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show your work - austin kleon - notes - book review

Austin Kleon’s 10 Tips to Show Your Work

In the last few weeks, I have picked Austin Kleon’s other equally fabulous book, Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered.

One of the biggest challenges for artists in the day and age of social media is getting noticed. While finding avenues to discover for yourself may sound easier, advertising your work is challenging.

Perhaps people find it harder to be noticed because they have to attract someone enough to spend a minute or an hour on you—your work. So, most of the time, we don’t even try. Artists may compete with zillion others to get noticed. In that vein, one may even find it difficult to show their work.

In this work, Kleon asks: How does one get their stuff out there? How do you get noticed? What is your audience, and how do you attract them? He says it is not good enough to be good; “you have to be findable” (p. 2). You must consistently post bits and pieces of what you do—like some of the best ones. By sharing one’s knowledge, one only stands to gain. Sharing is caring takes a new level of coherence altogether.

Some of us are unhappy about sharing our work, but how can we escape this? He points out that we should think of our work as an unending process; that is, when put out, it will only stand to help gain coherence. He adds: “If Steal Like an Artist was a book about stealing influence from other people; this book is about how to influence others by letting them steal from you” (p. 3).

Here are Kleon’s ten tips for showing your work to the world outside.

show your work austin kleon notes
Fernand Pouillon, one of the most important post-war architects in France and Algeria, built 1967 this hotel in Seraidi at an altitude of 800m. Photo by Azzedine Rouichi on Unsplash

1. You Don’t Have To Be a Genius

One of the biggest inventions of our world is to treat a genius as someone (an individual) outside of his/her surroundings. This often puts us to think about the great Newton, Immanuel Kant, and Plato as one in millions—geniuses who must be admired and their works appreciated. But, this approach, at times, can be counterintuitive.

It makes us all think we are not good enough to put our work out there. So, instead, musician Brian Eno refers to “scenius”—a term that refers to a great work that is not produced by one person but made in an environment that surrounds that person. It acknowledges the surroundings we inherit, and we come to appreciate.

Scenius tells us that, no matter how dumb we think we are, we can all contribute something. And it is worth sharing.

Be an amateur, Kleon tells us. Amateurs are willing to learn. And that willingness sets them apart. They don’t claim to know everything about everything else. But they are just open to learning. As an amateur, you can always make mistakes and not feel bad. It is still better than doing nothing. Do something is what Kleon emphasises.

But, in a rapidly changing world, we are all amateurs. Embrace it. Pay attention to what others are sharing and note what they are not. That is an easy step to take. Don’t worry about having a voice. But also remember, in this day and age, if your work isn’t online, it isn’t anywhere. The point is to make sure it exists—and then that it is visible to others.

Another suggestion Kleon throws at us is “Read Obituaries”. He adds: “Obituaries are like near-death experiences for cowards.” And reading them is a way to think about death—and making sure to rethink about what is left of their lives. Then, we could make sure to use the best of that time doing things that matter.

For Kleon, obituaries aren’t really about death but life. Thinking about death makes me want to live. I beg to differ. Thinking about death can make you want to either live or die; it depends. So, reading obituaries can perhaps act otherwise. They could ask: “What’s the point of all this?” “Who cares?” and other such serious stuff.

2. Think Process, Not Product.

Whenever we think of the world around us in terms of what exists, we look at the finished products. What happens behind the scenes is just left out of our vicinity. Sometimes, we don’t care; other times, we forget to bother. When we are at an art exhibition, we look at a finished artwork. We don’t see the efforts that have gone through to reach this point, where the artist has confidence in their work.

Kleon suggests that we need to distinguish between the process and the product. Today, one can take advantage of the process. Writing as a process. Annotating as a process. Cooking as a process. These things are acts in the process. They don’t point us to the finished products but to production. Today, one can use the internet to showcase their process—bits and pieces. Given the human curiosity in others, showing the process rather than the output is always helpful.

Become a documentarian of what you do. Many Instagram influencers of this kind exist. After all, there are things I could learn from them. I am not a very good documentarian but averse to cameras. I don’t have the habit of clicking and posting snaps. But I should learn to document how I work. There is a lot that each can benefit from the other.

What if I have nothing to show, and what if I do some mundane work in society? How do I then show it? Kleon says: “Whatever the nature of your work, there is an art to what you do, and there are people who would be interested in that art if only you presented it to them in the right way” (pp. 40-41). He adds: “The first step is to scoop up the scraps and the residue of your process and shape them into some interesting bit of media that you can share. You must turn the invisible into something other people can see” (p. 41).

Become a documentarian of what you do. Start a work journal: Write your thoughts down in a notebook or speak them into an audio recorder. Keep a scrapbook. Take a lot of photographs of your work at different stages in your process. Shoot video of you working. This isn’t about making art, it is simply keeping track of what’s going around you. Take advantage of all the cheap, easy tools at your disposal—these days, most of us carry a fully functional multimedia studio around in our smartphones. Whether you share it or not, documenting and recording your process as you go along has its own rewards: You’ll start to see the work you’re doing more clearly and feel like you’re making progress. And when you’re ready to share, you’ll have a surplus of material to choose from (pp. 42-43).

