Marco Bacis
Marco Bacis
Software Engineer / Tinkerer
Mar 15, 2024 15 min read

Show your Work!

Hi 👋 and welcome to a new post!

This blog is becoming more and more a journal and a collection of book summaries 😅 I promise I’ll write more about technical stuff soon.

Today I’m going to give a small summary and comment of a book I recently read: “Show Your Work!” by Austin Kleon . Austin is a “writes who draws”, and his books on creativity are all formatted in crazy ways (and with a really nice finish)!

In “Show Your Work” Austin shares some ways in which everyone can share his creative work (even if he doesn’t think of it as creative, as us programmers!). Let’s get into it!

Disclaimer: I put some of my comments and ideas in this post, so it’s not a proper “summary”, but just some notes with my thoughts attached.

A New Way of Operating

Talking about self-promotion is always difficult. Comedian Steve Martin dodges the question by saying “Be so good they can’t ignore you” (there’s also a book from Cal Newport with the same title). Being good is an obvious way to be found, but is’t not enough. In order to be found, you must be findable.

That’s the premise of the book. Many creative people have built sharing in their routine, and the this is a sort of manual to learn how to to share small bits of your work, consistently.

Austin shares 10 pieces of advice on how to share creative work and get found. Here I wrote a summary (I actually re-read the entire book while writing this notes!) of the 10 main chapters of the book.

1. You don’t have to be a genius

The first myth that Austin debunks is that of the lone, perfect genius working on his piece of art. The idea of creative work as a lone, antisocial activity is far from the truth! Instead, many works and projects are created by groups of people sharing their interests, something that the author refers as “scenius”. The internet is a perfect example of a scenius, in which everyone can share what they are doing and the results of their work without fear.

The other myth we must debunk is that we need to be expert to share our work. It’s the complete opposite! Being an amateur has many advantages: amateurs are continuous learners, can learn in public and care less about making mistakes and being ridiculous. In addition, the modern world is making everyone an amateur, so we have no excuses.

A final advice that Austin gives in this chapter is that to find your voice, you must use it! So, forget impostor syndrome and just start sharing what you are learning. I must admit, I’m not following this point right now, but I think we should all try to learn in public.

2. Think process, not product

The first chapter was more for inspiration, to let us feel that we can indeed share our work even if we are not expert or geniuses. With the second chapter, we get into the practicals of what to share.

In particular, Austin argues that it’s important to share not only the final product (piece of art, book, software etc..), but also the entire process followed to create the product!

As humans, we are curious and want to know what other human beings are doing, and how they are doing it. Sharing the creative process to create something is a perfect way to create a bond with the audience and make others part of the process itself.

Think about all the short videos, social posts, pictures that content creators share everyday!

The practical advice of the chapter is then to start collecting small pieces of evidence, the residue of our process, and shape it in some piece of media to share with others.

Some ideas to start:

  • A work log/journal showing the progress, thoughts and ideas explored while working
  • Pictures/videos/blog posts showing the work in progress and sketches
  • Day-to-day activities (no matter how boring they may seem, someone will find them interesting)

Documenting the process is not only a way to share the work, but also to think about it more critically, to get a sense of progress and to track how things are going.

3. Share something small every day

The third advice Austin gives us is to “share something small every day”. Small means updates on an ongoing project, inspirations, notes, sketches and whatever comes out of your work process.

Focusing on every single day helps in creating a habit (see Atomic Habits) and allows to create a bond with other people. Over the years, all of this shared collection will become a piece of work itself.

To share something every day, we can use both social media and a personal website. Social media is helpful in creating daily updates and sharing to a larger audience, while a website is our own personal space in which to put all our ideas, progresses and results.

Remember: a website is not a self-promotion machine, but rather a self-invention machine! It represents a big notebook in which to put our thoughts. For example, even if I’m not creating something every day, I like to write on this blog to have clearer ideas and to better recall what I learn and experience.

It’s also important to remember the first advice, “you don’t have to be a genius”. Everyone can share something small, even if he thinks that it’s crap (I keep thinking like this myself, and still here you are reading my posts 😅).

The other excuse is that we don’t have time to do this, but time can always be found during the day: commuting, waiting in line, lunch break or in the evening (skipping one TV episode is not so bad sometimes). Even if I’m not writing this blog or programming in every minute of my life, I still try to find some moments to write or save something interesting I found. Just remember (and I usually forget) that this sharing time shouldn’t interfere with the actual time to do the work we are sharing.

