March 29, 2021
 min read

Show Your Work

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Learn more about Show Your Work on Amazon.

Buy Show Your Work: Print | Kindle

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Note: The following are excerpts from Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon.

A New Way of Operating

"Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating." - John Cleese

Be so good they can't ignore you." If focus on getting good, the right people will find you. You don't find an audience for your work: they find you. But, you need to be findable. You need to put your work out there while you're getting good.

Build sharing into your routine. Be open about what you're working on. Tease bits and pieces from your projects online.

This is a book for those who hate self-promotion.

1. You Don't Have to Be a Genius

There's a myth of the lone genius: An individual with superhuman talents appears out of nowhere in direct contact with The Muse. But, there's a much more practical way of imaging it.

Brian Eno refers to it as a "scenius", ideas are birthed by a group of creative individuals. These people make up an "ecology of talent.

If you look back at history, many of the people who we think are lone geniuses were actually part of a whole scene of people supporting one another. Sharing their work and copying each other. Scenius doesn't take away from the achievements of individuals but acknowledges that good work isn't always created in a vacuum and that creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration of minds.

Be An Amateur

"That's all any of us are: amateurs. We don't live long enough to be anything else." — Charlie Chaplin

Clay Shirky in Cognitive Surplus: "On the spectrum of creative work, the difference between the mediocre and the good is vast. Mediocrity is, however, still on the spectrum; you can move from mediocre to good in increments. The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something."

David Foster Wallace said that he thought good nonfiction was a chance to "watch somebody reasonably bright but also reasonable average pay far closer attention and thinking at far more length about all sorts of different stuff than most of us have a chance to in our daily lives."

To get good at sharing, learn in public. Find a scenius and pay attention to what others are sharing and more importantly, what they're not sharing.

Share what you love and the people who love the same things will find you.

You Can't Find Your Voice If You Don't Use It

Talk about the things you love. Your voice will follow.

If your work isn't online, it doesn't exist. If you want people to know about what you do and the things you can about, you have to share.

“Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything--all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure--these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It's life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” - Steve Jobs

I read, you learn.

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2. Think Process Not Product

"A lot of people are so used to just seeing the outcome of work. They never see the side of the work you go through to produce the outcome." — Michael Jackson

When a painter talks about her work, she could be talking about two different things. There's the artwork and the artwork. The artwork is the finished piece. The artwork is the day-to-day process that happens behind the scenes in the studio.

Historically, artists have been trained to keep their process a secret.

Art and Fear: "To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping the artwork."

This all made sense in the pre-digital age, but not anymore. Document your process online and the right people will find you.

3. Share Something Small Every Day

Don't worry about everything you post being perfect.

Theodore Sturgeon once said that 90% of everything is crap. The trouble is, we don't always know which 90% is the crap.

Wayne White: "It really does need a little social chemistry to make it show itself to you sometimes."

The So What Test

Always run everything you share past the "so what" test. If you're unsure whether to share something, let it sit for 24 hours. Ask yourself: Is it helpful, or valuable?

Turn Your Flow Into Stock

"If you work on something a little bit every day, you end up with something that is massive." — Kenneth Goldsmith

Stock and flow is an economic concept that writer Robin Sloan has adapted into a metaphor for media: "Flow is the feed. It's the posts and the tweets. It's the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people you exist. Stock is the durable stuff. It's the content you produce that's as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It's what people discover via search. It's what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time." Sloan says the magic formula is to maintain your flow while working on your stock in the background.

Small things, over time, can get big.

"Carving out a space for yourself online, somewhere where you can express yourself and share your work, is still one of the best possible investments you can make with your time." — Andy Baio

A blog is an ideal machine for turning flow into stock: One blog post is nothing on its own, but publish a thousand blog posts over a piece, and it turns into your life's work.

Don't think of your website as a self-promotion machine, think of it as a self-invention machine.

William Burroughs: "Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don't make compromises. Don't worry about making a bunch of money or being successful. Be concerned with doing good work... and if you can build a good name, eventually that name will be its own currency."

4. Open up Your Cabinet of Curiosities

“The problem with hoarding is you end up living off your reserves. Eventually, you’ll become stale. If you give away everything you have, you are left with nothing. This forces you to look, to be aware, to replenish. . . . Somehow the more you give away, the more comes back to you.” — Paul Arden

If you happened to be wealthy and educated and alive in 16th- and 17th-century Europe, it was fashionable to have a Wunderkammern, a “wonder chamber,” or a “cabinet of curiosities” in your house—a room filled with rare and remarkable objects that served as a kind of external display of your thirst for knowledge of the world.

