Book Notes: Show Your Work!

Updated April 13, 2021

Notes from Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon.

You don't have to be a genius

Find a scenius

  • Instead of the idea of a "lone genius" who comes out of nowhere, there's an idea of "scenius"  — great ideas come from a group of creative individuals, in some sense a collaboration.
  • Think about how to nurture and contribute to a scene.
  • The internet is full of scenes, and there's no gatekeepers on the internet.

Be an amateur

  • Amateurs take chances, experiment, and follow their whims. They aren't afraid to make mistakes or make mistakes in public.
  • Amateurs are also closer to the problems that their peers meet, so they can explain them better than masters can.
  • Look for voids where people aren't sharing things and see if you can fill them, no matter how bad your contributions are at first.

You can't find your voice if you don't use it

  • Talk about the things you love, and your voice will follow.
  • If you want other people to know about the things you care about, you have to share them (on the internet).

Read obituaries

  • Most people ignore the fact that we're all gonna die, which puts everything into perspective.
  • After a near-death experience, you realize that you have to stop waiting for things to happen, you should just make them happen and not care if other people think you're an idiot.
  • Reading obituaries is like near-death experiences for cowards.
    • It makes you read about what people did with their lives, and makes you want to live a full day.

Think process, not product

Take people behind the scenes

  • People are really interested in the process behind how things are made.
  • By putting yourself out there, you can form a relationship with your customers.
  • Document what you do.
    • Start a journal, keep a scrapbook, take photos, shoot a video of yourself work, etc.

Share something small every day

Send out a daily dispatch

  • After every day's work, go back to your documentation and find one little piece of your process that you can share.
  • Don't let sharing take priority over actually doing the work.
    • If you're having trouble balancing the two, set a timer for 30 minutes and kick yourself off the internet after it goes off.

The "so what?" test

  • Run everything you share through the "so what?" test:
    • Is this helpful?
    • Is it entertaining?
    • Is it something I'd be comfortable with my boss or my mother seeing?

Turn your flow into stock

  • "Flow" is the feed (tweets), while "stock" is the durable content that's interesting in future as well and spreads slowly but surely.
  • Try to maintain your flow while working on your stock in the background.
  • Stock is best made by collecting, organizing, and expanding on your flow.
  • You have to flip back through your old ideas and find patterns in your past flow.

Build a good (domain) name

  • Own a place online that you control, a world headquarters for you, and fill it with your work and ideas and things you care about.
  • Maintain it over time and stick with it.

Open up your cabinet of curiosities

Don't be a hoarder

  • You are continuously influenced by the things you watch, listen to, read, and admire.
    • Reading and writing are opposite ends of the same spectrum — they feed each other.

No guilty pleasures

  • We all love things that other people think are garbage, and you have to have the courage to keep loving those things, because it makes us unique.
  • When you find things you genuinely enjoy, don't let other people make you feel bad about it. Own it.

Credit is always due

  • Treat others' work with respect and care.
  • Without attribution, the people you share something with have no way to further investigate it the work.
  • Don't share something you can't properly credit.

Tell good stories

Work doesn't speak for itself

  • Something's value is heavily affected by what you're told about its' story.
  • Work doesn't speak for itself. Humans want to know where things came from, how they were made, and who made them.
  • Every tweet, photo, and video is constructing a multimedia story.
  • If you want to share your work more effectively, you need to become a better storyteller.

Structure is everything

  • A good pitch has three acts:
    1. The past — what you want, why you want it, and what you've done so far to get it.
    2. The present — where you are now in your work and how you've been working hard and used up most of your resources.
    3. The future — where you're going, and how exactly the person you're pitching can help you get there.
  • Study great stories and tell more of your own stories to get better at it.

Talk about yourself at parties

  • Stop treating party introductions as interrogations, and start treating them as opportunities to connect with someone by honestly explaining what you do.
    • Keep in mind your audience.
    • Tell the truth about yourself though.
    • Be patient and polite with more questions.
  • Strike all adjectives — neither "aspiring" nor "amazing". Just state the facts.

