The War of Art by Steven Pressfield Book Summary & Commentary
— Steven Pressfield
Have you ever wanted to do something creative, but you couldn’t make yourself actually sit down and do the work? Well, here’s some good news: you’re not alone! Many of us with big dreams struggle against powerful inner blocks like procrastination, distraction, self-doubt and fear.
This is true whether we want to:
- Write the next Harry Potter.
- Paint the next Mona Lisa.
- Launch the next Google.
The War of Art promises to show us how to overcome these creative blocks and become highly productive. You’ll learn to fight back against Resistance, a devious enemy that is inside all of us. This battle won’t always feel nice. Yet many online reviewers say the message was exactly what they needed to hear, like a good kick in the backside. By the end, you’ll understand what separates true Professionals in a craft from the Amateurs.
Who is Steven Pressfield?
Steven Pressfield (author website) is a bestselling author with over a dozen books published. During his career, he’s written historical fiction, non-fiction, movie screenplays and even advertising copy. He wrote for 27 years and failed many times, until his first novel The Legend of Bagger Vance was finally published in 1995. Five years later, it was turned into a major Hollywood movie starring actors like Matt Damon and Will Smith.
So now let’s begin this summary/commentary of The War of Art, and examine some of the big lessons that Steven Pressfield shares from his decades of professional experience.
1. Resistance: Recognize your inner saboteur
Resistance is the name Steven Pressfield gives to the invisible force inside of us that stops us from doing creative work. Resistance makes us avoid sitting down to start working. It makes us feel paralyzed about sharing our work with the world. It can also block us from finishing the projects we’ve been working on forever.
I’m sure you’ve experienced Resistance before. Here are some symptoms:
- Resistance affects our feelings. It makes us feel fear, dread or reluctance around our work.
- Resistance affects our thoughts. It provides us with many convincing rationalizations and excuses for our procrastination.
- Resistance affects our habits. Giving in to Resistance feels terrible, so afterwards we overindulge in distractions, consumption and addictions. (Including our phones, food, shopping, sex, alcohol or drugs.)
Pressfield believes the best way to overcome this Resistance is to view it like an external force that is trying to trick us. Then we fight Resistance directly. After all, this book is named the WAR of Art! This idea reminds me of how some religious people center their lives around fighting the Devil, which is like a personification of all their bad impulses. (In fact, there’s a fascinating section in this book highlighting similarities between creative artists and religious fundamentalists…)
Resistance is an invisible force that blocks us from starting or finishing our creative projects. It sabotages us, makes us feel scared, and gives us convincing excuses. Giving in to Resistance feels terrible, causing us to overindulge in consumption and distractions.
2. Fear is Normal: Assume and expect to be scared
Your creative career will really take off when you accept that it’s normal to feel emotions like fear and self-doubt. Pressfield says every morning when he wakes up, he still feels reluctance and dread in his stomach. Then he sits down to write anyway.
Three important points about fear:
- Fear is a fact of life for most creative people. There are famous actors who vomited before every performance and geniuses who died always feeling doubtful about their work.
- Fear is a sign the project is important to you. Your strong feeling shows that you truly value it. It’s like when a parent is scared for their child, that is a sign of love. The opposite would be neglect or indifference.
- Fear may prove you are growing. You may be trying something new that is a little beyond your current abilities. We don’t feel scared repeating our same old safe routine.
I also want to share this amazing quote from The War of Art:
Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one 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.
I think a lot of that creative fear comes from wanting to protect our social reputation. If we create something and it fails publicly, then we may feel our reputation will be forever damaged. Your book could be severely criticized, your business could go utterly bankrupt or your artwork could be humiliatingly ignored.
Well, around 2000 years ago the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius had similar worries. After all, political leaders usually receive the most devastating personal attacks on their reputations. In his journal, he revealed how he overcame these worries.
Marcus would often remind himself to remember death. He told himself that he would be dead very soon and everyone who had ever known him would also be dead. They’d all be bones and ashes in the ground. From this point of view, it is really useless to waste our limited time on earth worrying about our future reputation. And by thinking in this way, Marcus became a more calm and courageous leader.
People who do creative work normally feel fear, dread and unease. Pressfield still feels these emotions, but he sits down to write anyway. In fact, fear can be a good sign that we’re working on projects we find important and stretching our abilities.