There’s not as big of a difference between collecting and creating as you might think. A lot of the writers I know see the act of reading and the act of writing as existing on opposite ends of the same spectrum: The reading feeds the writing, which feeds the reading. “I’m basically a curator,” says the writer and former bookseller Jonathan Lethem. “Making books has always felt very connected to my bookselling experience, that of wanting to draw people’s attention to things that I liked, to shape things that I liked into new shapes.”

Our tastes make us what we are, but they can also cast a shadow over our own work. “All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste,” says public radio personality Ira Glass. “But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer.” Before we’re ready to take the leap of sharing our own work with the world, we can share our tastes in the work of others.

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.

No Guilty Pleasures

“I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you f---ing like something, like it.” — Dave Grohl

Being open and honest about what you like is the best way to connect with people who like those things.

“Do what you do best and link to the rest.” — Jeff Jarvis

Credit it Always Due

If you share the work of others, it’s your duty to make sure that the creators of that work get proper credit. Crediting work in our copy-and-paste age of reblogs and retweets can seem like a futile effort, but it’s worth it, and it’s the right thing to do. You should always share the work of others as if it were your own, treating it with respect and care.

It’s always good practice to give a shout-out to the people who’ve helped you stumble onto good work and also leave a bread-crumb trail that people you’re sharing with can follow back to the sources of your inspiration. I’ve come across so many interesting people online by following “via” and “H/T” links—I’d have been robbed of a lot of these connections if it weren’t for the generosity and meticulous attribution of many of the people I follow.

5. Tell Good Stories

Words matter. Artists love to trot out the tired line, “My work speaks for itself,” but the truth is, our work doesn’t speak for itself. Human beings want to know where things came from, how they were made, and who made them. The stories you tell about the work you do have a huge effect on how people feel and what they understand about your work, and how people feel and what they understand about your work effects how they value it.

"The cat sat on a mat’ is not a story. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is a story.” — John le Carré

Structure is Everything

“In the first act, you get your hero up a tree. The second act, you throw rocks at him. For the third act, you let him down.” — George Abbott

John Gardner said the basic plot of nearly all stories is this: “A character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.” I like Gardner’s plot formula because it’s also the shape of most creative work: You get a great idea, you go through the hard work of executing the idea, and then you release the idea out into the world, coming to a win, lose, or draw. Sometimes the idea succeeds, sometimes it fails, and more often than not, it does nothing at all.

Whether you’re telling a finished or unfinished story, always keep your audience in mind. Speak to them directly in plain language. Value their time. Be brief. Learn to speak. Learn to write. Use spell-check. You’re never “keeping it real” with your lack of proofreading and punctuation, you’re keeping it unintelligible.

Everybody loves a good story, but good storytelling doesn’t come easy to everybody. It’s a skill that takes a lifetime to master. So study the great stories and then go find some of your own. Your stories will get better the more you tell them.

Talk About Yourself at Parties

Artists have it the worst. If you answer, “I’m a writer,” for example, there’s a very good chance that the next question will be, “Oh, have you published anything?” which is actually a veiled way of asking, “Do you make any money off that?”

The way to get over the awkwardness in these situations is to stop treating them as interrogations and start treating them as opportunities to connect with somebody by honestly and humbly explaining what it is that you do. You should be able to explain your work to a kindergartner, a senior citizen, and everybody in between. Of course, you always need to keep your audience in mind: The way you explain your work to your buddies at the bar is not the way you explain your work to your mother.

George Orwell wrote: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.”

“Whatever we say, we’re always talking about ourselves.” — Alison Bechdel

6. Teach What You Know

“The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” — Annie Dillard

The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others. Share your reading list. Point to helpful reference materials. Create some tutorials and post them online. Use pictures, words, and video. Take people step-by-step through part of your process. As blogger Kathy Sierra says, “Make people better at something they want to be better at.”

Teaching people doesn’t subtract value from what you do, it actually adds to it. When you teach someone how to do your work, you are, in effect, generating more interest in your work. People feel closer to your work because you’re letting them in on what you know.

7. Don't Turn into Human Spam

“When people realize they’re being listened to, they tell you things.” — Richard Ford

When I was in college, there was always one classmate in every creative writing workshop who claimed, “I love to write, but I don’t like to read.” It was evident right away that you could pretty much write that kid off completely. As every writer knows, if you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader first.

