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According to Austin Kleon, “Follow me back?” is the saddest question on the Internet. That question isn’t about building a community, it’s about draining or drowning those around you. The New York Times’ best-selling author and artist believes the real secret to success is learning to shut up and share.

Kleon’s first bestseller, “Steal Like An Artist,” is all about creation and inspiration. “Show Your Work!” is his new guide to getting discovered by leveraging self-discovery over self-promotion. During his SXSW keynote, Kleon encouraged all entrepreneurs to share their way to success. Startups and small businesses tend to only share finished products, not their process. By turning that paradigm around, you can build valuable networks, add greater value to your work, find your true audience and chase the right kind of success.

Austin Kleon and Artists Steal

Death to vampires and spam

Building a community is supposed to be inspirational and productive, but sometimes it just feels like a bad horror movie. When things start to get a little scary, you are probably face-to-face with one of these monsters:

  • Vampires will suck you dry. They thrive by draining your ideas and creative energy. “If, after a night of hanging out with someone you feel exhausted and depleted, that person is a vampire,” said Kleon.
  • Human spam will smother you. These people ask for everything but give nothing. Human spam “wants you to listen to their story, but they don’t stick around to hear yours.”

Run away from these people. And more importantly, proactively avoid turning into one of the monsters yourself. The best antidote to these conditions is sharing. Share what you love, share the credit, share things that inspire you and share your joy. This is really the first step towards building a true community, as these things you share will attract others like you. By sharing what you love first, you’ll create a space to share your own work. 

Don’t go it alone

The cult of solitary genius is counterproductive. The truth is, you don’t need to be a genius. But you should embrace the concept of “scenius.” Kleon borrowed this term from Brian Eno, who said “scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.” A scenius brings together individuals with a variety of skills and experiences, creating an ecosystem of talent that drives creativity and innovation.  A scenius doesn’t take away from the individual, rather it emphasizes collaboration as a way to leverage everyone’s unique talent. I like to think of it as Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr (and Martin, but we won’t go there) coming together to form the musical marvel we know as The Beatles. 

So find your scenius. Look for connections where your strengths and opportunities align. Find people who are smarter than you and, when you join forces, make for a stronger whole. This is why killing off vampires and human spam is so important. The quality of conversations you start, the questions you ask and the people you engage with are all key to building a great scenius.

“The only mofos I let in my circle are the ones I can learn from,” said Kleon. Just make sure you return the favor. “The minute you learn something, turn around and teach it to others.”

show your work austin kleon

Shut up and listen

There is a lot of noise in the system these days. Many of us are shouting things online, assuming others are listening, when really everyone is doing their best to tune us out. Rather than jumping on every single opportunity you have to broadcast your business, listen. Once you have built a community, figure out where they tune in and what they want to hear about. Now go there and share something of value. This is far more effective than randomly shouting from the rooftops without rhyme, reason or purpose.

“To become interesting, you must be interested,” said Kleon. “If you want fans, you first need to be a fan.” Take the initiative and stand in those shoes before asking someone else to put them on. Understand the scenario from both sides so you can truly leverage it.

And realize that when others are listening to you, they are actually telling you something. Track engagement on the things you share. Let your customers speak for you via social and product reviews. More often than not, you’ll get better data this way than asking for yet one more thing. 

Be good and stick around

“Obituaries are near-death experiences for cowards,” said Kleon, who regularly finds inspiration in obits. “Reading them is a way to think about death while keeping it at arm’s length. It makes me want to live and go out and do things that matter.”

This level of passion and dedication is a necessary component to success. It also helps you enjoy the journey rather than an obsess over the destination. Focus on the process behind your products, services or business. Show the labor, love, time and attention you put into your work. Share it in the right places with the right people, and they just might share it in return.

“Chase the thing that lasts,” recommended Kleon. “Being good at what you do gives you clout.” By doing what you love and living what you do, each and every day, you will earn your connections. So stop pushing, start sharing and empower your own success.

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