The War of Art - by Steven Pressfield
This is one of the most recommended books by Tim Ferriss’ interviewees. The book blurb has a good summary of this book: A vital gem…a kick in the ass.
Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:
He undoubtedly wrote it for you too, but I know he did it expressly for me because I hold Olympic records for procrastination. I can procrastinate thinking about my procrastination problem. I can procrastinate dealing with my problem of procrastinating thinking about my procrastination problem. So Pressfield, that devil, asked me to write this foreword against a deadline, knowing that no matter how much I stalled, eventually I’d have to knuckle down and do the work. At the last possible hour I did, and as I leafed through Book One, “Defining the Enemy,” I saw myself staring back guilty-eyed from every page. But then Book Two gave me a battle plan; Book Three, a vision of victory; and as I closed The War of Art, I felt a surge of positive calm. I now know I can win this war. And if I can, so can you.
It’s called talent: the innate power to discover the hidden connection between two things—images, ideas, words—that no one else has ever seen before, link them, and create for the world a third, utterly unique work.
How many pages have I produced? I don’t care. Are they any good? I don’t even think about it. All that matters is I’ve put in my time and hit it with all I’ve got. All that counts is that, for this day, for this session, I have overcome Resistance.
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.
Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.
Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.
Every sun casts a shadow, and genius’s shadow is Resistance.
How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumors and neuroses, succumbed to painkillers, gossip, and compulsive cell-phone use, simply because we don’t do that thing that our hearts, our inner genius, is calling us to? Resistance defeats us. If tomorrow morning by some stroke of magic every dazed and benighted soul woke up with the power to take the first step toward pursuing his or her dreams, every shrink in the directory would be out of business. Prisons would stand empty. The alcohol and tobacco industries would collapse, along with the junk food, cosmetic surgery, and infotainment businesses, not to mention pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and the medical profession from top to bottom. Domestic abuse would become extinct, as would addiction, obesity, migraine headaches, road rage, and dandruff.
You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas. [He does have paintings, though not very famous: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paintings_by_Adolf_Hitler]
The enemy is a very good teacher.—the Dalai Lama
In other words, any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity. Or, expressed another way, any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower. Any of these will elicit Resistance.
Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.
Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves. We locate it in spouses, jobs, bosses, kids. “Peripheral opponents,” as Pat Riley used to say when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers. Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.
RESISTANCE IS INSIDIOUS Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is protean. It will assume any form, if that’s what it takes to deceive you. It will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man. Resistance has no conscience. It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned. If you take Resistance at its word, you deserve everything you get. Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.
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.
RESISTANCE NEVER SLEEPS Henry Fonda was still throwing up before each stage performance, even when he was seventy-five. In other words, 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.
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.
The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got.
Resistance by definition is self-sabotage. But there’s a parallel peril that must also be guarded against: sabotage by others.
The reason is that they are struggling, consciously or unconsciously, against their own Resistance. The awakening writer’s success becomes a reproach to them. If she can beat these demons, why can’t they?
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.”
The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit. We don’t just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed. Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second, we can turn the tables on Resistance. This second, we can sit down and do our work.
RESISTANCE AND SEX Sometimes Resistance takes the form of sex, or an obsessive preoccupation with sex. Why sex? Because sex provides immediate and powerful gratification. When someone sleeps with us, we feel validated and approved of, even loved. Resistance gets a big kick out of that. It knows it has distracted us with a cheap, easy fix and kept us from doing our work. Of course not all sex is a manifestation of Resistance. In my experience, you can tell by the measure of hollowness you feel afterward. The more empty you feel, the more certain you can be that your true motivation was not love or even lust but Resistance. It goes without saying that this principle applies to drugs, shopping, masturbation, TV, gossip, alcohol, and the consumption of all products containing fat, sugar, salt, or chocolate.
