5 Brilliant Books For Creative Pros

by | Process

Reading can be a great way to expand your thinking, open yourself to new ways of seeing the world and commune with great minds. But finding the right books can be a challenge given that there are hundreds of thousands of books published each year by publishers, (and millions more that are self-published!)

Given that, here’s a “5 pack” of brilliant books for creatives that will help you do brilliant work. Each deals with a different aspect of creative and organizational life, but is relevant and immediately applicable to anyone trying to thrive in the create-on-demand world.

1. Orbiting The Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie

MacKenzie spent years as the creative guru at Hallmark. During his tenure he had to deal with the inevitable “hairball” of bureaucracy and find ways of staying creatively fresh amidst the pressures and madness. This book offers some of his best thoughts and tips for dealing with the tension between organization and creativity, and he delivers it in a fresh and fun way.

“Orville Wright did not have a pilot’s license.”  – Gordon MacKenzie

2. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Steven Pressfield knows something about the battle for the creative will. He spent years honing and perfecting his craft before he was able to make a living as a writer. After that struggle, he finally had a career breakthrough and has since been deriving his living from doing what he does brilliantly – crafting narrative. But his great gift to the creative community is his introspective but highly practical work on the creative process called The War of Art. In it, Pressfield describes the battle for creating that every artist faces and ways to overcome the force he calls “resistance”, which is the opposing force that wants to prevent creative effort. This is a MUST, MUST read for anyone who wants to win the inner battles of the creative process.

“The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.” – Steven Pressfield

3. Letters To A Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

This book contains the correspondence between the brilliant poet Rilke and an aspiring poet seeking critique and advice. However, rather than critiquing the poetry, over the course of ten letters Rilke offers advice about creating and learning to discern the inner voice. His advice is highly practical to creatives trying to stay the course in the midst of the pressure to conform and bend to cultural expectations or organizational pressure.

“No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

4. Life In The Crystal Palace by Alan Harrington

This book impacted my understanding of organizational life so much that I purchased a first edition hardcover off of eBay. It is the author’s description of corporate life – circa 1959 – and all that comes with it. He describes the dance that organizational people do in order to maintain security, often at the expense of their soul. It is fascinating to see how Harrington’s description of corporate life is still relevant fifty years later!

“Corporate practices involve a fundamental inconsistency. Management wants simultaneously (a) performance from everyone and (b) protection for everyone. But the impulse to perform and the impulse to protect yourself cannot exist as equals. One must gain ascendancy over the other. To perform, move, swing, the self goes out and takes chances. The reflex of self-protection produces subservience to the group, a willingness to spread responsibility until it doesn’t exist, a binding horror of chance-taking and obseisance to the system. How can these two drives exist together in equal strength?” – Alan Harrington

5. The Everyday Work of Art by Eric Booth

Booth challenges us that art is not something to be reserved for specialists or cultural expression, but that each and every day of our life can and should be treated as a work of art. He offers practical thoughts about how to find meaning and expression in areas that many consider mundane and routine aspects of life.

“Maturity allows us to hold conflicting values and ideas and at the same time, combine them in productive, innovative ways. Maturity enables us to do two kinds of work at the same time, and with sophistication, to go deeper into the complexities of the subparts as we concurrently check those developments against the status as a whole.” – Eric Booth

So what about you? What’s on your “short list” of must-reads for creative pros?

Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.


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