Show off your work: Austin Kleon on not hiding your talents [SXSW]

Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon

The first of the keynotes kicked off SXSW 2014 with a speaker who once attended many a Southby sitting in the back, drawing illustrations of what he saw and heard happening up on stage. On Friday, Austin Kleon found himself standing on a Southyby stage, while an illustrator from ImageThink illustrated his words on a screen below him.

Kleon, the author of Newspaper Blackout and Steal Like an Artist, two best-selling books that have helped many a creative soul out of a rut, used his latest book to explain just how he made the leap. In Show Your Work, the Austin-based author explained how it was in showing his work — putting the illustrations he made up on his blog — that he became drawn into a community of like-minded people, eventually ending up as a keynote speaker at SXSW 2014.

Kleon has based his book on the idea that being a lone genius, one who works in isolation and with secrecy is no longer the way to think about creativity. He borrows a concept from super-producer Brian Eno, to encourage a new way of thinking about genius — “scenius.” The new model, Kleon insists, is based on ‘an ecology of talent; a whole community or ‘scene’ of people exchanging ideas and collaborating. “Scenius makes us all part of creativity, even those who don’t consider themselves geniuses,” says Austin. “You don’t have to be a genius, you just have to become part of the scenius.”

Kleon has a few ideas on ways to do this. Most of them stem from asking ourselves what we can do for others, rather than constantly asking what others can do for us. He uses an analogy invoking vampires and ‘human spam’ — two kinds of villains that suck the life out of any community – to illustrate this idea further, encouraging us to add to life, rather than deplete it. Here are some of the ways he suggests to do this:

Shut up and listen

Simply close your mouth, open your eyes and ears and hear what people are saying. “To become interesting, you must be interested,” he says. “If you want to be noticed, you have to notice.”

Don’t be a hoarder

Share your work with people, says Kleon, and share the things you like. “When you share the things you love, you attract the attention of others who love the same thing.” This, he believes, helps increase the interest for whatever it is you’re working on. In sharing though, Kleon believes in the importance of proper attribution. “Without it, you’re robbing your audience of the chance to dig deeper.”

Teach what you know

Since we learn more by teaching, Kleon advocates making a commitment to learning something new in public, and including others in the process of it all. “Don’t just show your finished work,” he says. “Show your process. People connect with your work that way.”

Kleon’s own process of creating Newspaper Blackouts, where he colours over the words of a newspaper he doesn’t need to make a poem, inspired others to send their creations to his website, which in turn, influenced and helped inspire him even further.

As for the issue of jealousy and envy of those who’re doing the same thing, Kleon says it’s all about perception; looking at others as kindred spirits and potential collaborators and not as competition. Instead of being closed off to others who were also illustrating conference talks, he brought everyone together in a SXSW panel that taught drawing. “Just because we taught people to draw doesn’t mean we put ourselves out of business. We just added value to it.” Patronage and feedback, and ‘little bits of effort’, Kleon maintains, are all part of the way forward into our own ‘sceniuses.’

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