Select Page

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.

Be prolific, brilliant, and healthy.

Accidental Creative helps creative pros do the best work of their lives. Our workshopstools, and podcasts will help you have better ideas, collaborate seamlessly, and thrive under pressure.


Since 2005 we've served up weekly podcast episodes to help you stay prolific, brilliant, and healthy. Follow the show in your favorite app:


      • Scott Bettinger

        When I got it, it was only available at 800ceoread…. it’s no longer available there, but they have their own website. check here for it: …. would definitely be worth it for you to check out. very limited run and written from Netherlands/Belgium, so the English translation is a little shaky, but worth it.

  1. Noreen

    Wow, you missed absolutely the best, most inspiring, most nuts-and-bolts book about creativity in the whole wide WORLD! It’s by Twyla Tharp, and it’s called “The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life.”

    Seriously. I re-read it at least once a year to get my head screwed on straight again.

  2. Keri McClain

    My vote would be for “Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts.” Absolutely brilliant book on what it is to create.

    • Todd Henry

      Love LOVE LOVE that book too, Keri. Really enjoyed my interview with Stephen a few years back as well (AC #59, I think…)

  3. Stacie of girl*in*gear studio

    I love “Caffeine for the Creative Mind: 250 Exercises to Wake Up Your Brain” by Stefan Mumaw and Wendy Lee Oldfield. I like to flip it open to a random page and do an exercise… it really stretches my thinking and gets me to do projects I wouldn’t otherwise do… and it’s a lot of fun!

    • Todd Henry

      Enjoyed that one, and the follow-up (“Caffeine For The Creative Team”) as well. Thanks!

      • Stefan Mumaw

        You guys are fantastic, thank you. My vote, though, would go to “Rules of the Red Rubber Ball” by Kevin Carroll. Gordon macKenzie was his mentor and you see alot of Gordon in Kevin. Changed my life creatively and personally.

        • Todd Henry

          {Says the author of the two aforementioned books… :) } Haven’t read that one, Stefan – I’ll check it out!

  4. designjedi

    I like 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick. The drawings and principals apply to all kinds of design.

  5. designjedi

    I like 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick. The drawing are quite nice and the principals apply to any design field.

  6. Michael Worley

    Todd thanks for sharing these unique resources. I’ve only heard of a few of them and just added them to the library…Looking forward to diving into them for myself and for my team

    • Todd Henry

      Fantastic, Michael! There are a ton of more well-known books that I love, but these are some of my *more obscure* favs… ;)

  7. Csaba G. Toth

    I just wanted to add another vote for the magnificent “Free Play” by Stephen Nachmanovich and give two book recommendations, namely “If you want to write” by Brenda Ueland, and “The Universal Traveler” by Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall (although the later would qualify more as a brilliant creative problem solving method).

    The War of War by Mr. Pressfield would still take the No.1 spot for me though.

    Great list by the way.

  8. corwinhiebert

    Great list Todd! I’d add a couple: 1) “Idea Selling: Successfully Pitch Your Creative Ideas to Bosses, Clients & other Decision Makers” – Sam Harrison; 2) “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” – Daniel Pink.

    • Alain Gauthier

      Whole New Mind, that was a life changer for me.

      Todd, I understand how difficult it may have been to limit your list to 5 :-)


  9. spingirl

    Todd – Love your podcasts – they make my morning commute rich and fun. Plus, I get into the office ready to get going. Thanks for the list – agree that The War of Art is right up there. Agree with Twyla Tharp’s book recommendation. Want to add one of my own – The Art of Possibility – by Ben and Rosamund Zander. Finally The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker – while not ordinarily thought of as within the creative realm, his suggestions apply to everyone.

    • Todd Henry

      Ahh…The Art Of Possibility ALMOST made my list. It was sitting on my desk with the others, but I had to limit it at five… ;)

  10. Nazco

    Two great books that offer a spiritual perspective: The 8th Day of Creation, and The Creative Call. I highly agree with Letters to a Young Poet. Great pick.

  11. Lewis LaLanne aka Nerd #2

    The War of Art made me fall in love with the idea of overcoming inner resistance! The other part I cherished about the book was the renegade, smooth, rugged tone it took on. There’s something about people who cuss and make it sound good that utterly pleases me.

    There’s like 5 jillion resources on the topic of creativity but I wanted to mention an audio program put together by one of the most creative men I’ve ever had as a mentor. It’s called “The Creative Switch” and it’s put together by Jay Abraham and Terry Hart.

    This program not only comes with like 4-7 CD’s but it also has a kick ass workbook included with it. I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially to the person looking to be more creative in their business as Jay is the master in this arena.

    Thanks for sharing your list Todd! I heard about the hairball book last week and now you’ve just made me lust for it even deeper! :)

  12. Edruff

    Top of the list is absolutely The Art of War. A must read for any creative. Another must read on my list is Switch by the Heath Brothers. One of our biggest challenges as creative pros is not only coming up with new, innovative, brilliant ideas, but convincing our peers, bosses, or clients that they are ideas worth at least entertaining, even if they go against the status quo. I think that often creatives have a hard time articulating why something that might be novel IS appropriate (like the podcast reference? :) This book really helped me understand how to better navigate those those challenges with client and coworkers.

    Thanks for you list. Looks like I have some reading to do this weekend.

  13. Alain Gauthier

    How about Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky? I just ordered it yesterday upon a friend’s recommendation.

    Any comments on that book?

    Your Week Three (Rhythm) article for Everyday Brilliance is so right on. I personally wrote an article on that same topics a few months back -not as well written as yours :-)
    I link to it below if anyone are interested in critiquing it for me?


    Alain Gauthier

    • Todd Henry

      YES! Love Scott’s book and it’s an essential for learning to execute. (The problem with this post is that I HAD to limit to 5!) It probably would’ve made my “top 10″…


  1. Creativity as a Battle: Artists and Academics [Part Two] - [...] book; it is also listed as Goodreads’ number one book on creativity and regularly makes top 5 lists elsewhere.)…

Submit a Comment

Share This