Book Review: “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield

"The War of Art" - Steven Pressfield

This week, I’ve just finished reading “The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles” by acclaimed novelist Steven Pressfield. The title of this book is not to be confused with “Art of War” by Sun Tsu … you know, the book that is compulsory reading for anyone in corporate management …

I found this book immensely interesting and useful. What follows is probably the most in-depth review of it on the web.

First Impression

I enjoyed this book. It was a different sort of read, but its concepts made me reflect back on some of my own creative battles and realise that I knew EXACTLY what Steven was talking about.

Who This Book is For

If you are already highly successful, motivated, driven, and you’re always able to accomplish all the tasks and goals you set yourself, then this book is NOT for you! You’re already perfect and don’t need any more help. Leave this room. You’re making everyone sick!

But if you’re like the rest of us, and long to achieve certain goals but never seem to get moving, then this book is for you.

It doesn’t matter what your goal is. Regardless of whether you’re trying to write a novel or screenplay, finish your artistic works, start a charity, start dieting or exercising, or even if you hope to run a marathon someday, this book is for all of you.

At least, that’s what the book promises.

What Will You Get Out of It

This book will help you identify the major bottlenecks preventing you from achieving your dreams. It will then help you overcome these obstacles, while helping you become more aware of the nature of the “enemy” for future battles.

It’s primarily a motivational and philosophical book, but also contains some techniques to help you put everything together. However, it is not a step-by-step “how-to” kind of book. It’s more about understanding the psychology of creation, and how you can support it.

Who is the Author

The War of Art” was written by acclaimed novelist Steven Pressfield. His previous works include, “The Legend of Bagger Vance” (which was turned into a movie starring Will Smith and Matt Damon), “Gates of Fire”, “Tides of War”, “Last of the Amazons”, “The Virtues of War”, “The Afghan Campaign”, and “Killing Rommel”.

This is his first venture into non-fiction, since he wanted to share what he has learned about defeating one’s inner creative battles.

Quick Summary of “The War of Art”

By far the biggest highlight, and the concept at the centre of this entire book, is Steven’s label for the invisible force that seems to prevent us from achieving our goals. Using writing as an example, he sets the tone of the book with this introduction:

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. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.

Using his “Resistance” concept, Steven splits up “The War of Art” into three sub-books.

Book One deals with the concept of Resistance by defining what it is.

Book Two deals with the techniques and mindset you can use to combat Resistance, now that you know what it is. Its main emphasis is on “turning pro” as a way of combating Resistance.

Book Three has more of a spiritual element and tries to connect the previous books into one overriding whole.

Besides Resistance, Steven also talks about his interpretation of concepts such as Genius, Muses, Angels, and the nature of hierarchical and territorial motivations. He somehow manages to link these all into one coherent whole, leaving you with a lot to ponder over.

From reading various reader reviews, it seems like this is the sort of book that divides people.

Many absolutely love the poetic (sometimes abstract) wisdom contained in “The War of Art“, and understand that its appeal lies in the way Steven has presented his philosophies. There are just so many great quotes in this book, quotes that reward repeat readings. The fact that it’s also a quick and easy read makes it all that much more appealing. It’s just inspiring, really.

On the other hand, other readers react quite negatively towards some of the underlying themes in this book (or even the way it is written). I will talk about that shortly. But first, just to show you some of the memorable advice in this book, let’s have a look at some of my favourite quotes from it.

Specific Highlights

Usually, I wouldn’t directly quote from a book in a review like this (or at least not as much as I’m about to). Instead, I would just summarise it myself.

But with a book like this the enjoyment comes from not just its content, but – more importantly – the way it has been written. So enjoy the following quotes. Any of these could be printed up and placed at your desk as a great source of daily inspiration. My favourites are in bold.

From Book One: Resistance – Defining the Enemy

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

Are you a writer that doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.

Any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health or integrity … will elicit Resistance.

Resistance is like the Alien or the Terminator or the shark in Jaws. It cannot be reasoned with. It understands nothing but power. It is an engine of destruction, programmed from the factory with one object only: to prevent us from doing our work.

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 has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it. Master that fear, and we conquer Resistance.

Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it’s the easiest to rationalize. We don’t tell ourselves, ‘I’m never going to write my symphony.’ Instead we say, ‘I am going to write my symphony; I’m just going to start tomorrow.’

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.

Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second, we can turn the tables on Resistance. This second, we can sit down and do our work.

Creating soap opera in our lives is a symptom of Resistance. Why put in years of work designing a new software interface when you can get just as much attention by bringing home a boyfriend with a prison record.

Depression and anxiety may be real. But they can also be Resistance.

Casting yourself as a victim is the antithesis of doing your work. Don’t do it. If you’re doing it, stop.

Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable. At this point vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web surfing. Beyond that, Resistance becomes clinical. Depression, aggression, dysfunction. Then actual crime and physical destruction. Sounds like life, I know. It isn’t. It’s Resistance.

If you find yourself criticizing other people, you’re probably doing it out of Resistance. When we see others beginning to live their authentic selves, it drives us crazy if we have not lived out our own. Individuals who are realized in their own lives almost never criticize others. If they speak at all, it is to offer encouragement.

The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific entreprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.

The more Resistance you experience, the more important your unmanifested art/project/enterprise is to you – and the more gratification you will feel when you finally do it.

Rationalization is Resistance’s spin doctor. It’s Resistance’s way of hiding the Big Stick behind its back. Instead of showing us our fear (which might shame us and impel us to do our work), Resistance presents us with a series of plausible, rational justifications for why we shouldn’t do our work.

Defeating Resistance is like giving birth. It seems absolutely impossible until you remember that women have been pulling it off successfully, with support and without, for fifty million years.

From Book Two: Combating Resistance – Turning Pro

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. That’s what I mean when I say turning pro. Resistance hates it when we turn pro.

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 … [but] he knows that once he gets out into the action, his fear will recede and he’ll be okay.

The professional knows that Resistance is like a telemarketer; if you so much as say hello, you’re finished. The pro doesn’t even pick up the phone. He stays at work.

The professional conducts his business in the real world. Adversity, injustice, bad hops and rotten calls, even good breaks and lucky bounces all comprise the ground over which the campaign must be waged. The field is level, the professional understands, only in heaven.

The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come. The professional is sly. He knows that by toiling beside the front door of technique, he leaves room for genius to enter by the back.

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.

An amateur lets the negative opinion of others unman him. He takes external criticism to heart, allowing it to trump his own belief in himself and his work. Resistance loves this.

The professional cannot allow the actions of others to define his reality. Tomorrow morning the critic will be gone, but the writer will still be there facing the blank page. Nothing matters but that he keep working. Short of a family crisis or the outbreak of World War III, the professional shows up, ready to serve the gods.

Remember, Resistance wants us to cede sovereignty to others. It wants us to stake our self-worth, our identity, our reason-for-being, on the response of other to our work. Resistance knows we cant take this. No one can.

The professional blows critics off. He doesn’t even hear them. Critics, he reminds himself, are the unwitting mouthpieces of Resistance …

The professional learns to recognize envy-driven criticism and to take it for what is is: the supreme compliment. The critic hates most that which he would have done himself if he had had the guts.

Making yourself a corporation (or just thinking of yourself in that way) reinforces the idea of professionalism because it separates the artist-doing-the-work from the will-and-consciousness-running-the-show. No matter how much abuse is heaped on the head of the former, the latter takes it in stride and keeps on trucking.

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. We’re more cold-blooded; we can price our wares more realistically.

From Book Three: Beyond Resistance – Higher Realm

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

… the most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.

… 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.

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.

The Ego produces Resistance and attacks the awakening artist.

We come into this world with a specific, personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. We are who we are from the cradle, and we’re stuck with it. 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.

In the animal kingdom, individuals define themselves in one of two ways – by their rank within a hierarchy (a hen in a pecking order, a wolf in a pack) or by their connection to a territory (a home base, a hunting ground, a turf). This is how individuals – humans as well as animals – achieve psychological security.

Of the two orientations, the hierarchical seems to be the default setting. … We define ourselves, instinctively it seems, by our position within the schoolyard, the gang, the club. It’s only later in life, usually after a term of education in the university of hard knocks, that we begin to explore the territorial alternative. For some of us, this saves our lives.

For the artist to define himself hierarchically is fatal. … The artist must operate territorially. He must do his work for its own sake.

In the hierarchy, the artist faces outward. Meeting someone new he asks himself, What can this person do for me? How can this person advance my standing? In the hierarchy, the artist looks up and looks down. The one place he can’t look is that place he must: within.