RESISTANCE AND TROUBLE We get ourselves in trouble because it’s a cheap way to get attention. Trouble is a faux form of fame. It’s easier to get busted in the bedroom with the faculty chairman’s wife than it is to finish that dissertation on the metaphysics of motley in the novellas of Joseph Conrad. Ill health is a form of trouble, as are alcoholism and drug addiction, proneness to accidents, all neurosis including compulsive screwing-up, and such seemingly benign foibles as jealousy, chronic lateness, and the blasting of rap music at 110 dB from your smoked-glass ’95 Supra. Anything that draws attention to ourselves through pain-free or artificial means is a manifestation of Resistance. Cruelty to others is a form of Resistance, as is the willing endurance of cruelty from others. The working artist will not tolerate trouble in her life because she knows trouble prevents her from doing her work. The working artist banishes from her world all sources of trouble. She harnesses the urge for trouble and transforms it in her work.
RESISTANCE AND SELF-DRAMATIZATION Creating soap opera in our lives is a symptom of Resistance. Why put in years of work designing a new software interface when you can get just as much attention by bringing home a boyfriend with a prison record? Sometimes entire families participate unconsciously in a culture of self-dramatization. The kids fuel the tanks, the grown-ups arm the phasers, the whole starship lurches from one spine-tingling episode to another. And the crew knows how to keep it going. If the level of drama drops below a certain threshold, someone jumps in to amp it up. Dad gets drunk, Mom gets sick, Janie shows up for church with an Oakland Raiders tattoo. It’s more fun than a movie. And it works: Nobody gets a damn thing done. Sometimes I think of Resistance as a sort of evil twin to Santa Claus, who makes his rounds house-to-house, making sure that everything’s taken care of. When he comes to a house that’s hooked on self-dramatization, his ruddy cheeks glow and he giddy-ups away behind his eight tiny reindeer. He knows there’ll be no work done in that house.
RESISTANCE AND SELF-MEDICATION Do you regularly ingest any substance, controlled or otherwise, whose aim is the alleviation of depression, anxiety, etc.? I offer the following experience: I once worked as a writer for a big New York ad agency. Our boss used to tell us: Invent a disease. Come up with the disease, he said, and we can sell the cure. Attention Deficit Disorder, Seasonal Affect Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder. These aren’t diseases, they’re marketing ploys. Doctors didn’t discover them, copywriters did. Marketing departments did. Drug companies did. Depression and anxiety may be real. But they can also be Resistance. When we drug ourselves to blot out our soul’s call, we are being good Americans and exemplary consumers. We’re doing exactly what TV commercials and pop materialist culture have been brainwashing us to do from birth. Instead of applying self-knowledge, self-discipline, delayed gratification and hard work, we simply consume a product.
RESISTANCE AND VICTIMHOOD Doctors estimate that seventy to eighty percent of their business is non-health-related. People aren’t sick, they’re self-dramatizing. Sometimes the hardest part of a medical job is keeping a straight face. As Jerry Seinfeld observed of his twenty years of dating: “That’s a lot of acting fascinated.” The acquisition of a condition lends significance to one’s existence. An illness, a cross to bear. Some people go from condition to condition; they cure one, and another pops up to take its place. The condition becomes a work of art in itself, a shadow version of the real creative act the victim is avoiding by expending so much care cultivating his condition. A victim act is a form of passive aggression. It seeks to achieve gratification not by honest work or a contribution made out of one’s experience or insight or love, but by the manipulation of others through silent (and not-so-silent) threat. The victim compels others to come to his rescue or to behave as he wishes by holding them hostage to the prospect of his own further illness/meltdown/mental dissolution, or simply by threatening to make their lives so miserable that they do what he wants. Casting yourself as a victim is the antithesis of doing your work. Don’t do it. If you’re doing it, stop.
Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable. At this point vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web surfing. Beyond that, Resistance becomes clinical. Depression, aggression, dysfunction. Then actual crime and physical self-destruction. Sounds like life, I know. It isn’t. It’s Resistance.
What makes it tricky is that we live in a consumer culture that’s acutely aware of this unhappiness and has massed all its profit-seeking artillery to exploit it. By selling us a product, a drug, a distraction.
