Do the Work: Overcome Resistance and Get Out of Your Own Way – by Steven Pressfield
How strongly I recommend it: 10/10
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Go to the Amazon page for details.
If you find yourself hesitating of where to start or why you haven’t done it yet, get the book. It’ll kick your butt to do the work and find a way to make it happen. Simple, short and sharp.
Bad things happen when we employ rational thought, because rational thought comes from the ego.
When an artist says “Trust the soup,” she means let go of the need to control (which we can’t do anyway) and put your faith instead in the Source, the Mystery, the Quantum Soup. The deeper the source we work from, the better our stuff will be—and the more transformative it will be for us and for those we share it with.
Friends and Family
The problem with friends and family is that they know us as we are. They are invested in maintaining us as we are. The last thing we want is to remain as we are. If you’re reading this book, it’s because you sense inside you a second self, an unlived you.
Enough for now about the antagonists arrayed against us. Let’s consider the champions on our side:
- Blind faith
- Assistance (the opposite of Resistance)
- Friends and family
The universe is not indifferent. It is actively hostile.
We can never eliminate Resistance. It will never go away. But we can outsmart it, and we can enlist allies that are as powerful as it is. One thing we can never, never permit ourselves to do is to take Resistance lightly, to underestimate it or to fail to take it into account.
Fill in the Gaps
On our single sheet of foolscap we’ve got the Big Beats. Now what? Fill in the gaps.
That’s what we need now. We need to fill in the gaps with a series of great entertaining and enlightening scenes, sequences, or spaces.
Do Research Now
Now you can do your research. But stay on your diet. Do research early or late. Don’t stop working. Never do research in prime working time. Research can be fun. It can be seductive. That’s its danger. We need it, we love it. But we must never forget that research can become Resistance. Soak up what you need to fill in the gaps. Keep working.
One trick they use is to boil down their presentation to the following:
- A killer opening scene
- Two major set pieces in the middle
- A killer climax
- A concise statement of the theme
In other words, they’re filling in the gaps. The major beats. We can do that, too. If we’re inventing Twitter, we start with What Are You Doing Now?, the 140-character limit, and the Following. We fill in the gaps: the hashtag, the tiny URL, the re-tweet. If we’re writing The Hangover, we kick off with Losing Doug, Searching for Doug, Finding Doug. Fill in the blanks: Stu marries a stripper, Mike Tyson comes after his tiger, Mister Chow brings the muscle.
Any project or enterprise can be broken down into beginning, middle, and end. Fill in the gaps; then fill in the gaps between the gaps. When we’ve got David Lean’s eight sequences, we’re home except for one thing: The actual work.
Cover the Canvas
One rule for first full working drafts: get them done ASAP. Don’t worry about quality. Act, don’t reflect. Momentum is everything.
Get to THE END as if the devil himself were breathing down your neck and poking you in the butt with his pitchfork. Believe me, he is. Get the serum to Nome. Get the Conestoga wagon to the Oregon Trail. Get the first version of your project done from A to Z as fast as you can. Don’t stop. Don’t look down. Don’t think. Suspend All Self-Judgment Unless you’re building a sailboat or the Taj Mahal, I give you a free pass to screw up as much as you like.
The inner critic? His ass is not permitted in the building. Set forth without fear and without self-censorship. When you hear that voice in your head, blow it off. This draft is not being graded. There will be no pop quiz. Only one thing matters in this initial draft: get SOMETHING done, however flawed or imperfect. You are not allowed to judge yourself.
The Crazier the Better
My friend Paul is writing a cop novel. He’s never written anything so ambitious—and he’s terrified. “The story is coming out dark,” he says. “I mean twisted, weird-dark. So dark it’s scaring me.” Paul wants to know if he should throttle back. He’s worried that the book will come out so evil, not even Darth Vader will want to touch it. Answer: No way. The darker the better, if that’s how it’s coming to him. Suspending self-judgment doesn’t just mean blowing off the “You suck” voice in our heads. It also means liberating ourselves from conventional expectations—from what we think our work “ought” to be or “should” look like. Stay stupid. Follow your unconventional, crazy heart. If your notion violates every precept I’ve set forth in these pages, tell me to go to hell. Do what that voice says.
