Monday, July 29, 2019

Review of "The War of Art"

Many thanks to those who turned out for the Philosophy Meetup reading group of Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art. Here I provide my own comprehensive review and evaluation of the book.

This book was certainly different from the academic books I typically read. I really enjoyed it. Lots of it resonated with me (I do aspire to write non-fiction one day… my own battle with RESISTANCE ha ha!).

So why read this book? I think anyone facing obstacles in their personal lives – be it with writing, or switching careers, or ending an unhealthy marriage, or moving to a new city, or entering retirement, or re-entering dating, etc.- will stand to benefit from reading this book. I think the spirit with which to approach this book is as follows: Pressfield is like a team coach, gathering us together in the locker room before a big game. His goal, as our coach, is to inspire us to do our best- with the singular goal to increase the odds of our winning the game.

The general goal, as Pressfield states it early on in the book, is to help us bridge the gulf between the life we live, and the unlived life within each of us. He draws on his experience as a (once struggling) writer. It is an inspiring and insightful read. I am happy to have Pressfield as my coach, giving me a kick in the butt when I need a kick, to help me closer align my current life to the unlived life within me.

The dominant theme in Part 1 of the book is that the thing that prevents us from accomplishing what we want to accomplish in life is Resistance. We often overlook how our internal belief system can constrain and conspire to limit what we achieve in life. “I am not talented enough to be a published author!”. “No one else will love me”. “I can never lose weight!”. Such beliefs can erode a person’s creative potential, keep them in an unhappy marriage and out of the gym. As our motivation coach, Pressfield wants to raise our level of consciousness so we are aware of how our belief systems stifle our aspirations. And by doing so we can be better prepared to overcome the limitations we impose upon ourselves.

What stands between the life we live, and the unlived life within us, argues Pressfield, is what he calls Resistance. Resistance is the enemy! And the book aspires to help us identify, and ultimately, conquer Resistance in our personal lives.

Resistance can arise when aspiring to pursue your calling (e.g. painting, writing), launching a new business, pursuing your spiritual advancement, romantic relationships and parenthood, education, getting fit, overcoming an unhealthy habit or undertaking an action that requires ethical or political courage. Resistance is invisible, and as such is a sly enemy! But we feel it, it emits an energy. It tries to prevent us from doing our work. Resistance arises from within. Pressfield describes Resistance as “self-generated and self-perpetuated”. It is insidious, implacable, impersonal, infallible, universal, it never sleeps, it plays for keeps, it is fueled by fear, etc.

When the finish line is in sight, argues Pressfield, that is when Resistance is most dangerous. As we get closer to our aspirations resistance hits “the panic button!”, a counterattack to thwart us from achieving what we really want in life. Perhaps you bail on resigning from your current, unhappy, job after you finally get that dream job offer. Or you finally meet a great person for dating but get cold feet and call it off before risking getting your heart broken.

We must be aware of the symptoms of Resistance, such as victimhood (a strategy that doesn’t require honest work or any contribution), and choice of a partner (someone whose coattails we can ride on or whose adoration we use to prevent them from overcoming their own Resistance).

What does Resistance feel like? Bored. Restless. Guilt. Unsatisfied. It can become critical and lead to depression.

Resistance and Fundamentalism: Pressfield argues we didn’t evolve to live as individuals, rather we are wired tribally- to act as part of a group. We don’t know how to be alone, how to act as free individuals.

A contrast is made between the artist and the fundamentalist. The artist is creative and positive, the fundamentalist is destructive and negative. The latter is a philosophy of powerlessness. And when it comes to fear, Pressfield notes that fear is actually a good thing! “The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it” (40).

Pressfield argues a fixation on healing can be a form of Resistance- telling yourself you need to heal completely before undertaking the work to achieve what you want. “Resistance knows that the more psychic energy we expend dredging and re-dredging the tired, boring injustices of our personal lives, the less juice we have to do our work” (50).

Rationalizations, argues Pressfield, is Resistant’s right-hand man (57), the spin doctor. My favourite quote from Part 1: “If Resistance couldn’t be beaten, there would be no Fifth Symphony, no Romeo and Juliet, no Golden Gate Bridge. 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” (57).

Part Two of the book is titled “Combating Resistance: Turning Pro”, and Pressfield draws a contrast between the amateur and the pro. The latter overcomes Resistance. The qualities that define a pro are as follows (p. 69-70):

(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 renumeration for our labour
(7) We do not over identify with our job
(8) We master the techniques of our job
(9) We have a sense of humor about our jobs
(10) We receive praise or blame in the real world

The professional understands *delayed gratification* (p. 75). So this could apply to a writer who persists through having her book rejected by multiple publishers, the single person who persists through bad dates to wait to meet the right partner for a loving relationship (without quitting dating or settling for a bad relationship) or the person who works their way to a promotion that pays off with more rewarding work.

