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Book Recap - Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

Keegan Leary
Keegan Leary

Main Takeaway

This is the book that gives you permission (if you were hesitant) to start that blog, run that race, or create that art and to document how it's going for others to benefit from.  Anybody can create, and should do so.

Should you Read it?

Yes.  Insightful and a quick read.  This is how I like my nonfiction, especially the life-advice/leadership/motivational genre.

Why I Chose it?

Ali Abdaal's recommendation.

What resonated with me...

⭐️  Become a documentarian of what you do. This is my favorite idea from the book.

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. Take advantage of all the cheap, easy tools at your disposal—these days, most of us carry a fully functional multimedia studio around in our smartphones.

Probably my favorite idea in the book.  Not only can becoming your own documentarian help in a business sense, but it's guaranteed to be useful to your loved ones who want to know as much as they can about you.  

Take for example my grandfather and grandmother.  My grandfather was a Navy pilot in WW2 and the Korean war.  He had some fantastic stories.  Unfortunately, we never wrote them down before he died.  What a shame to lose those stories.  Grandmere had a very interesting life as well, carrying on the war support effort by selling shoe stamps to service members and teaching.  Later in life, she traveled extensively through Europe on her bike with a group of women at a time when women didn't travel extensively, let alone on bicycles.  I've been better about writing down some of the snippets she gives us here and there (she turns 100 in 2 weeks on the 12th of Nov!) but I still can't but wish that she took some time to write a book.

"Who would read that?!?" she always says.

"I would!" Shouldn't that be enough?


A pitch as a story with the end chopped off.  "You should buy my product because the second half of this story is going to be as good (or better) than the first half."

Every client presentation, every personal essay, every cover letter, every fund-raising request—they’re all pitches. They’re stories with the endings chopped off.

On being an amateur who shares his or her learning process:

Amateurs might lack formal training, but they’re all lifelong learners, and they make a point of learning in the open, so that others can learn from their failures and successes.

I love the idea that we can actually learn more from amateurs than from experts.  It makes me think back to Superforcasting where Philip Tetlock explains how lots of "experts" actually make back predictors (i.e. stock market pundits, sportscasters, etc.)


For pure inspiration or motivation:

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.
This all made sense in a pre-digital age, when the only way an artist could connect with an audience was through a gallery show or write-up in some fancy art magazine. But today, by taking advantage of the Internet and social media, an artist can share whatever she wants, whenever she wants, at almost no cost.

Austin mentions reading obituaries for inspiration.  Interesting take.  Probably not something I ever would have gravitated to.  Yes, I checked out the obituaries in the paper this morning and I like the idea.  Not sure I'll carry on with it consistently though.

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.

On the importance of story, something I am often thinking about these days as I contemplate how to improve Navy Recruiting.  I'm very curious how I can improve my story-telling ability.  Extra resonance felt from a recent JRE podcast with Matthew McConaughey where he discusses a natural proclivity for acting "I mean, again, I come from a from a family of storytellers where we sat around the table and told stories. And if you didn't tell your story, good.  Somebody at the table took it over and you'd better be telling a good story and not dragging on or losing your train of thought because somebody else will step in and roll over you.  So when you wanted to get a word in, you better be a good storyteller."

In their book, Significant Objects, Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker recount an experiment in which they set out to test this hypothesis: “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.”
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, and how people feel and what they understand about your work effects how they value it.
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.

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. Over the years, you will be tempted to abandon it for the newest, shiniest social network. Don’t give in. Don’t let it fall into neglect. Think about it in the long term. Stick with it, maintain it, and let it change with you over time.

I like how Austin explains how to think about your personal website online, and how to separate it from what you might post on social media.


For fun.  I led a personal branding seminar at work and using words like ninja or guru was very popular.  Austin doesn't seem to agree 😂.

One more thing: Unless you are actually a ninja, a guru, or a rock star, don’t ever use any of those terms in your bio. Ever.

Appropriate for me heading into sabbatical this December.

...designer Stefan Sagmeister swears by the power of the sabbatical—every seven years, he shuts down his studio and takes a year off. His thinking is that we dedicate the first 25 years or so of our lives to learning, the next 40 to work, and the last 15 to retirement, so why not take 5 years off retirement and use them to break up the work years? He says the sabbatical has turned out to be invaluable to his work: “Everything that we designed in the seven years following the first sabbatical had its roots in thinking done during that sabbatical.”

Random selections:

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.
“being good at things is the only thing that earns you clout or connections.”
Books

Keegan Leary

10 years in the Navy as a Nuclear Submarine Officer. Soon to be be Naval Reservist. Fitness, Books, Cooking, and Coding.