The Best Books on Creativity

Two or so times per year, I share one of the emails which I send out to members of our growing book club, which just passed 3,500 people. Below, I share my favorite list of books in a while.

Over the past 6-12 months, I’ve read almost 50 books on my favorite topic: creativity. I am more and more convinced that engaging in creative activity is the key to both happiness and career success. From the fifty books, I’ve chosen the six best ones to help get you started exploring this crucial and fascinating topic.

The first four books deal directly with the creative process, and the last two deal with what I believe to be the appropriate creative mindset. Enjoy!

The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler

This book is old and out of print. My copy is a tattered paperback that looks like someone forgot it on the beach. It has an old-school, academic feel to it. This is my favorite book on creativity. I used to think others were pioneers on the topic: De Bono, Csikszentmihalyi, Thiel. Then I read this book and realized they are all just borrowing from him.

Koestler identifies humor, discovery (science, business), and art as the three primary areas of creative potential and explores each in detail. This book is a history of creativity, a how to guide, and a philosophical journey. Creativity is all about collecting pieces and making new associations. One must move away from habitual thinking and over-saturated concepts:

These silent codes can be regarded as condensations of learning into habit. Habits are the indispensable core of stability and ordered behavior; they also have a tendency to become mechanized and to reduce man to the status of a conditioned automaton. The creative act, by connecting previously unrelated dimensions of experience, enables him to attain to a higher level of mental evolution. It is an act of liberation–the defeat of habit by originality… It has been said that discovery consists in seeing an analogy which nobody had seen before.

I could write a whole book based on the insights from this book.

Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Routledge Classics) by Peter Drucker

If you want the most business oriented book on creativity, you cannot do better than Peter Drucker. The book explores these seven areas: the unexpected event, incongruities, process need, changes in market structure, demographics, changes in perception, and new knowledge. Each can be used to find areas of a market ripe for innovation.

Like most books I’ve read on innovation and creativity, this one de-emphasizes the idea of the “individual genius.” Drucker agrees that creativity doesn’t require special genius. Rather, it is a process that requires hard work:

innovation is a discipline, with its own, fairly simple, rules. And so is entrepreneurship. Neither of them requires geniuses. Neither of them will be done if we wait for inspiration and for the ‘kiss of the muse’. Both are work
whatever changes the wealth-producing potential of already existing resources constitutes innovation.

Drucker makes a compelling case that most innovation isn’t in the technology field (in fact, technology is one of the hardest fields in which to innovate). Instead, innovation is about recognizing a new pattern which fits an emerging need in the world:

There was not much new technology involved in the idea of moving a truck body off its wheels and onto a cargo vessel. This ‘innovation’, the container, did not grow out of technology at all but out of a new perception of the ‘cargo vessel’ as a materials-handling device rather than a ‘ship’, which meant that what really mattered was to make the time in port as short as possible. But this humdrum innovation roughly quadrupled the productivity of the ocean-going freighter and probably saved shipping. Without it, the tremendous expansion of world trade in the last forty years – the fastest growth in any major economic activity ever recorded – could not possibly have taken place.

This next passage sounds a lot like Peter Thiel’s Zero to One:

Still, successful entrepreneurs aim high. They are not content simply to improve on what already exists, or to modify it. They try to create new and different values and new and different satisfactions, to convert a ‘material’ into a ‘resource’, or to combine existing resources in a new and more productive configuration.

Drucker encourages us to use the seven areas listed above to find current opportunities. Forecasting is too hard so “don’t try to innovate for the future. Innovate for the present!”

Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This book studies creative people and creates a common framework for creativity based on their lives and insights. What sets this book apart is its discussion of the environment in which creative people make their discoveries. Csikszentmihalyi highlights the importance three aspects:

creativity results from the interaction of a system composed of three elements: a culture that contains symbolic rules, a person who brings novelty into the symbolic domain, and a field of experts who recognize and validate the innovation. All three are necessary for a creative idea, product, or discovery to take place… creativity does not happen inside people’s heads, but in the interaction between a person’s thoughts and a sociocultural context. It is a systemic rather than an individual phenomenon.

