Jump directly to my recommendations for:
- Creativity, Writing, and Art
- Product, Experience, & Service Design
- Biographies and History
For me, books are a way of life. Whether I’m travelling, sitting in a café, or just taking a break from a long work session: I’ve always got a book ready to hand. Much like how we are able to recall smells and tastes, long forgotten, by listening to a song from our childhood; all of my fondest memories, the pivotal moments in my life, are intertwined with the passage of text I would have been reading around that time.
It’s incredible to me, how the right words can lend us the ability see that which is usually invisible to us, to discover the underlying beauty waiting for us beyond the mundane.
When I say: “I’m not really happy at the moment”,— Justin Campbell-Platt (@JustinCampbellP) September 9, 2020
what I really mean is: “I haven’t read a book in like a week”.
But with over 2.2 million books published around the world each year (according to UNESCO); it’s easy to feel like Matthew McConaughey’s character at the end of Interstellar, lost in a sea of endless books - apparently, all needed to be read.
Luckily, I’m someone who feels completely uncommitted to finishing any book that doesn’t actively reward my curiosity; loyal only to those that truly surprise or delight me with their ideas, stories, and lessons. Because the ones that do… stay with me for life.
That’s why I’ve created this reading list. I wanted to have a place to track all the gems that acted as catalysts for great internal change. Every book listed below took me on a journey from cover to cover, shaped who I am, and helped me better understand the human experience in a profound manner.
I hope one of these makes its way to your bookshelf, your bedside table, and most importantly, into your hands.
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I’d recommend that you bookmark this page as this reading list is ongoing and updated constantly as I devoured more and more books.
Creativity, Writing, and Art
The Godfather Notebook, by Francis Ford Coppola. No exaggeration, whenever anyone asks what the best purchase I have ever made is: I think of this book. There is no doubt that The Godfather is one of the greatest films ever made. With The Godfather Notebook, you will discover what it takes to make such a work of art. The book is comprised of Coppola’s handwritten notes surrounding cut-out pages from Mario Puzo’s novel, something that Coppola felt essential to do in order to understand the themes and motifs of the Mafia story deeply enough, to then develop a screenplay for the big screen. Whilst it might be particularly inspiring for any aspiring screenwriter wanting to see exactly how Coppola adapted the classic; I think this is an essential study for anyone wanting to create great work.
Mastery, by Robert Greene. In his fifth book, Greene zooms out and uses the larger career journey to contextualise his study of those who have mastered their craft, industry, and (as Greene puts it) Life’s Task. This is my most gifted book of all time. Everyone from my father, my closest friends, to even my enemies would receive this from me at some point if they have spent enough time with me. (You see, I want only the best for my enemies). It’s also a book that I’ve highlighted and scribbled in more than any I own. For when Robert Greene writes a book, you don’t read it: you study it.
Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite, by Paul Arden. The once Creative Director of Saatchi and Saatchi asks us to take a look at our situation, creative problem, or career decision from a different angle. There is a particularly great passage that pits Steady Eddie against Reckless Erica that helps you see the benefits of seeing your career as an adventure, and not something you have to nail first time around. Paul says himself: “If you always make the right decision, the safe decision, the one most people make, you will be the same as everyone else.” For such an inspiring text, this book is short and easy to read - making it a great elbows-in, London tube commute read.
The Artist’s Way: Morning Pages Journal, by Julia Cameron. It would be an understatement to say that the practice of Morning Pages has changed my life. The journal acts as an outlet for the monkey-mind, a tool to recognise that the thoughts that we obsess over are not always our own and as we write them out on paper, we see how much we often know better than them. That’s right, screw you Monkey Mind. Whilst the framework that Cameron has developed acts primarily as an enabler for seemingly-blocked writers, I would recommend it to anyone who may see value in organising their thoughts and living a more intentional life.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami. For years I had been recommended by numerous people to pick up one of Murakami’s novels, and yet I somehow managed to pick up one of his memoirs instead. A mistake, this was not. This book is as much about writing and the habitual lifestyle a writer has to submit themselves to, as it is about the running. Murakami himself admits: “running is both exercise and a metaphor”. Whilst most pick up a book written by the Japanese author for the effect of seeing the details of the world through a new lens, this book has the unfortunate effect of making you obsessively want to simplify your life and focus only on writing and exercising. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.