Ideas Do Not Come Linearly
Remember when we broke our concept down into beginning, middle, and end? Rational thought would tempt us to do our work in that order. Wrong. Ideas come according to their own logic. That logic is not rational. It’s not linear. We may get the middle before we get the end. We may get the end before we get the beginning. Be ready for this. Don’t resist it.
Do you have a pocket tape recorder? I do. I keep it with me everywhere. (A notepad works, too.) Why do I record ideas the minute they come to me? Because if I don’t, I’ll forget them. You will, too. Nothing is more fun than turning on the recorder and hearing your own voice telling you a fantastic idea that you had completely forgotten you had.
Let’s talk about the actual process—the writing/composing/ idea generation process. It progresses in two stages: action and reflection. Act, reflect. Act, reflect. NEVER act and reflect at the same time. The Definition of Action and Reflection In writing, “action” means putting words on paper. “Reflection” means evaluating what we have on paper. For this first draft, we’ll go light on reflection and heavy on action. Spew. Let ’er rip. Launch into the void and soar wherever the wind takes you.
When we say “Stay Stupid,” we mean don’t self-censor, don’t indulge in self-doubt, don’t permit self-judgment. Forget rational thought. Play. Play like a child. Why does this purely instinctive, intuitive method work? Because our idea (our song, our ballet, our new Tex-Mex restaurant) is smarter than we are. Our job is not to control our idea; our job is to figure out what our idea is (and wants to be)—and then bring it into being. The song we’re composing already exists in potential. Our work is to find it. Can we hear it in our head? It exists, like a signal coming from a faraway radio tower. Our job is to tune to that frequency.
The Answer Is Always Yes
When an idea pops into our head and we think, “No, this is too crazy,” … that’s the idea we want. When we think, “This notion is completely off the wall … should I even take the time to work on this?” … the answer is yes. Never doubt the soup. Never say no. The answer is always yes.
Stephen King has confessed that he works every day. Fourth of July, his birthday, Christmas. I love that. Particularly at this stage—what Seth Godin calls “thrashing” (a very evocative term)—momentum is everything. Keep it going. How much time can you spare each day? For that interval, close the door and—short of a family emergency or the outbreak of World War III—don’t let ANYBODY in. Keep working. Keep working. Keep working.
Keep Working, Part Two
Sometimes on Wednesday I’ll read something that I wrote on Tuesday and I’ll think, “This is crap. I hate it and I hate myself.” Then I’ll re-read the identical passage on Thursday. To my astonishment, it has become brilliant overnight. Ignore false negatives. Ignore false positives. Both are Resistance. Keep working. Keep Working, Part Three Did I forget to say? Keep working.
Until now, our motto has been “Act, Don’t Reflect.” Now we revisit that notion. Now that we’re rolling, we can start engaging the left brain as well as the right. Act, then reflect. Act, then reflect. Here’s how I do it: At least twice a week, I pause in the rush of work and have a meeting with myself. (If I were part of a team, I’d call a team meeting.) I ask myself, again, of the project: “What is this damn thing about?” Keep refining your understanding of the theme; keep narrowing it down.
Paddy Chayefsky famously said, “As soon as I figure out the theme of my play, I write it down on a thin strip of paper and Scotch-tape it to the front of my typewriter. After that, nothing goes into that play that isn’t on-theme.” Have that meeting twice a week. Pause and reflect. “What is this project about?” “What is its theme?” “Is every element serving that theme?” Fill in the Gaps, Part Two
Ask yourself, “What’s missing?” Then fill that gap.
Principle Number One: There Is an Enemy
The first principle of Resistance is that there is an enemy.
There is an enemy. There is an intelligent, active, malign force working against us. Step one is to recognize this. This recognition alone is enormously powerful. It saved my life, and it will save yours.
Principle Number Two: This Enemy Is Implacable
Its aim is not to obstruct or to hamper or to impede. Its aim is to
Principle Number Three: This Enemy Is Inside You
Principle Number Four: The Enemy Is Inside You, But It Is Not You
The fourth axiom of Resistance is that the enemy is inside you, but it is not you. What does that mean? It means you are not to blame for the voices of Resistance you hear in your head.
Principle Number Five: The “Real You” Must Duel the “Resistance You”
On the field of the Self stand a knight and a dragon.
The only intercourse possible between the knight and the dragon is battle.