A hack … is a writer who second-guesses his audience. When the hack sits down to work, he doesn’t ask himself what’s in his own heart. He asks what the market is looking for.

… the hack writes hierarchically. He writes what he imagines will play well in the eyes of others. He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write? What do I think is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot, what can I make a deal for?

The artist can’t do his work hierarchically. He has to work territorially.

The act of creation is by definition territorial. As the mother-to-be bears her child within her, so the artist or the innovator contains her new life. No one can help her give it birth. But neither does she need any help.

Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it? If you’re all alone on the planet, a hierarchical orientation makes no sense. There’s no one to impress. So, if you’d still pursue that activity, congratulations. You’re doing it territorially.

If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

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.

There are many more quotes I could include, but the above should give you an idea about whether this is the sort of book you’d enjoy. If you would, I think you’ll also find some of the following chapters interesting too:

  • “We’re All Pros Already” chapter, which compares the qualities that define us as professionals in our day-to-day lives with the  qualities of the amateur who does their true calling “on the side”.
  • “Life and Death” chapter, which talks about the Ego and the Self, and talks about our psyche (the Jungian-derived model) and what happens when we are faced with our imminent extinction. What becomes important? Is it possible to heal ourselves by doing that which we know is important to us?
  • “The Artist and the Hierarchy” chapter, which explains what happens when an artist defines themselves hierarchically.
  • “The Territorial Orientation” chapter, which discusses the qualities of a territory, and how we can find our own.

What Could Have Been Improved

From reading some of the negative reviews out there, here are some of the major points people complain about:

  • The book is too short
  • It gets a bit “weird” towards the end
  • The book implies that the cause of cancer is Resistance

Let me deal with each one of the above objections.

Firstly, yes, the book is short. Almost all the chapters are between 1-5 pages each. If you ask me, that makes for a pleasant and quick read. And who said that books need to be long to be enjoyable? If this is a reader’s only complaint about a book, then it’s not a particularly strong one. Quality always trumps quantity.

Secondly, I get what some people mean when they think Steven gets a bit “weird” towards the end of the book. I think these readers are primarily referring to Book Three, which talks about the “higher realm”. Now, I’m not religious myself, so if anyone is going to be sensitive to matters like this it would probably be me. However, I don’t feel the book “assaults” me with religious concepts in Book Three. Although Steven talks about concepts like “God” and “Angels”, he makes it quite clear that he’s not trying to force people to interpret these words the same way he does. He encourages the reader to interpret these concepts in the abstract, if that’s what they’re more comfortable with. And that’s what I have chosen to do when reading that part of the book.

Lastly, yes, there are controversial statements in this book. But I think a lot of negative reviews take these statements out of context, and try to make them broader than they were originally intended. Steven does, indeed, talk about cancer, drug abuse, and fundamentalism. And yes, he does suggest that in some cases he thinks these things are a possible symptom of Resistance. That is an interesting argument.

At one point, he illustrates some examples where people who have been diagnosed with cancer suddenly drop everything that is no longer important, and instead focus on the things they have always wanted to do. What then happens once they’ve conquered their Resistance is that their cancer goes into remission.

Perhaps that sounds like an absurd analysis of the situation, and I can certainly understand how people who have experienced cancer could feel quite offended by Steven’s statements.

If read the wrong way, then yes – it looks like he’s implying that a cancer sufferer only has themselves to blame since they have been ignoring what their body and soul wants them to do with their lives. But if read another way, I think Steven is simply giving some philosophical food for thought, by emphasising the importance of the holistic link between mind and body.

Regardless, the above is such a small part of the book, that to judge the entire book by it would be ridiculous.

But apart from the above criticisms (valid or not), I have my own minor ones to add.

  • The book lacks a contents list
  • The book skews a little too much towards writing at times

Regarding the first point, it’s understandable considering just how many one-page chapters there are. If there was a contents page, it would probably be its own book! You’ll see what I mean when I list the contents shortly.

Having said that, I still think it would have been nice to have a contents page at the front of the book to easily be able to find those chapters you might want to revisit from time to time. After all, it’s the type of inspirational book where you’ll want to do that. As it stands now, though, you can’t even find the page number of the individual sub-books! That should have definitely been fixed.

Regarding the second point, I guess it’s not surprising. Steven wrote this book based on his own experiences of fighting Resistance as a writer. It’s only natural that this book would focus more on a writer’s world.

