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TAXI Road Rally Keynote Interview With Steven Pressfield

Interviewed by Michael Laskow

I thought that doing a virtual Road Rally would be much easier than doing a physical one. I could have not been more wrong. I thought, “How hard can it be? I’ve been doing [TAXI TV on YouTube] for 11 years; how hard could it be?” Well, it’s been a lot harder. I’ve learned how to produce live TV during the last three months. I’ve learned how to map timings, create bumpers in and out, create title cards, direct music cues, and plan the “run of show.”

And I’ve relearned the most valuable lesson of all, don’t give in to resistance. What do I mean by that? Well, you’re going to find out in a minute, when I introduce our first guest, Mr. Steven Pressfield.

Steven is an author of incredible fiction and nonfiction books, as well as being a Hollywood screenwriter, probably best known for his book-turned-blockbuster film, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Remember that one, with Will Smith? Great movie.

I first heard of his book The War of Art about 10 years ago, and I read it twice. Literally, when I finished reading it the first time, I went right back to the beginning and read it again. Then I read his book Do the Work, and finally I read his book Turning Pro. And for all of you who haven’t read his books yet, start with The War of Art—don’t skip to Turning Pro. People do that because they think they will just cut right to the chase and go with Turning Pro, and they’ll be a pro when they’re done. You have got to read The War of Art first.

Many of you know this already, but for you newbies, I want you to know that I have read more than 800 nonfiction books since I started TAXI nearly 29 years ago. But none of them have helped me understand the battle that creative people like songwriters, composers, and artists face every time they sit down to create. The “enemy” they face on that battlefield is resistance, and as Steve Pressfield has so eloquently put it, “The enemy is our chattering brain,” which, if we give it so much as a nanosecond, we will start producing excuses, alibis, transparent self-justifications, and a million reasons why we can’t, shouldn’t, and won’t do what we need to do. Thousands of TAXI members have read Steve’s books over the last decade, and you know what? Nearly every one of our most successful members have read his books, and I think it is high time you meet him.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Steven Pressfield. [Applause]

Hello, Steve!

How are ya? Nice to meet you.

Nice to meet you as well. I want everyone to know that we’re having kind of a shaky connection with Steve, but the audio seems pretty good. It seems a little fuzzy, but that’s OK. His words are what matter the most. And I’ve read a lot of them. By the way, I want to compliment you on the book The Lion’s Gate, which I also read twice. It’s just an amazing book. Man, what a life! What a career you’ve had! Thank you for taking the time to do this.

Thanks for inviting me. It’s great to be here with everybody.

I’m so excited for our members to meet you and hear your story. So, let’s begin at the beginning. When you were in grade school, what did you want to be when you grew up, a fireman, a policeman, a doctor, a lawyer, what?

I wanted to play centerfield for the Yankees, I guess. I grew up in New York. But I certainly never had any fantasies about being a writer, that’s for sure. I don’t think I even thought that far. I didn’t think much farther than high school graduation.

And, at what point in your life did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

I came out of college, I got married and moved to New York City—you know, I’m from that area. I had no idea of what I wanted to do, but I sort of wanted to write TV commercials. I kind of thought that it was cool. And that was back in the days of Alka Seltzer commercials—those great commercials—and I never really thought beyond that. I just liked to do something that my friends might think was funny or cool. I didn’t have any great overarching ambitions at all. That came later.

So was there a moment, a catalyst, that made you realize that you wanted to be a writer?

Actually, I was just writing about this the other day. The first job that I got was as an office boy at Grey Advertising in New York that worked on the Revlon account. You know, it was all lipstick and hair coloring and stuff like that. And one of my jobs—I made like $105 a week—was just to carry copy, the copywriters’ copy. I would just carry it from one office to another. And from time to time, I would sort of look at it and read the copy. It was stuff like, “Colors of Autumn,” and I would look at it, and I thought, “You know, I could write this shit.” So, I just sort of thought that maybe I could do that. Eventually, I got a portfolio together and I did get a job in advertising. That was kind of how I started as a writer at age 23, or something like that.

