“Can you recommend a book for…?”
“What are you reading right now?”
“What are your favorite books?”
I get asked those types of questions a lot and, as an avid reader and all-around bibliophile, I’m always happy to oblige.
I also like to encourage people to read as much as possible because knowledge benefits you much like compound interest. The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunities you have to succeed.
On the flip side, I also believe there’s little hope for people who aren’t perpetual learners. Life is overwhelmingly complex and chaotic, and it slowly suffocates and devours the lazy and ignorant.
So, if you’re a bookworm on the lookout for good reads, or if you’d like to get into the habit of reading, this book club for you.
The idea here is simple: Every week, I’ll share a book that I’ve particularly liked, why I liked it, and several of my key takeaways from it.
I’ll also keep things short and sweet so you can quickly decide whether the book is likely to be up your alley or not.
If you’ve already read a book that I recommend or have a recommendation of your own to share, don’t be shy! Drop a comment down below and let me–and the rest of us “book clubbers”–know!
Lastly, if you want to be notified when new recommendations go live, hop on my email list and you’ll get each new installment delivered directly to your inbox.
Okay, let’s get to this week’s book: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Contrary to the title, it’s not just for artists. It’s for anyone that wants to make a good life for themselves and their families.
It’s a tribute to persistence and industry, and some of its core messages are…
Don’t just wander through life from pillar to post. Find something that matters to you and pursue it passionately.
Don’t whine about how much hard work it takes to succeed. Learn to love the work and despise failure and quitting, instead.
Don’t let your feelings dictate your actions. What you want is rarely what you need, and you can create the right feelings by taking the right actions.
Don’t wait for inspiration. That’s how amateurs stay amateurs. Do the work, grind it out, and eventually you’ll get inspired.
These bits of advice are all well and good, but what really makes it stand out among the many other books that say many of the same things is it doesn’t just tell us what we “should” be doing to succeed, which is pretty commonsensical, really, but it goes deeper, and tries to get at WHY we find it so hard.
The biggest obstacle in our way, Pressfield says, is something he calls “Resistance,” which is the central theme of the book.
He defines Resistance as a mysterious force within us that works to sabotage our dreams and abilities and prevent us from creating the life that we really want.
Pressfield points out that most of us have two lives, the life we live, and the unlived life within us, and Resistance’s sole mission is to ensure that we never realize that unlived life. That we remain small, weak, and unhappy.
That’s why Resistance resists any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity. It will tell us anything to keep us from doing any of those things. It will feed us all kinds of enticing excuses, justifications, and bargains. You know…we’re too tired right now…we can just do it later…we’ve been working hard enough or maybe even too hard…why not start next week…does it really matter?…is it really that important?
We’ve all been there, and I think Pressfield is right that this alone is one of the biggest barriers that we face in creating the type of life that we want.
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“If the Muse exists, she does not whisper to the untalented.”
The famous painter and photographer Chuck Close is famous for saying that “inspiration is for amateurs–the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
It think that’s 100% spot-on, and you can replace “inspiration” with “motivation” as well. If you or I or anyone decide to wait for the right mixture or intensity of feelings before we will do the things that we know we should be doing to get to where we want to go, we’re doomed. The only reliable way to feel “inspired” or “motivated” is to create the feelings through action. It’s the feeling of forward motion and momentum that inspires and motivates us to keep going, not the mysterious inner workings of our unconscious minds.
“Like a magnetized needle floating on a surface of oil, Resistance will unfailingly point to true North — meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. We can use this. We can use it as a compass. We can navigate by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before all others. Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.”
The fact that something is hard isn’t a sign that it’s probably not worth it. The struggle is the point. The struggle is how it signals its worth and potential to transform. The fact that it’s hard isn’t a sign that you don’t belong in the arena. The struggle is how you prove you’re worthy.
Epictetus, the influential Greek philosopher, wrote about this in his Discourses:
“What would have become of Hercules do you think if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar – and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges?
“Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.
