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The War of Art | Winning The Inner Creative Battle by Steven Pressfield

19 June, 2022 - 14 min read


I. Brief Summary

Pressfield investigates this inner voice which he calls “resistance” which prevents us from exploring our creative talent. Resistance is our biggest enemy which needs to be deeply respected because resistance will show up everywhere there is a creative battle. Pressfield offers unique ways to understand and overcome resistance. The best way to overcome resistance is to show up every day no matter how you feel or events happening around you. Some ideas from this book can be extreme because Pressfield for example labels family as a distraction (which I disagree with). But let that not be a distraction, the underlying message is still true which may allow one to cope through resistance. I never knew why creative pursuits were challenging until now, but more I read about practices of other influential artists, I understand that it is not unique to a particular person, but we all go through it, and frankly resistance never goes away.

II. Big Ideas

  • The central thesis of this book is resistance is an enemy of all creatives. And every soul that has a body feels resistance. This by definition makes everyone creative. The ones who are empowered to pursue are the ones who are able to overcome resistance. To overcome resistance, a creative needs to suspend procrastination.
  • Hitler was an artist that started WWII because he was procrastinating, and, as a result of this, nobody has seen his paintings. (Seriously, Google his art. He sucked at being a decent human being but was a pretty good artist!). If we all pursued our creative outlet, so many of us can be set free and prevent Hitler esque events in the world. We can eliminate drugs, jail and misery.
  • Pressfield shows us we need to face our fears and not let those fears overtake us, not give into the resistance. Fear infects our creativity and prevents us from extracting the creative forces we need to create. Most importantly, as artists, we must be open to rejections, judgments and failures. All artists, even those that are best known to us, have experienced rejection. Use these rejections as motivation to improve your talents and skills and inspire you to love and embrace your craft even more.
  • Professionals vs Amateur

    • He argues in order to fight resistance, an artist must turn into a professional. This allows the artist to take his or her art seriously. The intent is to not create art passively otherwise procrastination will lead you right back to resistance. Amateurs are not aware of this. They play for fun while professionals play for keeps.
    • Turning pro means treating your dream job like it’s your only job (even if it isn’t yet.)
    • Be in love with it so much that you’re willing to dedicate your life to it.
    • Commit full-time.
    • Professionals don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Instead, they bring it about on their own, by developing the habit of consistency.
    • Pros work hard day after day, because they love to, they need to, and they want to.
    • Qualities of 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.
  • Tiger Woods has a coach. The greatest golfer has a teacher. A coach he turns to for advice and constructive criticism. And he does this because he knows that even though he’s the best—he can always get better.
  • Hierarchies vs Territories

    • Inspired by how animal kingdom operates. By how they rank within a Hierarchy—such as, say, a hen in a pecking order, or a wolf in a pack. By their connection to a Territory—like a home base or home court, a hunting ground or turf they’re comfortable operating within.
    • Hierarchies and territories are important because they provide us—(both humans as well as animals)—with psychological security. They help maintain order and a certain degree of organization. They help us understand our place and where we stand in the world. But there’s a sharp distinction between these two paradigms—the Hierarchy vs a Territory.
    • Most people naturally tend to lean towards the Hierarchy paradigm. This is because it’s easier for us to slip into when we’re growing up (popular vs geeks in high school). Eventually, as we grow into adulthood, most of us allow the hierarchy to remain in place only in a different way (buy this beer, get this job, drive this car, and everyone will love you.) We allow social hierarchies to place a ceiling on how much we earn and how high we climb. Corporations are hierarchies. Governments are hierarchies. High school was the ultimate hierarchy.
    • But Hierarchies have proven themselves ineffective for the individual seeking to live a more fulfilling life doing work that matters to him/her. Ultimately, says Pressfield, “for the artist to define himself hierarchically is fatal.”
    • Hierarchies stifle creativity. An individual who defines himself by his place in a pecking order will:

      • Compete against all others in the order, seeking to elevate his station by advancing against those above him, while defending his place against those beneath.
      • Evaluate his happiness/success/achievement by his rank within the hierarchy, feeling most satisfied when he’s high and most miserable when he’s low.
      • Act toward others based upon their rank in the hierarchy, to the exclusion of all other factors.
      • Evaluate his every move solely by the effect it produces on others. He will act for others, dress for others, speak for others, think for others…”
    • Claim your territory:

