Book review: The War Of Art by Steven Pressfield

I read this book recently and liked it a lot. The book is written by Steven Pressfield. He is also the writer of "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and "Gates of Fire" (arguably the best book about Spartans, and is being used as recommended reading in Army academies). Pressfield definitely knows and respects his craft.

This book is a call for all people, and creative people and writers in particular, to wake up and realize their calling. The book says: "Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us." Yeah... About that... I know "self-help" books, and books that use "new-agey" language rub many people the wrong way. I am a pragmatic about that. The way I see it, if I can learn some good paradigms, tips, strategy to become more productive, effective, I can look past some of the turn-offs.

The book is organized in 3 parts. The first part talks about resistance, the enemy of creating anything meaningful and worthwhile. This part gives an extended and spot on description and analysis of resistance. You have to know the enemy to have a chance to beat it.

The second part talks about turning professional to beat resistance. I liked this part best. This part has very positivist/pragmatist advice in contrast to the romantic/mysticist theme dominating Part 3, which is also somewhat evident in Part 1.

The third part talks about beyond resistance, and living the life in a higher realm. This part is mostly mysticist --done tastefully, I think. (What do you expect? Pressfield is the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance after all.) There are still several useful spot on observations. One is about territorial versus hierarchical orientation.

Below I am going to paste quotes from the book to give you a taste of it. I liked this book, and recommend it for anyone who wants to understand resistance and improve her craft.

Part 1: Resistance, Defining The Enemy

Any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health or integrity … will elicit Resistance.

Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it. Master that fear, and we conquer Resistance.

Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it's the easiest to rationalize. 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."

There's a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't, and the secret is this: 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 invisible, internal, insidious, fueled by fear, only opposes in one direction.

Like a magnetized needle floating on a surface of oil, Resistance will unfailingly point to true North–meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. We can use this. We can use it as a compass. We can navigate by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before all others. 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.

Part 2: Turning Pro, Combating Resistance

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.

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.

Professional is patient, prepared, acts in face of fear, dedicated to mastering technique.

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.

Part 3: Beyond resistance, the higher realm

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.

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

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.

The territory provides sustenance. -- Runners know what a territory is. So do rock climbers and kayakers and yogis. Artists and entrepreneurs know what a territory is. The swimmer who towels off after finishing her laps feels a hell of a lot better than the tired, cranky person who dove into the pool 30 minutes earlier.

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.

The artist must operate territorially. He must do his work for its own sake. To labor in the arts for any reason other than love is prostitution.

Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it? If you're all alone on the planet, a hierarchical orientation makes no sense. There's no one to impress. So, if you’d still pursue that activity, congratulations. You're doing it territorially.

The book ends with the following. I think this is a useful perspective/paradigm to cultivate:

If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don't do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

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.


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