Principle Number Six: Resistance Arises Second
The sixth principle of Resistance (and the key to overcoming it) is that Resistance arises second. What comes first is the idea, the passion, the dream of the work we are so excited to create that it scares the hell out of us.
Resistance is more like the pain-in-the-ass schoolteacher who won’t let us climb that tree in the playground. But the urge to climb came first. That urge is love.
Love for the material, love for the work, love for our brothers and sisters to whom we will offer our work as a gift. In Greek, the word is eros. Life force. Dynamis, creative drive. That mischievous tree-climbing scamp is our friend.
The opposite of fear is love—love of the challenge, love of the work, the pure joyous passion to take a shot at our dream and see if we can pull it off. Principle Number Seven: The Opposite of Resistance Is Assistance
The dream is your project, your vision, your symphony, your startup. The love is the passion and enthusiasm that fill your heart when you envision your project’s completion. Sometimes when Resistance is kicking my butt (which it does, all the time), I flash on Charles Lindbergh. What symphony of Resistance must have been playing in his head when he was struggling to raise the funding for his attempt to fly across the Atlantic solo?
What saw Lindy through? It can only have been the dream. Love of the idea.
The seventh principle of Resistance is that we can align ourselves with these universal forces of Assistance—this dream, this passion to make the unmanifest manifest—and ride them into battle against the dragon.
Test Number One
“How bad do you want it?”
The Attitude Adjustment Chamber Did you ever see Cool Hand Luke? Remember “the Box”? You don’t get to keep anything when you enter this space. You must check at the door: Your ego Your sense of entitlement Your impatience Your fear Your hope Your anger
You must also leave behind: All grievances related to aspects of yourself dependent on the accident of birth, e.g., how neglected/abused/ mistreated/unloved/poor/ill-favored etc. you were when you were born. All sense of personal exceptionalness dependent on the accident of birth, e.g., how rich/cute/tall/thin/smart/charming/loveable you were when you were born. All of the previous two, based on any subsequent (i.e., post-birth) acquisition of any of these qualities, however honorably or meritoriously earned. The only items you get to keep are love for the work, will to finish, and passion to serve the ethical, creative Muse. This ends our special section, “Belly of the Beast.” We return now to programming already in progress: You and me, two-thirds through our project and stuck in a hell of Resistance.
The Big Crash is so predictable, across all fields of enterprise, that we can practically set our watches by it.
Bank on it. It’s gonna happen. The worst part of the Big Crash is that nothing can prepare us for it. Why? Because the crash arises organically, spawned by some act of commission or omission that we ourselves took or countenanced back at the project’s inception.
You and I have a bell hanging over us, too, here in the belly of the beast. Will we ring it? There’s a difference between Navy SEAL training and what you and I are facing now. Our ordeal is harder. Because we’re alone.
The only thing we have in common with the SEAL candidates is the bell. Will we ring it or won’t we?
Crashes Are Good
Crashes are hell, but in the end they’re good for us. A crash means we have failed. We gave it everything we had and we came up short. A crash does not mean we are losers. A crash means we have to grow.
We got ourselves into this mess by mistakes we made at the start. How? Were we lazy? Inattentive? Did we mean well but forget to factor in human nature? Did we assess reality incorrectly? Whatever the cause, the Big Crash compels us to go back now and solve the problem that we either created directly or set into motion unwittingly at the outset.
Panic Is Good
Creative panic is good. Here’s why: Our greatest fear is fear of success.
When we experience panic, it means that we’re about to cross a threshold. We’re poised on the doorstep of a higher plane.
Panic is good. It’s a sign that we’re growing.
In the belly of the beast, we remind ourselves of two axioms: The problem is not us. The problem is the problem. Work the problem. The Problem Is the Problem
That our project has crashed is not a reflection of our worth as human beings. It’s just a mistake. It’s a problem—and a problem can be solved. Now we go back to our sheet of yellow foolscap. Where did we go wrong? Where did this train go off the tracks? Somewhere in the three sections on our sheet of foolscap—beginning, middle, and end—and in the final section, the summation of the theme … somewhere in there lies the answer. Why is it so hard to find? It’s hard because it’s hard.
Second, the theme is incomplete. Again we ask, “What’s missing?” Ahab needs to be more monstrous, more monomaniacal. How can we accomplish that? Give him a peg leg. (Remember, this wasn’t a cliché in the 1850s.) Not just any peg leg, but one made of whale ivory. Add that Ahab lost the leg, fighting a whale.