I was gonna synopsize this story, but your story is so good, and you are such a good storyteller. Can you tell us the story about that period, about being a Marine—thank you for you service. Your story is fascinating. You slept in the back of your car. Can you just tell it as you would tell it to a grandkid or something?

Well, I’ll try not to make this too long and boring or anything. I’m sure that a lot of the people that are listening to this right now will have stories exactly like this and be able to relate to this.

When I was working at the ad agency, I had a boss named Ed Hannibal, and one day he wrote a novel, and it was a hit. Like overnight he was a star, and he quit. So, I thought to myself, “Shit, I can do that. Sounds like a good idea.” So I quit too! And I was married and living in New York City at the time. And the short version is that I spent something like two years writing a novel. I had no business… I didn’t have a clue in the world of what a book was. And on the one-yard line of finishing it—99.9% of the way through—I just choked, and resistance, which I didn’t know what it was at the time, overcame me. I blew up everything, sort of self-destructed, and wound-up kind of… I would say I sort of dropped down to the bottom of the middle class, and I spent about the next six or seven years traveling around the country working all kinds of jobs. I drove trucks, I worked on offshore oil rigs, I picked fruit. When I came back to the New York, I drove a taxi, I taught school. I did all kinds of things and was absolutely at the bottom of the food chain.

And at one point—I’m giving you the long version here, Michael—I had $2,700 that I thought would last me a year. And it did last me a year, and I rented a little house, and I finished my first book. I finally actually finished one. But I couldn’t sell it, so I had to go back to work, and I worked a bunch of other jobs. I worked in advertising again, and I wrote another book. It took about two years to write the [second] book, and I couldn’t sell that one either.

And now we’re like maybe 14 years into this odyssey of mine, and throughout this whole thing, my family and people that I knew when I was younger would say to me constantly, “What’s your problem, man? Why do you keep doing this? Can’t you just stop doing this? You know you’re killing yourself.” But I couldn’t stop, and with my second book that didn’t sell, I’d show it to friends, and they would get that plastic smile on their face, you know.

“I wouldn’t glorify it by saying that I was on the “B” list; I was probably on the “C” list most of that time.”

Anyway, I decided then that I would go out to Hollywood and try to write for the movies. So, I figured that if I’m failing at novel-writing, why don’t I go out and fail at screenwriting too? So, I did go out there and had about a 10-year career—I wouldn’t glorify it by saying that I was on the “B” list; I was probably on the “C” list most of that time. But I did work with a partner for a while, a guy named Ron Shusett, who did the first Alien and did Total Recall. He was a star, and I was kind of his slave. He was more of a producer/writer, and I was more of a writer/writer. But at least I was finally making a living as a writer, even though I wasn’t doing anything I particularly wanted to do. But I was learning the principals of storytelling. You know, I was in the trenches, and I was getting hard knocks. Like one of the terrible movies that Ron and I wrote was a movie called King Kong Lives. We did a bunch of terrible movies, and one of the reviews in Variety said, “Ronald Shusett and Steven Pressfield, we hope these aren’t their real names for their parents’ sake.”

So there was a lot of that. And finally, after I think now it’s up to like 24 years or more than that of trying, I finally had the idea for another book, and that became The Legend of Bagger Vance. I actually hated the movie, but the book is much better than the movie. But at least I finally had done something that came from my heart, and it sold and it made money.

I think I was like 54 years old at that time. So there have been about 20 books, I think, since then. I haven’t done any movies since then, but The Legend of Bagger Vance was the moment when I finally sort of broke through in terms of being able to pay the rent and doing what I want to do.

I want to say, of all those books that I have written since then, I’m proud of all of them. I don’t feel like a whore or prostitute in any way; I’ve been doing what I wanted to do; and it took like 30 years to get there. So that’s my story in a nutshell.

It is such a great story. I mean, being a roustabout on an oil rig? That’s something that very few people will ever get to do—a pretty rough-and-tumble job, and dangerous. But the fact that you lived in your car for a while… I mean, you really gave it up to live your dream. And the fact that it took you 27 years… 27 years! I mean, I’ve been running this company now for just under 29 years; I can’t imagine 27 years of not succeeding at this thing that just lives inside of you and eats away at you. It’s like, do this, do this! There’s nothing else in the world.

