Like my friend Clayton Cubitt says: “The phrase ‘respect the hustle’ makes me sad. We deserve a world where nobody has to hustle.”
I had a long, lovely chat with doctor and YouTuber Ali Abdaal this week. He read my book Show Your Work! in 2016 and said it inspired him to start sharing online. (He now has over a million subscribers and makes more money as a YouTuber than a doctor!)
One of the topics from the book we discussed is how much you learn when you have the courage to share what you have learned, regardless of your level of expertise.
It was certainly true of our conversation, as I learned something really interesting from Ali: he says he gets way better results with his YouTube videos when he titles them, “How I Remember Everything I Read,” instead of “How to Remember Everything You Read.” There’s something about using the first-person pronoun that opens things up, lets him speak from his own experience, and lets viewers feel like they can take what they need and do their own thing.
Stop worrying about becoming an expert before you start. Teaching that comes from a fellow student is often more impactful than teaching from an expert. C.S.Lewis once said “fellow schoolboys can teach fellow students just as effectively as the teacher”. It’s the difference between saying ‘I’m an expert and I’m going to teach you something’, and saying ‘I’m a fellow student and I’m going to share what I’ve learnt and maybe you can take something from this’.
By his own account, Quah’s actual qualifications for taking on the role of public thinker on podcasting were nil. He’d never made a podcast, had no background in radio or audio media of any kind. In fact, he was not long out of college and a few months into his first media job, an entry-level gig at Business Insider that he describes as closer to market research than journalism. He was basically some random guy with a new off-hours hobby…. Within a couple years of starting his newsletter, this random guy was able to quit his day job and become, for lack of a better word, a full-time expert…
Rob writes, “More than ever, expertise seems to have become a DIY affair; strategic and determined obsession can replace specific credentials or a tangible track record.”
Again, it’s not about being credentialed or being an expert, it’s about seeing a space open up, starting to do work that needs doing, sharing your ideas, and sticking around long enough so people show up and you can interact with them in a meaningful way and build something lasting.
Part of this is also forgetting about job titles and focusing on the work that should be done. Here’s a brief clip from a longer conversation I had with Nelda Sue Yaw about an idea from my book Keep Going:
The crucial thing, I think, is that if you do get the job title, if you do become something like an “expert” or “professional” in your field, you must retain an amateur’s spirit and remain a student, so that you can benefit from the best thing about having your work out in world: the “free education that goes on for a lifetime.”
Personally, I’m more inspired by Zen Buddhism than Stoicism, which is why I was happy Ryan looked a little more to the East for Stillness is the Key. (Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind speaks more to my artistic practice than any Stoic text, but I’ve read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations several times and I really dig Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life.)
I had a very nice conversation with Frank Blake on his podcast, Crazy Good Turns. It began like this:
FRANK BLAKE: I come from the business world and you’re an artist, but what you say and the thought processes you have as an artist are applicable far more universally than I ever would have thought.
I don’t know if other people have said that to you, but it’s extraordinary. I quote you all the time to business leaders.
AUSTIN KLEON: Well, I’m thrilled to hear it…. I’m thrilled to hear whenever my work is used in other fields because I’m someone who has been inspired by things outside of my own field.
Maybe one of the key takeaways from my books is that to be a voracious devourer of things outside of your field of expertise and do what Brian Eno calls import/export, where you export something from one field and import it into your own and sort of make it yours.
It’s a point I’ve tried to make over the years that others often make more successfully: My books aren’t just for “creatives,” but people doing all kinds of work.
The folks at CGT are giving away a bunch of my books and 1o of my favorites here.
It’s not like I was holding that much back before — unfortunately, I tend to do my thinking out loud — but for better or worse, I’ve been more candid than usual in recent interviews. I don’t know what’s brought it about, really, other than: Being truthful and open feels really good, but even more than that, it’s not boring. So many podcasts are so boring and who wants to be boring? I’m also just genuinely happy and relaxed right now, so, I dunno, I just don’t feel like bullshitting. (You’d think the opposite would be true? That I’d have more patience for bullshitting now that I’m happy and relaxed? Life is weird.)
