Great Creatives Actually Steal Everything And It’s Legal

Plus 8 other creativity lessons I learned in 9 minutes

Creativity. What an elusive word.

When I started writing, I used to think of creativity like the apple that fell on Newton’s head. Never did I think that I can make the apple fall every day.

Yet, that’s what it seemed others were doing. Seeing writers produce a huge body of work at an alarming pace, I was often paralyzed.

Anyway, keeping my fears aside, I stepped into the world of online writing and content creation. Bit by bit, with every post I wrote, I started to unlock the keys to creativity.

Perhaps the most interesting insight was this — the more I wrote, the more I was able to write. The more ideas I generated, the more ideas I was able to generate. I realized there are no limits to creativity.

To look back on these lessons I learned and to learn some new tricks, I picked up Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon.

Filled with drawings and timeless advice for creators, the book is “alarmingly cute” as CNN puts it.

As I read the book, I realized that I was applying a lot of the principles of creativity already and picked up a few new ones.

Here’s a list of my 9 favorite lessons that you can learn in 9 minutes to get your creative juices flowing.

Keep a Notebook

By “keeping a notebook” I mean you need to dump ideas regularly and record as much as possible.

Write down your ideas at least once a day. Consistency is important.

Creativity is a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it gets.

But if you’re like most people, you haven’t been using it that much. Thus, it’s atrophied and it’ll take some time to get it back up.

And even if it’s working again, you have to keep using it, lest it becomes dormant again.

Keep a notepad or phone with you at all times to note down random moments of inspiration.

Apart from that, have a dedicated routine where you deliberately try to come up with ideas. Check out James Altucher’s Idea Machine practice. This has been my secret to generating new ideas. On second thought, it’s not a secret. It’s just about practice — the great insight James came up with is to put it into practice and state its importance.

But even still, it’s one of those things whose value cannot be ever overstated. Once you have a lot of ideas, they will give you freedom. What freedom? The freedom from worrying about what to say next.

It’s difficult to create something when you don’t have anything to say. But if you have a crapload of ideas in your idea-bank, you’ll kick writer’s block in the rear.

Generate ideas every day and you’ll seldom stare at a blank page again.

Don’t Break the Chain

Years ago, when software developer Brad Isaac was performing stand-up at open mic nights, he received his best advice ever from the already-famous comedian, Jerry Seinfield

Here’s how Brad described the interaction in Lifehacker:

He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”

Drawing those Xs got to be pretty fun and rewarding, so he kept doing it. Eventually, he began to create a chain of red Xs.

The idea was to never break that chain. Seinfeld made the “Don’t Break the Chain” method popular, especially amongst creatives.

Not only does this approach program the body and mind to sit down and write daily — but it also motivates you to continue that beautiful string of big, red Xs. If you don’t write one day, you don’t get to draw the X.

Creatives think like artists but work like accountants

And it has to be that way. Just because we’re ‘creatives’ doesn’t mean that we only work when creativity strikes. This understanding comes from the flawed concept that creativity is like a lightning bolt that comes from the sky without any control of our own.

In fact, it’s a skill that can be trained by constant practice. Daily systems like these are crucial in the life of an artist. Not only do they help to work your creative muscles but improve your specific craft (writing, painting, etc).

Keep Your Day Job

As much as I love a clear day, I don’t really perform well when I have no obligations.

This is the case with most people. We all need deadlines and routines to get to work. If we don’t feel we need to work, we won’t.

I have a taste of this phenomenon every weekend. Since my day is clear, I think I can write three-four articles easily. But the ‘resistance’ aka procrastination hits after the first one and then I find myself watching TV at 10 am.

Although gradually, I’ve learned to control my behavior, there’s only one way to ensure you have tight deadlines — have a life outside of writing. It doesn’t have to be a job. It can be a full-fledged writing business that you’re running. Or it can be both, as it’s for me.

Nonetheless, you need something to give yourself a routine in life. A day job or an extra work commitment gives you less time to work on your creative craft. This means you need to be clever and super-productive when you do get the time.

Parkinson’s Law says, “the amount of work required adjusts (usually increasing) to the time available for its completion.” The corollary is also true — work gets completed in the time available for its completion.

A day job also gives something to write about. You can’t sit in the room all day and write amazing things. You also need to live your life.

If nothing else, at least it teaches you skills that help you in your creative pursuit. A marketing job will teach you about getting more readers. A software job will help you build websites. Every cloud has a silver lining if you look for it.

Stare at a Wall

All your best ideas don’t come when you’re working. They come when you’re bored.

By boredom, I don’t mean being bored with life. I’m talking about the daily boring tasks that we all have to do (unless you outsource them) — washing the dishes, ironing clothes, taking out the trash, taking a bath (can’t outsource this one though), etc.

Apart from these unavoidable moments, you should aim to deliberately make space for boredom in your life. Going for a long walk is the easiest way. Another one is staring at a wall for fifteen minutes — I bet it’ll be uncomfortable. But that’s what it’s supposed to be.

Don’t numb these feelings of boredom by checking email, social media, texting, or listening to music. Let the feeling sink in.

Embrace boredom. Bathe in it And you’ll come out of it with seeds of fantastic ideas.

Take Care of Money

Creatives can be sentimental about their craft and often detest money. The thought of numbers makes them cringe. But you don’t have to be like that.

You can be financially successful and be good at your craft.

Money matters because it gives you two kinds of freedom as a creative.

First, is the common freedom of being able to continue your creative pursuit without being dependent on others. It frees you from the stress of money so you can use your brainpower elsewhere.