Finally, even if all the book is about sharing and showing everything related to our work (creative or not), it’s important to not overshare. Every time you want to share something, ask “so what?”. Share imperfect and unfinished work, share notes and how you get inspired, but don’t share absolutely everything.

4. Open up your cabinet of curiosities

The fouth advice in how to share our work is to “open up our cabinet of curiosities”. A cabinet of curiosities was a room filled with exotic and strange pieces (biological or human-made) which went viral in the 16th-17th century, a precursor to modern museums.

We all have a similar place in which we put everything: books we read, movies we watch, art pieces which inspires us, website we visit and so on. We must open our collection and share it with others: it helps in showing our process (creating and collecting are not so different after all) and finding people with the same taste as us.

Another advice is to not feel guilty of the “garbage” we collect! Be open and honest and don’t let other people criticise things you genuinely enjoy. On the other hand, don’t try be “hip” or “cool” by criticising other people collections, but use this as an occasion to connect with people.

Finally, don’t forget to give credit to the authors of the stuff you collect and share! Attribution acts like the label on a museum piece, and allows others to reach the same sources you found and took inspiration from. The easiest way to give credit on the internet is to share a link to the author’s website, or mentioning them on a post (this also helps with the whole “connection” idea).

How does this advice translate to my work as a developer? Well, one of the outcomes of this blog is exactly to share stuff which inspires me. Every book, conference or other thing I summarise and share on this site is a something I found interesting, inspiring or useful to my work, and that’s why it’s here 😜.

5. Tell Good Stories

The fifth advice Austin gives us is to “tell good stories”. We must create a compelling story behind our work, a narration which allows to increase its value.

But shouldn’t our work speak by itself? Unfortunately, it’s not like this in the real world. Don’t forget that we create for other people to consume or admire, and humans look for connection.

The value of something is deeply affected by the story we tell about it. A story helps other people in connecting with our work, be it by sharing the “behind the scenes”, showing the frustrations, the failures and also the great moments behind a piece.

Of course, good storytelling is a difficult skill to acquire. A good story should follow a proven structure: think about fairy tales or most fiction and non-fiction books. The book highlights some structures to take inspiration from (Dan Harmon’s story circle, Kurt Vonnegut Graphs, Gustav Freytag’s Pyramid).

Unfortunately, everyone of us is in the middle of a story, so we must try to find “sub-stories” to tell: every single thing we share is a pitch, a story with its ending chopped off. A pitch has a starting point (the past), the current story (present) and an open-ended ending, which puts the listener in the hero who decides how it’s going to end.

A good example of storytelling is when someone asks “So, what do you do?”. I must admit that the answer is easy for people with known professions (like me 😛). Even then, we need to practice our personal story. The important thing is to keep it real (stick to the facts and do not invent!) and to keep in mind the current audience. Telling a story about oneself shouldn’t be an opportunity to brag about yourself, but to connect to someone else in an honest way.

6. Teach what you know

So, now we know we don’t need to be genius, are sharing something small about our process every day, opened up our “collection” and crafted good stories about our work.

What comes after that?

Teaching!

Our work is not secret. Actually, we want to show it to others. Many people think that they should keep their trade secrets, well, secret. But teaching allows to connect more with the audience. By learning something about your work, they will appreciate it more and get more interested.

Moreover, teaching helps in learning better. I won’t cite the entire quote from Edgar Dale, just this part: “we remember 95% of what we teach others”. So, as soon as you learn something, turn around and teach it to others!

7. Don’t turn into human spam

Up to this point, the book highlighted some ways to share work. In this chapter it warns against becoming “human spam” instead.

What is a “human spam”? It’s a person who shares its work and make himself known, but without living in the community before. Everything they say it’s about their work, while they do not participate in others work.

For example, an artist showing off his skills without watching other artists, a writer who wants to get published without reading the publications himself, or (in my case) a programmer talking about programming without getting involved in programming communities and projects first.

Instead of caring about the number of followers, we should care about the quality, of both the people we connect to and, first, of our work. How can we pretend to be interesting if the work itself isn’t.

In this regards I must admit that sometimes I feel more like the bad examples of this chapter: I like to share this blog and to know people, but I don’t work enough on my hard skills (programming) and don’t participate enough in programming communities (e.g. to share what I know or help others). This chapter is then a wake up call to do so!

