Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon- Book Summary
18 min read

Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon- Book Summary

Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon- Book Summary

Show Your Work! is a book written by Austin Kleon where he outlines 10 steps to get your creative work discovered. I find this book very useful as someone who’s just started into the whole content creation thing. Even if you’re not into content creation, sharing your work allows you to hone your craft (even if you’re a student), help other people and create meaningful opportunities and relationships along the way.

If you’d like to read something similar, you can check out the author here.

Take-Home Messages

Sharing your work can unlock opportunities and help other people. Even if you are not an expert in the field, you can still share your work and there will be people who find it useful. Show Your Work! offers ten transformative rules for being open, generous, brave, productive.

Highlights

A New Way of Operating

  • I hate talking about self-promotion. Comedian Steve Martin famously dodges these questions with the advice, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” If you focus on getting really good, Martin says, people will come to you.
  • But it’s not enough to be good. In order to be found, you have to be findable.
  • Almost all of the people I look up to and try to steal from today, regardless of their profession, have built sharing into their routine
  • Instead of maintaining absolute secrecy and hoarding their work, they’re open about what they’re working on, and they’re consistently posting bits and pieces of their work, their ideas, and what they’re learning online.
  • Instead of wasting their time “networking,” they’re taking advantage of the network.
  • By generously sharing their ideas and their knowledge, they often gain an audience that they can then leverage when they need it—for fellowship,feedback, or patronage.
  • Or imagine something simpler and just as satisfying: spending the majority of your time, energy, and attention practicing a craft, learning a trade, or running a business, while also allowing for the possibility that your work might attract a group of people who share your interests.

You Don’t Have to Be a Genius

  • “Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
  • 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.”
  • 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 talen
  • “That’s all any of us are: amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else.” -Charlie Chaplin
  • “The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act,” writes Clay Shirky in his book Cognitive Surplus. “On the spectrum of creative work, the difference between the mediocre and the good is vast. Mediocrity is, however, still on the spectrum; you can move from mediocre to good in increments. The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something.” Amateurs know that contributing something is better than contributing nothing.
  • Amateurs fit the same bill: They’re just regular people who get obsessed by something and spend a ton of time thinking out loud about it.
  • 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.
  • Find a scenius, pay attention to what others are sharing, and then start taking note of what they’re not sharing.
  • “Find your voice, shout it from the rooftops, and keep doing it until the people that are looking for you find you.” — Dan Harmon
  • We’re always being told find your voice. When I was younger, I never really knew what this meant. I used to worry a lot about voice, wondering if I had my own.
  • But now I realize that the only way to find your voice is to use it.
  • If you want people to know about what you do and the things you care about, you have to share.
  • “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. 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.” – Steve Jobs
  • Start reading the obituaries every morning. Take inspiration from the people who muddled through life before you—they all started out as amateurs, and they got where they were going by making do with what they were given, and having the guts to put themselves out there. Follow their example.

Think Process, Not Product

  • “A lot of people are so used to just seeing the outcome of work. They never see the side of the work you go through to produce the outcome.” – Michael Jackson.
  • But human beings are interested in other human beings and what other human beings do.
  • “People really do want to see how the sausage gets made.”
  • “In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen—really seen.” – Brene Brown
  • But whatever the nature of your work, there is an art to what you do, and there are people who would be interested in that art, if only you presented it to them in the right way.
  • The first step is to scoop up the scraps and the residue of your process and shape them into some interesting bit of media that you can share.
  • “You have to make stuff,” said journalist David Carr when he was asked if he had any advice for students. “No one is going to give a damn about your résumé; they want to see what you have made with your own little fingers.”
  • Become a documentarian of what you do.
  • 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 Everyday

