15 Inspiring Career Books


Ever since I got my first job a thousand years ago, certain books have been really helpful. For example, Garlic & Sapphires, Ruth Reichl’s hilarious memoir of her years as the New York Times restaurant critic, showed my twenty-something self a woman who had big ideas and took risks. And I still keep a copy of George Lois’s brilliant Damn Good Advice at my desk. Here, 9 more women share the reads that inspired them…

Stella Bugbee, Editorial Director, The Cut

I have a VERY, VERY unlikely book that I often reference as a boss: Siblings Without Rivalry. It’s not about money or business per se, but I’ve found since reading it that I put so many of its lessons into practice managing my team at work. I love the way it teaches you to listen, repeat the issues without taking sides, empathize and then teach the parties involved to solve their own disputes. It also helps at home. (Duh.)

Emily Henderson, Stylist and Interior Designer, Emily Henderson Design

There is something inside us, especially women, that tells us that if our work is something we love to do it should somehow be worth less. But, the exact opposite is true: the more you love to do something, the easier you make it look, the faster you are at it, the more VALUABLE you are because of your passion. So, while we all love to get paid in kisses, praise and genuine appreciation, The Business of Design, which I’m reading now, is a book that offers a great reminder that your value is worth cash money. Money that will support your business, your family and your entire life. And it teaches you how to determine your rates and how to approach a lot of otherwise uncomfortable money and client situations.

Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo, Co-founders, Of a Kind

As it turns out, the ability to say no is seriously critical to your success. That is the lesson behind The Power of a Positive No, one of our favorites. It teaches you how to say no in a way that makes clear you’re doing so not because you’re, like, a jerk but because saying yes would be rejecting things that you and your business value and need.

We also keep The Power of Habit on our shelf. It’s a guide to why companies and individuals do what they do and act how they act — full of fascinating anecdotes. (The very first one will make you feel like you’re 100% capable of running the New York City Marathon a year from now.)

Rony Vardi, Founder and Owner, Catbird

I regularly read the Corner Office column in The New York Times, which I find to be endlessly inspiring. (There’s a book, too, which I should probably get.) I think of it as a weekly business horoscope. And, lately, my biggest business inspiration has come from the excellent A Chef’s Table on Netflix. Each episode focuses on one brilliant, revolutionary chef, who, despite not defining themselves this way, is a business owner in one way or another. Watching them make big decisions, take huge risks and problem solve in creative ways is fascinating and it’s what business owners do all the time.

Molly Wizenberg, Blogger and Author, Orangette

I’ve probably read Bird by Bird three times now, which is saying a lot, because I’m not normally a repeat book reader. Anne Lamott is a national treasure, period. And though this book is ostensibly about writing, I find myself thinking about aspects of it nearly every day. My mother just moved from Oklahoma to Seattle, where I live, and last week, in the midst of helping her to unpack what felt like a billion boxes, I kept reminding myself, “Bird by bird, Molly. Just take it bird by bird.”

Leandra Medine, Founder, Man Repeller

The Hard Thing About Hard Things helped me reorient my way of thinking and get more business savvy. I naturally lean toward creative/right-brain thinking, which works well for producing editorial content but doesn’t satisfy my need to be a good boss and a smart, strategic thinker who can anticipate the needs of a successful business. Also, in terms of creative thinking, there is literally nothing that David Sedaris has written that I have not considered seminal to my own writing process.

Eva Jorgensen, Owner and Founder, Sycamore Street Press

After I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease in January, Arianna Huffington’s new book, Thrive, really hit home for me. We all wear our hours at work and sleepless nights as a badge of honor. But, studies show that we’d be more productive (not to mention happier) if we actually took care of ourselves. I’ve realized that I can’t afford to put myself last anymore.

Also, twelve years ago, when I was in college, I read Art & Fear for the first time. It had a huge impact on me and set the course for my artistic career. I recently re-read it and was surprised by how applicable it still is. Among other things, it has taught me that, 1. Art is made by ordinary people, so stop worrying about talent and just get to work, 2. If you act out of fear, your fear comes true, and 3. The only work that you can do well, and that’s worth doing, is the work that focuses on things you really care about.

Tina Roth Eisenberg, Founder, Tattly

The book that had a huge impact on me was Give or Take, in which Adam Grant explains why the most successful people are givers. It helped me better understand what motivates my co-workers and the companies I work with. And, it has helped me realize that there’s nothing wrong with running a business with a mindset of generosity. In fact, it might as well be the secret to success.


Which books have helped guide your career? We’d love to hear…

P.S. 15 career tips from smart women, and 10 things I’ve learned in my career.

(Photo of Maya Angelou by G. Marshall Wilson; photo of Kate Winslet by Wes Anderson/American Express.)