Perennial Seller, by Ryan Holiday. Ryan’s books are all game-changers, but I’d argue that this is his most underrated. This book truly shifted how I approach any project I plan to work on, or even if I should spend my time on the project or not. This book also dialled up my perfectionism to an 11. But for good reason. It gave me permission to aim to create something meaningful - something that truly lasts. Naturally, as it is written by Ryan Holiday, the book has a stoic nature to it: encouraging us to focus only on the things we can control. I highly recommend any creative to pick this one up. (Preferably before sinking hours into something you haven’t thought all that hard about).
Mad Men Carousel, by Matt Zoller Seitz. There isn’t a single day of the week, in which if someone suddenly proposed that I need to stop whatever I am doing to watch an episode of the show Mad Men… when I would refuse. Each artful episode of the show deeply explores the difference between truly meeting your needs, and simply meeting expectations placed upon you by external forces. Matt Zoller Seitz discovered the magic as he was watching each at the time of its release. This book is a collection of his exploratory reviews, which upon reading, highlights the heart-aching, powerful moments from the show that have impacted my life so much. A must-own companion for anyone watching or rewatching the show.
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. Not to be confused with Sun Tzu’s Art of War, but very much of the same calibre. Whilst Tzu revels in the strategic and creative endeavour of declaring war on an enemy; Pressfield explores the fight against ourselves as we fight off the powerful force blocking us from doing our best work. Something he calls and materialises as: The Resistance. This externalisation, of every fear, doubt, or distraction, proves to be extremely invaluable for anyone attempting to create something meaningful. This is a book I’ve reread several times as it never failed to bring me out of writer’s block or the general hum of anxiety upon approaching a new project. It’s like getting a pep talk from a fellow soldier who has already seen a lot of action as we approach the shore our next battle. Pick this book up today and begin the necessary fight against your worst enemy.
The Runaway Species, by Anthony Brandt and Daniel Eagleman. This book beautifully, and somewhat playfully, examines how it is that the human mind is capable of proliferating so many creations into the world. No matter how advanced you may feel you are in developing your creative process; everyone can benefit tremendously from understanding the concepts of bending, breaking, and blending. (I was lucky enough to see both Anthony Brandt and Daniel Eagleman highlight the power of these concepts in a talk they gave together in London, 2017.)
Show Your Work, by Austin Kleon. Ahh. Austin Kleon is one of my favourite writers and artists. The fact that he has been maintaining his blog for over 10 years is truly inspiring to me and encourages me to keep writing even when I don’t necessarily feel like it at the time. Because having a body of work of yours online for the world to see is truly invaluable. And Show Your Work is the underrated book of his that accentuates the underlying thinking behind doing just that. Putting a piece of yourself and your work on a blog, as much as you can, no matter how small the piece. Kleon also voices a theory that I have had ever since I bought my own name as a domain years ago now: that your name as a domain name should be a birthright. #sorrytoallthosewhohavethesamenameassomeoneelse
The Films of Akira Kurosawa, by Donald Richie. I still remember the first time I picked this book up. I sat in the private book collection in the library located downstairs of the Japan House in Kensington for almost 2 hours. Consumed by Donald Richie’s writing. The way he was able to break down and articulate all the decisions made, complications, and historical context for some of the greatest films ever made. Naturally, before you pick this book up, I strongly recommend that you watch any of Kurosawa’s movies (perhaps starting at Seven Samurai) to get an understanding of what cinema can really do, even within the limits of black and white. But following that, I’d suggest picking up Donald Richie’s book on the artist’s work - and engrossing yourself in the mindset and approach of such a creative.
Working, by Robert A. Caro. With this containing both a collection of old essays and recent reflections on his own research and writing process, Working acts as a Making Of documentary-styled book for the famous biographer Robert A. Caro and his perennial work on Robert Moses and, of course, former American President Lyndon Johnson (for whom he has written 4 extensive volumes on). Much like Ryan Holiday’s Perennial Seller (listed above), this book reveals that Robert Caro is a true advocate of doing it right. Of taking your time. Slowing down. And researching your subjects to the extent where you breathe ideas you want to write about, thus producing work that draws people in to where they can feel your every word.
