The Profile Dossier: Steven Pressfield, the author helping you defeat ‘resistance’
“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance."
Steven Pressfield wrote for 27 years before he published his first novel at age 52. During that time, he worked 21 different jobs in 11 different states.
“I taught school, I drove tractor-trailers, I worked in advertising and as a screenwriter in Hollywood, I worked on offshore oil rigs, I picked fruit as a migrant worker,” he writes.
Though he had a passion for writing, he never pursued it because of what he calls an inner “resistance.” He describes this “resistance” as a form of self-sabotage and “a negative force that keeps you from fulfilling your dreams.” In short, he defines it as “the enemy within.”
Resistance is what prevents us from launching our business, writing our first book, improving our health, and running a marathon. It’s a powerful force that often shows up when the project you’re undertaking is particularly meaningful and important to you.
Pressfield had succumbed to its power for decades.
He had been writing for years, and he had one novel nine-tenths of the way finished and another at ninety-nine hundredths before he threw them in the trash. He didn’t have the confidence to finish. Something was standing in his way. And then one day, he felt a compulsion to just sit down and write. Pressfield tuned out all other distractions — so much so that he missed Watergate.
He finally got to the final two words of the book: “THE END.” Pressfield describes that moment as epochal because he had finally defeated his worst enemy: Resistance.
“Nobody knew I was done. Nobody cared. But I knew. I felt like a dragon I’d been fighting all my life had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out its last sulfuric breath,” he writes. “Rest in peace, motherfucker.”
He never found a buyer for the book, and it wouldn’t be for another 10 years that he would make a penny from his writing. Finally, at age 52, Pressfield finally published his first novel for publication, The Legend of Bagger Vance.
Pressfield is a writer who doesn’t fully believe in talent. He believes in consistent work, hour after hour, day after day. “We can’t control the level of talent we’ve been given,” he says. “We have no control over the nature of our gift. What we can control is our self-motivation, our self-discipline, our self-validation, and our self-reinforcement. We can control how hard and how smart we work.”
And once he published his first book, he hasn’t stopped. As the author of Gates of Fire, The War of Art, A Man at Arms, and Govt Cheese, Pressfield is now outspoken about breaking through the creative blocks that keep you from producing your most meaningful work.
“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance,” Pressfield writes.
Here’s what we can learn about defeating resistance, doing the work, and unlocking our inner creative genius.
On the war of art: This book has been recommended by everyone from Joe Rogan to Lex Fridman. I read it in one evening. It has everything you need to inspire and support those who struggle to express their creativity. Pressfield believes that “resistance” is the greatest enemy, and he offers many unique and helpful ways to overcome it. So, so good.
On helpful delusions: In this must-listen Tim Ferriss episode, Pressfield explains the idea of “helpful delusions” — things you are in denial of that could actually work to your advantage. For instance, he says, he’s “of a certain age” and he simply refuses to accept the notion that he’s “old.” What are some ways you can brainwash yourself for the better?
On summoning the muse: To Pressfield, the muse is the ultimate source of ideas. You could look at it as a manifestation of your soul. “It’s the soul trying to reach down to us and communicate with us, and we’re trying to simultaneously to reach up to it,” he says. “If you’re a writer and you sit down at the keyboard, you’re opening yourself to an altered consciousness.”
On the power of individual creativity: In this podcast, Pressfield unpacks the notion that everyone holds a river of creativity that’s totally unique to each of us. “If we yield to our resistance and our fear, that underground river doesn’t go away,” he says. “It flows into a negative channel, and it starts to fk us — physically, emotionally, and psychologically.”
On pursuing the warrior ethos: To face the blank page, you have to be a warrior. Pressfield says every creator needs to take the warrior virtues of courage, patience, camaraderie, selflessness, and the willing embracing of adversity. “When every fiber of your being is screaming, ‘stop,’ then you have to call upon something right,” Pressfield says. “And I think that’s your warrior mentality.”
Get out of the ‘life hack’ frame of mind: Pressfield has one piece of advice for all of the aspiring creators out there: Start failing. “Be a cowboy,” he says. “Drive a truck. Join the Marine Corps. Get out of the hyper-competitive ‘life hack’ frame of mind.” The goal is to connect with your own self and your own soul. The way to do that? Adversity. “Everybody spends their life trying to avoid it. Me too. But the best things that ever happened to me came during the times when the shit hit the fan and I had nothing and nobody to help me,” he says. “Who are you really? What do you really want? Get out there and fail and find out.” The best way to get to know yourself isn’t through success — it’s through your most devastating failures. That’s where real growth happens.
You cannot succeed without pain or effort: To quote Pressfield, “Bad advice is everywhere.” The world is full of “get-rich-quick” schemes and nonsense masquerading as self-help. “The disease of our times is that we live on the surface,” he says. Pressfield believes that success cannot be acquired without pain or effort. Real satisfaction, he says, comes from straying from the surface and going deep into a subject matter you enjoy and “staying there for a long, long time.” Only then can you produce something of value that makes a meaningful difference in the world. And that is what will give you true satisfaction.
Fear will never go away — and that’s a good thing: The more scared you are, the better. I’ve completed my first book, for example, and I’m filled with excitement and terror. But Pressfield says fear is a good thing. “Fear doesn't go away,” he writes. “The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.” Remember, he adds, “the counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.” If you’re not scared, then you’re likely not taking a risk. And if you’re not taking a risk, then what the hell are you doing anyway?
Be grateful for your ‘broke’ days: Pressfield has two mantras for young writers: 1) Talent is bullsh*t. You’ve got to work, and 2) The work is everything. Pressfield quotes a (fictional) literary agent Marty Fabrikant, as quoted in The Knowledge: "And I'll tell you something else. Appreciate these days. These days when you're broke and struggling, they're the best days of your life. You're gonna break through, my boy, and when you do, you'll look back on this time and think this is when I was really an artist, when everything was pure and I had nothing but the dream and the work. Enjoy it now. Pay attention. These are the good days. Be grateful for them.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Betting on yourself is the best investment you can make: Pressfield has never invested in the stock market or taken a risk on anything or anyone but himself. “I decided a long time ago that I would only bet on myself. I will risk two years on a book that’ll probably fall flat on its face. I don’t mind. I tried. It didn’t work,” he says. “I believe in investing in your heart. That’s all I do, really. I’m a servant of the Muse. All my money is on her.” There is no better feeling than the freedom to decide what you work on, how you spend your time, and who you do business with. Betting on yourself is the hard path, but it’s also the most rewarding one.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“Our job in this life is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.”
“We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.”
“The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.”
“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.”
“It’s better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.”