The War of Art

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Pressfield, Steven


I recently finished Seth Godin‘s excellent new book Linchpin (see Choosing to Draw Your Own Maps for my review). In it, he devotes a central chapter to the notion of resistance and how we get in our own way in the pursuit of our goals. Godin recommended Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art for more insight.

I’m sure the fact that the book has been lurking in my ‘to read’ stack for several years is deeply meaningful.

Godin’s recommendation was enough to push Pressfield’s book to the top of that stack. If you find that you can be your own worst enemy facing creative work, don’t take as long as I did to get to this short but deeply insightful book. Pressfield is the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and, more recently, has been blogging at Steven Pressfield Blog. The War of Art is an extended reflection by Pressfield on the practical challenges of creating.

Pressfield breaks his book into three sections. In the first, he takes a close look at resistance and the myriad ways it works to keep us from trying and carrying on. Ways both obvious and devious. For all the legitimate barriers and delays and excuses, resistance ultimately boils down to self-sabotage; our lizard-brain trying to protect us from fears it cannot understand or articulate.

In the second section, Pressfield offers his answer – turn pro. Show up and do the work. Forget about inspiration. Pressfield has good company here. Here’s a sampling of advice from various creative pros, all with the same fundamental message:

Anyone who waits to be struck with a good idea has a long wait coming. If I have a deadline for a column or a television script, I sit down at the typewriter and damn well decide to have an idea.

Andy Rooney

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas

Linus Pauling

I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at none o’clock sharp.

Somerset Maugham

For all the advertisements and enticements promising instant gratification, we all know that it’s really about doing the work. And this is true whether the work is carpentry or sculpture. Pressfield lays out the following qualities that distinguish a professional from an amateur:

  1. We show up every day
  2. We show up no matter what
  3. We stay on the job all day
  4. We are committed over the long haul
  5. The stakes for us are high and real
  6. We accept remuneration for our labor
  7. We do not overidentify with our jobs
  8. We master the technique of our jobs
  9. We have a sense of humor about our jobs
  10. We receive praise or blame in the real world.

(The War of Art. pp.69-70)

In the final section, Pressfield reveals the payoff of facing resistance with professionalism. He elects to couch it in spiritual terms, but substitute your own terms if that troubles you. Here’s the payoff to professionalism:

Because 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.

This is the secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. we have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. ideas comes. Insights accrete.

(The War of Art. p. 108)

We can’t  control how the world will react to what we create. All we can control is whether we show up to do the work and whether we have mastered the tools of our craft. Pressfield’s promise is that if we do our part, the Universe will notice and may help.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love offers a similar perspective in a talk she gave at TED last year:


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