July 7, 2012

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The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

the war of art

You probably have noticed that in order to achieve anything in life, you have to fight some internal battles before you ever get to the external ones.

This is true of any endeavor that involves putting in consistent time and effort—painting, designing, writing, triathlons, marathons, etc. The biggest challenge facing you is overcoming that resistance, to get done what you need to get done. That is what The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield is all about.

I had never heard of Steven Pressfield before I picked up this book. I didn’t know of his decades of creative struggles, nor of his critical successes. What I have found in his book, is the best characterization I’ve read of the nature of the creative process and all the hurdles that we go through. Not only does it shine a light on the barriers to creation, it shines a light on who you are as a person, why you feel the need to create and why you resist it. It pulls no punches. It makes no excuses. It calls you on your bullshit.

I’m only going to pull three quotes from the book and let you discover the majority of the insights on your own when you read it:

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

In the Greek tradition of personifying aspects of the human psyche, Steven refers to Resistance as an entity and outlines all the subtle and not so subtle ways it tries to beat us. Resistance is universal. Resistance procrastinates. Resistance obscufates. Resistance takes many forms—all with the goal of keeping you from doing the work you were born to do. Yep. Resistance is an evil son of a bitch.

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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 takes tremendous strength of character to do this, because our deepest instincts run counter to it. Evolution has programmed us to feel rejection in our guts. This is how the tribe enforced obedience, by wielding the threat of expulsion. Fear of rejection isn’t just psychological; it’s biological. It’s in our cells.

When I first read this, my brain screamed out “YES!” This is the first explanation I’ve ever read describing my most primal fear that was explained from an anthropological perspective. It makes sense. It makes me feel better about acknowledging my fear as something universal and not my own particular, personal defect. It’s biological. It’s in our wiring. And in order to evolve, we need to rewire ourselves.

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I think angels make their home in the Self, while Resistance has its seat in the Ego. The fight is between the two. The Self wishes to create, to evolve. The Ego likes things just the way they are. What is the Ego, anyway? Since this is my book, I’ll define it my way. The Ego is that part of the psyche that believes in the material existence. The Ego’s job is to take care of business in the real world. It’s an important job. We couldn’t last a day without it. But there are worlds other than the real world, and this is where the Ego runs into trouble.

We demolish the Ego to get to the Self.

It is hard to put it any better than that. When I read Steven refer to the Self, I sometimes think of my definition. The one I call the True Self. True Self is shown in the person when they create freely, when they sing in their own voice, when they are who they are without the fear of social context or ramifications for being anything other than who they are without the limit of the Ego. Your True Self isn’t bound by time or place. It is who you were when you were born and who you were born to be. It is the rare individual who lives their True Self every day. The ones that do, shine.

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This book has inspired me and scared me at the same time. It has an uncompromising view of what it means to be a professional creative being. It is a guidebook. It is a history lesson. But mostly, it is a call action.

My hope is to do that call its justice.

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