Show Your Work by Austin Kleon. Extended book resume

A new way of operating.

This is one of the books every creator should read. It is full of information for those trying to build an online audience. In this new world where information is abundant, it’s hard to be spotted. How to get people to notice your work? How can you get your stuff out there? And how you can get an audience?

Austin starts by this quote:

Be so good they can’t ignore you.

Steve Martin

And while it’s true, it’s not enough to be good. In order to be found, you have to be findable. This book goes into details on how sharing your work with the world can help you build an audience. The same audience that will help you get your word out once you’re ready.

The book helps you think about your work as a never-ending process and how to share it in a way that attracts people who might be interested in what you do.

You don’t have to be a genius

We see a genius as an individual with superhuman talents, free of the influence of a precedent, and with a direct connection to God. When inspiration comes, it strikes like a lighting bolt and then he spends the rest of his time in his studio turning this idea into a masterpiece.

But that’s not true.

Creative work is done in a group. All group members are contributing ideas, stealing from each other, copying, etc. It’s not about how smart you are, but about what you have to contribute, the ideas you share, the quality of connections you make, and the conversations you start. Austin calls this group a scenius.

Find your scenius, and be a good contributor.

Austin then moves to talk about being an “expert”. He explains how the world is changing at such a rapid pace that it’s turning us all to amateurs. So instead of fighting it, embrace being an amateur.

An amateur is someone following something in the spirit of love. Because they have little to lose, amateurs are willing to try anything and share results.

In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are only few.

On the spectrum of creative work, the difference of mediocre and good is vast. But mediocrity is still on the spectrum, you can move up in increments. The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something. Amateurs know that contributing something is better than contributing nothing.

The best way to start in the path of sharing you work is to commit to learning in front of others. Find a scenius, pay attention to what others are sharing, and then start taking note. Look for voids you can fill with your own efforts, no matter how bad they are at first.

On doing what we love, Austin explains how we’ve always been told to find our voice, but we never really know what this means. You can’t find your voice if you don’t use it. So talk about the things you love. Your voice will follow.

When talking about your work, make sure you do it online. In this day and age, if your work isn’t online, it doesn’t exist. We all have the opportunity to use our voices, to have our say, but so many of us are wasting it. If you want people to know about what you do and the things you care about, you have to share them.

Think process, not product

In a pre-digital world, the only way an artist could connect with an audience was through a gallery show or art magazine. But today, with social media, an artist can share whatever she wants, whenever she wants, at almost no cost. By sharing her day-to-day process, she can form a unique bond with her audience. Take people behind the scenes.

People really want to see how sausages get made

Become a documentarian of what you do. Let your audience see the person behind the products.

A lot of us go about our work and feel like we have nothing to show for it at the end of the day. But 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!

How can you show your work even when you have nothing to show? You need to make stuff (also see my post on how to create a public portfolio when your work is private). No one will give a damn about your résumé, they want to see what you have made with your little fingers. Start a journal and write your thoughts, or speak in an audio recorder. Take a lot of photographs of your work at different stages. Shoot videos. etc. This is not about making art, it’s about simply keeping track of what’s going on around you. When you are ready to share, you’ll have a surplus of material to choose from.

Share something small every day

Every success needs decades worth of hard work and perseverance. But thankfully, you don’t need that time all in one big chunk. And speaking about chunks, forget big chunks. Forget years, months, weeks… Focus on something small. Focus on days.

Once a day, after you finish your work, go back to your documentation and find one little piece you can share. If you’re just starting, share your influencers and what’s inspiring you. If you’re in the middle, share your process or methods of work. If you completed the project, share the final result. If you have multiple projects in the wild, report how they are doing or share stories about how people are interacting with your work.

The form you use for sharing doesn’t matter. Blog, tweet, video, it doesn’t matter. There’s no one-size-fits-all plan for everybody. Pick what works for you, and stick to it.

Produce and share a lot. Theodore Sturgeon, a fiction author, states that 90% of what we produce is crap, the other 10% is good work. But the problem is we don’t know which is which until we share it with others. So make sure to share a lot, but keep in mind anything you share will be there forever. So don’t share something you don’t want your boss or mom to see.