My interview with Jonathan Small on Write About Now:
Filed under: interviews
To quote Tristan Tzara, “thought is produced in the mouth.” Only an extrovert or a poet would say that, and, unfortunately, I’m both. Sometimes I don’t know quite what I think until I say it. (And often what I say out loud is articulated much better in the books.)
Here’s a part of our conversation about what I saw on book tour that I was happy to see highlighted:
“People are anxious about feeling like they should be doing more. Information is not their problem. A lot of these people that I meet, they’ve read all the blogs, bought all the books, and they know they’re supposed to get up and do their three morning pages and share something every day. They know they’re supposed to write down their dreams and thoughts and do their bullet journal. They know they’re supposed to be doing this stuff, but what they really need is someone to just take them aside and remind them this is supposed to be fun. This work we’re talking about isn’t about running an Etsy shop. It’s about like feeling like a human being. It’s hippie stuff like that people really need someone in my position to share. They need someone to say, ‘I watched three hours of Justified last night.’ You would be amazed how many nights I spend drinking whiskey and watching reruns of my favorite shows. The purpose of this work is not to build a side hustle. It’s about being a human being, and there are just so many people out there right now that just need a little bit of affirmation.”
On a sidenote, it was good to visit the Texas Monthly office, too, because they gave me one of my first reviews almost a decade ago.
On acknowledging the role of luck:
Anyone who has any kind of audience and doesn’t acknowledge luck is deluding themselves. Of course we make moves that put us in the right place at the right time, but to not acknowledge luck just seems to me a great disservice to everyone.
On my books as bathroom reads:
“When someone tells me that they keep my books on the back of the commode, that is a great compliment to me, actually—because that’s where people read.”
On having parents like Milton Glaser’s:
“I had a mother who told me I could do anything, and a father who said, ‘Prove it.’” That’s the best school there was.”
On finishing a project:
“The great pain of creative work is that once the thing is done, it’s dead to you. I mean, execution is literally like an execution.”
Because I believe in credit where credit is due, there’s one little thing I want to clear up. There’s a really fun surprise at a certain point in the conversation, a moment so good that I hate to ruin it. Though I’ve been a fan of Debbie’s work for a long time, it was actually Mary Doria Russell’s 1999 commencement speech at Laurel School that inspired my wife.
The setting was a little different than what we’re both used to: We spoke in the University Temple United Methodist Church, across the street from the University Book Store.
Here’s a photo of the EXIT signs I mention during the talk:
I grew up in a Methodist church, so it brought back all sorts of feelings for me. Singing in the choir. Half-listening to sermons while reading the Bible. Lighting candles on the altar. Meeting my best friend while plonking on an old piano in Sunday school.
I think the setting gave this conversation a different tone than our others. Maybe more pensive. I don’t know.
Here’s our first conversation, from 2013:
Here’s us in 2014, riding around in the back of a car at SXSW:
And here’s our third conversation, from 2016:
Chase always makes it fun. My many thanks to him, his team, the University Book Store, and the great audience who turned out.
To promote Keep Going, I spent the past two weeks recording podcasts all afternoon, so here’s a little roundup of the first ones to post.
1. I was totally flattered to be the first male guest invited on the Crafty Ass Female podcast. We talked about a bunch of stuff, but my favorite part of the conversation was when we talked about how feminism is the way out of the nightmare of being a man. (A strong belief of mine!)
2. Had a great time talking to the fellas on the He Shoots, He Draws podcast.
3. Enjoyed chatting again with The Kindle Chronicles. Len excerpted this bit:
“When I first started out, if you had told me that my books were going to be shelved in Self Help, I would never have believed you. And when I first got started I had no idea there was such a thing as an illustrated gift book. I just didn’t know that those genres existed in publishing. The really fun thing for me about doing this kind of book is that it allows me to be as weird as I want to be in a mainstream format. That is the great gift that these books have given to me.”
This is going to be one candid book tour, lemme tell you!