Book Summary : The War of Art 

The war of art: Break Through The Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

the war of art book summary

Is there something you know you truly need to be doing in your life—but aren’t? …Like, say, starting a business, changing careers, finally writing that book?

What’s holding you back?

Is it because you’re afraid?

Is it because you’re rationalizing?

Is it because you keep procrastinating?

Whatever it is, if you’ve ever had a pressing feeling that you’re not doing your life’s work — then Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art” is for you.

In this book summary, we’ll dive into some of Pressfield’s powerful calls to action for anyone—artists, entrepreneurs, creatives, writers—truly anyone—who’s got a creative craving they’ve left unsatisfied for too long. If you think that might be you, then it’s time to break through those creative blocks and win your inner creative battles.

Let’s dive in.

Prefer audio? Listen to the audio book summary via the player below:


Crucial quote (from "The War of Art"): 

  • "Creative work is a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.” [click-to-tweet]

Summary-in-a-tweet: 

  • Don’t let yourself succumb to a life of regret and quiet desperation. Do the work you were meant to do + unleash your greatest potential. [click-to-tweet]
Dean Content Master File

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1. ARE YOU A VICTIM OF “RESISTANCE”?

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

Have you ever had a dream that you wanted to pursue—but didn’t? Have you ever had a great idea with lots of potential—but failed to take action on making it happen? Have you ever started a new gym routine, diet, project or program of any kind—but failed to follow through on it?

If you answered “yes” to any of the aforementioned questions, then you’re in the same boat as everyone else—suffering from what the Pressfield refers to as “Resistance.”

We’ve all been there. Resistance occurs when we try to break away from something old (a bad habit, a crappy career) in search of something new and better. Here are some examples of Resistance:

  • You want to start that business—but Resistance whispers in your ear, telling you you’re not good enough to succeed.

  • You want to write that book—but Resistance tells you no one will want to read it.

  • You want to go up to that girl/guy and introduce yourself—but Resistance says you’ll get rejected.

Resistance is that voice that says, “I can always start my new diet tomorrow… but for now, let’s have one last slice of pizza.” Anything that requires any amount of will-power, discipline, or fear-facing is a threat to Resistance. And Resistance doesn’t like that very much. Resistance is hesitation. Resistance is procrastination. Resistance is the very thing that prevents us from doing what we’re meant to do more than anything else.

Resistance isn’t personal either. It doesn’t play favorites and it has the power to hinder us from living the fulfilling life we desire and deserve… But only if we let it.

Even the best and most experienced among us feel Resistance on a regular basis. For example, Pressfield writes about how actor/entertainer Henry Fonda would throw up prior to every performance. And Fonda’s been on stage several hundred times… did Resistance stop him? No. He battled with Resistance prior to every single show. And he won every battle with Resistance by accepting the fact that it was a natural occurrence for anyone doing anything they care deeply for. At this point, it’s likely you’ve made some observations about Resistance:

  • Resistance = hesitation,

  • Resistance = procrastination,

  • Resistance = FEAR.

All of the above—especially that one about fear—adequately describe the various forms of Resistance.

ACTIONABLE INSIGHT: So, how do we crush Resistance? By keeping the following 3 things in mind:

  1. Define your dreams (whatever you want to do most in life),

  2. Stay committed to your craft, and

  3. Accept the fact that Resistance is something you’re going to have to live with, and that the best way to prevent it from paralyzing you, is to face it, feel it, and take action in spite of it.

2. RESISTANCE IS PROPORTIONAL TO LOVE.

“Resistance is directly proportional to love. If you’re feeling massive Resistance, the good news is, it means there’s tremendous love there too. If you didn’t love the project that is terrifying you, you wouldn’t feel anything. The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.”

Wanna know the best part about Resistance? There’s a very simple rule of thumb to keep in mind about it: “The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.”

In other words: if quitting your job to start a new business doing what you love is super-important to you, then you can bet you’ll be feeling some super-high Resistance about doing it too. So, the key idea is this: Resistance is a signal to get moving towards whatever you’re feeling fearful or apprehensive about.

The less you “want” to do it, the more important it is to actually pull up your socks and start taking action towards it… whatever “it” may mean to you. The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

3. CHOOSE YOUR WAY OF LIFE

(… Or someone else might choose it for you.)

“The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.”

