Book review: The War of Art

May 15, 2020 • ☕️ 5 min read

I’ve just reread The War of Art by Steven Pressfield for the third time. I was surprised by how differently I related to the book this time round — the insights and aha moments it inspired were new and exciting. It reminded of an idea that I came upon whilst reading a recent blog post by Tiago Forte, where he explained that when we revisit a book, we are not just coming back to the same pages and text, we are coming back to a past version of ourselves. It’s like going to a house or a city that we lived in long ago — we can’t help but notice how much we’ve changed. I like the emotion of these moments, an appreciation of how much I’ve evolved and changed mixed in with nostalgia for times past. I enjoyed that feeling so much in fact, that I chose to prolong it by writing a post telling you about the new insights and ideas that I had.

One of the unique features of the book is how quotable it is. It is full of short, succinct one liners packed with wisdom. So I’m going to throw a lot of quotes at you and tell you how I related to them.

The War of Art is about Resistance. So what is Resistance?

Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.

Resistance is not a physical object, it’s not something out there in the world. Yet, it’s something that we’ve all experienced. SP sums it up well in the quote above — it’s a force field that forms around the work that we set out to do, constantly pushing us away.

The most common form Resistance takes is procrastination. This makes sense if you remember a time when you knew you had to finish an important task, yet failed to make a start on it, not just once, but numerous times. What else were you experiencing there, if not a repelling force just like the one you feel when you try to bring two like poles of a magnet together.

The thing about Resistance though, is that it doesn’t just take one form. It is the ultimate shape-shifter, being able to take whatever form will help it halt us in our tracks.

Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is protean. It will assume any form, if that’s what it takes to deceive you.

The form that resistance takes will be unique to each of us. Some people will create drama in their lives, some will get addicted to shopping or gambling while others will concoct the most elaborate excuses in their heads to explain why they can’t sit down and do the work:

When I began this book, Resistance almost beat me. This is the form it took. It told me (the voice in my head) that I was a writer of fiction, not nonfiction, and that I shouldn’t be exposing these concepts of Resistance literally and overtly; rather, I should incorporate them metaphorically into a novel. That’s a pretty damn subtle and convincing argument.

So far, whilst in the process of writing this post, I’ve convinced myself that my girlfriend was out to sabotage my writing, and that I needed to solve a very important technical problem at work before I could get started. All of these rationalisations are so true to me in the moment that I know with certainty that I have to attend to them straight away. It’s only later that I realise that I’ve been fooled by Resistance.

Rationalization is Resistance’s right-hand man. Its job is to keep us from feeling the shame we would feel if we truly faced what cowards we are for not doing our work.

I like the above quote because it allowed me to see an aspect of my own mental processes clearly. Let me explain. My Resistance likes to take the form of shiny tools. I’ve lost count of the times that I sit down to code an app and suddenly realise that it’s impossible to start until the configuration of my text editor is exactly right. I tell myself that I’m going to spend 5 minutes working on my setup and the next thing I know, hours have passed me by and I’ve put off the work that I genuinely cared about for another day.

Yet in the days after reading this last quote, I’ve been able to interrupt the loop. I’ve been able to stop in the middle of my rabbit hole, and gain consciousness that what I’m actually is doing is distracting myself so I don’t have to face Resistance head on. Why? Because this would mean discomfort, fear and self-doubt.

It might sound like an exaggeration, fear and self-doubt. What I forgot to say is that Resistance doesn’t just show up for any 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.

Soul-evolving work, almost by definition, lies outside our comfort zone. Sitting down to do it means having to deal with the fear we’re not good enough and with the self doubt that tells us we’re kidding ourselves if we really think we can achieve our dreams. And who wants to face that? Much easier to convince myself that I should try out that hot new note-taking app everyone’s been talking about.

But there’s a twist:

Self-doubt can be an ally. This is because it serves as an indicator of aspiration. It reflects love, love of something we dream of doing, and desire, desire to do it.

And so, we are confronted with a dilemma — we will know that we are on the right path when Resistance uses the most sophisticated and powerful weapons in its psycho-emotional arsenal against us. Choosing to do the work that is most meaningful to us will demand the most emotional labour from us.

We’re forced to conclude that we if we’re going to do our greatest work, we are going to have to battle resistance every day. The title of the book makes sense then. Art is war. But not a war out there. It is a war that will rage inside of us, every day we sit down to do our work.

Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.

So as creators, we accept that facing Resistance will be a daily struggle. Because once we swallow this bitter pill we can move on to taking appropriate action. And what action is that? Well that’s the topic of the next post. Stay tuned.