The War of Art

Steven Pressfield
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The definitive guide to overcoming procrastination. Key takeaways: become comfortable with patience, start leaning into anxiety and get good at being miserable. Also, the more you fear something, the more you can be sure you have to do it.

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.

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

Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction.

Resistance is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, harder to kick than crack cocaine.

Is that what it takes? Do we have to stare death in the face to make us stand up and confront Resistance?

The enemy is a very good teacher. — The Dalai Lama

Book 1 — Resistance: Defining the Enemy

Resistance is invisible

Resistance is internal

  • Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.

Resistance is insidious

Resistance is impersonal

Resistance is infallible

  • 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 plays for keeps

  • When we fight it, we are in a war to the death.

Resistance is fuelled by fear

Resistance only opposes one direction

  • Resistance obstructs movement only from a lower sphere to a higher.

Resistance is most powerful at the finish line

  • 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 recruits allies

  • The best and only thing that one artist can do for another is to serve as an example and an inspiration.

Resistance and procrastination

  • Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance

Resistance and sex

  • It knows it has distracted us with a cheap, easy fix and kept us from doing our work.
  • The more empty you feel, the more certain you can be that your true motivation was not love or even lust but Resistance.

Resistance and trouble

  • Anything that draws attention to ourselves through pain-free or artificial means is a manifestation of Resistance.

Resistance and self medication

  • Attention Deficit Disorder, Seasonal Affect Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder. These aren’t diseases, they’re marketing ploys.
  • Depression and anxiety may be real. But they can also be Resistance.

Resistance and victimhood

  • 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.
  • Casting yourself as a victim is the antithesis of doing your work. Don’t do it. If you’re doing it, stop.
  • First, unhappiness. We feel like hell. A low-grade misery pervades everything.

Sounds like life, I know. It isn’t. It’s Resistance.

  • As artists and professionals it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Resistance and criticism

  • When we see others beginning to live their authentic selves, it drives us crazy if we have not lived out our own.

Resistance and self doubt

  • “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?”
  • The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.

Resistance and fear

  • 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.
  • If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.

Resistance and love

  • If you’re feeling massive Resistance, the good news is, it means there’s tremendous love there too.

Resistance and being a star

  • The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.

Resistance and begin isolated

  • Here’s the trick: We’re never alone. As soon as we step outside the campfire glow, our Muse lights on our shoulder like a butterfly.

Resistance and healing

  • 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.
  • 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.

Resistance and 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.

Resistance and rationalisation

  • It’s one thing to lie to ourselves. It’s another thing to believe it.
  • What Resistance leaves out, of course, is that all this means diddly.

Book 2 — Combatting Resistance: Turning Pro

Professionals and ammetuers

  • To the amateur, the game is his avocation.
  • The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week.

The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time.

How to be miserable

  • The artist must be like that Marine. He has to know how to be miserable. 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’re all pros already

  • That was when I realized I had become a pro. I had not yet had a success. But I had had a real failure.

For love of the game

  • Playing for money, or adopting the attitude of one who plays for money, lowers the fever.
  • Technically, the professional takes money. Technically, the pro plays for pay. But in the end, he does it for love.

A professional is patient

  • The professional, on the other hand, understands delayed gratification.

A professional seeks order

  • He is on a mission. He will not tolerate disorder. He eliminates chaos from his world in order to banish it from his mind.

A professional demystifies

  • 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 endeavour is holy, but she doesn’t dwell on it.
  • The professional masters how, and leaves what and why to the gods.
  • A professional shuts up. She doesn’t talk about it. She does her work.

A professional acts in the face of fear

  • 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 excepts no excuses

  • 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.

A professional plays it as it lays

  • The field is level, the professional understands, only in heaven.

A professional ****is prepared

  • The professional prepares mentally to absorb blows and to deliver them.

A professional dedicates himself to mastering technique

  • The professional respects his craft. He does not consider himself superior to it.

A professional does not hesitate to ask for help

  • The student of the game knows that the levels of revelation that can unfold in golf, as in any art, are inexhaustible.

A professional distances herself from her instrument

  • The professional identifies with her consciousness and her will, not with the matter that her consciousness and will manipulate to serve her art.
A professional does not take failure or success personally
  • Evolution has programmed us to feel rejection in our guts.
  • The professional cannot take rejection personally because to do so reinforces Resistance.
  • 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.
  • 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.

A professional endures adversity

  • The professional cannot let himself take humiliation personally. Humiliation, like rejection and criticism, is the external reflection of internal Resistance.

The professional 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.

A professional self-validates

  • The professional cannot allow the actions of others to define his reality.
  • Short of a family crisis or the outbreak of World War III, the professional shows up, ready to serve the gods.
  • The professional blows critics off. He doesn’t even hear them.
  • The critic hates most that which he would have done himself if he had had the guts.

A professional recognises her limitations

  • She brings in other pros and treats them with respect.

A professional is recognised by other professional

  • 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.

A critter that keeps coming

  • The pro keeps coming on. He beats Resistance at its own game by being even more resolute and even more implacable than it is.

Book 3 — Beyond Resistance: The Higher Realm

As Resistance works to keep us from becoming who we were born to be, equal and opposite powers are counterpoised against it. These are our allies and angels.

Approaching the mystery

  • 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.
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 sulphuric breath. Rest in peace, motherfucker.

The principle of organisation is built into nature. Chaos itself is self-organising. Out of primordial disorder, stars find their orbits; rivers make their way to the sea.

We’re all creative. We all have the same psyche. The same everyday miracles are happening in all our heads day by day, minute by minute.

Tom Laughlin draws a diagram of the psyche, a Jungian-derived model that looks something like this:

The Ego, Jung tells us, is that part of the psyche that we think of as “I.” Our conscious intelligence. Our everyday brain that thinks, plans and runs the show of our day-to-day life.

The Self, as Jung defined it, is a greater entity, which includes the Ego but also incorporates the Personal and Collective Unconscious.

Dreams and intuitions come from the Self.The archetypes of the unconscious dwell there. It is, Jung believed, the sphere of the soul.

What happens in that instant when we learn we may soon die, Tom Laughlin contends, is that the seat of our consciousness shifts.

It moves from the Ego to the Self.

The Ego and the Self

  • The Self wishes to create, to evolve. The Ego likes things just the way they are.
  • The Ego is that part of the psyche that believes in material existence.
  • The Self believes all beings are one. If I hurt you, I hurt myself.

The Ego hates the Self because when we seat our consciousness in the Self, we put the ego out of business. The Ego doesn’t want us to evolve. The Ego runs the show right now. It likes things just the way they are.

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.

We have entered Mass Society. The hierarchy is too big. It doesn’t work anymore.

The Artist and The Hierarchy

  • 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.
  • 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 Definition of a Hack

  • 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.

To my amazement, the book succeeded critically and commercially better than anything I’d ever done, and others since have been lucky too. Why? My best guess is this: 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.

A Territorial Orientation

  1. A territory provides sustenance.
  2. A territory sustains us without any external input.
  3. A territory returns exactly what you put in.

If we would pick up the phone and call six friends, one after the other, with the aim of hearing their voices and reassuring ourselves that they still love us, we’re operating hierarchically. We’re seeking the good opinion of others.

Here’s another test. Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it?

When Krishna instructed Arjuna that we have a right to our labor but not to the fruits of our labor, he was counseling the warrior to act territorially, not hierarchically.

The artist is the servant of that intention, those angels, that Muse. The enemy of the artist is the small-time Ego, which begets Resistance, which is the dragon that guards the gold.

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.