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. Anne Lamott has written one of my favourite books on writing. Not because her advice was particularly unique amongst other books on attempting to get a story out of yourself, but because it was the first book to remove all the romantic tint on my glasses. A tint that I had for years whenever I thought of myself as a writer. Yet somehow this did not dissuade me. In fact, whenever I read this gem, I find myself wanting, again and again, to go through the struggles of a writer. Perhaps this was the first writing advice book that taught me that a good writer’s life is not necessarily an easy one; and that there is something great about that.
I also recommend:
- The Columbia Anthology of Japanese Essays, Edited by Steven D. Carter
- The Mirror Makers, by Stephen R. Fox
- The Anatomy of Story, by John Truby
- Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon
Product, Experience, and Service Design
The Sensual Home, by Ilse Crawford. Ever since I saw the episode of Abstract: Art of Design that featured both Ilse Crawford and her work in interior design and product design, my world has never been the same. It truly opened my eyes to see the potential in what good design can do for our day-to-day experiences. Even from the cover, which uses a unique material that is extremely satisfying to the touch, you know that Crawford considers every detail present in an experience and what could be done to enhance it how we feel in it. Whilst the book looks primarily at the home, it really speaks volumes about what we can do to design things in a way that engages us sensually as well as visually. Of all the coffee-table books you could own, consider picking one up that allows you to meditate on the quality of the space you’re currently in. This book does exactly that.
Sprint, by Jake Knapp. GV (Google Venture) is really a dream company for me. An investment arm of Google that shares its design resources with cutting-edge startups. Jake Knapp was a design partner at GV and during his time there, he developed a carefully considered methodology for solving complex problems with design in the span of 5 well-structured days. For companies and designers who don’t have some kind of practised approach for solving new problems, the Design Sprint is a great one to start with. And whilst I don’t adhere to the design sprint methodology for every problem that requires a design solution, I do tend to steal and incorporate some odd techniques from the book here and there. From Crazy 8’s, to grid-based storyboards, to using ‘How Might We’ prompts, to even including non-designer stakeholders early conversations, there are plenty of tools and techniques that this book has provided my process.
Emotional Design, by Don Norman. Cognitive scientist, Don Norman, truly understands who we should be building things and designing solutions for: humans. Whilst his classic, The Design of Everyday Things, was a game-changer; I find this to be the more transformative design book. To suddenly think about designing for emotions, rather than the more logical path that we assume most people take when interacting with products and services enables you to create much more visceral experiences. This book helped me recognise how inseparable emotions really are from how we think, choose, and act. Particularly interesting are the layers of design that Norman breaks down: visceral, reflective, and behavioural.
Good Service, by Lou Downe. As more businesses are built on providing a service and focus less on creating physical products, it’s absolutely paramount for anyone that creates anything professionally to understand the clear and memorable principles of service design that Downe lists and breaks down in Good Service. I’m a firm believer that our expectations as consumers for experiences and services are likely to go up significantly in the next 3-5 years, so to ignore service design is a death-wish. From the onset, the book might look overly simple with its bright colours and large font, but believe me, this is a very serious book: one that will help enable the creation of many opportunities in the near future.
I also recommend:
- Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud
- The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman
- Creative Selection, by Ken Kocienda
- Laws of UX: Using Psychology to Design Better Products & Services , by Jon Yablonski
Biographies and History
The Ride of a Lifetime, by Bob Iger. Every Christmas, despite being my age, my older brother still buys me a gift. Every year that gift is one book. Never has my brother gone wrong in his choice of book. Always gifting me something that I would find myself telling him the impact of down the line. One Christmas, I received the CEO of Disney’s autobiography: The Ride of a Lifetime. Reading of his decisions to have Disney acquire Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and a chunk of 21st Century Fox is fascinating, in particular, that of negotiating with the man who once never wanted to negotiate Disney: Steve Jobs, the founder of Pixar, Inc. I don’t think there are many books on businessmen that I found this interesting, especially considering that this an autobiography.
The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin. Josh Waitzkin has a beautiful mind. I remember picking this up thinking that I’d be given practical steps on how to acquire a new skill, but instead, I got a curiously intimate peek into the experiences and even physiology of a chess grandmaster in the middle of a championship tournament match. Waitzkin talks much more on how the state of flow that he enters during practice and competitive events feel than he does the techniques required to learn effectively. Thus why I put this book under the bracket of Biographies and History, as approaching as such, makes this book a truly fascinating read.
