13 books to read for creative inspiration

I recently decided to write a book about creativity (see more here). I started the process by posting an article on inspiring role models to follow to help you on the path to unleashing your inner creative beast. A few ‘must read’ books on creativity came up, so I thought I’d run with this theme and talk a bit more about a bunch of books that will fire up your creative juices and help get you on the road from dreaming to doing.

My Favourites

Steve Jobs: by Walter Isaacson

Apple founder Steve Jobs is one of the most recognizable names on the planet, and this epic biography does an amazing job of shedding light on the life and times of a guy whose immense achievements in the worlds of business, technology and product design were matched by an unrelenting and hardheaded persona.

Jobs was fixated with product design and innovation, one of the cornerstones of Apple’s ongoing success. In one of the books most pointedly funny moments the author tells the tale of when Jobs was fitted with a surgical mask while recovering from a liver transplant and pneumonia. Although heavily sedated, he managed to rip the mask off to complain about it’s crap design, then proceeded to demand another 5 masks so he could choose a design he liked! What a telling insight into his inner workings, both as a man and as a product design obsessive.

On a related note, the words and inspiration of Jobs continues to live on. Case in point – LeBron James used his renowned Stanford commencement speech recently to fire up his team during the NBA finals series. 

Useless trivia: The Apple Mac was nearly called the Apple Bicycle!

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future: by Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk is a big picture creative visionary. Interplanetary colonisation is just one of his stated goals…dare to dream folks! He has the track record to back up the bravado and his list of achievements, most for the betterment of mankind, are truly astounding. I talked about some of these quite extensively in the creative role models article.

Telsa, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future is an engaging and well researched portrait of Musk and his mind boggling achievements and offers plenty of enlightening insights and quality anecdotes from the man himself as well as family, friends and colleagues.

With relentless drive and unwavering self belief, Musk has overcome adversity and courted controversy in achieving his wide screen entrepreneurial visions. So as well as being a fascinating insight into Musk’s ever evolving creative journey and what makes him tick, the book also reinforces the core concepts required to achieve one’s creative vision. An inspiring read on all levels from a truly inspiring human being!

Steal Like An Artist/Show Your Work!: Austin Kleon

I’m loving Austin Kleon right now, he’s pumped out a couple of gems which have directly inspired me to make more stuff! The first one I read, Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, shows that creativity is everywhere and is for everyone, and not just the domain of artists..or visionaries like Elon Musk for that matter!

The book was borne from a talk that Kleon gave to college students in New York around 10 things he wished someone had told him when he was starting on his creative journey. These 10 points, which ended up forming the core of the book, are shown below.

It’s visually eye catching with plenty of practical exercises and tips, so there’s no danger of getting bogged down in stuffy text. Kleon injects his own unique style and worldview, which helps it stand out from the crowd. One of the book’s core concepts is ‘just be yourself’, which will stand you in good stead in all aspects of your life, not just in pursuing your creative muse.

Embracing the sum of your creative influences and not being afraid of borrowing concepts that resonate was a key learning I took away from the book. So don’t let fears of unoriginality hold you back from creating – because who the hell is truly and totally original anyway?

The follow-up, Show Your Work!: 10 Ways To Show Your Creativity And Get Discovered, is billed as a book for promoting creativity for people who hate the idea of self promotion. It offers another 10 pearls of Kleon wisdom relating to building an audience and profile by putting yourself out there and sharing your journey with stories and helpful content.

Think of it as a journey of self discovery rather than self promotion! Those that know me will know that this is something that I subscribe to and live by every day. I highly recommend this book if you’re looking to share and inspire more on social media.

Both books work superbly as companion pieces – steal from others to create your own vision and in turn let others steal from you to create theirs; thanks Austin Kleon for your perfectly logical logic for making the world go around!

What To Do When It’s Your Turn? (And It’s Always Your Turn): Seth Godin

Seth Godin is a long-time respected marketer, entrepreneur and a prolific writing beast. Confronting your fears head-on and embracing creative opportunities is where Seth is coming from with this work. It’s a series of full-color short stories and essays so you’ll devour it and be ready to spring into creative wish fulfilment in no time.