As artists and professionals it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls. In this uprising we free ourselves from the tyranny of consumer culture. We overthrow the programming of advertising, movies, video games, magazines, TV, and MTV by which we have been hypnotized from the cradle. We unplug ourselves from the grid by recognizing that we will never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing our work.
The artist and the fundamentalist both confront the same issue, the mystery of their existence as individuals. Each asks the same questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life? At more primitive stages of evolution, humanity didn’t have to deal with such questions. In the states of savagery, of barbarism, in nomadic culture, medieval society, in the tribe and the clan, one’s position was fixed by the commandments of the community. It was only with the advent of modernity (starting with the ancient Greeks), with the birth of freedom and of the individual, that such matters ascended to the fore. These are not easy questions. Who am I? Why am I here? They’re not easy because the human being isn’t wired to function as an individual. We’re wired tribally, to act as part of a group. Our psyches are programmed by millions of years of hunter-gatherer evolution. We know what the clan is; we know how to fit into the band and the tribe. What we don’t know is how to be alone. We don’t know how to be free individuals.
It may be that the human race is not ready for freedom. The air of liberty may be too rarefied for us to breathe. Certainly I wouldn’t be writing this book, on this subject, if living with freedom were easy. The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.
If you find yourself criticizing other people, you’re probably doing it out of Resistance. When we see others beginning to live their authentic selves, it drives us crazy if we have not lived out our own. Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others. If they speak at all, it is to offer encouragement.
Self-doubt can be an ally. This is because it serves as an indicator of aspiration. It reflects love, love of something we dream of doing, and desire, desire to do it. 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.
Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.
“What factors make you decide to take a particular role?” The actor always answers: “Because I’m afraid of it.”
The professional tackles the project that will make him stretch. He takes on the assignment that will bear him into uncharted waters, compel him to explore unconscious parts of himself. Is he scared? Hell, yes. He’s petrified. (Conversely, the professional turns down roles that he’s done before. He’s not afraid of them anymore. Why waste his time?)
Resistance is directly proportional to love. If you’re feeling massive Resistance, the good news is, it means there’s tremendous love there too. If you didn’t love the project that is terrifying you, you wouldn’t feel anything. The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference. The more Resistance you experience, the more important your unmanifested art/project/enterprise is to you—and the more gratification you will feel when you finally do it.
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.
It is a commonplace among artists and children at play that they’re not aware of time or solitude while they’re chasing their vision. The hours fly.
Friends sometimes ask, “Don’t you get lonely sitting by yourself all day?” At first it seemed odd to hear myself answer No. Then I realized that I was not alone; I was in the book; I was with the characters. I was with my Self.
Even in a book like this, which has no characters, I don’t feel alone because I’m imagining the reader, whom I conjure as an aspiring artist much like my own younger, less grizzled self, to whom I hope to impart a little starch and inspiration and prime, a little, with some hard-knocks wisdom and a few tricks of the trade.
What are we trying to heal, anyway? The athlete knows the day will never come when he wakes up pain-free. He has to play hurt.
What counted was that I had, after years of running from it, actually sat down and done my work.
Resistance loves “healing.” Resistance knows that the more psychic energy we expend dredging and re-dredging the tired, boring injustices of our personal lives, the less juice we have to do our work.
Have you ever been to a workshop? These boondoggles are colleges of Resistance. They ought to give out Ph.D.’s in Resistance. What better way of avoiding work than going to a workshop? But what I hate even worse is the word support. Seeking support from friends and family is like having your people gathered around at your deathbed. It’s nice, but when the ship sails, all they can do is stand on the dock waving goodbye.
Rationalization 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.
But rationalization has its own sidekick. It’s that part of our psyche that actually believes what rationalization tells us. It’s one thing to lie to ourselves. It’s another thing to believe it.
Resistance presents us with a series of plausible, rational justifications for why we shouldn’t do our work.
What Resistance leaves out, of course, is that all this means diddly. Tolstoy had thirteen kids and wrote War and Peace. Lance Armstrong had cancer and won the Tour de France three years and counting. [The book was written in 2002 when Lance Armstrong was yet to be busted. Lance had the first champion in 1999. It’s the same year that I made a serious effort to work on my college entrance exams.]
