Book Review and Summary of The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield is a quick read but it goes deep in terms of breaking down the psychology of creation, and more importantly, resistance. And to define resistance or give you a general idea before we really break down its characteristics and symptoms, a great way of viewing it is that we have two lives. We have the life that we live and the unlived life within us. And you can relate to this too. You have two lives, the life you’re living and what’s your unlived life, your life of potential, let’s just say: All your dreams, all your fantasies, what you could be accomplishing, what your calling is.

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“If I pursue my calling or this creative art, whatever it may be,” where do I see yourself? What do I want to do? What’s my dream life? Then ask myself, “Hey, why am I not really living that life? What’s blocking me?” Resistance.

Characteristics of Resistance

What are the characteristics of resistance? We’re going to blast through them. The first is, resistance is invisible. It can’t be seen, touched, heard, or smelled, but it can be felt. It’s an emotion, a feeling, and a negative one. It’s a repelling force and its aim is to shove us away, distract us, and prevent us from doing our work. Resistance is internal. It may seem like it’s coming from outside of ourselves, or like, “You know, I just really would live my unlived life, but there are all these factors, these circumstances, these people, these events, my environment, that are just really holding me back from doing so.” No. It comes from within. Resistance is self-generated and self-perpetuated.

Resistance is insidious. It will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. And when I say anything, I mean anything. It will fabricate, falsify, seduce, bully, assume any form, reason with you, pledge anything to make a deal. And remember this, it’s always lying. And everyone experiences this, and too often do we get sucked into all those lies. Even me, before writing this post here, I experienced resistance. I thought to myself “Do you really want to write this now? Maybe you should write it later. Let’s wait till it’s maybe dark, maybe the lighting’s a little bit better later. You should maybe rest a little before. You need a little 30-minute nap to get your energy going. Maybe you should do this other post first. Maybe you should post this status update, promote some old post.” There’s everything. And don’t buy into that. Just do it.

Resistance is implacable and cannot be reasoned with. Important to understand. It’s an engine of destruction, similar to the Terminator movies, where it’s programmed from the factory with one objective only, to prevent us from doing our work. And that’s all it knows. Resistance is impersonal. It’s not out to get you personally. Don’t become a victim out of this. You may be reading this and say to yourself, “Oh my God, I experience resistance. Oh my God, my unlived life. Why is this happening to me?” It’s not a personal affront to you, it doesn’t know who you are. It doesn’t care. It’s a force of nature. It acts objectively.

Resistance is infallible. It will unfailingly point to true north, meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. And we can use this to our advantage, as a compass, if you will, where wherever you’re experiencing the most resistance, that’s where you should be going. That’s true north. That is your calling.

Resistance is universal. Everyone experiences it. I experience it, you experience it, everyone around you experiences it. You’re not alone. Resistance never sleeps. The battle must be fought anew every single day. It doesn’t go away. Realize that. You’re not fighting it for it to go away. It’s always going to be there. It’s an endless fight.

Resistance plays for keeps. Its goal is not to wound or disable, it aims to kill. And when we fight it, we’re in a war to the death. Resistance is fueled by fear. Every ounce of juice it has, let’s just say, comes from us. It has no strength of its own, and we feed it with power by our fear of it. And once we master that fear, we conquer resistance.

Resistance only opposes in one direction. It obstructs movement from a lower sphere to a higher sphere, not from a higher sphere to a lower sphere. It only stops you when you’re trying to evolve, not when you’re regressing. It’s probably actually happy if you’re regressing. It’s like, “Keep going down, don’t go up.” Resistance is most powerful at the finish line. And I’m sure you’ve experienced this, where this is the point where resistance knows that we’re about to beat it, and it hits the panic button. If you’re, say, trying to barrel through and break through a plateau in terms of progress, you probably experience, right before you break that plateau, that’s where the resistance really kicks in. It really marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got, so be very alert for this counter-attack at the end.

Resistance recruits allies. It comes in the form, obviously, of self-sabotage by definition, but there’s a parallel peril that must also be guarded against, sabotage by others. We’re self-sabotaging, but there’s also sabotage by others, people close to you acting strange, and I’m sure you’ve experienced this, if you start working on bettering yourself as a person, on self-actualizing, some of your friends are like, “You know what? You’re acting a little differently. You’re acting a little strange, you’ve changed, you’re not being the person you were.” And those are friends trying to sabotage you.

