Tough guy author Steven Pressfield offers a straight-shooting guide to grappling with the inner forces that impede creativity and self-belief.
In this brief, provocative volume, Steven Pressfield – author of Gates of Fire; Tides of War; and The Afghan Campaign – shares hard-earned lessons on recognizing and getting past self-sabotage – “Resistance,” he calls it. To overcome Resistance, he says, pursue creativity as a vocation, with discipline. Pressfield’s insights, no-nonsense approach and eclectic spirituality inform this stimulating guide to becoming your best creative self.
God, Pressfield writes, created you with unique gifts, for a unique purpose. You have an inner genius, a “sacramental center.” The world needs the creative work that comes from that genius or soul.
Resistance tries to obstruct self-improvement and creative work. No matter how the artist works to overcome it, Resistance escalates its efforts – especially as the artist nears completion of a project. Anyone who strives to create or grow must defeat Resistance daily.
Most of us have two lives. The life we live and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.Steven Pressfield
Resistance often manifests as procrastination: the urge to pursue your calling tomorrow instead of today. Or it can manifest as a preoccupation with sex, media consumption, alcohol or shopping. It may appear as a desire for trouble, drama or victimhood, which can bring gratification in the form of attention from other people. Depression and anxiety, and the desire to medicate them away, may also signify Resistance.
When you surrender to Resistance, what begins as mere discontent or restlessness leads to vices and addictions, followed by depression or aggression. Don’t try to cure Resistance through consumerism and self-medication. You live in a society that exploits your unhappiness, using it to try to sell you stuff: entertainment, drugs, distractions. These products, Pressfield asserts, suppress your restlessness for a time, but will not satisfy you. Revolt against the “tyranny of consumer culture” and face your discomfort head-on.
Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel pursuing it.Steven Pressfield
Do not wait for what feels like the right time to begin your creative endeavors. Even people who support you cannot do this work for you. The fight is yours alone.
Professionalism is the warrior code of creatives. According to Pressfield, professionalism means maintaining a singular focus on the work you must do – and all that work entails – and ignoring everything else. Professionals win the battle against Resistance through dogged persistence. They show up and do their work in the face of missing inspiration, fear, boredom or fatigue; their emotions, positive or negative do not turn them from their path. They understand, recognize and accept that their journey is a marathon, not a sprint.
Pressfield explains that professionals treat work as their vocation, not recreation. They go to work daily, rain or shine, and keep at it all day, year after year. They accept no excuses for not doing their work. They shun chaos because chaos keeps them from their work. They keep a tidy house, literally and metaphorically. Professionals specialize rather than trying to be their own lawyer, accountant or agent. They focus on technical mastery of their craft, not on inspiration or its sources. They strive to learn from others. Professionals work under the conditions they have been given; they do not expect or wait for a level or perfect playing field. Professionals work to get paid, with real-life success and failure on the line. Experiencing a painful failure proves that you are a professional.
The mind-set and practices of the professional are necessary because a life of creativity is, to put it simply, difficult. No creative is ever entirely unafraid.
The artist committing himself to his calling…will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt and humiliation.Steven Pressfield
As soldiers do, make peace with plodding on in the face of misery. Prepare to confront Resistance every day, perhaps in new, ever-changing guises.
In this section, Pressfield offers his most straightforward, practical advice. As hard-nosed as a drill sergeant, Pressfield presents a clear code of practice that also functions as a code of personal ethics. Here, his eccentric combination of warrior ethos and Jungian psychology combine most effectively.
Muses, Angels and the Self
Professionals do not define themselves by their work. They understand that taking your work or your talents too seriously can paralyze you.
Think of yourself as a corporation: a one-person business. You remain the artist, but also act as the manager who decides what the artist’s work will be. This healthy distance helps you avoid seeing rejection and setbacks as signs that the gods or Fate or luck have turned against you.
Embrace the “invisible psychic forces” that help you achieve your purpose. Your allies in your battle with Resistance – muses, angels and the Self – deliver inspiration from a higher sphere. Professionalism “invokes the Muse.” If you dislike the idea of God or angels or muses, regard them as impersonal forces akin to gravity.
Think of works of art – for example, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 – as already existing in the realm of the gods. These works do not take their full form, however, until a human artist brings them forth in this earthly realm. In Greek mythology, for example, the Muses are the nine sisters who inspire artists.
Let me bring forth if I can, for its own sake and not for what it can do for me or how it can advance my standing.Steven Pressfield
Angels partner with the Self in moving you forward as an artist. By committing to the work, you open yourself to angels’ assistance. You tap into a source of ideas, as your creations take shape. When you invoke the Muse, you acknowledge sources of creativity that exist outside yourself.
Unless you incline to his view, Pressfield’s insistence on framing the artist’s battle against Resistance in terms of God’s purpose may grow tiresome. If your beliefs fall along similar lines, however, you will likely find Pressfield’s assertions moving and significant. Happily for the atheists and agnostics among his readers, you don’t need to believe in a higher power to find Pressfield’s tough love advice helpful. Even at its most philosophical, there’s a hard-nosed practicality to his guidance: There’s little flowery romance in his take on creative pursuits. By the end of the book – or by the end of your project if you are in fact a creative – you will probably see the wisdom of his argument that, ultimately, the biggest thing standing in the way of producing creative work is yourself.