Hate your boss? … Your job? … The way you’d chosen to live your life?

GOOD.

Because if you’ve chosen the way your life’s turned out up until now, you can choose to change it too.

If things aren’t as dandy as they should be, decide to do something about it right now… You don’t have to give your boss the finger or anything — just make yourself aware of the fact that YOU are in charge of your choices. Don’t like your situation? CHOOSE to change it now—not tomorrow. Do something—anything—to get you going in the right direction.

Write the first page. Call the first client. Design your first business plan.

YOU are the master of your destiny.

4. RESISTANCE + HAPPINESS.

“As artists and professionals it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls. In this uprising we free ourselves from the tyranny of consumer culture. We overthrow the programming of advertising, movies, video games, magazines, TV, and MTV by which we have been hypnotized from the cradle. 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.”

Too many folks still believe that consumerism contributes to happiness… They believe that buying a bigger house, a better car, or the latest gadgets will bring them the happiness they want… and although these things are great to have—and even contribute to small spikes of emotional wellbeing—they do not contribute to life-long fulfillment… But here’s what does:

  • Our health,

  • The social + emotional connections we develop with others.

  • Our values, our purpose, and the sense of meaning we give to our lives + level of contribution.

  • And of course, our WORK… The joy we feel from sitting down and doing the work we have before us, day after day. This can be the difference between living fully vs living empty.

5. ON CRITICISM.

As you pursue your calling, Resistance can come in the form of criticism and self-doubt. In this vein, Pressfield notes, “The critic hates most that which he would have done himself if he had had the guts.”

In other words, those that have realized their authentic selves rarely take the time to criticize others. If you find that others are criticizing you, then they’re almost always doing it out of Resistance. And if you find yourself criticizing others, the same applies to you.

6. ON SELF-DOUBT.

“The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”

If you find yourself asking yourself,

“Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist? Am I really a [insert passion here]” chances are you are.

7. YOU DON'T ALWAYS NEED TIME FOR “HEALING”

(… What you might need instead, is your work.)

Sometimes we convince ourselves that we need to set aside some time for rest and renewal prior to getting to our work. We rationalize that we need time to “heal” before we can do our work.

This, of course, is another form of Resistance.

Pressfield describes a story recalling his younger days as a depressed New York cab driver:

“I [was] washed up… making twenty bucks a night driver a cab and running away full-time from doing my work. One night, alone in my 110-dollar-a-month sublet, I hit bottom in terms of having to diverted myself into so many phony channels so many times that I couldn’t rationalize it for one more evening. I dragged out my ancient Smith–Corona, dreading the experience as pointless, fruitless, meaningless

[…]

For two hours I made myself sit there, torturing out some trash that I chucked immediately into the shitcan. That was enough. I put the machine away. I went back to the kitchen. In the sink sat ten days of dishes. For some reason I had enough excess energy that I decided to wash them

[…]

A pile of clean plates began rising in the drying rack. To my amazement I realized I was whistling. It hit me that I had turned a new corner. I was okay. I would be okay from here on.”

  • ACTIONABLE INSIGHT: Sometimes it’s our work that provides us with all the energy and inspiration we need to lead the lives we want to lead. There’s a time for “healing” too. But be mindful not to use “healing”/resting/break-time as an excuse that’s synonymous with Resistance when all you really needed to do was get yourself to get up and get started with your work.

8. TURN PRO.

“To the amateur, the game is his avocation. To the pro it’s his vocation.”

Want to know the best possible way to fight Resistance?

Turn pro. Become a professional.

To clarify, when we say “professional”, we’re not referring to “the professions” or becoming a professional by name (i.e. doctor, lawyer, author) but what we mean is to become a Professional as an ideal. There’s a huge difference between turning pro in contrast to remaining an amateur.

  • Amateurs play for fun. Pros play for keeps.

  • Amateurs play part-time. Profs play full-time.

  • Amateur’s are weekend warriors. Pros are there every day of the week.

Turning pro means treating your dream job like it’s your only job (even if it isn’t yet.)

Be in love with it so much that you’re willing to dedicate your life to it.

Commit full-time.

Someone once asked the famous author, Somerset Maugham, whether he maintained a daily writing schedule for his prose. His reply? “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine sharp."

