Creative careers come in all shapes and sizes.
They include classic artistic paths, in the fine arts, literature, music, drama and other performing arts. There are also traditional crafts and designer-maker professions, whose practitioners create and sell artefacts in wood, metal, glass, ceramics and other materials.
The modern creative industries employ talented people in fields such as television, radio, film, marketing and advertising, design, popular music and web development.
Last but not least are the myriad creative freelancers, entrepreneurs, coaches, consultants and small business owners who bring all their ingenuity and passion to bear on the challenge of earning a living from their creative talents.
Whichever category you fall into, you have a few things in common with your fellow creative professionals.
Most importantly, creativity is central to your identity and your career success. It’s a passion that gets you out of bed in the morning, and a means of separating yourself from the competition.
Because of this, conventional career advice isn’t much use to you. You may or may not have letters after your name and be good in an interview situation, but your career gameplan is not based on getting good grades, saying the right thing in an interview and climbing the corporate ladder. In fact, when you looked at the career options laid out before you at school, you may well have decided that none of them were particularly appealing, so you’d have to invent your own job description.
So where can you go for meaningful career advice?
A few years ago, if you’d looked in the careers section of the average bookstore, you’d have been faced with a limited choice of career paths, and advice on “killer answers to tough interview questions”.
But these days there’s a growing number of books aimed at people pursuing creative careers. Books that don’t show you how to fit in, but how to stand out. Books that don’t tell you what to do or say, but inspire you with possibilities and encourage you to find your own path.
Here’s a selection of 12 of the best career guides for creative people, based on my own experience and the response of my coaching clients when I recommend them. I hope you find them useful sources of practical inspiration for your own creative career. And if I’ve missed out one of your favourites, please leave a comment at the end explaining why you’d like to add it to the list!
N.b. I’ve ordered the books thematically, not counting up (or down) to the best. They are all awesome, in different ways.
1. Creating a Life Worth Living by Carol Lloyd
“A practical course in career design for artists, innovators, and others aspiring to a creative life.”
This book began with a conversation between writer and performer Carol Lloyd and a choreographer friend, one night in a little hut in Bali. She noticed that her friend was too worried about her future career to enjoy her holiday, and spent the night helping her plan out “a life worth living” – creatively, personally and professionally.
Finding she had a gift for this kind of work, Lloyd went on to develop career coaching workshops for artists, creatives and entrepreneurs, and eventually to write Creating a Life Worth Living.
The book was published in 1997, long before Web 2.0 came along as a catalyst for creative entrepreneurship, yet it’s full of innovative entrepreneurial ideas. It contains great advice on topics such as ” Understanding Your Artistic Profile “, ” Neglected Needs: Time, Money and Desire”, and “The Drudge We Do for Dollars: Day Jobs”.
Apart from Lloyd’s own advice, the book is worth buying for its many case studies and interviews with people pursuing unconventional career paths. Like the Monk brothers: “publishers, vagabonds, writers,” who spent years on the road in a van, somehow managing to transform their publication from a newsletter for friends to a national magazine.
2. The Creative Professional by Howard J. Blumenthal
“A survival guide for the business world”
Howard Blumenthal is a producer, author, educator and media executive. His TV credits include the Emmy award-winning PBS children’s series Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? He has also been a Senior Vice President at Bertelsmann’s e-commerce group, and at CDNow, one of the early online music retailers. Other organisations he has worked for or with include HBO, Nickelodeon, Universal and Warner. So he has a huge amount of professional experience in the creative industries to draw on.
Reading The Creative Professional is like being invited into Blumenthal’s office, being ushered into a plush armchair, and then given the benefit of his advice on just about every aspect of a creative career, beginning with a straight look at yourself – your personality, your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and critically, what you have to offer in the marketplace.
Other topics covered include: self-employment versus employment; managing your time and getting creative work done; dealing with criticism and rejection; collaborating with different types of people; managing money and intellectual property; even the fine detail of choosing a computer and your office furniture.
Blumenthal packs a huge amount of information and advice into 350-odd pages, and does it with the quiet authority of someone who’s been there and done that, and is now keen to help you go there and do it yourself.