Not just any whale, but Moby Dick himself. Let Ahab tramp the quarterdeck nightlong, obsessed with vengeance—and let the echo of that whale-ivory leg resound through the crew’s quarters below like a knell of madness. Add a crazed white streak running through Ahab’s hair and beard, as if metaphysical hatred-lightning had carved a scar upon his soul. Add beats to heighten Ahab’s obsession. Here’s one: When the Pequod passes another whaling vessel, the Rachel, which has just seen and fought Moby Dick and lost beloved members of the crew, including the captain’s son, for whom they’re searching now, let Ahab spurn all appeals for help and drive his own ship faster in pursuit of the white whale. Let Ahab renounce his whaling contract and denounce the for-profit nature of the voyage. The hell with killing other whales for their oil! Ahab will hunt Moby Dick for vengeance alone!
These changes are helping. Ahab is much better than he was before, with two good legs and regular hair. But we need more. We need to take the theme one level deeper … The story can’t just be about “the clash between man’s will and the malice of nature.” That’s not enough. It must add the element of man-as-part-of-nature-himself. So that Man is dueling the evil inside himself and being consumed by it. Again, “What’s missing?” The involvement of the crew! If Ahab is the only crazy person aboard and the crew meekly follows him, that’s no good. The men must become as obsessed as their captain. A new scene. Ahab assembles the crew and forges new harpoons, made not for other whales but only to kill Moby Dick.
No matter how great a writer, artist, or entrepreneur, he is a mortal, he is fallible. He is not proof against Resistance. He will drop the ball; he will crash. That’s why they call it rewriting.
Why does Seth Godin place so much emphasis on “shipping”? Because finishing is the critical part of any project. If we can’t finish, all our work is for nothing. When we ship, we declare our stuff ready for prime time. We pack it in a FedEx box and send it out into the world. Our movie hits the screens, our smart phone arrives in the stores, our musical opens on Broadway. It takes balls of steel to ship. Here’s a true nugget from The War of Art:
Shipping is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. It requires killer instinct. We’ve got the monster down; now we have to drive a stake through its heart.
When Michael Crichton approached the end of a novel (so I’ve read), he used to start getting up earlier and earlier in the morning. He was desperate to keep his mojo going. He’d get up at six, then five, then three-thirty and two-thirty, till he was driving his wife insane. Finally he had to move out of the house. He checked into a hotel (the Kona Village, which ain’t so bad) and worked around the clock till he’d finished the book. Michael Crichton was a pro. He knew that Resistance was strongest at the finish. He did what he had to do, no matter how nutty or unorthodox, to finish and be ready to ship.
Fear of Success
Slay that dragon once, and he will never have power over you again.
But you will have beaten him once, and you’ll know you can beat him again. That’s a game-changer. That will transform your life. From the day I finally finished something, I’ve never had trouble finishing anything again. I always deliver. I always ship. Be Careful
You can be proud of yourself. You’ve done something that millions talk about but only a handful actually perform. And if you can do it once, you can do it again. I don’t care if you fail with this project. I don’t care if you fail a thousand times. You have done what only mothers and gods do: you have created new life.
Start (Again) Before You’re Ready
I was living in a little town in northern California when I finally, after seventeen years of trying, finished my first novel. I drove over to my friend and mentor Paul Rink’s house and told him what I had done. “Good for you,” he said. “Now start the next one.” That’s what I say now to you. Take the rest of the day off. Take your wife or husband out to dinner. Pop some champagne. Give yourself a standing ovation. Then get back to work. Begin the next one tomorrow. Stay stupid. Trust the soup. Start before you’re ready.
Once we commit to action, the worst thing we can do is to stop. What will keep us from stopping? Plain old stubbornness. I like the idea of stubbornness because it’s less lofty than “tenacity” or “perseverance.” We don’t have to be heroes to be stubborn. We can just be pains in the butt. When we’re stubborn, there’s no quit in us. We’re mean. We’re mulish. We’re ornery. We’re in till the finish. We will sink our junkyard-dog teeth into Resistance’s ass and not let go, no matter how hard he kicks. Blind Faith Is there a spiritual element to creativity? Hell, yes. Our mightiest ally (our indispensable ally) is belief in something we cannot see, hear, touch, taste, or feel.