The writer Steven Pressfield in his books The War of Art and Do the Work talks about a concept he calls Resistance. Resistance is a cold, impersonal force that acts against every creative endeavor you feel passionate about. He writes about it mostly in the context of art– Resistance is the nagging voice inside of you telling you that you can never be a real writer, that you’ll never finish your symphony, and that your paintings suck. It’s all the distractions to keep you from ever sitting down at your typewriter. Resistance can even take the form of all the legitimate reasons not to pick up your violin today– you do need to pick up the kids from school, and someone has to take out the trash.
Resistance is opposed to any endeavor we take that makes us a better person or the world a better place or brings us closer to our calling. Opening a restaurant? Starting a family? Voting your (unpopular) conscience? The universe is not apathetic to these actions; it is actively hostile. Resistance is that hostility.
Resistance knows you’d grow by doing these things, and it’s there to keep you from growing. If you give into it, you will die regretful and wondering. Resistance wants you to die like that. It hates you.
Here’s the good news though: Resistance means you’re doing something right. It will come knocking down your door with distractions, excuses, and self-doubt literally 100% of the time you’re moving towards what Pressfield calls a “higher spiritual plane”. On the other hand, if you are a giving up your life as a volunteer with Calcutta orphans to go work at Goldman Sachs, resistance will kindly step aside.
But assuming you do follow the path to the higher plane, Resistance will be beating down your door soon after inspiration strikes. You can beat it or you can give in. Neither path is without its difficulties– floating downstream is the way of regret and guilt; going upstream is an inch-by-inch battle for the next trench. You’re going to be puttin’ in the hours. Pressfield calls this idea of day-in and day-out, rain or shine clock-punching “going pro”. Want to beat Resistance? Go pro. Or, as he quotes W. Somerset Maugham:
“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
Pablo Picasso said a similar thing:
“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
That’s going pro.
The point is that as you continue your endeavor, it’s not all sunshine and puppies. There will be days– weeks, months, God forbid– where you have no desire whatsoever to keep working on that endeavor. During those times, it’s only the vision of the end that keeps you going. Remember why you’re doing this.
Resistance vs. Your Dreams
Needless to say, Resistance is an incredibly applicable concept to life goals. I haven’t seen a single goal from anyone at The Finishing School that didn’t meet at least one of the following criteria:
- A creative endeavor
- Makes the world a better place
- Furthers ones discovery of their life’s calling
- Postpones present pleasure for future accomplishment
And those are the warning signs of Resistance. In fact, the last item is almost the definition of a life’s goal– one starts a business or composes a symphony because those are the things that that person needs to do to grow, and the reason they involve growth is because they’re not easy– we know they come with Resistance. So we can rest assured that the monster will be rearing its ugly head just when you’re putting yours down to get to work. But work anyways.
Now I’ve spewed a bunch of grandiloquence onto this page. I don’t think that does anyone much good– myself included– if I don’t tie it back to reality a bit.
What Does Resistance Actually, Specifically Look Like?
This is not a comprehensive list. Resistance will take the form of whatever lie it can to keep you idle long enough to die with your art still in you. Here are some things Resistance looks like:
“I’ll do it tomorrow; I’ll do something else first” — i.e. Procrastination
This is one of the most basic and most common forms of Resistance. It’s effective in keeping you from your dreams, but it’s not insidious– it’s perhaps the easiest of Resistance’s guises to recognize and drive out.
“This other big thing just came up!” — i.e. Procrastination + Rationalization
This is procrastination’s deadly older brother. It’s like procrastination, but draped in rationalization. You watch TV to procrastinate, and you don’t like that you did, but you weren’t fooling yourself. You know TV’s not important. With this, it’s different. You don’t even know what hit you, because you even don’t know that it hit you in the first place. You were off doing other things that seemed important because they had deadlines and limited-time opportunities and emotional people. But if they had passed unnoticed, would your life have been significantly altered for the worse? Never. This one takes reflection and constant awareness to beat.
“It’s easier not to think about this”– i.e. Laziness
Laziness is a fascinating beast. It’s not that it makes you not want to achieve your goals. You still want to, it’s just at some deeper level, you realize you’re not going to. Under the shadow of inspiration, laziness flees. Laziness is trivial, but when it comes, have inspiration close at hand.