3. Do More Great Work by Michael Bungay Stanier
If you’re not yet sure what kind of work is your real creative passion, Michael Bungay Stanier‘s book is a great way to get some clarity. He starts from the premise that the work we do falls into three categories:
- Bad Work – “a waste of time, energy, and life”
- Good Work – “familiar, useful and productive work”
- Great Work – “work that inspires, stretches and provokes… the work that matters”
Obviously, we all want less Bad Work. But Michael argues that we’re often too ready to settle for doing Good Work at the expense of Great Work. Through a series of activities based around visual ‘maps’, he helps you sift out the Great from the Good – and start prioritizing the former in order to find a fulfilling path.
Michael is a great coach, and makes the process of working through the book enjoyable and genuinely interactive. Plus the book is enriched with insights from the likes of Seth Godin, Leo Babauta, Chris Guillebeau and Penelope Trunk.
4. Ignore Everybody (and Evil Plans) by Hugh MacLeod
“An irreverent guide to embracing and maximising creativity.”
As many of you already know, Hugh is a cartoonist, blogger, author, entrepreneur and force of nature based at Gapingvoid.com. And I’m squeezing in two books from him – when I first planned this article, Ignore Everybody was one of the first books on the list, and now that I’ve got round to writing it, Hugh’s just released Evil Plans.
Since 1997, Hugh’s been drawing acerbicly funny cartoons on the backs of business cards, originally to pass the time at the bar, and since 2001 as the creative engine of his phenomenally successful Gapingvoid blog. Ignore Everybody gives you the back story to the cartoons, as Hugh reminisces about his own career and draws out the lessons he’s learned about creativity and earning a living.
You can get an idea of what you’re in for from chapter titles like “Dying young is overrated”, “Everybody has their own private Mount Everest they were put on this earth to climb”, “Nobody cares. Do it for yourself”, and “Savor obscurity while it lasts”. This is a book you’ll read quickly and come back too often. And if you want more cartoons, signup to Hugh’s newsletter, and he’ll send you one every day, for free.
Evil Plans is just as awesome as Ignore Everybody, with more of a focus on the entrepreneurial path – but we’re about to do a separate Evil Plans feature on Lateral Action, so I’ll leave it at that for now.
5. Linchpin by Seth Godin
“How to drive your career and create a remarkable future.”
Seth is known for writing the most popular marketing blog on the planet (put the word ‘Seth’ into Google and he comes in top place!) but a lot of his work these days goes beyond marketing. With Linchpin, he encourages you to “make yourself indispensable”, by becoming the best in the world at what you do – or even the only person in the world who does it.
He slams the “factory system” in which workers are schooled to learn the right answers, pass exams and become “faceless cogs in the machinery of capitalism”. Seth includes information workers in the factory system, since he sees no essential difference between working on a factory production line or in a cubicle, if all you’re doing is following orders and maintaining the status quo.
The alternative is to become a Linchpin – someone who makes themselves indispensable to an organisation or industry, by becoming a leader and applying their creativity to solving problems that matter:
You must become indispensable to thrive in the new economy. The best ways to do that are to be remarkable, insightful, an artist, someone bearing gifts. To lead. The worst way is to conform and become a cog in a giant system.
(Linchpin by Seth Godin, p.174)
Unlike some of the other books on this list, Linchpin mainly focuses on finding opportunity, autonomy and fulfilment in a job, rather than starting your own business. Godin challenges both employers and employees to transform the workplace into a platform for changing the world.Becoming a Linchpin.
6. The Adventures of Johnny Bunko by Dan Pink
“The last career guide you’ll ever need.”
This one makes the list for two reasons: the quality of the content and the originality of its form. Whether or not The Adventures of Johnny Bunko proves to be the last career guide you’ll ever need, it’s almost certainly the first one you’ve ever read in manga format. On the assumption that young people have probably had plenty of lectures, Pink dramatises his advice, by telling Johnny’s story as a Japanese-style comic strip, fabulously realised by manga artist Rob Ten Pas.
Johnny is a creatively-inclined young man who puts his dreams on hold and follows his father’s ‘sensible’ career advice, studying accountancy and signing on for his first job in cubicle land. But the harder he tries to fit in, the more frustrated and depressed he feels. Working late at the office one night, he thinks he’s seeing things when Diana – an elfin manga character – appears in his cubicle, as if by magic.
But instead of whisking Johnny off to faraway lands, Diana challenges him to rethink his career assumptions and start taking responsibility for creating opportunities for himself. She teaches him six essential lessons for thriving in the world of work, including “there is no plan”, “persistence trumps talent”, and “make excellent mistakes”. Needless to say, this doesn’t win him many friends in the accounts department – but you won’t be surprised to learn Johnny doesn’t finish the book as an accountant …
If you like Johnny Bunko, you should also check out Pink’s earlier book A Whole New Mind, in which he identifies six essential skills for success in the conceptual age. As well as my interview with Dan.
7. Creators on Creating edited by Frank Barron, Anthea Barron and Alfonso Montuori
There are some fabulous descriptions of the creative process: Leonardo da Vinci drawing corpses in the charnel house at night, with a cloth over his mouth and nose to protect him from the stench; Maya Angelou writing her novels in a hotel room with “the Bible, Roget’s Thesaurus and some good, dry sherry”; Maurice Sendak drawing Where the Wild Things Are “sitting in front of the record player as though possessed by a dybbuk”; and molecular biologist Kary Mullis formulating breakthrough scientific ideas under the influence of LSD.
Creators on Creating also contains accounts of decisions and challenges that shaped some famous creative careers: Henry Miller deciding to become a writer; Brian Eno explaining his fascination with World Music; Frederico Fellini ‘noticing’ one day that he had become a film director.
And when you read Fellini describing his nerves before shooting one of his first scenes as a director, or Laurence Olivier’s account of stage fright, you realise that these people weren’t demigods who could do no wrong, but human beings like us, who had to look fear in the face and overcome it to make their dreams come true.
If you’ve ever felt like the ‘odd one out’ compared to friends pursuing more conventional careers, reading this book will show you you’re in good company – and help to rekindle your enthusiasm for finding your own path.
8. Career Renegade by Jonathan Fields
“How to make a great living doing what you love.”
Johnny Bunko could almost have been based on Jonathan Fields’ story – once upon a time, Jonathan was a lawyer being paid lots of money to do a job he couldn’t stand. In the absence of manga characters appearing in his office, it took a major health scare for him to wake up to the fact that he was sick of the law. So he quit to become a serial entrepreneur, founding health and fitness businesses, including a top-grossing yoga centre in New York. More recently, he’s leveraged the power of social media to attract an enthusiastic following and help others find wealth and fulfilment on the entrepreneurial path.
Career Renegade is a distillation of what he’s learned about entrepreneurship, and how it relates to your passion. He starts with the assumption that you already know what you are most enthusiastic about, but have a hard time turning it into a viable business. (This makes it a great complement to Michael Bungay Stanier’s book, which will help you find your passion.) He then walks you through the process of finding the sweet spot between your own passion and what customers are prepared to pay for. The book is packed with practical advice on marketing, product development, building an audience and leveraging the power of the web.
One of the biggest career myths out there is “Do what you love and the money will follow”. Most of us have to go out and find it. But read Jonathan’s book and he’ll show you how to make it an inspiring and worthwhile pursuit.
9. The Art of Nonconformity by Chris Guillebeau
“Set your own rules, live the life you want and change the world.”
Chris Guillebeau is on a mission – several missions, in fact. He’s on a quest to visit every country in the world by the time he’s 35, at the same time as building a global small business, helping others achieve meaningful nonconformist lives, and bringing water to parts of the world where people desperately need it.
The Art of Non-Conformity is the story of how he does it – and how you can create a similarly unconventional career path for yourself. The basic premise of the book is that most of us are far too willing to accept the alleged wisdom of the crowd, instead of thinking for ourselves, making our own rules and pursuing our dreams. So he takes you through a process of uncovering and challenging your own preconceptions, before homing in on the thing(s) you really want to do with your life, and finding a way to achieve them.
Chris isn’t afraid to speak out on political and moral issues that concern him, but he’s anything but po-faced. Part of the attraction of this book, and his blog, is his quiet sense of humour, as he describes running a coffee importing business from his kitchen table, Kafkaesque conversations with customs officials in far corners of the world, and delegating tasks to his assistant Libby (a cat). A book for people who like to dream big while savouring the small details.
10. The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss
“Escape 9-to-5, live anywhere, and join the new rich.”
This one will be a controversial choice in some quarters, but it more than earns its place. Part of the controversy comes from pedantic readings of the title. At the time of writing, Tim had created an automated business that took care of his financial needs with less than four hours a week input from him. But the main point of the book isn’t to reduce your schedule to four hours: it’s about to eliminating mindless drudgery, and generating the greatest possible return, relative to the effort you put in.
