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Deep Dive #23 Austin Kleon on Writing, Creativity and The Importance of Idleness

Austin Kleon is the bestselling author of a trilogy of books about creativity and originality in the digital age.

Ali Abdaal
Ali Abdaal

Austin's three books - Steal Like An Artist, Show Your Work! and Keep Going - have inspired have sold millions of copies around the world and inspired thousands of people, including myself. In our conversation we talked about Austin’s books, the value of writing daily and also the important balance between idleness and creativity.

Here are some of the highlights from our discussion:

Steal Like An Artist is not really about stealing but taking ideas and transforming them into something new. People think Picasso said "bad artists copy, great artists steal" but there’s no formal record of him saying that and it misses out the nuance of what ‘stealing’ entails. T.S.Elliot put it slightly differently in saying that “immature poets copy and great poets steal. The great poet takes what he has stolen and moulds it into an entirely different thing”.

Stop worrying about becoming an expert before you start. Teaching that comes from a fellow student is often more impactful than teaching from an expert. C.S.Lewis once said “fellow schoolboys can teach fellow students just as effectively as the teacher”. It's the difference between saying 'I'm an expert and I'm going to teach you something', and saying 'I'm a fellow student and I'm going to share what I've learnt and maybe you can take something from this’.

Writing is not just a way of communicating with the world, it’s actually a way of communicating with yourself. The act of writing creates a space in the day to connect with what is it that you really feel and what you really think. The pressure and routine and muscles of blogging every day means that you will get somewhere every day.

We’re a culture where people are pressurised to specialise but keeping more things in your life makes the whole thing richer. You can cut something out of your life by focussing on one thing BUT there will always be a weird phantom limb pain and there will always be a part of your brain connected to it.

Idleness and creativity are related. It’s the periods of inactivity that lead to the creative bursts and it’s the tension between these poles that make them work. If you look to the natural world, you can see it supplies you with the metaphors to help explain this – there are periods of frantic activity and periods of dormancy. Know what season you are in, do the work that is appropriate to that season and live accordingly.

It's the tension in life that keeps things tight. It revolves around the tension between living for the day but also working as if you are going to get a thousand more of them. Just like a guitar string - if the string is too loose it won't make a sound but if you wrench it too tight it will snap. Just as it's about finding the right tension to make a guitar sound good, it's just like that with life more generally.

🔥🔥🔥 Some Key Quotes 🔥🔥🔥

"People are much better served by forgetting about what noun you want to be and thinking about what verb you want to do"
“We’re a culture now whereby if you don’t have something that you are interested in, the world will provide it for you and it might not be the thing that makes you tick. When the internet started, you couldn’t just find something instantly, you had to stop and think about what you wanted to find. Nowadays the minute you open up your average site, it pours in at you. I always think about the search vs the feed – feed to me sounds like a pig in a trough whereas search is more self-motivated. My advice to people would be to make sure you are not being fed your interests and you are actually searching for your interests”.
“As I get older, the thing that I find really obnoxious about life is that a lot of the cliches turn out to be true, especially about parenting. It's really annoying”.
“Whenever I’m thinking too linearly, I try to think what’s the non-linear way to think about this? Sometimes it's about not thinking about stories in the way that we traditionally think about them because stories are artificial. What is not artificial is cycles - the moon goes around the Earth, the Earth goes around the Sun. Whenever I'm thinking too linearly I like to think about what is the non-linear way of thinking about this?"

Extra Resources

Books Mentioned

How To Do Nothing

How To Be Idle

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

Finite and Infinite Games

Documentaries Mentioned

Supermensch - The Legend of Shep Gordon

Ali Abdaal

Junior doctor, YouTuber, web designer, aspiring musician. Trying out this blogging thing.