Career

What Successful People Read: The Books That Boosted Their Careers

There’s a certain type of young person that becomes a raging success in the time it takes the rest of us to make the perfect TV snack. While they’re not superheroes, it turns out they do have a secret weapon: books.

Sometimes all it takes to get going can be a single inspirational word or idea that sparks fireworks in your brain, and you’re off blazing trails with the best of them. Many of those ideas come from books – whether business bibles, self-help or just thought-provoking reads – so we chatted to some of Australia’s most accomplished young go-getters to find out what they read that kicked it all off.

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Melanie Perkins – Canva

Melanie Perkins, Australia’s richest woman under 40, started her first business at age 19 from her mum’s couch. Starting yearbook design software Fusion Yearbooks (now Australia’s biggest yearbook publisher), the Perth native didn’t stop at one multi-million dollar company. She is also the CEO of Canva, a stunningly simple graphic design platform that has nearly 8 million users, dreamt up after Melanie realised that her university’s design software was clunky and not user-friendly. Not bad for someone who’s still just 28, hey? 

“Robert Hoekman’s Designing the Obvious was a very important book for me. It is about user experience online, and how to create the best possible experiences for the people using your app. The vision for Canva was to make design accessible for absolutely everyone, so our platform had to be as intuitive and as easy to use as possible. Hoekman unpacks ideas around the power of simplicity and how to create an app in partnership with your users, learning from what they do and creating what they want. It was a really important book for me in that it helped our company grow to a point where two designs are created every second now.”

Image credit: Christopher Morris

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Simon Sheikh – Future Super

He’s not even 30 yet, but already Simon Sheikh has been National Director of activist group GetUp!, successfully run for pre-selection in a National Election and launched fossil fuel-free super fund Future Super, whose investments include only ethical and environmentally friendly funds.

“The bible for me is Lean Start Up – it is full of insights! It is easy to bring your perfectionist tendencies into building a social enterprise (or a business or not-for-profit, for that matter). Lean Start Up challenges this thinking by providing the evidence for why we should focus on real world customer testing, minimum viable products and an iterative approach to development. The inherent nimbleness that these principles suggest is at the core of disruptive organisations that enter David and Goliath battles (and win!)”

Image credit: Business Insider

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Zoë Foster-Blake – Author, Columnist, CEO

As well as having the strongest Instagram game this side of the Equator, there isn’t a lot that the inspiring Zoë Foster-Blake can’t do. She began her career in magazines and worked her way up to being a beauty editor at the likes of Harper’s Bazaar, before switching to freelance writing and novels – of which she’s now written four – alongside dating book, ‘Textbook Romance’ and beauty bible ‘Amazing Face’. She’s the CEO of her own skincare line Go-To and has done all this with no hidden secrets or shortcuts, while also becoming a mum. After plugging away through her 20s, she’s certainly reaping the rewards now.

“I read the 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss back in 2009 when it was bolted on to numerous best-seller lists. Like everyone else. The book provided me with career advice at a time I was, consciously or otherwise, sniffing around for some direction. For one thing, it made me realise I was lucky enough to have a profession (writing/blogging/pinecone artist) that was ripe for the freelance-y, flexible, travel-filled life I hankered for. So, I quit full-time work, and went freelance, and booked six-weeks in Italy alone to write my next novel.

“And of course, I shit myself. I’d worked full time for over a decade; who did I think I was? But Tim’s notion of heavy spurts of work followed by mini-retirements sounded perfect to me. I work best in project-break-project-break ebb and flow rather than one consistent hum. Something else I realised was that while highly enjoyable, my income is dependent on me physically being there writing. Creating some form of long-term automated income that wasn’t reliant on my sitting at a laptop would be a smart move. In hindsight, I see that launching my skin care line, Go-To, is precisely this, or will be, one day. I reckon books find you just as you need them, and it was very true of this book.”

Image credit: The Grace Tales

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Matt Okine – Comedian, actor, rapper, presenter

If you listen to the radio on your way to work each day, Matt Okine likely needs no introduction. One half of Triple J’s formidable Breakfast team, the comedian/actor/rapper/presenter/now ARIA winner (!) has pretty much done it all – and is testament to the fact that although it’s sometimes a very roundabout path, you’ll eventually get where you need to be.

“Easy Rider, Raging Bull by Peter Biskind and its sequel Down and Dirty Pictures definitely gave me insight into how to get shit done by myself. It made me realise all of the great filmmakers that I looked up to were just young people that went out there and did it – despite having no money, ridiculously hard filming conditions, blockages from big businesses etc. I made my first TV pilot with a group of friends soon after I read these books. It didn’t get picked up, but someone passed it on to the right people and I suddenly found myself in a workshop with Andrew Denton who later put me on an episode of a TV show he was making at the time. I feel like that’s where things started. Realising that if you want something to happen, you just gotta do it.”

Image credit: Century Entertainment

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Steph Bowe – Author

Steph Bowe published her first Young Adult novel, ‘Girl Saves Boy’, when she was just 16. Fast forward six years and the 22 year-old has written a second novel, had ‘Girl Saves Boy’ translated into three other languages and won a host of awards, like Express Media’s award for ‘Outstanding Achievement By A Writer Under 25’ and appearing on Triple J’s ‘25 Under 25’ list. She certainly knows a thing or two about how to get a career kickstarted. 

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott was the first book on writing that really resonated with me. I read it after I had published my first novel, and was feeling a little disenchanted with writing and publishing, having expected that my writing (and my life) would transform once I was a Published Author. Had I not read Bird by Bird I might’ve faked my own death in order to escape writing the dreaded Book Two.

“Unlike Stephen King with his arbitrary rules (no adverbs etc) or Bukowski’s suggestion that writing is somehow easy and inevitable for “real” writers (as if there is such a thing), Lamott wrote about writing not as an entirely rational exercise based in formula and logic, or as a magical process of inspiration from a mythical, unknowable source, but something in between; the reality of being a writer as difficult and painful and gradual but also wonderful, and of external success not being a guarantee of internal satisfaction. It was hugely reassuring, and encouraged me to continue writing for the reasons I originally started (creative expression! The enjoyment of creating something from nothing! Being God of my own realm!), rather than in pursuit of writerly success.”

Image credit: The Grad Lab


Matilda is a British-Australian-French freelance writer. She has flat-packed IKEA furniture in London and Melbourne, and no idea what’s coming next. She’s written for The Guardian, FasterLouder, mX and Grazia, and really likes hot chocolate.

Lead image: The Joye