Steal like an artist…or a social worker, or a teacher?

Posted: 15/03/2022

Over the weekend I read Austin Kleon’s book, Steal like an artist, in which he says that creative people are excellent burglars. He reckons they steal everything—ideas, structures, techniques and inspiration. This is not plagiarism because they take the ideas of others and remix them, trying to make them better. All creative work, he suggests, is built on the work of the artists who came before them.

‘What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.’

And it made me think about how this is also true for social workers and teachers. Over the years, I have often borrowed (stolen?) ideas from other social workers and teachers about all sorts of things. For example, I’ve pinched ideas on how to more effectively build rapport with students. I’ve also picked colleagues’ brains about the best questions to ask people when they are in the midst of a crisis and I’ve mimicked other people’s strategies for running client conferences so that they are more client-centred.

I’ve also modelled my practice on the people I respect and admire, blatantly stealing their practice approaches. The way I now run meetings is a direct rip-off of two of my mentors. One mentor was a local Aboriginal leader who said that meetings begin when people start talking, not when the agenda kicks in (stories that connect and give us insight about each other, she said, all contribute to us being more willing to listen and learn from each other). The other mentor simply listened more than he talked.

Some of my biggest ‘thefts’ have been from the clients and students I’ve worked alongside. I remember a person I was working with who had schizophrenia describing a technique she used for getting herself to work on the days she was really struggling. It was a great strategy and I asked her if I could share it with other clients, which I did.

Another time, I was working with a highly skilled and successful vision-impaired student who took me on a tour of his school, describing in detail how he navigated his way through the campus. His experience was so different to my own—I could never have gleaned a fraction of that knowledge without his generosity and insight. He was happy for me to share his strategies and techniques with other newer or less confident vision-impaired students (I always credit him when I share his tips with others).

When I thought about it more, I realised that the people I’ve admired over the years have all been out-and-proud thieves. Whenever they saw a model or a practice approach that improved the lives of the people they worked alongside, they made a plan to pilfer it. (In their defence, they generously shared their spoils with the rest of us.)

Of course, these are more like Robin Hood-style heists, but still…

The best thing about stealing as a social worker or teacher? Unlike creative work, there is no copyright on stealing best practice. We have free rein to take what we like and use it wholesale.

We often think our learning comes from attending training, conferences or doing other types of professional development. But the reality is, most of what we learn comes from copying the people we admire—our mentors, colleagues, clients or students.

What practice could you ‘steal’ today from someone you respect and admire?

Dr Sue King-Smith

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