Five favorite books .. of insight from unexpected places

I’ve found many intriguing ideas about teams and projects from books on seemingly unrelated subjects.  I’m convinced there are universal principles that can be used in any environment for virtually any goal that you set your mind and heart to achieve.

Dance Choreography

Twyla Tharp is a very well known choreographer who founded her own dance company in 1969 and has performed many works that heavily influenced her field.  She is still active, and in 2003 she wrote a terrific book called The Creative Habit.  In addition to many interesting stories and anecdotes from her long life in dance, it is filled with practical advice on how to organize and carry out complex creative projects (complete with many exercises for you to try).

“The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful .. For me, these moments are not pretty.  I look like a desperate woman, tortured by .. a message thumping away in my head.”  She tells us how to go from that stage to performance of a completed dance .. and to keep doing it, as she has, through a long and productive life.


I’ve always been fascinated by the way that movies are made.  I see remarkable similarities between the creation of a movie and a V1 software project.  You have an originating vision that must evolve as you go, you bring together experts in many different disciplines who often have trouble getting along, the team must solve very challenging design problems, and there is a long period of refining the raw material into a polished and compelling final product.  There is often a tense relationship between the creators and the funders, and the final outcome is the product of many people’s contributions rather than being completely under the control of any single person.

William Goldman is one of the most successful screenwriters in the industry.  He wrote many famous movies, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men.  He’s also written some of the best books about the movie business, including Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?  Check out either one to learn about making movies (with great anecdotes about famous movies and the often deeply odd people who make them).  One of his well known mantras is: “Nobody knows anything”.  By which he means, nobody has a clue how a movie will do until it is released – the expectations of the most experienced movie makers are routinely confounded.  The same can be said about radical new software products!


I really like to read poetry, which can often be a rich source of introspection and insight.  Catching Life by the Throat, by Josephine Hart, lets you read some wonderful poems and learn about the poets who wrote them.  What I love about the book is that it captures the energy and excitement of a great poem and conveys some of the all-consuming passion to create.  “I was a word child, in a country of word children, where life was language before it was anything else.”  “Poetry, this trinity of sound, sense and sensibility, gave voice to experience in a way no other literary art form could .. it threw sudden shafts of light on my own soul and drew at least the shadow outline of the souls of others.”  The act of creating anything new springs from passion and is refined through unceasing and painstaking effort.  This is a passionate book about the magic of poetry.


You may have heard about Josh Waitzkin because of his father, who wrote a fun book called “Searching for Bobby Fisher” about the development of his son into a chess prodigy.  The book, which was also made into a movie, is a fascinating glimpse into the peculiar world of obsessive chess players.  Mostly ignored by mainstream society, the subculture occasionally bursts into view, as it did during the cold war or when its stars were pitted against supercomputers in man vs. machine contests.  Josh had a long period of prominence in the chess world, starting when he won the National Chess Championship at 9 years old.  He then went on to become a Tai Chi world champion as well!

From these experiences, Josh wrote his own book called The Art of Learning.  He shows how he takes on a new discipline and applies the same approach to it that he learned as an obsessive childhood chess player.  He copes with losing, deals with adversity, and is very systematic about achieving an extreme level of skill and ability.  He’s also able to learn from just about anyone – as a child, he got some of his best insight into chess from playing street hustlers and gamblers.  The book is an unusual blend of autobiography and instruction, with a wealth of anecdotes about the extremely different and equally obsessive worlds that Josh has inhabited throughout his life.


I decided to learn how to draw as an adult, and I love doing it.  Many excellent books helped me along, but one stands out particularly when it comes to letting creativity flow (in any field).  Julia Cameron wrote The Artist’s Way to help unblock artists and get their creative juices flowing.  It became unexpectedly successful and the series that it spawned has sold millions of copies.  It does have some new age religious ideology that doesn’t resonate with me, but it is chock full of productive exercises to help you work through blocks and loosen up.  She lays out a 12 week process for breaking through obstacles, finding what really inspires you, and making it happen.  I think that any great achievement starts from a deep passion.  Once you know what you are inspired to do and you begin pursuing it with conviction, you are on the path to a life of meaning.  This book can help you find it.

Have you found insight in unexpected places?

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