  1. Love this list, Joanna!

    My favourite career books:

    The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry. I also really love listening to his podcasts which you can check out here:)

    I can’t wait to pick up his latest book, Louder Than Words: Harness The Power of Your Authentic Voice. I’ll be reading this one in the fall. Authenticity is the foundation of being a great blogger!

    Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. I’ll also be reading this in the fall.

    thanks for sharing!

  2. The Hard Thing About Hard Things has been on my list to read for a while, definitely going to have to pick it up.

    I just finished reading both #Girlboss and Leave Your Mark and I absolutely LOVED them, I seriously couldn’t put them down!! Plus they were both super inspiring.

  3. Great list! I recently helped launch a social enterprise for a local organization for homeless women and children in Denver. There are not really any great books out there focusing on social enterprise, but a lot of the ones on this list did provide inspiration on business management. Thanks for curating this list and for providing great content on business and entrepreneurship!

    • Kate says...

      Good for you, L.A! Thank you for helping the homeless women and children in our dear city.

  4. thanks for the recommendations! I will check them out all! :)

  5. I started reading “Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success” on a rainy Saturday morning. I was feeling relaxed and too lazy to drive to my Saturday tai chi class. Knowing that the The Huffington Post is wildly successful, I expected a lot of advice on the value of dedication and hard work. So I was surprised that this book is actually about self-care and redefining success. (Which made me feel very guilty for skipping tai chi.)

    I love this book’s focus on recharging and giving back.

  6. I want to go buy ALL OF THESE. Inspiration overload.

  7. Natalie T. says...

    First, I have to say thank you for getting rid of having to sign up to a Google account to respond (I couldn’t change my username associated with my account so I never commented). These are great books and now I’ll have to get them all! My favourites: time and again, when I’m lost, What Colour is Your Parachute? by Richard M. Bolles not only showcases the steps to finding a job but also helps you find your calling by completing his famous “flower exercise” of the skills you’re good at, the skills you love using, and your ideal work environment/type of people with whom you like to work. As a writer, Stephen King’s “On Writing,” was a revelation and he taught me to be more succinct and punchy in my sentences. It’s also his memoir and he has a fascinating story.

  8. Mia says...

    What a great post- I added a few new treasures to my Amazon cart! My most helpful career books have been “Take This Book to Work” which was like training wheels for successfully negotiating a significantly higher salary in my first “grown up” job and has stuck with me into self-employment and confidently presenting my rates to clients. For inspiration to just get working fearlessly, “The War of Art” is awesome, and so digestible. For the same reasons I love many of Seth Godin’s brief but thought-provoking gems of blog posts about running a business and creating in general. For practical productivity, good old “Getting Things Done” was seminal in helping me set-up a workflow that helps me feel calm even when there is a lot to do!

  9. Elizabeth says...

    Thank you for this article. I had one of those awful interviews today where it’s obvious the committee already has someone in mind and couldn’t care less about you as a candidate. As a twenty-something just starting my career it was very discouraging but this article was a fantastic reminder that everyone faces challenges no matter what stage they’re at in their career. I’ll definitely be checking out a few of these books for inspiration and guidance.

    • Laura says...

      I feel like I’m at a similar stage, Elizabeth. I received an email yesterday that I won’t even get an interview, even though I met all of the criteria on the job description. So. Frustrating. Good luck to you on the job hunt!

    • Elizabeth says...

      Thank you, Laura! Getting emails like that (or no response at all) is so unbelievably frustrating. Here’s to finding a job you love with people who appreciate everything you bring to the table. Good luck!

  10. Kate says...

    Love these types of articles and happily added these suggestions to my reading list! For any other creative-types out there, I absolutely recommend “The Artist in the Office” by Summer Pierre. It’s a quick little read with fun illustrations. It helps put “day jobs” in a bigger context and encourages fun, little ways to stay creative throughout the day. It helped pull me from the brink of “OMG, I have to quit this desk job I JUST CAN’T STAND IT ONE MORE SECOND!” ;-) ;-)

  11. Laura says...

    Thank you for posting this! Consider this a vote for more career/work-related posts.

    Also, I love the posts in which you feature recommendations for books, quotes, movies, etc. I find myself coming back to the comments multiple times because other readers share equally awesome recommendations.

  12. Anna says...

    Joanna, I know you’ve mentioned George Lois and his books several times… I’m wondering if you are aware of/what you think about the controversy surrounding him allegedly exaggerating his accomplishments and claiming others’ work as his own? I learned about it from a This American Life episode and I have to say, it didn’t make me feel inclined to admire him…

  13. Katherine says...

    Joanna–thank you so much for posting this. As someone who just graduated from college, I have definitely been in need of strong female voices (including yours) for a little guidance! I love all of your posts, but I had such a strong, positive reaction when I saw this that I just had to say something. While I’m writing, I wanted to say that I saw you at Gourmet Garage in the West Village about a year and a half ago and was too chicken to go up to you (and your brother and Toby) and tell you how much I love and admire your work. I promise I won’t chicken out if I run into you again!