But, in fairness, all you have to do is substitute “writer” for whatever word you want (eg. painter, entrepreneur, etc), and the concepts pretty much apply to everything. Still, I think anyone pursuing a calling in the “arts” will probably get the most out of this book.

Contents

  • What I Do
  • What I Know
  • The Unlived Life

Book One: Resistance – Defining the Enemy

  • Resistance’s Greatest Hits
  • Resistance is Invisible
  • Resistance is Internal
  • Resistance is Insidious
  • Resistance is Implacable
  • Resistance is Impersonal
  • Resistance is Infallible
  • Resistance is Universal
  • Resistance Never Sleeps
  • Resistance Plays for Keeps
  • Resistance is Fueled by Fear
  • Resistance Only Opposes in One Direction
  • Resistance is Most Powerful at the Finish Line
  • Resistance Recruits Allies
  • Resistance and Procrastination
  • Resistance and Sex
  • Resistance and Trouble
  • Resistance and Self-Dramatization
  • Resistance and Self-Medication
  • Resistance and Victimhood
  • Resistance and the Choice of a Mate
  • Resistance and this Book
  • Resistance and Unhappiness
  • Resistance and Fundamentalism
  • Resistance and Criticism
  • Resistance and Self-Doubt
  • Resistance and Fear
  • Resistance and Love
  • Resistance and Being a Star
  • Resistance and Isolation
  • Resistance and Healing
  • Resistance and Support
  • Resistance and Rationalization
  • Resistance can be Beaten

Book Two: Combating Resistance – Turning Pro

  • Professionals and Amateurs
  • A Professional
  • What a Writer’s Day Feels Like
  • How to be Miserable
  • We’re all Pros Aleady
  • For Love of the Game
  • A Professional is Patient
  • A Professional Seeks Order
  • A Professional Demystifies
  • A Professional Acts in the Face of Fear
  • A Professional Accepts No Excuses
  • A Professional Plays It As It Lays
  • A Professional is Prepared
  • A Professional Does Not Show Off
  • A Professional Dedicates Himself to Mastering Technique
  • A Professional Does Not Hesitate to Ask for Help
  • A Professional Distances Himself from her Instrument
  • A Professional Does Not Take Failure (or Success) Personally
  • A Professional Endures Adversity
  • A Professional Self-Validates
  • A Professional Recognises Her Limitations
  • A Professional Reinvents Himself
  • A Professional is Recognised by Other Professionals
  • You, Inc
  • A Critter that Keeps Coming
  • No Mystery

Book Three: Beyond Resistance – Higher Realm

  • Angels in the Abstract
  • Approaching the Mystery
  • Invoking the Muse
  • Testament of a Visionary
  • The Magic of Making a Start
  • The Magic of Keeping Going
  • Largo
  • Life and Death
  • The Ego and the Self
  • Experiencing the Self
  • Fear
  • The Authentic Self
  • Territory versus Hierarchy
  • The Hierarchical Orientation
  • The Artist and the Hierarchy
  • The Definition of a Hack
  • The Territorial Orientation
  • The Artist and the Territory
  • The Difference Between Territory and Hierarchy
  • The Supreme Virtue
  • The Fruits of our Labor
  • Portrait of the Artist
  • The Artist’s Life

In Conclusion

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It’s “a vital gem…a kick in the ass”, as the quote from Esquire on the cover says.

After reading it, I have certainly retained some of the major concepts, and have found them helpful in my own day-to-day mental battles as a writer. Additionally, I have the comfort of knowing that whenever I’m stuck in a rut, opening up this book and reading a few chapters will put me back in the mind frame I need to conquer my Resistance. This is the kind of book that will never be “outdated”.

I think the following quote from the book’s foreword by Robert McKee will summarise the experience best:

As I closed THE WAR OF ART, I felt a surge of positive calm. I now know I can win this war. And if I can, so can you.

Buy “The War of Art” Now!

* Just so you know, if you buy the book from this page, I get a tiny commission from the sale…about enough to buy a used pack of chewing gum (I can offer you a piece, if you’d like)! But seriously, every little bit helps fund the website you’re reading.

About Adam Wozniak

Adam Wozniak is the founder and writer of Encouragement from a Stranger. He believes in the importance of encouraging people to think, question things, and live life on their own terms. Or something like that... – www.AdamWozniak.com