The subject of today’s post is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, a short but powerful little summary of the Resistance attacking all creative activity and how to overcome it. The title is a pun, of course, since it’s the exact inverse of Sun Tzu’s famous strategic tome The Art of War – much referenced in The 48 Laws of Power, and something I will return to sooner or later anyway.

Unlike Sun Tzu, however, here we’re not going to war in an artistic manner, but fighting for art itself with warlike dedication. And how we do it is already clear from the preface, so we’re not selling pig-in-a-poke: the three main sections are on Resistance, Professionalism, and Inspiration. If we want to be very abstract and concise, it’s probably really “just” a matter of:

  1. There’s this Resistance thing, it takes all sorts of forms, and it fucks up your life;

  2. Be a Professional, fuck Resistance, do it anyway, put the work in; and

  3. If you do it right (and enough!), then even Inspiration might strike from time to time.

This simplicity is probably why the reviews tend to be so polarized between the “So good!” and the “That’s it?!” camps. Well… I think it’s “So good!”, but a lot of it is due to the details. So instead of oversimplifying, let’s run through my notes a bit more in depth!


It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.

Resistance is in fact nothing more than the “force” that prevents us from doing our work – whatever it may be. And it can be useful to “give a face to the enemy”, even if it’s us. Because – spoiler alert – we are the enemy.

So many people are unaware of their responsibility and seriously believe their own bullshit to begin with. They have no talent, their circumstances are unfortunate, they have no time, and they are generally the sacrificial lambs of life. This book can be useful as their “wake-up call”, if nothing else.

Of course, those of us who are already beyond this stage and recognize our agency can also benefit, because although the agency is with us, blaming ourselves may not be the right tactic. But what if we could think of it as something outside of ourselves that we can literally deal with…

Interesting mental journey, just to arrive seemingly at the same place, isn’t it? We go from “mistakenly believing it to be an external effect” to knowing it’s internal, and from there to consciously pretending that it’s external again so that we can overcome it more easily. Isn’t the human mind weird?

We then move on to a detailed description of Resistance, and I think everyone will be familiar with at least a few of these symptoms. For example, Resistance can’t be reasoned with! If we get into an argument with it, we’ve already lost. Its sole purpose is to obstruct us, after all, and it will invent just about anything to achieve it! If we realize this and don’t blindly believe what it tells us, we might even find the excuses it comes up with amusing sometimes. I know I do – I often laugh at myself for the excuse-candidates flooding my head unbidden as soon as it’s time to do anything I don’t want to.

Another important feature of Resistance is that it will never go away, so we have to get used to dealing with it day in and day out!

As artists and professionals it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls.

An insidious form of Resistance worth singling out is Procrastination. It’s especially strong because it means we don’t actually have to face the fact that we are not going to do something. We simply tell ourselves that “we will do it later”. And this is exactly what the Death section of the Meditations is for! The counterpart of this phenomenon (and the “right hand of Resistance”) is Rationalization, where we already “face” the task, but figure out why it’s not a good idea anyway.

Along with these, of course, we binge eat, do drugs, watch TV, and jump in and out of relationships, because they are good distractions with their immediate pleasure. We are also very good at generating drama, because it makes even an otherwise empty life seem full. And by “drama”, I don’t just mean our relationships with others; we can create drama on our own if we need to. If something’s regularly wrong in our lives, it should be suspicious after a while!

In our defense, we have no evolutionary support for the overwhelming freedom of our time. Traditions and norms are fading, and if we do not take personal responsibility alongside this, it is easy to “get lost”. To sum up in the words of the author:

[…] the advantages I’ve had of education, affluence, family support, health, and the blind good luck to be born American, and still I have learned to exist as an autonomous individual, if indeed I have, only by a whisker […]

It’s also an interesting observation that people who criticize others left and right are most often those who are not living their “authentic” lives themselves. Those who are OK inside usually either shut up or encourage. And it’s not a bad rule of thumb either that the more we fear something, the more likely it becomes that that’s exactly what we’d need to be dealing with. If we didn’t care, you wouldn’t be afraid, right?

The athlete knows the day will never come when he wakes up pain-free. He has to play hurt.


Remember in the Flow post about how “amateur” is not a negative term? Well now it is – and in this context, rightly so! After all, we’re not talking about the miscellaneous areas of life here, we’re talking about our “profession”, and anyone who works only as an amateur at their true calling instead of dedicating their life to it is not a professional.

I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.

– W. Somerset Maugham

We have to be able to tolerate it – even enjoy it – when it sucks, because if we really put ourselves out there, it will suck pretty often. Think of the shit we have to deal with in our regular jobs. Whatever it is, we handle it professionally, because we’re there every day, putting up with it, and just pulling our weight. And that’s exactly what we should be doing, only for ourselves, not just for our bosses!

The real professional:

  • Is patient (in a tortoise vs. hare kind of way),

  • Is orderly, doesn’t tolerate chaos (because that would just slow him down),

  • Doesn’t over-mystify his art, just keeps on “shoveling”,

  • Doesn’t wait for the end of fear (which never comes), and does it while afraid,

  • Does not accept excuses (especially from himself),

  • Does not flaunt his style,

  • Concentrates on technical knowledge (which he can control) so that when inspiration strikes (which he can’t control) he is better prepared,

  • Never believes that he already knows everything (i.e., is always open to learning),

  • Never takes criticism (or success!) personally.

