The other day I was listening to the “classic alternative” channel on SiriusXM. Message of Love by the Pretenders was on.
In the song, Chrissie Hynde sings:
“We are all of us in the gutter. But some of us are looking at the stars.”
Wait a minute … didn’t Oscar Wilde say that in the late 1800s?
Or how about when the late great Kurt Cobain sang:
“Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you.”
That’s a line from the 1961 novel Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
Yes, musicians steal lyrics. Perhaps the most honest admission of this fact comes from Wilco on a track from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot:
“There’s bourbon on the breath of the singer you love so much. He takes all his words from the books that you don’t read anyway.”
Guess what? Your next idea could come from the books that your competitors don’t read. That’s one way entrepreneurs “steal” ideas, and it goes way beyond books.
In this episode, you’ll discover how to increase your creativity the smart way. You’ll hear how entrepreneurs ranging from Henry Ford to Steve Jobs achieved immense innovation by borrowing ideas from others … and being quite candid about it.
Listen in for my conversation with Austin Kleon, New York Times bestselling author of Steal Like and Artist and Show Your Work. Once you understand how “stealing” actually works, your next great idea will be ready for you to find.
Note: This is replay of one of the most popular episodes from Unemployable Season Two. Enjoy!
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The Show Notes
Steal Like an Entrepreneur, With Austin Kleon
Austin Kleon: My name is Austin Kleon. I make art with words and I write books with pictures, and I’m definitely unemployable.
Voiceover: Welcome to Unemployable, the show for people who can get a job, they’re just not inclined to take one, and that’s putting it gently. In addition to this podcast, thousands of freelancers and entrepreneurs get actionable advice and other valuable resources from the weekly Unemployable email newsletter. Join us by registering for our free Profit Pillars course, or choose to sign up for the newsletter only at no charge. Simply head over to Unemployable.com and take your business and lifestyle to the next level. That’s Unemployable.com.
Brian Clark: Hey, everyone, welcome to Unemployable on the Rainmaker.FM podcast network. I’m your host, Brian Clark, founder and CEO of Rainmaker Digital. The other day I was listening to 1st Wave, that’s the classic alternative channel on Sirius XM. The song “Message of Love” by the Pretenders was on. In the song, Chrissie Hynde sings, “We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Now, wait a minute, didn’t Oscar Wilde say that in the late 1800s? Or how about when the late, great Kurt Cobain sang, “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you”? That’s a line from the 1961 novel Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Yes, musicians steal lyrics. Perhaps the most honest admission of this fact comes from Wilco on a track from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: “There’s bourbon on the breath of the singer you love so much. He takes all his words from the books that you don’t read anyway.”
Guess what? Your next idea could come from the books that your competitors don’t read. That’s one way entrepreneurs steal ideas, and it goes way beyond books. In this episode, you’ll discover how to increase your creativity the smart way. You’ll hear how entrepreneurs ranging from Henry Ford to Steve Jobs achieved immense innovation by borrowing ideas from others — and they were quite candid about it. Today we’re talking with Austin Kleon, New York Times best-selling author of Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work! Once you understand how stealing actually works, your next great idea will be ready for you to find. Austin, so glad to have you on the show. How are things, coincidentally, in the town you live in, which is also Austin?
Austin Kleon: It’s great. It’s too hot, too soon, but that’s the way things go down here.
Brian Clark: Yeah. You know I love Austin, but I just had to move north. It’s just a little too warm, especially in the summer. It’s already kicking in and we’re just starting April.
Austin Kleon: That’s right. But I’m from Ohio and my wife’s from Cleveland, so it’s like, “You want six months of winter or six months of summer?” It’s a tough trade, but I think I’ve flipped to the summer now.
Brian Clark: Yeah, sounds like it. All right, today we are talking about creativity, a subject you are well-versed in with your New York Times best-selling book, Steal Like An Artist. We’re going to talk a little bit today about how ambitious freelancers who want to take it to the next level, creative entrepreneurs who are leveraging their talent to build products or whatever in order to build the business that they want … Everyone gets stuck from time to time, so I want to talk about how to steal like an entrepreneur. Are you ready?
Austin Kleon: I like that, yeah.
The Value of Theft
Brian Clark: Okay, cool. First and foremost, I guess — and I know you get this all the time — let’s talk about the word “steal.” What are we really talking about here?