Now, the reason that they’re doing this is not to be mean. It’s more so that they are struggling, consciously or unconsciously, against their own resistance. And if you can beat your demons, then why can’t they? You moving up is shining the spotlight on their shortcomings, and it comes as a reproach to them. And with this, you must really be ruthless, not only with yourself, but with others as well. Once you make your break, you can’t turn around for your buddy who catches his trousers on a barbed wire. Keep on moving. That’s the best thing you can do, serve as an example and an inspiration. Don’t just wait and try to bring everyone up and expect this to happen. If you’re moving up and everyone’s remaining down here, of course you’re going to experience external resistance through them.

Symptoms of Resistance

Now, what are the symptoms of resistance? What are the symptoms? One is procrastination. Procrastination is the most common manifestation of resistance because it’s easier to rationalize. We don’t tell ourselves, “Hey, I’m never going to do it. I’m never going to live my unlived life.” You don’t tell yourself that. Instead, we say, “I’m going to do it, I’m just going to do it tomorrow. I’m going to live my unlived life tomorrow.” Even probably at the end of this post, you’ll say, “Man, those are some good points. I’ll apply them tomorrow.” And be careful with this, because procrastination can become a habit.

The next one is sex, where sometimes it takes the form of sex or an obsessive preoccupation with sex. Why? Because sex provides immediate and powerful gratification. It distracts us with a cheap and easy fix and keeps us from doing our work. And of course, not all sex is a manifestation of resistance, don’t be like, “Oh my God, I can’t ever have sex.” But you can usually tell by how hollow you feel afterward. This also applies to drugs, shopping, web surfing, masturbation, TV, gossip, alcohol, and the consumption of all products containing fat, sugar, salt, or chocolate. We’ve all been through this, where there’s, say, this assignment you have to do. You’re like, “I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to do it.” And then you just distract yourself. It’s like, “Oh, sex. Oh, fast food. Let me surf the web.” You do it for a bit, you have your little hits, but then you feel even hollower after that. So be careful with that.

Next one is trouble, where we get ourselves in trouble because it’s a cheap way to get attention instead of, say, doing our most important work. And when you’re in trouble, it also prevents you from doing your most important work. Building on that, self-dramatization, where creating a soap opera in our lives is a symptom of resistance as well. You can get just as much attention by doing that. And once again, the more you keep that drama going, the less work gets done. So be careful. Are you getting yourself in trouble a lot? Is there a lot of drama in your life? Those two things are manifestations of resistance.

Self-medication, where depression and anxiety, of course, may be real, but they can also be resistance. And when we drug ourselves, we blot out our soul’s calling, as he puts it. Victimhood, the acquisition of a condition leads to significance to one’s existence, an illness, a cross to bear. And some people just go from condition to condition. They cure one and another one pops up and takes its place. And I know people like this, where they’re like, “I just really want to live my unlived life, pursue my calling, but this happened to me. I have this condition.” And then they finally get over it, usually after an extended period of time, and then something else pops up, and something else pops up. It’s these people where there are just nonstop problems in their lives. And the condition here becomes a work of art in itself, a shadow version of the real creative art the victim is avoiding by expanding so much care cultivating his condition. So victimhood is part of resistance.

Your choice of a mate, where sometimes if you’re not conscious of your own resistance, you’ll pick as a mate someone who is successful at overcoming his or her resistance, maybe hoping that you can use your mate as some kind of model, or that some of their power will rub off on you. Or by hitchhiking on their coattails of them living their unlived lives. It’s like, “Well, I can’t live mine, but maybe I can live theirs.” So be careful there. This is not love. Unhappiness, what does resistance feel like? First, unhappiness. We feel like hell, a low-grade misery pervades everything. We’re bored or restless. We can’t get any satisfaction. There’s guilt, but we can’t put our finger on the source. We want to go back to bed. We want to get up and party. We feel unloved, unlovable, or disgusted. We hate our lives. We hate ourselves.

Beyond that, resistance can become clinical depression, aggression, dysfunctional, and then actual crime and physical self-destruction. And what’s also tricky here is that we live in a consumer culture that’s aware of this unhappiness and that has masked all its profit-seeking artillery to exploit it. Criticism, that’s the next one. If you find yourself criticizing other people, you’re probably doing it out of resistance. When you see others beginning to live their authentic selves, it drives us crazy that we have not lived our own. So similar to how you will self-sabotage yourself, but other people will as well when you start moving up, if you’re doing it to someone, be aware. That’s your resistance.