Defeating Resistance is like giving birth. It seems absolutely impossible until you remember that women have been pulling it off successfully, with support and without, for fifty million years.
The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps. To the amateur, the game is his avocation. To the pro it’s his vocation. The amateur plays part-time, the professional full-time. The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week.
The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning “to love.” 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.
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 o’clock sharp.” That’s a pro. In terms of Resistance, Maugham was saying, “I despise Resistance; I will not let it faze me; I will sit down and do my work.” Maugham reckoned another, deeper truth: that by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had synchronized her watch with his. He knew if he built it, she would come.
I wake up with a gnawing sensation of dissatisfaction. Already I feel fear. Already the loved ones around me are starting to fade. I interact. I’m present. But I’m not. I’m not thinking about the work. I’ve already consigned that to the Muse. What I am aware of is Resistance. I feel it in my guts. I afford it the utmost respect, because I know it can defeat me on any given day as easily as the need for a drink can overcome an alcoholic I go through the chores, the correspondence, the obligations of daily life. Again I’m there but not really. The clock is running in my head; I know I can indulge in daily crap for a little while, but I must cut it off when the bell rings. I’m keenly aware of the Principle of Priority, which states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first. What’s important is the work. That’s the game I have to suit up for. That’s the field on which I have to leave everything I’ve got. Do I really believe that my work is crucial to the planet’s survival? Of course not. But it’s as important to me as catching that mouse is to the hawk
The hill is a sonofabitch but what can you do? Set one foot in front of another and keep climbing.
The years have taught me one skill: how to be miserable.
I’ve earned my keep on the planet, at least for this day.
I go to sleep content, but my final thought is of Resistance. I will wake up with it tomorrow. Already I am steeling myself. [I remember that I used to steel (mentally prepare to do something difficult) when I was preparing for college entrance exam.]
The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.
He has to love being miserable. He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or jet jockey. Because this is war, baby. And war is hell.
We work for money. We are professionals.
What exactly are the qualities that define us as professionals? 1) We show up every day. We might do it only because we have to, to keep from getting fired. But we do it. We show up every day. 2) We show up no matter what. In sickness and in health, come hell or high water, we stagger in to the factory. We might do it only so as not to let down our co-workers, or for other, less noble reasons. But we do it. We show up no matter what. 3) We stay on the job all day. Our minds may wander, but our bodies remain at the wheel. We pick up the phone when it rings, we assist the customer when he seeks our help. We don’t go home till the whistle blows. 4) We are committed over the long haul. Next year we may go to another job, another company, another country. But we’ll still be working. Until we hit the lottery, we are part of the labor force. 5) The stakes for us are high and real. This is about survival, feeding our families, educating our children. It’s about eating. 6) We accept remuneration for our labor. We’re not here for fun. We work for money. 7) We do not overidentify with our jobs. We may take pride in our work, we may stay late and come in on weekends, but we recognize that we are not our job descriptions. The amateur, on the other hand, overidentifies with his avocation, his artistic aspiration. He defines himself by it. He is a musician, a painter, a playwright. Resistance loves this. Resistance knows that the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and overterrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him. 8) We master the technique of our jobs. 9) We have a sense of humor about our jobs. 10) We receive praise or blame in the real world.
Now consider the amateur: the aspiring painter, the wannabe playwright. How does he pursue his calling? One, he doesn’t show up every day. Two, he doesn’t show up no matter what. Three, he doesn’t stay on the job all day. He is not committed over the long haul; the stakes for him are illusory and fake. He does not get money. And he overidentifies with his art. He does not have a sense of humor about failure. You don’t hear him bitching, “This fucking trilogy is killing me!” Instead, he doesn’t write his trilogy at all.
The amateur has not mastered the technique of his art. Nor does he expose himself to judgment in the real world.