Austin Kleon: Right, people will always say, “Oh, Austin. Why do you have to use the word ‘steal’? Why can’t it be, ‘be influenced like an artist’?” And I always tell them, “Well, I use the word steal because I’m not very original.” That’s the word that kept popping up to me about a half-decade ago when I was really starting to look into this idea and I was collecting all these quotes from artists and business people that I really respected. They all used that term — either stealing or theft or some form of it. You’ve got Steve Jobs saying, “We’ve always been shameless about stealing good ideas.” You’ve got Picasso saying, “Art is theft.” You’ve got the late, great David Bowie saying, “Am I original? No. I’m more like a shameless thief.” I just latched on to that term.
But really, people hear the “steal” part and they forget the “like an artist” part. Steal Like An Artist is not about stealing or copying ideas wholesale. What Steal Like An Artist is about is stealing little bits and pieces from a wide and varied bank of influences and taking that all back to your desk and mashing it all up into something new.
You hear that term “imitation is flattery” all the time. I’ve always said, “It’s not imitation that’s flattery, it’s transformation that’s flattery. It’s taking those things that influenced you, those bits and pieces that you’ve stolen from other people, and turning it into something new. Something of your own.” Really, Steal Like An Artist is just a book about how to be intentional with your influences, because we’re being influenced all the time. Steal Like An Artist is more about how to go out and actually get influence instead of being passive.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I think this comes from a common misconception that creativity is something that comes from some place within you while you’re staring out the window. But in my experience — and I’ve been preaching this for years — it comes from the intersection of seemingly unrelated ideas, for me. Those ideas are already out there, you’re not inventing them. And your advice to always be reading — I recently went through a spell where I was so busy I wasn’t reading, and I’m like, “Why is my creativity seemingly drying up? Oh, I get it. No new ideas.”
Austin Kleon: Yeah, art is made out of art. Business comes from business. Brian Eno, the music producer and the non-musician, as he calls himself —
Brian Clark: Eno’s great, man.
Why It Pays to Cross-Pollinate Between Fields
Austin Kleon: Yeah. He has this theory, the way he talks about it is import/export. He talks about how a great deal of his process is research. A lot of it is about taking ideas from one field and importing them, and then exporting them into whatever field he’s working on at the time. So he’ll take an idea from art and turn it into music. He’ll take an idea from music and put it into art. I think he really nailed it. It’s about taking ideas from diverse places and putting them in different contexts. That’s one way to really get … Think about this. This is pretty traditional if you talk about Hollywood. I think Alien was pitched as “Jaws in space.” Taking that idea and putting it in a new context, that’s immediately that new combination, you have something new out of it.
Brian Clark: Yeah. I love the story — and I use this example a lot — how Henry Ford revolutionized the car industry with the assembly line, which he got from a Chicago meat-packing plant.
Austin Kleon: Right.
Brian Clark: The printing press was inspired by the grape press for making wine. I find also, that it’s not just reading business books that gives me business ideas. A lot of times it’s random stuff, like movies, fiction — something kind of out there. You get that spark of intersection. I don’t know how else to put it.
Austin Kleon: No, that’s a really important point. I think that you really need to be promiscuous with your reading. You were asking me about Austin, earlier. People are always asking me, “Ooh, what’s the art scene down there like?” Or, “What’s the literature scene like?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, because I don’t hang out with other artists and writers down here.” The people I like to hang out with are — I have a lot of designer friends, and then I have a lot of, strangely, filmmaking friends.
Yesterday I was going out — to mention another Bryan, my friend Bryan Poyser, who’s a director and a filmmaker guy in town. I was talking to him about film and how film is … Now, I don’t know anything about film. But I do now, from being friends with him and by osmosis in our conversations — I’ll take little ideas from things he’s dealing with that are super obvious to filmmakers that might not be obvious to a writer. That cross-pollination, I guess, of taking one field and using ideas from that in another. That’s another easy way to get new ideas.
Brian Clark: Cool. That’s great. I want to talk to you a little bit about the concept of emulation that you talk about in the book, where maybe we look to another entrepreneur who we want to be like and yet we’re not imitating. It’s a different concept. You had this great quote, it says, “You don’t have to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.” Tell us what you mean about that.
What It Means to “See like Your Heroes”
Austin Kleon: What you really want, is you want to internalize the thinking behind your favorite work. That’s about putting the work in context. Let’s go back filmmaking. Say you’re a filmmaker and you see this movie that you just adore. You see a Hitchcock movie and you’re floored by it or something. You could look at the style and say, “Oh, I’m going to steal that. I’m going to steal that.” But what is really helpful is to then investigate the people that made that film and what the context was, and how …
I’ll use a better example. I just read a big biography about Beethoven. You listen to Beethoven and … You could listen to music and steal a melody from it or a movement or something stylistic about it, or you could learn more about Beethoven and his context. You start realizing, “Oh, wait a minute, the orchestra was kind of a big deal back then. So of course he wrote symphonies, because they had these orchestras to play them.”
