The best books about approaching life and work as an artist

Who am I?

Service and leadership have been a primary focus of my life and work for many years. Though today these are matters of academic study, they weren’t when I was in school. I’ve written and spoken extensively on these topics to corporate, military, academic, governmental, and NGO organizations. I strive to narrow the gap between those who study leadership and management and those who apply the principles in practice. My approach is to pose questions and share the experiences of those who have made significant contributions throughout history into the present moment. The books on my list have meant a lot to me and many others. I hope you’ll find value in them, too.  

I wrote...

Serve to Lead: 21st Century Leaders Manual

By James Strock,

Book cover of Serve to Lead: 21st Century Leaders Manual

What is my book about?

Serve to Lead examines the extraordinary opportunities available to everyone in the new world of 21st-century leadership. It provides a system for identifying and advancing one’s unique, authentic capacities for serving and leading throughout one’s life and work.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission

The books I picked & why

Emerson: Essays and Lectures

By Ralph Waldo Emerson,

Book cover of Emerson: Essays and Lectures

Why did I love this book?

Ralph Waldo Emerson is recalled as one of the great essayists and speakers of the nineteenth century.

In a time of extraordinary change, Emerson helped forge a universal voice through the prism of the emerging American experience. Emerson ultimately conjured a unique, unmistakable American narrative.

This renders his work timeless. His essays—such as “Self-Reliance”—have been rediscovered by new audiences in the early 21st century.

In another moment of tumult and evolution, Emerson continues to offer actionable inspiration, encouraging everyone to cultivate the courage to experience life and work as a great adventure.

By Ralph Waldo Emerson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Emerson as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Our most eloquent champion of individualism, Emerson acknowledges at the same time the countervailing pressures of society in American life. Even as he extols what he called “the great and crescive self,” he dramatizes and records its vicissitudes.

Here are all the indispensable and most renowned works, including “The American Scholar” (“our intellectual Declaration of Independence,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes called it), “The Divinity School Address,” considered atheistic by many of his listeners, the summons to “Self-Reliance,” along with the more embattled realizations of “Circles” and, especially, “Experience.” Here, too, are his wide-ranging portraits of Montaigne, Shakespeare, and other “representative…

Book cover of The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

Why did I love this book?

Steven Pressfield is a national treasure.

In this highly readable, concise book, the acclaimed author and screenwriter shares his experience in overcoming the psychological snares that lay in wait for any creative endeavor.

He identifies and takes aim at “The Resistance,” the inner voice of discouragement and distraction that is familiar to everyone aiming for artistic expression. 

By Steven Pressfield,

Why should I read it?

17 authors picked The War of Art as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A succinct, engaging, and practical guide forsucceeding in any creative sphere, The War ofArt is nothing less than Sun-Tzu for the soul.

What keeps so many of us from doing what we long to do?

Why is there a naysayer within? How can we avoid theroadblocks of any creative endeavor—be it starting up a dreambusiness venture, writing a novel, or painting a masterpiece?

Bestselling novelist Steven Pressfield identifies the enemy thatevery one of us must face, outlines a battle plan to conquer thisinternal foe, then pinpoints just how to achieve the greatest success.

The War of Art emphasizes the resolve…

Book cover of The Creative Act: A Way of Being

Why did I love this book?

Rick Rubin is a legendary music producer.

You may not have heard of him—but you’ve surely heard and been moved by any number of talented performers he’s worked with in recent decades.

Rubin’s book is down-to-earth, filled with actionable examples and insights from his career and observation. At the same time, it approaches a spiritual plane.

Rubin has reverence for the mysteries of the muse that enables artists of all kinds to tap into wisdom and energy outside themselves. Like Steven Pressfield, Rubin helps readers locate and refine their authentic voice—backed by real-time experiences and examples.

Just as his musical productions form much of the soundtrack of our culture, Rubin’s distilled experiences can assist you in creating the soundtrack of your artistic imagination. 

By Rick Rubin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Creative Act as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The #1 New York Times bestseller.

From the legendary music producer, a master at helping people connect with the wellsprings of their creativity, comes a beautifully crafted book many years in the making that offers that same deep wisdom to all of us.

"A gorgeous and inspiring work of art on creation, creativity, the work of the artist. It will gladden the hearts of writers and artists everywhere, and get them working again with a new sense of meaning and direction. A stunning accomplishment.” —Anne Lamott

“I set out to write a book about what to do to make a…

The Edge of the Sword

By Charles De Gaulle,

Book cover of The Edge of the Sword

Why did I love this book?

Charles de Gaulle is a consequential leader of the 20th century.

In an extraordinary turn of events, this little-known colonel emerged as the leader of France in exile during Hitler’s occupation. Following the Second World War he became a dominant political figure.

He can be seen as the founder of modern France, whose shadow reaches into our present moment.

In the 1930s he wrote a brilliant mediation on leadership, The Edge of the Sword. Though distilled from his lived experience in the military, de Gaulle provides insights that apply in many situations.

The book takes on additional significance when one considers the project of self-creation that the author undertook—first on himself, then on the re-creation of France, finally on Europe and the world, in his time and into our own.

By Charles De Gaulle,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Edge of the Sword as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


The Complete Works

By Michel de Montaigne, Donald M. Frame (translator),

Book cover of The Complete Works

Why did I love this book?

Montaigne, a 16th-century French aristocrat, is regarded as a pioneer of the essay as a form of written expression.

This collection is skillfully edited and beautifully designed. The essays run the gamut of human experience, continuing to have resonance for readers and writers alike.

Topics include: politics and history; virtues and vices; personal interactions with friends and others; travel; viewpoints of life at various ages and stages.

By Michel de Montaigne, Donald M. Frame (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Complete Works as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Humanist, skeptic, acute observer of himself and others, Michel de Montaigne (1533—92) was the first to use the term “essay” to refer to the form he pioneered, and he has remained one of its most famous practitioners. He reflected on the great themes of existence in his wise and engaging writings, his subjects ranging from proper conversation and good reading, to the raising of children and the endurance of pain, from solitude, destiny, time, and custom, to truth, consciousness, and death. Having stood the test of time, his essays continue to influence writers nearly five hundred years later.


Also included…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in skepticism, France, and creativity?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about skepticism, France, and creativity.

Skepticism Explore 12 books about skepticism
France Explore 772 books about France
Creativity Explore 114 books about creativity

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Artist's Way, Grit, and Bird by Bird if you like this list.