I was crushed. Here I was, forty-two years old, divorced, childless, having given up all normal human pursuits to chase the dream of being a writer; now I’ve finally got my name on a big-time Hollywood production starring Linda Hamilton, and what happens? I’m a loser, a phony; my life is worthless, and so am I. My friend Tony Keppelman snapped me out of it by asking if I was gonna quit. Hell, no! “Then be happy. You’re where you wanted to be, aren’t you? So you’re taking a few blows. That’s the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines. Stop complaining and be grateful.” That was when I realized I had become a pro. I had not yet had a success. But I had had a real failure.
To clarify a point about professionalism: The professional, though he accepts money, does his work out of love. He has to love it. Otherwise he wouldn’t devote his life to it of his own free will. The professional has learned, however, that too much love can be a bad thing. Too much love can make him choke. The seeming detachment of the professional, the cold-blooded character to his demeanor, is a compensating device to keep him from loving the game so much that he freezes in action. Playing for money, or adopting the attitude of one who plays for money, lowers the fever.
The payoff of playing-the-game-for-money is not the money (which you may never see anyway, even after you turn pro). The payoff is that playing the game for money produces the proper professional attitude. It inculcates the lunch-pail mentality, the hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind that shows up for work despite rain or snow or dark of night and slugs it out day after day.
To the gods the supreme sin is not rape or murder, but pride. To think of yourself as a mercenary, a gun for hire, implants the proper humility. It purges pride and preciousness. [That’s how Tony Leung approach different roles he played]
Resistance loves pride and preciousness.
Technically, the professional takes money. Technically, the pro plays for pay. But in the end, he does it for love.
Resistance outwits the amateur with the oldest trick in the book: It uses his own enthusiasm against him. Resistance gets us to plunge into a project with an overambitious and unrealistic timetable for its completion. It knows we can’t sustain that level of intensity. We will hit the wall. We will crash.
The professional arms himself with patience, not only to give the stars time to align in his career, but to keep himself from flaming out in each individual work. He knows that any job, whether it’s a novel or a kitchen remodel, takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much. He accepts that. He recognizes it as reality.
A pro views her work as craft, not art. Not because she believes art is devoid of a mystical dimension. On the contrary. She understands that all creative endeavor is holy, but she doesn’t dwell on it. She knows if she thinks about that too much, it will paralyze her. So she concentrates on technique. The professional masters how, and leaves what and why to the gods. Like Somerset Maugham she doesn’t wait for inspiration, she acts in the anticipation of its apparition. [It is similar to how Zhang Yimou approaches moving making as his craft]
The sign of the amateur is overglorification of and preoccupation with the mystery. The professional shuts up. She doesn’t talk about it. She does her work.
The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome. He knows there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist.
A PROFESSIONAL ACCEPTS NO EXCUSES The amateur, underestimating Resistance’s cunning, permits the flu to keep him from his chapters; he believes the serpent’s voice in his head that says mailing off that manuscript is more important than doing the day’s work. The professional has learned better. He respects Resistance. He knows if he caves in today, no matter how plausible the pretext, he’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow. The professional knows that Resistance is like a telemarketer; if you so much as say hello, you’re finished. The pro doesn’t even pick up the phone. He stays at work.
The professional conducts his business in the real world. Adversity, injustice, bad hops and rotten calls, even good breaks and lucky bounces all comprise the ground over which the campaign must be waged. The field is level, the professional understands, only in heaven.
He is prepared, each day, to confront his own self-sabotage. The professional understands that Resistance is fertile and ingenious. It will throw stuff at him that he’s never seen before.
His goal is not victory (success will come by itself when it wants to) but to handle himself, his insides, as sturdily and steadily as he can.
Tiger Woods is the consummate professional. It would never occur to him, as it would to an amateur, that he knows everything, or can figure everything out on his own. On the contrary, he seeks out the most knowledgeable teacher and listens with both ears.
The pro stands at one remove from her instrument—meaning her person, her body, her voice, her talent; the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological being she uses in her work. She does not identify with this instrument. It is simply what God gave her, what she has to work with. She assesses it coolly, impersonally, objectively. The professional identifies with her consciousness and her will, not with the matter that her consciousness and will manipulate to serve her art.