You might be sitting there, a musician in Austin, and you might think, “Okay, well if Beethoven lived in Austin now, what would he be making?” You know what I mean? It’s that switching your — thinking about art in context and artists in context, or business people in context. Thinking about the world in which that work was made and not just the individual or the individual piece. Does that make sense?
Brian Clark: Yeah, it totally does. True story: I’m sitting here listening to you and I just had a great idea and I almost let myself get distracted, which is the worst thing an interviewer can do. So I just filed it away for a second. But that was so ironic to me, because I’m like, “Wow, it’s happening right now.”
Austin Kleon: It’s happening right now. Well the great thing about podcasting is you can say, “Stop! I’ve got to take a note.”
Brian Clark: Jot this down. No, I’ve got a good memory, I’m not that old yet.
Austin Kleon: That’s good. I have a terrible … I think it’s funny because a lot of people ask me about notebooks. I’m kind of known for being a notebook advocate.
Brian Clark: Yeah, exactly, on Twitter. I love it. You’re one of the most prolific people in my Twitter stream, I must say. You and William Gibson keep me completely entertained all the time, so thank you for that.
Austin Kleon: Well, thank you. I’m sure my prolific Twitter output is probably not a good thing, but I’m happy to entertain people.
Brian Clark: No, it’s all good stuff. It makes you think, but it’s also entertaining.
Austin Kleon: It’s interesting. Twitter, for me, is really a public notebook. I like Twitter because I can have idea and scribble it down in public. I like seeing how people react to it, and then I’ll do something with it later. This is something that was a big point in my book Show Your Work! The strange thing is that by sharing ideas when they’re young, people will help you with it. One of the things I’ve noticed about being online is some of my favorite experiences online were times where I was wrong. I was kind of stupid, like I tweeted something stupid. We’re so worried about being dumb online. Someone’s like, “Oh, he’s an idiot.”
Brian Clark: I’ve got that down to an art with my occasional Tweet rampages.
Austin Kleon: But some of the times that I was actually wrong … We talk about failure all the time, that’s a big thing in the entrepreneurial space. “Oh, we’ve got to fail.” But it really is true for me. Some of the times I’ve been stupid or I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth, those were the times where I really learned something. Especially if I was willing to listen to people who were telling me I was stupid and how I was stupid. You know what I mean? It’s weird how the internet can be this very hostile place right now, and you certainly can — being wrong can be disastrous in certain ways. Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed really blew my mind about what it’s like to be online and to have things go bad very quickly. Sorry, I feel like I’m rambling, but it is …
Brian Clark: No, mistakes are great teachers, if you’re open to learning from them.
Austin Kleon: Exactly.
Brian Clark: I just feel that people aren’t really internalizing the advice that failure has an upside. I don’t try to fail, but if I do, I figure out why and try not to do that again.
Staying Curious and Paying Attention to Your Life
Austin Kleon: I also think it’s a curiosity thing. When people send me stuff to look up, I always look it up. I think I was one of the only students in college where, when my professors — I used to go to office hours all the time. In some ways, that was the best part of college for me. I thought, “Man, these people are just sitting there. When I’m paying for a class there’s like 20 other people. But if I go to office hours, it’s just me and them, one on one.”
I think a lot of my education in college came from those office hours. I would go to office hours and people would mention books and I would write them down. And I would actually go read them. But that’s my personality. I’m interested and I hunt things down. I think so many people are — if they’re not curious, they’re lazy. People won’t even Google things. They won’t even bother.
Brian Clark: I know, like when they ask you the question on Twitter. “Hey, Google’s faster than I am.”
Austin Kleon: Totally, right? Once in a while, I’ll open my — I haven’t done this in a while because it’s a real pain in the ass, but if I ever do an open Q&A or open office hours, my only request is, “Ask me questions you can’t Google.”
Brian Clark: Yeah, absolutely. You make such a good point about curiosity, because there’s actually a test that you can take that rates your level of curiosity. If you score low on it, it’s not that you can’t fix it, but do you think some people are more innately curious than others?
