The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is an oft-cited book for any ‘artist’ to read. While Pressfield mainly talks about a more typical artist in the book (painter, sculptor, writer…) I extend this to anyone doing creative work. Even those writing code.
In The War of Art, Pressfield attempts to address the invisible force we all deal with that stops us from getting to our work — or art, using his words — and keeps us operating in the realm of mediocrity as we evade our calling.
He contends that all artists — and I’d expand this to knowledge workers and people in general — have Resistance looming over them sucking their will to be productive. It’s in those 900 emails you deal with instead of writing that report, or getting your 1,000 words done for the day. Only those who fight the Resistance and Turn Pro are truly writers — or artists — and cease being wannabes.
It’s in this striving to be Pro that we live our lives. It’s a tension that we all feel and are scared of. Pressfield is trying to get us to Turn Pro so that we can be the artist we were meant to be.
The War of Art is broken up into three sections, which he labels ‘books.’ First Pressfield addresses the Resistance we all feel as we try to accomplish things, the life-force-sucking entity that’s so hard to pin down and eradicate.
Second the author looks at what being a Pro means. Covering topics such as just showing up every day even when you’re not ‘inspired’ and what it means to follow your muse despite what may be marketable.
Book 3 is the least readable as it covers the ‘spiritual’ realm and how it affects the creative.
Outside of these three broad sections, the book is a collection of essays, some of which expand on the ideas in the preceding books and others which jump off in an entirely new direction without warning. I’ve found this structure to be fine in books like ReWork but here it felt totally disjointed and hard to read.
Despite that scattershot structure this is a very quotable book with a fair bit of gold to mine for those that can get past the loose structure.
There is a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.
What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.
All knowledge workers deal with this siren song of Resistance. It shows itself in the checking of social sites as part of ‘work’ or in going through 900 emails waiting for you because that act feels like accomplishment. The truth is, neither of those things usually moves the needle on the projects of importance in our life.
Checking my email to see if something came in to respond to doesn’t get this post written. It doesn’t get any code written for my clients. But it does feel productive to see inbox go to zero.
To use Pressfield’s words this is simply Resistance cackling behind us as it knows we’re doing nothing worthwhile and it’s winning the battle with any value we can create in the world.
Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms the spirit.
Pressfield doesn’t speak about resistance as someone who hasn’t dealt with it though. He’s sat right in the middle of it for years without even realizing what it was that was holding him back. This book encapsulates his 20/20 hindsight vision of those times in his life when he has succumbed to Resistance and simply made excuses instead of producing his art.
We’re not alone if we’ve been mowed down by Resistance; millions of good men and women have bitten the dust before us. And here’s the biggest bitch: We don’t even know what hit us. I never did. From age twenty-four to thirty-two, Resistance kicked my ass from East Coast to West and back again thirteen times. I never even knew it existed. I looked everywhere for the enemy and failed to see it right in front of my face.
So the big question of this book is “What is Resistance?”. How can we recognize it so that we can fight it? Putting aside that it’s super sneaky and lets us think that email checking is actually getting work done, Resistance is: any act that delays gratification or calls us to be better versions of ourselves. The bigger and better the idea is the bigger and stronger resistance is in our lives.
[Tweet “The bigger and better our ideas, the more Resistance we must overcome.”]
Sit back and think about the last time you really delayed the gratification of anything. I won’t go as far as saying that it’s impossible today but it’s certainly harder in so many ways. We have entire companies that employ thousands of smart people whose only job is to stir consumers to make that impulse purchase. This is why we have 1-click shopping and see it as a great revolution in shopping that makes our life so much more convenient.
This lack of delayed gratification is what causes housing bubbles. The banks capitalized on us fooling ourselves into believing we deserved a house even though we didn’t have the money for it. Then things collapsed and people realized they should have just waited and saved more instead of seizing this amazing opportunity that was anything but good for them.
To put it as Dave Ramsey often does: We are a culture that purchases things we don’t want to impress people we don’t even like or know with money we don’t have.
All of this is Resistance acting upon us. How many people are so caught up in debt that they have to stick with the job they don’t like to pay the bills on that stuff they don’t want? Resistance has won in their lives as it has burdened them to a point where pursuing their calling is such a great risk that it gives them cold sweats. With no debt and a house they can really afford how much easier would it be to take that risk and go for their calling with abandon?
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.
