Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
From time to time I come across a book that is so powerful, it feeds my soul. These books speak to me in ways that simultaneously inspire, challenge, and validate my thinking about my sense of self. Recently, I read The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield and the book did just that. It has become one of my four “Books of the Soul” that I will go back to and re-read for years to come.
The War of Art Starts with Resistance
Pressfield begins The War of Art with a shot right between the eyes.
He describes an evil, vindictive force he calls, “Resistance.” Resistance is essentially self-doubt and self-sabotage fueled by fear.
If you have ever heard that voice in your head try to talk you out of doing what you feel is your purpose, that thought process is resistance.
He describes the many forms that resistance takes, like procrastination, addiction, and distraction.
One of the reasons The War of Art speaks to me is that resistance is a force in my life. For example, starting this blog was an act in overcoming resistance. When I started, I was 30 years old and filled with self-doubt. I told myself that nobody would want to hear from me. I asked myself, what could little old me contribute to the idea of leadership? Everyone’s going to laugh at you!
Here I am, overcoming resistance 107 posts later. It wasn’t easy to do.
Jonathan Haidt, author of the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, explains why. He writes, “The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning-the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99% of mental processes-the ones that occur outside of awareness but actually govern most of our behavior.”
Said another way, the rider is the elephant’s press secretary, justifying its actions after a decision is made.
The elephant is all about resistance. The rider is resistance’s greatest ally, because it develops the logic to explain the elephant’s desire to maintain the status quo.
Pressfield discusses the many facets of resistance. The major benefit is that after looking for resistance, you become more aware of it as a force in your life.
The War of Art on Overcoming Resistance
So how do we overcome resistance?
Pressfield discusses that overcoming resistance involves transitioning from an amateur to a professional.
He describes it this way in The War of Art, “The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning ‘to love.’ The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does it for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his ‘real’ vocation. The professional loves it so much, he dedicates his life to it. He commits full time.”
Pressfield then describes what it means to turn pro. Turning pro happens when we create a practice and a routine to do the work every day with focus. As you commit to this daily practice, you will know it is working if you get so lost in your work that you lose track of time.
He details the way to become a professional in the book Turning Pro.
The War of Art on Loving Being Miserable
One of my favorite ideas in the book was the idea of being in love with being miserable.
Pressfield describes how Marines love to be miserable and further explains how this applies to the “artist,” which includes the entrepreneur.
Pressfield writes, “The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.
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.”
Elon Musk said it a slightly different way. He described running a start-up, “Like chewing glass and staring into the abyss. After a while, you stop staring, but the glass chewing never ends.” Musk is a billionaire who still chews glass. My guess is he’s a guy that loves being miserable!
I loved that description. I pull the covers up on cold mornings just as much as the next guy. Since reading this book, the idea of loving being miserable has helped me wake up earlier, run in the rain for exercise, and watch what I am eating more carefully. Sometimes the things you need most in life can make you miserable. Being in love with that feeling is a superpower I hope to develop.
The War of Art for Leaders
The implications for leaders are many. So much so, that I will be writing about them exclusively in next week’s post.
In short, The War of Art creates a distinction between amateurs and professionals. The hallmark of the professional is a dedicated practice. Some people in Senior Leadership roles are amateur leaders because they do not approach leadership as a practice and the consequences are severe.
Founders or senior leaders who are promoted because of politics or other social forces are rarely professional leaders. Meaning they made be technically or functionally professional, but that is different than what it means to be a professional leader. In next week’s post, I will describe what a professional leader looks like and how you can tell a professional from an amateur. You won’t want to miss it. Subscribe here to make sure you don’t.
Key Takeaways – The War of Art
“The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield is a powerful book that highlights the concept of resistance, which is fueled by self-doubt and fear, and inhibits us from pursuing our purpose.
Overcoming resistance involves transitioning from an amateur to a professional by dedicating ourselves fully to our calling, developing a daily practice and routine, and embracing the challenges and misery that come with it.
The book’s insights are applicable not only to artists and entrepreneurs but also to leaders, and the next post will delve deeper into the distinction between amateur and professional leaders.
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