My 5 favourite takeaways from Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work!

I first stumbled upon this book when Ali Abdaal recommended it as part of his ‘3 books that changed my life’ video. If you don’t know who Ali Abdaal is, he is one of the most productive youtubers out there, who happens to be an avid reader. So, I decided to give this book a go. It’s just a short read of 224 pages but boy, it got all of its points across.

This book’s key premise is why it’s not only important to show you work, but to allow your work to be ‘findable’. I think it’s a great read for anyone who has impostor syndrome, or feel like our work isn’t good enough (I think we can all relate to this). After all, in this day and age, what idea is even novel? Even as we blog here at, we often second guess ourselves, wondering if we are even qualified to write about some things, or what more value can we provide to the world.

The book is split into 10 sections on ways we can show our creativity and get discovered, but make no mistake, it’s not a ‘do-step-1-10-and-you-will-be-creative-and-famous’ kind of book. It’s also packed with anecdotes, philosophies and great quotes. I truly enjoyed Kleon’s writing style. So, here are my 5 favourite takeaways from this Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work! :

1. Good work is not created in a vacuum

The world loves a good success story. Be it Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Bill Gates – we glorify their successes, we look up to them and we wonder to ourselves, how could we ever reach those standards. We carry a weight on our shoulders to be a Genius. Kleon posits that good work is instead, in some sense always a result of collaboration. All these prominent figures got to where they were because they had enablers in their lives; great ones. Those who they can bounce ideas from, those who they can learn from. I really liked this point because it pivots our society’s view from one of competition to one of collaboration. It’s a humbling perspective to know we can always learn from someone else, but what is unique to us, is how we then take all those lessons and inject our own spin on it.

There’s a healthier way of thinking about creativity that the musician Brian Eno refers to as ‘Scenius’. Under this model, great ideas are often birther by a group of creative individuals – artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemarkers – who make up an ‘ecology of talent’. …Many of those people we think as lone geniuses were actually part of a whole scene of people supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas and contributing ideas.

Section 1: You don’t have to be a genius

2. An Amateur can help more than a master because he knows less

This point is for every insecurity we ever had for putting our work out there. We compare ourselves to others, and sometimes even talk ourselves out of doing something because we think we are just not good enough. Kleon quotes Clay Shirky in his book Cognitive Surplus, to state that creative work sits on a spectrum; an amateur is still on that spectrum, and can over time improve. The true gap is between doing something and nothing at all. He goes on to suggest that if anything, we as amateurs can even more helpful than a master because we can relate. As Ali Abdaal once beautifully puts itThink of being a tour guide, not a guru; where we are on a journey together.‘ I find this to be so on-point because many times I’ve learnt better from an amateur who can put himself in my shoes, and therefore explain the subject of something to me better. This is why maybe some of us learn better from a tutor than a lecturer, we learn better from a peer than our boss. The key message here is, amateurs do have an advantage; our inexperience is in itself both our strength and weakness.

The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago he has forgotten.

Section 1: You don’t have to be a genius

3. To connect, we must allow ourselves to be seen _ really seen

The sub-header is paraphrased from Brene Brown‘s quote of ‘In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen – really seen’. Kleon suggest that showing our work, is more than just showing the final product of our work. If anything, our work is the entire process of coming up with the final product. It’s that transparency, that vulnerability and willingness to share, that connects us with someone else, which in turn garners feedback, and helps us improve our work. It’s no wonder that vlogs or renovation home series are so popular on Youtube. I myself watch a whole bunch of them. There is just something about being open, that makes us feel vested in the series, like we are growing together/ going through the process together. Maybe deep down, all of us are seeking to relate. Be it in our work, or in our personal lives.

When a painter talks about her ‘work’, she could be talking about two different things: There’s the artwork, the finished piece, framed and hung on a gallery wall. And there’s the art work, all the day-to-day stuff that goes on behind the scenes of her studio: looking for inspiration, getting an idea, applying oil to a canvas etc.

Section 2: Think Process, not Product

4. Your work does not always speak for itself

If you could buy a painting, one a fake, and the other painted by a famous artist, which would you buy if they looked exactly the same? Chances are you’d still gravitate to the original because it’s more than the artwork itself, it’s the story of the artist that you are buying into. Kleon be spitting truth bombs here. I related this point to my work in Corporate. We often see that sometimes it’s not the most competent person who gets promoted and we often wonder why. At least in my experience, I realised that those who do are great storytellers. Whether they are truly wonderful at their jobs aside, they can certainly convey the message that is needed. As harsh as it sounds, doing the work is only half of the job, the other is conveying to another the lengths you have gone to get this work done. It becomes a story of resourcefulness, a story of struggle/triumph. I think most top management are great storytellers. After all, once you are up there, your role is no longer about doing the nitty gritty work; your role is to evoke confidence in your company and team. Therein lies the power of storytelling.

Words matter. Artists love to trot out the tired line ‘My work speaks for itself’; the truth is, our work does not 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 has a huge effect on how people feel and what they understand about your work, and how they value it.

Section 5: Tell Good Stories

5. Give and ye shall receive

The line between sharing and over-sharing is a fine one. One comes from a place of generosity, wanting to provide value; the other comes likely from a place of narcissism. When we start sharing, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the world is all about us and our work. We want the attention, we want others to listen to our stories. Kleon suggest that if you want followers, be someone worth following. If you want to be interesting, be interested. It’s not to say that we must now go out to the world and feign artificial interest in others, in order to get attention. Instead, it’s about continuously reinvesting into our work to improve, to be interested in other people’s work, in a genuine attempt to learn and collaborate.

It’s actually true that life is all about ‘who you know’. But who you know is largely dependent on who you are and what you can do, and the people you know can’t do anything for you if you’re not doing good work.

Section 7: Don’t turn into Human Spam

That wraps up my favourite takeaways from the book! It’s a great short read packed with wisdom gems, would highly recommend!

Hope you found it useful. If you have any recommendations of books I should read, do drop a comment! Would love to hear from you 🙂

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