  • ACTIONABLE INSIGHT: Professionals don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Instead, they bring it about on their own, by developing the habit of consistency… The consistency to continue cranking out whatever it is that they need to be cranking out—and to wake up the next day and, once again, give it all the grit they’ve got. Why work so hard? Because that’s what professionals do. Pros work hard day after day, because they love to, they need to, and they WANT to.

9. BE DEDICATED TO MASTERY.

Did you know that Tiger Woods — the greatest golfer in the world — looks to someone ELSE for golf advice?

Yep. Like all true professionals, Tiger’s got a coach. A coach he turns to for advice and constructive criticism. And he does this because he knows that even though he’s the best—he can always get better.

He’s also aware that though he may be the best today—it may not be that way tomorrow… at least not if he doesn’t continue to improve upon his craft. So, he gets great coaching to keep him sharp.

  • ACTIONABLE INSIGHT: You should do the same thing Tiger does. Always be learning. Always be sharpening your skills. And never let your ego prevent you from getting advice from someone smarter.

10. THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS THAT YOU SIT DOWN AND WORK.

“Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying. Why is this so important? Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. The process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unforeseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.”

Over and over again in the book the author reminds us of the powerful forces that come to our aid when we sit down and decide to dedicate ourselves to our craft.

Here’s what Pressfield has to say about that feeling you get when you finish something you really care about and also worked really hard on:

“I remember rolling the last page out and adding it to the stack that was the finished manuscript. Nobody knew I was done. Nobody cared. But I knew. I felt like a dragon I’ve been fighting all my life had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out it’s last sulfuric breath. Rest in peace, motherfucker.”

The next morning he went over to his friend Paul’s house to tell him he’d finally finished…

“Good for you” said Paul,

“start the next one today.”

11. THERE’S MAGIC IN MAKING A START.

“Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would not otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents in meetings and material assistance which no man would’ve dreamed would come his way…”

“… whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now.”

Just as there exists a negative force of power in Resistance; there’s also an opposite and equally powerful POSITIVE force known as your “Muse.”

Your Muse is an energy of sorts — even a “madness”, as Plato once put it — that’s there to inspire creativity and ideas that can help you take your work to the next level.

How do you tap into your Muse?

Begin your work and be as dedicated to it as possible … and we’ll discuss just how to do that in the next big idea…

12. GET ORGANIZED.

Naturally, the “magic in making a start” should be followed by the “magic of keeping yourself going.” And in order to do that, we’ve got to focus on organizing our thoughts and ideas appropriately. We need to set goals without being attached to the outcome. We need to focus on the process without letting difficulties derail us from our purpose.

There’s a necessary duality between organization and chaos; as the author points out so elegantly, “The principle of organization is built into nature. Chaos itself is self organizing. Out of primordial disorder, stars find their orbits; rivers make their way to the sea. When we, like God, set out to create a universe-A book, an Opera, a new business venture-the same principle kicks in.”

When a writer sits down to start writing a book, he’ll naturally run into Resistance… He suppresses it by developing the habit of consistency—the discipline to get behind the keyboard on a daily basis—no matter how much his inner voice tells him to skip a day, do it later, or to otherwise wait for inspiration to strike… the writer understands that inspiration never strikes… HE strikes on inspiration. He knows that Resistance is here to stay. And he tames it by way of organized effort + ruthless work ethic.

  • ACTIONABLE INSIGHT: Resistance isn’t going anywhere—(and truth be told, it could even get worse)—The way to get ahead of it is to get organized, get disciplined, and develop the habit of consistently focusing on producing your work.

13. FOCUS ON THE PROCESS.

(… And remember to be patient.)

Turning pro requires organization, patience, and the ability to steadily focus on a PROCESS that produces reliable progress… Author John Updike’s process did just that—helping him progressively produce enough pieces of writing to help him become one of only three authors - ever - to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once.

Updike wrote every single day. He relied on his process. He paced himself evenly, working 3–4 hours a day, every day right after breakfast. He also avoided setting unrealistic goals (like trying to write an entire book over the weekend.) So, in this way, he had a process for writing. Additionally though—an equally important contributor to all of his literary success—was his ability to focus on the actual process itself (aka: the book he was writing), rather than focusing only on the outcome (aka: finishing the book.) Rather than trying to achieve the goal of finishing a manuscript in the shortest possible time-frame, he focused on writing the book.

