“The marine corps teaches you how to be miserable. This is invaluable for an artist. Marines love to be miserable. Marines derive a perverse satisfaction in having colder chow, crappier equipment, and higher casualty rates than any outfit of dogfaces, swabjockies, or flyboys, all of whom they despise. Why? Because those candyasses don't know how to be miserable.
The artist committing himself to his calling has 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. The artist must be like that marine: 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 desk jockey, because this is war, baby, and war is hell.”
- Steven Pressfield , The War of Art
Pressfield is both referring to the classic artist dilemma, and to everyone in the world in this quote. We all have what might be considered our “art” or mission work that we are responsible for. We have something to do besides pay the bills. We might be an actor, writer, painter— but our art could also be gardening, being an entrepreneur, doctor, or computer geek. Our art or mission work is that thing we do that Joseph Campbell called “following your bliss.” In Positive Psychology Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this “flow.” Flow or bliss is that activity that once engaged in brings us meaning. We lose track of time. We are, “in the flow of life”. We feel good.
Sounds great right? Not so fast. That “art” that creates flow or bliss also usually comes with what Pressfield calls “resistance.” In fact, the greater the bliss our art holds for us, the more resistance is often at play. Resistance is that voice in our head that keeps us from doing our art. The voice that neurotically tells us we’ll never be successful at our art, that it will suck, that it’s too much trouble, just give up. But here’s the thing, when we don’t do our art because of that neurotic voice, we become even more neurotic—depressed, anxious, and searching for “meaning.” This lack of meaning or mission can get so dark that we sink into depression, addictions, aimlessness, fear, and even start lacking the will to live. Resistance is not a minor hindrance, it is a life killer according to Pressfield.
When we resist our art we are usually watching TV, surfing the Internet, over eating, over drinking, entertaining ourselves, getting massages, vacationing, or just plain wasting time. Its not that these things don’t have their place, its that they kill our spirits slowly by occupying the time our art needs. We end up complacent, envying others who focus on their “art”, justifying our avoidance, and generally complaining about life.
When Pressfield talks about thinking like a marine, he’s referring to the mental toughness it takes to break through resistance, do what we love, and not be defeated by “resistance.”
This mental toughness can take different forms. My friend Alan started his acting career sleeping in the back of theatres. A writer I know works four hours every morning in a local hotel café. My entrepreneur father said weekends “got in the way” of his work. Edison tried a thousand times before the light bulb was born.
How do you work through resistance? The first remedy Pressfield promotes is simply recognizing that this thing called resistance is actively engaged in blocking your efforts to create art every time you go to do it. Resistance is a thing in the universe, like water or grass or sexuality. You will have to engage resistance each day and not turn away from it. We are not trying to make it disappear, figure a way around it, or take a pill. We are, like the marine, up for the challenge to be miserable until we succeed. Resistance will give way if we engage it. It is an imposter, pretending to be a monster wizard but ending up being a little old man behind the curtain. Once it is overcome flow and bliss have a chance and our mission is under way.
Pressfield recommends routine, structure, and self-discipline. He says we need a “lunch pail and hard hat” attitude toward our art. It can’t be something we do when we “feel like it”, when the “muse strikes", or when the “stars align.” This he says is an amateur’s approach to their art. We have to treat it like a job. We don’t get up and decide every day if we’ll show up at the office. We can’t decide each day whether we’ll do our art either.
When I work with people I always pay attention to whether they have this “art” or “mission work” in their life. If they don’t have it, we find it. While I support working through their resistance and doing their art, it is ultimately their art, their war, and their life. No one, including me, can force anyone to do their art. What is the art that feeds your flow and bliss? What are you here to give the world? How are you doing with your resistance? Are you in the trenches or have you gone AWOL?
Below Pressfield talks with Joe Polish on The Genius Network podcast: