Overcome Resistance and Win the War of Art
We are all conditioned to respond to extrinsic stimuli, but for the most part, “artists” are their own boss. This is a process for understanding how to create the intrinsic stimuli needed to help you create the work than exists within you.
We are all conditioned to respond to extrinsic stimuli, but for the most part, “artists” are their own boss. Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art offers a process for creating the intrinsic stimuli needed to help you create the work than exists within you. While reading and reflecting on this text, I captured my own interpretations punctuated with the most poignant quotes from the book. It’s organized into the following four sections:
- Performance Under Governance
- Personal Governance in the Face of Emotion and Ego
- Creativity as a Tappable Resource
Performance Under Governance
If you’ve ever worked in a highly demanding job, you’ve no doubt experienced moments of stress that push you to perform at great heights and deliver on great feats asked of you. Many have this experience in higher education or competitive sports. A higher up—usually a boss, teacher, or coach—demands an immense task of you, and remarkably, you rise to the occasion. You may be weathered and worn at the finish line but no long-term damage has been caused. If anything, a new outward boundary of performance potential has been recognized….
This dynamic—performance under governance—is simply an individual’s reaction the presence of an external stimulus. You can see this play out in social scenarios as well. Very often, our actions are driven by something happening outside of our own control. What’s particularly interesting is that reactions under governance seem to generate performance that is beyond what we might consider possible within the bounds of self-induced action.
Why is this the case? It may have something to do with our earliest stages of development. Everything we know as a developing human is wrapped around the context of reacting to an external stimulus, whether it be parents, coaches or teachers, so it is reasonable to assume that the behavior of self-motivated performance is something that would not come about as naturally.
“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.”
Who in their right mind would want “to find masters to govern over them.”? Just about everyone, actually… People seek external of governance in their life for comfort, because the Resistance present in self mastery is so strong. Under external governance, choice is no longer a present lever for Resistance. For some people, choice can be paralyzing. So, is it possible to develop a similarly performant reaction from an internal stimulus? This is the concept explored in this book.
In anything you do, there exists a theoretical outward boundary of your potential, and then there is where you actually net out. To what do we owe this outcome?
“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance."
Pressfield encourages you to view each endeavor as if a quantity of Resistance is being applied against your efforts to accomplish said task. Resistance is a tangible adversary that you compete against every day, in everything you do. Certain undertakings will present you with more Resistance than others. For the most part, the level of Resistance you experience is directly correlated to the importance of accomplishing the task.
"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.”
This seems a little counterintuitive. If something is important to me and my personal evolution, shouldn’t I love doing it? The truth is that we are more emotionally attached to the outcome, so we feel greater Resistance related to the potential of failure. Many of us are prisoners to the outcome of our most-important enterprises. This is a shackle we should all seek to eradicate, but more on that later.
How many awesome projects have you started only to stall out before completion?
“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.”
The term “completion” does funny things to people. Most people think completion of an important project means it is the best possible work they can create. The problem is, we never get there. That elusive state of “completion” is just Resistance scaring you away from exposing your work. In this sense, Resistance is fed by your ego’s attachment to the outcome of your work’s exposure.
We tend to view challenging tasks as things that are just hard to complete, but when you pit yourself against the tangible adversary of Resistance, you’ve given yourself an opponent to compete against, which is a lot more fun than just battling something that is difficult.
Personal Governance in the Face of Emotion and Ego:
If we’re capable of peak performance in the presence of external influence, aren’t we also capable of that output in the absence of it? The internal battle is lost w/o a leader, so we must learn to lead ourselves. Pressfield calls this concept “Turning Pro.” Becoming a professional is about having a new relationship with yourself – one where you’re able self-impose the stimulus necessary to react and perform on a level equal to or greater than what you know possible in the presence of external stimulus. Others might call this concept “discipline.”
By comparing the tendencies of a Pro versus that of an Amateur, Pressfield is able to draw us a clearer picture of what holds many of us back in the creation process. It all comes down to the outcome of the work and one’s own emotional attachment to that outcome.
If amateurs are slaves to the work most-important to their personal evolution, how does a Pro behave, in contrast?
“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.”
So in the end, the Amateur lays slain to his own love for his art.