  • Put yourself, and your work, out there every day, and you’ll start meeting some amazing people.” —Bobby Solomon
  • Once a day, after you’ve done your day’s work, go back to your documentation and find one little piece of your process that you can share. Where you are in your process will determine what that piece is. 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.
  • 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. There’s no one-size-fits-all plan for everybody.
  • I like the tagline at dribbble.com: “What are you working on?”
  • Don’t show your lunch or your latte; show your work.
  • Don’t worry about everything you post being perfect. Science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once said that 90 percent of everything is crap. The sameis true of our own work. The trouble is, we don’t always know what’s good and what sucks. That’s why it’s important to get things in front of others and see how they react. “Sometimes you don’t always know what you’ve got,” says artist Wayne White. “It really does need a little social chemistry to make it show itself to you sometimes.”
  • Don’t say you don’t have enough time. We’re all busy, but we all get 24 hours a day. People often ask me, “How do you find the time for all this?” And I answer, “I look for it.” You find time the same place you find spare change: in the nooks and crannies. You find it in the cracks between the big stuff—your commute, your lunch break, the few hours after your kids go to bed. You might have to miss an episode of your favorite TV show, you might have to miss an hour of sleep, but you can find the time if you look for it. I like to work while the world is sleeping, and share while the world is at work.
  • Of course, don’t let sharing your work take precedence over actually doing your work. If you’re having a hard time balancing the two, just set a timer for 30 minutes. Once the timer goes off, kick yourself off the Internet and get back to work.
  • “One day at a time. It sounds so simple. It actually is simple but it isn’t easy: It requires incredible support and fastidious structuring.” —Russell Brand
  • “Make no mistake: This is not your diary. You are not letting it all hang out. You are picking and choosing every single word.” —Dani Shapiro
  • “Post as though everyone who can read it has the power to fire you.”
  • 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 over-sharing. The act of sharing is one of generosity—you’re putting something out there because you think it might be helpful or entertaining to someone on the other side of the screen.
  • “SO WHAT?” She threw the piece of chalk down and said, “Ask yourself that every time you turn in a piece of writing.” It’s a lesson I never forgot.
  • Don’t overthink it; just go with your gut. If you’re unsure about whether to share something, let it sit for 24 hours.
  • “If you work on something a little bit every day, you end up with something that is massive.” —Kenneth Goldsmith
  • Sloan says the magic formula is to maintain your flow while working on your stock in the background.
  • In my experience, your stock is best made by collecting, organizing, and expanding upon your flow.
  • When you detect these patterns, you can start gathering these bits and pieces and turn them into something bigger and more substantial. You can turn your flow into stock.
  • “Carving out a space for yourself online, somewhere where you can express yourself and share your work, is still one of the best possible investments you can make with your time.” —Andy Baio
  • Social networks are great, but they come and go. (Remember Myspace? Friendster? GeoCities?) If you’re really interested in sharing your work and expressing yourself, nothing beats owning your own space online, a place that you control, a place that no one can take away from you, a world headquarters where people can always find you.
  • So, if you get one thing out of this book make it this: Go register a domain name.
  • Don’t think of your website as a self-promotion machine, think of it as a self-invention machine. Online, you can become the person you really want to be. Fill your website with your work and your ideas and the stuff you care about.
  • “Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises. Don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful. Be concerned with doing good work . . . and if you can build a good name, eventually that name will be its own currency.”

Open Up Your Cabinet of Curiosities

  • Where do you get your inspiration? What sorts of things do you fill your head with? What do you read? Do you subscribe to anything? What sites do you visit on the Internet? What music do you listen to? What movies do you see? Do you look at art? What do you collect? What’s inside your scrapbook? What do you pin to the corkboard above your desk? What do you stick on your refrigerator? Who’s done work that you admire? Who do you steal ideas from? Do you have any heroes? Who do you follow online? Who are the practitioners you look up to in your field?
  • Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do – sometimes even more than your work.
  • “You’re only as good as your record collection.” —DJ Spooky
  • We all love things that other people think are garbage. You have to have the courage to keep loving your garbage, because what makes us unique is the diversity and breadth of our influences, the unique ways in which we mix up the parts of culture others have deemed “high” and the “low.”
  • When you find things you genuinely enjoy, don’t let anyone else make you feel bad about it. Don’t feel guilty about the pleasure you take in the things you enjoy. Celebrate them. 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. Don’t be the lame guys at the record store arguing over who’s the more “authentic” punk rock band. Don’t try to be hip or cool. Being open and honest about what you like is the best way to connect with people who like those things, too.
  • “Do what you do best and link to the rest.” —Jeff Jarvis
  • If you share the work of others, it’s your duty to make sure that the creators of that work get proper credit. Crediting work in our copy-and-paste age of reblogs and retweets can seem like a futile effort, but it’s worth it, and it’s the right thing to do. You should always share the work of others as if it were your own, treating it with respect and care.
  • Online, the most important form of attribution is a hyperlink pointing back to the website of the creator of the work. This sends people who come across the work back to the original source. The number one rule of the Internet: People are lazy. If you don’t include a link, no one can click it. Attribution without a link online borders on useless: 99.9 percent of people are not going to bother Googling someone’s name.
  • The answer: Don’t share things you can’t properly credit. Find the right credit, or don’t share.

