#19 Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon (@AustinKleon) joined James Altucher to talk about creative mashups, scenius, and that “every job is a job.”

Austin has a number of projects, one of which is the book Show Your Work, which James says he reads “every single day.” Klein’s other book is Steal Like an Artist which came from this talk. His site is Austin Kleon.com.

Kleon’s on to talk about his book Steal Like an Artist and says that:

“The whole point in Steal Like an Artist is that you don’t shut yourself down to influence and try to be wholly original. You actually open up the gates and embrace influence.”

It was this quote from T.S. Elliot that inspirited Kleon to write the book, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Kleon also mentions the site Everything is a Remix as an influence. Take a peak if your are interested in digital media or want to hear where Stairway to Heaven originated.

While he was on tour promoting Steal Like an Artist, Kleon said he kept getting questions about how to promote yourself and Show Your Work began to form. It’s “an anti-self marketing book” he tells James.

Begin documenting your work, Kleon suggests, even at the beginning. “There’s a big gap when you’re starting out between what you love and what you’re producing.” You have to be gutsy enough to be vulnerable and still do the work though. Brian Koppelman said something similar in episode #98. For Koppelman, he had to learn how to fail in a new way (stand-up comedy) before he could finish writing Solitary Man. He went on to tell James that you need to find the right zone between vulnerability and being able to have your work ripped to shreds.

Kleon says that he gets his creative coffee in the mornings by reading the obituaries. “To get your obituary in a major newspaper,” he tells James, “means you did something with your life.” James asks for an example, and the one that comes to mind is Harold Ramis. Kleon mentions the same quote that James Manos (episode #39) did.

Kleon takes the understanding ones step further than Manos and says that not only did Ramis stand next to (that quote is at about 1:10 in the above video) the most talented person in the room – he also tried to be helpful to that person and form strategic partnerships.

These sorts of relationships hits on another idea that Kleon shares (and attributes to Brian Eno) having a scenius. Eno said that it’s not the lone genius at work. It’s a confluence of them:

“What really happened was that there was sometimes very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people – some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were – all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent. And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work.” – Brian Eno,

Kleon tells James, “You used to have to go somewhere geographically, now, what is the internet but one giant scenius waiting to happen.” Seth Godin (episode #86) said much the same thing, that a lot of our boundaries to good work or work with good people are gone.

Okay, so let’s say you want to find a scenius of writers/entrepreneurs/stay-at-home moms. How in the world do you do that? Kleon suggests you start out as a fan. Share the work those people are doing and interact with them. Understand how they work, what they do, and why. You could also form a mastermind per Jack Canfield’s (episode #90) advice. Lewis Howes (episode #88) would suggest a coach. Adam Carolla (episode #25) and Tom Shadyac (episode #15) would say to find people that bring out the best in you.

What other advice does Kleon have?

Step 1: Start

It’s going to be a small start, but the good news is that everyone starts small. Ryan Holiday’s (episode #18) email list was initially only to a few friends. Maria Popova’s (episode #89)Brain Pickings was to eight. Sam Shank (episode #78) started Hotel Tonight and had no orders for the first two weeks. Kleon adds to this chorus:

“A little drop in the bucket everyday and pretty soon you get a pail full of water.”

Step 2: Sustain

I don’t have time though. A familiar refrain, but James says we don’t need as much time as we think. “People think they need a situation that’s ideal, when in fact you just need a routine that allows you to do a little bit each day.” Davide Levien (episode #85) said that his short commute actually helped him write a book. Ditto for Amanda Palmer (episode #82) who wrote “limitations can expand rather shrink the creative flow.”

Step 3: Share

Sharing can be hard, so Kleon suggests maybe not to share your own work, but something good someone else has done that has inspired you. An example he gives is Sam Anderson’s tweets his favorite line of the day:

You can also share what you are learning. “People think that when they share their expertise, they’er gonna give away their whole game. I think the opposite is true, when you teach people what you know, you establish your expertise even more firmly. For me this is Shane Parrish, creator of Farnam Street.

When you start to share your own work, “people will tell you when it’s not polished” Kleon says. Brian Koppelman says, “I want my stuff ripped apart” by the best filmmakers. But you’ll have some jerks that will go past constructive criticism. For those people you’ll need to consider where they are coming from. The stoics had a handy way to go about this as William Irvine writes in A Guide to the Good Life.

“One particularly powerful sting-elimination strategy is to consider the source of an insult. If I respect the source, if I value his opinions, then his critical remarks shouldn’t upset me. Suppose, for example, that I am learning to play the banjo and that the person who is criticizing my playing is the skilled musician I have hired as my teacher. In this case, I am paying the person to criticize me. It would be utterly foolish, under these circumstances, for me to respond to his criticisms with hurt feelings. To the contrary, if I am serious about learning the banjo, I should thank him for criticizing me.”

Eventually you’ll need to get paid. This one is a bit tricky, says Kleon, because you want people to value your work but you also need to put food on the table. Amanda Palmer tells the story about a friend who ran a successful fundraising campaign, hit her goal, and then went off to make her record. Taking Palmer’s advice, she began to share the process with her fans. Then she went on vacation and felt odd about sharing a picture of her toes in the sand and a mai tai in her hand. Palmer’s suggestion is this, artists shouldn’t worry about asking for money, “as long as art is coming out the other side.” The people who feel that way are the ones you want to support you. Those are your fans.

To get fans you have to stick around. “We’re big fans of the overnight success story,” Kleon says, “it’s a really good marketing myth.” Jack Canfield told James, “success is something you do over time.” It’s been true for every single guest on the podcast, it takes time.

Then a moment of personal serendipity occurred while I was listening. These notes were posted in March of 2015, and our first book club/enhanced book reading is in April of 2015 and Kleon literally mentions that book!

Near the end of their interview, James compliments Kleon, noting he got out of cubicle prison and is doing what he loves, to which Kleon responds:

“Well, I want to push back a little about that do what you love thing. A lot of what I do is not what I love.”

It’s administrative work. It’s traveling. “Every job is a job” Kleon says. It’s not about finding your passion, it’s about getting good at something and enjoying something you are good at and taking control there. This is the fulcrum for this book.

Thanks for reading. If anything was observed but not noted, obtuse, or obstinate let me know, @mikedariano. Two final notes:

If you like The James Altucher podcast, check out the post Erik Bison did on some other podcasts you may enjoy.

If you want to build the idea muscle habit, I’ve created something that can help. It’s a pay-what-you-want, three week daily email to help you build your idea muscle.

46 thoughts on “#19 Austin Kleon”

  1. […] Austin Kleon noted this too. “There’s a big gap when you’re starting out between what you love and what you’re producing.” The only thing to do is get better. Apatow’s interviews began this way. “I want to do that,” Apatow thought, “how do I do that?” He didn’t know, so he started asking. That was the premise of interviewing comedians as a high schooler. He wanted to know how to do their job. […]


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