Learnings from Show Your Work

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to easily share your own work? I don’t know about you but I struggle to do so. Every time I try to create anything doubts keep creeping up. Am I knowledgeable enough to write about this? Is the quality of the content I’m producing good? Is what I’m writing about interesting for anyone? Most of the time questions like these keep me from producing anything. But thankfully Austin Kleon recently talked some sense into me via his fantastic book Show Your Work.

If you struggle to produce content even though you would really like to this book might be able to help you. A lot of us seem to have counterproductive habits and bad mental reflexes when it comes to content creation. Read Austin’s book and start retraining your brain to approach your content creation differently.

The book starts right away with its main idea: you should share your work while you are in the process of creation, instead of waiting for it to be done and only to share it then. Austin says that he observed this strategy from people he admires: “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. These people aren’t schmoozing at cocktail parties; they’re too busy for that. They’re cranking away in their studios, their laboratories, or their cubicles, but instead of maintaining absolute secrecy and hoarding their work, they’re open about what they’re working on, and they’re consistently posting bits and pieces of their work, their ideas, and what they’re learning online.” This concept alone would have been enough for me. The simple realization that the process you are in whether that be your career or the process of writing your book, recording your podcast, or filming your video has value in and of itself. Austin describes this presentation of your work process as something like DVD extras: “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.”

But it doesn’t stop there. I learned so much more on my journey through this book. Austin convinced me that I should share more about my own thought and work process, but then impostor syndrome kicked in: I wondered what I should write about and how it should be structured. Being an empathetic writer Austin nicely predicted my feelings and had some advice prepared: “We’re always being told find your voice. When I was younger, I never really knew what this meant. I used to worry a lot about voice, wondering if I had my own. But now I realize that the only way to find your voice is to use it. It’s hardwired, built into you. Talk about the things you love. Your voice will follow.” Reading this I felt like a heavy burden fell from my shoulders. I always felt like you need to have everything figured out when you want to start sharing your work with the world. Your texts need to be error-free, your blog needs to look fantastic, you need a great blog name, and most important of all you need to have figured out what you want to write about. But listening to Austin I realized that this might not be true. You don’t need to have everything figured out from the get-go: what a wonderful insight.

Your website doesn’t have to look pretty; it just has to exist.

Austin has some clear advice on how to create content. To document your process, use everything that is at your disposal. “Become a documentarian of what you do. Start a work journal: Write your thoughts down in a notebook, or speak them into an audio recorder. Keep a scrapbook. Take a lot of photographs of your work at different stages in your process. Shoot video of you working. This isn’t about making art, it’s about simply keeping track of what’s going on around you.” But what if we still feel like we have nothing to share? Maybe we are more at an early learning stage of our process. For this, he advises: ”[…] pay attention to what others are sharing, and then start taking note of what they’re not sharing. Be on the lookout for voids that you can fill with your own efforts, no matter how bad they are at first.”

Content creation and content consumption are inherently linked for Austin. A painter needs to look at other paintings and a writer needs to read other people’s books or as Austin puts it: “When I was in college, there was always one classmate in every creative writing workshop who claimed, ‘I love to write, but I don’t like to read.’ It was evident right away that you could pretty much write that kid off completely. As every writer knows, if you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader first.” Our consumption is the fuel we all need to create our own works. And the consumption itself is a great place to hold in and share. “The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others. Share your reading list. Point to helpful reference materials. Create some tutorials and post them online. Use pictures, words, and video. Take people step-by-step through part of your process.”

When discussing and sharing other people’s work becomes part of your own creation it becomes essential to add citations and links. As he beautifully puts it: “Attribution is about putting little museum labels next to the stuff you share.” And share we must because our work never exists all alone in an empty void. If I learned one thing from my time in academia it is that we always stand on the shoulders of the giants that came before us. We have to name those we are basing our work on properly, so they get the recognition they deserve and our readers find their way to their works too.

But some people act like their work exists in a void. Austin has a catchy name for them: human spam. “They don’t want to pay their dues, they want their piece right here, right now. They don’t want to listen to your ideas; they want to tell you theirs. They don’t want to go to shows, but they thrust flyers at you on the sidewalk and scream at you to come to theirs. You should feel pity for these people and their delusions.” We all know those people. Everywhere we go – especially on the internet – they await us. It is almost difficult to not think that you are required to be human spam to have some success. Austin proposes that the way to avoid becoming human spam is to become a fan yourself. “If you want fans, you have to be a fan first. If you want to be accepted by a community, you have to first be a good citizen of that community. If you’re only pointing to your own stuff online, you’re doing it wrong. You have to be a connector.” I enjoyed reading this idea and immediately thought of musicians like Louis Armstrong and scientists like Albert Einstein that collaborated extensively instead of working in isolation.

There are many more lessons to learn in Show Your Work but these were the ones that resonated most with me. It is definitely one of the books that I will return to throughout my career.