“The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles” by Steven Pressfield (Book Summary)
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is all about resistance and how to overcome it.
Resistance? It’s that internal force that rises whenever we consider engaging in an activity that is highly beneficial for us, but also hard and uncomfortable.
Have you ever bought a treadmill but never used it? Ever quit an exercise regimen, a yoga course, or a daily meditation practice? Have you ever procrastinated on your intentions? Are you a writer who fails to write, a painter who fails to paint, or an entrepreneur who never starts an enterprise? Then you know what Resistance is.
Any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term success conjures up this internal barrier. Resistance is the very thing that stands between who you are and who you could be. It’s the thing that keeps you from reaching your full potential.
The War of Art helps us recognize resistance in our own lives and offers practical strategies for overcoming it. If you struggle with following through on your intentions and highest ambitions, this book will be of great help to you.
Here are ten of my favorite ideas from the book.
Who The War of Art is for
- Anyone struggling to build positive habits
- Anyone interested in overcoming procrastination
- Anyone who wants to sacrifice short-term gratification for long-term success
1. Resistance is Invisible
“Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.”
“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 and I never even knew it existed. I looked everywhere for the enemy and failed to see it right in front of my face.”
Resistance is a tricky beast.
It can’t be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. Only felt.
In fact, most of the time we’re not aware of the feeling either. We find ourselves avoiding beneficial activities without even knowing it. Why did you never start that business you always dreamed of? Why aren’t you exercising regularly? Why don’t you meditate? Why do you keep postponing that doctor’s visit? Why can’t you study on time?
It all comes down to resistance, that repelling force that sneakily moves us away from the “positive” activities and toward immediate gratification.
2. Resistance is Insidious
“Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is protean. It will assume any form, if that’s what it takes to deceive you. It will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man. Resistance has no conscience. It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned. If you take Resistance at its word, you deserve everything you get. Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.”
Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work.
In other words, resistance will come up with reasonable sounding excuses designed to keep you from engaging in positive behaviors.
You’re too young. Too old. Not smart enough. Not talented enough. Do it tomorrow. It can wait. It’s not important. You shouldn’t have to force yourself. It’s already too late, anyway. Why bother? Why not do something fun instead?
99.9% of all excuses are resistance in disguise. Be careful. Pay attention. Don’t deceive yourself.
3. Resistance is Infallible
“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.”
Resistance will be greatest for that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. According to Pressfield, we should use this as a compass.
Whatever we feel most Resistance toward, that’s the activity or project we should engage in.
4. Resistance and This Book
“When I began this book, Resistance almost beat me. This is the form it took. It told me (the voice in my head) that I was a writer of fiction, not nonfiction, and that I shouldn’t be exposing these concepts of Resistance literally and overtly; rather, I should incorporate them metaphorically into a novel. That’s a pretty damn subtle and convincing argument. The rationalization Resistance presented me with was that I should write, say, a war piece in which the principles of Resistance were expressed as the fear a warrior feels.Resistance also told me I shouldn’t seek to instruct, or put myself forward as a purveyor of wisdom; that this was vain, egotistical, possibly even corrupt, and that it would work harm to me in the end. That scared me. It made a lot of sense.”
Resistance will do anything to keep you from doing your work.
In Pressfield’s example, Resistance told him that he’s a fiction writer, not nonfiction writer, that he should incorporate the teachings of Resistance into a novel. It also told him that he would come across as vain, egotistical, possibly even corrupt.
In other words, Resistance came up with a bunch of reasonable sounding excuses. Someone untrained in the dealings with Resistance would have probably given in to those excuses. Not Pressfield.
5. Resistance and Being a Star
“Grandiose fantasies are a symptom of Resistance. They’re the sign of an amateur. The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.”
As Confucius said, “The superior man does not mind being in office; all he minds about is whether he has qualities that entitle him to office. He does not mind failing to get recognition; he is too busy doing the things that entitle him to recognition.”
6. Turning Pro – The Way to Beat Resistance
“Aspiring artists defeated by Resistance share one trait. They all think like amateurs. They have not yet turned pro. The moment an artist turns pro is as epochal as the birth of his first child. With one stroke, everything changes. I can state absolutely that the term of my life can be divided into two parts: before turning pro, and after.”
“The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning “to love.” The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does it for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his “real” vocation. The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time. That’s what I mean when I say turning pro. Resistance hates it when we turn pro.”
Pressfield’s recommendation for beating Resistance is turning pro.
