Steven Pressfield and the War of Work

It’s human nature to look for the easy way out.

We dream of the “big break” that will carry us away from our current troubles forever.

Then, along comes a guy like Steven Pressfield.

He’s the type that tells you that this single day is what matters. That money and recognition come and go, but your desk and your work remain.

He’s the type that shatters your illusions about the very nature of work, and the reasons why you do what you do.

And he gives you hope, because the work that you’re doing is actually far more important than you could have believed.

Work is war, and Steven Pressfield has a few thoughts on how to get through it, and how to thrive in it…

In this episode Steven Pressfield and I discuss:

  • How to change everything about your work, in a moment
  • Lessons from 17 years of struggle and failure
  • Why you should approach your work with a warrior mindset
  • How Steven “uses” social media
  • The key to getting his work done every day
  • How to quit screwing around and get serious

Hit the flash player below to listen now:


[episode_ad] [episode_transcript]

Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.


Robert Bruce: This is Internet Marketing for Smart People Radio. I am Robert Bruce and I am very pleased to have Steven Pressfield on the line today. For many writers out there, Steven needs absolutely no introduction; he’s the author of eleven books including The Legend of Bagger Vance , Killing Rommel, and The War of Art . This episode, my friends, is going to be all about writing, so kick, back grab a coffee, and soak it in from one of the best out there working right now. Steven Pressfield welcome to the show.

Steven Pressfield: Thanks Robert it’s a pleasure to be here.

Robert: Well before we get into the questions here Steven, I want to remind listeners that this show is brought to you by Internet Marketing for Smart People, which is the premier online marketing course, delivered straight to your email inbox. It’s the very best of Copyblogger wrapped up into 20 perfectly readable emails dripped out to you about once a week. When you sign up for this course, you are getting the nearly six years of Copyblogger content, totally free and without having to go back and pick through almost 2000 articles in the achieve.

If you want in, it’s easy, just head over to scroll down to about the middle of the home page where you’ll see the headline “Grab out free 20 part internet marketing course”, drop your email address into the little box there and we will take care of the rest.

So, Steven the story of your work as a writer is a fascinating one and I am wondering if you can give us a brief rundown of your early years at work, when you were trying to get it done in the face of a lot of challenges if we’re honest, right up until things starting moving for you career wise.

How years of struggle can suddenly produce a “turning pro” moment

Steven: Well it’s a grizzly story Robert, but I’ll be glad to share it with you. I started off as a copywriter. I worked in New York City for Grey Advertising and for Benton and Bowls and for Ted Bates, back in the era just after “Mad Men.” I had no ambitions to be a writer at that time. In fact, I thought advertising was a cool thing; I just wanted to do that. Then I had a boss, a man named Ed Hannibal, who quit his job and wrote a novel and the novel was a big success. So I thought to myself, at 23 years old, I said, “Well shit, why don’t I do that too?”

So I quit and decided to write a novel. I was married at the time. The idea of trying to write a novel for me at that time was like so over my head in terms of, I had no concept of self-discipline, self-motivation, self-reinforcement, self-validation, I had none of the skills, and so I sort of crashed and burned. My marriage broke up at the end of the 60’s and I wound up on the road, traveling all around the country working crazy jobs. I was a truck driver, I was a schoolteacher, I worked in a mental hospital, I picked fruit in Washington state, I worked in the oil fields in Louisiana, and I was just totally just running away from writing as anybody who has read The War of Art kind of knows a little bit of that story.

At some point, after five or six years, I just had a moment, a “come to Jesus” moment where I just decided that if I was going to continue living the way I was living, I was going to wind up dead and that I had to face what I’ve been running away from all that time.

So I finally sat down and started to write. I sort of turned pro in my mind even though I was making no money at the time and I was working as a bartender and driving a taxi in New York City.

I started back to really trying to work, to write books. I did that also again, working in advertising part of the time and wrote two novels there over a course of about 4 Ω years or so and they were both terrible and no one wanted them, I couldn’t get them published. It was a total failure. I hope I am not boring you with this.

Robert: Not at all.

