Albert Einstein said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination.”
Do you have trouble accessing your imagination? Are you so bogged down with the responsibilities of daily life, you feel like you never have the time to dream and imagine?
What is the secret behind artists who seem to have this time in their schedule to not only dream, but create something beautiful and profound?
There are habits and routines that can foster better creativity in your life. Today’s guest knows firsthand how great habits can lead to breakthrough artistry. He has a rhythm in his own life, and finds that his audience is attracted to his work the most when he is just being his authentic self.
Writer and artist, Austin Kleon knows that the path to greatness is paved with vulnerability and courage. My conversation with him was so fascinating, I won’t soon forget it — and I can’t wait to share it with you.
Austin Kleon is the New York Times bestselling author of a trilogy of illustrated books about creativity in the digital age: Steal Like An Artist, Show Your Work!, and Keep Going. He’s also the author of Newspaper Blackout, a collection of poems made by redacting the newspaper with a permanent marker.
His books have been translated into dozens of languages and have sold over a million copies worldwide. He’s been featured on NPR’s Morning Edition, PBS Newshour, and in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. New York Magazine called his work “brilliant,” The Atlantic called him “positively one of the most interesting people on the Internet,” and The New Yorker said his poems “resurrect the newspaper when everybody else is declaring it dead.”
He speaks for organizations such as Pixar, Google, SXSW, TEDx, and The Economist. In previous lives, he worked as a librarian, a web designer, and an advertising copywriter. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and two sons.
In this episode, we discuss the key habits and routines of successful creatives, how to get over the fear of being embarrassed by negativity, why Austin thinks making a full-time living with your art is a terrible way to make a living, and how to steal like an artist in order to create your own unique work. Let’s dive in!
One of the first things Austin mentioned when we discussed keys to success is that persistence pays off. He believes that sticking around is key, and the willingness to suck is key. According to Austin, in order to live a fulfilling life, it’s important to keep creating even when you fail.
“I think people need to read obituaries. I think you need to spend some time every day thinking about people who aren’t here anymore and what they did when they were here. I strongly believe that if people thought about death a lot more, it would bring perspective, because it’s interesting: When you read obituaries, they’re not really about death — they are about life.” – Austin Kleon
Austin had the honor to write his aunt’s obituary last year. He said it was one of the most important pieces of writing he’s ever created. He believes there is always a nugget of truth or wisdom in obituaries that he can use in his creative process.
When it comes to accomplishing your dreams and running up against blockages, Austin says you really have to want it. It’s not something that can be willed. You have to want it more than the failure would hurt you.
“There’s two things: There’s the making and there’s the sharing. So the most important thing is to always be making. The most important thing is to be in love with the doing, with the verbs, with the actual acts—the practice.” – Austin Kleon
Austin knows a thing or two about practice. He has a daily blog where he writes thoughts, ideas, and scribbles. He notices that when he blogs every day, ideas come to him more quickly.
“The reason I blog every day is more for my benefit, personally, just to learn things. I have to make things. After I hit publish is when I realize what the piece is actually about. Then I scribble more notes, or have a follow-up post or decide if the post needs to become a book chapter. I didn’t start a blog because I had something to say. I started a blog to figure out what I had to say.” – Austin Kleon
Austin also believes that deadlines are imperative to staying creative and making things. He does the daily blog, and he also publishes a newsletter each week. So in the back of his mind, he has an editorial calendar always running, and when he comes across something interesting, he files it for later. It could be a big piece for the newsletter. This helps nudge him along.
He believes that if you want discipline, it isn’t that hard if you have real desire. But discipline without desire is very difficult. Deadlines are the only way to get anything done.
On the home page of Austin’s website, he introduces himself as a “writer who draws.” This started when he began drawing people’s books. He would draw them at readings and then put a quote underneath the drawing to show he was paying attention and then posted online tagging the author and the book. He met a lot of writers that way.
Austin believes that you’re always a fan first. It’s important to be inspired by other artists and writers and discover why you like and dislike things. In doing so, you discover that sometimes, when you find art you don’t like, it’s not that the art is bad: it’s just not for you.
Another really important part of the creative process is to know when to rest. According to Austin, rest is imperative to being able to put out good work.
“This is something as a culture I feel like we have completely lost track of: what it means to rest and to have time off, and how important sleep is to complete a lot of the activities that we do. Preseason and postseason are part of the work.” – Austin Kleon
He gave an example of how, when he practices piano, there always comes a point when he just feels done for the day. He hits a wall, and his playing gets worse. But then he sleeps on it and this magical thing happens when he goes back to the keys the next day, and he’s able to play whatever part of the song he might have been struggling with before.
When it comes to success at the end of the process, Austin believes that it’s usually not the stuff that’s closest to you that will take off with your audience. It’s the stuff that you created when you felt like you were just piddling around that they end up falling in love with. Sometimes, it’s just the energy that you put behind the work that people are going to connect with. Art has embodied energy that is released by the reader or the viewer. It can unlock people in a way nothing else can.
Wilson Mizner once said, “If you steal from one writer, it’s plagiarism, but if you steal from many writers, it’s research.” Austin thinks this is true when it comes to “stealing art,” or “Frankensteining” pieces together to transform them into something new that no one has seen before.
“Imitation is not flattery: It’s transformation that’s flattery. It’s about taking out of the gumbo pot, stewing up your own mix, and then adding back to it.” – Austin Kleon
Ultimately what unites the best art from the mediocre is the ability to engage with the audience. All New York Times Bestselling authors have one thing in common: They can get their audiences to turn the page. It’s this intimate connection with the work that creates a magical space for art to become transformational.
I always like to ask my guests to provide me with three of their personal truths at the end of our interviews. Here is what Austin shared with me:
I also asked Austin what his definition of greatness is — and I loved what he said:
“ Greatness to me is a sense of being — an expansive sense of being a part of something bigger than yourself. It’s building something beyond yourself and spreading your tentacles out in the world or creating your own world. Knowing you are a piece of a bigger whole is real greatness.” –Austin Kleon
I love this definition because that is exactly what I try to do here at the School of Greatness. All of the people I interview are amazing parts of a bigger picture that are here to inspire you to embark on your own path to greatness.
Guys, this interview is jam-packed with so many golden nuggets of creativity from my wonderful friend, Austin Kleon.
I want to acknowledge Austin for giving people permission to be more creative and put their work out into the world. He has created an incredible movement with his work, his newsletter, and his books.
If you enjoyed this episode, or if you know some creatives who want to put their work out into the world more, then make sure to copy and paste this link and send it to a few friends right now, or post on social media. Be sure to link any show notes to lewishowes.com/1123). Also, make sure to click subscribe on the School of Greatness on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. And check out Austin’s website and follow him on social media.
I hope Episode 1123 inspires you to improve your creative habits and routines, and that you will put more of your work out into the world.