Turning pro means moving from amateur to professional. Taking your life and work seriously. Approaching it like a professional athlete approaches his sport, like a professional writer approaches his writing, or like a professional musician approaches her music.
Pressfield mentions many key differences between amateurs and pros, including:
- The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps.
- To the amateur, the game is his avocation. To the pro it’s his vocation.
- The amateur plays part-time, the professional full-time.
- The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week.
7. The Professional & the Amateur
“…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 amateur has not mastered the technique of his art. Nor does he expose himself to judgment in the real world. If we show our poem to our friend and our friend says, “It’s wonderful, I love it,” that’s not real-world feedback, that’s our friend being nice to us. Nothing is as empowering as realworld validation, even if it’s for failure.”
Pressfield compares the qualities of professionals and amateurs. You’ve just read the ones of amateurs.
Here are the qualities that define us as professionals:
- We show up every day.
- We show up no matter what.
- We stay on the job all day.
- We are committed over the long haul.
- The stakes for us are high and real.
- We accept remuneration for our labor.
- We do not overidentify with our jobs.
- We master the technique of our jobs.
- We have a sense of humor about our jobs.
- We receive praise or blame in the real world.”
8. Inspiration VS. Discipline
“Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. ‘I write only when inspiration strikes,’ he replied. ‘Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.’ That’s a pro. In terms of Resistance, Maugham was saying, ‘I despise Resistance; I will not let it faze me; I will sit down and do my work.’”
Professionals show up every day, and they show up no matter what.
They don’t get swayed by Resistance’ sneaky excuses. They just do what needs to get done, whether they feel like it or not.
9. A Pressfield Lesson on Perseverance and Sacrifice
Read this. You’ll thank me.
“In my late twenties I rented a little house in Northern California; I had gone there to finish a novel or kill myself trying. By that time I had blown up a marriage to a girl I loved with all my heart, screwed up two careers, blah blah, etc., all because (though I had no understanding of this at the time) I could not handle Resistance. I had one novel nine-tenths of the way through and another at ninety-nine hundredths before I threw them in the trash. I couldn’t finish ’em. I didn’t have the guts. In yielding thusly to Resistance, I fell prey to every vice, evil, distraction, you-name-it mentioned heretofore, all leading nowhere, and finally washed up in this sleepy California town, with my Chevy van, my cat Mo, and my antique Smith-Corona…
In my little house I had no TV. I never read a newspaper or went to a movie. I just worked. One afternoon I was banging away in the little bedroom I had converted to an office, when I heard my neighbor’s radio playing outside. Someone in a loud voice was declaiming “. . . to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” I came out. What’s going on? “Didn’t you hear? Nixon’s out; they got a new guy in there.”
I had missed Watergate completely.
I was determined to keep working. I had failed so many times, and caused myself and people I loved so much pain thereby, that I felt if I crapped out this time I would have to hang myself. I didn’t know what Resistance was then. No one had schooled me in the concept. I felt it though, big-time. I experienced it as a compulsion to self-destruct. I could not finish what I started. The closer I got, the more different ways I’d find to screw it up. I worked for twenty-six months straight, taking only two out for a stint of migrant labor in Washington State, and finally one day I got to the last page and typed out:
I never did find a buyer for the book. Or the next one, either. It was ten years before I got the first check for something I had written and ten more before a novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was actually published. 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.
Next morning I went over to Paul’s for coffee and told him I had finished. “Good for you,” he said without looking up. “Start the next one today.””
10. A Professional in Action
“It’s about ten-thirty now. I sit down and plunge in. When I start making typos, I know I’m getting tired. That’s four hours or so. I’ve hit the point of diminishing returns. I wrap for the day. Copy whatever I’ve done to disk and stash the disk in the glove compartment of my truck in case there’s a fire and I have to run for it. I power down. It’s three, three-thirty. The office is closed. How many pages have I produced? I don’t care. Are they any good? I don’t even think about it. All that matters is I’ve put in my time and hit it with all I’ve got. All that counts is that, for this day, for this session, I have overcome Resistance.”
That’s a pro in action.
Shows up every day. Doesn’t make excuses. Focuses on the process. Judges himself on effort.
If you enjoyed this book, here are three similar ones you might like.
- Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield. This is the followup book to The War of Art, going into more details on what it means to turn pro and sharing more personal examples from Pressfield.
- Wooden by John Wooden. A true professional, John Wooden shares his philosophy for living a healthy, fulfilling, and successful life.
- Mastery by George Leonard. Achieving mastery in any endeavor largely comes down to making a commitment to turning pro.
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