Changing the conditions of your environment can increase the potential for creative insight. You’ll want to incorporate people and ideas from a lot of different areas.

It also seems true that centers of creativity tend to be at the intersection of different cultures, where beliefs, lifestyles, and knowledge mingle and allow individuals to see new combinations of ideas with greater ease. In cultures that are uniform and rigid, it takes a greater investment of attention to achieve new ways of thinking. In other words, creativity is more likely in places where new ideas require less effort to be perceived.

That was just two of my 125 highlights from this book. There is a ton in here to ponder and to help you better set yourself up for creative success.

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young

If you prefer fast reads and only want to read one of these books, this is the one for you. This book lays out the creative process almost like the scientific method. This book is entirely free of fluff or hero-worship (a common problem I’ve had with books on creativity).

Here is a distillation. Each of these five stages below is carefully considered. This is the book that cemented my goal to constantly collect ideas from a lot of different fields and store them in one place.

First, the gathering of raw materials—both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which come from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge. Second, the working over of these materials in your mind. Third, the incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis. Fourth, the actual birth of the Idea—the “Eureka! I have it!” stage. And fifth, the final shaping and development of the idea to practical usefulness.

Essays and Lectures: (Nature: Addresses and Lectures, Essays: First and Second Series, Representative Men, English Traits, and The Conduct of Life) by Ralph Waldo Emerson

The first part of creative success if gathering pieces (ideas). The second part is putting those pieces together into new patterns, which requires that the creative person make new associations, or sees a pattern amongst pieces that others have overlooked.

Collecting pieces is simple, but it is hard work. The second stage—associative combination—is a little trickier. I believe that the key is to foster an independent, authentic mind and world-view. Most people are “repetition machines,” automatons that function by habit and never explore new things. When I am feeling conventional (happens often), Emerson’s essay Self Reliance is my favorite antidote.

Along with Jiddu Krishnamurti and Thoreau, Emerson challenges us directly to be our own individuals and see the world through our own eyes, rather than through those of others. This is MUCH harder than it sounds, because habits are the brain’s way of saving energy. Overcoming habit and conventional thought/behavior requires great effort. But the resulting “clean” mindset may be the key to making new associations, because you’ll be able to view the pieces you’ve collected with a fresh perspective. Here are a few choice passages from Emerson’s essay Self Reliance.

I READ the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instil is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius… for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment.

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs… Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker J. Palmer

This final book is along the same lines as Emerson (the author is a quasi-Emerson/Thoreau for modern times).

“Ask me whether what I have done is my life.” For some, those words will be nonsense, nothing more than a poet’s loose way with language and logic. Of course what I have done is my life! To what am I supposed to compare it? But for others, and I am one, the poet’s words will be precise, piercing, and disquieting. They remind me of moments when it is clear-if I have eyes to see-that the life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me.

Palmer emphasizes the importance of having a “beginner’s mind” and being receptive and open.

Perhaps the key to making new associations is casting a wide net, listening, and simply being ready to catch or receive combinations as they fly by. This final book, along with Self Reliance can help you foster the appropriate mindset for creative discovery.


Lest you think none of this applies to investing, it does! Consider this quote from Efficiently Inefficient: How Smart Money Invests and Market Prices Are Determined, by Lasse Heje Pedersen:

In summary, when you are looking for new cool trading ideas, think about whether there is information that most investors overlook, new ways to combine various sources of information, a smart way to get the information fast, or what type of information is not fully reflected in the price because of limited arbitrage.

Said differently, apply the principles of creativity to find the best potential investment ideas.

If you have more book suggestions on this topic, let me know. If you know of a book loving friend, forward him or her this post so that they can join our growing book club ( Have a great month.