The last point deserves a little extra attention. The important thing for both success and criticism is not to over-identify with a single piece of work! The professional embodies countless creations at once, and even if a particular creation sucks, the next one can still be better. We can – and should – learn from criticism, but only allow it to improve us, not stop us!

A great tip for adhering to professional principles is to think of ourselves as a company! Even if you (the artist) get carried away with success, you (the boss) will put him in his place. Even if you (the artist) are getting kicked around by critics, you (the boss) will still expect him to work. Even if you (the artist) don’t have the guts to charge for your work, you (the boss) won’t hesitate to set the prices…


If there is Resistance to hold us back, there are also “muses” who will help us. But let’s not get too comfortable, the work is still the most important thing!

However, if we work properly, the muse will surely “reward” us in time. We may not understand how or why, but we don’t necessarily need to. It’s one of those things that the professional knows and the amateur doesn’t: if we work, inspiration will come.

Here follows a very spiritual and, to the logical mind, very flimsy argument about why there are angels, how creativity affects us, how we invite the muse in, etc. But as the preface – and later the author himself – notes, this doesn’t need be be taken so literally. If we want to refer to this phenomenon in our minds as the subconscious, inspiration, or the Universe instead of muses, we’re free to do so.

The point is that when we are really sincere about something, it will seem like life is helping us along. As we go about our business, we will constantly receive dictation and advice from a higher intelligence. This (among others) is why the true artist stays humble: he knows that his creation isn’t really his, it’s just “flowing through” him.

The book repeatedly argues for “one true purpose in life”, which I’m personally not convinced of (yet). I think we can be fulfilled in any choice we make, if we choose to be; but this doesn’t necessarily have to lead to a contradiction. Let’s say we view what we end up choosing is the thing that we were supposed to have chosen. Case closed.

It is also instructive to hear the author’s psychologist friend talk about his cancer patients. His general observation is that, after the diagnosis, many things that were very important suddenly become trivial; and vice versa, many previously trivial things suddenly come into focus. The friend tries to interpret this along the lines of Jungian psychology, that is, Ego (our conscious mind) vs. Self (which includes the unconscious). And when faced with the finite nature of our lives, what actually happens is that our perspective shifts from the Ego to the Self (where, obviously, the values are completely different). In this respect, the lesson remains the same as it was in Meditations or in Flow: this change in perspective shouldn’t necessarily require an actual death sentence! We can get in touch with our own Self sooner, and it would serve us well.

And here we come to perhaps the most important theme of this section: the “hierarchical” vs. “territorial” perspectives. The societal default is the hierarchical view – trying to place oneself above or below others – which isn’t optimal for anyone, let alone for an artist. It doesn’t work in larger groups anyway, because in the modern world, there are simply too many of us to create a meaningful hierarchy. To put it another way: no one gives a flying fuck about your Rolex. Or as a former boss of mine used to say, “There’s always a bigger BMW!” But if we get used to looking up and down the rungs, we’ll forget where we should be looking the most: inwards.

By contrast, with a territorial vision, we see ourselves as having our “home turf” instead. Our territory that supplies us; but it does not give, it only gives back! It becomes our territory simply by how much energy we put into it. This thinking represents something that we do for its own sake, and what we give goes directly into our “karma account”. And if we take this attitude – instead of aiming for something that will make money somehow – we open ourselves up to our subconscious (the muse, the angels, the higher intelligence). In effect, we become an intermediary of our creation, not the source – at least, not the conscious source.

A good test of our true motives is to ask ourselves: “If I were the last person on earth, would I still be doing this?” If so, congratulations, do it!

This leads us nicely to the final lesson: the main virtue of a “true artist” is the ability to look down on failure. For failure is always based on some level of judgment from others, and if we care about that, it reflects hierarchical thinking. And if we are the only ones who are not satisfied with ourselves, that can easily be solved through more work. Who cares how fast things start rolling? Who cares about “rolling” at all? Let’s just do what we do for ourselves, because that’s all we can control. Judgment is not our business, so let’s leave it to others.

You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work.

– Bhagavad-gita


The whole book can be succinctly summed up with the following quote:

Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.

– Chuck Close

So my prediction at the beginning was almost entirely correct – and yet it wasn’t. Correct in the sense that the overarching structure (and most of the message) was right under our noses, but that wasn’t supposed to be a surprise. But incorrect in the sense that, alongside the basic message, we also stumbled across a number of insights that oversimplification would have missed.

For example, in the Resistance section, I think our main reward is not the characterization of the Resistance, but the personification of it. We can think of it as a separate character – even a “boss”, in gamer terms – which makes fighting it much easier. In the Professionalism section, treating ourselves as a business caused the most significant mental shift, which I will definitely try to use in the future. And in the Inspiration section, the hierarchical vs. territorial metaphor stuck the most. Not necessarily because it is so new, but because – for me at least – it puts familiar things in such a new light.

So yeah, I think all this warring for the sake of art was a really useful round indeed!