Steven: When the second one kind of crashed and burned, it was either one of two choices, either I was going to hang myself, or I was going to come up with some other thing to do. At that point, I decided to move to Hollywood and try to see if I could do something as a screenwriter. I went out there and after about five years I finally sort of got a “C” level, “C” list career going and that was the first time that I ever actually made money as a writer. After I think, it was like 17 years or even more than that of trying.

The only reason that I was making money was that I got teamed up by an agent with an older, established writer and I just kind of became his slave and he was the guy who brought in the work and I did most of it. At least I was working then and after about ten years of that, I had the idea for a book finally and that was The Legend of Bagger Vance and that sort of got me on to books and that was in 1995. Since then my head’s been above water and I’ve been working steadily so that’s the long grizzly saga.

Robert: So we’re talking if my math is right, 27 years of struggle to get to a place where you were feeling pretty good, maybe paying the bills, starting to take care of things.

Steven: I think that’s about right Robert, I think that’s about right. Although I think I got my first check after 17 years, which was an option for $3500 for a screenplay that I wrote but I didn’t start making a living for another 10 years after that.

Robert: I want to be clear too, we’re talking about fiction and more of the creative things. But this obviously applies as you say in The War of Art and other places; your latest book, Do the Work this struggle applies to all kinds of writing and all kinds of endeavors across the board, right?

Steven: I certainly think so. I mean I wish that people didn’t have to spend as many years as I did, but it certainly seems like anything where you are following your dream and you are trying to make it in a career that a lot of other people want to make it in, like you want to have a band, a rock ‘n’ roll band or something like that, or you want to make movies, where there’s a tremendous amount of competition, it seems to take a long time and you have to pay a lot of dues.

In fact, in the screenwriting world I would say it’s a common place axiom and of course there are exceptions to this but it takes maybe eight or nine years for somebody from the time they come, if they are going to succeed, from the time they arrive in Tinseltown to when they start making money. Those who stick it out and many of course don’t.

Why you should approach your work with a warrior mindset

Robert: Yes, and we’re going to talk a little bit later in this chat about sticking it out. One of the things that I really love about your work in general is this warrior ethos that runs through most of it if not all of your work and you’re a warrior yourself, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and identify heavily with this warrior stance towards life and work and writing in particular. How can we better bring this warrior ethos to our desk every day?

Steve: That’s a really good question, Robert, and in “The War of Art” I talk about the difference between an amateur and a professional and what we need to do as writers or artists or entrepreneurs is turn pro mentally and take ourselves seriously, take our work seriously and really bear down on it. The warrior ethos is sort of a parallel to that; it’s kind of the same thing in my mind.

My experience at least as far as facing the blank page and all that sort of stuff as a writer, is that you are very much fighting an enemy. The enemy is resistance, it’s self-sabotage, it’s procrastination, it’s laziness, it’s over-protectionism, and self-doubt. All of those things that we generate inside of ourselves to keep us from doing out work.

So in my mind I absolutely have a list of warrior virtues and professional virtues that I try to hold up as a model for myself and to follow those virtues, patience, courage in the face of adversity, compassion for myself, that sort of stuff. It’s very conscience in my mind every day, every morning when I wake up and I face resistance. I sort of martial those warrior virtues and enlist them to help me get my work done.

Robert: So all these years later it’s not like you are just popping out of bed Steven, and you just fill pages, it’s no problem, then you go out to the garden in the afternoon, sip on a mint julep or something, that’s not your life?

Steven: No, in fact, I never found anybody to have that experience Robert, it’s like the dragon has to be faced every morning and slain every morning, and it never gets any easier. In fact, in many ways it gets harder because you are always trying to elevate your level of aspiration. So you are always kind of pushing into new areas, so that becomes harder and now what makes it easier I think over time is that you’ve had successes in the past, so you know that you can defeat it.

It’s very tough at the start and for any of your listeners that are at the start I remember those years vividly. It is tough because you haven’t had any success at that point, you can’t say “We’ve already won the Super Bowl once” ya know. That warrior ethos set professional mindset is to me the key to being able to do the work.

How to change your work ethic and take it to the next level

Robert: What do you have to say about the pursuit of fame and wealth in a writer’s career?

