Steven Pressfield is the bestselling author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire and The War of Art. The latter book spawned Do the Work, as readers kept asking, "What is this terrible thing called Resistance--and how can I overcome it?" Mr. Pressfield (who rarely calls himself "Mr. Pressfield") will release his next novel The Profession, in June. He is a graduate of Duke University and an honorary citizen of the city of Sparta in Greece.
Ishita Gupta is Head of Hoopla at the Domino Project, a new publishing venture created by Seth Godin and powered by Amazon, and is founder and editor of Fear.less Magazine, the popular online magazine dedicated to stories of overcoming fear. The magazine profiles leading thinkers and their experiences overcoming fear including Karen Armstrong, Tim O'Reilly, Paul Ekman, Howard Zinn, Julia Cameron and others. It's been called the most unique magazine of it's kind and is referred to as "Fast Company meets Oprah" by its readers.
Ishita: What is the distinction between Do the Work and War of Art, the book where you first introduced Resistance? Does Do the Work take it a step further?
Steve: Do the Work is structured to take the reader from A to Z. If the reader has a project they want to start or complete, such as a new business they want to open or a book they want to write, Do the Work is designed to take them from starting to shipping to hitting all the predictable resistance points along the way. I know you’re familiar with these moments, Ishita; The beginning, the middle, and all the moments in between just before you ship and then just after you ship. Do the Work guides you from the start of the project and takes you all the way through.
It’s about getting off your behind and starting something. And Seth Godin writes about this, that once you start, you have to finish; you don’t get off the hook half way through. I recently got an email from a guy who said, "Help. I’m stuck." He was in a class and he had to write a screenplay and he was a quarter of the way through. Normally I would cheer him on, but just for fun, I gave him a little program to do; I put on my instructor voice and said, "Do this, do that, do this, do that." It worked because right away he got over a couple speed bumps and took it all the way to the finish line. He loved it! I’d always been too shy to do that before, but I tried the assertive tone of voice and it really worked--he responded really well to it. So I thought, let me try that tone of voice in Do The Work.
Ishita: What did you tell him to do?
Steve: One of the first things I told him to do was to banish the self-censor. I could tell he was frozen, worrying, "Is this going to be good? Is this going to be perfect?" So I told him, "Take the next five days and write for two hours everyday. I don’t care what else is in your life--banish it. When you write for those two hours, start on minute one and don’t think for one second all the way through until minute 120. Just write, don’t self censor. Don’t do anything." That really seemed to get him moving and gave him permission to not be paralyzed with seeking perfection.
Ishita: You almost have to be ruthless with yourself when you’re confronting your censor. What do you think is the difference between our natural limitations and Resistance? How can we tell Resistance from our own stuff coming up?
Steve: First let me say one thing. My rule of thumb is: When in doubt, it’s Resistance. When you think it might be something else, it’s not, it’s Resistance. When I went through my 20s and early 30s, I had about a seven-year period where I wandered into the wilderness, I ran away from everything in my life, believing the voices in my head and not recognizing them as Resistance. I went through a long, long period of getting in my own way in a really bad way, hurting other people along the way. The worst stuff you can imagine. It was only after that, when I came to this rule of thumb that "When in doubt, it is Resistance." The answer is that you have to overcome it.
Ishita: So that was a time when you weren’t "doing the work?"
Steve: Absolutely, I wasn’t doing it at all.
Ishita: I relate to that. I’ll give you an example unrelated to creative work, but where Resistance rears its ugly head in a big way. Sometimes I’ll lace up my gym shoes, make the ten minute walk to the gym, and turn right back around and go home. And all the while I’m thinking, "What am I doing?!" I then wonder if there’s something before taking the action that comes into play, something that comes just prior to taking action.
Steve: I can just picture you now, Ishita.
Ishita: I don’t know if I should have told you that but there we have it!
Steve: I understand that. It’s almost like you have to say, "Put your ass where your heart wants to be" and just put your body there and do it. For me it seems like a head of steam has to build up inside before you’re actually able to take that plunge. That the pain of not doing it is worse then the pain of walking home from the gym, for example.
