The War of Art by Steven Pressfield: Summary & Notes

Front cover of The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.

In short

The War of Art is a short book on productivity, creativity and overcoming resistance. Pressfield offers some good advice on what stands between our “lived” and “unlived” lives – resistance – and how we can overcome this. Another section, on the difference between amateurs and pros, and how they approach their ‘jobs’, is also quite useful. Not everything is equally good though, and The War of Art does take take a turn for the worse towards the end of the book with lots of references to angels and religion.

Book Summary & Notes

All text that is quoted & italicized is taken directly from the book.


The unlived life:

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

“Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? Have you ever bailed out on a call to embark upon a spiritual practice, dedicate yourself to a humanitarian calling, commit your life to the service of others? Have you ever wanted to be a mother, a doctor, an advocate for the weak and helpless; to run for office, crusade for the planet, campaign for world peace, or to preserve the environment? Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t pain, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what resistance is.”

What is resistance? It cannot been seen, but we can feel it – it’s a negative force that prevents us from doing our work. Pressfield also lists that resistance: is internal, insidious, implacable, impersonal, infallible, universal, and that it never sleeps, plays for keeps, its fueled by fear, opposes in one direction (from a lower to a higher sphere), it’s most powerful at the finish line, and that it recruits allies (friends or family that keep pulling you back down if there is any progress at all).

While resistance is usually internal, in the form of self-sabotage, it can also manifest itself in others in the form of actual sabotage. Every fights against their own resistance, and if one person manages to subdue or beat it, then it can feel as a reproach to others. Why can they beat it, but I cannot?

“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign.
Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.
Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”

Amateurs and pros

“Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.

That’s the difference between an amateur and a pro: the latter sits down and does the work.

What else are the difference between amateurs and pros? Well, we all have one thing in our lives we have to be a pro at, our jobs. Pressfield list 10 principles that we can take from our day jobs that make us “professional:”

  1. We show up every day. If only for the paycheck, but at least there are no excuses.
  2. We show up no matter what. Maybe we do this for noble reasons (such as to help out our coworkers), maybe for less noble ones – but at least we come to the office or factory regardless of the circumstances.
  3. We stay on the job all day. We might not always be productive, or we might think about different things, but physically we stay on the job until the working day is over.
  4. We are committed over the long haul. Careers last for many, many years – we might move to another company, change jobs, but we keep working until we retire.
  5. The stakes for us are high and real. We need money to survive and eat.
  6. We accept remuneration for our labor. We don’t work for fun or for exposure, we work for the money.
  7. We do not overidentify with our jobs. Sure, we might be proud of what we do and work extra hard when needed – but we are not our jobs. An amateur, in contrast, is likely to overidentify with his aspirations. This makes it hard to actually do the work and increases the amount of resistance. Overidentifying with something leads to fear of failure, which is likely to paralyze us.
  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.

So how does the above list contrast the amateur – the wannabe painter or writer? The amateur does not show up every, does not show up no matter what, doesn’t stay on the job all day, is not committed on the long-term, the stakes are not real, he doesn’t get paid, overidentifies with whatever he is doing, has not mastered the technique, takes things too seriously, and does not seek out feedback in the real world (friends and family don’t count).

“The professional loves her work. She is invested in it wholeheartedly. But she does not forget that the work is not her. Her artistic self contains many works and many performances. Already the next is percolating inside her. The next will be better, and the one after that better still.”

“Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would not otherwise have occurred. A whole streams of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have dreamed would come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now.”
From W.H. Murray’s The Scottish Himalayan Expedition


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