Joe Lesko | Blog | creativity, programming, and design

My Favorite Books

I read a lot, especially non-fiction. Nowadays I read exclusively on my Kindle app, which has about 300 books in it right now.

Here is a list of books that, in one way or another, changed my life or how I view the world.

In no particular order:

Your Money or Your Life, by Robin & Dominguez

An antidote to the spend-everything mindset of modern consumer life, with very achievable ways for average people to reach financial independance.

This book was the key for me in becoming debt-free early in my career.

It is especially relevant nowadays when so many people have massive student loan debt and very little savings.

Getting Things Done, by David Allen

This book helped me get on top of all my tasks — in work and life — in a stress-free way.

My biggest takeaway is to get your task lists out of your brain and recorded in a system that you trust. By doing this, you are letting your mind let go of things that you don’t need to keep stressing about.

My own system is very simple: Just a few lists in a basic text file on my computer.

Growing a Business, by Paul Hawken

The author, drawing on his experience of building two major successful businesses from scratch, offers insights on how to grow a small business organically.

Success doesn’t come from expensive college degrees, or taking big risks, but by providing real value in a way that stems from your own personality and first-hand experience.

A refreshing counterpoint to the amoral approach of business that involves “growth hacking”, “killing it”, and “extracting value” from customers.

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron

A thoughtful book on the creative journey that goes beyond platitudes and provides practical creativity techniques that actually work.

I have found her concept of Morning Pages, a kind of free associative journaling, to be extremely valuable.

All of Julia Cameron’s other books are worth reading, but if you only read one, this is it.

Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing, by Dave Sim

An all-text comic book by the controversial creator of the long-running Cerebus comic book.

Written before the internet era of blogs and YouTube videos, this was a rare and raw look into the world of a successful solo creator, with tips on productivity, writing and drawing, running an “indie” business, and developing a creative vision.

Flow, by M. Csikszentmihalyi

I read this when it first came out, and it has since become a mainstream theory of well-being.

The author finds that people are often most happy when they are fully engaged in tasks that present the right amount of challenge.

Think rock climbing, reading an immersive novel, or playing a closely-matched chess game.

Over the years, this had led me to chose more positive, creative ways to spend my time, rather than chasing hedonism (though I like some hedonism).

Punished By Rewards, by Alfie Kohn

A controversial book that provides evidence that external awards (prizes, praise, etc.) might be effetive at motivating people in the short-term, but they do so at the cost of our long-term motivation, happiness, and moral grounding.

These external influences actually erode our intrinsic (internal, self-driven) desire to do things because we enjoy them or believe they are important.

This is important for teachers and parents, but is especially relevant today, as so much online content is driven by the desire for Likes, Upvotes, and Followers.

Supported by the evidence provided in Flow.

Feeling Good, by Dr. David Burns

The seminal book by the creator of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).

I have found the “rational response” technique to be extremely effective in being able to control excessive negative thoughts.

One of the only books clinically proven to be as effective as anti-depressant medication.

Code Complete, by Steve McConnell

The bible on programming, agnostic of programming language.

I believe reading this book immediately upgraded my ability level from novice to professional.

It’s a huge book, but each chapter is self-contained and easy to read.

Positioning, by Ries & Trout

The classic book on the psychology behind branding and marketing, and why there is usually a clear winner in any given category (Coke, Google, etc.)

Easy to read, but broad in its scope, especially if you’re curious about how companies compete with each other, and what mistakes they have made.

Cosmos, by Carl Sagan

Based on the PBS mini-series by the same name, this is an accessible and inspiring book that covers all of the key topics of science (from evolution to astronomy) with such clarity and humanity that I wish everyone in the world would read it at least once.

A good follow up is The Demon Haunted World, which addresses the importance of critical thinking in a world filled with conflicting ideas and spurious claims. Especially relevant today.

The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins

Evolution is still one of the most controversial and important ideas in all of science, and the perspective in this book is an exciting way to look at it.

The author proposes that genes are the primary vehicles of evolution — not organisms (us!), which can be thought of as just gene carriers.

This book also coined the term “meme”, which has since been diluted by internet culture, but in its original form was a ground-breaking idea — that ideas take on a life of their own.

Metamagical Themas, by Douglas Hofstadter

A fascinating series of articles by the author of the Pulitzer prize-winning Godel, Escher, Bach.

Crammed with challenging ideas ranging from artificial intelligence, music, creativity, word play, and personal identity.

This book was a big influence on how I think about creativity.

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