Ishita: You get so sick of not doing it that you force yourself to ultimately do it. It seems like we fight so hard against Resistance, it’s a never-ending battle. As soon as you’re done overcoming one obstacle, here comes another.
Steve: Absolutely, I mean, it never gets any easier. And it almost gets to a spiritual level, where it’s just part of the human condition. Simply put, there are dark forces in religions and views of the world that stop us from ascending to higher levels and stops the higher level from communicating with us. The ancient rabbis and monks and Zen masters recognized that as just a part of life. In America, we’re in this "Go, go, go" power positive thinking society, that we think there’s no such thing as evil or that we can overcome it by the proper social program or going to the right school, etc. But George Lucas was right: The dark force is there. And we have to fight it in ourselves everyday. It’s always there, just like gravity, and it’s always keeping us from being able to fly. Resistance is the same.
Ishita: I think about people who’ve made "it" at the top of their game. They’re putting stuff out into the world but it’s clear that Resistance still comes up. I’m learning that no matter what, there are always challenges and that no one really has it "made."
Steve: I don’t think anyone has it made at all. In fact, I love stories when an artist or a writer tells the various hells they went through who we now look at and think, "Wow, they must have been at the top of their game!" And then you realize that no, they were going through a divorce or lawsuits were filed against them, or their kids were sick or whatever. Yet they still did it. That’s just the way it is. It’s what separates the men from the boys, so to speak. There’s a famous story of Picasso after he had finished about 24 paintings for his next show. He invited his agent or his manager to his studio to look at the paintings and as Picasso was looking at them with his manager, he started to hate them. He grabbed a painting knife and started slashing the paintings. The manager absolutely freaked out and said, "NO, NO, NO!" but Picasso kept slashing until they were all ruined. Then he went back to the drawing board.
Ishita: That’s crazy--I had never heard that story! It shows just how powerful Resistance can really be. Switching gears to doing the work, how do you choose what’s next for you? How do you recognize a new challenge and mix it up for yourself?
Steve: I think you’re always starting from scratch when you come to a new project, Ishita. I always want to do something that number one I love--that just seizes me, rather than try to second-guess the marketplace. I also want to do something that’s new and that will make me stretch. At the same time I don’t want to go too far because I think that you can lose readers and your audience, so you go a half step at a time. You have to do something where you say, "I don’t know if I can pull this off." And in fact that you really think, "I don’t think I can pull this off." You want that feeling. So you’ll have to use new muscles and try something different. Fail, fail, fail, succeed, fail, fail, fail, succeed; That’s kind of the way it goes. I’m definitely a believer that you have to be as fearless as you can be. Usually the projects that work out best for me are the ones that I think to myself no one in the world is going to be interested in this except me. I’m starting a new one now, which I’m not going to tell you about, but I have that exact feeling, that I must be crazy to do this because no one will care about it but me. But I’m interested in it and so I’m doing it.
Ishita: The filmmaker Mira Nair said, "The more specific you get with your story, the more universal it becomes." So the more you do what you want and what lights your fire, the more people will resonate with it. That you delve so deeply into the story that interests you and you think, "Why would anyone else be interested in this?" but it’s exactly that reason that people will be interested in it.
Steve: I think that’s exactly true, Ishita. Like when you wrote me that email describing the MBA program you were a part of and how great it was, but also how challenging it was and that you cried every night. Then you wrote back and said, "Perhaps don’t publish that part?" and I thought it was actually the most charming and most involving part of our conversation about it because when I read that, I literally lit up and I said to myself, "Ah, I can just see it..." So you’re right. That’s a specific detail that really makes something universal because we all feel, "Yeah, I was crying every night too" at some point in time in our lives.
Ishita: As creators we collaborate and work on teams, but being alone is the nature of the job of being an artist or writer. How do you hold yourself accountable when it’s just you, solo--with no boss or "job" to hold yourself to? For example, how did you finally write your novel while you were living in your car with just your typewriter and no one else to motivate you?
