Ain't No Guru

Published in Collective Hub issue 14, July 2014.

TEXAN author AUSTIN KLEON calls his recent BESTSELLING books on CREATIVITY and self-promotion “the ROBIN HOOD series” – you STEAL, then you share.

After releasing two New York Times bestselling books and landing speaking gigs at SXSW, Creative Mornings, TEDx and numerous corporate events (including Pixar and Google), Austin Kleon’s career is in a dangerous place right now.

“It kills me every time I say this, but you can make a more lucrative living telling people how to be creative rather than being creative yourself,” says the self-described “writer who draws”.

“For me personally, the way to not fall into that guru trap is to just make more work.” That means no more public appearances for a few months and lots of time in his garage studio in Austin, Texas, where he is reading, writing, making art and researching his next book project.

‘Just make the work’ has been something of a mantra from the beginning. Austin’s first book, Newspaper Blackout, was a collection of poems he made as a creative exercise each day by blacking out text in sections of the newspaper with a marker to reveal a new story.

These irreverent, often poignant daily poems drew new fans to his already popular blog, which was essentially an online scrapbook of inspiration and works in progress. And when he posted a handlettered, 10-point manifesto on being creative that began with ‘1: Steal like an artist’, the post immediately went viral and invariably led to Austin’s second book.

“It’s a play off something T. S. Eliot said. He said that bad poets copy and great poets steal. The idea is that the way towards originality is not to turn your back on influence, but to embrace it and take little bits from all your favourite thinkers and from elements of your life, and mash them up into something new.”

“Nothing is original,” he says in the pages of Steal Like an Artist, a palm-sized handbook filled with short, pithy chapters, hand-drawn diagrams and choice quotations from everyone from classical authors to famous athletes.

“What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before,” he declares.

Even the idea that nothing is new is not a new idea itself. The well-worn adage, ‘There is nothing new under the sun’, comes from the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes, and the ancient Egyptians were said to have spoken something similar thousands of years earlier. Austin encourages readers to accept this rather than fight it, and instead trace the history of influence behind their favourite creators to find out what and who inspired their work.

And while sharing this message repeatedly on tour, audiences kept asking Austin the same question: How do I get discovered? His answer: to attract clients, customers and fans, simply share your process rather than advertise your products.

Austin first started thinking about this idea when he worked on the account for his favourite grocery store in his copywriting agency days.

“My wife and I were really big fans of the store,” he says.

“Every time we went there I was really struck by how great the store and the workers were. The expertise of the meat guy, the expertise of the fish lady, the way the guy bagged my groceries – I was struck by what the experience in the store was like.

“But when it came to do their advertising or run their online presence, I always felt like they had this different voice. I was begging them to let me interview the meat guy about what kind of rib eye you should pick, let me ask the bagger at the cash register what’s the best way to bag groceries – really show the behind-the-scenes.”

Too often his clients were resistant. “There’s this idea that you don’t want to show how the sausage gets made,” he says.

On the contrary, according to Austin, sharing your process can transform the way people view your business.

“When you let people behind the scenes, you’re telling them a particular story about what it is that you do and why they should value it.”

But ‘show your work’ doesn’t mean you should share everything, Austin warns. One of the biggest mistakes he sees people make is going overboard and sharing things they might regret later, or simply overloading their audience (refer to rule seven of his latest book Show Your Work! for people who hate self-promotion, which is ‘don’t turn into human spam’).

“The big thing I see is when people dive into showing their work, they just kind of go, ‘Okay, I’m going to show you everything about my process’,” he says.

“That’s cool, but you always have to think about the people on the other end and what they’re getting out of it. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of cropping or editing to make it digestible or interesting to other people.”

It’s also important to make sure to maintain a balance between sharing your work and doing your work, he says.

In order to manage the flow of incoming emails, the contact page on his website advises readers to pretend that he’s dead and search the site for answers rather than write to him with questions, and he holds regular ‘office hours’ where people can submit questions for a limited amount of time and he answers live on the blog. He also continues to show his work by posting research tidbits, book recommendations and glimpses into his working processes to his blog.

“It’s like an open filing cabinet,” he says.

It’s also a way to remind his audience that he’s not a guru.

“I try to be as clear as I can that I’m not an expert, that if there’s anything to be gained from my work, it’s that you’re watching a fellow student figure it out.”