“And even if he had, what good would it have done him? What would have been the use of those arms, that physique, and that noble soul, without crises or conditions to stir him into action?”
The moral of this simple allegory extends far beyond the tales of Greek mythology. It strikes at a fundamental aspect of human nature: We can only be as great as our circumstances demand.
“Grandiose fantasies are a symptom of Resistance. They’re the sign of an amateur. The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.”
I’m all for hitching your wagon to a star and dreaming big dreams, but if you’re not willing to work at least ten times as hard as you think you’ll have to work to actually see those dreams come to fruition, you’re almost guaranteed to fail. One of the hallmarks of a true professional is he or she focuses almost exclusively on the work, and rarely mentions anything else.
“Someone once asked the Spartan king Leonidas to identify the supreme warrior virtue from which all others flowed. He replied: ‘Contempt for death.’ For us as artists, read ‘failure.’ Contempt for failure is our cardinal virtue.”
This extends to everyone, not just artists, and I think it should include not just contempt for failure, but contempt for hard work, for pain and discomfort, for setbacks, for naysayers, for anything physical, emotional, or spiritual that might get in our way.
Many of the greatest achievers in history all had this type of dismissive attitude toward obstacles and barriers. They didn’t really care how difficult their goals were going to be, how hard they were going to have to work, or how much they were going to have to sacrifice. They just threw themselves wholly and completely into their endeavors.
A perfect example of this is how Elon Musk described his founding of SpaceX to Ray Dalio, whose book Principles is going to be featured in one of these articles.
“For a long time,” Elon said, “I’ve thought that it’s inevitable that something bad is going to happen on a planetary scale— a plague, a meteor— that will require humanity to start over somewhere else, like Mars. One day I went to the NASA website to see what progress they were making on their Mars program, and I realized that they weren’t even thinking about going there anytime soon.
“I had gotten $180 million when my partners and I sold PayPal,” he continued, “and it occurred to me that if I spent $90 million and used it to acquire some ICBMs from the former USSR and sent one to Mars, I could inspire the exploration of Mars.”
And when Ray asked him about his background in rocketry, Elon said he didn’t have one. “I just started reading books,” he said.
That’s how people like Elon think and act. Just spend some time reading biographies of people like him and you can’t miss it. If you want a few recommendations for this, read Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk, Philip Freeman’s biography of Alexander the Great, Ron Chernow’s biography of John D. Rockefeller, and Edmund Morris’s biographies of Theodore Roosevelt.
“The years have taught me one skill: how to be miserable. I know how to shut up and keep humping.”
This strikes at what I think is one of the greatest predictors of long-term success and achievement: how much distress and discomfort can someone endure on a given path before giving up? Or, viewed differently, how much does he or she value being comfortable?
Simply put, the more effort and pain someone is willing to push through, and the more he can resist the desire to lie around and consume things that make him feel good, the more likely he is to be able to make his dreams a reality.
I once saw a video where a man talked about an ultra marathon he did with his friends, where they all ran different legs of a 100 mile stretch. There was a retired Navy SEAL named David Goggins who did the entire thing on his own. By the end, his ankles were swollen to the size of grapefruits and he had broken several bones in his feet. The narrator asked David how the hell he did it and asked if he would train him. Later on, they met at the gym and David told him to do as many pull-ups as he could. The first time he did 8. David told him to go again and he did 6. Again, David said, and he barely got 4. David then said they couldn’t leave until the man did 100 more. The guy thought it was impossible, but David insisted, and so he did it, rep by rep, over the course of a couple hours. After finishing the 100th rep, David told him “Whenever you think you’re done and entirely ready to give out, you’re only 40% of the way there”.
The moral of this story is simple: you can push yourself a lot further than you realize, and you can endure far more hardship than you think, so don’t sell yourself short. You don’t need to break yourself every day, but you can easily go well outside of your comfort zones without any real consequences. Furthermore, the more you do this, the more your capacity to stretch yourself expands, allowing you to accomplish more and more without feeling like you’re exerting yourself or suffering any more than before.