“The writing community is full of lame-o people who want to be published in journals even though they don’t read the magazines that they want to be published in,” says writer Dan Chaon. “These people deserve the rejections that they will undoubtedly receive, and no one should feel sorry for them when they cry about how they can’t get anyone to accept their stories.”

I call these people human spam. They’re everywhere, and they exist in every profession. They don’t want to pay their dues, they want their piece right here, right now. They don’t want to listen to your ideas; they want to tell you theirs. They don’t want to go to shows, but they thrust flyers at you on the sidewalk and scream at you to come to theirs. You should feel pity for these people and their delusions. At some point, they didn’t get the memo that the world owes none of us anything.

No matter how famous they get, the forward-thinking artists of today aren’t just looking for fans or passive consumers of their work, they’re looking for potential collaborators, or co-conspirators. These artists acknowledge that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that the experience of art is always a two-way street, incomplete without feedback. These artists hang out online and answer questions. They ask for reading recommendations. They chat with fans about the stuff they love.

If you want fans, you have to be a fan first. If you want to be accepted by a community, you have to first be a good citizen of that community. If you’re only pointing to your own stuff online, you’re doing it wrong. You have to be a connector. The writer Blake Butler calls this being an open node. If you want to get, you have to give. If you want to be noticed, you have to notice. Shut up and listen once in a while. Be thoughtful. Be considerate. Don’t turn into human spam. Be an open node.

You Want Hearts, Not Eyeballs

“What you want is to follow and be followed by human beings who care about issues you care about. This thing we make together. This thing is about hearts and minds, not eyeballs.” — Jeffrey Zeldman

If you want followers, be someone worth following.

If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested.

“Connections don’t mean shit,” says record producer Steve Albini. “I’ve never had any connections that weren’t a natural outgrowth of doing things I was doing anyway.” Albini laments how many people waste time and energy trying to make connections instead of getting good at what they do, when “being good at things is the only thing that earns you clout or connections.”

Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple.

“Whatever excites you, go do it. Whatever drains you, stop doing it.” — Derek Sivers

The Vampire Text

There’s a funny story in John Richardson’s biography, A Life of Picasso. Pablo Picasso was notorious for sucking all the energy out of the people he met. His granddaughter Marina claimed that he squeezed people like one of his tubes of oil paints. You’d have a great time hanging out all day with Picasso, and then you’d go home nervous and exhausted, and Picasso would go back to his studio and paint all night, using the energy he’d sucked out of you.

The Vampire Test. It’s a simple way to know who you should let in and out of your life. If, after hanging out with someone you feel worn out and depleted, that person is a vampire. If, after hanging out with someone you still feel full of energy, that person is not a vampire. Of course, The Vampire Test works on many things in our lives, not just people—you can apply it to jobs, hobbies, places, etc.

Vampires cannot be cured. Should you find yourself in the presence of a vampire, be like Brancusi, and banish it from your life forever.

“Part of the act of creating is in discovering your own kind. They are everywhere. But don’t look for them in the wrong places.” — Henry Miller
“It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others.” — Susan Sontag
“You and I will be around a lot longer than Twitter, and nothing substitutes face to face.” — Rob Delaney

8. Learn to Take a Punch

When you put your work out into the world, you have to be ready for the good, the bad, and the ugly. The more people come across your work, the more criticism you’ll face.

Colin Marshall says: “Compulsive avoidance of embarrassment is a form of suicide.” If you spend your life avoiding vulnerability, you and your work will never truly connect with other people.

“The trick is not caring what EVERYBODY thinks of you and just caring about what the RIGHT people think of you.” — Brian Michael Bendis

Don't Feed The Trolls

Do you have a troll problem? Use the block button on social media sites. Delete nasty comments. My wife is fond of saying, “If someone took a dump in your living room, you wouldn’t let it sit there, would you?” Nasty comments are the same—they should be scooped up and thrown in the trash.

At some point, you might consider turning off comments completely. Having a form for comments is the same as inviting comments. “There’s never a space under paintings in a gallery where someone writes their opinion,” says cartoonist Natalie Dee. “When you get to the end of a book, you don’t have to see what everyone else thought of it.” Let people contact you directly or let them copy your work over to their own spaces and talk about it all they want.

9. Sell Out

We all have to get over our “starving artist” romanticism and the idea that touching money inherently corrupts creativity. Some of our most meaningful and most cherished cultural artefacts were made for money. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling because the pope commissioned him. Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather to make money: He was 45 years old, tired of being an artist, and owed $20,000 to assorted relatives, banks, bookmakers, and shylocks. Paul McCartney has said that he and John Lennon used to sit down before a Beatles songwriting session and say, “Now, let’s write a swimming pool.”