Tell Good Stories

  • But our brains don’t work that way. “When shown an object, or given a food, or shown a face, people’s assessment of it—how much they like it, how valuable it is—is deeply affected by what you tell them about it.”
  • “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.”
  • “To fake a photograph, all you have to do is change the caption. To fake a painting, change the attribution.” —Errol Morris
  • Words matter. Artists love to trot out the tired line, “My work speaks for itself,” but the truth is, our work doesn’t speak for itself. Human beings want to know where things came from, how they were made, and who made them. The stories you tell about the work you do have a huge effect on how people feel and what they understand about your work, and how people feel and what they understand about your work effects how they value it.
  • “Why should we describe the frustrations and turning points in the lab, or all the hours of groundwork and failed images that precede the final outcomes?” asks artist Rachel Sussman. “Because, rarified exceptions aside, our audience is a human one, and humans want to connect. Personal stories can make the complex more tangible, spark associations, and offer entry into things that might otherwise leave one cold.”
  • If you want to be more effective when sharing yourself and your work, you need to become a better storyteller.
  • “‘The cat sat on a mat’ is not a story. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is a story.” —John le Carré
  • The most important part of a story is its structure.
  • “Once upon a time, there was _____. Every day, _____. One day, _____. Because of that, _____. Because of that, _____. Until finally, _____.” Pick your favorite story and try to fill in the blanks. It’s striking how often it works.
  • You get a great idea, you go through the hard work of executing the idea, and then you release the idea out into the world, coming to a win, lose, or draw.
  • The first act is the past, the second act is the present, and the third act is the future. The first act is where you’ve been—what you want, how you came to want it, and what you’ve done so far to get it. The second act is where you are now in your work and how you’ve worked hard and used up most of your resources. The third act is where you’re going, and how exactly the person you’re pitching can help you get there.
  • Speak to them directly in plain language. Value their time. Be brief. Learn to speak. Learn to write. Use spell-check.
  • So study the great stories and then go find some of your own. Your stories will get better the more you tell them.
  • Strike all the adjectives from your bio. If you take photos, you’re not an “aspiring” photographer, and you’re not an “amazing” photographer, either. You’re a photographer. Don’t get cute. Don’t brag. Just state the facts.

Teach What You Know

  • “The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” —Annie Dillard
  • What can you tell the world about how you operate that’s informative, educational, and promotional?”
  • 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? The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others. Share your reading list. Point to helpful reference materials. Create some tutorials and post them online. Use pictures, words, and video. Take people step-by-step through part of your process. As blogger Kathy Sierra says, “Make people better at something they want to be better at.” Teaching people doesn’t subtract value from what you do, it actually adds to it. When you teach someone how to do your work, you are, in effect, generating more interest in your work. People feel closer to your work because you’re letting them in on what you know.
  • Best of all, when you share your knowledge and your work with others, you receive an education in return. Author Christopher Hitchens said that the great thing about putting out a book is that “it brings you into contact with people whose opinions you should have canvassed before you ever pressed pen to paper. They write to you. They telephone you. They come to your bookstore event sand give you things to read that you should have read already.”
  • He said that having his work out in the world was “a free education that goes on for a lifetime.”

Don’t Turn Into Human Spam

  • “When people realize they’re being listened to, they tell you things.” —Richard Ford
  • I call these people human spam. They’re everywhere, and they exist in every profession. They don’t want to pay their dues, they want their piece right here, right now. They don’t want to listen to your ideas; they want to tell you theirs. They don’t want to go to shows, but they thrust flyers at you on the sidewalk and scream at you to come to theirs. You should feel pity for these people and their delusions. At some point, they didn’t get the memo that the world owes none of us anything.
  • No matter how famous they get, 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. These artists acknowledge that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that the experience of art is always a two-way street, incomplete without feedback. These artists hang out online and answer questions. They ask for reading recommendations. They chat with fans about the stuff they love.
  • If you want fans, you have to be a fan first. If you want to be 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. The writer Blake Butler calls this being an open node. If you want to get, you have to give. If you want to be noticed, you have to notice. Shut up and listen once in a while. Be thoughtful. Be considerate. Don’t turn into human spam. Be an open node.
  • “What you want is to follow and be followed by human beings who care about issues you care about. This thing we make together. This thing is about hearts and minds, not eyeballs.” —Jeffrey Zeldman
  • Stop worrying about how many people follow you online and start worrying about the quality of people who follow you. Don’t waste your time reading articles about how to get more followers. Don’t waste time following people online just because you think it’ll get you somewhere. Don’t talk to people you don’t want to talk to, and don’t talk about stuff you don’t want to talk about. If you want followers, be someone worth following. To put it more simply: If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested.
  • Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple.
  • Brancusi practiced what I call The Vampire Test. It’s a simple way to know who you should let in and out of your life. If, after hanging out with someone you feel worn out and depleted, that person is a vampire. If, after hanging out with someone you still feel full of energy, that person is not a vampire. Of course, The Vampire Test works on many things in our lives, not just people—you can apply it to jobs, hobbies, places, etc.
  • Vampires cannot be cured. Should you find yourself in the presence of a vampire, be like Brancusi, and banish it from your life forever.
  • As you put yourself and your work out there, you will run into your fellow knuckleballers. These are your real peers—the people who share your obsessions, the people who share a similar mission to your own, the people with whom you share a mutual respect. There will only be a handful or so of them, but they’re so, so important. Do what you can to nurture your relationships with these people. Sing their praises to the universe. Invite them to collaborate. Show them work before you show anybody else. Call them on the phone and share your secrets. Keep them as close as you can.
  • Meeting people online is awesome, but turning them into IRL friends is even better.