Second, it gives you the freedom to work on what you want. If you get paid for your work, then your buyers dictate what you make. You don’t control what you get to work on. Yet, if you don’t take their money, they can’t force you to do what you don’t like.

This is why many writers can feel like they’re in a prison. They didn’t play smart with money which makes them dependent on constant sources of income. Since the interest of their client may not align with their own creative desires, they start to hate the craft itself.

Learn about money. It will give you the freedom to live your life the way you want. But more importantly, it will give you the freedom to choose what you want to work on. And that choice is real wealth.

Validation Is for Parking

People will judge and criticize you. Your work will not perform as you expected. Articles that you consider worthless will go viral. Articles that you brag about to yourself will flop.

So don’t look for validation. Detach yourself from the results and be busy doing the work.

The more I detach myself from the results of my actions, the better and more peaceful my life gets. I can open up myself to the supply of creativity by letting my worries go.

Ironically, in the long run, the art of detached focus is how you achieve extraordinary results.

Create and then create some more. And when you feel you should be recognized — create more still.

Obscurity Is Good

When I got started on Medium, I wanted tons of traffic and followers. Now that I’ve gradually come this far, I realize I was stupid.

Why? Because I don’t want the world to see my first few blog posts. They’re terrible! It’s not my mistake, I was still learning.

This is why obscurity can be good in the beginning. You can try tons of things when no one’s looking. You can make mistakes and find your voice.

Things start to change completely when people start noticing your work. Suddenly you have a ‘reputation’ and a ‘brand’ to maintain. You start second-guessing everything you do to make sure it aligns with your reputation.

This is another form of creative prison.

This is as true in business as in creative fields. Startups have the freedom to create awesome stuff. Think Steve Jobs creating the Apple II and then being kicked off by the board when their visions didn’t match. As the company grew, more money came in and the business was great. But this came at the cost of Steve’s creativity.

Don’t wish for premature fame and recognition. It may ruin you. Timing matters a lot.

Get Your Hands Dirty

Most of us are disconnected from our work. There’s a screen between everything we do these days.

And while computers have made things easier, they may not be the best way for creatives to get their juices flowing.

When I sit down on my laptop to think about writing ideas, I hardly get one or two. Yet, when I journal in the morning, they seem to come out of a firehose. On my good days, I can outline the whole article the moment I think of it — the intro, subheads, heading, conclusion — the whole shebang.

Sadly, I only realized this a few days ago when I read a copy of this book. Now, I’ve started to take advantage of this fact.

Austin also recommends a fabulous practice of keeping two separate desks — analog and digital.

The analog desk doesn’t have any screens or electronics. It only has sketch pens, paper, scales, etc. Basically, steal an art-and-craft kit from a high school kid and you’ll have yourself an analog desk.

The digital desk has all your electronics. Once you outline your ideas on the analog desk, transfer them to the computer. After some time, when your steam begins to cool off, go back to the analog desk.

The reason it works is creativity unleashes itself when your body is also involved. When you’re typing, only your fingers and mind are working. Your whole being is not immersed in the process. Going analog does just that.

If you’re a musician, staring at the screen won’t bring you the melody. But if you just start strumming the strings, you’ll eventually get somewhere.

If you do it right, your analog station should seem like play, not work. It’s where you have fun and let your mind explore the limitless possibilities!

Good Theft vs Bad Theft

Austin’s whole book is based on the fact that artists steal. There’s no ‘original’ work. Everything is stolen.

Because everything has already been said. But since no one was listening, it has to be said again. That’s what André Gide says.

David Heinemeier Hansson, the founder of Basecamp and writer of many books including Rework, was once asked in an interview that people think the Basecamp founders keep saying the same thing in their books over and over again.

To which he replied (I’m paraphrasing), “If you want to have a chance of people remembering what you say, you have to say it again and again and again.

Jonathan Lethem said that when people call something ‘original’ nine out of ten times they just don’t know the references or the sources involved.

Think about it. Whenever you have an amazing insight and you think it’s yours, there’s a high chance that someone has come up with it but you don’t know about them.

Nothing comes out of nothing. All work is built over past creative works.

This is not disheartening, but liberating. Now you don’t have the pressure of creating something original from scratch. All you have to do is look at the world and steal what you like.

The trick is to steal from multiple sources. For instance, if you rewrite this article and post it under your name, you’ll be called a copycat. But if you take this and a hundred others like this, then people will say nothing. Because it’s just “research!”

That’s the difference between good theft and bad theft. But you have to realize that it’s theft nonetheless.

When you start to think this way, you don’t think about good, bad, better, worse. You just steal and keep. When the time comes to write, you put the pieces together and produce something “original!”


Here are all the tips you can implement instantly:

  1. Keep a notebook. Record as many ideas as possible

  2. Don’t break the chain. Remember — Creatives think like artists but work like accountants

  3. Keep your day job. It gives you a routine, and let you live a normal life. Be **normal in your life so you can extraordinary in your thinking. **And who knows you might end up learning something!

  4. Stare at a wall. Best ideas come from boredom. Deliberately look for opportunities to be bored.

  5. Take care of your money. It will give you financial and creative freedom.

  6. Validation is only for parking. You don’t need validation to create. The creative process is for you, not for others.

  7. Obscurity is good at the start. Experiment and learn when no one’s looking.

  8. Get your hands dirty. Get your body involved in the creative process. That’s when the juices start flowing.

  9. Indulge in good theft. Steal from multiple sources. There’s nothing ‘original’ in this world anyway. We all build on top of the shoulders of those who came before us.

Are you serious about becoming the best version of yourself? Get your free 5-day email course to Master The Art Of Personal Transformation

Written on December 5, 2020