Steven: Let me go back, we’ll get to that in a second Robert, but let’s go back and I’ll give you kind of a further answer about the professional mindset and stuff like this. This actually was on my blog. I ran a chapter from Roseanne Cash the singer, her book called Composed which is a memorial of her life and it’s a wonderful book and I highly recommend it. It’s about her life as a musician and learning how to be a musician but there was a part in it that I think this really was professionalism to the max to me.

She had a dream that changed her life. In the dream, this was at least 20 years ago, she had an album at that time called Kings Record Shop that actually had four number one singles came out of that album, so she was doing great. She had a real career, making money and having hits then one night she had this dream and in the dream she was at a party and she was sitting on a sofa.

There was her, an older man in the middle, his name was Art, this is very important, a mentor type guy and on the other side of Art was Linda Ronstadt. Linda Ronstadt was sort of a role model to Roseanne because they are kind of in the same ballpark as singers. Roseanne was sort of competition in her mind a little bit with Linda Ronstadt. Linda Ronstadt at that time had mega hits, “Hasten Down the Wind” and “Heart Like a Wheel” and a lot of great stuff.

Anyways, in the dream, Art was talking animatedly to Linda Ronstadt and was totally ignoring Roseanne and finally Roseanne sort of broke in, trying to break into the conversation and then Art turned to her and with a withering glance, looked her right in the eye and said, “We don’t waste our time with dilettantes.” Roseanne said that she woke up and she was shattered by this dream.

She felt like that she had absolutely been exposed and she realized that at that time she had thought that she was really operating on a pretty good level of professionalism and she just realized that she really wasn’t, that she really was not as good a musician as she wanted to be.

She didn’t know enough about the craft, she didn’t respect the craft enough, so from that moment she sort of committed herself, and she started studying. She studied everything more seriously, the piano, vocal coach, and it changed her life, she really kind of elevated her game to a whole other level.

The final ironic kicker of the whole thing is that vocal coach that she wound up working with, who really helped her tremendously was also Linda Ronstadt’s vocal coach and she didn’t know it when she went to work with her. So that’s another story of a moment of turning pro, of having an epiphany where you are sort of exposed and you say “Man, I am not what I thought I was and I better gear up and take it to the next level.”

Robert: I love that, I love that story. I never heard that and it makes me think how you talk a bit about guilt throughout a lot of your writing in The War of Art, and there is a deep understanding, that we know when we are just screwing around. We know when we are not in the game truly. When we are at some deep level just playing the dilettante, and how we answer that is what makes all the difference.

Steven: Exactly. That’s what that story is all about. The name of the book is Composed, just putting in a little plug here for Roseanne, it’s a great book.

The emptiness of fame and wealth, and writing what you love

Robert: You say a lot about the pursuit of fame and wealth, I don’t want to give away your punch line here, but there is a chapter in The War of Art where you talk specifically about the pursuit of these things over the pursuit of the craft. You don’t pull any punches, what do you think about this pursuit of fame and wealth in the craft of writing?

Steven: That’s another really good question, I think it’s absolutely natural I think when you are starting out to have dreams of fame and wealth and women and all of this sort of stuff, right? But I think that as you get into any craft, I don’t care what it is, if you are a film maker, a potter, a weaver, or a writer, that craft is going to start kicking your ass.

Pretty soon, you are going to realize that the pursuit of fame and wealth and other things are totally superficial and that they are not doing you any good. They are sort of peripheral to the pursuit and I think the more you get into a craft or an art and the more seriously you take it, the more spiritual it becomes in a way.

There is a famous quote from Chris Evert that she said “When you win Wimbledon the thrill lasts about an hour.” I think there is a lot of truth to that.

When you do get the money, you do get the fame, or you do get the women or whatever it is that you are looking for, it proves to be empty very fast. It kind of throws you back and at some point, you have to ask yourself, why am I doing this? What was the dream originally? In the end I think you have to sort of come down to the fact that it’s the work itself, it’s the pursuit of the work.

I have also found that when I am trying to decide about a potential screenplay to write, and I’d have an idea and I would say “Should I do this or should I do this other idea?”

Every time I would try and pick what I thought was commercial, what I thought was going to work in the marketplace, it never worked. When I picked something that I just loved, even though I thought it was crazy and nobody else would be interested in it, those are the ones that have worked for me.

