Show Your Work
Title: Show Your Work
Author: Austin Kleon
“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”
In order to be found, you have to be findable. I think there’s an easy way of putting your work out there and making it discoverable while you’re focused on getting really good at what you do.
Almost all of the people I look up to and try to steal from today, regardless of their profession, have built sharing into their routine.
“Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.”
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
We’re all terrified of being revealed as amateurs, but in fact, today it is the amateur—the enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love (in French, the word means “lover”), regardless of the potential for fame, money, or career—who often has the advantage over the professional. Because they have little to lose, amateurs are willing to try anything and share the results. They take chances, experiment, and follow their whims. Sometimes, in the process of doing things in an unprofessional way, they make new discoveries. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, ” said Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki. “In the expert’s mind, there are few.”
The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others.
When the late film critic Roger Ebert went through several intense surgeries to treat his cancer, he lost the ability to speak. He lost his voice—physically and permanently. Here was a man who made a great deal of his living by speaking on television and now he couldn’t say a word. In order to communicate with his friends and family, he’d have to either scribble responses on a pad of paper, or type on his Mac and have the awkward computer voice read it out loud through his laptop speakers.
Cut off from everyday conversation, he poured himself into tweeting, posting to Facebook, and blogging at rogerebert.com. He ripped out posts at a breakneck speed, writing thousands and thousands of words about everything he could think of—his boyhood in Urbana, Illinois, his love for Steak ‘n Shake, his conversations with famous movie actors, his thoughts on his inevitable death. Hundreds and hundreds of people would respond to his posts, and he would respond back. Blogging became his primary way of communicating with the world. “On the web, my real voice finds expression,” he wrote.
Ebert knew his time on this planet was short, and he wanted to share everything he could in the time he had left. “Mr. Ebert writes as if it were a matter of life and death,” wrote journalist Janet Maslin, “because it is.” Ebert was blogging because he had to blog—because it was a matter of being heard, or not being heard. A matter of existing or not existing.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.
Thinking about death every morning makes me want to live.
Unfortunately, I am a coward. As much as I would like the existential euphoria that comes with it, I don’t really want a near-death experience. I want to stay safe and stay away from death as much as I can. I certainly don’t want to taunt it or court it or invite it any closer than it needs to be. But I do somehow want to remember that it’s coming for me.
It’s for this reason that I read the obituaries every morning. Obituaries are like near-death experiences for cowards. Reading them is a way for me to think about death while also keeping it at arm’s length.
Obituaries aren’t really about death; they’re about life. “The sum of every obituary is how heroic people are, and how noble,” writes artist Maira Kalman. 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.
Take inspiration from the people who muddled through life before you—they all started out as amateurs, and they got where they were going by making do with what they were given, and having the guts to put themselves out there. Follow their example.
Think process, not product.
In fact, sharing your process might actually be most valuable if the products of your work aren’t easily shared, if you’re still in the apprentice stage of your work, if you can’t just slap up a portfolio and call it a day, or if your process doesn’t necessarily lead to tangible finished products.
How can you show your work even when you have nothing to show? The first step is to scoop up the scraps and the residue of your process and shape them into some interesting bit of media that you can share. You have to turn the invisible into something other people can see. “You have to make stuff,” said journalist David Carr when he was asked if he had any advice for students. “No one is going to give a damn about your résumé; they want to see what you have made with your own little fingers.”
Become a documentarian of what you do.
Overnight success is a myth. Dig into almost every overnight success story and you’ll find about a decade’s worth of hard work and perseverance. Building a substantial body of work takes a long time—a lifetime, really—but thankfully, you don’t need that time all in one big chunk. So forget about decades, forget about years, and forget about months. Focus on days.
The day is the only unit of time that I can really get my head around. Seasons change, weeks are completely human-made, but the day has a rhythm. The sun goes up; the sun goes down. I can handle that.
Once a day, after you’ve done your day’s work, go back to your documentation and find one little piece of your process that you can share. Where you are in your process will determine what that piece is. If you’re in the very early stages, share your influences and what’s inspiring you. If you’re in the middle of executing a project, write about your methods or share works in progress. If you’ve just completed a project, show the final product, share scraps from the cutting-room floor, or write about what you learned. If you have lots of projects out into the world, you can report on how they’re doing—you can tell stories about how people are interacting with your work.
A daily dispatch is even better than a résumé or a portfolio, because it shows what we’re working on right now.