Learn to Take a Punch

  • Here’s how to take punches:
  • Relax and breathe. The trouble with imaginative people is that we’re good at picturing the worst that could happen to us.
  • Strengthen your neck. They way to be able to take a punch is to practice getting hit a lot.
  • Roll with the punches. Keep moving. Every piece of criticism is an opportunity for new work.
  • Protect your vulnerable areas. If you have work that is too sensitive or too close to you to be exposed to criticism, keep it hidden.
  • Keep your balance.You have to remember that your work is something you do, not who you are.
  • Do you have a troll problem? Use the block button on social media sites. Delete nasty comments. My wife is fond of saying, “If someone took a dump in your living room, you wouldn’t let it sit there, would you?” Nasty comments are the same—they should be scooped up and thrown in the trash.

Sell Out

  • “Sellout . . . I’m not crazy about that word. We’re all entrepreneurs. To me, I don’t care if you own a furniture store or whatever—the best sign you can put up is sold out.” —Bill Withers
  • We all have to get over out “starving artist” romanticism and the idea that touching money inherently corrupts creativity.
  • Some of our most meaningful nd most cherished cultural artifacts were made for money.
  • 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 a donate now button on your website. These links do well with a little bit of human copy, such as “Like this? Buy me a coffee.”
  • Whether you ask for donations, crowdfund, or sell your products or services, asking for money in return for your work is a leap you want to take only when you feel confident that you’re putting work out into the world that you think is truly worth something. Don’t be afraid to charge for your work, but put a price on it that you think is fair.
  • Keep your own list, or get an account with an email newsletter company like MailChimp and put a little sign-up widget on every page of your website. Write a little bit of copy to encourage people to sign up. Be clear about what they can expect, whether you’ll be sending daily, monthly, or infrequent updates. Never ever add someone’s email address to your mailing list without her permission.
  • Be ambitious. Keep yourself busy. Think bigger. Expand your audience. Don’t hobble yourself in the name of “keeping it real,” or “not selling out.” Try new things. If an opportunity comes along that will allow you to do more of the kind of work you want to do, say Yes. If an opportunity comes along that would mean more money, but less of the kind of work you want to do, say No.
  • When you have success, it’s important to use any dough, clout, or platform you’ve acquired to help along the work of the people who’ve helped you get to where you are.
  • You just have to be as generous as you can, but selfish enough to get your work done.
  • “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.”

Stick Around

  • The people who get what they’re after are very often the ones who just stick around long enough. It’s very important not to quit prematurely.
  • As he shut off the car he said, “You gotta play till the ninth inning, man.” Good advice for both the parking lot and life in general.
  • Add all this together and you get a way of working I call chain-smoking. You avoid stalling out in your career by never losing momentum. Here’s how you do it: 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. Just do the work that’s in front of you, and when it’s finished, ask yourself what you missed, what you could’ve done better, or what you couldn’t get to, and jump right into the next project.
  • Thankfully, we can all take practical sabbaticals—daily, weekly, or monthly breaks where we walk away from our work completely.
  • When you feel like you’ve learned whatever there is to learn from what you’re doing, it’s time to change course and find something new to learn so that you can move forward. You can’t be content with mastery; you have to push yourself to become a student again.

Get The Book

Get the book, in paperback or eBook format here.

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