Austin Kleon: Keep Going

Foreword by Marcela Villa and Interview by Angela Yungk

With every new artist that we encounter, we receive another source of inspiration. We get hope that any path, no matter how short or long, how many detours and obstacles, there can be happiness and success. Your creative journey has no timeline and no blueprint­—each is unique, and necessarily so; you can find your truth along the way, and with that revelation, your art will find a way to work harmoniously into your life.

Austin Kleon is an Ohio native teaching people how to take steps towards pursuing their artistic ventures all while discovering their personal flair that makes them unique. He is an entrepreneur, a writer and blogger, finding his creative outlets in the 21st century and inspiring the masses to do the same. Book writing was always the goal, but it was through a day job and a blog that Austin was able to kick start his writing career.  Jumping on new opportunities that came his way led him to his book dream coming to fruition with the arrival of Steal Like An Artist, Show Your Work!, and Keep Going.

His motivational works are exactly what a creative needs today when the sky is the limit for artistic expression and inspiration.Austin offers a method to our creative madness, and uses Steal Like An Artist to tell us how to get our juices flowing and find our own style amongst the plethora of inspiration we are surrounded by. Once we have become comfortable with our own artistic language, he suggests we share our work; Show Your Work! helps the modern creative take their talents to the next level—by sharing our work, we can learn from others, learn more about ourselves, and promote our progress along the way and finishes it off with his last book Keep Going to continue on the creative path. He has made these steps his life’s truth, which makes it all the more inspirational. He has found his path, his creative truth, and sat down with Art Hive to tell us what he’s discovered.

Before we speak about all of your work­—you are a creative entrepreneur but you also have a family. How have you managed to merge both of those worlds together? Has it been seamless and what have you learned?

That’s a great question—I don’t know about seamless. The way it works in my house, the way my wife and I have always managed things, we sort of hand off at different moments of our life. There was a time when she was in school and I was working, and then there was a time where she was working and I was kind of half-time, and now she is home full-time with the kids. It’s just a balance and I try to be very clear whenever I’m talking about having a family and doing my work, that my wife is a stay-at-home mom at this point, and she does the majority of our childcare. That is sort of what we have worked out as a couple. It looks like a fairly traditional arrangement to others, but it is just the way it worked out for us. As far as the balance goes, every day is different around here. Like this afternoon, I have a couple of interviews and I have a newsletter to put together, and so, I’m not on “dad mode.” But tomorrow is Friday, and I might take them to the beach. In general I find that with people who do creative work and have kids, there is a lot of compromises, a lot of trade-offs, and a lot of help. That’s sort of how we make it work in our house.

Do you think that you have turned out to be a natural creative entrepreneur?

It’s very easy for me to understand the business end of things. I think people would probably be shocked to know that I keep spreadsheets of all my book sales every week, and I’m very interested in the contracts when we sign things for speaking gigs; I do have that mind for business. The problem is that I’m not really very interested in business. I have to really push myself to care about the business end of things. It’s not that I can’t do it, it’s not that I can’t handle it, it’s just literally the last thing I want to work on. I think there are a lot of creative people who probably feel that way. It’s sort of the discipline of the job and I have to make myself pay attention to the business stuff. I think part of being an entrepreneur, for me, is also about taking advantage of the freedom and just knowing when I have had “enough.” There are things that I don’t do with my business operations right now that would be simple or lucrative that I just don’t do. For example, I really don’t have a store online right now. I don’t sell prints, I don’t sell merchandise, I don’t sell T-shirts, I don’t sell posters—I don’t do any of that stuff right now. The reason I don’t have that running is that I’m making enough money off of my books and speaking engagements to have a comfortable lifestyle with the family. That’s something we’re working on and want to get up, but it’s also sort of a choice—you know what I mean? There are definitely days where I am just like, “Sign me up with some behemoth corporation so I can just sit at a desk nine-to-five and have really good benefits!” I think if you are going to take advantage of being an entrepreneur or a small business person, saying no to a lot of stuff is part of the fun, and it’s part of the freedom; to be flexible with your business model. I’m not really beholden to many people so that makes it really easy for me to be flexible.