It certainly is something. I mean there is nothing wrong with wealth and fame, but I think if that’s your pursuit, if that’s what you are really after, you are in trouble and you are riding for a fall.

Robert: To add on to this question of why are we pursuing this, you tell a story of Krishna teaching a student that we have the right to our labor but not to the fruits of our labor and this could probably sound blasphemous to many people but it certainly seems very pointed today.

In an age of seemingly instant returns online and with social networking and with blogging and with all of these things, we seem to be able to get feedback and even recognition and sometimes rewards relatively quickly or we have the desire for those things. What can we apply from Krishna teaching to our work as writers?

Steven: Well that teaching comes from a book called The Bhagavad Gita which is sort of like ? I hate to use this phrase but it’s a shorthand version ? it’s kind of like the “Hindu Bible”.

It’s a book that Gandhi used principals from, to free India. It’s a great book, I read it every year.

It’s very short, “The Bhagavad Gita” I can’t recommend it highly enough and the book is about the great warrior “Arjuna” and actually in my book, The Legend of Bagger Vance is just a complete rip-off of this book. I totally stole the structure and just changed it around. The great warrior Arjuna, who receives spiritual instruction from his charioteer and his charioteer, happens to be Krishna, in other words God in human form.

But one of the things that Krishna instructs Arjuna, as you said Robert, that we have the right to our labor but not to the fruits of our labor. That’s kind of a hard concept to grasp, but it’s absolutely true when you get down to the soul level of life and how it works. Again, it’s back to what you questioned about wealth and fame. If we’re pursuing any enterprise for the material benefits, the material profits at the end, we’re setting ourselves up for a disaster because although we may get the fruits, a lot of the time we won’t.

Even more to the point, we may get the fruits and they may be the worst thing that ever happened to us. I mean how many guys, actors, and actresses have won an Oscar, only to watch their career go straight into the toilet as they get into drugs and all kinds of other stuff after that. So what Krishna is saying is really that we need to focus on the craft itself. I liken it to a martial arts practice, if you’re a swords master, or a meditator, or yogi or something like that, then there is no goal, there is no finish line, there is no prize that gets put in your hand at the end.

You have to ask yourself, “Am I getting something out of this just today as I am doing it in the studio? As I practice yoga, as I am practicing martial arts, as I am writing, as I am making a film, is this fun for me now, just making this movie?” If the answer is yes, then you don’t have to worry about anything else. If you are only doing it for the babes or the money, then it just runs counter to the way life works, the floor will drop out from under you if that’s your orientation.

Robert: Do you think this applies to business as well? You’ve been a copywriter, you’ve been in advertising, and you are running your own business now, as we speak through various avenues of your writing as things pan out for you. Do you think this applies, obviously, we’re in business to profit but it’s much more than that, right? I mean we’re talking about ?..

The difference between amateurs and professionals

Steven: In my opinion, yes, absolutely. There are two ways of being in business. For me, being a copywriter was not my calling. For me, being a copywriter was running away from the real writing that I was really meant to do. I was one of those guys that had a novel in his drawer, his desk or had a screenplay in his drawer or desk and was doing copywriting because it paid the bills.

But there are lots of people who have their own businesses and for whom their business is their calling and in that case, the same rules apply as I just was talking about being a pro, being an amateur, the warrior ethos and all that sort of stuff. Definitely, I am thinking of a few friends of mine who have businesses that for me might not be what I would want to do, but for them it’s their thing, they are on the right path. All these principals apply I would say.

Robert: I like that. I don’t know how much deeper you want to go into this but I am fascinated by your distinction between what you call the amateur writer, and the professional writer. Are there any points that you want to pull out of that distinction?

Steven: Actually there is a lot, in fact, going back to that story that I told about Roseanne Cash’s dream, and how she realized that in that dream when Art turned to her and said “We don’t waste out time talking to dilettantes.” She realized that she was dabbling, she was a successful professional, but she was not at a high enough professional level, in essences she was an amateur.

I believe, this is my whole sort of life is based on this, like I say in The War of Art “I can split my life in half as before I turned pro and after I turn pro, and they are completely different lives. It’s like the same parallel would be a drunk while he was drinking and then when he became a reformed alcoholic.

