Five years back, my wife got me “Steal like an artist” and “Show your work!” by Austin Kleon. They are some of my favourite things. Mostly because of the inscriptions my wife wrote.
Oof. Sorry Austin. Without any context, that probably came across like a backhanded compliment. In practice, the inscriptions and the content of your books combined into the perfect gift for one of those seminal life moments.
Actually, now that I think about it. I have written something similar before. I explained it in a much better way, in a letter to the sculptor Tom Sachs.
About a year and a half ago I quit my job in pursuit of something I called the ‘monastic engineering experience’. To commemorate my new career as an engineering monk I was given the book “Steal like an Artist” by Austin Kleon. The inscription simply reads ‘Because I can’. This book amounts to virtually my entire arts training.
Last year Austin’s latest book ‘Keep Going’ came into my life at just the right time. I was really struggling and had gotten myself into a situation where I was so time poor, I had gone chronologically bankrupt. Keep Going helped design the payment plan I needed to chip away at that giant ball of time debt I had clocked up.
When I’m on Dad Duties, I often talk about The Process and think about our household in terms of a factory. Things like fetching the groceries and preparing meals are all sub-processes that can be continuously tweaked and optimised. Yeah. I guess it doesn’t sound very ‘homely’, but something like that was bound to happen when you leave a software engineer in charge of a home.
Austin’s first chapter ‘Everyday is Groundhog Day.’ helped me realise that I needed to extend The Process beyond Dad Duties and into the rest of my life.
It might seem like a stretch, but I really think the best thing you can do if you want to make art is to pretend you’re starring in your own remake of Groundhog Day: Yesterday’s over, tomorrow may never come, there’s just today and what you do with it.
When you don’t have much time, a routine helps you make the little time you have count. When you have all the time in the world, a routine helps you make sure you don’t waste it.
What your daily routine consists of is not that important. What’s important is that the routine exists. Cobble together your own routine, stick to it most days, break from it once in a while for fun, and modify it as necessary.
So these days I have a structured routine that helps me scratch out a bit of time for the monastic engineering experience. It isn’t much but considering that I live for those moments of escape in the workshop, every bit helps.
Austin’s suggestion that ‘Airplane mode is not just a setting on your phone: It can be a whole way of life.’ Has reinvigorated the evenings and early mornings where I can’t really be making a ton of noise in the workshop.
Pop in some cheap earplugs and switch you phone or tablet to airplane mode, and you can transform any mundane commute or stretch of captive time into an opportunity to reconnect with yourself and your work.
Airplane mode creates a virtual escape from those digital distraction. A quiet place where I can hit the word processor, sketchbook or Fusion 360. It gives me the time I need to squeeze out more detailed plans as the house is waking up or slowing to a sleep.
The next step was to reclaim some of those working hours for my own projects. As I seem trapped in this situation where I either have time or money, but never seem to have both at the same time. I was taking on any paid consulting gig that walked in the door and using that to make rent and pay for equipment.
I needed to take Austin’s advice and start saying ‘no’ a bit. It was the only way to make sure that some of the time I was regaining in the workshop was devoted to my own oddball projects.
The architect Le Corbuiser spent mornings in his apartment painting and afternoons in his office practicing architecture. “Painting every morning is what allows me to be lucid every afternoon.” He said. He did everything he could to keep his two identities separate, even signing his paintings with his birth name, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret. A journalist once knocked on his apartment door during painting hours and asked to speak to Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier looked him right in the eye and said, “I’m sorry, he’s not in.”
It’s been a bit scary and I certainly have worried about pissing off great collaborators and going broke. In a lot of ways, it feels like when I first started out on the monastic engineering experience. That’s a good thing. I think. Maybe?
If you have scrolled down thinking ‘TL;DR’, then Austin has got you covered. His closing paragraph was the perfect summary of ‘Keep Going’:
Whenever life gets overwhelming, go back to chapter one of this book and think about your days. Try your best to fill them in ways that get you a little closer to where you want to be. Go easy on yourself and take your time. Worry less about getting things done. Worry more about things worth doing. Worry less about being a great artist. Worry more about being a good human being who makes art. Worry less about making a mark. Worry more about leaving things better than you found them.
I found ‘Keep Going’ by Austin Kleon to be a great read, I give it five out of five stars.
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