A good daily dispatch is like getting all the DVD extras before a movie comes out—you get to watch deleted scenes and listen to director’s commentary while the movie is being made.
Don’t worry about everything you post being perfect. Science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once said that 90 percent of everything is crap. The same is true of our own work. The trouble is, we don’t always know what’s good and what sucks. That’s why it’s important to get things in front of others and see how they react. “Sometimes you don’t always know what you’ve got,” says artist Wayne White. “It really does need a little social chemistry to make it show itself to you sometimes.”
Don’t say you don’t have enough time. We’re all busy, but we all get 24 hours a day. People often ask me, “How do you find the time for all this?” And I answer, “I look for it.” You find time the same place you find spare change: in the nooks and crannies. You find it in the cracks between the big stuff—your commute, your lunch break, the few hours after your kids go to bed. You might have to miss an episode of your favorite TV show, you might have to miss an hour of sleep, but you can find the time if you look for it. I like to work while the world is sleeping, and share while the world is at work.
Of course, don’t let sharing your work take precedence over actually doing your work. If you’re having a hard time balancing the two, just set a timer for 30 minutes. Once the timer goes off, kick yourself off the Internet and get back to work.
Turn your flow into stock.
“If you work on something a little bit every day, you end up with something that is massive.”
“Stock and flow” is an economic concept that writer Robin Sloan has adapted into a metaphor for media: “Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people you exist. Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.” Sloan says the magic formula is to maintain your flow while working on your stock in the background.
In my experience, your stock is best made by collecting, organizing, and expanding upon your fow. Social media sites function a lot like public notebooks—they’re places where we think out loud, let other people think back at us, then hopefully think some more. But the thing about keeping notebooks is that you have to revisit them in order to make the most out of them. You have to flip back through old ideas to see what you’ve been thinking. Once you make sharing part of your daily routine, you’ll notice themes and trends emerging in what you share. You’ll find patterns in your flow.
When you detect these patterns, you can start gathering these bits and pieces and turn them into something bigger and more substantial. You can turn your flow into stock. For example, a lot of the ideas in this book started out as tweets, which then became blog posts, which then became book chapters. Small things, over time, can get big.
Don’t think of your website as a self-promotion machine, think of it as a self-invention machine. Online, you can become the person you really want to be. Fill your website with your work and your ideas and the stuff you care about.
When she was young and starting out, Patti Smith got this advice from William Burroughs: “Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises. Don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful. Be concerned with doing good work. and if you can build a good name, eventually that name will be its own currency.”
The beauty of owning your own turf is that you can do whatever you want with it. Your domain name is your domain. You don’t have to make compromises. Build a good domain name, keep it clean, and eventually it will be its own currency. Whether people show up or they don’t, you’re out there, doing your thing, ready whenever they are.
“The problem with hoarding is you end up living off your reserves. Eventually, you’ll become stale. If you give away everything you have, you are left with nothing. This forces you to look, to be aware, to replenish. . . . Somehow the more you give away, the more comes back to you.”
There’s not as big of a difference between collecting and creating as you might think. A lot of the writers I know see the act of reading and the act of writing as existing on opposite ends of the same spectrum: The reading feeds the writing, which feeds the reading. “I’m basically a curator,” says the writer and former bookseller Jonathan Lethem. “Making books has always felt very connected to my bookselling experience, that of wanting to draw people’s attention to things that I liked, to shape things that I liked into new shapes.”
Our tastes make us what we are, but they can also cast a shadow over our own work. “All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste,” says public radio personality Ira Glass. “But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer.”
“I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you fucking like something, like it.”
There isn’t a big unifying principle to the collection, just what [Nelson] Molina likes.
When you share your taste and your influences, have the guts to own all of it. Don’t give in to the pressure to self-edit too much. Don’t be the lame guys at the record store arguing over who’s the more “authentic” punk rock band. Don’t try to be hip or cool. Being open and honest about what you like is the best way to connect with people who like those things, too.
Words matter. Artists love to trot out the tired line, “My work speaks for itself,” but the truth is, our work doesn’t speak for itself. Human beings want to know where things came from, how they were made, and who made them. The stories you tell about the work you do have a huge effect on how people feel and what they understand about your work affects how they value it.
“Why should we describe the frustrations and turning points in the lab, or all the hours of groundwork and failed images that precede the final outcomes?” asks artist Rachel Sussman. “Because, rarified exceptions aside, our audience is a human one, and humans want to connect. Personal stories can make the complex more tangible, spark associations, and offer entry into things that might otherwise leave one cold.”
