The War of Art or Sometimes You Need A Swift Kick In the Ass

When I was about eight years old and my best friend’s mom would get mad at her, she would threaten to send her to “Tough Love”. Tough Love was supposedly a place where bad children were sent to learn discipline by way of extremely long hikes, sleep deprivation, and going to the bathroom outdoors -basically, camping. Even now if you want to motivate me to change my behavior, threaten me with camping. Just the mention of it has me gasping, clutching my invisible pearls and subtly shaking my head, “No.” To two chubby suburban eight year old girls, who were never big fans of physical exertion, Tough Love sounded like torture in the woods. My parents employed the time honored technique of, “Wait till your father gets home!”, so I had not heard of the horror that  was Tough Love. I asked my friend, Diana, if Tough Love was a real place. She said, “I don’t know, but I’m not taking any chances!”

But it turns out, tough love (actual tough love, not the mythical camp for chunky girls who sass their parents) is sometimes exactly what we need. I don’t know about you, but I can get stuck in a certain mindset- and it’s never a happy, positive, “I can do anything!” mindset. Why is that? Anyway, it helps when someone can look at me and say, “Look, I care about you, but I am not going to listen to you whine. You know what you have to do-  shut up, do the work, and get going,”

Enter the book, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. It’s like a pocket-sized swift kick in the ass that you didn’t even know you needed. Like it’s namesake, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, the book is broken down into small  chunks and is a quick read. But don’t think it’s small size means lack of substance. I’ve highlighted something on almost every page.

The entire premise of the book is that we are each fighting a war against Resistance. What is Resistance? It’s that internal voice that tells us that we cannot possibly succeed, so don’t even bother trying. Pressfield defines it like this:

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

He goes on to say:

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

Who hasn’t been there at some point? Without quoting the entire book, Pressfield goes on to describe the internal struggle with Resistance and how, left unchecked, it can defeat us. I love that he never shies away from telling us that art is still work. It seem to be a huge misconception that art just sort of “is” and springs forth from thought. I guess in a way it does, but no more then anything else. Getting something down on paper or canvas or computer still requires method, planning, and work.

My favorite section is called “Turning Pro” where the author describes the difference between being a “professional” and an “amateur”.

The amateur has not mastered the technique of his art. Nor does he expose himself to judgement in the real world. If we show our poem to our friend and our friend says, “It’s wonderful, I love it,” that’s not real-world feedback, that’s our friend being nice to us. Nothing is as empowering as real-world validation, even if it’s for failure.

Ouch. But completely true. He follows with a story about his writing a movie that was a universal flop and being pretty down about it. His friend asked him if he was going to give up. Pressfield said of course not. His friend replied, “Then be happy. You’re where you wanted to be, aren’t you? So you’re taking a few blows. That’s the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines. Stop complaining and be grateful.”   See what I mean? Tough love.

So many things spoke to me in this book, but I think this next one effected me the most. If there were a way to add little stars, circles and flashing arrows to a Kindle highlight, I would do it for this passage. There is something oddly freeing about knowing your fears will always be there.

The amateur believes 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.

I really can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone (not just artists) who need that little extra something to get moving.

Housekeeping note: The design page is updated with the book jacket pictures. You may have noticed the blog has a new look this week. While I really like it, I can’t figure out how to resize the font in the header so the word “Design” isn’t quite so lonely. If anyone knows how to fix it, I would so appreciate if you could clue me in! Thanks for reading and have a great week!


110 thoughts on “The War of Art or Sometimes You Need A Swift Kick In the Ass

  1. “The amateur believes 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.”

    Otherwise known as, “Once I am perfect, I can be the real me.” Nope. Sounds like a good read.

  2. I need to give this book a shot. I’m always looking for new books to get half-way through only to put down and rediscover 10 years later, perhaps this will be my newest addition to the pile. However, if what you are saying is true, I may never want to put it down. Were you hoping for more in the end or did it leave you feeling empowered, exhausted, or any other feeling of relief?

  3. it is true when they say,” what you resist persists.” the best way to overcome this resistance is to let it overcome you and then just say, screw you to it

  4. I first read the War of Art about 6 or 7 years ago when I was starting to see writing as an art form and since then have taken the maxim (i believe it’s from the pro section) that “one needs to take all distractions and put them second to creating art”. I think this is the single most important lesson any artist should learn. Work, sex, school, drugs, television should all be second to your art. Later in life, I read Outliers by Gladwell and it has, like most of his books, one good chapter that gets repeated ad nauseum. In it, he states that to become a professional you must dedicate at least 10,000 hours of time. He cites the Beatles

    • That’s one of the things I appreciated about “War of Art” is that it’s very much to the point. I think it’s one of those books that depending on where you are in your life, you get different messages out of it. I didn’t realize it when I wrote this, but when I have a tough critique or the ideas aren’t coming, the thing I keep hearing over and over in my head is, “That’s the price you pay for being in the arena and not on the sidelines.”

