“The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield is one of those books that I find myself rereading over and over again. It’s a quick read but one packed with great highlights. It’s a commonly referenced book from those working in the creative space, and the reason behind this is because we all share the challenge of “Resistance,” as it is referred to in the book, whether we realize it or not.
When we pursue our bigger-than-ourselves goals, you’re sure to run into Resistance. Whether it’s doing a side passion project, starting a business, or other type of creative work, it’s rarely an easy process. Challenges will come up, and resilience is needed to push through.
The actual doing of creative work can be hard, but it’s not as difficult as the sitting down to do the work; that momentum to get started and fight through self-doubt to do the work you feel called to do; the work you’re deeply passionate about—Pressfield calls this Resistance. Listed below are my top five lessons from the book.
Lesson 1: Do The Thing that Scares You
“Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. […] The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”Steven Pressfield, The War of Art (p.40)
You’ve heard the saying, “If it were easy everyone would be doing it.” Sometimes fear gets in our way of doing the things we feel deeply called to do. If something meant nothing to us, there wouldn’t be any Resistance. To feel Resistance signals that it’s important to us.
Fear can look like self-doubt. Perhaps you have the “not enough” syndrome thinking…not good enough, not smart enough, not skilled enough, not connected enough, not financially secure enough, not worthy enough, etc. Imposter syndrome seems to be on an upward trend in society these days. Fight through it. You can get to the other side.
Fear can look like the comparison of others. You may think that the following of big dreams is for “other people” to do and that somehow you’re excluded from opportunity. Comparison is a dangerous trap to fall into. You need to remember that people like to portray their best selves online and that everyone has their hidden struggles. If you want a healthy comparison, look at how you’ve improved and grown from the past and take pride in that.
Fear can look like procrastination. It delays your progress. Just start doing. Do one step at a time toward your big goals, toward your great creative work that the world needs to see.
In summary, do it scared.
Lesson 2: Your Circles Will Change
“When a writer begins to overcome her Resistance—in other words, when she actually starts to write—she may find that those close to her begin acting strange.”Steven Pressfield, The War of Art (p.19)
It’s not comfortable to experience, but once you start pursuing big goals and doing meaningful work that you feel called to do people around you may change. The reality is that most people don’t do work they truly feel called to do deep within their soul. Because of this, some people may become envious of you. Consciously or unconsciously, these people are struggling with their own Resistance, and they’re frustrated that they themselves are not pursuing their big dreams like you. They may be thinking “If they’re pursuing big goals, why can’t I?”
I once heard someone describe how some people are like rocket boosters and enter your life for a season. They help lift you up, but then at some point they break off because they no longer can stay at the high level altitude you’re heading toward. Not everyone wants you reach the moon, and this is okay. You don’t need these people in your circles. Once you make your break, you can’t risk being be pulled back toward mediocre or lower standards just to make others feel more comfortable.
I love how Pressfield describes the response to those who envy you going after big goals. He says, “The best and only thing one artist can do for another is to serve as an example and an inspiration.”
You do you. Whether you know it or not, it’s inspiring someone out there too.
Lesson 3: Speak Encouragement
“Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others. If they speak at all, it is to offer encouragement.”Steven Pressfield, The War of Art (p.38)
Criticizing others whether directly or passively is almost always a sign of the person dealing with Resistance. It can stir envy to see others live their authentic life and them not, and criticism if often born from this comparison. What I love about this quote is that it looks at the flip side of criticism, and it’s one I personally love to do, which is to offer encouragement.
I admire many people who are far above my knowledge and skill levels and are living out their amazing creative work. What they do and pursue inspires me. They push me to keep pressing forward and grow, but they don’t criticize me about my pace. They provide me with constructive critiques and challenge my perspectives, but they don’t criticize me about my mistakes. More than anything, they offer encouragement. If I fall down, they help me learn lessons and encourage me to try again. People who only criticize in non-constructive ways are typically not people to admire in role model. I find that the most successful people in the world are encouragers, not criticizers.
However, the biggest voice of criticism is often from your own mind. Our minds have a funny way of being hard on ourselves. Don’t feed it. Offer yourself your own encouragement, and share it with others.
Lesson 4: Play Full-Time
“The amateur plays part-time, the professional full-time.”Steven Pressfield, The War of Art (p.63)
According to Pressfield, the amateur is on a weekend-base life style, and the professional is seven days a week. As he says, “The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time.”
This lesson can be misinterpreted as meaning to work 24/7 and 365 like a work horse, but it’s not about work hours or profession. It’s about loving your creative work so much that it becomes just part of your life style in a healthy way. You enjoy thinking about your creative work, growing with it, and being engaged with it.
In example, it’s very common for me to hear others tell me that I work too much. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution “work” is often defined as hours clocked in; but that’s not how I measure “full-time.” I do indeed work on many creative projects and engage with them in thought all the time, but it absolutely does not feel like work. There is a creativity always brewing within me that must be expressed out of me for my own wellbeing. It’s part of my life style and who I am. It’s a creative flow state that I cannot get rid of. This “full-time” experience is, as Pressfield calls it, when you turn Pro. You commit yourself to your “life’s work.”
At some point, you need to decide to commit to your creative calling. There’s a marker point here that defines who you were before turning Pro and after. Don’t live with regrets later in life. Turn Pro and show Resistance that you mean it.
Lesson 5: Be the Tortoise
“A professional, on the other hand, understands delayed gratification. He is the ant, not the grasshopper; the tortoise, not the hare.”Steven Pressfield, The War of Art (p.75)
Ever dive into a project with over-ambition and unrealistic timelines? (Raising my hand). Being ambitious is a good quality to have, but it too can cause burnout if you’re not careful. Resistance loves to see you crash and burn in order to gain evidence to tell you that you’re not [fill in the blank] enough. This is amateur.
The Pro, on the other hand, understands patience. They understand the story about the “Tortoise and the Hare” and that the tortoise wins by taking one small step at a time, conserving energy and having a balanced mindset. They don’t burn themselves out at both ends like the hare’s technique.
When you go Pro, you understand the investment you’re getting into and the time involved. You’re patient, and you know that the journey is ongoing but worth it at each step. Resistance wants you to rush, but don’t listen to it. Pace yourself.
There’s a reason why I read this book so many times. It’s because I’m constantly struggling with my own Resistance. I write this article here equally to share lessons with others but even more so to remind them to myself. Pursuing creative work is no walk in the park. It takes a lot of work, patience and grit.
Are you struggling with Resistance? I’m with you. We can fight through it.
The world needs your creativity, so let’s get to work.