Lessons on Professionalism and Doing Your Best Work from The War of Art.
In 2002, author Steven Pressfield wrote a small book called The War of Art.
It’s perhaps best described as a manifesto for the warrior-artist, the person who isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty doing the work that matters most to them. It’s about coming to terms with the resistance we all face in our work, and doing it anyway.
Whether you’re an aspiring painter, author, SaaS developer, or blacksmith, this tiny book will change the way you look at what it really takes to follow your dreams.
Below is a selection of my favorite quotes and passages from the book along with brief reflections of my own.
A pro views her work as craft, not art.
We don’t think about craft enough these days. Sure we talk about the importance of process and considering the journey not the destination. But the word craft has a grittiness to it that rings true to me.
Producing something great, something beautiful, something truly useful and valuable requires getting dirty. It requires being sore and working anyway. It demands blisters and calluses and then more blisters.
Craft is uncomfortable.
It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.
Procrastination’s most devilish trick is to convince us that that it’s all in our head. That we can’t sit down to work because we’re too dumb, too depressed, to anxious, not good enough, because our mother didn’t love us enough. In other words, that the problem is in us and in the act of working.
But we all know this isn’t true. We all know that once we finally begin, the situation is far less bleak than we imagined. We just have to find our way into the seat.
So instead of psychoanalyzing yourself, buy comfier chair. Instead of berating yourself with paragraphs of negative self-talk, leave your phone in the other room. Instead of deciding you’re “just not a writer,” write about something you really enjoy instead of the thing you’re supposed write.
We know what the clan is; we know how to fit into the band and the tribe. What we don’t know is how to be alone.
No man is an island, of course. All great works depend on interaction, community even. But creative work also seems to require extended periods of solitude — time to sift, ponder, reflect, meditate. All of which is difficult if, deep down, we’re terrified to be alone with our own thoughts, own own fears, our own hopes and dreams.
You have 3,000 Instagram followers but no relationship with your own mind and soul.
The acquisition of a condition lends significance to one’s existence. An illness, a cross to bear… Some people go from condition to condition; they cure one, and another pops up to take its place. The condition becomes a work of art itself, a shadow version of the real creative act the victim is avoiding by expending so much care cultivating his condition.
We all face real struggles and burdens of various shapes and sizes, physical, emotional, social, spiritual, economic…
The questions is, do we let these difficulties habitually dictate the direction of our decisions? Or can we find a way to acknowledge them and stay focused on our values, our aspirations, our calling?
The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.
It’s an act of profound acceptance and realism to relinquish control over outcomes — to genuinely detach our work and effort from expectations and hope. In fact, I’m not convinced it’s entirely possible.
Still, a worthy cause to strive toward.
Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.
As a psychologist, the biggest mistake I see people make with their mental health is to treat their emotions like things — viruses to be exterminated or treasures to be hoarded.
But emotions are not things we can control or posses, not directly anyway. At best, they are instructive bits of sensory information, like a traffic light or a low-fuel gauge. And if we can choose to observe them instead of trying to manipulate them, we often learn something valuable.
As the old saying goes: Don’t shoot the messenger.
We’re too distracted by our own nonsense.
I love the word nonsense there. We’re so used to rationalizing the distractions in our lives that it takes a word like nonsense to show us how childish we are to be fooled into these petty distractions that keep us from our work.
It’s worth a ponder: How much nonsense do I carry around in my life? How much of my time and love and vitality is spent on utter nonsense? When will it finally be time to “put away childish things” and do the work I’m meant to do?
The truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.
The ancient Greeks had 4 different words for love. The Eskimos have like 40 words for snow. For a concept as important to our modern sensibilities as freedom, it seems odd that we insist on bundling everything under that one term.
Surely the freedom to pursue one’s highest values and aspirations deserves a different term than the freedom to browse YouTube instead of going to the gym?
Contempt for failure is our cardinal virtue. By confining our attention territorially to our own thoughts and actions — in other words, to the work and its demands — we cut the earth from beneath the blue-painted, shield-banging, spear-brandishing foe.
It’s a radical idea: that fundamentally our failures are a result of misplaced focus — on outcomes, competitors, reputation, money. On anything but the work that lies in front of us.
This suggests that the artist’s first and finest tool is always her attention. The ability to choose with intention the objects of our thoughts and energy — and hold them there — it’s as close as we’ll get to a superpower.
Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive.
If you refuse to see in shades of gray, the work of art may not be right for you. A corollary of which is that great artists seem to thrive on uncertainty, mystery, complexity, ambiguity — in other words, on life.
What if you took it as a project to befriend uncertainty?
An artist must be a warrior.
A soldier is willing to sacrifice his very life for a cause, a country, a way of life. How much are we willing to sacrifice for our work, our art?
In the End…
It’s not a very romantic idea, but to achieve our dreams we must pursue them as professionals. It demands showing up dutifully, day-in and day-out. It means putting in the hours, the reps, and be willing to get dirty, bruised, and more than a little banged up a long the way.
To have any hope of realizing our dreams, we must be willing to fight for them.
The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying. —Steven Pressfield