3. Share Something Every Day

Overnight success, sure, is a myth. Heroes are not made in a day. There are a lot of stories worth sharing in that process. As a logical next step to your work, share something every day. I will take this advice. I don’t do much of sharing, as much as I intend to do so. There is a process to our learning. We learn things like a process. Building a body of work takes a lot of time, and we need to make it a habit to share stuff. Kleon tells us:

Once a day after you’ve done your day’s work, go back to your documentation and find one little piece of your process that you can share. Where you are in your process will determine what that piece is. If you’re in the very early stages, share your influences and what’s inspiring you. If you’re in the middle of executing a project, write about your methods and share works in progress. If you’ve just completed a project, show the final product, share scraps from the cutting-room floor, or write about what you learned. If you have lots of projects out into the world, you can report on how they are doing—you can tell stories about how people are interacting with your work (p. 48).

Remember: 90 per cent of everything is crap. That is Sturgeon’s Law. The same is true for all our work. Even our habits follow somewhat similar logic. Therefore, don’t bother being a perfectionist. Enjoy the process and learn to share stuff. “Be open, share imperfect and unfinished work that you want feedback on, but don’t share absolutely everything” (p. 57). Use the “so what?” test. Ask yourself if something is worth sharing. And then share.

Get yourself a domain and start blogging! This is another suggestion Kleon pushes us at. You may do so, but maintaining a blog with consistency takes time. You have to be dedicated. You have to see the incentives for doing so. It took me over a year of blogging once in a while to see its results. I am still an amateur in this space, but it is a process which takes time and effort. If you want to buy a domain, you should be ready to spend that much time on it.

nuno silva wmYP3jGL5wo unsplash
Photo by Nuno Silva on Unsplash

4. Open Up Your Cabinet of Curiosities

There is always something innate to us, our personality—sometimes, we don’t notice it ourselves. We carry it around, find it amusing, and yet sometimes forget to really look at it.

Our tastes make us what we are. And it is important first to know our tastes—and then find things worthy of sharing them. Kleon writes: “Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do—sometimes even more than your own work.”

Sometimes, you need to see things others haven’t shared or left out. And see if it is worth sharing—and then share. All that matters is finding things worth sharing that others aren’t willing to share. Kleon particularly talks about a person who collected bits and pieces of the trash and now stands in a trash museum housing them as art. So, nothing in the world is totally not worth sharing.

“We all love things that other people think are garbage. You have to have the courage to keep loving your garbage because what makes us unique is the diversity and breadth of our influences, the unique ways in which we mix up the parts of culture others have deemed “high” and the “low.”

When you find things you genuinely enjoy, don’t let anyone else make you feel bad about it. Don’t feel guilty about the pleasure you take in the things you enjoy. Celebrate them. (p. 81)

5. Tell Good Stories

Storytelling is an important skill. Our parents and their parents have often told us some of the best stories that put us to sleep purposively. Stories drive our emotional valence in manners other things cannot do. At times, storytelling is an acquired skill, but other times, it feels innately natural to some people—who make things and tell good lies.

Kleon says: “Your work doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Whether you realize it or not, you’re already telling a story about your work. Every email you send, every text, every conversation, every blog comment, every tweet, every photo, every video—they’re all bits and pieces of a multimedia narrative you’re constantly constructing” (p. 95). In essence, you need to know what a good story feels like and tell one.

Remember the structure: All good stories have a structure. They are tidy, sturdy, and logical. You need to know how your story could fit so well into a structure that you no longer need to practice telling others. Coherence is built with practice.

All stories have a beginning (what some people call a hook), a middle, and an end. You want something. But there is so and so as odds. Despite that, you succeed. This is the case in most of the moral stories we have heard. And it is a brilliant way of putting things out.

notes on show your work
Photo by Yannis H on Unsplash

6. Teach What You Know

Share your trade secrets. I do this once in a while. I have an elaborate section dedicated to research and writing for much of my audience. All amateurish. But it’s fun. People often come back to those resources, share them, and reread them.

It is an excellent way to compile things in ways that are accessible. Think about things you can share from your process and share them. It is important to share things. Kleon adds: “The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others” (p. 117). Perhaps he is right about it.

In academia, gatekeeping is an open practice. People tend to think that they are experts—and their experience is preserved when fewer people know about it. In this way, they believe they have achieved greater things. But they are wrong. Much of academic writing works this way.