Steve: That’s a great question. I just ran away from it for so long and in so many different avenues that proved to be dead ends, that I just ran out of places to run to. So the pain of not doing it was worse than the pain of doing it. I never really thought about it from an accountable point of view because I just had to do it, there was no question. I thought, "If I were to crap out now, I’d just have to hang myself." So for me at least, I don’t need anybody else’s opinion to make me go forward. I just know that I’ll be so unhappy inside myself if I don’t. And vice versa. I know I’ll feel good at the end of the day when I do put in the work and do what I need to do. I’ve done so many thousands of days where the day starts and there’s such huge Resistance but I push through and by the end of the day I feel great. I feel good that I’ve trained myself to know that that’s the only way to do it.
Ishita: I’m reading a memoir by Haruki Murakami, in which he talks about training himself for over 25 years. Solid days of putting in the work and training in the craft of writing and in running.
Steve: That’s exactly right. It is like training yourself. I always say that habit is a mighty ally for us. And that’s what Murakami probably meant. He gets up and laces up his shoes and doesn’t even think about it. The thought of "Should I crap out today?" may cross his mind, but the habit is so strong that he’s on autopilot. We need that to some extent. We need every resource we can to break through that Resistance.
Ishita: Who is a mentor of yours--someone who has helped you or given advice that’s really stuck with you?
Steve: I have probably a dozen mentors, a lot of who are my friends and peers, where we’ve traded encouragement and support and tips, that type of thing. But one in particular stands out: Norm Stall, whom I mention in Do the Work. Norm is probably the closest thing to a real mentor to me. His attitude is just no BS at all. He says, "Just sit down and do the work, Steve." He has no patience with anybody that fiddles around. He’s really hardcore and at the same time very funny. He just cuts through it all even when I’m whining, and it’s almost like boot camp. He’s probably my most mentor-y mentor.
Ishita: And I know you help many people yourself--like that man who emailed you. What other advice do you give people?
Steve: It’s kind of frustrating actually, Ishita, because practically nobody listens to you. That’s why I’d rather write about it than try to pump someone up. But the main advice I give is simply to do what you need to do; don’t talk about it, just sit down and do it. Stop talking right now and go do it. There’s just no substitute for action. You can’t not do anything, you must try to do something new. That’s the way it is today, people have to be more entrepreneurial and there’s no way around it. Certainly if you’re an artist you just have to start. And then keep going. There’s no alternative because the world is moving too fast.
Ishita: What about beginners who aren’t sure of their voice yet, and I’d consider myself in that group--people who are trying to find their voice. The running memoir is beautiful because so much of it is shaped by his personality, his voice.
Steve: That’s valid for someone to say and it goes back to what Charles Bukowski said, that he wrote for thirty years before he wrote a single sentence he felt was true. And I know Henry Miller and Hemingway said similar things. It’s really hard to find your voice and there’s no way to find it except to keep trying and trying and trying. Back in the day, I would just sit down and copy pages and pages of Henry Miller or Walker Percy on an old manual typewriter, just copy it word for word. It was not to so much learn whatever tricks they had, but to try and feel what a real voice felt like, even if it was somebody else’s voice. There’s no way around this as a writer. Unless you’re really lucky, it just takes years because what you’re trying to chip away at is that self-consciousness, that second-guessing of yourself. In a way it’s like meditation. Not that I’m a meditator, but I’ve read about it. You’re trying to get past all those false voices in your head until your real voice finally appears. And I think it only finally appears when everything else has been completely exhausted. You can’t cheat anymore. You’re just so tired that finally, your real voice blurts out. And you go "Wow, where did that come from?!"
It’s like in the movie Black Swan, where Natalie Portman needs to get in touch with her dark side before she could play the black swan. Her teacher put her through the paces and made her do it again and again and exhausted her until she sort of got to that point where she could break through. So it’s cliché, but it’s true. I don’t blame anyone for saying "I can’t find my voice." But the answer is you just have to keep trying. Wait for it to come. In 10 or 20 years down the line after you’ve beaten your head in the wall. Then the question is how much do you want it? This isn’t a game, and it’s not for the faint of heart. If you want it, you’ve got to pay the price. You’ve got to bleed a little.
In a way I think you’ve got to be a little crazy to want to do this sort of thing. You do. You’re not really a normal person, just like Natalie Portman’s character’s not normal, wanting to be this prima ballerina. And being this way drives her crazy. But, you’ve got to be a little crazy to want to do this sort of stuff.