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.

  • 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

  • The writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something “original,” nine out of ten times they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved.

  • 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.

  • If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.

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

  • Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas.

  • You are the sum of your influences.

  • Goethe said, “We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.”

“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 is one thing. Education is another. The two don’t always overlap. Whether you’re in school or not, it’s always your job to get yourself an education.

  • Google everything. I mean everything. Google your dreams, Google your problems. Don’t ask a question before you Google it. You’ll either find the answer or you’ll come up with a better question.

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

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

  • 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

  • It’s in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are.

  • You might be scared to start. That’s natural. There’s this very real thing that runs rampant in educated people. It’s called “impostor syndrome.”The clinical definition is a “psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments.”It means that you feel like a phony, like you’re just winging it, that you really don’t have any idea what you’re doing. Guess what: None of us do. Ask anybody doing truly creative work, and they’ll tell you the truth: They don’t know where the good stuff comes from. They just show up to do their thing. Every day.

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

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

  • Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying.

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

“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” — Salvador Dalí

  • Wilson Mizner said if you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many, it’s research.

  • 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.

“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

  • It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.

  • 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. So: Copy your heroes. Examine where you fall short. What’s in there that makes you different? That’s what you should amplify and transform into your own work.

“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

“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. Go make that stuff.

“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

“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.

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

  • One thing I’ve learned in my brief career: It’s the side projects that really take off. By side projects I mean the stuff that you thought was just messing around. Stuff that’s just play. That’s actually the good stuff. That’s when the magic happens.

  • I think it’s good to have a lot of projects going at once so you can bounce between them. When you get sick of one project, move over to another, and when you’re sick of that one, move back to the project you left. Practice productive procrastination.

  • Take time to be bored.

  • Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing. I get some of my best ideas when I’m bored, which is why I never take my shirts to the cleaners. I love ironing my shirts—it’s so boring, I almost always get good ideas. If you’re out of ideas, wash the dishes. Take a really long walk. Stare at a spot on the wall for as long as you can.

“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.

  • If you have two or three real passions, don’t feel like you have to pick and choose between them. Don’t discard. Keep all your passions in your life. This is something I learned from the playwright Steven Tomlinson.

“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.” The thing is, you can cut off a couple passions and only focus on one, but after a while, you’ll start to feel phantom limb pain.

  • 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 throw any of yourself away. Don’t worry about a grand scheme or unified vision for your work. 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.

  • 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.

  • If there was a secret formula for becoming known, I would give it to you. But there’s only one not-so-secret formula that I know: Do good work and share it with people. It’s a two-step process. Step one, “do good work,” is incredibly hard. There are no shortcuts. Make stuff every day. Know you’re going to suck for a while. Fail. Get better. Step two, “share it with people,” was really hard up until about ten years ago or so. Now, it’s very simple: “Put your stuff on the Internet.”

  • When you open up your process and invite people in, you learn.

  • You don’t put yourself online only because you have something to say—you can put yourself online to find something to say. The Internet can be more than just a resting place to publish your finished ideas—it can also be an incubator for ideas that aren’t fully formed, a birthing center for developing work that you haven’t started yet.

“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

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

“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

  • Your brain gets too comfortable in your everyday surroundings. You need to make it uncomfortable. You need to spend some time in another land, among people that do things differently than you. Travel makes the world look new, and when the world looks new, our brains work harder.

  • 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

“The only mofos in my circle are people that I can learn from.”—Questlove

  • 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.

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

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

  • Once you put your work into the world, you have no control over the way people will react to it. Ironically, really good work often appears to be effortless. People will say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”They won’t see the years of toil and sweat that went into it. Not everybody will get it. People will misinterpret you and what you do. They might even call you names. So get comfortable with being misunderstood, disparaged, or ignored—the trick is to be too busy doing your work to care.

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

  • Instead of keeping a rejection file, keep a praise file. Use it sparingly—don’t get lost in past glory—but keep it around for when you need the lift.

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

  • Establishing and keeping a routine can be even more important than having a lot of time.

  • Writing a page each day doesn’t seem like much, but do it for 365 days and you have enough to fill a novel.

  • Get a calendar. Fill the boxes. Don’t break the chain.

“She rescued me. I’d be playing in a steak house right now if it wasn’t for her. I wouldn’t even be playing in a steak house. I’d be cooking in a steak house.”—Tom Waits, on his wife and collaborator, Kathleen Brennan

  • Who you marry is the most important decision you’ll ever make. And “marry well” doesn’t just mean your life partner—it also means who you do business with, who you befriend, who you choose to be around.

  • The way to get over creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself. It seems contradictory, but when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom.

“Telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colors in the palette, anything you want—that just kills creativity.”—Jack White

  • It’s often what an artist chooses to leave out that makes the art interesting.

Subscribe to my weekly newsletter Sunday Summary