Book Review: The Austin Kleon Trilogy on Creativity

How can you come up with some decent creative ideas? Is it possible to be completely original? How do you get the guts to put what you make into the world? Is it possible to share too much? How do you find the motivation to keep creating?

If you want to make creativity part of your life, you’ve likely asked yourself a few of those questions. In his best-selling books, Austin Kleon addresses those questions and offers advice he’s learned from other artists and from living his own creative life.

Kleon describes himself as a “writer who draws.” He first became known for his artwork, in which he transforms print material using a black Sharpie and a little imagination. You can see it in his book, Newspaper Blackout.

He’s also written a trio of books on artistry and creativity:

  • Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
  • Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered
  • Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad

What are these books about?

Author/Artist Austin Kleon
Austin Kleon |By Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Austin says he “makes art with words and makes books with pictures.” These three books are short, easy reads filled with a lot of the author’s original illustrations: cartoons, hand-drawn diagrams, photographs, and his trademark blackout art.

The books are also packed with nuggets of wisdom — both from Kleon and through quotations from a wide variety of creative people.

Here are some quick synopses of what you’ll find in each of Kleon’s books:

Steal Like an Artist (2012)

In his first book on creativity, Kleon lets readers know it’s okay to find inspiration in the work of others as you make your own art. In fact … that’s pretty much how it works.

He cites people including Pablo Picasso, David Bowie, and T.S. Elliot who’ve all admitted that stealing/copying/paying tribute is part of their creative processes. And not only does art work that way … so does nature.

Kleon reminds us that even the Bible says “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Everything we see in this world comes from something else, including us. You are made up of your parents genetics (and all your ancestors’), but other people, experiences, and art also shaped you into who you are.

“You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences.”

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

Because of this, Kleon reminds us to carefully choose what we let influence our creativity, encourages us to create what we love, and asks us to think about what we want to subtract from our lives so we can focus on what matters.

Show Your Work! (2014)

In his follow up to Steal Like an Artist, Kleon tackles the challenge of earning attention for your work and how to handle it when you get it.

The book brings up the pros and cons of creating art in the digital age where social media is king. Kleon explains that you need to make your work “findable” online, but there should also be a balance. Sharing photos of your latte and your lunch isn’t sharing art (unless you were the barista or chef). And, spamming people isn’t the right way to earn attention either.

The author encourages readers to “share something small every day” (but he doesn’t mean selfies and memes you didn’t make). Daily sharing is also a good way to hold yourself accountable for making something worth sharing every day.

Life is short. We should use it to its fullest advantage and share with others. That’s why Kleon suggests reading obituaries:

“Reading about people who are dead now and did things with their lives makes me want to get up and do something decent with mine. Thinking about death every morning makes me want to live.”

Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

Keep Going (2019)

In the final book in Kleon’s trilogy, he takes on the topic of burnout.

The truth is, living a creative life isn’t always all that glamorous. It’s still work and can even become drudgery. So how do we dig deep and find the drive to keep going? Why doesn’t this being creative thing get any easier?

In Keep Going, he compares the life of artists and creative professionals to the movie Groundhog’s Day in which a weatherman played by Bill Murray relives the same day over and over. He recommends things like embracing a daily routine, setting up a “bliss station” where you can focus on your work, and getting outside to take walks because, “demons hate fresh air.”

He reminds us to focus on the verb — what we do and make — rather than the noun — what we want to be called: artist, writer, comedian, musician, designer, etc.

“If you pick the wrong noun to aspire to, you’ll be stuck with the wrong verb, too … Creativity is just a tool. Creativity can be used to organize your living room, paint a masterpiece, or design a weapon of mass destruction. If you only aspired to be a ‘creative,’ you might simply spend your time signaling that you are one: wearing designer eyeglasses, typing on your MacBook Pro, and Instagramming photos of yourself in your sun-drenched studio.”

Austin Kleon, Keep Going!

Kleon says he wrote this book because he needed to read it, adding that he came to a peace about his struggle creative endurance when he accepted the fact it probably won’t get any easier. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.”

Who are these books for?

Absolutely anyone will enjoy reading these three books, because we all have the capacity to be creative, and we all deal with the same struggles.

If you’re not a big reader, these books are the perfect way to absorb some sage advice on creativity while nurturing a short attention span with humor, illustrations, and celebrity soundbites. They’re fun to read, but they touch on profound subject matter.

What did I think about them?

Here are my favorite takeaways from each of these three books:

In Steal Like an Artist, I appreciated how Austin Kleon brought up the concept of “garbage in garbage out” when it comes to our media consumption habits. It’s easy to spend our free time absorbing all the noise and junk — from streaming and cable TV to social media and YouTube rabbit holes. Suddenly we find ourselves becoming content gluttons. If you want to find the time to create you need to stop consuming at some point.

In Show Your Work!, I loved how he recommended the idea of letting fans and followers go behind the scenes and see your process — not just your products. Somewhat related to that idea is his recommendation to have your own home on the web. You need a website where you can show your work. You don’t own what you share on social media.

Keep Going came out at the perfect moment for me. A lot of the 10 tips in this book were familiar. But seeing it all compiled into a single guide on living a creative life and persevering through the doubt, dry spells, and boredom was a breath of fresh air. I definitely needed the reminder that sometimes we can create for fun and nothing else.

One of the reasons I really enjoy Austin Kleon is because he is extremely relatable. He’s about the same age as me, has a wife and kids, held a day job in marketing (until 2012), and has a great sense of humor in his writing and art. He’s not a rock star. He works out of his garage. He deals with the same things we all deal with.

When he encourages and admonishes, he’s coming from the same place as the rest of us. Pick up these books for easy-reading that may also give you the kick in the butt you need to get started, put something you made into the world, and keep pressing on.

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