The highest achieving people you know don't sit around watching TV in their free time. They work hard at continually sharpening themselves, and one of the most common ways of doing it is by ingesting the wisdom of others. Here are more than a dozen books to check out, according to executives and founders who say these titles made a real difference in their perspectives.

1. The Messy Middle: Finding Your Way Through the Hardest and Most Crucial Part of Any Bold Venture by Scott Belsky

"This book is a bit of a guidebook on navigating the tough times when creating something from nothing. With powerful interviews mixed in from key figures across many genres of business, this book is such a useful tool for anyone at any level. It helps you find clarity and why in almost any scenario. Whether building a team, creating a new product or service, or just pushing your business and teams to the next level of success, this book has allowed me to act more methodically and strategically in so many different situations of my daily life."

--John Holdridge, general manager at Fullscreen, an entertainment experience company serving over 400 brands and over 2,500 creators and celebrities who generate more than seven billion monthly video views across a global network of social channels

2. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace

"Anyone looking to inspire creativity and innovation and lead their teams to new heights should read [this book, in which the author] shares how the Pixar leadership team built a creative culture and maintained a pipeline of innovation for decades. I revisit the philosophies they lived by on a regular basis, and two of my favorites are: 'Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. But give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something even better,' and 'It's not the manager's job to prevent risks. It's the manager's job to make it safe for others to take them.'"

--Donnalyn Smith, president, North America, at Momentum Worldwide, a global experiential advertising agency that won its first Grand Prix at Cannes Lions in 2019, with 30 offices across 21 countries producing events for over five million people

3. Educated by Tara Westover

"Any successful person knows there are no greater keys to achievement than grit and the willingness to learn or adapt. It's one thing to say that aloud and quite another to know how to embody such characteristics in practice. [This book] is the autobiography of a woman born to an extremist, rural family. Not only is it a captivating read -- I finished it in a day -- but it also furthered skills imperative to my career as an entrepreneur. Westover demonstrates how commitment to learning and hard work ultimately leads to her success, despite overwhelming hardship."

--Casey Grage, CEO of Hubly Surgical, a medical device company whose team has more than 25 patents

4. The Rivers Ran East by Leonard Clark

"I believe [this book is] the best travel and adventure book of all time ... It's full of true stories of swashbuckling adventures that mesmerize readers and seem to defy reality. It inspired me to seek out new cultures and frontiers in both my leisure pursuits and races around the world. The book also reinforces the value of discovery and authentic experiences ... "

--Matthew Von Ertfelda, SVP of food and beverage and global operations at Marriott International, which has more than 10,000 restaurants and bars around the world

5. The School of Life: An Emotional Education by Alain de Botton

"[The author's] writings put it all in perspective: how to be more effective at work, deal with miscalculations as well as successes, and be resilient at the same time as you are creating ... or to simplify from what I have learned over the decades, working in politics and business: stay flexible, keep your sense of humor, and don't take yourself too seriously."

--Steve Wilson, founder of 21c Museum Hotels, a hotel brand with eight properties in its portfolio and three additional hotels in the pipeline, including soon-to-open 21c Museum Hotel Chicago

6. The Law of Success by Napoleon Hill

"As a small child, around 12, my father gave me this book and insisted I read it. At over 600 pages long, my adolescent mind could neither grasp nor appreciate it. But I have re-read this book 10 times over my life, and it is amazing how there are still so many lessons to learn. Despite being written almost a century ago, the process to achieving victories both great and small is easily mapped out for us. I owe so much of my success to this timeless instruction. It made me believe, even at a very young and impressionable age, that one can achieve anything one wants, if one can believe it, envision it, and work diligently toward it."

--Darren Sadana, CEO of Choice IoT, a T-Mobile and Metro PCS agency with more than 300 retail locations nationwide

7. Traction by Gino Wickman

"[This book] walks you through the Entrepreneurs Operating System (EOS). [It] has changed the way I think about and run my business. Fundamentally, it's quite simple and the return on investment is huge. [It] lays the infrastructure that will allow your business to hold more productive meetings, ensure you have the right people in the right seats, recognize problems before it's too late, and generally improve efficiencies."

