Actionable Book Summary: Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon

The Book In Three Or More Sentences:

The book expands on the main idea from the famous Picasso quote, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Full of graphics and illustrations, this read by Austin Kleon showcases short insightful tips that will motivate you to start your own project and stay creative.

The Core Idea:

Steal ideas from others. Nothing is original. You don’t have to be a genius to create something. You simply need to steal great ideas from great people and put your own twist on it.


  • You’re free from the burden to be completely original. Nothing in the world is really new;
  • You don’t have to wait to become an expert to start making stuff. You can simply start;
  • True creativity is about subtraction and about adding constraints. You don’t need more to make something, actually, in most of the cases, you need less than you think;

Key Lessons from Steal Like an Artist:

Lesson #1: Every New Idea Is Just A Mashup Or A Remix Of One Or More Previous Ideas

There is a quote from the Bible that states: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Though it might sound depressing, is actually a liberating though.

Once you understand that nothing is completely original, you’ll feel a heavy burden lifted off your shoulders. This will mean that you too, can become a creative person. You simply need to find great resources that inspire you to do something great. Great resources to steal from.

I know what you’ll immediately think, “But this is plagiarism! This man is trying to put me in jail!” Hold your horses, amigo. This is not completely true.

There is simply a little twist. You just need to mix things up with other stuff. To make it your own. To make it better. The end result will be a remix of the original version. In most of the cases, the end product can even be better than the original.

A good example is genetics. You have a mother and you have a father. You possess features from both of them, but the sum of you is bigger than their parts. You’re a remix of your mom and dad and all of your ancestors.” Austin Kleon

Lesson #2: School is One Thing. Education is Another

Going to school and educating yourself are two completely different things. Simply graduating won’t get you far in life. You need to more informal education. And you need it on a daily basis.

There is a piece of new content published online every day. As a matter of fact, there are more than 1,000 articles published every hour. So, there is enough information about everything, you simply have to be curious. To be interested in the world in which you live.

The more you know, the more you’ll be able to create. Eventually, it will pay off.

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.” Austin Kleon

Lesson #3: Don’t Wait Until You Know Who You Are to Get Started

We’re often scared to start something on our own because we feel like we’re still not good enough. We don’t feel expert enough.

But most people aren’t experts. They’ve just been in the business long enough to know things – and that doesn’t really make them experts in the field.

The solution the author suggests in the book is simple: Start making things today and figure the other stuff as you go. Initially, you’ll be pretending, but over time and after enough trial and error you’ll know more than most of the people the specific topic you choose to pursue.

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

Lesson #4: There’s A Difference Between Good Theft and Bad Theft

We start copying what others do as soon as we’re born. We learn how to eat, how to drink, how to hold the fork, how to ride a bicycle by watching others. Basically, we learn to do things by copying what others are doing. Still, there is a difference between copying and stealing other people’s work and trying to pass it off as your own.

Be a good theft, not a bad theft. There is a difference.

Bad theft:

  • Degrade
  • Skim
  • Steal from one
  • Plagiarize
  • Imitate
  • Rip off

Good theft:

  • Honor
  • Study
  • Steal from many
  • Give credit
  • Transform
  • Remix

In essence, you need to do the following: Understand how the thing you’re trying to copy work by reverse-engineering. Later, make this thing better by adding your own style.

Lesson #5: Surround Yourself With Books and People Who Inspire and Motivate You

A lot of people move countries to surround themselves with like-minded people. Others simply complain that they can’t find good mentors to assist them in their craft. But these things are in the past – at least if you’re smart and you know how to use the internet. Nowadays you don’t have to move a muscle to meet great people thanks to the available technology.

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

Thanks to the modern tools available through your favorite web browser, you can build your own world. You can create your own community. Your own mastermind group by getting the best books and following the most successful people in your niche.

Or in other words, you don’t have to move to Silicon Valley to start a startup, you can just follow the most successful entrepreneurs online, read their books, listen to their podcats. This way you’ll know more than enough to start your own gig.

Harold Ramis once laid out his rule for success: “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.” Harold Ramis, actor and director

Love taking notes? Download the worksheet:

Actionable Notes:

  • Collect selectively: Every great artist is a great collector. He carefully selects what he brings into his life. Or as the author shares in his book, “You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.” So, select carefully what you add in your life and don’t forget to throw away things that are not worthy.
  • Go deeper: The best way to stand out from the crowd is to be different. However, this is a pretty generic tip. What you can do to differentiate yourself from others is to go deeper. Check every reference for a particular topic. Read the best books on the subject. Listen to all the interviews. This is how you’ll get ahead.
  • Analog to digital work process: Computers are great for editing and getting your ideas out into the world, however, they are really bad when it comes down to generating ideas. Designate a place in your home (office) free from electronic devices and use this spot to craft ideas. Then, move to your digital office and publish your work.
  • Share your dots without connecting them: If you don’t have anything to sell (or if you can’t think of) you can consider the following: Share tips about what you’re doing, continuously. Once enough people are listening, simply create a course that connects all the little pieces together. People will happily pay for organized content about a specific topic.
  • Choose what to leave out: The idea that you can check or do anything is paralyzing. The only way you can get ahead in today’s avalanche of information is by ignoring most of it. Creativity is all about subtraction. Don’t aim to add more or to read more, spend more time thinking about what you can leave out.

Commentary And My Personal Takeaway

Though the book is only around 120 pages, and most of the pages are covered with graphic illustrations, Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon is a great tiny book full of ideas. It will help you get started with your creative endeavor and assist you when you’re feeling stuck.

I’ll personally suggest going back to it from time to time. Especially when you need a dose of inspiration. Also, do check the other books from Austin Kleon.

My biggest takeaway from the book is the following: “Creativity isn’t just the things we choose to put in, it’s the things we choose to leave out.” Too often we think about getting more things or adding more stuff to a particular project. However, more rarely makes something great, it’s usually the opposite. Less things but done the right way should be your aim.

Notable Quotes:

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.” Austin Kleon

If you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.” Austin Kleon

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.” Austin Kleon

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