Self-doubt, but self-doubt, similar to fear, can be used as an ally. If you find yourself asking yourself, for example, “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist? Is this really my calling?” And in most cases, it is. So you use that, wherever you doubt yourself, it’s probably what you should be doing. Fear, so we discussed before, fear is good. Like self-doubt, it’s an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Love, resistance is directly proportional to love. And this one’s interesting, where if you’re feeling massive resistance, there’s tremendous love there as well. If you didn’t love the project that is terrifying you so much, you wouldn’t feel anything. So wherever you’re extremely scared, you probably love that a lot. That’s why it’s scary.

Being a star. Grandiose fantasies are a symptom of resistance, where people buy into these fantasies of their unlived life or the potential that they have. It’s like, “Oh, if I did this, I would become this. Of course, I could be famous. Of course, I could be rich. I’m such a great artist. I have all these good ideas,” but they don’t do anything. They live in this little world here. Value real world results over fantasies or any kind of mental masturbation. The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work.

Isolation. Sometimes we’re afraid of pursuing our calling, because if we make that leap, we’re afraid of ending up alone. We feel comfortable with the tribe that’s around us now. And what you have to realize is that you’re not necessarily alone. A question he got asked a lot was like, “Don’t you get lonely sitting all day by yourself writing?” And he’s like, “No, I was not alone. I was in the book. I was with the characters, I was with myself.”

You’re with your muse, if you will. And not only that, but guess what? You will have a new tribe. Have faith that, yeah, maybe some of the members of your current tribe will leave, you’re not going to resonate with them any more and they won’t resonate with you, but you’ll find better matches moving up and up and up. Everything’s changing, accept that, go with the current of things.

Healing, where one needs to complete his or her “healing” before he or she is ready to do their work. It’s like, “I need to take care of this first.” That’s a form of resistance. Learn how to play hurt. Just start, don’t wait for everything to be perfect. Support. Seeking support from friends and family is like having your people gathered around at your deathbed. It’s nice, when the ship sails, all they can really do is stand on the dock and wave. And too often we get obsessed with support. It’s like, “I need support for me to follow my calling.” And you call people up, like, “Do you support me? Do you approve? I really depend on this support. I want my hit of support.” No. Just do the work.

Rationalization. Resistance is fear, but it’s too cunning to show itself naked in this form. Why? Because if it lets us clearly see that our own fear is preventing us from doing our work, we may feel shame, and that shame may drive us to act in the face of fear. So instead, it brings in rationalization, resistance is spin doctor. And rationalization presents us with a series of plausible, rational justifications for why we shouldn’t do our work. And what’s particularly insidious about these rationalizations is that most of them, or a lot of them, let’s just say, are true.

For example, you could be tired. That could be the rationalization. “Hey, I really want to do my work, but I’m tired.” It’s true. You’re tired. But guess what? Does it mean anything? Does that really stop you from doing your work? No. You can still do, in most cases, your work tired. So be careful not to buy into all the rationalizations, but at the same time too, be careful not to go too far in the opposite direction where you’re like, “Hey, everything’s a rationalization,” and then like, “I’m never going to sleep again.” Be smart.

How to Beat Resistance: By Turning Pro

Resistance can be beaten. These are the characteristics, these are the symptoms. How do you beat resistance? By turning pro. There are amateurs and professionals, and by professional, I mean this is an ideal. Not like a doctor or a lawyer. And your life can be divided in two parts, before and after turning pro. So what are the aspects of the professional? A professional is patient. Resistance uses our own enthusiasm against us in a lot of cases. It gets us to plunge into a project with an overambitious and unrealistic timetable for its completion. I’m sure you’ve done that. You got all excited, like, “Oh, this project, I’m going to do this.” You jump in, and once you realize, “Whoa, this is going to take a lot longer than I thought. It’s a lot harder, a lot more work, I’m not going to do this.”

The professional understands delayed gratification and he arms himself with patience. He conserves his energy, prepares his mind for the long haul. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. A professional seeks order. He eliminates chaos from his world in order to banish it from his mind. Now, obviously there’s always going to be a certain amount of chaos, but limit it. If you’re going to your desk and all your ideas and papers or files on your computer are just completely all over the place, it’s going to be very hard. Try to keep it organized, try to keep it clear. A professional demystifies. A pro understands that all creative endeavor is holy but doesn’t dwell on it. He knows that if he thinks too much about it, it’ll paralyze him, and this is what an amateur does.