Everything changes when you take yourself seriously enough and you take the craft that you are after seriously enough to really treat it as your calling and not as something that you are just dicking around in. Again, it kind of comes back to resistant with a capital “R”. I think the reason that most people are amateurs in their heads, in whatever craft they are working is because resistance is defeating them.

They are afraid to really make the commitment so they are sort of hanging around in the shallow end of the pool. At least in my experience, if you do have a calling to some art, then at some point you are going to have to go into the deep end otherwise you’ll develop a tumor or something like that. I am not joking when I say that.

Robert: No, I’ve heard you talk about that before. Illness obviously, even more depression, and all kinds of problems coming from essentially not doing what you should be doing.

Steven: Yes!

Robert: That is dark territory. That’s very dark territory. Okay, can you give us two specific ways for those out there struggling with this, what are two ways that we can turn pro?

How to quit screwing around and get serious

Steven: I’ll say this. Usually we’re dealing with a capital “R” resistance in a case like this and resistance is, in my experience, monumental, I mean it will kill you. It will absolutely kill you and it’s trying to kill you. So to reach the moment where you do turn pro usually takes an absolute traumatic epiphany.

If we go back to the analogy of the alcoholic, you almost have to wake up in a gutter having sold your children into white slavery a year before it finally hits you. But it doesn’t hurt to think about it ahead of time and to really sort of look yourself in the mirror and say,

“Am I just fooling around or am I really committed?”

The good thing about turning pro – it’s free. You don’t have to do anything, you don’t have to go to school, you don’t have to get a certificate, nobody has to validate you, you don’t have to say anything, you don’t have to do anything, and nobody has to know about it, it’s only a change of attitude internally in your mind. That’s all it is. But of course, to say that’s all it is, it’s a huge thing to get to that point.

Robert: Let’s move on to this great story, it’s one of my favorite of yours of the glorious moment you completed your first manuscript while living and working in Big Sur, this was a time of intense creativity and intense struggle.

You tell it so well, but upon completion of this manuscript, you ran it over to your neighbor at the time, a gentleman named Paul Rink, a guy who actually has his own place secured in American Literary History, but you told him that you finished and that you were excited and you were proud of this accomplishment and he said something to you that stuck with me ever since I read it years ago. What was the exchange and why is it so important for writers?

Steven: It actually wasn’t in Big Sur but it was near there, but Paul Rink, if you read Henry Millers books, Big Sur and the Orange of Hieronymus Bosch he’s in there.

He was kind of a big star in those days, but this happened actually in a nearby town and Paul was kind of my mentor. He was 30 years older than me and had been a writer forever. He lived in a little camper, and every morning I would come down and have coffee with him and he would kind of psyche me up and give me, as writer mentors do, he would give me books to read and that kind of stuff.

So finally, I finished this book that I’d written. This was monumental for me, I had been running away for about ten years from this and finally did it and I came over and said “Paul I finished the book” and he didn’t even look up, he just said to me “Good for you now start the next one.” I thought, “That’s a professional attitude to the max” and I think there is tremendous wisdom in that.

I heard another story once, it was an actor trying to make it in Hollywood and he was talking to Walter Matthau somewhere, at a party or something. He said to Walter Matthau, “I’m just looking for that break, I just gotta get that break.” Matthau started laughing and he said “Kid it’s not that break, it’s those fifty breaks!” What he meant was, one job, one book, one movie, that’s absolutely nothing.

If you’re a pro, you finish one and you go immediately on to the next on because of what you are, it’s like a singer lives to sing. It almost doesn’t matter what the song is, you are there to sing. So you finish one song and go on to the next song. This is sort of on the subject, a little bit off the subject.

Sometimes you know I’ll write it like The Legend of Bagger Vance or another book of mine Gates of Fire are about specific subjects like ones about golf and one is about the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. And people who have read them will write me letters or emails and want to get into that subject. “What was warfare like in the Greek world?”

It’s odd but it’s like once I am done with that, I don’t care. In other words, I am done with that. I am a writer, I wrote that book, it’s over, I am going on to the next thing and I don’t care about that subject anymore. I may think about it fondly, in memory, like you would think about an old girlfriend or something like that, but it was just what I was doing then.

