Book Reviews, Trading

Book Review of The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

The full title of this book is The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield.

I got to know about Steven Pressfield from a webinar by John Carter (author of Mastering the Trade). He credited Pressfield’s book Do Your Work as his source of inspiration which propelled him in his trading. I read the reviews on Amazon, and saw that Pressfield’s earlier book The War of Art is apparently better, so I picked up a copy to read.

The book focuses on ‘Resistance’, the thing that keeps you from accomplishing your goals. The book is broken down into 3 main sections. First one writes about the nature of Resistance, second section writes about ways to combat Resistance, and the third section writes about muses and angels. The first two sections are relevant to any tough endeavor that requires a ton of discipline, patience, perseverance (e.g. trading, especially if you are trading on your own), but the third section is probably more relevant for the more creative professions, e.g. writers and artists.

The author raised a number of interesting points. I liked the way he linked rationalization (i.e. procrastination) as an ally recruited by Resistance, and consumerism as something to distract us from doing our work.

The concept that the greater the fear, the more important the endeavor because fear tells us that the activity means something, is an interesting one. While I can certainly understand that for specific events, such as making a public speech or performance, I don’t fully get it in the case of a vocation. For example, if you keep fearing failure in trading, does that really mean that trading is your life’s calling because you feel great fear?

The third section contained an interesting tidbit, that a person feels psychologically secure when he/she knows his rank in a hierarchy (think corporate world), or when the person is connected to a territory (think a lion’s territory, or a gang’s turf). The idea is to have your own territory where your actions are guided by yourself, instead of joining a hierarchy where you are a slave to others.


What Elicits Resistance

  • Any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity. Or expressed another way, any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower. Any of these will elicit Resistance.

Resistance Comes From Within

  • Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves. We locate it in spouses, jobs, bosses, kids. However Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.

The More Important a Call, the More Resistance We Feel

  • Resistance will unfailingly target the calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. We can navigate by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before all others.
  • The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

Resistance is Most Powerful At The Finish Line

  • The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got.
  • The professional must be alert for this counterattack. Be wary at the end.

The Feelings Resistance Generates

  • First, unhappiness. We feel like hell. A low-grade misery pervades everything. We’re bored, we’re restless. We can’t get no satisfaction. There’s guilt but we can’t put our finger on the source. We want to go back to bed; we want to get up and party. We feel unloved and unlovable. We’re disgusted. We hate our lives. We hate ourselves.
  • Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable. At this point vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web surfing.
  • Beyond that, Resistance becomes clinical. Depression, aggression, dysfunction. Then actual crime and physical self-destruction.
  • What makes it tricky is that we live in a consumer culture that’s acutely aware of this unhappiness and has massed all its profit-seeking artillery to exploit it. By selling us a product, a drug, a distraction.
  • We unplug ourselves from the grid by recognizing that we will never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing our work.

The Real Innovator is Scared to Death

  • Self-doubt can be an ally. This is because it serves as an indicator of aspiration. It reflects love, love of something we dream of doing, and desire, desire to do it.
  • If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are.
  • The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.

Fear Tells Us What We Have to Do

  • Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.
  • The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
  • Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of the Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to do the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.

Rationalization is Resistance’s Ally

  • Resistance is fear. Resistance is too cunning to show itself naked in this form. Why? Because if Resistance lets us see clearly that our own fear is preventing us from doing our work, we may feel shame at this. And shame may drive us to act in the face of fear.
  • So it brings in Rationalization. Rationalization is Resistance’s spin doctor. It’s Resistance’s way of hiding the Big Stick behind its back. Instead of showing us fear, Resistance presents us with a series of plausible, rational justifications for why we shouldn’t do our work.
  • What’s particularly insidious about the rationalizations that is that a lot of them are true. They’re legitimate. Our wife may really be in her eighth month of pregnancy; she may in truth need us at home. Our department may really be instituting a changeover that will eat up hours of our time. Indeed it may make sense to put off finishing our dissertation, at least till after the baby’s born.
  • What Resistance leaves out, of course, is that all this means diddly. Tolstoy had thirteen kids and wrote War and Peace. Lance Armstrong had cancer and won the Tour de France three years and counting.