You daily updates will construct what Austin calls the Flow. But you need another part to achieve results, and it’s called the Stock. If the flow is the daily stream of updates, the stock is the content that will be still interesting in months and years from publication.

Stock is what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time. And the magic formula is to maintain your flow, while working on your stock in the background.

Your stock is made by collecting, organizing, and expanding upon your flow. Social media is a public notebook where we share our ideas and invite others to share their voice with us. But the thing with notebooks is you need to revisit them in order to make the most out of them.

Social networks are good, but they come and go. If you’re really interested in sharing your work and expressing yourself, nothing beats owning your own space online, a place that you control. Buy a good domain name, and create your blog.

A blog is the perfect machine to turn flow into stocks. One blog post is nothing on its own. But publish a thousand blog posts over a decade, and it turns into your life’s work. This sounds technical, but a few Google searches will show you the way.

Open your cabinet of curiosities.

If you happened to be wealthy and educated in the 16th-17th century, chances are you had a cabinet of curiosities. A room filled with rare objects that served as a kind of external display. Books, skeletons, jewels, shells… were all part of the cabinet.

Before we are ready to take the leap of sharing our own work with the world, we can share our tastes in the work of others. Where do you get your inspiration? What do you read? Do you subscribe to anything? What movies do you see?…

When you share this online, always credit people and include a link pointing to the website of the creator. The number one rule of the Internet is people are lazy. If you don’t include a link, no one will bother searching.

Tell good stories

You might think that the pleasure you get from a painting depends on its color, its shape, and its pattern. And if that’s right, it shouldn’t matter if it’s an original or a forgery. But our brains don’t work like that. When shown an object, a face… people’s assessment -how much they like it- is deeply affected by what you tell them about it

Paul Bloom – Psychology Professor

Words matter. 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, tweet, video, comment… they are all contributing to the narrative you’re constantly constructing. If you want to be more effective when sharing yourself and your work, you need to become a better storyteller. You need to know what a good story is and how to tell one.

To tell a story, you need structure. But sadly, our life is messy. A good pitch has 3 acts: The first act is the past, where you’ve been, what you want, how you came to want it… The second act is the present, where you are now, how you’ve worked hard and used up most of your resources. The third act is the future, where you’re going, and how exactly is the person you’re pitching can help you get there.

Whether you’re telling a finished or unfinished story, always keep your audience in mind. Speak to them directly in plain language. Be brief. Learn to speak. Lear to write. Use spell-check…

Teach what you know

Think about what you can share from your process that would benefit your audience. What are your techniques? Are you skilled at using certain tools/materials? 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 videos. Make people better at something they want to be better at.

Don’t turn into human spam

There is a category of humans called human spam. They’re everywhere, and they exist in every profession. They don’t want to pay their dues, they want their piece right away. They don’t listen to your ideas, they tell you theirs. You should feel pity for those people because at some point, they didn’t get the memo that the world owes none of us anything.

If you want fans, you have to be a fan first. If you’re only pointing to your own stuff online, you’re doing it wrong. You have to be a connector. An open node. You’ll get by giving. Shut up and listen once in a while. Be considerate. Don’t turn into human spam.

Do not worry about how many people are following you online and start worrying about the quality of who follow you. If you want more followers, be someone worth following. Make stuff you love, and talk about it. You’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff.

Working on your projects and sharing them online requires energy. This is where Austin introduces a test called: the vampire test. If after hanging out with someone you feel worn out, that person is a vampire. If you hangout with someone, and you still feel the energy afterwards, that person is not a vampire. This test works on jobs, hobbies, places, etc… Vampires can not be cured. If you find yourself with a vampire, avoid it completely. Do not try to fix it.

When you put your work out there, you’ll run into your fellow brotherhood. People doing the same as you and ready to help. These are your real peers, the people who share your obsessions, your mission… There will only be a handful of them, but they are important. Do what you can to nurture your relationships with these people. Invite them to collaborate. Show them your work before you show anybody else. Call the on the phone and share your secrets. Keep them as close as you can.