Austin Kleon: I think it’s something that you can cultivate, actually. I’ll get really personal. I was at the doctor today and the first thing the doctor asked me was, “What are you reading?” because I had a book. He didn’t have to ask me that. It might have just been him being nice or just making small talk, but we immediately entered into a conversation. I think he learned something and I learned something. But it was literally just because he was looking and he was like, “Huh. Here’s a young guy with a book in my office. Wonder what he’s reading?” That was such a simple interaction. But how often, when you’re out in the world, do people just not wonder about stuff? They just take things for granted.
Brian Clark: I know, and it’s maddening.
Austin Kleon: It really is. I’ve had my ideas about what art is for changed a lot in the past couple of years, and the thing I’ve really come around to is that really good art or really good music or really good writing — it makes you pay attention more to the world. That’s it. It’s about paying attention to your life. I think the really good art makes you feel alive. And in feeling more alive, your senses are heightened. But I really think it’s a matter of paying attention.
I think that there’s a lot of stuff in the world that people don’t want you to pay attention. I just got done buying and selling a house. No one reads paperwork — something simple like that. My wife and I are combing through spreadsheets and documents and stuff, and we that realize no one pays attention to anything. That’s a pretty specific example, but it’s like, “How much attention are you paying to your world? Because that’s where all your ideas are going to come from.”
Brian Clark: Absolutely, yeah.
Austin Kleon: How many business ideas are you missing out on because you’re not …
Brian Clark: Because you’re lost in your dream of the beach and the Ferrari. The benefits instead of the work. You’ve got to focus on the work.
Austin Kleon: Yeah, and how many business ideas do you see when you’re just going to the post office or something mundane? Out in San Francisco — from everything I hear — it sounds like the dream out there now is that you would just get on your Google bus and go to work and come home, and then you would just order food and it would be dropped off. It seems like people actively want to disengage with the mundane things in everyday life. I’m like, “Wait a minute. That’s what life is.” If you disconnect yourself from being out in the world, how are you ever going to get any decent ideas, if you’re just in your … ? You know what I mean? I just spent the morning doing errands, so it’s on my mind, just how many …
Brian Clark: I went through this, too. Again, the lack of reading was stifling me. The other thing was, I was trying to solve problems in my so-called ivory tower shut off from everyone. I ended up going halfway around the world to a conference, and the disruption of my routine and the interaction with all these people just set everything on fire. I’m saying, “Hey dummy. What did you think you were going to do alone in the office when you’re looking for a new idea?” But there you go, it happens. You just have to recognize and then reboot.
Austin Kleon: I think, as a writer, I’m in the position now where I have what everyone dreams of. Which is, I wake up in the morning, I hang out with my kids, go on that walk with my wife, and then I go out the office for the rest of the day. But it’s always on days when I’m doing something like dumb errands or something — that’s always the day I get an idea. Because I’m out of my space and I’m seeing something new. You’re awoken for the week. Really paying attention to your life. Being in the moment and giving what you’re doing your utmost attention.
I think the whole multi-tasking thing, you just see people on their phones … I’ve thought a lot about it in terms of parenting lately. The number one way to make yourself miserable as a parent is to be on your phone all the time. That’s something I’ve noticed. You’re so sick of your kids so many times. You’re like, “I’ll just get on the phone and get on Twitter and I’ll go somewhere else. Take me somewhere else.” But it’s never worth it, for me. They’ll interrupt me somehow and then I’ll bark at them. But if I just give myself away to parenting, if I just say, “Hey, it’s the hour before bedtime. Let me give it everything I’ve got,” then interesting things happen. We talk and we’ll draw together or play music.
I get ideas doing that. When you’re focused and you’re in that zone — when you’re in that flow state that Csikszentmihalyi talks about and when you’re focused on one thing, there’s something about that that’s really powerful. I just think we’re in this day and age where everybody’s looking at their stupid BlackBerry all the time and checking their email.
Dancing Between the Digital and Analog Approach to Creativity
Brian Clark: Yeah, I know, I get it. You mentioned notebooks, and then you contrast, of course, with our digital addictions. The interesting thing to me — at least this used to be the case, I guess it still is, I don’t know — you have an analog desk and a digital desk, is that right?
Austin Kleon: Yeah. This is something that I came up with about a half-decade ago. I realized that, for me personally, a lot of the really good ideas come from using my hands. From either writing freehand, doodling, drawing, making a piece of art, or collaging — something. So I decided that I was going to have two zones. I was going to have an analog zone, which is just a desk with pens, paper, scissors — like a little art room cubby or something you’d set up for kids, like a craft table. I was going to have one zone just for analog stuff, and then I was going to have another desk that had my computer and my scanner and my phone and all that stuff on there.
