The War of Art

Steven Pressfield

Buy on Amazon

Highly Recommend

Amazing book that captures the essence of why creating things is hard. It has a philosophical bend on how to live your life as well. Everyone is creative, it's just a matter of creating things.

Notes

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.

Look in your own heart. Unless I'm crazy, right now a still, small voice is piping up, telling you as it has ten thousand times before, the calling that is yours and yours alone. You know it. No one has to tell you. And unless I'm crazy, you're no closer to taking action on it than you were yesterday or will be tomorrow. You think Resistance isn't real? Resistance will bury you.

Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul's evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

The awakening artist must be ruthless, not only with herself but with others. Once you make your break, you can't turn around for your buddy who catches his trouser leg on the barbed wire. The best thing you can do for that friend (and he'd tell you this himself, if he really is your friend) is to get over the wall and keep motating. The best and only thing that one artist can do for another is to serve as an example and an inspiration.

We don't tell ourselves, "I'm never going to write my symphony." Instead we say, "I am going to write my symphony; I'm just going to start tomorrow."

We don't just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed. [Let that sink in...]

Sometimes Resistance takes the form of sex, or an obsessive preoccupation with sex. Why sex? Because sex provides immediate and powerful gratification. When someone sleeps with us, we feel validated and approved of, even loved. Resistance gets a big kick out of that. It knows it has distracted us with a cheap, easy fix and kept us from doing our work. Of course not all sex is a manifestation of Resistance. In my experience, you can tell by the measure of hollowness you feel afterward. The more empty you feel, the more certain you can be that your true motivation was not love or even lust but Resistance. It goes without saying that this principle applies to drugs, shopping, masturbation, TV, gossip, alcohol, and the consumption of all products containing fat, sugar, salt, or chocolate.

Ill health is a form of trouble, as are alcoholism and drug addiction, proneness to accidents, all neurosis including compulsive screwing-up, and such seemingly benign foibles as jealousy, chronic lateness, and the blasting of rap music at 110 dB from your smoked-glass '95 Supra. Anything that draws attention to ourselves through pain-free or artificial means is a manifestation of Resistance.

The working artist will not tolerate trouble in her life because she knows trouble prevents her from doing her work. The working artist banishes from her world all sources of trouble. She harnesses the urge for trouble and transforms it in her work.

When we drug ourselves to blot out our soul's call, we are being good Americans and exemplary consumers. We're doing exactly what TV commercials and pop materialist culture have been brainwashing us to do from birth. Instead of applying self-knowledge, self-discipline, delayed gratification and hard work, we simply consume a product.

The artist and the fundamentalist arise from societies at differing stages of development. The artist is the advanced model. His culture possesses affluence, stability, enough excess of resource to permit the luxury of self-examination. The artist is grounded in freedom.

The fundamentalist entertains no such notion. In his view, humanity has fallen from a higher state. The truth is not out there awaiting revelation; it has already been revealed. The word of God has been spoken and recorded by His prophet, be he Jesus, Muhammad, or Karl Marx.

Fundamentalism is the philosophy of the powerless, the conquered, the displaced and the dispossessed.

To combat the call of sin, i.e., Resistance, the fundamentalist plunges either into action or into the study of sacred texts. He loses himself in these, much as the artist does in the process of creation. The difference is that while the one looks forward, hoping to create a better world, the other looks backward, seeking to return to a purer world from which he and all have fallen.

[This is so important] If you find yourself criticizing other people, you're probably doing it out of Resistance. When we see others beginning to live their authentic selves, it drives us crazy if we have not lived out our own.

Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others. If they speak at all, it is to offer encouragement. Watch yourself. Of all the manifestations of Resistance, most only harm ourselves. Criticism and cruelty harm others as well.

If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), "Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?" chances are you are.

Fear tells us what we have to do.

The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.

If Resistance couldn't be beaten, there would be no Fifth Symphony, no Romeo and Juliet, no Golden Gate Bridge. Defeating Resistance is like giving birth. It seems absolutely impossible until you remember that women have been pulling it off successfully, with support and without, for fifty million years.

Aspiring artists defeated by Resistance share one trait. They all think like amateurs. They have not yet turned pro.

The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time.