  14. Nina says...

    There’s a book called ‘Creating a Life Worth Living’ by Carol Lloyd – useful for anyone doing anything creative but possibly a bit out of date now. I’m just reading ‘It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys’ (Marilyn Paul) which is about personal organisation, but deals with it in such a holistic way that it would certainly have career impact – it’s really fascinating and she talks a lot about time as well as ‘stuff’, and about learning to say no etc.

  15. marsha says...

    one of your best posts!!! Thank you!!!!!

  16. Anne LaMott and David Sedaris are also favorites of mine. Putting all the others on my list! Love this article — thanks for including me.

  17. This post couldn’t have come at a better time!

    I just ordered 2 of these books, and can’t wait to receive them in the mail.

  18. Mary says...

    Just have to say that photo of Maya (because we’re on a first name basis of course) is stunning.

  19. My to-be-read list is SO long and it just got even longer, thanks!

    I’m a writer, so mine is writer-specific, but Stephen King’s On Writing is hands down the best book on the craft I’ve ever read. I reread it at least once a year. Even if you’re not a writer, I recommend it–it’s (obviously) so well-written, and also inspiring for anyone who’s ever been poor and started from the bottom.

  20. I have now a great “books to read” list. Thank you!
    One book that has been great for my “career” as a mother or human really, is “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and it’s all small stuff”.
    During my most anxious periods of time this book helped me a lot. I even wrote a blog post about it if you are interested.
    P:S: Joanna, thank you for always publishing my comments and links, you are such a good and sweet person, I don’t think everybody knows this but you help us, beginner bloggers, A LOT!!


  21. Thank you, thank you for this! It is so timely as I take a leap of faith to launch a business and focus on work that truly moves me. P.S. I love your writing style, and your content is always on point!

  22. Jami says...

    Not really a career read per se my brilliant friend Andres McConnon and his sister wrote a thrilling book about the famed Italian cyclist, Gino Bartali, called “The Road to Valor” that is SO inspiring. I think just about anyone would get a big kick in the pants out of it! It sure brought me out of an emotional slump this summer.

  23. Bird by Bird is definitely on my list, and I too have read it multiple times. I’d add to that Stephen King’s On Writing for writers. Ariana Huffington’s book has been on my list for a while now. I’m making notes…

    Thanks for the continued inspiration!

  24. yael steren says...

    Hmm i don’t have any suggestions on books, but I love this list! Thanks so much for sharing! xo yael

  25. Jen says...

    I also read Give and Take after seeing it recommended here. Changed my life as I realised how much value could come out of what I feel I do naturally.

  26. This is such a great list. I’ve never thought of reading a career inspiring book, which I now feel silly about. Thank you so much for sharing this list.


  27. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell!
    A classic one!

  28. Ceridwen says...

    I love this. Thanks. Cup of Jo really inspires me, including readers’ comments! I also loved #Girlboss and the Australian book The Wife Drought. Great reading for women in leadership.

  29. Prudence Yeo says...

    I have not read any of these books but they sure do sound very useful and beneficial for personal growth! Definitely agree that we are likely to be more productive if we can take care of ourselves well and do things that we really care about! Thanks for sharing.


  30. Sabrina says...

    So excited to read a few of these! Thank you for another great list!

  31. jeannie says...

    What a great list! Very inspiring.

  32. I’m bookmarking this post. I love the variety of suggestions, especially those that many commenters have in common!
    I have to say What I Know Now, Letters to my younger self is a favorite for inspiration and a bit of reassurance.

  33. brilliant post <3

  34. Marie-Luise says...

    Joanna, your blog has inspired me so much over the years and the articles have hit home at such vital times. Never as timely as this, as I’m finishing up my current job in a few weeks in a quest to find out the big question “what to do with my life” …or at least for the next years (career change, back to uni, so many ideas). Thank you for working so hard to always create such relate-able content. X

  35. This post is so timely! I have two competing job offers (one I’ve implicitly already accepted, but is still conditional) and I can see the argument for both. They’re in two different cities. I have no idea which to choose!!

  36. Kim says...

    I have been an avid reader of “A Cup of Jo” for years. A must read for me and everything you write really hits home (fellow anxiety-sufferer!). Moving across country to start a new job in Nashvilke next week, and this post could not come at a better time. Going to spend some time with my Kindle for great words of wisdom.

    Thank you!