I think when you have a dedicated space in which you have unconnected thinking time, really good things happen. So when I go to the analog desk, there’s something about walking over there and sitting down and starting to use my hands and scribbling and cutting stuff up — it invites the type of thinking … I think it’s like a muscle memory thing, or some sort of Pavlovian response where it’s like, “Okay. I’m here now. Let the ideas come.” And then, when I get an idea or I’m ready to do something with an idea, I go over to the digital desk and edit or Photoshop stuff or type stuff up. There’s something about doing that dance in between the analog and the digital that’s been really powerful for me.
Brian Clark: Yeah. I think I’m going to try that, actually. My office has a desk with all the computers on it, and then there’s a desk behind me that doesn’t. I’m going to try to start journaling. I have the worst handwriting in the world. It annoys me so much that I don’t want to do it, but I’m just going to bite through that and do some other analog stuff. I’ve been digital for so long, I’m sick of it.
Austin Kleon: Cool. Yeah. I just put out a Steal Like An Artist journal last year, and they sent me on a little book tour — my publisher. I really didn’t want to go on a huge book tour for a little notebook. But I gave a talk, and the whole talk was about how people had used paper notebooks for like 500, 600 years or whatever, and what it was about a paper notebook. We were talking about mistakes earlier, and basically what I came around to is, “A notebook is a great place to have bad ideas.” Everyone knows that if you’re going to have good ideas, you have to have a lot of bad ideas first. So a notebook is a great place to get all your rotten garbage thoughts down on paper and move them away so that the good stuff can shine through.
I also think there’s something about writing. There’s something about handwriting. It activates different parts of the brain, I think, than typing does. My friend Clive Thompson gave a really good talk recently about when you should write by hand and when you should use a typewriter or a keyboard — obviously a keyboard nowadays. Clive’s research showed him that writing by hand is the good thing to do when you’re either taking notes or you’re trying to come up with new ideas.
If you’re sitting and you’re listening to a lecture, or you’re trying to synthesize some ideas for your project, that’s the time to use handwriting or writing by hand. And then the keyboard is when you have something to say, basically, that you’re executing. You’ve got your thoughts and you need to get them down and get them down quickly. Then you go to the keyboard. That was what his research showed, and that’s certainly true for me. I’ll doodle and scribble and stuff until I know where I’m headed. And then I’ll switch over to the computer and start typing. That’s what happens with the books.
Brian Clark: Yeah, that’s interesting. And you’re right about handwriting and physical activity lighting up different parts of the brain. That’s interesting about the different split between execute in digital and ideate in analog.
Austin Kleon: Yeah, in analog. It’s something I’m playing with. But you’ll see that in a company setting. Everybody will sit around a table and write ideas on post-its and push them around. I think that not having one-size-fits-all solutions and thinking of the creative process as a multi-step thing is really helpful for people. Because I think a lot of people think, “I’ll just sit down at the computer and bang this out.” But knowing that there are different phases of the creative process and that there are different activities that you might want to do at different times in the process — that’s a really good step to make.
For example, if I am working on a piece, it starts in the notebook with a bunch of notes and scribbles. Then maybe some post-its or index cards. And then I sit down at the computer and try to bang out a draft. Then it’s like, “Okay, let me print this off and stick in the drawer for a day and then come back to it.” I love editing by hand, on a piece of paper. Then reading it out loud or getting my wife to listen to it. And then going back to the keyboard. But knowing that writing is this multi-step process — or it should be — that’s really powerful. But I also think — and I’m sure you feel this way as someone who’s a digital blog-type dude — it’s so easy to just sit down, pound it out, try to get it perfect, and then post.
Brian Clark: I’ve never really worked that way. The people who just sit down and bang out a post — I just never felt … Number one, that’s not my style. Now, I don’t necessarily map things out in analog, but I definitely — I actually write in my head, to a large degree. It’s more formed when I sit down to write than you might expect, but I don’t think that’s normal.
Austin Kleon: No, I do that too. For all my talk of not knowing where you’re going and hammering it out on the page, I do a lot of getting at least the general structure of the piece — I’ll figure it out in my head and then I’ll sit down. It’s kind of rare that … It depends on what kind of writing you’re doing, too. I think probably the type of writing we’re doing, you need to know what the point is and where you’re going when you sit down. Whereas, if you were writing a short story or a novel or a piece of poetry or something, it might be different. And that’s another thing for people to remember, is different modes, different things, require different processes.