“The others who have done this are smarter/more capable/etc.” — i.e. Self-Doubt
This one’s a doozy because it’s not easily refutable. If you’re trying to do something spectacular with your time, you probably don’t know a large contingent of others who have done the same, so who’s to say they’re not all far more talented, persevering, and so forth? Unless you’re devouring biographies, you have no point of reference– only your own seeming inability to get done what it is you want. Nothing is fair about self-doubt, but knowledge is the sure antidote, because in the end, self-doubt is almost always wrong.
“I’m not really a writer/entrepreneur/marathoner/etc.” — i.e. Imposter Syndrome
This is the biggest doozy of them all. It’s like self-doubt, only about self-identification rather than self-worth. Artist Austin Kleon says of this, “There’s this very real thing that runs rampant in educated people. It’s called imposter syndrome… It means that you feel like a phony, like you’re just winging it, that you don’t really have any idea what you’re doing. Guest what? None of us do.”
How do you Actually, Specifically Beat Resistance?
You can change your attitude and you can change your actions. To whip Resistance, adjust both.
Know that starting work on your goals is half the battle.
The actual work you put into goals varies. Some will be incredibly tedious; some will be almost easy. Either way, putting in the time and racking up the hours is just as hard as, if not harder than what fills those hours. Be prepared for this fact. Enjoy the work when you can, but punch the time-card no matter what.
Shove your foot in the door. Do the smallest bit possible.
I’ve talked about this before. It’s the founding principle of the Finishing School. Do the smallest possible chunk of work on your goal and when that’s done, reevaluate. Looking at “running a marathon” as a whole is intimidating. But “figure out a training plan” is far less so.
The enemy of Resistance is now.
This applies not simply to procrastination, but to all forms of resistance. Think you’re an imposter? You’re not. Shut it and keep working. The present is all you have, and Resistance is only a set of tactics used to keep you from using it. At some point, you will do something now. If not now, then never.
“The Devil, that proud spirit, cannot endured to be mocked”, says Thomas Moore. Resistance is the same way– evil and proud. Don’t lose your fear of what it can do to you, but know that you have powerful tools to overcome it. Become an animal– a dogged, persistent animal.
I always think of this silly image. Do you want to annoy your friend during a car trip? Poke him. When he pushes your hand away, simply move your hand around his and poke him again, applying the minimal pressure the entire time. If he grabs your hand, don’t move until he lets go. Then do it again. It’s infuriating for him because he knows that you’re applying so little pressure– the only thing you have going is your persistence, and he knows that easily stopping that isn’t a function of force.
So it is with Resistance. Am I feeling lazy tonight, Resistance? I will write one line towards my symphony, and you can have the rest. You don’t win, because I’m going to write a line every day until I die or I finish, and if I die writing a line every day, you still haven’t won.
You pussy, Resistance. Hear that? You can’t win.
Congratulations. You’ve achieved your goal. Resistance didn’t win. You’ve helped yourself and the world by growing, and participated in the joy and chaos of creation– your dream was thought, now it’s history. Steven makes an apt metaphor to creative work:
“The most highly cultured mother gives birth sweating and dislocated and cursing like a sailor.”
It was a mess, but you pulled through. Take the rest of the day off. Get started on the next one tomorrow.
If you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, then what you’re doing isn’t the war. It’s just one battle. It’s a stepping stone to a greater aim, and you doubtless know the next stone already. When you’ve accomplished one goal, it’s time to pat yourself on the back, reflect, and move on to the next goal. But more on that later.
Read the Book
This post is over. I just want to mention a few other things about Steven Pressfield’s books. It may sound like a sales pitch. It’s not. I have already started sending copies to my friends. I don’t do this for every book. That being said…
Do the Work is one of the best books I’ve ever read. The War of Art is also quite good, but it nose-dives into some pretty nutty New Age philosophy towards the end (well, technically it’s Jungian, but between that and Pressfield’s continual mentioning of the fact that he actually prays to the Muses before working, it was all just a bit much for me). Plus, DtW focuses more endeavors that aren’t traditionally thought of as art– entrepreneurship, for example.
If you are serious about accomplishing your goals, I highly recommend reading one of these. They’re both under ten bucks at Amazon.com. If you don’t buy them, at least consider the main lesson I got out of the books: to create artistic worth and fulfill your life’s calling, it helps to personify all your excuses, procrastination, and self-doubt into something called Resistance, which you can then punch in the face to great effect. Live on!
PS. Beyond being a good motivator, these books are so short and dense they’re practically a collection of aphorisms. The writing style is so tight that you can’t take a word away without tragically reducing the meaning. I aspire to that. Highly recommended.