The bottom line of the career is that we are following our craft and if you think about all the albums, let’s say, that Link textNeil Young has done over his career, you can see that there is a trajectory and he’s always Neil Young, he’s always pursuing that muse, it’s just that the album is a different one, one time it’s Everybody Knows That This is Nowhere and the next time it’s Harvest. I am not sure that makes sense.

How Steven “uses” social media

Robert: It makes perfect sense. I am not even going to touch it because I want that one to just sit and resonate. Last question for you, you’ve built this great site over at, you’re pretty active with Twitter , do you have any thoughts on your use of social media both in the last couple of years and kind of going forward? How has it affected your work and how has it affected your audience, if at all?

Steven: Actually, I have a publicist named Callie Oettinger and whatever happens on Twitter, that’s her. One thing that I do – so I really don’t mess around with social media and I very deliberately don’t – I’ll send an answer to a question or respond to emails but I try to stay away from it because it’s distracting, except for the website. What I’ve done there is that every Wednesday I kind of write a continuing chapter in The War of Art called “Writing Wednesdays”, it’s actually Callie’s idea, my publicist. That has been great.

It’s been very helpful to me and it’s helped to sort of create a little community of people who kind of follow it to my amazement. What’s been good for me is that it’s helped me move from being just a writer alone in his room, doing his work to embracing, now that I am an old guy, the idea that I can be a mentor to people and I can help people a little bit. That was kind of a big step for me to do that.

To my amazement and my great gratification, there’s a little community forming around this site and it’s really great community, I am amazed at the level of the people that are ? sometimes they’ll be like 20 or 30 comments after a post and they’ll be uniformly amazingly intelligent and really, really interesting. Bringing in things, other writers, other works that I have never heard of but I am definitely opposed to social media overall. As I think that they are mostly distractions and resistance loves social media, it’s the greatest invention resistance has ever seen. You could waste your life on Facebook and Twitter couldn’t you?

Robert: Yes. I find it interesting, and yes, the distraction potential there is present. But you are bringing it home to your own site, to your own domain, to your own comments and your own posts and you are right, I do love your “Writing Wednesdays”, I am going to link up Link textone of your most recent posts actually in the show notes for this show and I find that interesting, you’re taking and making the time to do that and engage with people there on your own home page.

Not to throw social media out with the bathwater, but I take your point very seriously about the potential for distraction on a social networking site. There is no doubt there.

Steven: Here’s the distinction if I can put this right Robert. Having written “The War of Art” and done the work, I get a lot of requests from people who want me to come speak at a conference of artists or whatever it is. I never do it. I always turn them down because that’s not my business. You know what I mean. I am not pitching a method or a product, the only reason that I’m doing this interview today is out of respect for you and for Copyblogger. But I really try to do as few of these things as I possibly can, because of the reason I wrote the book, it’s like “here’s the book”. I am not going to be “on guard” against things that are distracting you from what you are really trying to do.

Robert: So the take away here is, you have in your code of working, made very, very specific decisions about how you are going to spend your time in the working hours of your life and you are sticking to that. Even some people would say “Well you are missing out on so much Steven, on so much publicity and so many potential opportunities for this or that.” You’ve made this decision and you are sticking with it come what may.

Steven: Well that’s very much to the point Robert, I’m sure that I am missing out on a lot. If I had some wise business manager they would probably kick me in the ass, you know. I’ve made that decision that that’s not important to me. What’s important to me, just like we were talking about before, about Krishna and Arjuna, what’s important to me is the work that I am trying to do and getting to the next level. So I am glad to do some of this kind of stuff but it’s not my day job.

Robert: I am with you on that and on that note, let’s get you out of here. I do appreciate your time Steven. If people want more of you, where can they find you on the web?

Steven: It’s just my name, or they can just Google that and it’ll come up and best to Brian and I salute what you guys are doing, great stuff.

Robert: Thank you. Thanks for listening everybody. As always, if this show has done something to you or for you, we’d love it if you got over to iTunes and left a comment rating there. Mr. Pressfield, you are the real deal, a true professional and I thank you for coming by today.

Steven: Thanks Robert and same to you!


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About the Author: Robert Bruce is Copyblogger Media’s Chief Copywriter and Resident Recluse.