  5. Aaaand now I have my next reading assignment. Thanks for this great entry, I’ll definitely check this book out!! And also, it’s always wonderful to see blogs where the writer encourages her readers to risk failure and disillusionment (ie tough love) for the sake of actually learning something instead of clinging to uncertain second-hand ideas.

  6. This was a great post. I constantly grapple with the same issues creatively. “It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be” practically lives on my desktop. It’s more of a business inspirational book as it relates to advertising and the creative process, but it provides me with just over 120 pages of insightful kick-it-into-gear motivation. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  7. I love this book. It says all of the things you don’t really want to hear but know deep down are true. “There is something oddly freeing about knowing your fears will always be there.” SO true!

    I wrote a post that explored Pressfield’s ideas about time management, if want to check it out: (though I know replying to all of your freshly pressed comments will take up a lot of your free time. I’ve been there. Congrats!). Another book you may want to check out is “The Creative Habit” by Twyla Tharp. It’s a fantastic guidebook through the creative process, also full of swift kicks to the pants, motivation and inspiration. Nice post! Take care. xx

  8. i am obsessed with seahorses so i stumbled on your blog when i found out a blog i was looking for is no longer in existence and i was sent to a page with other blogs listed, the seahorse picture got me to click right away lol. How did you photograph them? It looks like they are floating over a moon!
    I will also check out the book you recommended. It sounds like something I really need right now. I am so happy i discovered your blog!

    • Thanks for commenting, Sally! That photo was taken at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago about a year ago. They were floating up to the top of the tank like that as we were walking by, so it was a case of being at the right place at the right time. The off-exhibit area at the top of the tank was open to natural light and that caused the background to be very bright, the silhouetting-type effect and the colors in the water. I enhanced the saturation and blacks a little in Adobe Lightroom and that’s really about it.

  9. This is great to hear, especially after being rejected from yet another writing job (I have experience but for some reason just am not getting a job – maybe some kind of internal resistance.) I also adore the seahorse photo. Would also like to know how you photographed them. So happy to have found you.

    • Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you found me, too! Things will turn around for you, I am sure. That’s one of the crappy things about anything artistic is that it’s so subjective. One person can love it and another thinks it’s horrid. The seahorse photo was more or less being in the right place at the right time. The tank is open to natural light on the off-exhibit side and it gave the water those great colors and the silhouette.

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

    This I will be pondering all weekend. And I will have a margarita tomorrow. But I’ll still be pondering that quote…


  11. Rarely do I read a “Fresh Pressed” post. But this evening I did and glad for it. I have to pick up my latest photo rag and will certainly look for the book at my fav local bookseller. I liked and followed and followed. Love coming across gems like this.

  12. Often “the amateur” is the one who is the true master, not needing external attention/accolades for their efforts. They do it because it is a thing to be done, not because it is noticed by anyone.

    As a taoist for well over 20 years, I see your grasp of eastern thought is very new and not well-developed yet. It’s easy to carry a book in your pocket. Not so easy to truly comprehend its esoteric meanings. Do continue. When you are an old, old person, you will finally get it.

    Here is an old taoist story.

    A student asks her master how she can tell the truly enlightened.

    “Ah, well, that is very difficult, because the truly enlightened never show themselves. No. They are without ego and they travel incognito. They are most often found in dark, humble corners doing mundane things. Often, you will not know who they are because they never reveal themselves.”

    “Oh,” says the student, disappointed. She sits in silence for a while. After some time, she stumbles on an idea.

    She asks this:

    “Well, then, master, how do you tell the one’s who are NOT enlightened?”

    The master smiles, glad for the student’s contemplation of the problem.

    “Ah, that is easy. They are always the first ones to stand up and say they are.”

    Artists are the same way. Easy to step up and “make” what is popular and lucrative. Not so easy to stand in front of a canvas and strip yourself naked and be authentic.

    • In “The War of Art”, professional and amateur are not defined as “someone who is paid and someone who is not.” They are defined by attitude. A professional is someone who is serious and borderline obsessed with their craft (be it artistic or otherwise) and knows that, like anything else, it takes work.

      Steven Pressfield says it like this:
      “The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning, ‘to love.’ The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love while the professional does it for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his ‘real” vocation.

      “The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full time.

      “That’s what I man when I say turning pro.”

      Thanks for the comment and for giving me a chance to clear that up!

