Steal like an artistWhere do “new” ideas come from? Do they strike like lightning or start in familiar territory and gradually transform with each iteration? How is creativity cultivated? Innovators are frequently asked, “where do your ideas come from?”, and it’s a good question.

Artist and writer Austin Kleon [author profile] answers “I steal them.” Based initially on a lecture advising students how to foster creativity, Steal Like an Artist is a valuable resource for anyone engaged in creative pursuits, or really, just anyone in general.

Why this book?

With the rise of online educational resources and the inclusion of adult learning theory into didactics, emergency medicine (EM) education is ripe for innovation and creativity. The lessons in this book resonated with many of the editors of Academic Life in Emergency Medicine. We felt others would be equally inspired and that the resulting discussion could be interesting and useful.  And what better place to discuss this book than at CORD’s Annual Assembly – a conference dedicated towards improving and innovating education within EM!


This New York Times Best Seller by Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) is full of poetry, drawings, quotations, and text that emphasize 10 transformative principles vital to creative pursuits.

  1. Steal Like an Artist
    Learn everything about the people that inspire you and the people that inspire them. Study their ideas and works and embrace the influence doing so has on your own. Commonly, neophyte artists are hesitant to produce until they are able to produce something entirely their own. Instead of being scared of having influences, embrace them.
  1. Don’t Wait Until You Know Who You are to Get Started
    Instead of focusing on who you are creatively and then produce once you are clearly defined, just start creating. If you aren’t sure what to make, imitate your heroes. As you strive to be like them, your own personality and style will mature the product into your own. Just get started.
  1. Write the Book You Want to Read
    Instead of the adage “write what you know”, you should instead write what you like. Produce that which you would like to see in the world. This could start as simple as a bullet point list, which could then blossom into a paragraph, then a short essay, and so on. Similarly, jot down words until the poem is formed. Don’t worry about what you should be writing. Instead, write what you want to read.
  1. Use your Hands
    Creativity involves more than analytic thinking. Accessing the creative aspects of your mind can be difficult while stationary and focused on a computer screen. Use your hands, paper, post-its, anything to bring  yourself more physically involved in the creative process. Yes, this may require keeping pen and paper around.
  1. Side Projects and Hobbies are Important
    Pursue a variety of projects at once. When you tire of one, switch to another. Don’t worry about completion. Oftentimes these various outlets will synergize and lead to interesting combinations of passions and skills. There is no structured way to get a project to the finish line, so don’t be afraid to meander a bit.
  1. The Secret: Do Good Work and Share it with People
    Share your creations, content, or questions online or among peers. Get feedback, and inspire each other. These peers are your community and a safe place to bounce ideas, develop thoughts, and push each other further than each would get as an individual alone.
  1. Geography is No Longer Our Master
    With the internet, the entire world is accessible through your devices. Mentors or influences could be thousands of miles away, but close enough electronically for meaningful and regular interactions. At the same time, creativity is often sparked by boredom or times when the mind is strolling about aimlessly. And when your environment gets stifling – leave. Visit the woods, a mall two towns over, a foreign country. Expose yourself to new cultures and environments.
  1. Be Nice (The Word is a Small Town)
    Thanks to today’s increased interconnectivity, writing ill of someone will likely get back to him or her. Time spent on personality conflicts is time not spent creating! Be supportive of others and keep a positive attitude.
  1. Be Boring (It’s the Only Way to Get Work Done)
    Here’s the practical section. In order to be creative and productive you need the basics – enough money to support yourself, scheduled time dedicated to your craft, a calendar with personal goals, and, ideally, a supportive and inspiring partner. Like in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you cannot get to the top of the pyramid without the basics first.
  1. Creativity is Subtraction
    Focus on what is most important to you. Instead of worrying about limitations, see what you can produce within them.

Medical Relevance

While science and medicine are not traditionally defined as creative fields of study, there are actually numerous aspects that require, and can even be enhanced by creativity.

Medical education, of medical students to attending physicians, requires ingenuity to enhance learning paradigms, curricula, and individual lectures. Tapping into one’s creativity can help generate excitement within our learners and keep the process of teaching fresh – even if it is about the Krebs Cycle!

The bureaucratic and clinical side of medicine is another place ripe for creative improvements. Application of this book could improve patient flow or laboratory efficiency, as well as improve group dynamics such as residency leadership or partners in a private EM group. Following these principles in problem solving could lead to more creative and better solutions.

Book Club Questions

  1. There is a fine line between between plagiarism and imitation. How can one be inspired by the work of others without “stealing” and plagiarising?
  2. Of the 10 transformative principles, which one appeals to you, and why?
  3. If you could add an 11th transformative principle, what would it be?
  4. What aspects of your job involve being creative, or could benefit from more creativity?

Special thanks to all who attended! We had a fantastic and lively discussion at CORD.

Further Reading

Popova, Maria. Steal Like an Artist: Creativity in the Age of the Remix. The Atlantic. March 8, 2012. [Link]


Andrew Grock, MD

Andrew Grock, MD

Lead Editor/Co-Founder of ALiEM Approved Instructional Resources (AIR)
Faculty Physician, Greater Los Angeles VA Healthcare System
Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine
UCLA Emergency Medicine Department