    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Thank you for your sweet note, and good luck, Kim!! We will be rooting for you. Xoxo

  37. Lindsey says...

    When I started out in the design world, Twyla Tharp’s “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life” was an essential on my bookshelf. Her writing is witty, energetic and no-nonsense, and I love how she offers strategies for tapping into your personal creative zone. My favorite chapter was “Spine” and I still refer back to it today. Highly recommended!!!

  38. I loved Portrait of Myself by Margaret Bourke-White. She was a bad ass photographer doing things no woman had done- but also just saying “yes!” and figuring it out along the way. Great story and inspiration to creating the life you want without limits.

  39. Rebecca says...


  40. This is an amazing list- thanks so much Joanna! Looked up all these books and put some on my list :)

    on a separate note, I LOVE that picture of kate winselet. In high school, I printed it out and put it on one of my notebooks.. completely lost track of it, so thank you for digging it out for me (I pinned it so I’ll never lose it ;)

  41. Leah says...

    I’m currently reading (and loving!) “Die Empty” and “The Accidental Creative” — both by Todd Henry.

  42. Very interesting list and great to see the impact some of these books have had!

  43. Melissa Blake says...

    Ohh, what a great collection!! Will definitely be adding some of these to my must-read list!!

  44. My favourite career books are:

    Nice girls don’t get the corner office – Lois Frankel
    Lean in – Sheryl Sandberg
    Overwhelmed – Brigid Schulte (OUTSTANDING)

  45. I second “Bird by Bird,” if you are a writer!

    Also, this one is kind of random, but I was really inspired by Julia Child’s memoir “My Life in France.” She basically found her calling and reinvented herself, career-wise, around the age of 40, and ended up truly loving her life because she followed her passions, and she took her work–but not herself–seriously.

    • Betsy says...

      Bird by Bird! I’m an English teacher and it was a really early source of how I want to communicate about language with teenagers. She is amazing.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Have you ever read Operating Instructions? It’s ine of my favorite books. I love how she conveys the chaos of new motherhood along with her love for her baby, plus the random hilarious quotes and anecdotes she shares. Stream of consciousness at its best!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Great point! Now I want to read it.

  46. Katy says...

    I’m currently reading Move Your Bus by Ron Clark, and I think every working person should read it! So good!

  47. SUCH a good list! Thank you so much for sharing :)

  48. Laura says...

    I borrowed “Setting the Table” by Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group (Shake Shack), from my old roommate. She’s in the restaurant industry and her boss lent it to her, but I found it completely relatable for anyone dealing with clients. His story is very interesting too. Thanks for the recommendations!

  49. AH Molly Wizenberg! I listen to her Podcast Spilled Milk. I love her and Matthew Amster-Burton, it’s a conversation with your best friend except when you scream at them (or in your head scream at them) they can’t hear you. Anyway, if you don’t listen to their podcast I suggest you do it now. They crack me up on my train ride. But thanks for all these lovely list of books. I will have to check them out!


  50. Courtney M. says...

    Actually Molly Wizenberg’s books have both left me feeling incredibly inspired! I love how she incorporates creative but accessible recipes that make you want to jump in the kitchen. What I really loved, though, was her story about Delancey – the good, the bad, the support she and her husband gave each other and her unexpected devotion to it. She has such a way with words, you feel like you are listening to a friend tell their story.

    Also, maybe a little expected, but I really enjoyed Lean In and 10% Happier!
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Claire says...

      I was just thinking I wanted to read Delancey! I went there (the restaurant) last week for a birthday dinner and it was delicious, so I’d love to know the story behind it. Molly was there that night (my dad recognized her, after having read and loved her book), and oh-so friendly and hospitable. I also should add: after having read the COJ post about shrubs (the drink, not bush), I tried their strawberry shrub and it was lovely. Going to have to try to replicate that at home! Thanks, Courtney and Joanna!

  51. Aside: That Kate Winslet photo is by Wes Anderson?! Haha, I had no idea. I just remember it vividly from an American Express Q&A ad (having torn it out from a magazine and saved it for an old scrapbook).

    That said, I have some reading to do.

  52. Ahh I love this! I’m always looking for new books to read, and I LOVE books about amazing women and how they did what they did. I think I’ll put Garlic & Sapphires at the top of my list.

  53. Maggie says...

    Right now I’m reading I Know How She Does It about making the most out of our 168 hours in a week. It uses data to refute the misconceptions that we have no time and all we do is sleep and work. It’s reassuring and making me value my precious “me” and “us” hours more.

  54. ali says...

    i need this kind of motivation. perfect timing.

  55. maddy says...

    I cannot say enough about Personal History, Katherine Grahams memoir. Her story, both professional and personal is something that I revisit over the years and really is something special. Don’t be intimidated by the length!