Another controversy has centred around Tim’s idea of creating an automated ‘Muse’ business, and to be fair you will probably need more of an entrepreneurial education than is provided in the book. But for evidence that it can be done, check out the fascinating case studies Tim has recently profiled on his blog, for examples of enterprises that provide their creators with a lot more freedom than the typical 9-to-5 job or the kind of business that requires their owners to be on call 24/7. Engineering a Muse: Volume One, Two and Three.
You’ve probably noticed that Tim likes to take things to extremes, which means you’re unlikely to agree with everything he says. But read The 4-Hour Workweek with an open mind and you’ll find plenty to challenge your preconceptions about what you ‘have’ to do, and some mind-boggling suggestions for reinventing your work and life.
And as a writer myself, I appreciate the zest with which it’s written, and Tim’s ear for a memorable phrase. In place of boring old work/life balance, Tim gives us ‘lifestyle design’. And you have to admit, a chapter opening like this must at least make you curious:
If I told you this story, you wouldn’t believe me, so I’ll let AJ tell it. It will set the stage for even more incredible things to come, all of which you will do yourself.
11. Escape from Cubicle Nation by Pamela Slim
“From corporate prisoner to thriving entrepreneur.”
If you’re tempted to tell your boss where to stick his job, and flounce out the door to set up your own business, please read this book first. Not only because Pamela Slim provides solid advice on the nuts and bolts of starting your own 21st-century business, but also because she warns you about the challenges you will face. Running your own business will expose you to a different type of stress to the kind you experience as an employee, so you need to go in with your eyes wide open.
Escape from Cubicle Nation explains “what’s really involved in moving from employee to entrepreneur,” starting with the frustration felt by many corporate employees, through different options for self-employment (creating products, providing services, in person, online, over the phone etc), finding the right business model, developing your brand, looking your finances in the eye, and – importantly – dealing with friends and family and their responses to your new path.
Pamela’s writing has a nice balance of humour and pragmatism, inspiration and horror stories. Escape is a nice idea when you feel like you’re in prison – but real escapologists know the value of planning, practice and persistence. Reading this book is no guarantee of success, but it will help you decide if it’s a challenge you really want to pursue.
12. The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
According to Joseph Campbell, in the myths of ancient Greece, Babylon, India, China, the Eskimos and North American Indians, among many others, “it will always be the one, shapeshifting yet marvellously constant story that we find” – the story of the hero who is called to embark on an adventure, usually against his or her will, who undergoes a series of trials and returns triumphant with a prize (knowledge, magical artefacts, superpower etc) that benefits the community.
It’s a big claim, but once you’ve read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, you start to see the same archetypal journey everywhere – in fairy tales, novels, plays and movies. Christopher Vogler has written an entire book, The Writers Journey, in which he analyses films including the Wizard of Oz, Titanic, Star Wars and Pulp Fiction in terms of Campbell’s ideas. In fact, George Lucas has openly acknowledged the employment of Campbell on Star Wars.
So what does all this have to do with you? Well, if you’ve read this far you’re probably not the kind of person who is content to think of your life purely in terms of a ‘career’. Let’s face it, a career is a terribly boring idea. Much better to take a leaf out of Hugh MacLeod’s book:
Treat it like an adventure, an adventure worth sharing.
An adventure is a lot more exciting – and scary – than a career. Whatever path you choose, at some point you’re likely to find yourself in a dark and lonely place, a place that seems to have been glossed over in most of the career manuals. At that point, you’ll may well find it more helpful to remember Jonah’s ordeal in the belly of the whale, or Hercules’ battle with the Hydra, or Little Red Riding Hood’s encounter with the wolf.
Campbell’s book isn’t a light read, but if you have a thirst for adventure and a taste for myths and legends it could be one of the most inspiring and relevant books you ever read.
Why chase a paycheque or a corner office when you could be slaying dragons en route to the Holy Grail?
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What Do You Make of the List?
Did I pick any of your favourites? Which one(s)?
Which books would you add to this list – and why?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For more tips on creativity, productivity and creative careers, sign up for free updates from Lateral Action. And for bite-sized inspiration follow Mark on Twitter.