“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 best value you can extract from this book is an evolution of your perspective. It is true that we are drawn to professional endeavors that contain or manifest things that we love. That’s something we all strive for and dream passionately about. However, it is that same love that creates the largest Resistance to overcome. In order to truly deliver in these endeavors, we must knowingly alter our perspective to one that views these undertakings as more black and white, or “cold-blooded.” Carry out these tasks for the sake of discipline, to defeat Resistance. Remove the emotional identification with the outcome and give yourself a professional order to create and perform, no matter the conditions.
“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.”
To “seat one’s professional consciousness in a place other than the personal ego” is a profound mode of operation. Ego is a significant influence in any citizen of the Western world, but the best artists have managed to transcend the Ego as the reward center attached to the outcome. They create for the sake of creation. Much easier said than done… but it can be achieved by viewing the creation process as a battle against your own personal Resistance to create again and again.
“He reminds himself it’s better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.”
My Dad always tells me, “pressure is a privilege.” Be proud to be a warrior, competitor, or creator. While the outcome can be anywhere from beautiful to ugly, the process is the real gift to be respected.
“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.”
Take the power away from everyone else. They are not competing on the same field as you. To concern yourself with the critics is to give a little more power to the Resistance you will face each time you sit down to the table or step up to the bat.
Pressfield, an accomplished author himself, explains his own practice for imposing governance over himself to elicit performance.
“I like the idea of being Myself, Inc. That way I can wear two hats. I can hire myself and fire myself. I can even, as Robin Williams once remarked of writer-producers, blow smoke up my own ass. 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. No matter how much abuse is heaped on the head of the former, the latter takes it in stride and keeps on trucking. Conversely with success: You-the-writer may get a swelled head, but you-the-boss remember how to take yourself down a peg. Have you ever worked in an office? Then you know about Monday morning status meetings. The group assembles in the conference room and the boss goes over what assignments each team member is responsible for in the coming week. When the meeting breaks up, an assistant prepares a work sheet and distributes it. When this hits your desk an hour later, you know exactly what you have to do that week. 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. I have corporate stationery and corporate business cards and a corporate checkbook. I write off corporate expenses and pay corporate taxes. I have different credit cards for myself and my corporation. 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. Sometimes, as Joe Blow himself, I’m too mild-mannered to go out and sell. But as Joe Blow, Inc., I can pimp the hell out of myself. I’m not me anymore. I’m Me, Inc.”
Can you really just role play as your own boss? You’re already adept at taking orders from someone else. Many of us are comfortable giving order to others to carry out. But can you give yourself orders and create the same sense of pressure present when an external source hands them down? It’s almost a need to develop split personas, or a controlled case of schizophrenia, to throw a scary word out there… If you can manage to impose this type of governance over yourself, you can focus more of your energy into Creation, which Pressfield identifies as the most important endeavor of all.
Creativity as a Tappable Resource:
“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o'clock sharp.” - Somerset Maugham"
Somerset is a Pro because he recognizes that waiting for “inspiration” is a folly of the Amateur. To be a Pro is to summon creativity through the natural act of creation.
At this point, Pressfield gets a bit transcendental is his interpretations of the source of creative output.
“…the most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying… 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.”
There is an old Wayne Gretzky quote that goes: “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Pressfield takes this concept further to explain that by taking consistent shots as a soldier of your war with Resistance, you will enlist the powers of the universe to manifest what is to come. You are a soldier, a vessel for the Gods. It is your job to create and they will help usher the outcome.
We all stand on the doorway of something (that which we seek to create). Pressfield encourages us to enter with the confidence of the powers of the universe behind our sails, rather than solely the confidence of our personal skills and technique. I have never been particularly religious in my pursuits in life, but I have witnessed the power that religion is able to bestow in individuals who believe they are carrying out acts in the name of a higher power. Even the most secular of men will respect the power of belief itself, which science has proven can have many improbable impacts, such as overcoming a disease or incurable condition.
By now, Pressfield has helped us recognize that the act of creating is everything, and consistent, disciplined creation can carry you to the loftiest of places.
“When we conceive an enterprise and commit to it in the face of our fears, something wonderful happens. A crack appears in the membrane. Like the first craze when a chick pecks at the inside of its shell. Angel midwives congregate around us; they assist as we give birth to ourselves, to that person we were born to be, to the one whose destiny was encoded in our soul, our daimon, our genius.”
You are not alone. The universe is here to help you carry out that which you most desire. It is your life’s job to chase it, or let it be forever imprisoned in Resistance…