Making friends online is awesome. But meeting them in real life is even better. Make sure to take coffee with your friends.

Learn to take a punch

When you put yourself and your work online, 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.

The first step in evaluating feedback is knowing whom it came from. You want feedback from people who care about you and what you do. You should be extra wary of feedback from anybody outside of that circle. A troll is a person who’s not interested in improving your work, only provoking you. You’ll gain nothing by engaging with them. Don’t feed them. They’ll usually go away.

Here’s a checklist for feedback:

  • Take a deep breath and accept whatever comes from a feedback
  • The more criticism you take, the more you realize it can’t hurt you
  • Keep moving. Every criticism is an opportunity for new work
  • If you have some sensitive work, do not post it. Keep it secret. But keep in mind if you spend your life avoiding vulnerability, you and your work will never truly connect with other people
  • Remember that your work is something you do, not who you are

Sell out

Everybody says they want artists to make money, but when they do, everybody hates them for it. Don’t be one of those fans who stop listening to a band just because they had a hit single. Don’t be jealous when the people you like do well, celebrate their victory as if it’s your own.

When an audience starts gathering for the work that you’re freely putting into the world, you might want to take the leap and turn them into patrons. The easiest way is to ask for donations. If you have something that requires upfront investment, platforms like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo can help you with fund-raising. It’s important to note that these platforms work best when you already have an audience. And the last option is making something and selling it for money. Then ask your followers to support you by buying the things you’re selling.

Whether you ask for donations, run a crowd-funding campaign, or sell your products, asking for money in return for your work is a leap you want to take only when you feel confident that you’re putting work into the world that you think is truly worth something.

Even if you don’t have anything to sell right now, you should be collecting email addresses from people. Email is decades and decades old, and it’s nowhere close to being dead. Unlike blogs, social media… when you send an email to someone, it will come to her attention. She might not open it, but she definitely has to go to the trouble of deleting it.

There are people running multimillion-dollar businesses off 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.

Put a little widget on every page of your website. Write a bit of copy to encourage people to sing up. Be clear about what they can expect, whether you’ll be sending daily, monthly, or infrequent updates. Never add someone’s email to your mailing list without her permission. The people who sign up for your list will be some of your biggest supporters. Don’t betray their trust and don’t push your luck. Build your list and treat it with respect.

Be ambitious. Keep yourself busy. Think bigger. Expand your audience. Try new things.

Stick around

Every career is full of ups and downs. Never quite, either when you have an up or a down. Chain your projects, one after the other. This means you avoid stalling out in your career by never losing momentum.

Chaining your projects is a good way to stay busy. But with time, you can easily burn-out. It’s good to take a sabbatical to recharge and get your ideas. But given a sabbatical isn’t possible for the majority, here are some ideas for mini-sabbaticals:

  • Commute: A moving train or subway is the perfect time to write, doodle, read, or just stare out the window
  • Exercise: Using our body relaxes our mind, and when our mind gets relaxed, it opens up to having new thoughts
  • Nature: Go to a park. Take a hike. Dig in your garden. Get outside in the fresh air. Disconnect from anything and everything electronic

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. You can’t be content with mastery; you have to push yourself to become a student again.

Sometimes, you need to have the courage to get rid of work and rethink things completely. The thing is, you never really start over. The lessons you’ve learned before will sleep into what you do next. So don’t think of it as starting over. Think of it as beginning again.

Hope you enjoyed this extended resume. Let me know how did you find it in the comments. Do you want to see more of these in the future? Was it too long or too short?

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Hey, I’m Ahmed, I write about productivity, business, and achieving financial independence. Get my future posts directly in your email:


Response to “Show Your Work by Austin Kleon. Extended book resume”

  1. Vignesh .M

    Hi Ahmed,

    I have this in my reading list, but haven’t started yet. Thanks for sharing this summary. It is great, I would like to receive similar stuff in the future.

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