      • See, you are not grokking the spirit of the thing at all. Westerners are all about “more, better, etc.” It’s about hierarchy. So, fine, follow your pressfield guy. I do take issue when you start superficially waving around a sacred ancient text, knowing nothing about it, using it to stuff into your western hierarchical picture of who a “real” artist is or not.

        The point is, easterners don’t go around spewing like this. They just close the door and do it, so you never, ever here them going on and on about all this nonsense of amateur vs. professional. That’s the childish western way of thinking. Who are you or pressfield to decide who’s “legitimate” or not???

        And, your writing reveals that notion that true artisitic people have to be “obsessed.” and on the brink of mental illness. NOT. They are dedicated and focussed. They don’t need to make a big dramatic deal out of themselves. They do what they do everyday just like all the other life sustaining things they do because they would die if they didn’t. They simply cannot not do it. They just do it without fanfare.

        So, put the Art of War back where it belongs, in someone’s hands who actually understands its meaning. You, like so many westerners who think they apprehend something just because they read it, have taken it and twisted it up into the twisted western philosophies. The art of war is about doing – and that means years and years of physical practice in the martial arts.

      • Umm…okay. I see you are passionate about this. I’m not “waving around a sacred ancient text” at all. I am talking about one specific book- The War of Art by Steven Pressfield that has been very helpful for me personally. My aim on this post, and all posts, is to help others who may be dealing with the same issues. If it’s not helpful, that’s fine, too. I’m sorry that there wasn’t something here that was more helpful for you, but I love your passion and thank you for taking the time to comment.

      • Nice condescension, there, Beth. Passion without intellect is nothing, and you have entirely missed the latter.

        Art isn’t about war. It is about self-expression. None of this hierarchical, competitive stuff, no subjective ideas about who is a “professional” and who is not.

        I would suggest an author who has a very broad, integrated approach in talking about being an artist in a commodified world. His name is Lewis Hyde and his book is called “The Gift.”

      • I find it revealing that you see Beth’s comments as “condescension” when yourtone is absolutely dripping with condescension. Maybe its just me.

        Frankly, I find everyone has a path and we are fools to measure how much farther we are along our path, relative to our neighbors. Can we agree that we all benefit from reflection, and like my view in a mirror, we all see a different reflection? So your truth is relative to your point of view, and your criticisms are born of your life experience.

        I admire Beth’s effort at sharing wisdom with the masses, and if indeed I am in some small way feeling wiser than her or her readers, then the path of nobility is to hold my toungue.

        Not to belittle anyone’s contributions, but to spread some more light in a very dark world is a good intent and Beth is sharing her light with the world and that pleases me.

  13. Fantastic post! I immediately went online and reserved it at the library. Can’t wait to read it and get my own swift kick 🙂

      • Me as well. It is rare to find such a detailed breakdown of any process in consciousness. It’s funny that I find myself often thinking this way, but when it comes down to articulating it, I’m not fast enough? Have you read Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct?

  14. Hey, I just read your article which strongly resonated with me. Made me want to read the book. Then I got stuck on sistertongue’s comment on it, where it was bashed as a piece of nonsense western philosophy that was all about “ego” and “being better” and it made me think, because the way I read the article – not the book, because I haven’t read it yet – was not about being better, but about allowing yourself to be authentic, to live.
    I felt the urge to comment as well but at the same time I felt fearful of having to take a bashing from that eastern critic too. Funnily enough the article was making a point about just that fear. So, never mind, I take the bashing.
    It’s probably true that the book is written from a western perspective and it really seems to be dealing with that western “thing” of needing to be an outstanding individual. But to me, reading your review of it, Beth, offers me – a westerner struggling with exactly that part of the culture I grew up in – a rope to cope. Maybe a rope that a critical easterner neither needs nor recognizes. As I said, it resonates with me. That “Resistance [from] within”, is one that I know very well. And while I think that resistance is important and a natural part of life, I think it can turn into something very harmful and self-destructive as well. I resist what I fear (and here comes the point where the two positions meet), which is to drown in this society of mine, if I am not outstanding. To me the message is to step up against that fear that’s holding me hostage and allow myself to take part in life, EVEN IF I’M NOT BETTER, GREATER, EXTRAORDINARY…
    This reflects my wish to be counted. Not as Ms Superstar but as someone, who has a part to play in this world, someone who belongs in this world. Because I suffer from a lack of belonging – I lose my sense of being part of the world all too often. A sense that, if it was firmly established in my mental makeup, would surely void the wish to count, because there would no longer be a sense of being “outside”, of being some mistaken freak of nature that should not exist. And – yes – this may well be a western problem and an annoyance to easterners. Guess what? – It’s an annoyance to me too. Bash us, if you must, sistertongue. But ask yourself, if maybe you are a little bit about being better yourself. You do seem to be.