That quote above is probably the best single summary I can see of Resistance in our lives and how we feel it. It’s often said that when you feel scared that’s the avenue you should be pursuing even harder. That fear is a way that Resistance is showing itself.
The artist must be like that Marine, He has to know how to be miserable. He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or jet jockey. Because this is war, baby. And war is hell.
Book 2 is all about what a Pro does. It can probably be summed up in a single idea — the Pro turns up every day and spends time doing their work.
The writer writes every day. The painter paints. The developer ignores her email and all the social feeds that call so strongly and she writes code. This continual production without waffling around is what it means to be a Pro.
But even in Book 2, which is about Turning Pro, Resistance is still dominant. It still feels like Book 2 is mostly about Resistance and a little about what a Pro does in the face of that. Despite this feeling of disorganization there are good thoughts for entrepreneurs.
Resistance outwits the amateur with the oldest trick in the book: It uses his own enthusiasm against him. Resistance gets us to plunge into a project with an overambitious and unrealistic timetable for its completion. It knows we can’t sustain that level of intensity. We will hit the wall. We will crash.
Entrepreneurs are a terribly fickle lot. They have a great idea and spend a few weeks or months executing on it but then they have another idea. This new one is so exciting that the first idea grows pale in comparison and thus is left 80% finished but never launched to the world as they embark on the new idea.
This shiny new idea is Resistance at work again. It’s cleverly disguised as doing work that matters, but if you never ship an idea it doesn’t matter. Just like knowledge is useless without application, an idea or product that no one gets to use is entirely useless to the world. Only when we share these ideas do they provide any value to the world.
[Tweet “An idea or product that no one gets to use is entirely useless to the world.”]
And that is what a Pro does. They don’t stop at just sitting down and doing their work every day. They ship that idea when it’s ready. They don’t wait for perfection because it can never be attained. They find that point where they’re only 90% ashamed of the idea and ship it to the world so that others can benefit from the idea and it can provide value.
If you’re sitting on ideas that are partially built but never shipped you’re still an amateur succumbing to Resistance.
Putting our ideas out in the world is hard because that also exposes us to the ‘trolls’ of the anonymous Internet world we live in.
Remember, Resistance wants us to cede sovereignty to others. It wants us to stake our self-worth, our identity, our reason-for-being, on the response of others to our work. Resistance knows we can’t take this. No one can.
This ceding of our self-worth to others is a crucial thing that amateurs do and Pros know to avoid. If you’re onto a truly revolutionary idea you’re always going to have someone — or many people — who think you’re an idiot and shouldn’t bring children into the world so your DNA doesn’t get passed along.
This is shown as you read the reviews of your work on Amazon or read the emails you get from the haters, and take them to heart. If you want to succeed then you can’t do this. Those naysayers are simply there to drag you down and usually the only thing they’re producing is complaints about someone else. That means they’re producing nothing of value to the world.
Ignore them. Or better yet, just don’t even provide a path for them to interact with you.
The final core thought I want to highlight as being worthwhile in Book 2 is the head that we need to find and pursue our purpose not follow the path that we idealize as a way to success.
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.
This idea is what The Art of Work was all about as well, encapsulated in the quote above. We need to devote time to figuring out who our authentic self is and then when we find it to pursue that authentic self with abandon.
You can even see this idea shine through in Pressfield’s great work of fiction, The Legend of Bagger Vance as Bagger Vance tells Rannulph Junuh to find his authentic swing. Vance spends the whole story helping Rannulph find that swing he lost.
This swing is really a metaphor for the purpose that Rannulph lost and needs to find again. This is what we should all be spending our lives doing. Find that purpose for your existence on earth. What can you do that no one else can do as well as you, and how can you use that to provide value in the lives of those around you.
A life that finds that purpose and executes on it is a life well lived.
Book 3 is probably the most difficult to read. Right in the first sentence I wondered what it would have to offer and while there are a few good points here and there, most of it felt like ‘hippie dippy baloney’ to quote Lord Business from the Lego Movie.
The next few chapters are going to be about those invisible psychic forces that support and sustain us in our journey toward ourselves.
Even being a Christian and having a strong faith of 30 years — with a belief that there is a metaphysical realm, the way that Pressfield portrays it didn’t sit well with me. He does offer us an out if we are uncomfortable with the idea of a metaphysical realm. He says to consider the ‘angels’ he refers to in the abstract but it didn’t calm my internal discomfort.
