The Enemy Uncovered: Resistance, According to Steven Pressfield in “The War of Art”

Now I understand why, and who I am fighting against.  Knowing the enemy is critical in a battle, and Steven Pressfield does a succinct job of identifying him.  This is a great book for anybody serous about their artistic/creative pursuit, be it painting, sculpture, writing, music, theater, photography, etc.   It’s short and easy-read.

The book is divided into three sections about:

  • Resistance: the inner force that attempts to block you from doing anything worthwhile
  • Professionalism: not a state of earning money, but rather, a particular mindset/habit/approach that is effective in making you create in the face of Resistance
  • Muse/Inspiration: what it is, and  how it will descend upon those who go about their creation Professionally

Below I’m going to discuss the first two sections mainly, because that’s where I learned the most.  The truths about inspiration, I already knew and I wasn’t concerned about — but it contains great insights for those who struggle with lack/scarcity of inspiration.

Resistance Defined

The key definition: it’s a negative energy whose aim is to stop you from doing any and all Good things.

“The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.”

Wow.  So that’s why it seems that all the mundane and unimportant things in my life seem to go so easily and smoothly, while all the important aspects all encounter roadblocks.  I’m far more successful as a web developer and blogger than as a guitarist and songwriter.  That means I have the potential to offer more as the latter.  (I realize that’s not what the above quote says, but I did get that message from the book)

Here are other characteristics of Resistance:

  • It’s a fear.  Of success, of failure.
  • The more important your aspiration is, the more you become afraid of failing, and it paralyzes you.
  • It will not go away, especially if you keep pursuing your artistic endeavor with the authentic intent of reaching mastery and excellence.  You learn to live with it, instead of seek to eradicate it.
  • Can be used as a compass.  The more afraid you are, the more important it is for you to go do it.
  • “Grandiose fantasies are a symptom of Resistance.”  Ouch.   “The Professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work.”
  • “The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident.  The real one is scared to death.”
  • Criticism is one symptom of resistance that not only harms yourself but others as well.
  • “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.”
  • Procrastination is its most relied-upon weapon.
  • Rationalization is its most effective tactic.  Resistance makes sense, unfortunately.
  • Misery loves company. Those who are defeated by Resistance tend to congregate and prevent each other from beating it.  Avoid such company.
  • Strongest right before a finish line
  • Over-identifying with one’s craft is a vulnerability that is heavily exploited by Resistance.  Ouch.  I can recall a phase where I obsessed over calling myself a musician.  When you are too invested, then the fear of failure rears its ugly head and criticisms sting and cripple more.

Professionalism: The Habits to Rise Above Resistance

Once again, I want to reiterate that this Professionalism with capital P has nothing to do with earning money.  In fact, you may never earn any money from your art — Van Gogh’s break-through came after his death.  Rather, it describes a credo, a protocol for artists to achieve the triumphs that are their completed creations.  The more you create, the more you mature as a creator, maximizing your chance of creating something actually valuable.

The humbling lesson here is that Pressfield alludes to how it was years and years after he finally saw the success, even after he gained Professionalism and started creating regularly and earnestly.  The first books/screenplays he produced apparently had no market (and I’m assuming no artistic) value.  But they had to be done, so he could grow through the constant creation, eventually to produce books that turned into bestsellers (again, I’m assuming, it was because it was successfully artistically as well).

It’s humbling because I had this arrogance in me that thought that once I started creating, then success would flock to me.  People will recognize my brilliance right away.  Boy, it’s embarrassing admitting that — but it’s true.  I do believe in my gifts, but I also have to accept that they are still underdeveloped — hence my success as a web developer and blogger first and not so with my guitar-playing and music.  The areas with less inherent potential are easier to develop.  The areas with greater obstacles indicate more hidden potential. (that’s my own conclusion, not Pressfield’s)

Other lessons learned here:

  • Pros are in it for the love of the craft.  Yes, they take money, but that’s not the reason they do it.  They do it because they love it so much they must spend their life doing it.
  • Successes, failures, criticisms — none of it goes to a Pro’s head.  A Pro does it for the love of creating.  How the outside world reacts to it is of less significance.  Praise and success is sure nice, but a Pro doesn’t let it blow up his head.
  • An Amateur overidentifies with his avocation.   He takes is so seriously it paralyzes them.  — ouch, ouch, ouch!
  • A Pro does not tolerate chaos.  His tools and environment are streamlined so it doesn’t get in the way of his work.
  • A Pro’s goal “is not victory but to handle himself, his insides, as sturdily and steadily as he can.”
  • A Professional does not show off.  He won’t draw attention, won’t try to justify his distinction by overephasizing his style or his skill.
  • A Pro shows up everyday, no matter what.  Is in for the long haul.  Aims to master his craft.  His work is judged by the Real World — not just friends and acquaintances.
  • A Pro doesn’t concern himself much with whether what he is creating has any value or not.  That shows more obsession with the outcome of his work, not the work itself.   Self-critique stays out of the door.  He just does his work.
  • “The Amateur believes he must first overcome his fear.”  The Pro acts while feeling the fear.  Don’t wait to be healed first.  Just do the work.

Permanent Additions to My Vocabulary

Mr. Pressfield did such a succinct job of conceptualizing the struggle and identifying the Resistance — that I know his words have already taken up residence in my vocabulary.   For me, the most helpful part was identifying the Resistance.  Using it as a compass really works — whenever I identify the Resistance, I make myself do it.  It’s not particularly a relaxing or leisurely way to live, in fact it’s down right rigorous — but I feel prouder about what I’m doing with my life.

I highly recommend this book.

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