. But you do control your website. If you respect and maintain it, it will grow in time and become its own currency.

Attract your people. Banish the vampires.

The more you share, the more ideas, feedback, and connections you will get. Sharing your specific collection of interests will attract others with the same interests.

Collecting and creating are two sides of the same coin – the experiences and influences we have collected become the raw material for what we create, and what we create affects our future experiences and interests.

There’s no such thing as good or bad taste – much of what an artist does is seeing what others value less with fresh eyes.

It would be extremely boring if everyone liked the same things. So, be guilt-free about what you love, even if others think it inconsequential.

If you are sharing someone else’s work as an inspiration, give due credit. It not only respects that creator, but gives your audience a trail of breadcrumbs into your mind.

Sometimes sharing your interests and influences gives a better picture of who you are than your own work. So, if nothing else, sharing your true interests will attract others who like the same things.

But don’t blindly run after followership. Talking to people you don’t want to talk to about things you don’t want to talk about is a waste of everyone’s time.

Prioritize real connections and organically grow a network of people who are genuinely invested in you and your work. They share your passions and obsessions. Nurture friendships with them, support them and collaborate with them.

Finally, banish the vampires. These are people who suck your energy, leaving you drained and exhausted. Avoid them at all costs.

Work doesn’t speak for itself.

Most of us can’t tell a real painting from its forgery. But the moment someone points out which is which, suddenly it makes sense. The paintings are still the same, but the stories now colour how we see them.

To believe your work speaks for itself is wishful thinking. The story of work is often as powerful as the work itself. It goes back to innate human curiosity to know how things are made and where they come from. That story affects how they perceive the object. A good story can be the difference between how high or low someone values your work.

Good stories have a simple structure: a problem, the struggle to find a solution, and finally arriving at the solution. You can use this structure for your client presentations, your grant proposals, and your cover letters.

Telling a good tale takes time and practice. Keep your audience in mind, respect their time and intelligence, speak plainly, and – it goes without saying – use spell-check.

Also, practice talking about your work. If someone at a party asks you what you do, explain with honesty, humility, and self-respect. If you’re unemployed, admit it directly and say what kind of work you’re looking to pursue.

Same with writing a bio. Stick to facts, don’t be cute, short and sweet.

Teach to learn. Be an open node.

Teach your process, your technique openly. Teaching doesn’t bread competition – not immediately, at least. Simply because someone knows your method in theory doesn’t mean they can master it immediately.

Teaching what you know also forces you to know your process clearly. And the more clearly you teach, the more people feel close to you and the more they are likely to teach you more about it from their experience.

But don’t become human spam. Listen more than you say. Powerful art is not created in a vacuum. So, while you’re honing your craft, be a fan, ask questions, be thoughtful, and look to connect. Be an open node.

Learn to take a punch.

When you teach and share your work openly, you’ll get feedback from the good, the bad, and the ugly. Learn to turn the uncomfortable ones into productive input.

Relax and breathe. You might be fearing the worst, which may not even realistically happen. Accept whatever comes, nothing more.

Get hit a lot. The more you do, the more you realise it can’t hurt you. Keep putting out more work.

Roll with the punches. Every criticism is an opportunity for new work. You can’t control what criticism you receive, but you control how to react to it.

Protect your vulnerable areas. If some work is too sensitive or too close to you, keep it hidden. Don’t overdo it, though. If you keep avoiding vulnerability, you will never truly connect with others.

Keep your balance. Your work is something you do, not who you are.

Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t take feedback from them. They want you to engage and know how to provoke you. Remember, the worst trolls are the ones that mirror your self-criticism. Deal with your demons inside, not the trolls outside.

Be a sellout.

People will label you a “sellout” the moment you make real money. They’ll say you’re not a pure artist unless you’re struggling and miserable.

Having money doesn’t automatically corrupt creativity. We need to feed and pay rent. Even the Renaissance had to be funded. Michelangelo got a fat fee from the Pope for painting the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.

If embracing opportunities makes you a sellout, be one. If being ambitious and trying out something new makes you a sellout, be one. Changing, exploring, risking – that’s what makes an artist.

Be proud of your successes and also those of your peers.

Pay it forward. Extol your teachers, mentors, heroes, peers, and fans. Be generous with your time with them. But not at the cost of your own creation. Be selfish enough to get your work done first.

Stick around.

Don’t quit your show. Careers have ups and down. Luck plays a part, but so do grit. The most successful artists are ones who simply stuck it out longer than was deemed reasonable.

Go from project to project. If one succeeds, use its proceeds to fund the next one. If it flops, use its lessons to protect the next one from failing. In either case, start the next project.

Go away so you can come back. Kindle your projects, but don’t burn out. Sabbaticals help recharge, but it might not be possible to take a whole year out of your normal life. Cultivate mini-breaks every day, instead. Exercise, go for a walk, stare out during commute. Go back to your project with fresh eyes. Begin again.


Liked the notes? Buy the book.

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