Creativity as Subtraction
Brian Clark: Yeah. Talk to us about creativity as subtraction.
Austin Kleon: Yeah. There’s a couple of ways to think about it. Jack White, the singer-songwriter and great guitar player, former member of the White Stripes.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I saw him live at Red Rocks in the rain, it was so epic.
Austin Kleon: Oh, he’s great. He’s really good. But anyway, one of the things that Jack White says is, “People think that if they just had unlimited time and materials and money, that they would do something great, and it’s not about that at all. It’s about doing what you can with what’s at hand.” Jack White’s the perfect example. What he’s made out of limitations is so great. The White Stripes is like voice, guitar, drums. And then we’re only going to use the colors red, white, and black. Those constraints.
Brian Clark: Yeah, constraints. That’s the key word.
Austin Kleon: That’s the key word.
Brian Clark: As a bootstrapped entrepreneur who built a company out of a blog, we love constraints. I’m almost afraid of what would happen if I did have a war chest of money or whatever, because I think that you start spending the money. That’s not creative, necessarily.
Austin Kleon: Oh, absolutely. It’s the Fleetwood-Mac-after-Rumors-type thing. Tusk is kind of amazing, and I love Tusk, but what happens when you have millions of dollars to spend on your album? You end up doing a bunch of cocaine.
Brian Clark: Follow-up disaster.
Austin Kleon: Yeah, I think what’s interesting is — and I’ve been thinking about this a lot as someone who’s had a couple of best-sellers — what artists do with their success and what businesses do with their success is almost as interesting as what they do with failure. Because what they choose to do when they could do anything is really telling. How they choose to operate when everything’s going good and they do have resources again, that almost tells you more about the artist or the entrepreneur than if they’re really down on their luck. You know what I mean?
Brian Clark: Yeah, that’s an interesting concept. I think that’s true. And I’ve seen many a person go to ruin when they hit it big because they lose sight of what got them there in the first place. And they’re just shocked when it all goes away.
Austin Kleon: Oh my god. I’ve watched people get book deals based on stuff they do online, and then when they sit down to do their book they’re like, “Oh wait, I have to be a serious writer now. I have to push aside certain things.” It’s so sad, because the very thing that brought everyone to the show gets pushed aside in the hopes of being professional, I guess. That’s happened to me. I’ve gone through a process. When I started out, I was a guy with a day job that had this blog. And whatever was interesting to me, that’s what I wrote about. That’s what I shared, and people showed up because of that.
I have different feelings about the word “authenticity,” but I was sticking to my interests and I wasn’t worrying too much about audience or what other people cared about. Then, once an audience shows up, there’s this real temptation to pander. There’s also a temptation to say, “Well, this is what they want from me, I guess I’ll just give it to them.”
Brian Clark: Yeah, It’s an interesting dilemma. Of course, people respond to things that are attractive to them, whether you’re trying to be attractive to them or whether you’re not. But it doesn’t really matter. Like, for example, I know that certain people have problems and I can deliver value to them by helping them fix it. And yet there’s a million different ways I could make money from doing that, and I say no to almost all of them. I’m like, “I’m not doing that!”
Resisting the Pressure to Monetize Everything
Austin Kleon: Yeah. Man, this is such a good — I’m really glad you brought this up, because I was actually going to sit down today and write a piece called “Not for Sale.” I’ve been thinking about that phrase, “not for sale.” You don’t hear that very often. It’s like everything’s for sale. Like, “How much?” And it’s not for sale.
I’ve been thinking lately about … Say a friend gave me a bracelet for Christmas and she was like, “I made this for you,” and I was like, “You made this?” She said, “Yeah, I made that for you. I make it at night when I’m watching TV or whatever. I made you this. Here it is.” And what’s the first thing people say now, in those exchanges? It’s always like, “You should start an Etsy store.”
Brian Clark: Yeah. Not everything’s a business.
Austin Kleon: Yeah, and there’s this push to monetize everything. If it’s not being monetized then what good is it? I think that as an entrepreneur or as a business person, people use that phrase “leaving money on the table.” It’s like, “Yes, you’re going to.” Because if you don’t … You have to be okay with that. It’s really about what your goals are and what your values are.
I think people almost are disgusted when you aren’t maximizing profits. I’m not selling any fine art prints right now. I should be selling art prints, I guess, because people would buy them. But I’m also at this point in my life where I don’t really want to hire an assistant and my wife’s really busy with the kids — she’s the one that’s really good with the print stuff — so I don’t have prints for sale. I don’t necessarily need the money right now. But I think people are like, “What’s wrong with you?”
