The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The War of Art Book Cover


If you write or create, read this book. Pressfield names the killer of creative dreams: Resistance. He describes the many forms it takes and outlines a plan to overcome it. If you have creative dreams, Pressfield will prepare and inspire you for the war ahead.

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Key Takeaways

The dream killer: resistance

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands 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.”

Pressfield identifies “resistance” as the primary force preventing us from unlocking the unlived, creative, and fulfilling life within all of us. Resistance comes in many forms and will strike at inopportune times, and if you want to realize your dreams, you need to learn how it manifests for you and how to move through it.

I think about resistance frequently in my work. Perhaps I don’t want to sit down to write, or I think I’m too busy to do something, but it’s often just something I need to move through. As a professional and a writer, half the battle is sitting down to actually write.

Self-discipline creates freedom

“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.”

Discipline creates freedom. If you’re a creative with all day to create, you need to develop extreme self-discipline to make that freedom meaningful. You need to learn to overcome resistance, do the work required to make the path stable, and create pillows to land on when you fall.

This path is much more challenging than having a stable, structured environment with less “freedom,” but more of the hard work taken care of for you by someone, perhaps a company, to help guide how you spend your time. Although we all believe we want more freedom, choose your path carefully.

Amateurs vs. professionals

“The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”

If you’re on a creative pursuit that requires innovation, you know that your success is not determined by a simple input/output equation. At best, you can work hard on the things you find meaningful and hope that it eventually works out. There is no clear or set path.

“Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”

Whether you want to write a book, explore your musical talents, or take a leap into some desire that’s been burning inside, you’re going to confront fear or self-doubt in some capacity. That’s okay. You can use this fear and self-doubt as fuel. Remember that these feelings are a signal that you’re doing something meaningful. If you succeed, the rewards will be sweeter than ever.

“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.”

With creative work, you cannot predict the outcome. You can keep doing the best work you know how to do, and whether or not the rewards come, you keep going. Eventually, you’ll get good enough or catch a break that will get you closer to the success you’re looking for.

“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.”

Creative pursuits are challenging, isolating, and riddled with self-doubt. The daily ups and downs aren’t for most people, but if you can stomach them and learn to better relate to your emotions, you can find the strength and courage to keep going.

“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.”

While you can learn to better relate to and accept your fears, they won’t go away. Fear is an emotional response that you don’t “overcome.” You simply learn to channel it and accept that it comes with the pursuit at hand.

“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. Nothing matters but that he keep working. Short of a family crisis or the outbreak of World War III, the professional shows up, ready to serve the gods.”

If you’re a professional, you show up everyday. The person who doesn’t like you work will go on with their life, and you’ll still have the reality of the uncertain task at hand. Through the trials and tribulations, the professional keeps doing his or her work.

Make yourself a corporation

“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.”

If you’re a creative with a lot of unstructured time, you need the discipline and systems to make that time worthwhile. Otherwise, you might just waste away all the freedom and time you have, wondering where the hell it went. I’ve experienced this problem on my creative journey, and an important step in becoming a professional has been to treat my work as if I was doing it for a corporation. I make myself accountable with deadlines and a mindset that my work is a reflection of me as a professional, not a fun hobby I’m pursuing.

Show up, and the universe will work with you

“Because 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.”

When you start a project, keep going, and communicate it to others, the world starts to work with you in unexpected ways. It could be an introduction to someone, or the discovery of a new framework to take your work to the next level. You never know. You just have to trust the universe and understand how it will work with those who show up and let it.

Don’t be a hack

“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?”

It can be tempting to tailor your work to an audience, or to start with what might be the most popular idea. This is what the hack does. But besides the impossibility of predicting these things, this pursuit will take away from the joy, meaning, and quality of your work. So start by writing what you know is important, and the people with similar values and beliefs who want to follow will come along.

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