  • ACTIONABLE INSIGHT: You should do the same thing. While you’re working, be sure to engage yourself in Process Thinking (the work) vs Outcome Thinking (finishing your work).

14. USE PROBLEMS AS FUEL.

Back in the early 1980’s, when TV was dominated by talk shows like ‘Sally Jessie Raphael’, ‘Maury’, ‘Ricki Lake’, and ‘Jerry Springer’ — many of which were predicated on exploiting their guests in exchange for a cheap and embarrassing way to entertain their viewers — most Americans could hardly expect much more out of the average mid-morning talk show… But then a heavy-set black woman named Oprah came along. Most people wrote her off, saying she’d never gain the viewership she needed to successfully sustain a day-time talk show. Plus, she didn’t even want to exploit her guests… she wanted to connect. She wanted to empathize. Most people thought that kind of stuff was bad for ratings. (Boy, oh boy, were they off the mark.) Even though she experienced tons of criticism, and all sorts of other problems early on, Oprah stuck to her guns and stayed true to herself—and her vision—which resulted in ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ becoming the single most successful day-time talk show the United States (and perhaps the entire world) has ever seen. Rather than backing down when problems presented themselves; Oprah—like every true professional—used her problems to fuel her work-ethic and motivation to succeed—moving onward, even after becoming a household name (not to mentioned one of the most influential figures in the world!)

  • ACTIONABLE INSIGHT: One day, just when you think you’ve got a handle on your work — just when you think you’ve handled all of your biggest challenges… BAM—seemingly out of nowhere—a massive problem the size of a full speed freight-train hits you head on… What do you do? Do you quit? Or do you do what you already know you need to do?—Which is deal with it. Inevitably, at some point in your journey, you’ll run into problems. Make like Oprah, and perceive them as nothing more than challenges that’ll contribute to your overall growth and prosperity.

15. HIERARCHIES VS TERRITORIES.

In the animal kingdom, there are two ways in which individuals tend to define themselves:

  1. By how they rank within a Hierarchy—such as, say, a hen in a pecking order, or a wolf in a pack.

  2. By their connection to a Territory—like a home base or home court, a hunting ground or turf they’re comfortable operating within.

Hierarchies and territories are important because they provide us—(both humans as well as animals)—with psychological security. They help maintain order and a certain degree of organization. They help us understand our place and where we stand in the world. But there’s a sharp distinction between these two paradigms — the Hierarchy vs a Territory…

Most people naturally tend to lean towards the Hierarchy paradigm. This is because it’s easier for us to slip into when we’re growing up (the popular kids knew where they stood on the hierarchy, and the geeky kids knew where they stood, too.)

Eventually, as we grow into adulthood, most of us allow the hierarchy to remain in place… only in a different way (buy this beer, get this job, drive this car, and everyone will love you.) We allow social hierarchies to place a ceiling on how much we earn and how high we climb. Corporations are hierarchies. Governments are hierarchies. High school was the ultimate hierarchy…

But Hierarchies have proven themselves ineffective for the individual seeking to live a more fulfilling life doing work that matters to him/her.

Ultimately, says Pressfield, “for the artist to define himself hierarchically is fatal.” Here’s why:

“An individual who defines himself by his place in a pecking order will:

  1. Compete against all others in the order, seeking to elevate his station by advancing against those above him, while defending his place against those beneath.

  2. 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.

  3. Act toward others based upon their rank in the hierarchy, to the exclusion of all other factors.

  4. 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…”

Bottom line? Hierarchies stifle creativity. And for most of us, it’s best to abandon the Hierarchy paradigm and replace it with a Territorial one instead… which is what you’re about to learn about in the next big idea.

16. CLAIM YOUR TERRITORY.

Territorial thinking is about doing work for its own sake. It’s about doing what you do because you really enjoy doing it—and being paid lots of $$$$$ is a bi-product of your work, as opposed to the end goal of your work.

It’s also about the environment you feel most powerful/creative/motivated to work within. Here’s how the author puts it, “Stevie Wonder’s territory is the piano. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s is the gym. When Bill Gates pulls into the parking lot at Microsoft, he’s on his territory” and when Pressfield sits down to write, he’s on his territory…

So, have you thought about your own territory?

