Show Your Work: 3 Creative Keys to Getting Known Today

What’s it take to get yourself noticed in today’s information-overloaded world?

Author and artist Austin Kleon says that great work alone isn’t enough—you need to show your work for your creativity to make an impact.

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

Music producer Adrian Younge tweeted one day, “Who is better: The Dramatics or The Delfonics?” An innocuous tweet intended to spur some social media debate, Younge was acting much like any other fan in that moment.

Every NBA fan has asked, “Who’s better: LeBron James or Michael Jordan?” Or maybe “Muhammad Ali or Joe Louis?” if you’re a boxing aficionado.

These sorts of fan debates are always interesting, even if they go nowhere and neither side convinces the other of anything. I swear, one-third of ESPN’s content follows this format. But it’s all harmless and meant in good fun.

For Younge, the Twitter debate was going much the same way, until one follower who responded mentioned that his dad was friends with William Hart, the lead singer of The Delfonics. Would Younge like to get in touch?

“To make a long story short,” Younge says, “a day later, I’m on the phone with William Hart and we’re speaking for like two hours … we hit it off in a way that was just cosmic.”

Younge went on to produce a record for Hart, Adrian Younge Presents The Delfonics.

Social media deniers will discount a story like this. In the fall of 2010, Malcolm Gladwell argued with some vehemence that Twitter and other forms of social media had little, if anything, to do with the Arab Spring uprisings, contrary to media reports touting their role in organizing followers (Wired has a good summary of the debate here).

Whether or not social media plays a pivotal role in political revolutions is one thing. But can it influence the course of professional and artistic careers? I think so.

And for Adrian Younge, it led to a collaboration with a legendary music group that might not have happened otherwise.

Austin Kleon: Show Your WorkThe story of Adrian Younge and the Delfonics stood out to me in Austin Kleon’s 2014 book Show Your Work. A sequel in substance to Kleon’s 2012 Steal Like an Artist, Kleon charts a path to sharing your work and getting discovered in today’s digitally native, interconnected world.

Here are 3 techniques from Show Your Work that I found particularly compelling:

  1. Share your process daily
  2. Mind your stock and flow
  3. Find a Scenius

Let’s chat about each one in turn.

1. Share Your Process Daily

Show Your Work argues persuasively that the key to getting your work recognized and discovered today is through sharing.

Lots and lots of sharing:

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. Instead of wasting their time “networking,” they’re taking advantage of the network. By generously sharing their ideas and their knowledge, they often gain an audience that they can then leverage when they need it — for fellowship, feedback, or patronage.

Head-down time combined with “daily dispatches” leads to discovery by your ideal audience. Kleon followed his own advice with his newspaper blackout poems. In time, this becomes a part of your unique value proposition to the public.

But what do you do if you don’t complete something every day? What do you share then? Kleon has an answer:

Once a day, after you’ve done your day’s work, go back to your documentation and find one little piece of your process that you can share. Where you are in your process will determine what that piece is. If you’re in the very early stages, share your influences and what’s inspiring you. If you’re in the middle of executing a project, write about your methods or share works in progress. If you’ve just completed a project, show the final product, share scraps from the cutting-room floor, or write about what you learned.

I’ll admit that I could get better at this. Since the focus at Agile Lifestyle is on long-read content (1,500+ words), I don’t publish as frequently as other sites. That can mean going weeks without staying in touch with you all.

While I don’t want to dilute the quality of output here with 300-word fluff pieces, I am looking at new ways to share every day, whether that’s via Twitter, email, or something else entirely.

  • Take action: Find a platform you’re already using and start sharing something work-related every day. Don’t feel like you need to start a brand new blog or something—turn your pre-existing Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn profiles into a new daily outpost for showing your process.

2. Mind Your Stock and Flow

While you’re sharing your process every day, you can’t let it detract from completing the big projects, the ones that are really worthy of Lifetime Achievement awards.

That’s where the idea of stocks and flows comes in:

”Stock and flow” is an economic concept that writer Robin Sloan has adapted into a metaphor for media: “Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people you exist. Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the content you produce that’s as interesting in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what people discover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, building fans over time.” Sloan says the magic formula is to maintain your flow while working on your stock in the background.

In my experience, your stock is best made by collecting, organizing, and expanding upon your flow.

For Robin Sloan, you work on your stock and your flow at the same time. For Kleon, the flow can become the stock with careful curation.

I know in my own online business, I’m pursuing both types of stocks. In the mold of Sloan, I’m working on all-new material to be launched in a bigger project down the road, and in the mold of Kleon, I am compiling, re-editing, and expanding on the articles here into a Kindle ebook.

The book Daily Rituals is a good example. In that case, the author turned his blog, Daily Routines, about the routines of famous authors, artists, and composers into a full-length book.

  • Take action: Find ways to use your previous work in a compilation. This translates to every walk of life. If you’re an employee at a corporation, put all the various workflows, processes, and templates you’ve written down or collected into one place and make it available to your colleagues. This sort of activity is never considered “urgent,” but it’s always needed, especially in a disorganized workplace.

3. Find a Scenius

In another part of the book, Kleon attempts to dispel the myth of the lone genius who works alone in their studio, never interacting with society until they’re ready to share their work of staggering genius.

Kleon thinks this is false. Geniuses more often come from networks of people interested in similar things:

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 birthed by a group of creative individuals—artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers—who make up an “ecology of talent.”

The value of a scenius is that it’s democratizing. If only geniuses could apply, a scenius could never form. Instead, being a part of a scenius is about how much you contribute and the quality of the connections you make.

Scenius doesn’t take away from the achievements of those great individuals; it just acknowledges that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds.

The Scenius can be thought of as an artists’ version of an Agile team. The Agile Manifesto encourages “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” The Manifesto also favors collaboration over negotiation, and believes in the power of motivated individuals and self-organization.

In Where Good Ideas Come From, author Steven Johnson argues that innovation and creativity rarely comes in a “eureka” moment, but rather in the iterative process of combining and re-combining existing ideas.

This is the heart of the Adjacent Possible strategy—constantly pushing on the border of what we know and what exists today creates new opportunities for combination. A Scenius does this naturally by bringing together motivated individuals with their own unique contributions.

Think about the Scenius that develops around a startup incubator like Y Combinator. Or the coffee-house Sceniuses that sprang up in 17th century Europe during the Enlightenment.

  • Take action: Go to a site like Meetup.com and search for people in your area who have similar interests. Maybe it’s blogging or small business, or a hobby like craftwork. You might strike out, but you also might find your next business partner or inspiration.

Let’s turn it over to you: How are you showing your work?

Image by Austin Kleon

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