Brian Clark: Yeah, it’s interesting. I started this curated personal development newsletter. I am no way an authority on it. I’m literally sharing what I’m reading as a newsletter. It’s not about building me up like Tony Robbins or something. But people are like, “How come you’re not making money with that?” I’m like, “Because I’m doing it for a different reason.” I know you’re a big fan of side projects. They don’t always have to be money-makers.
Austin Kleon: No. That’s kind of how I feel about … I’m really fascinated by newsletters. The best newsletters right now — like what you just described — it feels a lot to me like blogging felt around 2006, maybe. People have this zone now where they’re getting funky a little bit. I don’t know. I know some people are just starting newsletters and they’re like, “Yeah, whatever. We’ll push our product,” or whatever.
But my newsletter is the most fun I have during the week. It’s a really simple format, just like my books: 10 things nobody told you about whatever. I was like, “Okay, well, every week I’m going to send out 10 things I think are worth sharing.” And that’s the only structure. It can be anything I want, as long as I think it’s interesting. In some ways, it’s a money-loser, because — god, I’m paying MailChimp how much a month to send this out to 30,000 people? On the other hand, it’s a spectacular marketing device, because when I do have something for sale …
Brian Clark: Right. You just have to mention it and everyone’s going for it.
Austin Kleon: Yeah, but it’s fun. I’m enjoying it. And the reason it’s going well and it’s successful is I think that people can tell I’m having fun.
Brian Clark: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Art of Charm podcast. It’s like a top 50 iTunes podcast, really big. Jordan is the host and founder of that. He gave the same exact advice about podcasting. He’s like, “If you don’t love it, and if you wouldn’t just do it if no one listened, you’re not going to make it.”
Austin Kleon: Totally.
The Freedom of Entrepreneurship
Brian Clark: This is what we’re forgetting, and I hope people take this away, that passion is a part of entrepreneurism. Freedom is a part of entrepreneurism. It’s not just money.
Austin Kleon: Freedom is really the word that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. As someone who works from home now who’s a kind of artist, entrepreneur person, I guess — I run my own business, so I guess I’m an entrepreneur in some ways. It’s like, “What is this for, if not freedom?” My wife and I will take the kids to the museum on a Tuesday morning because we can. That’s freedom, man. We go for a five-mile walk every morning because it’s freedom. I don’t schedule … We have a CreativeMornings here in Austin, and I never go to it because it’s during my morning walk. I don’t take meetings, I don’t schedule appointments before 11:00, because I’ve got to have my morning. You know what I mean? That’s the freedom I’m taking.
Brian Clark: That’s a theme that we go over in this show all the time. Freedom. Do what you want, not what you should. Don’t let someone else … We talk about emulation. Well, don’t emulate someone who loves or is driven by some childhood travesty to work 18 hours a day to prove something that’s never going to get proven.
Austin Kleon: Oh, that is so important. That is something that everyone should take to heart. Don’t take advice or don’t take the example of someone you wouldn’t want to switch places with.
Brian Clark: You have to watch against that, because sometimes you slip. Your ambition gets the best of you. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, but is it what you really want to do next or is it because you think you need to be this person next?
Austin Kleon: Well Seth Godin, who you’ve had on — I remember sitting down with Seth when I was working on Show Your Work! and Seth said, “You know, are you …” Seth’s got that great voice. “Austin? Are you writing another book because you have something to say or because your agent wants you to?” I stopped and I thought, “Well, I’m writing another book because I’m not Seth Godin yet.” But Seth had a great question. Why are you doing this? Why are you writing this book?
Brian Clark: He has an annoying way of doing that. He does that to me all the time, and I’m just like, “Dammit Seth!”
Austin Kleon: Seth has a good way of cutting to the heart of something.
Brian Clark: I know. Even when you’re not ready to hear it.
Austin Kleon: Yeah. Whenever I’m working with my publisher or my agent, I truly think that they have my best interests in mind. That they want to see me do good work, they want to be involved, and they want me to move forward but there’s also things that we are not going to always agree on. I’m on my Jesus year, I’m going to be 33 this year, which I think is super young. Part of my development has been understanding that I’m in charge. I’m the one in charge.