As I told you before we went live on air, I was sitting here writing these questions last night at two o’clock in the morning, because I just wasn’t happy with what I had. I’m working on three hours of sleep but loving this interview, because you are so inspirational. You clearly did have the wisdom and insight. And this book (Michael holds up, The War of Art), literally, every page, is worthy of changing your life. You can’t just keep turning the pages, get to the end of the book and go, “That was good.” But every page, makes you think about what you’re doing in your own life.

So did you start collecting the ideas, and all this introspection and understanding of yourself, and understanding what resistance was. Did you keep a diary all these years? How did you have all this material?

Um, I don’t know. I lived it and I remembered it. But sort of the underlying… Someone was talking yesterday about Steve Jobs, that he used to go around Apple, and he would say to people, “What business are we in?” That was his question. And then he would ask them, “What business are we really in?” That was question number two. I sort of apply that to writing or anything, and I say to myself, like in a book, I’ll say, “What is this book about?” And then I’ll ask myself, “What is it really about? What is it about at the deepest level?” And the story that I just told you about me bouncing around all the jobs and stuff, I don’t even know what that’s about. But what it’s really about is that negative force that I call Resistance—with a capital R—that [thing] that made me drop out of the middle class was resistance when I couldn’t finish the first book I wrote. That demon came up and sabotaged me, and I was completely unaware, no clue. All I knew was suddenly I’m cheating on my wife, and the next thing I know everything is gone.

So, for the longest period through that time when I was on the road traveling, I was very much aware that I had this tendency to sabotage myself, that I would just at the moment, in anything… At the time I was driving trucks, I didn’t get in any wrecks, any crashes, but I constantly did these things; it was like to get me fired or to blow things up.

So that’s what this was kind of all about throughout the whole thing—that whole story that I just told you. And I’m sure that people who are trying to write music, trying to make a career in music, must have that over and over again. You have women, you have drugs, you have booze, you have being on the road, you have opportunities to sell out and do some shitty thing that you don’t really believe in.

“I’ve just got to keep trying to do what I think I can do. Because if I don’t, on a day-to-day level I was just so depressed.”

Just to go back to one thing, Michael. This period of mine two or three times I went back and I worked at ad agencies because I could make money and I could save it to write a book. And inevitably what would happen, I would go into my boss to quit, and I’d say, “I’m gonna go write a book.” And they would say to me, “Don’t throw your life away. We love you here. You’re doing great work. We’ll promote you; we’ll give you an office; we’ll give you a raise.” Whatever it is. And I would go home in a state of hysteria thinking that “they’re right. Why do I want to go out and spend another two years writing a book that nobody’s gonna want? I should just do this. I should take the job.” Sometimes I’d have a girlfriend, I’d have a wife that I was gonna leave, and I could never do it. I always kind of said that I’ve just got to keep trying to do what I think I can do. Because if I don’t, on a day-to-day level I was just so depressed. When I would come home, I would just be in absolute despair of writing this stuff that I was writing or doing the wasted stuff that I was doing. So that’s kind of what kept me going through this.

“I would write all day; I would read all night. I’m sure musicians are just like this. You’re playing Schumann or whatever, and it feeds you. You know, you’re doing your art; you’re operating from your heart; you’re learning.”

The other sort of thing… This may be a question you want to ask me, Michael. But through that long period, there were a lot of times that I was succeeding, even though I wasn’t making any money. Like when I would take two years and just write a book, and just kind of be in a little house by myself, just working, working, working, even though from my family’s point of view, they were in despair for me that I was just insane. But for me, I was learning. I would write all day; I would read all night. I’m sure musicians are just like this. You’re playing Schumann or whatever, and it feeds you. You know, you’re doing your art; you’re operating from your heart; you’re learning. You might be at a very low level, but you are learning. So, it wasn’t all bad. A lot of it was good, and it was fun!

Don’t miss Part Two of this incredible interview in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!

I encourage you to purchase Steve’s life-changing book that thousands of TAXI members have read. You can find it in all of its forms, here.