Review: The war of art by Steven Pressfield

Ever hear the notion that the really good stuff, like the best stuff, whether it’s an innovation in technology, a new service no one knew they needed or a great work of art doesn’t come from us, it comes through us? This is the concept at the heart of Pressfield’s book.

It’s a dogged, insistent book, nominally about “getting things done in the modern world” but in truth it’s really a philosophical manifesto and it got me thinking.

Isn’t the reason we do most things because of what we’ll get? Sure it’s one thing to embrace the beauty of artistic expression for its own sake, but what about starting a new business, or deciding to get fit? You don’t do either of these things just for the love of doing them, do you? Pressfield claims that all three can only be successfully achieved when we accept that the completion of these goals is not only advantageous, but our life’s purpose.  He advocates that, in the pursuit of innovation, we must serve not our impulse to be venerated and remunerated by the culture around us, but to serve the endeavor in its purest form. Do the thing for the sake of doing it, not for what might happen when we’re done, he says, and we’ve won. Do it for any other reason and all we’re really doing is offering up yet another opportunity for failure. And it’s a fairly sound theory, one that had me making sounds of exclamation every few pages as I smiled to myself at the sense of recognition ringing from the pages.

But this is a theory resting on the notion that everyone has a calling, whatever it might be, and only by committing to this calling, by putting its fulfilment ahead of all other demands in your life, will you be able to truly know peace. It’s a grand statement for sure, but he claims the grandeur is unavoidable. He claims that without the sense of purpose, without the act of committing to a calling rather than simply engaging in an activity, we will more than likely fail in that endeavor. Success is hard, he tells us, and the only way to secure success is to view the task at hand as though your god damn life depends on it. Now inevitably with a theory of this nature there comes the need to invoke some concept of a higher power; after all, Pressfield is making grand claims about life’s real purpose, so it’s not surprising he finds himself reaching for a something as a way to validate his assertions. He calls this higher power God, but he’s quick to make it plain that this is simply his preference and he easily replaces that troublesome word with abstract, soul, ego and self, so as to ensure the book ends up in the literary theory, and not the mind, body, spirit section of the bookshop.

But it’s exactly the grandeur in Pressfield’s view of the world that struck me about this book, more than the practical advice on how to get something done without distraction. It made me think about why certain people succeed and why some don’t. Is it as simple as making everything else in your life secondary? (which is far from simple…). Malcolm Gladwell would claim that there are considerably more factors involved in achieving profound levels of success, but while Gladwell talks about the big boys of the world like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, what about the rest of us? If the trajectory of our lives has not been lined with fortune, then does our only chance at success lie in the absolute commitment of one’s self to an idea? It seems like a leap of faith, which is probably why Pressfield invokes God.

In the end I found it inspiring. A critical reading of the book might point out that it is only going to work for people who are a little older, and who have experienced the incessant drag of what he calls resistance – that force that leads us to procrastination. The overall tone of the book is very old-school, a kind of stop whining and get on with it approach. I’m not sure I would recommend this book to a younger person, as the basic concept requires that you already know what it is you want to do with your life, which is not typically something the young have at their disposal. I know I didn’t.

But if you do know what you want, and whether that is to write your first novel or start your own business, Pressfield offers a robust and applicable psychological framework that could greatly benefit you in the war against your own ‘art’.