Teach what you know

Share your trade secrets

  • The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others.
    • Make people better at something they want to be better at.
  • Teaching people adds value to what you do, because it generates more interest in your work.
  • You'll also receive knowledge in return from people.

Don't turn into human spam

Shut up and listen

  • People who are "human spam" don't want to listen to your ideas, but they want to tell you theirs.
  • Listen, be thoughtful, be considerate, be open.

You want hearts, not eyeballs

  • Worry about quality, not quantity, of people following you online.
  • To be interesting, you have to be interested.
  • Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you'll attract people who love that kind of stuff.
  • "Follow me back?" is the saddest question on the internet.

The vampire test

  • If you hang out with someone and then feel depleted, that person is a vampire. If you feel full of energy afterwards, that person is not a vampire. Avoid vampires.

Identify your fellow knuckleballers

  • When you find people who share your obsessions or missions, nurture these relationships.
    • Sing their praises.
    • Invite them to collaborate.
    • Show them work before you show anybody else.
    • Call them on the phone and share your secrets.
    • Keep them as close as you can.

Meet up in meatspace

  • Turn the people you meet online into real-life friends with meetups or just getting lunch with them.

Learn to take a punch

Let 'em take their best shot

How to take punches:

  • Relax and breathe. Don't let fear take over. Bad criticism is not the end of the world.
  • Strengthen your neck. The more criticism you take, the more you realize it can't hurt you.
  • Roll with the punches. Control how you react to criticism, since you can't control the criticism itself.
  • Protect your vulnerable areas. If you have work that's too sensitive to be criticized, keep it hidden. But don't spend your life avoiding vulnerability.
  • Keep your balance. Your work is something you do, not who you are. Keep close to people who love you for you, not just your work.

Don't feed the trolls

  • Be wary of feedback that comes from outside the circle of people who care about you.
  • Block, delete, and remove nastiness.
  • You can also turn off comments — people can reach out to you one-on-one if they want.

Sell out

Even the renaissance had to be funded

  • Money doesn't inherently corrupt creativity.

Pass around the hat

  • Ask people to donate if they enjoy your work.

Keep a mailing list

  • Even if you don't have anything to sell right now, collect email addresses from people.
  • Give away great stuff on your website, collect emails, and then send an email when you have something remarkable to share or sell.

Make more work for yourself

  • Say yes to new projects, plans, and trying new things.
    • Don't listen to the people who call that selling out.
  • The real risk is not changing.
  • If an opportunity comes along that will allow you to do more of the kind of work you want to do, say yes. If an opportunity comes along that would mean more money, but less of the kind of work you want to do, say no.

Pay it forward

  • Be generous to people who've taught and helped you along the way.
    • Send opportunities their way.
  • Be as generous as you can, but selfish enough to get your own work done.

Stick around

Don't quit your show

  • You can't count on success, but you can leave open the possibility for it by not quitting.

Chain-smoke

  • To never lose momentum: do the work that's in front of you, and when it's finished, ask yourself what you could've done better or what you couldn't get to. Work on that next.
  • 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.

Go away so you can come back

  • If you burn out, take a sabbatical.
    • Sabbaticals break up the work years, instead of back-loading them all through retirement.
  • We can all take practical sabbaticals — breaks every day, week, or month from work.
  • Three spots to turn off our brains and take a break:
    • Commute. In a moving train, bus, or car. While driving, audiobooks are a safe way to tune out.
    • Exercise. Do some exercise and let your mind go.
    • Nature. Go take a hike or get some fresh air.
  • Separate life and work: if you never go to work, you never get to leave work.

Start over Begin again

  • When you feel like you're done learning, that's a sign to change course and find something new to learn so you can push yourself.
  • You should be embarrassed of who you were last year.
  • You can't fully start over, but think of it as beginning again. Go back to chapter one, look for something new to learn, and learn it in public as an amateur.