Over-glorification and preoccupation with the mystery. It’s like thinking about, “Oh, where does this art come from? What about the art?” And they get lost, once again, in that little mental world instead of doing something. A professional acts in the face of fear. The amateur believes that 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. He just does the work regardless. Just do the work. A professional accepts no excuses. He knows that if he caves in today on, say, skipping the work, no matter how plausible the pretext or rationalization, he’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow. If you rationalize today, like, “I’m a little tired, you know what? I’m just going to do it tomorrow. I’ll skip today.” Tomorrow, what’s going to happen? “Hey, you know what? You already skipped yesterday. Let’s just skip another day. You already ruined your streak.” And it just gets harder and harder and harder. You also lose the momentum you built.

A professional is prepared. He’s prepared each day to confront his own self-sabotage. Don’t just think you’re going to wake up one day and not sabotage yourself. You’re always going to come up with excuses, rationalizations to prevent you from doing your work. You’re going to be placing yourself in situations that will prevent you from doing your work. Resistance will always be there. It never sleeps. Be prepared. A professional does not show off. He does not impose his style as a means of drawing attention to himself. A professional does not hesitate to ask for help. It would never occur to him, as it would to an amateur, that he knows everything. He seeks out the most knowledgeable teachers and listens with both ears. Lifelong learning.

A professional distances himself from his instrument, meaning his person, his body, his voice, his talents, the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological being he uses in his work. He’s not identified with his instruments, he identifies with his consciousness and his will. Not the matter that his consciousness and will manipulates in order to serve his art. A professional does not take failure or success personally. He does not forget his work is not him. His ego doesn’t kick in. The professional gives an ear to criticism, seeking to learn and grow, but he never forgets that resistance is using criticism against him.

And lastly, a professional recognizes his limitations. He knows he can only be a professional at one thing, and he brings in other professionals and treats them with respect. And there is no mystery to turning pro either. It’s a decision brought about by an act of will. We make up our minds to view ourselves as pros and we do it. Simple as that. Just start being a pro now.

So this really defines the characteristics and symptoms of resistance. Start being aware of it, because oftentimes we don’t even know it’s there. We don’t know what beat us. And then in terms of turning pro, this is how you beat resistance. This is how you overcome it. This is how you actually start doing the work.

But the last point I’d make here is the ego and the self. And I love his definition. Resistance has its seat in the ego, and angels make their home in the self. The self wishes to create, to evolve. The ego likes things just the way they are. And his definition of the ego is, the ego is that part of the psyche that believes in material existence. It believes that death is real, our existence is defined by our physical flesh. It believes that time and space are real. It’s analog. It believes that every individual is different and separate from every other. It believes that the predominant impulse of life is self-preservation. We live and act out of fear in all we do. And it believes that there is no God, no sphere exists except the physical, and no rules apply except those of the material world.

Now, what the self believes is that death is an illusion, the soul endures and evolves through infinite manifestations. That time and space are illusions, they only operate in the physical sphere. That all beings are one. If I hurt you, I hurt myself. That the supreme emotion is love, we’re all in this together, and that God is all there is. Infinite planes of reality exist, all created by and sustained by and infused by the spirit of God. And in terms of pursuing your calling or creating, let’s just say, you need to learn how to experience the self, not the ego. Dreams come from the self. Ideas come from the self. When we meditate, we access the self. When we fast, pray, go on a vision quest, it’s the self we’re seeking. And the ego hates the self, thus resistance, because when we seat our consciousness in the self, we put the ego out of business. This is why you experience resistance. That instinct that pulls us towards art is the impulse to evolve, to learn, to heighten, to elevate our consciousness. And the more awake we become, the less we need the ego. And such evolution, of course, is frightening to the ego.

Book Review

So once again, I highly recommend reading this book. It goes a lot more in-depth, it has a lot of examples too for every single characteristic symptom, what it means to be pro. He has examples from his own life too. But everyone struggles with this. You are struggling with it now. You’re probably experiencing resistance now. If I ask you, “Hey, what are you going to do after this summary ends?” “Probably going to procrastinate and rationalize my way out of it.” No, do the work. And even another form of procrastination is, “Well, I understand it, but I’m going to read the book now before doing the work.”

What did you learn from the summary of The War of Art? What was your favorite takeaway? Is there an important insight that we missed? Comment below or tweet to us @storyshots.

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