Madonna does not identify with “Madonna.” Madonna employs “Madonna.”
A PROFESSIONAL DOES NOT TAKE FAILURE (OR SUCCESS) PERSONALLY
When people say an artist has a thick skin, what they mean is not that the person is dense or numb, but that he has seated his professional consciousness in a place other than his personal ego.
It uses fear of rejection to paralyze us and prevent us, if not from doing our work, then from exposing it to public evaluation.
Editors are not the enemy; critics are not the enemy. Resistance is the enemy. The battle is inside our own heads. We cannot let external criticism, even if it’s true, fortify our internal foe. That foe is strong enough already.
A professional schools herself to stand apart from her performance, even as she gives herself to it heart and soul. The Bhagavad-Gita tells us we have a right only to our labor, not to the fruits of our labor. All the warrior can give is his life; all the athlete can do is leave everything on the field.
The professional loves her work. She is invested in it wholeheartedly. But she does not forget that the work is not her.
The professional gives an ear to criticism, seeking to learn and grow. But she never forgets that Resistance is using criticism against her on a far more diabolical level.
I’m human. This hurt. I wasn’t a kid either; I was in my forties, with a rap sheet of failure as long as your arm. The professional cannot let himself take humiliation personally. Humiliation, like rejection and criticism, is the external reflection of internal Resistance.
The professional endures adversity. He lets the birdshit splash down on his slicker, remembering that it comes clean with a heavy-duty hosing. He himself, his creative center, cannot be buried, even beneath a mountain of guano. His core is bulletproof. Nothing can touch it unless he lets it.
DUES PD [paid]
An amateur lets the negative opinion of others unman him. He takes external criticism to heart, allowing it to trump his own belief in himself and his work. Resistance loves this.
First, he didn’t react reflexively. He didn’t allow an act that by all rights should have provoked an automatic response of rage to actually produce that rage. He controlled his reaction. He governed his emotion. Second, he didn’t take it personally. He could have perceived this shutterbug’s act as a deliberate blow aimed at him individually, with the intention of throwing him off his shot. He could have reacted with outrage or indignation or cast himself as a victim. He didn’t. Third, he didn’t take it as a sign of heaven’s malevolence. He could have experienced this bolt as the malice of the golfing gods, like a bad hop in baseball or a linesman’s miscall in tennis. He could have groaned or sulked or surrendered mentally to this injustice, this interference, and used it as an excuse to fail. He didn’t.
Nothing stood in his way except whatever emotional upset he himself chose to hold on to.
The professional cannot allow the actions of others to define his reality. Tomorrow morning the critic will be gone, but the writer will still be there facing the blank page.
Remember, Resistance wants us to cede sovereignty to others. It wants us to stake our self-worth, our identity, our reason-for-being, on the response of others to our work. Resistance knows we can’t take this. No one can.
I like the idea of being Myself, Inc. That way I can wear two hats. I can hire myself and fire myself.
Making yourself a corporation (or just thinking of yourself in that way) reinforces the idea of professionalism because it separates the artist-doing-the-work from the will-and-consciousness-running-the-show. [It reminds me of the time I must be fair to myself: I feel agitated when I choose to stray. It’s like the punishment I got when I did not work.]
I have one of those meetings with myself every Monday. I sit down and go over my assignments. Then I type it up and distribute it to myself.
If we think of ourselves as a corporation, it gives us a healthy distance on ourselves. We’re less subjective. We don’t take blows as personally. We’re more cold-blooded; we can price our wares more realistically.
Resistance has no strength of its own; its power derives entirely from our fear of it.
The essence of professionalism is the focus upon the work and its demands, while we are doing it, to the exclusion of all else.
The pro keeps coming on. He beats Resistance at its own game by being even more resolute and even more implacable than it is.
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.
Because the most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.
When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.
I do the same thing. The last thing I do before I sit down to work is say my prayer to the Muse. I say it out loud, in absolute earnest. Only then do I get down to business.