We definitely believe people are the sum of their influences and your first book, Steal Like an Artist, really highlights the reasons why creativity doesn’t necessarily grow or flourish in a vacuum. What was the creative catalyst to writing your first book?

I always wanted to be a writer and I always wanted to write books. I had a lot of very good mentors when I was younger and in college. I knew from an early age the realities of the publishing business. I knew that to do the kind of weird stuff that I wanted to do, I wasn’t going to be able to live off my writing. I knew that it was going to be easier to have a day job, a good solid day job, and then do my stuff on the side and that’s what I did for a long time. When I got out of college it was 2005 and people still read blogs­—there was still sort of a barrier to entry for online stuff. I just knew that having a blog and a website would be the best place for me and that I could make the work I wanted to. I could go to my day job and I could post stuff and sort of be part of a community without being anywhere in particular geographically. It wasn’t too long after I started that blog, it was two or three years when an editor from Harper Collins contacted me and said, “Do you want to turn your Newspaper Blackout pieces into a book?” For your readers who don’t know what those are—you take a page in a newspaper and a permanent marker and I would blackout most of the article and then just leave a few words behind. It was almost as if the CIA did a haiku. That was my first book, Newspaper Blackout. When Newspaper Blackout came out, I still had a day job; I was a web designer at a law school in Austin, Texas. My life really didn’t change that much. Then I got invitations to speak at a couple of places, and one of the talks I gave was this talk called “How To Steal Like An Artist.” I turned that talk into a blog post and that went super viral and that was in 2011. So that was about a year or so after Newspaper Blackout came out, and it was clear that that would be a great book and I was getting a lot of requests from editors. The point of that story is that I never actually had an idea for a book and then pitched it to publishers. I always sort of operated in my own world online and waited for people’s interest to show me what would be a natural product, like a book or something, and then I would make the book. So that’s sort of the way that my whole career has operated, and that’s kind of how I’m comfortable. I like to test things out in the world before I try to make the final thing. Show Your Work was an obvious sequel to Steal Like An Artist, but Keep Going, the last book was actually a talk I had given in San Francisco. I sort of had it in my mind that it could be the third book in this creative trilogy, but I didn’t know for sure. But then the talk went so well and I knew they were filming it, so it was obvious that was going to be the third book. The point I’m trying to make is there wasn’t really a moment—it was really just about showing my work. Putting little bits and pieces out into the world over time and seeing how people respond to them, and then building on those pieces and rearranging those little pieces into different things, like talks or blog posts.

A lot of times people want to directly know the blueprint or exact path to “success” but it’s clear there isn’t one.

I’m on a big kick right now where I think everyone should really acknowledge the role of luck in success; The role of luck and good timing and sort of making moves that match up with your era. I think the job of every young artist is to figure out what time they’re situated in and to figure out what moves they can make to get to where they’re going. For example, a young artist looking at me thinking, “oh man, I’d like to have what he has.” You can sort of reverse engineer what I did, but not really because it was such a particular time period. In 2005, there just weren’t that many blogs and the internet was a quieter place. We didn’t have social media yet, we didn’t have Twitter. Twitter was a couple of years away, and it just felt like there was space. With my books, I try really hard to extrapolate general principles that can help artists along instead of being very prescriptive. A lot of people want to know what website should I be on, what social media platform should I be on. Tell me what exact moves to make right now. I’m sitting here thinking, I don’t know what they are. But I can tell you here are the general principles that have helped artists connect with the community, get their work out and eventually get where they want to go. I think there are general things that people can do, to do that kind of thing. A really specific example of this is in my book Show Your Work, which was so much about how to use the internet to share your process as much as your products.