In the words of Seth himself; “Books work great when you read them, but even better when you talk about them. That’s what this book is for, to start a conversation to help you create that work that you know you’re capable of.” Mission accomplished!

“Each of us has the ability to level up and to do works that matters. To be missed when we are gone.” Seth Godin

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear: Elizabeth Gilbert

This book by Elizabeth Gilbert takes her idiosyncratic worldview and approach to creativity and delivers a moving and  joyful read that lives on long after you’ve turned over the last page.

As I mentioned in the creative role models post, some of her reflections actually moved me to tears. Her concept of ideas as magical entities waiting to be plucked and embraced by the right creator was a real game changing moment for me. This concept is sometimes quoted by musicians when describing the inspiration for a particular song.

“Living a life driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear” are words worth living, and Gilbert leads you down the practical path of making it happen through concepts such as overcoming self-doubt, avoiding perfectionism and agenda setting. The books oozes empathy, generosity and quirky wisdom and strikes the perfect balance between soulful ‘higher plane’ thinking and firmly grounded pragmatism.

The War Of Art/Do The Work/Turning Pro: Steven Pressfield

Steven Pressfield scored a guernsey in my inspiring creative role models article for his book The War Of Art: Winning The Inner Creative Battle
This one had a big impact on me, and focusses on the concept of overcoming resistance to achieve the unlived creative life within. Pressfield pinpoints solutions for conquering the negative thought patterns and habits that hold people back from actioning their creative impulses. As a pathway for reaching the highest level of creative discipline it comes highly recommended.

His follow-up book, Do The Work, gets down and dirty with the concepts discussed in The War of Art, and offers a step by step guide to ‘getting shit done’ on a creative level.

Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work, completes the Pressfield trio of awesomeness. Moving forward from overcoming your inner resistance to turning your creativity into fruition is thrashed out under a series of concepts and solutions. Here’s just one of the book’s many moments of resonance, under the concept of becoming a creature of positive habit: “The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. An amateur has amateur habits. A professional has professional habits. We can never free ourselves from habit. But we can replace bad habits with good ones. We can trade in the habits of the amateur and the addict for the practice of the professional and the committed artist or entrepreneur.”

“If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.” Steven Pressfield

Psycho-Cybernetics: Maxwell Malz 

Maxwell Malz was a cosmetic surgeon who also happened to write a pioneering book on the subject of self-help called Psycho-Cybernetics.

Even though the book is over 50 years old, the principles and learnings still hold up. It’s core concept revolves around Malz’s belief that to make positive changes in your life, you must first have a positive self image. He gives practical tips and techniques for achieving this and also covers areas of self-help such as relaxation techniques and visualising desired outcomes.

A lot of this stuff has since been done to death, but Malz presents these concepts in a humorous and straightforward way. For me it was another piece of the puzzle in getting my creative mojo working.

The first and arguably the best book on changing your work and life outcomes by changing your self image for the better. He presents the ideas in a scientific way so it’s more easy to digest and less ‘woo-woo’ for an analytical thinker like me.

Community Favourites

Plenty of great suggestions came from the 7 Day Startup Pro Facebook group. Here’s a summary of some, big thanks to those that contributed!

Wired To Create: Unravelling The Mysteries of the Creative Mind: by Scott Barry Kaufman and Caroline Gregoire

Wired To Create is a very recent addition to the creative self help library. The latest findings in neuroscience and psychology combine to shed light on the riddles of the creative mind and how to train your brain to be more creative through habit formation. These findings are interspersed with stories of the lives of great creators throughout history such as Pablo Picasso, John Lennon and Frida Kahlo.

Each chapter focuses on one of the so-called 10 habits of highly creative people; imaginative play, passion, daydreaming, solitude, intuition, openness to experience, mindfulness, sensitivity, turning adversity into advantage and thinking differently.

Unscrambling the paradoxes associated with these traits, such as solitude versus a need for collaboration to achieve desired outcomes, are also explored.

