Steal Like an Artist


“Art is theft.”—Pablo Picasso

“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. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn.”—T. S. Eliot

  • When people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.

1. Steal Like an Artist.

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How To Look At The World (Like An Artist)

  • Everything is up for grabs. If you don’t find something worth stealing today, you might find it worth stealing tomorrow or a month or a year from now.

“The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.”—David Bowie

Nothing Is Original

  • What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.
  • “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”

“What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.”—William Ralph Inge

The Genealogy Of Ideas

  • You are the sum of your influences.

“We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.” —Goethe

Garbage In, Garbage Out

“Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”—Jim Jarmusch

School Yourself

“Nothing is more important than an unread library.” — John Waters

“Whether I went to school or not, I would always study.”—RZA

Save Your Thefts For Later

  • Carry a notebook and a pen with you wherever you go. Get used to pulling it out and jotting down your thoughts and observations. Copy your favorite passages out of books. Record overheard conversations. Doodle when you’re on the phone.

“It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.”—Mark Twain

2. Don’t Wait Until You Know Who You Are to Get Started.

Make Things Know Thyself

  • It’s called “impostor syndrome.” The clinical definition is a “psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments.”

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

“You start out as a phony and become real.”—Glenn O’Brien

Start Copying

“Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self.”—Yohji Yamamoto

  • Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.

“If you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many, it’s research.” —Wilson Mizner

  • Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.

Imitation Is Not Flattery

“We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice. And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you.”—Francis Ford Coppola

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  • A wonderful flaw about human beings is that we’re incapable of making perfect copies. Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives. That is how we evolve.

“I have stolen all of these moves from all these great players. I just try to do them proud, the guys who came before, because I learned so much from them. It’s all in the name of the game. It’s a lot bigger than me.”—Kobe Bryant

3. Write the Book You Want to Read.

Write What You Know Like

“My interest in making music has been to create something that does not exist that I would like to listen to. I wanted to hear music that had not yet happened, by putting together things that suggested a new thing which did not yet exist.”—Brian Eno

  • The best advice is not to write what you know, it’s to write what you like.
  • The manifesto is this: Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use—do the work you want to see done.

4. Use Your Hands.

“We don’t know where we get our ideas from. What we do know is that we do not get them from our laptops.”—John Cleese

Step Away From The Screen

“I have stared long enough at the glowing flat rectangles of computer screens. Let us give more time for doing things in the real world . . . plant a plant, walk the dogs, read a real book, go to the opera.”—Edward Tufte

  • The computer is really good for editing your ideas, and it’s really good for getting your ideas ready for publishing out into the world, but it’s not really good for generating ideas. There are too many opportunities to hit the delete key. The computer brings out the uptight perfectionist in us—we start editing ideas before we have them.

5. Side Projects and Hobbies Are Important.

“The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.”—Jessica Hische

Practice Productive Procrastination

“Avoiding work is the way to focus my mind.” —Maira Kalman

  • Take time to mess around. Get lost. Wander. You never know where it’s going to lead you.

Don’t Throw Any Of Yourself Away

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.”—Steve Jobs

  • Tomlinson suggests that if you love different things, you just keep spending time with them. “Let them talk to each other. Something will begin to happen.”
  • It’s so important to have a hobby. A hobby is something creative that’s just for you. You don’t try to make money or get famous off it, you just do it because it makes you happy. A hobby is something that gives but doesn’t take.
  • Don’t worry about unity—what unifies your work is the fact that you made it. One day, you’ll look back and it will all make sense.

6. The Secret: Do Good Work and Share It with People.

In The Beginning, Obscurity Is Good

  • As the writer Steven Pressfield says, “It’s not that people are mean or cruel, they’re just busy.”This is actually a good thing, because you want attention only after you’re doing really good work. There’s no pressure when you’re unknown. You can do what you want. Experiment. Do things just for the fun of it. When you’re unknown, there’s nothing to distract you from getting better. No public image to manage. No huge paycheck on the line. No stockholders. No e-mails from your agent. No hangers-on. You’ll never get that freedom back again once people start paying you attention, and especially not once they start paying you money.

Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts. Use it.

The Not-So-Secret Formula

Do good work and share it with people.

“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”—Howard Aiken

7. Geography Is No Longer Our Master.

Build Your Own World

  • You don’t have to live anywhere other than the place you are to start connecting with the world you want to be in.

Leave Home

“Distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.”—Jonah Lehrer

  • Travel makes the world look new, and when the world looks new, our brains work harder.

8. Be Nice. (The World Is a Small Town.)

Make Friends, Ignore Enemies

  • There’s only one reason I’m here: I’m here to make friends.

“There’s only one rule I know of: You’ve got to be kind.”—Kurt Vonnegut

Stand Next To The Talent

  • “Find the most talented person in the room, and if it’s not you, go stand next to him. Hang out with him. Try to be helpful.”
  • If you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.

“Quit Picking Fights And Go Make Something”

  • So go on, get angry. But keep your mouth shut and go do your work.

“Complain about the way other people make software by making software.”—Andre Torrez

Validation Is For Parking

“Modern art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn’t.”—Craig Damrauer

Keep A Praise File

  • Life is a lonely business, often filled with discouragement and rejection.

9. Be Boring. (It’s the Only Way to Get Work Done.)

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”—Gustave Flaubert