The 50th Law, by Robert Greene and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. Drawing from examples from 50 Cent’s life, (from selling drugs on the street corner, to launch his own marketing campaign by selling his own music on those same streets, to becoming a phenomenon and house-hold name in the entertainment industry, to starting and owning other businesses-ventures outside the music industry), author Robert Greene shows how conquering one’s inner fear can lead to great momentum for any ambitious individual. Whilst the book acts more like Greene’s other books than the in-depth biography I expected, it still managed to highlight the way in which 50 Cent actually approached every confrontation, business deal, and adversity; as well as how he managed to take a devastating event from his early-life and use it as fuel for the rest of it.
I also recommend:
- Miyazaki’s World, by Susan Napier
- Empire State of Mind, by Zack O’Malley Greenburg
- Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl
- Written in History, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
The Book of Five Rings, by Miyamoto Musashi. After dedicating an entire lifetime to travelling across Japan in pursuit of perfecting his technique of sword fighting primarily through duelling, Musashi retired to write this incredible text on Japanese swordplay. But for a book that’s supposedly about fighting technique, it speaks an awful lot on self-reliance. And whilst Musashi also wrote a meditation on self-reliance and the act of walking alone called Dokkodo, The Book of Five Rings highlights his almost spiritual connection to both the blade he carried with him for years, and the larger world around him. “Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world” as Musashi would say. It’s worth noting that I own more copies of this book than any other text, for if there is only one book you read to hone your strategic mind: this is the one.
Strategy, by Lawrence Freedman. “I’m assuming you’ve just been assigned this book for your MBA degree?” Asked the assistant behind the counter at the bookshop as he placed the large book into a bag. “No, no. I’m not a student. I’m planning on reading this for fun.” My gosh, did it turn out to be. I’ve always heard the phrase ‘ambitious project’ used to describe certain books, but never before had I felt the ambition of intent in a written piece. Of course, that was until I read Freedman’s book. The brutal truth is, had I not be inherently interested in strategy in all forms, I would not have read this mammoth of a book cover-to-cover. And likely, had I been assigned it by a business school, I would not have even picked it up. But if you’re looking for a 360° view on strategy, it’s history, and its application to various fields - Freedman’s book is a must-read.
The Art of War, by Sun Tzu. This is another book I own several copies of. I have actually found that each different translation of Sun Tzu’s over 2,000-year-old work that I’ve read has revealed something more about the ideas that, perhaps the greatest strategist of all time, developed. Sun Tzu’s ideas speak for themselves. Certain quotes that have never left me upon first reading them, during a time when I thought I knew so much about the world and how people behave in it. Tzu’s words jolted me. Making me think, perhaps I don’t. “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, by Richard Rumelt. Learning from examples of great strategy is one thing, but being able to recognise what makes a bad strategy is just as important - or at least I learnt from reading Rumelt’s book. Like that of Lawrence Freedman’s book and others on strategy, Rumelt covers the likes of establishing the current situation and challenge definition, as well as developing policy and coherent action plans. But what Rumelt does that no other book does, is highlight the impact that bad strategy has on all of this. Particularly fascinating in this book is how Rumelt justifies timing and the power in waiting for the confluence of events in order to develop not just any strategy, but the right one.
I also recommend:
The Craving Mind, by Judson Brewer. In The Craving Mind, neuroscientist Dr. Brewer unpacks why we get so addicted to things: to technology, to love, to distractions, to thinking, and to even ourselves. But through this issue of addiction, for which he has studied for over 20 years, Brewer explores such concepts as content-based memory, subjective bias, and reward-based learning; building up a picture of how the mind truly operates on our behalf. Whilst we seem to be running around in circles (in our reinforced loops) most of the time; Brewer shows us how by simply observing and being mindful of the stresses within us that cause us to fall into such loops, we can begin to train ourselves to walk in a different direction. Simply put, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Deep Work, by Cal Newport. No other book has changed how I structure my workday than Deep Work. Newport makes a rigorously tested case that for any knowledge worker, creating a work ethic and routine centered around periods of deep, uninterrupted focus can yield incredible results. My every workday now embodies one of the four approaches for cultivating deep work: Monastic, Bimodal, Rhythmic, and Journalistic. This is probably a great time to apologise to all those whom I reply to incredibly late. Although right now I’m in a writing flow, so perhaps I’ll put that off until afterwards…
Mindset, by Dr. Carol Dweck. Early on in my reading journey, I recall encountering a concept of open mindset and its rejection of the closed mindset. To recognise that the mind was adaptable and capable of change was phenomenal ground from which to begin interacting with the world. But it was this book, by Dr. Carol Dweck that gave the idea a far more sophisticated colour. In Mindset, Dweck makes that in order for anyone to truly adapt, grow, and to move beyond the limitation of the belief that their mind is only capable of so much - one must adopt a “Growth Mindset”. To confront our possible shortcomings in every moment and see these as opportunities to grow, to learn. To not see our abilities or talents as “fixed”, but rather to see them as something to be worked on and developed. This is a book that should be given to all teachers, coaches, and anyone else that has the responsibility of education.