Leaving that theme aside there are still some interesting thoughts presented in Book 3, mainly around how we follow our muse toward what we should write, or if we look to what’s popular and produce some of that because it may create a sale.
He writes what he imagines will play well in the eyes of others. He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write? What do I think is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot, what can I make a deal for.
Pressfield contends that the true artist does what they feel is important and lets that work stand. This contrasts with much of the Internet business world where we are advised to research an idea and then test its viability by asking for a sale. The whole purpose of the book Will it Fly (which I wrote about) is to show us a process for doing just that. Finding an idea that people want and asking for the sale so that we can build it once it’s validated.
What someone says they’re going to do, and what they actually end up doing can be completely different, so you need more than just words in order to count on them. – Will it Fly
And yet even inside this framework of evaluating an idea and pursuing ones where people have put money down, author Pat Flynn acknowledges that you must have passion for an idea for it to really have life in the long term.
The truth is if you don’t have a passion for what you are doing, your energy will eventually fizzle out. It always does. – Will it Fly
This contrast between blindly following your muse to the things that you think are important and validating your idea in the market is a tension that every entrepreneur must live with. As Henry Ford is often cited as saying:
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses – Henry Ford
Following strictly to the ideas in Will it Fly will not yield the revolutionary ideas of our time, or at least that model has a higher chance of squashing a truly revolutionary idea. Sticking to the idea Pressfield presents of following your muse and sticking with what you think is important to produce will yield ideas that transform the face of culture.
These culture-changing ideas have a danger though, in that they may not be accepted until after you’ve passed. Vincent Van Gogh, while now considered one of the masters, never really had a standing during his life.
For one with children and a house to pay for, taking this huge risk without validation is scary — which Pressfield would call Resistance — and not to be undertaken lightly.
Further, finding this ‘authentic muse’ is hard. I’ve undertaken changes in my content on my site a few times and have felt differing degrees of comfort with them. Even as I wrote recently about my writing workflow and my content calendar I feel slightly ill at ease with how I plan what I write. The thought continues to nag at me that I don’t get to write about what inspires me and just follow a script that was set out for me.
For those seeking to influence others and pay bills at the same time this tension between ideas being validated in the market and staying true to your own ideas that are revolutionary will always be a struggle. My current true wish is to do away with client work and coach full-time, so in theory I could sit and read for a good portion of each day and share those concepts with you, but as bills come in I have to temper the draw of my muse with the needs of my family.
I’m not sure this tension will ever really be at ease in anyone. I feel that Pressfield’s view of simply following your muse may lead many people to follow his examples of living in vans or other shady places only out of necessity because they haven’t found a way to provide value and thus are earning little to nothing for their work.
I hope that at every point in my life — and yours — that we can provide value and use that value to leap into the next phase of the calling of our muse.
I have to say I was disappointed in this book. Hearing it spoken of in hushed tones so often built it up in my mind to be a revolutionary tome. Obviously I had idealized the transformation that it would bring about in my creative life and that transformation didn’t happen.
As you can read above there is much to be taken from this book, but it felt like it was an artist that is now sitting securely on enough money that more wouldn’t really mean much in their quality of life. From that vantage point it’s easy to idealize the days living in a van or struggling with jobs that barely made ends meet.
Further, the structure felt non-existent. It felt like a lazy collection of thoughts that later had some loose structure applied in the form of three books.
Now did Pressfield accomplish his purpose in the book? Does he convince the reader that there is Resistance hanging over their work and that it needs to be fought by Turning Pro? In a wide way sure, but there is little direct action to be taken from the book. The best direct recommendation is to show up every day and write if you’re a writer. If you’re a painter, then paint every day.
I think that The Art of Work does a much better job dealing with the concepts of what being an artist means. The ideas of the portfolio life and how to hold them in balance feels significantly more practical to me.
Sure The War of Art is heralded as a great tome of import to artists but I just don’t see it. I’m sure I’ll reference it for quotes again because it is a book that’s very quotable but I’m not convinced that many of the people calling it a great book for any creative weren’t simply not willing to admit they didn’t get it. They were not being true to their muse and were pulled along to follow the crowd which said the book was so awesome.
So I’ll be true to my muse and say, don’t bother reading it. Read The Art of Work, or 48 Days to the Work You Love, or Start with Why. Any of those books have significantly more power to affect change in your life and help you get on the path to being honest with your purpose and producing value in the world.