3. Becoming a Pro: Ignore moods and do your work
Many people believe we can only do creative work when we feel inspired. Unfortunately, our feelings are not reliable or predictable. And it’s hard to build a career around something that changes like the wind. The solution, according to Pressfield, is to change our way of thinking from being an Amateur to a Professional.
Identifying as a Professional means we show up to work every day, even when we don’t feel like it. Imagine a construction worker not coming in to work because they were “not feeling inspired.” That would never happen! And we must cultivate that kind of blue-collar attitude to our creative work.
Some people view creative work as something profoundly spiritual. To them this may sound like blasphemy. But Pressfield says those who focus too much on that mysterious part of creativity tend to become intimidated, paralyzed and stuck. On the other hand, those who adopt the identity of a Professional can be productive every day, do what they love and improve at their craft.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has lived an extraordinary life. He was born in a small town in Austria, where he began lifting weights at the local park. In a few years, he transformed himself into the bodybuilding champion of the world. Then he moved to America, made millions in real estate, became a famous movie star, and Governor of California. How the heck did one man accomplish so much?
Maybe all Arnold’s success can be traced back to a simple lesson he learned as a teenager. When Arnold was beginning to work out, he quickly learned that building muscle was all about repetitions. He simply repeated the right exercises and meals until he reached his dream body. Along the way, Arnold would often say, “Everything is reps, reps, reps.” (Reps is bodybuilding slang for exercise REPetitions.)
Later in life, Arnold used the same approach to succeed in acting, business and politics. He would practice his lines and speeches over and over and over again. That’s the attitude of a true Professional.
Amateurs work when they feel like it. Professionals show up and work every day, regardless of their mood. This identity of detached craftsmanship allows us not to become paralyzed by fear and Resistance.
4. The Warrior Spirit: Learn to love being miserable
Steven Pressfield was a member of the Marine Corps, a branch in the US military. To become a Marine, you must pass weeks of difficult training. He says all of that taught him one important lesson: how to love being miserable. This was later invaluable for his writing career because most artists face endless adversity.
For example, Pressfield had been trying to become a paid writer (and failing) for 17 years. Finally, he landed his first real work. He co-wrote the screenplay for a big Hollywood movie called King Kong Lives. Then something horrible happened. The film was released and received extremely bad reviews from critics. Pressfield was absolutely devastated.
After a while, his friend helped him to find a small silver lining. At least he was being a write like he always wanted, even if his first big project was a failure. Later on Pressfield went on to write many bestselling books, so his friend was probably right. A failure can be a step in the right direction, compared to having no paycheck. And as former US President Theodore Roosevelt said,“It is not the critic who counts (…) The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”
Most people imagine that being an artist is joyful, but the truth is creative people must accept being miserable. Pressfield has spent his entire writing career fighting Resistance, facing rejection and failing in public.
5. The Muse: Receive inspiration from a higher source
Creativity is a very mysterious thing. We don’t really know where our inspiration comes from. For example, Pressfield says many of his best ideas arrive not when he’s focused on his work, but when he’s outside hiking or in the shower. It can feel like some greater intelligence is sending us our creative ideas when it chooses to.
Pressfield calls this abstract source of creative inspiration “the Muse.” You can think of it like an angel or an invisible force like gravity. Every day before working, Pressfield speaks to the muse by saying a prayer. The prayer consists of a few paragraphs from The Odyssey by Homer called “The Invocation of the Muse.” He asks that mysterious source of creativity to visit him once again.
We can’t control when we feel inspired. However, Pressfield says if we show up to work every day like a Professional, then we invite the Muse to visit us more often. And sometimes we’re blessed when our work transforms into an effortless flow. Is that the work of an invisible angel called the Muse? Who knows…
Creativity and inspiration are a mystery. Pressfield says they come from the Muse, an invisible force or angel. By showing up to work every day, we invite the Muse to visit us more often.
I’ve heard many people recommend this book and now it’s obvious why! Many ideas in here were absolute gems.
My favourite part was the repeated message that it’s normal to feel negative emotions before doing creative work. I know there are some days when I really feel some strong Resistance! When we learn those emotions are normal, then we can do our work anyway and create something great.