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, every text, every conversation, every blog comment, every tweet, every photo, every video—they’re all bits and pieces of a multimedia 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.
“Whatever we say, we’re always talking about ourselves.”
“The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
. . . they explained that the technique of barbecue is actually very simple, but it takes years and years to master. There’s an intuition that you only gain through the repetition of practice.
As blogger Kathy Sierra says, “Make people better at something they want to be better at.”
Teaching people doesn’t subtract value from what you do, it actually adds to it. When you teach someone how to do your work, you are, in effect, generating more interest in your work. People feel closer to your work because you’re letting them in on what you know.
“When people realized they’re being listened to, they tell you things.”
No matter how famous they get, the forward-thinking artists of today aren’t just looking for fans or passive consumers of their work, they’re looking for potential collaborators, or co-conspirators. These artists acknowledge that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that the experience of art is always a two-way street, incomplete without feedback. These artists hang out online and answer questions. They ask for reading recommendations. They chat with fans about the stuff they love.
. . . think of the word interesting the way writer Lawrence Weschler does: For him, to be “interest-ing” is to be curious and attentive, and to practice “the continual projection of interest.” To put it more simply: If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested.
“Whatever excites you, go do it. Whatever drains you, stop doing it.”
“It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others.”
Yet a life of creativity is all about change—moving forward, taking chances, exploring new frontiers. “The real risk is in not changing,” said saxophonist John Coltrane. “I have to feel that I’m after something. If I make money, fine. But I’d rather be striving. It’s the striving, man, it’s that I want.”
The people who get what they’re after are very often the ones who just stick around long enough. It’s very important not to quit prematurely.
“In our business you don’t quit,” says comedian Joan Rivers. “You’re holding onto the ladder. When they cut off your hands, hold on with your elbows. When they cut off your arms, hold on with your teeth.”
“Work is never finished, only abandoned.”
As every author knows, your last book isn’t going to write your next one for you. A successful or failed project is no guarantee of another success or failure. Whether you’ve just won big or lost big, you still have to face the question, “What’s next?”
If you look to artists who’ve managed to achieve lifelong careers, you detect the same pattern: They all have been able to persevere, regardless of success or failure. Director Woody Allen has averaged a film a year for more than 40 years because he never takes time off: The day he finished editing a film is the day he starts writing the script for the next. Bob Pollard, the lead singer and songwriter for Guided by Voices, says he never gets writer’s block because he never stops writing. Author Ernest 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. Singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell says that whatever she feels is the weak link in her last project gives her inspiration for the next.
Add all this together and you get a way of working I call chain-smoking. You avoid stalling out in your career by never losing momentum. Here’s how you do it: Instead of taking a break in between projects, waiting for feedback, and worrying about what’s next, use the end of one project to light up the next one. Just do the work that’s on front of you, and when it’s finished, ask yourself what you missed, what you could’ve done better, or what you couldn’t get to, and jump right into the next project.
“We work because it’s a chain reaction, each subject leads to the next.”
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 so that you can move forward. You can’t be content with mastery; you have to push yourself to become a student again. “Anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough,” writes author Alain de Botton.
The comedian Louis C.K. worked on the same hour of material for 15 years, until he found out that his hero, George Carlin, threw out his material every year and started from scratch. C.K. was scared to try it, but once he did, it set him free. “When you’re done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs, and you throw those away, what do you have left? You can only dig deeper. You start talking about your feelings and who you are. And then you do those jokes and they’re gone. You gotta dig deeper.” When you get rid of old material, you push yourself further and come up with something better. When you throw out old work, what you’re really doing is making room for new work.
You have to have the courage to get rid of work and rethink things completely. “I need to sort of tear down everything I’ve done and rebuild from scratch,” said director Steven Soderbergh about his upcoming retirement from making films. “Not because I’ve figured everything out, I’ve just figured out what I can’t figure out and I need to tear it down and start over again.”
The thing is, you never really start over. You don’t lose all the work that’s come before. Even if you try to toss it aside, the lessons that you’ve learned from it will seep into what you do next.
So don’t think of it as starting over. Think of it as beginning again. Go back to chapter one—literally!—and become an amateur. Look for something new to learn, and when you find it, dedicate yourself to learning it out in the open. Document your progress and share as you go so that others can learn along with you. Show your work, and when the right people show up, pay close attention to them, because they’ll have a lot to show you.