Author: Steven Pressfield
Read in July 2020
Five Sentence Summary
The War of Art is a war against Resistance. Resistance’s purpose is to prevent you from becoming who you are meant to be; to prevent you from living up to your potential. You can beat Resistance by becoming even more resolute and implacable than it is. You turn pro. By living like a pro you allow the connection to a higher plane to open and can manifest what you were meant to do.
What matters most is that you put in the time. Not the results you get.
To begin is often harder than doing the work itself.
What Pressfield means by work, as far as I can tell, is the work that you were put on earth to do, your calling or your purpose.
Resistance is the powerful force that stands between who we are, who we could be and even who we are meant to be. Its only purpose is to prevent us from doing our work to become who we are meant to be. You cannot trust it, because it will tell you to prevent you from doing your work. It can easily defeat you any day of the week.
Resistance is felt. It radiates from work-in-potential. It feels like unhappiness, boredom, restlessness and like a low-grade misery pervading everything. You might even hate yourself or your life.
Resistance feels like fear and self-doubt that arises when we reject immediate gratification in favor of something beneficial in the long-term. Because of that, we can use Resistance as our compass. What radiates the most Resistance is what we have to do above all else. As such, if you pursue what matters most to you, you won’t be free of fear, you’ll be scared to death.
Resistance is self-inflicted. It lives within ourselves and feeds on our fears. The more fear we have and the more we give into it the stronger Resistance becomes. We conquer it by mastering our fear but Resistance will never go away. We have to overcome it anew every day.
Resistance recruits many allies to prevent us from doing our work
It recruits other people, who, unable to overcome their Resistance being reproached by our effort to overcome ours, try to sabotage us. It recruits procrastination who tells you easily justifying excuses for avoiding your work. It recruits distractions in the form of cheap and easy entertainment options like porn, video games or Netflix. Further, it recruits tolerance of a troubled life, hiding behind an illness or constantly searching for healing, fundamentalism, as well as giving or needing constant support to or from others.
All these allies are shrouded by Resistance’s greatest ally: rationalization. Rationalization is their advocate. It offers easily acceptable justifications for avoiding the confrontation with our fears at the root of our problems. It presents seemingly logical, plausible and rational packages that we can easily accept to avoid taking action. If we would confront our fears, we might be compelled to take action. But, if we believe rationalizations they become part of our identity and begin to guide our behavior. They become impossible to overcome and rule over us until it’s too late. On the contrary: “Tolstoy had thirteen kids and wrote War and Peace. Lance Armstrong had cancer and won the Tour de France three years and counting.”1)
Unalleviated Resistance grows until it becomes unendurable. When it is, we turn to distractions. If it’s not addressed after that it can turn into clinical depression, aggression or dysfunction. In its most extreme cases, it can turn into criminal or self-destructive behavior.
Modern consumer culture is acutely aware of the unhappiness that Resistance produces and exploits it by selling us drugs, products and distractions that won’t cure our unhappiness. The only thing that will is doing our work.
We evolved as members of tribal groups for millions of years. We may not be prepared for the free life of individuals in modern society. In it, we are only free to the extent of our self-mastery. If we don’t master ourselves, we’ll be governed by others.
The humanist believes that each individual has the potential to advance the world. As such, he values human life very highly. The artist is grounded in freedom and not afraid of it. He is hopeful for the future and believes that humankind is advancing, however imperfectly, toward a better world. In contrast, the fundamentalist believes that humanity has fallen from a higher state. Truth has already been revealed and it’s now necessary to reconstitute the purer world of the past. This must be done by destroying his enemies. This becomes his purpose. Any dissident against it is a crime, apostasy and heresy.
What is most important to you radiates the most Resistance. Doing it provides the most gratification.
“The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.”2)
You can tell when you’ve used something to distract yourself by the measure of hollowness you feel afterward. The emptier you feel the more likely it is that you distracted yourself to avoid your work.
When you live authentically, you rarely criticize others.
Whatever holds our attention for long becomes the theme of our work. Even if we can’t fully understand or articulate it in the beginning.
Even though it seems impossible, we can beat Resistance. We beat it by turning pro. When we turn pro, we can head our call to growth and live up to our talent by beating Resistance. It’s to manifest what we were put on earth to do. We turn pro by making the decision to live like one.
To live like a pro means to show up every day no matter, be committed over the long term, detach from your work and have a sense of humor about it, mentally prepare yourself for the long-haul, master the technique of your craft, not use circumstances as excuses, focus on the work and let rewards come whenever they like and receive praise or blame in the real world.
The pro shows up every day because he knows that if he doesn’t he’s twice as likely to cave tomorrow. He is committed over the long term to absorb the inevitable ups and downs and keep going. He detaches from his work and has a sense of humor about it to avoid being paralyzed by it. He is mentally prepared for the long haul to avoid enthusiastically burning out on unsustainable projects. He masters his craft to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration comes. He doesn’t accept excuses and keeps working. He focuses on his work to not lose himself in grandiose fantasies. He receives praise and blame in the real world because real failure and success are part of the road to success.
Committing yourself to your work means that you’ll experience adversity and misery. Accept and endure it by reminding yourself that it’s better to be in the arena, than watching from the stands.
Most obstacles yield to relentless effort and action. The only thing that matters is that you sit down and work consistently. Every time you do, you set in motion a sequence of events that produces inspiration and compounds into new ideas and insights.
Eliminate chaos from your work, to bring order to your mind.
You have to act courageously to overcome fear. If you avoid your fear you won’t overcome it.
Enjoy learning. Revel in it. The possible revelations are inexhaustible. Stay humble and seek out teachers.
Don’t cede the worth of yourself or your work to the opinions of others. Instead, practice self-validating yourself and your work. Focus on the process and detach from the outcome.
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.3)
When we create we ascend to loftier planes for brief periods of time and return to share the wonder’s we’ve seen.
Eternity, as Blake might have told us, has opened a portal into time. And we’re it.4)
Our dreams, eureka-moments and silent self-talk are evidence that some intelligence is at work inside of us that is independent of our conscious mind and yet in alliance with it. It processes our material for us and alongside us. The humble artist knows that it’s not exactly he who creates his art. It’s something he’s connected to that manifests through his work.
Individuals, by default, define themselves hierarchically. We define ourselves by the opinion of others and want to increase our social status by doing what we think will be well-received. An artist can’t do this. He must do his work for its own sake. He must be indifferent to its perception. Then he can connect to loftier planes. An artist can do this by defining himself territorially. His territory is what he would do if he were the last person on earth. Acting territorially manifests the work that only the artist can manifest. Hence, the question of what the artist should create can’t be answered intellectually. It can only be answered through action.
You should manifest what you were meant to do. If you don’t manifest what you were meant to do, you hurt everyone. You hurt yourself – and might even destroy yourself. You hurt your family, your friends and everyone else including the planet itself. The world is a poorer place because of 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.5)
Be courageous enough to pursue your purpose even when it changes.
Our Mother Fear is that we’ll succeed. Then we’d live up to our potential. We fear succeeding because we’d need to change and risk becoming estranged from all we know.
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.6)