Thanks to Ellen Jackson for the suggestion.

Thinker Toys: A Handbook Of Creative Thinking Techniques: by Michael Michalko

Thinker Toys aims to get you in the mindset of thinking like a creative genius by approaching problem solving in new and unconventional ways. Containing over 100 practical idea generation techniques and exercises, it was first published over 20 years ago and is acknowledged as one of the best books in it’s field.

One of the book’s most interesting concepts involves harnessing those ‘lightbulb moments’ of inspiration based on the author’s belief that the answer you seek when solving a problem  is already known in your subconscious.

Author Michael Michalko has previously worked with NATO and the CIA in developing and applying many of his creative problem solving techniques.

Thanks to Cate Richards for the suggestion.

Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys To Creativity: by Hugh Macleod

Author Hugh Macleod started out as a struggling copywriter doodling on the back of business cards in bars. An outlet for his frustrated creativity came in the form of his successful blog gapingvoid.com and an influential post called How To Be Creative. These form the inspiration and foundation of his book Ignore Everybody, which functions as a series of witty insights and thought-provoking advice, interspersed with his best cartoons and drawings. Here’s just a sample of what he has to say: “Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether. There’s no point trying to do the same thing as 250,000 other young hopefuls, waiting for a miracle. All existing business models are wrong. Find a new one.”

Thanks to Cate Richards for the suggestion.

The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path To Higher Creativity: by Julia Cameron

Based on the premise that creative expression and one’s life purpose are intrinsically linked, The Artist’s Way seeks to links creativity and spirituality by giving direction for tapping into the creative zeitgeist of the universe. And if that sounds a bit too new age, there’s plenty of practical support in the form of a 12 week program designed to alleviate creative roadblocks such as fear, self-sabotage and addictions.

One of the most utilised tools from the book is the concept of ‘morning pages’, which involves a regular ritual of pumping out three pages of writing in a stream of consciousness format. The purpose of the exercise is to help make writing habitual and to overcome the internal self-censorship ingrained in most of us when we write.

“Without The Artist’s Way, there would have been no Eat, Pray, Love.” Elizabeth Gilbert

Thanks to Marilyn Wo for the suggestion.

Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day: by Todd Henry

Procrastination based on the belief that there’s always tomorrow means that many people remain in a constant state of creative inertia. Instead of filling one’s days with the frantically mundane, Henry challenges the reader to ‘seize the day’ and unleash their best work every day.

Die Empty looks at the reasons why people get stuck in creative ruts and provides a process for pushing through creative barriers to bring about meaningful and ongoing change. In the words of the author; “The cost of inaction is vast. Don’t go to your grave with your best work inside of you. Choose to die empty.”

Thanks to Nicholas Conneff for the suggestion.

I’m Not For Everyone and Neither Are You: by David Leddick

I’m Not For Everyone And Neither Are You is a book full of quirky wisdom on how to get the most  out of life. Marching to the beat of your own drum and how you see yourself is how others see you are a few of the propositions peddled by Leddick.

And with an introduction by Steven Pressfield it’s bound to hit the spot!

“This is a work of genius, a metaphor-studded treasure chest, filled with wisdom for anyone willing to go look. I’ve already ordered ten copies.” Seth Godin

Thanks to Peter Ince for the suggestion.

Create or Hate

Create or Hate is now live, pick up a copy at http://createorhate.com/.

Thanks to Instagram user Skruffeh for the Steven Pressfield image.

  • Some compelling titles I might just have to check out! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • wyatt jozwowski

    Steve Jobs is definitely on the top of my list as favorite. Thanks for the other recommendations!

  • Thank you as always Dan, for the inspiration and nudge toward living my best life. Your are among my most treasured inbox invitees. Keep up the amazing work! -Athena Moberg

  • Adrian Edlington

    I’ve read a lot of books, though never read any of these. Thanks for the suggestions.

  • Julie Weston

    Looking forward to exploring some of these reads – I heard Elizabeth Gilbert being interviewed by Richard Fidler not so long ago and she was pretty inspirational, now I’m inspired to actually read the book!