Keep a Mailing List

I know people who run multimillion-dollar businesses off of their mailing lists. The model is very simple: They give away great stuff on their sites, they collect emails, and then when they have something remarkable to share or sell, they send an email. You’d be amazed at how well the model works.

Make More Work For Yourself

“We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.” —Walt Disney

“There is no misery in art. All art is about saying yes, and all art is about its own making.” —John Currin

Pay It Forward

There’s a caveat to all this: As a human being, you have a finite amount of time and attention. At some point, you have to switch from saying “yes” a lot to saying “no” a lot. “The biggest problem of success is that the world conspires to stop you doing the thing that you do, because you are successful,” writes author Neil Gaiman. “There was a day when I looked up and realised that I had become someone who professionally replied to email, and who wrote as a hobby. I started answering fewer emails, and was relieved to find I was writing much more.”

I find myself in the weird position now where I get way more email from people than I could ever answer and still do everything I need to do. The way I get over my guilt about not answering email is to hold office hours. Once a month, I make myself available so that anybody can ask me anything on my website, and I try to give thoughtful answers that I then post so anyone can see.

You just have to be as generous as you can, but selfish enough to get your work done.

“Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck—and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.” — Michael Lewis

10. Stick Around

“If you want a happy ending,” actor Orson Welles wrote, “that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”

The people who get what they’re after are very often the ones who just stick around long enough.

“In our business you don’t quit,” says comedian Joan Rivers. “You’re holding on to the ladder. When they cut off your hands, hold on with your elbow. When they cut off your arms, hold on with your teeth. You don’t quit because you don’t know where the next job is coming from.”

“Work is never finished, only abandoned.” — Paul Valéry

You can’t plan on anything; you can only go about your work, as Isak Dinesen wrote, “every day, without hope or despair.” You can’t count on success; you can only leave open the possibility for it, and be ready to jump on and take the ride when it comes for you.

Chain Smoke

If you look to artists who’ve managed to achieve lifelong careers, you detect the same pattern: They all have been able to persevere, regardless of success or failure.

Author Ernest Hemingway would stop in the middle of a sentence at the end of his day’s work so he knew where to start in the morning.

Singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell says that whatever she feels is the weak link in her last project gives her inspiration for the next.

You avoid stalling out in your career by never losing momentum. Here’s how you do it: Instead of taking a break in between projects, waiting for feedback, and worrying about what’s next, use the end of one project to light up the next one. Just do the work that’s in front of you, and when it’s finished, ask yourself what you missed, what you could’ve done better, or what you couldn’t get to, and jump right into the next project.

Here’s how you do it: Instead of taking a break in between projects, waiting for feedback, and worrying about what’s next, use the end of one project to light up the next one. Just do the work that’s in front of you, and when it’s finished.

“We work because it’s a chain reaction, each subject leads to the next.” — Charles Eames

Go Away So You Can Come Back

“The minute you stop wanting something you get it.” — Andy Warhol

The designer Stefan Sagmeister swears by the power of the sabbatical—every seven years, he shuts down his studio and takes a year off. His thinking is that we dedicate the first 25 years or so of our lives to learning, the next 40 to work, and the last 15 to retirement, so why not take 5 years off retirement and use them to break up the work years? He says the sabbatical has turned out to be invaluable to his work: “Everything that we designed in the seven years following the first sabbatical had its roots in thinking done during that sabbatical.”

It’s very important to separate your work from the rest of your life. As my wife said to me, “If you never go to work, you never get to leave work.”

“Every two or three years, I knock off for a while. That way, I’m constantly the new girl in the whorehouse.” — Robert Mitchum

Begin Again

“Whenever Picasso learned how to do something, he abandoned it.” — Milton Glaser

When you feel like you’ve learned whatever there is to learn from what you’re doing, it’s time to change course and find something new to learn so that you can move forward. You can’t be content with mastery; you have to push yourself to become a student again. “Anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough,” writes author Alain de Botton.

Look for something new to learn, and when you find it, dedicate yourself to learning it out in the open. Document your progress and share as you go so that others can learn along with you. Show your work, and when the right people show up, pay close attention to them, because they’ll have a lot to show you.


Learn more about Show Your Work on Amazon.

Buy Show Your Work: Print | Kindle

If you enjoyed this summary, please consider buying me a coffee to caffeinate my reading sessions.

I read, you learn.

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