I had gone there to finish a novel or kill myself trying.
I had one novel nine-tenths of the way through and another at ninety-nine hundredths before I threw them in the trash. I couldn’t finish ’em. I didn’t have the guts. In yielding thusly to Resistance, I fell prey to every vice, evil, distraction, you-name-it mentioned heretofore,
the merest puff would blow it to powder.
I had missed Watergate completely. I was determined to keep working. I had failed so many times, and caused myself and people I loved so much pain thereby, that I felt if I crapped out this time I would have to hang myself.
The closer I got, the more different ways I’d find to screw it up.
But that moment when I first hit the keys to spell out THE END was epochal.
Nobody knew I was done. Nobody cared. But I knew. I felt like a dragon I’d been fighting all my life had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out its last sulfuric breath.
“Good for you,” he said without looking up. “Start the next one today.”
The Muses were nine sisters,
The timeless communicating to the timebound.
It needed someone. It needed a corporeal being, a human, an artist (or more precisely a genius, in the Latin sense of “soul” or “animating spirit”) to bring it into being on this material plane. So the Muse whispered in Beethoven’s ear. Maybe she hummed a few bars into a million other ears. But no one else heard her. Only Beethoven got it.
Artists have invoked the Muse since time immemorial.
“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now.”
We’re too distracted by our own nonsense.
I know that as my surface mind empties with the walk, another part of me will chime in and start talking.
Chaos itself is self-organizing. Out of primordial disorder, stars find their orbits; rivers make their way to the sea.
This is why artists are modest. They know they’re not doing the work; they’re just taking dictation.
The moment a person learns he’s got terminal cancer, a profound shift takes place in his psyche. At one stroke in the doctor’s office he becomes aware of what really matters to him. Things that sixty seconds earlier had seemed all-important suddenly appear meaningless, while people and concerns that he had till then dismissed at once take on supreme importance.
Maybe it isn’t so crucial that he have the last word in the fight with his wife.
I think angels make their home in the Self, while Resistance has its seat in the Ego.
The Self wishes to create, to evolve. The Ego likes things just the way they are.
Here’s what the Ego believes: 1) Death is real. The Ego believes that our existence is defined by our physical flesh. When the body dies, we die. There is no life beyond life. 2) Time and space are real. The Ego is analog. It believes that to get from A to Z we have to pass through B, C, and D. To get from breakfast to supper we have to live the whole day. 3) Every individual is different and separate from every other. The Ego believes that I am distinct from you. The twain cannot meet. I can hurt you and it won’t hurt me. 4) The predominant impulse of life is self-preservation. Because our existence is physical and thus vulnerable to innumerable evils, we live and act out of fear in all we do. It is wise, the Ego believes, to have children to carry on our line when we die, to achieve great things that will live after us, and to buckle our seat belts. 5) There is no God. No sphere exists except the physical and no rules apply except those of the material world.
Here’s what the Self believes: 1) Death is an illusion. The soul endures and evolves through infinite manifestations. 2) Time and space are illusions. Time and space operate only in the physical sphere, and even here, don’t apply to dreams, visions, transports. In other dimensions we move “swift as thought” and inhabit multiple planes simultaneously. 3) All beings are one. If I hurt you, I hurt myself. 4) The supreme emotion is love. Union and mutual assistance are the imperatives of life. We are all in this together. 5) God is all there is. Everything that is, is God in one form or another. God, the divine ground, is that in which we live and move and have our being. Infinite planes of reality exist, all created by, sustained by and infused by the spirit of God.
The Ego doesn’t want us to evolve. The Ego runs the show right now. It likes things just the way they are.
Resistance feeds on fear. We experience Resistance as fear.
Fear of throwing away the education, the training, the preparation that those we love have sacrificed so much for, that we ourselves have worked our butts off for. Fear of launching into the void, of hurtling too far out there; fear of passing some point of no return, beyond which we cannot recant, cannot reverse, cannot rescind, but must live with this cocked-up choice for the rest of our lives. Fear of madness. Fear of insanity. Fear of death. These are serious fears. But they’re not the real fear. Not the Master Fear, the Mother of all Fears that’s so close to us that even when we verbalize it we don’t believe it. Fear That We Will Succeed.