The sun isn't up yet; it's cold; the fields are sopping. Brambles scratch my ankles, branches snap back in my face. The hill is a sonofabitch but what can you do? Set one foot in front of another and keep climbing. [Great imagery]

Now consider the amateur: the aspiring painter, the wannabe playwright. How does he pursue his calling? One, he doesn't show up every day. Two, he doesn't show up no matter what. Three, he doesn't stay on the job all day. He is not committed over the long haul; the stakes for him are illusory and fake. He does not get money. And he overidentifies with his art. He does not have a sense of humor about failure. You don't hear him bitching, "This fucking trilogy is killing me!" Instead, he doesn't write his trilogy at all.

The professional masters how, and leaves what and why to the gods. Like Somerset Maugham she doesn't wait for inspiration, she acts in anticipation of its apparition.

The sign of the amateur is overglorification of and preoccupation with the mystery.

The professional has learned better. He respects Resistance. He knows if he caves in today, no matter how plausible the pretext, he'll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow.

The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come. The professional is sly. He knows that by toiling beside the front door of technique, he leaves room for genius to enter by the back.

A professional schools herself to stand apart from her performance, even as she gives herself to it heart and soul. The Bhagavad-Gita tells us we have a right only to our labor, not to the fruits of our labor. All the warrior can give is his life; all the athlete can do is leave everything on the field.

Her artistic self contains many works and many performances. Already the next is percolating inside her. The next will be better, and the one after that better still.

There's no mystery to turning pro. It's a decision brought about by an act of will. We make up our minds to view ourselves as pros and we do it. Simple as that.

Because the most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.

Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.

But that moment when I first hit the keys to spell out THE END was epochal. I remember rolling the last page out and adding it to the stack that was the finished manuscript. Nobody knew I was done. Nobody cared. But I knew. I felt like a dragon I'd been fighting all my life had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out its last sulfuric breath. Rest in peace, motherfucker.

I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now."

When we, like God, set out to create a universe — a book, an opera, a new business venture — the same principle kicks in. Our screenplay resolves itself into a three-act structure; our symphony takes shape into movements; our plumbing-supply venture discovers its optimum chain of command. How do we experience this? By having ideas. Insights pop into our heads while we're shaving or taking a shower or even, amazingly, while we're actually working.

This is why artists are modest. They know they're not doing the work; they're just taking dictation. It's also why "noncreative people" hate "creative people." Because they're jealous. They sense that artists and writers are tapped into some grid of energy and inspiration that they themselves cannot connect with. Of course, this is nonsense. We're all creative. We all have the same psyche. The same everyday miracles are happening in all our heads day by day, minute by minute.

We can't be anything we want to be. We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we're stuck with it. Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.

Most of us define ourselves hierarchically and don't even know it. It's hard not to. School, advertising, the entire materialist culture drills us from birth to define ourselves by others' opinions. Drink this beer, get this job, look this way and everyone will love you.

For the artist to define himself hierarchically is fatal.

The artist must operate territorially. He must do his work for its own sake.

In the hierarchy, the artist looks up and looks down. The one place he can't look is that place he must: within.

But the Muse had me. I had to do it. To my amazement, the book succeeded critically and commercially better than anything I'd ever done, and others since have been lucky too. Why? My best guess is this: I trusted what I wanted, not what I thought would work. I did what I myself thought was interesting, and left its reception to the gods.

A territory sustains us without any external input. A territory is a closed feedback loop. Our role is to put in effort and love; the territory absorbs this and gives it back to us in the form of well-being.

How can we tell if our orientation is territorial or hierarchical? One way is to ask ourselves, If I were feeling really anxious, what would I do? If we would pick up the phone and call six friends, one after the other, with the aim of hearing their voices and reassuring ourselves that they still love us, we're operating hierarchically. We're seeking the good opinion of others. What would Arnold Schwarzenegger do on a freaky day? He wouldn't phone his buddies; he'd head for the gym. He wouldn't care if the place was empty, if he didn't say a word to a soul. He knows that working out, all by itself, is enough to bring him back to his center. His orientation is territorial.

Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action.

Enjoy reading this?

Join entrepreneurs, Fortune 100 executives, private equity investors and other consumer leaders in receiving 1-2 case studies each week!

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.