      • Territorial thinking is about doing work for its own sake. It’s about doing what you do because you really enjoy doing it—and being paid lots of money is a bi-product of your work, as opposed to the end goal of your work.
      • It’s also about the environment you feel most powerful/creative/motivated to work within. Stevie Wonder’s territory is the piano. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s is the gym. When Bill Gates pulls into the parking lot at Microsoft, he’s on his territory and when Pressfield sits down to write, he’s on his territory.
    • Territory provides sustenance:

      • A territory sustains us without any external output. 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. When experts tell us that exercise (or any other effort requiring activity) banishes depression, this is what they mean.
      • A territory can only be claimed alone. You can team with a partner, you can work out with a friend, but you only need your self to soak up your territory’s juice.
      • A territory can only be claimed by work. When Arnold Schwarzenegger hits the gym, he’s on his own turf. But what made it his own are the hours and years of sweat he put in to claim it. The territory doesn’t give, it gives back.
      • A territory returns exactly what you put it in. Territories are fair. Every bit of energy you put in goes infallibly into your account. The territory never devalues. A territory never crashes. What you deposited, you get back, dollar for dollar."
      • Your territory is your calling. It’s your “gym”, your “playground”, your “notebook”, your “microphone”. It’s that place you know you need to be in order to do your best work. I you don’t know it—figure it out. If you’ve figured it out — then claim it—not just once, but every single day.
  • Going beyond resistance is the higher realm. That’s where the angels, the Muses come in. This is the opposite force of resistance. Angels who forward the weight of artists. Whether in form of spirit, religion or higher realm, invoking the Muses in favor of you will create equal force against the resistance.

III. Quotes

  • Creative work is a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.
  • If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), "Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?" chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
  • Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
  • Our job in this life 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.
  • We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.
  • The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.
  • The Principle of Priority states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first.
  • This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.
  • The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.
  • 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.
  • Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It's a gift to the world and every being in it. Don't cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you've got.
  • We fear discovering that we are more than we think we are. More than our parents/children/teachers think we are. We fear that we actually possess the talent that our still, small voice tells us. That we actually have the guts, the perseverance, the capacity. We fear that we truly can steer our ship, plant our flag, reach our Promised Land. We fear this because, if it’s true, then we become estranged from all we know. We pass through a membrane. We become monsters and monstrous.
  • Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
  • It’s better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.
  • Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it?
  • Someone once asked Somerset Maughham 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.”
  • Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.
  • The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit. We don't just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed.
  • Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second we can turn the tables on Resistance. This second, we can sit down and do our work.
  • 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.
  • The artist cannot look to others to validate his efforts or his calling. If you don't believe me, ask Van Gogh, who produced masterpiece after masterpiece and never found a buyer in his whole life.
  • The sign of the amateur is overglorification of and preoccupation with the mystery. The professional shuts up. She doesn't talk about it. She does her work.
  • The professional learns to recognize envy-driven criticism and to take it for what it is: the supreme compliment. The critic hates most that which he would have done himself if he had had the guts.
  • Resistance by definition is self-sabotage.
  • The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome.
  • Resistance is directly proportional to love. If you're feeling massive Resistance, the good news is that it means there's tremendous love there too.
  • The more resistance you experience, the more important your unmanifested art/project/enterprise is to you — and the more gratification you will feel when you finally do it.
  • It's not the writing part that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.
  • Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.
  • Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now. — W. H. Murray
  • The best and only thing that one artist can do for another is to serve as an example and an inspiration.
  • The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.
  • Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt.
  • To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be.
  • In other words, any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term grown, health, or integrity. Or, expressed another way, any act that derives from our high nature instead of our lower. Any of these will elicit Resistance.
  • Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work.
  • Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet.
  • We're wrong if we think we're the only ones struggling with Resistance. Everyone who has a body experiences Resistance.
  • Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us.
  • The awakening an artist must be ruthless, not only with herself but with others.
  • The artist must be like that Marine. He has to know how to be miserable. He has to love being miserable.
  • 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.
  • Resistance has no conscience.
  • Amateur’s are weekend warriors. Pros are there every day of the week.
  • We're never alone. As soon as we step outside the campfire glow, our Muse lights on our shoulder like a butterfly. The act of courage calls for infallibly that deeper part of ourselves that supports and sustains us.