The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene. It’s true that Robert Greene’s writing has influenced me greatly over the years, particularly that of Mastery (listed in creativity section above). But it’s worth noting the book of his that started it all. The catalyst for thinking differently about my surroundings and thus the book of his that likely changed my life most. Greene gives us a seemingly-pessimistic view on the actions of those around, and particularly, above us and calls out the moves they make, both consciously and unconsciously, in order to gain power: both over their situation and over others. I say seemingly, because, on closer inspection, Greene is actually fairly indifferent about the pursuit of power, reaching to a similar conclusion about it that biographer Caro does - that power is simply a force of nature that allows more things to get done. Whether those things are morally good or bad, or where the intention comes from is something that Greene only explores lightly here (something he returns to at much greater depth in The Laws of Human Nature). Instead, Greene simply highlights the techniques used by the power-hungry, opening your eyes very widely and making you cautious of those who use you, particularly in work. There is a review of the book that I thought perfectly put the process that likely everyone goes through when reading this, so I’ll quote their words here directly: “First depressing, then exciting, but always interesting.”
I also recommend:
- The Laws of Human Nature, by Robert Greene
- Frames of Mind, by Howard Gardner
- Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Don’t Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor
- Assholes: A Theory, by Aaron James
- Willful Blindness, by Margaret Heffernan
- Insight, by Tasha Eurich
On The Shortness of Life, by Seneca. Picture a young person, on the verge of beginning their reading journey. What book do you hand them first? The book to start their adventure. Would it be a classic novel? The Great Gatsby? Perhaps Moby Dick? A book on psychology? Something to help them better navigate their own mind? I know what I would hand them. It would be the writings of the Roman stoic philosopher: Seneca. This fairly short passage will shake any individual to the core. Giving them a sense that life they were living, up until the moment they had read such words, was not really full of much living at all. I will never forget the first time I read this book. It made me really examine my time: how I spend it, and with whom I spend it. A truly life-changing book.
Ego is the Enemy, by Ryan Holiday. Whilst I have claimed that Perennial Seller (listed in creativity section) is the most underrated Ryan Holiday book, Ego is the Enemy is undoubtedly my favourite. No other book has better prepared me for the work required to really get out of one’s own way. It enabled me to tell myself that my work isn’t good enough just quite yet, and not feel like my identity is at risk for having given myself such harsh criticism. This bastard, known as Ego, is something that we allow so much influence over our every decision, yet it has no real interest in our growth, nor in the work that’s actually required to get it the very things, that it believes it deserves. Ego is the spoiled brat inside of all of us, and this book leans on stoic philosophy to help us to recognise it and turn away from it in every moment.
I also recommend:
For Your Eyes Only, by Ian Fleming. As a huge fan of the James Bond movie franchise, turning to the Ian Fleming novels was an inevitability. By accidentally, I started with perhaps the most interesting of books in Fleming’s collection. Rather than following Bond on a large epic adventure, the likes you’d easy imagine Sean Connery thrown into, For Your Eyes Only is unusually a collection of short stories about the character and the world the spy exists in. For me, this book is far more telling of the character of James Bond than the arguably more one-dimensional character in Fleming’s other novels (and this is coming from a Bond fan!). Reading of how the famous spy would think, react, and feel during less-than-world-ending encounters is humourous but also humanises the character in a way never before seen.
I also recommend: