Austin-based writer and artist Austin Kleon kicked off SXSW Interactive with his panel called “Show Your Work,” based on his latest book by the same title. Kleon argued that showcasing the creative process holds as much benefit for the creator as the end result. By showing your work, you are not operating in isolation, but becoming part of a scene. This community is where ideas are exchanged and valuable networks are made.
The Monster Mash
At the start of his talk, Kleon said we all exist in a real life horror film, filled with two monsters. The first is the Vampire, a person who sucks the life out each person they are around. Vampires deplete the energy and ideas of creators, leaving them drained while contributing nothing back.
Kleon suggested performing a Vampire Test, saying that “if after hanging out with someone you feel full of energy, that person is not a Vampire. If after a night of hanging out with someone you feel exhausted and depleted, that person is a Vampire.”
The other monster in this tale is called the Human Spam. Whereas the Vampire doesn’t add anything to the conversation, the Human Spam floods you. This person is very self-focused, dominating the conversation while not taking the time to listen to others ideas.
Not only should you avoid these particular people, you should try not to become one yourself. Kleon said he feels that there are so many Vampires and Human Spam because of the Creative Genius Myth—where geniuses toil away in isolation before “gifting” humanity with their creation.
Find Fellow Knuckleballers
Rather than working as a solo genius, Kleon feels that the creator—and society as a whole—benefits more by becoming part of a scene. Singer Brian Eno coined this as “Scenius,” where all the nodes of the scene are part of the story of the creative process. Without the scene of 15th Century Florence there may be no Da Vinci, likewise there may be no Ramones were it not for the 1970s New York scene. Paraphrasing President Kennedy, Kleon advised the audience to stop asking what others can do for us, but what we can do for others an begin contributing to part of a scene.
Kleon advised that the knuckleball pitchers in baseball are a perfect example. For those unfamiliar with the sport, the knuckleball is a very strange pitch, thrown significantly slower than fastballs or curveballs. Additionally, the ball is supposed to have as little spin as possible so that the air current plays havoc with the direction of the pitch.
As opposed to typical pitchers who guard their pitching mechanics and keep them secretive as the Coca-Cola formula, knuckleball pitchers—who are in the very small minority of pitchers—are a close knit fraternity who are quite open about their pitch. Their openness is a result of a desire to keep the pitch in the major league game.
Kleon suggests that creatives find their own group of knuckleballers, a group of people who share your passion and desire to change the world. This mutual exchange of information and passion can contribute to the Scenius, resulting in many innovations.
Application to Open Source
At this point in the talk, I realized how many parallels exist between Kleon’s keynote and the open source movement. By definition, open source is all about showing your work—the source code and evolution of that code is produced for all to see. IRC Channels, documentation and conferences help keep people part of that conversation in addition to the work being done out in the open.
The Scenius in an open source project is the community that collaborates together on the project. While there are certainly those rock star contributors, it is the scene—or ecosystem—as a whole that is responsible for a project becoming successful. Sure, there can be Vampires and Human Spam, but the fact that work is done in the open can help mitigate those monsters from creeping into the project.
Benefits of Collaboration
Ultimately, Kleon sees the benefits of collaboration far outweighing those from working alone. “It’s like getting all the DVD extras before getting to see the movie,” Kleon said. Rather than expecting immediate gratification and short-term success, look to play the long game and collaborate with your community.
“This is not a reality show, and I’m not a reality show contestant. I’m here to make friends,” Kleon shared. We all should strive to do the same and it starts by showing our work.