I think becoming a dad was a big thing for me. Not to get too Freudian — I love my dad and we’ve always gotten along — but I feel like throughout my young life I was always looking for these father figures. I was always looking for these dudes who would knight me. “Oh, kid. You’re in the club now. Here,” and puts the sword on each shoulder. “You’re in the club. We’ve knighted you.” Take me under your wing and teach me the ropes. I think when I became a dad I suddenly realized, “I’m the dad now. I don’t need a dad, because I am the dad.” There was something about that, in terms of business, when it comes to my business that’s like, “I’m running the ******* show here! It’s me!”
Brian Clark: Yeah, that’s interesting. I’m going to tell you this. I’m going to totally inflate your ego to end this episode. I was talking to Tony Clark, no relation, he’s my Chief Operating Officer and we’ve been partners forever. He has teenage daughters who worship you. They have your notebook and your books and everything. And this is what’s funny, because they’re like, “It’s so cool that you guys know him,” and I’m like, “Wait, what about us?” No, we’re just dads to them.
Austin Kleon: Oh my god.
Brian Clark: Isn’t that great? And we get that all the time. “You know Austin Kleon?” I’m like, “Oh god.”
Austin Kleon: So funny. Tell them I said hi.
Brian Clark: Oh, they’re going to love it.
Austin Kleon: Yeah, I would just like to say to any young entrepreneurs who are listening, “This **** is scary.” That’s a scary move. When you make that move that like, “Wait, I am in charge. I am in charge. I am my boss.” That is frightening. Because then it’s on you, the responsibility you take on then. But it’s what you have to do to move forward.
Brian Clark: Yeah, it’s absolutely the truth. Austin, thank you so much for your time, man. This has been a great conversation. I got at least one great idea out of it, which I’m going to go write down in a second.
Austin Kleon: Nice.
Brian Clark: But tell us what’s next. Not committed to the next book, not sure, or got an idea?
Austin Kleon: My wife and I really want to do a book together. She is really into architecture and I’m really into creativity, so I’ll let you connect the dots on that book.
Brian Clark: Interesting, yeah.
Austin Kleon: We’ve been raising these kids. She quit her PhD program to be a stay-at-home mom, but she’s really itching to use her brain again in different ways, so we’re trying to figure out how we can collaborate. We’re cooking up a book idea right now, and I hope that works.
Brian Clark: That’s either going to be spectacular or result in a divorce.
Austin Kleon: Exactly.
Brian Clark: Just make sure to monitor how that’s going.
Austin Kleon: No reward without risk, right?
Brian Clark: Exactly. You’re playing dangerously, my man.
Austin Kleon: It’s like my marriage counselor in two years. But no, we’re in the exploratory phase. This is, in some ways, the most scary part of the creative process, when you don’t know what the next project is. There’s also the temptation where you could just be busy. You could just stay busy all the time. Keep taking talks, keep doing speeches, do a little — maybe an online course or something. You could constantly recycle what you’ve already done into different things without really thinking about that next thing. I remember, I think it was Apple — I think it might have been Steve Jobs — at some point was making all their money off of products that didn’t exist three years ago. At some point with the iPhone, they were making all of their profits based on things that didn’t exist.
Brian Clark: Yeah, that was the iPhone and the iPad. Which actually is a great way to come full-circle here. The iPod wasn’t revolutionary, it was a better Walkman. The iPhone, even, wasn’t the first smartphone. It just was the best smartphone.
Austin Kleon: Right, yeah.
Brian Clark: It’s just interesting.
Austin Kleon: But you have to have R&D time, even if you’re an artist. Especially if you’re an artist. If you get in a position of success where things are working for you, it’s very easy to just continue with that model, but you also have to be coming up with the next new thing that will push you forward and will push your career forward. My wife likes to remind me that my editor and my agent, “They’ve never seen you do something truly new for you before.” And I have. We’ve been together for like 12 years or something. It’s interesting how you really have to have the courage to push yourself into that unknown zone so you can be doing the thing you’re going to be doing five years from now, or two years from now.
Brian Clark: Yeah. Awesome. Austin, thanks man, I really appreciate your time. I kept you over, but it was too good. It was too good. So hopefully you don’t have anything to run to or anything.
Austin Kleon: Thank you, Brian. No, it’s great. All I have is a house full of kids.
Brian Clark: The freedom that comes with a house full of kids.
Austin Kleon: Yeah, so out in the garage is my happy place.
Brian Clark: Cool. All right, everyone, I hope you got a lot out of this episode. I did. I’ve got an idea to go write down, so we’re going to cut it off here. Tune in next week, we’ll have more great interviews. We’ll cook up some other good advice for you. But in the meantime, keep going with what you’re doing.