Know How to Be Miserable

  • The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.
  • He has to know how to be miserable. He has to love being miserable. He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or jet jocky. Because this is war, baby. And war is hell.
  • Taking blows is the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines. Stop complaining and be grateful.

Love the Game

  • The professional, though he accepts money, does his work out of love. He has to love it. Otherwise he wouldn’t devote his life to it of his own free will.
  • The more you love your art / calling / enterprise, the more important its accomplishment is to the evolution of your soul, the more you will fear it and the more Resistance you will experience facing it.
  • The payoff is that playing the game for money produces the proper professional attitude. It inculcates the lunch-pail mentality, the hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind that shows up for work despite rain or snow or dark of night and slugs it out day after day.

Play for the Long Haul

  • Resistance outwits the amateur with the oldest trick in the book: It uses his own enthusiasm against him. Resistance gets us to plunge into a project with an overambitious and unrealistic timetable for its completion. It knows we can’t sustain that level of intensity. We will hit the wall. We will crash.
  • The professional arms himself with patience to keep himself from flaming out in each individual work. He knows that any job, takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much. He accepts that. He recognizes it as reality.
  • He conserves his energy. He prepares his mind for the long haul. He sustains himself with the knowledge that if he can just keep those huskies mushing, sooner or later the sled will pull in to Nome.

Act in the Face of Fear

  • 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.
  • What Henry Fonda does, after puking into the toilet in his dressing room, is to clean up and march out onstage. He’s still terrified but he forces himself forward in spite of his terror. He knows that once he gets out into the action, his fear will recede and he’ll be okay.

Once You Cave In, You Are Finished

  • The professional respects Resistance. He knows if he caves in today, no matter how plausible the pretext, he’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow.
  • The professional knows that Resistance is like a telemarketer; if you so much as say hello, you’re finished. The pro doesn’t even pick up the phone. He stays at work.

Do Not Take Failure or Success Personally

  • Evolution has programmed us to feel rejection in our guts. Resistance knows this and uses it against us. It uses fear of rejection to paralyze us and prevent us, if not from doing our work, then from exposing it to public evaluation.
  • The battle is inside our heads. We cannot let external criticism, even if it’s true, fortify our internal foe. That foe is strong enough already.
  • The professional loves her work. She is invested in it wholeheartedly. But she does not forget that the work is not her. Her artistic self contains many works and many performances. The next will be better, and the one after that better still.
  • In the face of indifference, the professional assesses her stuff coldly and objectively. Where it fell short, she’ll improve it. Where it triumphed, she’ll make it better still. She’ll work harder. She’ll be back tomorrow.

Endure Adversity

  • The professional endures adversity. He lets the birdshit splash down on his slicker, remembering that it comes clean with a heavy-duty hosing. His core is bulletproof. Nothing can touch it unless he lets it.
  • The professional keeps his eye on the doughnut and not on the hole (i.e. at the big picture). He reminds himself 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.
  • The professional cannot allow the actions of others to define his reality. Tomorrow morning the critic will be gone, but the writer will still be there facing the blank page. Nothing matters but that he keep working.

Make Yourself a Corporation

  • Making yourself a corporation (or just thinking of yourself in that way) reinforces the idea of professionalism because it separates the artist doing the work from the will and consciousness running the show. No matter how much abuse is heaped on the head of the former, the latter takes it in stride and keeps on trucking.
  • If we think of ourselves as a corporation, it gives us a healthy distance on ourselves. We’re less subjective. We don’t take blows as personally. We’re more cold-blooded; we can price our wares more realistically.

It is Fatal to Judge Yourself Using Others as Benchmarks

  • For the artist to define himself hierarchically is fatal.
  • An individual who defines himself by his place in a pecking order will
    • Evaluate his happiness / success / achievement by his rank within the hierarchy, feeling most satisfied when he’s high and most miserable when he’s low.
    • Act toward others based upon their rank in the hierarchy, to the exclusion of all other factors.
    • Evaluate his every move solely by the effect it produces on others. He will act for others, dress for others, speak for others, think for others.
  • The artist must do his work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause. In the hierarchy, the artist looks up and looks down. The one place he can’t look is that place he must: within.



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