    • “To me the message is to step up against that fear that’s holding me hostage and allow myself to take part in life, EVEN IF I’M NOT BETTER, GREATER, EXTRAORDINARY…”

      That is it in a nutshell. You said it more eloquently then I ever possibly could. There’s a great section in War of Art where he says something like, we are only entitled to the work, not the rewards and to not take success or failure personally. Also, to dedicate yourself to mastering your technique, because, from there, your style and voice will emerge.

      A couple of months ago I caught some show on HBO that was Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Louis C.K. talking about the business of comedy. Seinfeld asked Louis C.K. if he ever thought he would be as successful and popular as he has become. He replied that he never really thought about being successful when he first started. When he went to the comedy clubs and saw the other comedians, he just wanted to be “one of them.” That’s sort of how I see being an artist. I don’t know that I will ever be a monetarily successful designer and/or artist, but I just want to be one of them.

      • Thanx for your answer. You know, your post is really mirroring what I’m feeling at the mo. I have a vision of a professional project about arts and conflict transformation that I want to make happen but I’m struggling with my fear of failure like a mad thing. It took a long time for me to accept that fear was a compagnion for life – I had always been hoping to find the key to get rid of it. Now it’s taking a lot of effort to feel the fear but make a move anyway. It is incredible, how often we deny ourselves the experience of trying and thus of living instead of standing by, on the grounds that we might not succeed. But it helps to know that that resistance is just part of the package too. So, we can deflate the fear, put in the effort and remember that life’s about processes, not predefined outcomes. I will definitely read the book, I can really do with a swift kick in the butt :o)

      • I completely understand. Once you know it’s going to be there all the time, you can learn to work with it instead of fighting it. Not to get all Yoda on you, but the only way we truly fail is to not try at all. Something I have to remind myself of frequently.

        Georgia O’Keeffe had this great quote that I try to keep in mind. “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I’ve wanted to do.”

  15. Great post! Yes I wholeheartedly agree with tbe author, this book is excellent. It spoke directly to me. I wish that I discovered it in my teens rather than my 30’s. Also, the few instances in my childhood that I spent time with my fathe, he tried that “tough love” camping bullshit on me. “Jump over that gaping chasm, use this twig as a bridge, don’t think about it just do it!” Fucking moron. Anyways, I was a chubby 9 year old and i totally feel ya.

  16. Interesting discovery. Tempts me to look for that book. It is similar to Rhonda Byrne’s books, the secret and the power, highly inspirational and motivating book 🙂

  17. Hi Beth,
    I am so ordering this book today! Thanks for the great review. I, like you, may have to have highlights on each page but will have to also carry it around with me:).

  18. I’m just doing an Intelligence and National Security course at the moment where “The Art of War” was a core reading at the beginning of the term; from what you wrote “The War of Art” seems nothing like it:( I would give this book a try as I’m having a little block with my study, but isn’t it too much like all the other “self-help” books, or packed with sententiae Paulo Coelho -style books?

  19. You know this concept is true we do defeat ourselves before trying to explore the depths of our creativity. I guess its because we feel talent is suppose to be a natural trait. Like its suppose to just come to us like nothing but that isn’t always the case, i know this from thew variety of things i pursue and transitioning from one thing to another can be a little frustrating. A little practice never hurt no one and you’d be fooling your self to believe that the Lady Gaga’s of this world didn’t need some kind of warm up before going out and performing for us and that may be the case for everything else, even if you are a natural talent. Create and create until something special eventually shows itself from your work, it has always worked for me -,o

  20. I received this book as a gift several years ago, and have been meaning to read it! Thanks for reminding me that it will be worth my reading! Sounds fantastic!

  21. Thanks for pointing this book out,… who doesn’t need a good kick in the A$$ every once in awhile! He seems to have a Deepak Chopra type way of creating awareness to the little voice within that is resistance. Love it, thanks again

  22. Wow, just your selected quotes from the book were helpful. I will get it. It sounds like someone wrote it after peeking inside my brain. Thank you for the interesting post.

  23. There are certain events in our life that “become the core of your being.” They “make available to you the ultimate resurrection of your soul.” – Dr. Kenneth Garett

  24. Beth, I was happy to see your post on this book. I recently got the audio version, love it, and want to get a hard copy because I need to highlight so much! My favorite parts, too are about professional and amateur and about the things you resist most are the most important things you should do. I’ve always said that I was a professional self-taught artist and amateur photographer. I see them both in a different way now.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this amazing book!!! Your art and photography is beautiful, btw!

  25. Pingback: House on the Rock or Congratulations! Your Nightmares are Real! | Beth Brousil Photography and Design

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