They write for people they speak to—and this way, their ability to speak to more people always reduces, no matter how hard they try. Therefore, it is essential to learn to teach others what you know—then they can curiously want to know more about it—and you tell more about it.

show your work by austin kleon
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

7. Don’t Turn Into Human Spam

While sharing is good, oversharing is terrible. A post and a spam have a thin line between them. If you unnecessarily keep pushing the boundary too hard, you enter into a terrain of spamming. Learn to listen to others. Others have different essential stories to tell as well. You should be able to embrace them—and to be able to learn from them. So, sometimes, it is just good to “shut up and listen” (p. 123).

Human spam is everywhere. Everyone wants to tell their stories without being patient enough to listen to others. It is most times a two-way track. You tell, you hear, and you retell. Stop worrying about how many people follow you online, but about who follows you and what they care about. Kleon has a list of don’ts.

I will add his excerpt: “Don’t waste your time reading articles about how to get more followers. Don’t waste time following people online just because you think it’ll get you somewhere. Don’t talk to people you don’t want to talk to and don’t talk about stuff you don’t want to talk about” (p. 129).

Meetups are great. Meet people you like online or in real life. You can only meet some people. Choose carefully who you want to meet and spend time with. However, try to join small groups that allow people with common interests to come together.

8. Learn to Take a Punch as You Show Your Work

Become critique-able. When you put things out into the world, you will receive good and ugly comments. Take the good ones and chuck the bad ones, I would say. But this is not my advice manual of sorts.

I will let Kleon do his work. He adds: “The more people across your work, the more criticism you’ll face.” Just fret not. Breathe. Relax. Move forward. It is important to take good criticism and improve. Remember, Kleon has told us elsewhere that you are only as good as your last work.

No matter what you try to do, you can only be as good as your last work—and never better, never worse. So, your last work is always in process. If you are a writer, then you will keep writing until you can no longer. This rule can both push you and give you the strength to do better.

In this day and age, trolls are hard to ignore. But Kleon is on point here. The more you feed into the ego of a troll, the more they get to you. The best way to deal with a troll is IGNORE. Add a few more phrases to feel good. They can never be you. They cannot critique you, so they attack you. Therefore, they are no good. All this helps. The world is significant—and you cannot impress everyone. That is never one’s goal.

9. Sell Out

We have to overcome our “starving artist” romanticism, says Kleon. We need to sell ourselves. Earn from what we do.

Kleon writes: “Everybody says they want artists to make money, and then when they do, everybody hates them for it. The word sellout is spit out by the bitterest, smallest parts of ourselves. Don’t be one of those horrible fans who stops listening to your favorite band just because they have a hit single. Don’t write off your friends because they’ve had a little bit of success. Don’t be jealous when the people you like do well—celebrate their victory as if it’s your own” (p. 163).

The easiest way to make some money is to add a button: DONATE! BUY ME A COFFEE! (Like you see below in this post). You put effort into writing and working on this post; it is always important to monetize. I find Maria Popova’s work inspiring, mainly because she has such a strong patron base for her work—that she doesn’t need to sell ads on the site.

For us, who barely get support from their readers because they earn less and are students, it is still a good way to begin. I find this important and useful. In economics, “There is no such thing as a free lunch” applies to all walks of life. But, when you have a lot of food on the table, remember to share.

Keep a mailing list. This is one of the most useful tips I have received since starting a blog. I have not been able to sustain an email list. It is sad. But I want to improve this. I want to learn how to sustain followers on my mailing list. I also maintain a Substack, but I am not this regular there. I sometimes need clarification about what goes in there and what goes in my blog. It is these conundrums that put me in a difficult spot.

Dear Reader: If you have any thoughts about how I can resolve or improve this, or if you face similar issues, put them in the comments; I hope to learn from you 🙂

10. Stick Around as You Show Your Work

As the section title suggests, while good things last, you must let them last longer. As you finish with one project, think of ways to begin and work around a new one. And so on. Kleon uses the analogy of chain smoking. He writes:

“Chain-smoking is a great way to keep going, but at some point, you might burn out and need to go looking for a match. The best time to find one is while taking a sabbatical (p. 191).

Take breaks. They are necessary. But, when you are back, don’t start over, but “begin again” (p. 196). And the moment you realise you have learnt everything there is, it is time to change course—and learn something new. This will keep you going. You should have the courage to eliminate your work and rethink things completely. Even as that is happening, you are only learning to return to what you were doing—but better.

Cover Photo by Heidi Kaden on Unsplash

This website and the newsletter (fuzzy notes) have been a labour of love. While they are free to access (and will continue to be free), they are not free to create. I spend significant time researching, writing, and proofing every article I publish here, apart from all the logistical aspects of buying and managing the domain and hosting plans. Each article is written meticulously to help fellow readers (such as yourself) get the best knowledge, which is also witty and articulate in this outlook. You may reach out to me at [email protected] (and tell me what you liked about the essay you may have just read or if you want me to write on anything you wish to read). If you have benefitted from reading articles on my website and the newsletter, consider buying me a coffee (as a token of love and appreciation ♥). If you cannot do so now, it’s okay! (understandably, each of us has our problems to deal with every day.) You can still do something else: share the article with someone who may like it.

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