Steven Pressfield's 'The War of Art'

The War Of Art

If you’ve ever started a new year in a slight state of shock that you’re still in a job you don’t enjoy, berated yourself for not doing more to change your career, or decided to ‘just do it tomorrow’, there are few pieces of writing as valuable for you as Pressfield’s ‘The War of Art’.

"There never was a moment, and there never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny.”

Part of the reason I’m so passionate about career change is because I believe that the search for a career you love is a part of a greater commitment – a commitment to the creation of a life you love. And designing your life is a creative process. The nature of creativity and the process of creation is the same across the board, whether you’re painting a picture, starting a business, or building a new path to follow in life.

When we actively choose the course and content of our lives, we’re taking on the role of artist – and it’s this concept that makes ‘The War Of Art’ so piercingly relevant to career change. Steven Pressfield (screenplay writer and author) examines the concept of Resistance; the single, unavoidable blockage in the practice of creation:

“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 takes infinite forms – procrastination, deliberation, fear, uncertainty, self-doubt – and is present in every moment of the artist’s working life. As artists and creators, it is our ultimate opponent.

Pressfield’s fundamental message is that if you decide you’re going to create something, there is nothing more to be said or done. Commit to it, and get to work. Everything else is simply noise. Resistance. And it is not to be tolerated.

There are three sections to ‘The War of Art’. The first two are grounded in prsonal anecdotes from Pressfield's life, and piercing descriptions of his topics. Th third section takes on a more spiritual slant, and this is where Pressfield loses many of his readers. With mention of angels, gods and Muses, it won’t be engaging reading for everyone. But if you’re inspired by the idea of forces beyond what we can see, or you have the mental flexibility to replace these titles with words or ideas of your own, this shouldn’t be a problem.

A short read at 190 pages and split into three sections (Resistance, Combating Resistance, and Beyond Resistance), each chapter of 'The War of Art' echoes the work that inspired its title with its brevity and Zen-like simplicity. A page of contents featuring headings such as: ‘Resistance and Criticism’, ‘We’re All Pros Already’ and ‘Invoking The Muse’ is followed by short, punchy chapters, each communicating a single message or idea.  It would be a beautiful book to dip in and out of, but I was unable to put it down.

Beautifully written, wonderfully constructed, and just controversial enough to tickle my tastebuds, it’s both battlecry and healing balm.

Our Top Takeaways

Tackle your art (or your career change) as a professional

Pressfield makes a clear distinction between an amateur and a professional. Rather than the difference being financial, as we traditionally imagine it to be, he says that the difference lies in their habits. A professional is one who tackles Resistance on a daily basis in the act of getting their work done. They show up every day to do the work.

“Someone once asked Somerset Maugham 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 sharp.’

That’s a pro.”

So how do you become a professional? You show up, and you do the work.

“There’s no mystery to turning pro. It’s a decision brought about by an act of will. We make up our minds to view ourselves as pros and we do it. Simple as that.”

Stop questioning, start doing

Thinking, wondering, procrastinating, self-doubt… they’re all manifestations of Resistance, and they do nothing to move you forward. What moves you forward is showing up, and doing the work. Just do the work:

“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.

Do it or don't do it.”

Beware of Rationalisation

Once you’ve committed to something, there is no reason on earth for you not to show up, do the work, and follow through. Day-to-day life can seem like something that gets in the way; our finances, our relationships, our spare time or lack thereof. And we can develop very logical-sounding arguments to back up our decisions to break our commitment to creation. But all they are is Resistance:

“Rationalisation is Resistance’s right-hand man. Its job is to keep us from feeling the shame we would feel if we truly faced what cowards we are for not doing our work…

What’s particularly insidious about rationalisations is that a lot of them are true. They’re legitimate. Our wife may really be in her eighth month of pregnancy…our department may really be instituting a changeover that will eat up hours of our time…

What Resistance leaves out, of course, is that all this means diddly squat. Tolstoy had thirteen kids and wrote War and Peace.”

Realise that if you’re feeling Resistance, you’re on the right track

We feel Resistance when we’re doing something that matters to us – something that moves us forward and up in the world.

While this is frustrating and presents us with a daily battle to overcome in the process of growth, it can also act as a profound guiding force. Desperate to leave your job and do something you love, but can’t stop putting your search off until tomorrow? It’s not because you’re busy. It’s because it matters to you. It’s Resistance.

“Resistance is directly proportional to love. If you’re feeling massive Resistance, the good news is, it means there’s tremendous love there too.”

Get well acquainted with fear – it’s going to be around for a long time

Pressfield makes it wildly clear that fear is not an emotion to be overcome. It’s Resistance in its most fundamental form, and getting comfortable with the fact that it’s not going to go away is one of the most powerful lessons that an artist can learn.

“Fear doesn't go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.”

In fact, the greatest artists and creators are virtually defined by fear. If you’re not feeling it, there’s something else going on:

“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.”