--Chase Terwilliger, CEO of Balanced Health Botanicals, a family of CBD brands that has grown from four employees to more than 120, increased product SKUs from one to over 800, and secured partnerships for products to be sold in more than 5,500 retailers nationwide

8. Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

"Unlike what you would expect from the co-founder of Nike, [this book] is simply a tale of the Nike adventure, not a business book. It walks you through the journey in a very down-to-earth way. While there are many lessons on company culture, loyalty, creative thinking, etc., what I found most helpful was the candor with which it describes the horrors that a founder faces. It reminds you that you are not alone, and that chaos is OK.  Not many people tell you as a founder: You're supposed to feel like sh** much of the time. It's helpful to know that sometimes, Phil had it worse."

--Mladen Barbaric, serial tech entrepreneur as well as founder and CEO of Airgraft, a technology company that recently raised $33 million

9. Drawdown edited by Paul Hawken

"The strapline on this book is 'the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming.' It was written by a coalition of researchers and scientists to identify realistic solutions to climate change. The title is hopeful, identifying that point when greenhouse gases in the atmosphere peak and begin to decline. This book sits on my desk and I turn to it when I need inspiration. I've also sent copies to friends and family because I believe it really is that important. To me, as an executive, this book identifies 100 areas in which you could inject purpose into your organization. I know there are lots of problems that we can embrace as executives, but climate change is the existential threat to humanity. Consumers are looking for companies with purpose, and what could be more worthwhile than battling climate change?"

--Anne Carlson, CEO of Jiminy's, a sustainable pet food company using insect protein to reduce the carbon pawprint of pets and growing at more than 70 percent year over year

10. Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

"One of the gravest systemic issues facing our modern society is the increasing wage and income inequality that seems to be spreading across the globe. The ramifications of these income rifts range from societal friction to start, to complete upheaval and even revolution at the extreme. I had been looking for a deep, data-based treatise on the root causes of this dynamic and found this book to be incredibly thought-provoking and enlightening."

--Victor Cho, CEO of Evite, a digital platform for creating, sending, and managing digital invitations, with more than 100 million users

11. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

"In technology and at startups, people can easily forget how much our heart and emotional experience matter. Particularly in fintech, organizations can get lost and think of people as numbers to be optimized and overlook the real human experience and the intense emotions that people feel around managing their money. I love [this book], because it's a reminder of the messy, complicated, beautiful reality of being human."

--Lindsay Holden, CEO of Long Game, a personal finance app that has been featured in publications including TechCrunch, The Wall Street Journal, Today, and Fast Company

12. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

"I love understanding the drivers behind the decisions we make, and this book looks at human behaviors from a multitude of perspectives (biochemical, anthropological, genetic, etc.). By reading it, you're reminded to take a deeper look at your own behavior and the behavior of those around you. This is definitely a must-read for anyone running a consumer business."

--Beth Gerstein, co-founder and co-CEO of Brilliant Earth, a global retailer of ethically sourced fine jewelry with 200 employees and eight showrooms across the country

13. Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek

"I'm passionate about putting humans first, and this book embodies the idea that true leadership means treating your team as human beings and being willing to sacrifice your own self-interests for the greater objective. Simon's examples taken from the military show how this leadership style applies in literal life-or-death situations. While building a business certainly isn't as dire, it's important to recognize that, as [the author] says, 'leadership is the choice to serve others with or without any formal rank.' Understanding how to put people first -- removing perceived internal threats, giving them the resources they need to thrive, and having their backs even in the most difficult situations -- can be counterintuitive to those of us who are a 'numbers person,' but the approach has worked time and again."

--Lawrence Whittle, CEO of Parsable, a connected worker platform company that provides global industrial companies with digital tools for their frontline workers to increase productivity, quality, and safety, with users in more than 120 countries and 14 languages

14. The Second Mountain by David Brooks

"Whereas 'the first mountain of life' is about tireless, hot, hard work toward success, [this book] highlights the second chapter of life in which a rare few are able to realize what actually matters in life. The second mountain is about discovering that true joy comes from discarding the pursuit of happiness to free us to follow a life of purpose and joy. It is about committing ... to a spouse and family, to a community, to a spirituality and faith, and to a vocation, to something more profound than success. [The author] paints a picture of what this life looks like, and it is beautiful, one in which the slow burn of steady joy fuels life. For your own life, what might that look like? This book is about finding that answer. It's not what you think."

--Matt Dalio, founder and CEO of Endless, a company that teaches digital literacy to youth with a suite of games called Terminal Two, which recently was named "Best New Coding Games" by Parents.com

Published on: Jan 26, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.