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.
School, advertising, the entire materialist culture drills us from birth to define ourselves by others’ opinions. Drink this beer, get this job, look this way and everyone will love you.
The individual in multitudes this vast feels overwhelmed, anonymous. He is submerged in the mass. He’s lost.
An individual who defines himself by his place in a pecking order will: 1) Compete against all others in the order, seeking to elevate his station by advancing against those above him, while defending his place against those beneath. 2) Evaluate his happiness/success/achievement by his rank within the hierarchy, feeling most satisfied when he’s high and most miserable when he’s low. 3) Act toward others based upon their rank in the hierarchy, to the exclusion of all other factors. 4) Evaluate his every move solely by the effect it produces on others. He will act for others, dress for others, speak for others, think for others.
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.
In the hierarchy, the artist faces outward. Meeting someone new he asks himself, What can this person do for me? How can this person advance my standing? In the hierarchy, the artist looks up and looks down. The one place he can’t look is that place he must: within.
I learned this from Robert McKee. A hack, he says, is a writer who second-guesses his audience. When the hack sits down to work, he doesn’t ask himself what’s in his own heart. He asks what the market is looking for. The hack condescends to his audience. He thinks he’s superior to them. The truth is, he’s scared to death of them or, more accurately, scared of being authentic in front of them, scared of writing what he really feels or believes, what he himself thinks is interesting. He’s afraid it won’t sell. So he tries to anticipate what the market (a telling word) wants, then gives it to them.
In other words, the hack writes hierarchically. He writes what he imagines will play well in the eyes of others. He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write? What do I think is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot, what can I make a deal for?
But even if you succeed, you lose, because you’ve sold out your Muse, and your Muse is you, the best part of yourself, where your finest and only true work comes from.
I trusted what I wanted, not what I thought would work. I did what I myself thought was interesting, and left its reception to the gods.
The artist can’t do his work hierarchically. He has to work territorially.
We humans have territories too. Ours are psychological. Stevie Wonder’s territory is the piano. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s is the gym. When Bill Gates pulls into the parking lot at Microsoft, he’s on his territory. When I sit down to write, I’m on mine. What are the qualities of a territory? 1) A 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 helluva lot better than the tired, cranky person who dove into the pool thirty minutes earlier. 2) A territory sustains us without any external input. A territory is a closed feedback loop. Our role is to put in effort and love; the territory absorbs this and gives it back to us in the form of well-being. When experts tell us that exercise (or any other effort-requiring activity) banishes depression, this is what they mean. 3) A territory can only be claimed alone. You can team with a partner, you can work out with a friend, but you only need yourself to soak up your territory’s juice. 4) A 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. A territory doesn’t give, it gives back. 5) A territory returns exactly what you put in. Territories are fair. Every erg of energy you put in goes infallibly into your account. A territory never devalues. A territory never crashes. What you deposited, you get back, dollar-for-dollar.
The act of creation is by definition territorial. As the mother-to-be bears her child within her, so the artist or innovator contains her new life. No one can help her give it birth. But neither does she need any help.
She knows it came out of her but not from her, through her but not of her.
Instead let’s ask ourselves like that new mother: What do I feel growing inside me? Let me bring that forth, if I can, for its own sake and not for what it can do for me or how it can advance my standing.
What would Arnold Schwarzenegger do on a freaky day? He wouldn’t phone his buddies; he’d head for the gym. He wouldn’t care if the place was empty, if he didn’t say a word to a soul. He knows that working out, all by itself, is enough to bring him back to his center.
Here’s another test. 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 sustenance they get comes from the act itself, not from the impression it makes on others.
We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.
They may, some of them, conduct themselves flamboyantly in public. But alone with the work they are chaste and humble. They know they are not the source of the creations they bring into being. They only facilitate. They carry.
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.