Here are the qualities of a territory, as outlined by the author:

“1. The territory provides sustenance. — Runners know what a territory is. So do rock climbers and kayakers and yogis. Artists and entrepreneurs know what a territory is. The swimmer who towels off after finishing her laps feels a hell of a lot better than the tired, cranky person who dove into the pool 30 minutes earlier.

  1. A territory sustains us without any external output. — A territory is a closed feedback loop. Our role is to put in effort and love; the territory absorbs this and gives it back to us in the form of well-being. When experts tell us that exercise (or any other effort requiring activity) banishes depression, this is what they mean.

  2. A territory can only be claimed alone. — You can team with a partner, you can work out with a friend, but you only need your self to soak up your territory’s juice.

  3. A territory can only be claimed by work. — When Arnold Schwarzenegger hits the gym, he’s on his own turf. But what made it his own are the hours and years of sweat he put in to claim it. The territory doesn’t give, it gives back.

  4. A territory returns exactly what you put it in. — Territories are fair. Every bit of energy you put in goes infallibly into your account. The territory never devalues. A territory never crashes. What you deposited, you get back, dollar for dollar."

  5. ACTIONABLE INSIGHT: Your territory is your calling. It’s your “gym”, your “playground”, your “notebook”, your “microphone”. It’s that place you know you need to be in order to do your best work. I you don’t know it — figure it out. If you’ve figured it out — then claim it — not just once, but every single day.

CLOSING NOTES

The key take-away from this book is this:

  • “Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action. Do it or don’t do it. It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet. You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God. Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and everything in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

  • Here’s what it comes down to in the end: It doesn’t matter whether your goals are entrepreneurial or whether they’re artistic, if you want to tap into the highest version of yourself, then you need to: Feel the fear and do your work in spite of it… Figure out whatever territory you operate best within — whether that’s a stage, an office, or an Olympic swimming pool is totally up to you. It’s just important that you figure it out. Because if we want to live the happiest, most creative, and most inspiring lives we’re capable of living — then we’ve got to tap into our highest point of contribution… And in order to do that — in order tap into the best part of ourselves — we’ve got to push past Resistance, become dedicated Professionals, and show up every single day — ready and willing — to DO OUR. WORK.

About the author:

  • Steven Pressfield is the author of Gates of Fire, Tides of War, Last of the Amazons, Virtues of War, The Afghan Campaign, Killing Rommel, The Profession, The Lion’s Gate, The War of Art, Turning Pro, The Authentic Swing, Do the Work and The Warrior Ethos. His debut novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was adapted for screen. A film of the same title was released in 2000, directed by Robert Redford and starring Matt Damon, Will Smith and Charlize Theron. His father was in the Navy, and he was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1943. Since graduating from Duke University in 1965, he has been a US Marine, an advertising copywriter, schoolteacher, tractor-trailer driver, bartender, oilfield roustabout, attendant in a mental hospital and screenwriter. His struggles to earn a living as a writer (it took seventeen years to get the first paycheck) are detailed in The War of Art, Turning Pro and The Authentic Swing. There’s a recurring character in his books, named Telamon, a mercenary of ancient days. Telamon doesn’t say much. He rarely gets hurt or wounded. And he never seems to age. His view of the profession of arms is a lot like Pressfield’s conception of art and the artist: “It is one thing to study war, and another to live the warrior’s life.” Learn more about Steven at http://www.stevenpressfield.com/.

BONUS NOTES + QUOTES:

“The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.”

“Fear of the consequences of following our heart. Fear of bankruptcy, fear of poverty, fear of insolvency. Fear of groveling when we try to make it on our own, and of groveling when we give up and come crawling back to where we started. Fear of being selfish, of being rotten wives or disloyal husbands; fear of failing to support our families, of sacrificing their dreams for ours. Fear of betraying our race, our ’hood, our homies. Fear of failure. Fear of being ridiculous. Fear of throwing away the education, the training, the preparation that those we love have sacrificed so much for, that we ourselves have worked our butts off for. Fear of launching into the void, of hurtling too far out there; fear of passing some point of no return, beyond which we cannot recant, cannot reverse, cannot rescind, but must live with this cocked-up choice for the rest of our lives. Fear of madness. Fear of insanity. Fear of death. These are serious fears. But they’re not the real fear. Not the Master Fear, the Mother of all Fears that’s so close to us that even when we verbalize it we don’t believe it. Fear That We Will Succeed.”

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