Professionals know fear can never be overcome (p. 79). Fear of rejection is part of the game, accept it and persist in the face of it.

Professionals do not hesitate to ask for help (p. 85). I think this is a crucial insight in the book. We often think we can do things alone or that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Knowing you need help, and asking for it, is a sign of strength not weakness!

The final part of the book is titled “Beyond Resistance: The Higher Realm”. I admit that, as an atheist, there were elements of this concluding section, about angels, muses and “physical forces”, that had me scratching my head more than once. Pressfield notes that some will feel uncomfy with his terminology, and that we should just think of it in terms of “impersonal forces” like gravity. That is what I have tried to do. The angels and muses are forces that work as our allies to overcome Resistance. Resistance prevents us from becoming who we were born to become.

Pressfield makes a Jungian-style contrast between The Self and the Ego, the latter is the home of Resistance. The Ego likes things the way that they are. Whereas The Self craves creativity and growth! The Ego believes in material existence- it does the important job of getting things done in the material world. Pages 136-38 contrast the different stances The Self and Ego take on death, time and space, whether people are similar or different, the supreme value (love vs self-preservation), and god.

My favourite part of this section of the book was, hands down, the discussion of hierarchy vs territory. We can achieve “psychological security” in one of two realms- within the hierarchy of a group, or by our connection to a territory. The former is our default setting- think of being an awkward teen trying to fit in with your “clique of friends” (paradigmatic example of a hierarchy). As we mature, and acquire the experiences and pain and growth of life, we shift to the territorial alternative.

P. 150 details why the hierarchy orientation is fatal to the artist- it makes you compete against others, equate your happiness with your rank in the hierarchy, treat others based on their rank (rather than their humanity). But the artist must do their work for their own sake, not for the validation that comes via hierarchy. In the hierarchy mindset we are always looking outwards- what can people do for me? how do I boost my standing? etc. But you never look within (which is how growth and creativity occur!).

We all have territories, Pressfield’s examples are- for Stevie Wonder it is the piano, for Arnold Schwarzenegger the gym and for a writer it is writing. A territory provides sustenance, sustains us without any external input, it can only be claimed alone, it can only be claimed by work, and it returns exactly what you put into it.

Pressfield’s suggested test to reveal your territory is this- imagine you are the last person on earth, what activities would you do? This test stripes away any hierarchical considerations.

That completes my summary of the book. Now for my overall evaluation.

As I noted above, I think the spirit to take this book is that of a coach motivating you before a game. As such, I think this is a great book that can actually help (especially creative people) people improve their lives and realize their aspirations. The positive big picture message is: Identify Resistance in your life, aspire to turn “pro”, and embrace your territory vs hierarchy. However I have some caveats.
I do not believe that following the advice of this book is necessarily a recipe for living a flourishing life. And the reason for this is that Pressfield, for the most part, treats the issue as if we only have one “pro” aspiration. And as such, he does not give enough attention to the realities of the tradeoffs that must inevitably be made in life for most pros and aspiring pros.

If your only pro aspiration is to be a writer, then yes this book will be instructive. But if you also aspire to go “pro” as a spouse, parent, employee, athlete, etc. you run into the predicament of how to find balance between these competing aspirations. The aspiring writer in you might see your desire to start the day at the gym (rather than writing) as simply Resistance. Or the time you invest in getting your kid’s lunches ready for school, or driving them to their extra curriculum activities after school as Resistance. But the reality is most of us have a few aspiring “pro” goals going on *simultaneously*. The real work is thus navigating through these often conflicting commitments. Simply saying “go pro!” doesn’t help us navigate the terrain of managing many, often competing, pro aspirations.

Like a coach before a soccer game who is only focused on “winning the soccer game at all costs!”, Pressfield’s analysis often misses the big picture that we have a multitude of identities and goals and aspirations. He often invokes elite athletes as examples, like Arnold and Tiger. And while these athletes certainly dominated in their respective sports, I am not sure they are exemplary examples of the type of flourishing humans we should strive to emulate. It is possible to invest too much in some aspirations, at a cost of your overall wellbeing. And there are circumstances where someone is better off giving up certain goals and aspirations that they are not likely to realize, otherwise they risk depression and persistent frustration. This is the idea of “adaptive preference formation”. Pressfield might reply that this is all Resistance-speak, but I think there are nuances and complexities that make the issue more complicated than that.

These caveats notwithstanding, I really enjoyed The War of Art. It has compelled me to take a long and hard look at my own Resistance in life, and inspired me to grow and develop in ways I probably wouldn’t have without Pressfield’s “pep talk” before the big game! Highly recommended read.