A final advice the chapter gives identify and meet up with people with the same interests (Austin gives an example of the “Knuckleballers” group of baseball pitchers). Meetups are a great way to meet people you already know or follow, or that have your same interests, to share and talk about “big ideas” in your space. It’s a more intimate form of networking. He also says to just ask people

8. Learn to take a punch

When you share your work in public, you have to be ready for (harsh) criticism. Austin shares some techniques to deal with that:

  • Relax and breathe: criticism is not the end of the world, and most of the time it’s our brain which imagines the worst outcomes. Just accept whatever comes, you cannot control it
  • Strengthen your neck: the way to learn how to take a punch is to take a lot. So just publish a lot, and get out your comfort zone many times to get comfortable with critics
  • Roll with the punches: keep moving despite the comments, it might become fun to get your work hated by some people!
  • Protect your vulnerable areas: if some work is too sensitive, just keep it hidden… but do not hide everything from the world!
  • Keep your balance: keep what you do (your work) and who you are (yourself) separated
  • Don’t feed the trolls: filter out people who are not interested in you or your work, they just want to roll in the mud with your self-doubt

9. Sell out

We’re almost at then end of the sharing advice. After sharing all the behind-the-scenes, teaching, staying humble and taking the punch, it’s time to sell our work.

This chapter doesn’t resonate much with me (I’m already paid to do what I do, which is software), but it should be a wake up call to artists to stop thinking that being a “sellout” is bad. After all, most of the art in history was done by commission.

At some point, the creative must take the leap from sharing freely their work to selling it. The first way to do so is to “ask for donations”. A simple “buy me a coffee” button or a patreon account can do miracles. Another way is to ask for funding for your next work, with websites like indiegogo or kickstarter. A note on this method: when a person becomes a patreon or donates something, he will feel entitled to have a say on your work: you can still chose the “old-fashioned” model of selling stuff if you don’t want this kind of relation.

Regardless of the method (donations, crowdfunding, standard selling) a good advice is to keep a mailing list, on platforms such as mailchimp or substack. Some people directly make money through these platform, but the real value lies in the mail addresses of the people subscribed: they are the most loyal fans, and every mail will go directly in their inbox (and attention). Whenever you are ready to sell or ask something, they’ll be the first you want to contact.

“Selling out” isn’t a bad thing. Whenever a new opportunity comes around, check if the new work is something you want to do, and then do it, even if some people will treat you like a sellout… it’s their opinion, not yours.

Finally, when (if) you become successful enough, remember to share back with the one who helped you and your fans, but to not become so overwhelmed that you can’t do your work… learn to say “no” a lot.

10. Stick around

In the last chapter, Austin gives some advice on how to continue with you career (creative or not).

The first advice is to not quit the show. Working and creating are difficult, and sometimes we might be tempted to just stop. But most of the reward happens when you stick long enough. This is pretty simple to tell, but difficult to do when it’s needed (e.g. I should not quit learning continuously new programming methods or this blog!).

The second advice is to keep the momentum, or as Austin calls it, do “chain-smoking”. Whenever you finish and publish a piece, don’t stop there getting feedback and thinking. Just start a new thing! I must admit to be a victim of this sin. When I finish writing a post for the blog I wait before starting a new one. This leads to me losing momentum, and taking a long time to start again…

Even if the first advice of the chapter is to not quite, at some point in might be useful to go away from your work. This can take the form of a long sabbatical, or a small act to do every day (like commuting, exercising or going into the nature). The important thing is to take a break.

Finally, after mastering your current knowledge, it’s time to begin again (as a student) and find something new to learn. Of course this doesn’t mean losing all your previous work (you are not quitting your show, remember?), but working on top of it. As all the previous advice says, begin to learn new stuff, document everything and share it with the world.

That’s it!

I found this book quite useful and inspiring.

Austin showed that showing off your work a little bit evey day is not impossibile, and is not exclusive of prodogies and geniuses.

In fact, I think this book can be an inspiration for everyone to just start sharing something about their work.

Obviously, it’s not easy to start! I find it difficult to gather the courage to share something about my work (in fact, until now this blog has been more of a “journal” than a real portfolio for my skills), but in the future I hope this will change for the better.

Thanks for reading this far, and see you next time!