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TAXI Road Rally Keynote Interview With Steven Pressfield

Interviewed by Michael Laskow

Do you have any hobbies, Steve? I’m just curious, what do you do with your life when you’re not writing or battling Resistance?
I play a little golf; I go out to dinner; I watch movies. But I’m not down in the basement doing any woodworking or building a motorcycle. You know, my work is my hobby; my work is what I do. That’s my love, and I think that’s a great thing that what you do to make your living, to be your livelihood is that thing that you love.

That’s exactly what I was telling myself last night at two o’clock, sitting right here working on the questions for this interview. Thank God I love what I do. I’ve often said that the last person on the field wins the game. How did you hang in there for 27 years before you started to become successful?
I was hangin’ on my fingernails through that whole time. I very much felt that I was in exile, that I was on the sea somewhere trying to get home, trying to come back to that. So yeah, I felt that very keenly all the time, that I had fallen from grace, and was just desperate to get back somehow.

Was financial success a motivator? Would you still be doing this if you were making 40 grand a year?
No. No, because one of the things that I think really helped me, Michael, in the sense of failing for so long, was that I had to ask myself, and really answer it, “Why are you doing this? What are you doing this for? Are you doing it because you think you’re gonna make money? Are you doing it because you think you are gonna get recognition? Are you doing it for women? What are you doing it for?” And because I wasn’t getting any of that, the answer was I’m doing it for the work itself. I’m doing it just out of love for doing it myself.

Like when I started on The Lion’s Gate, the book that you were talking about before. Which for people who have never heard of it, it’s about the Israeli six-day war of 1967. I went over to Israel and I interviewed 70-something soldiers, airmen, tankers, men and women. At the start of that book, I knew it was gonna cost me a fortune to do it, and I knew that I had no clue that anybody would buy it, and I said to myself, “Are you willing to do this anyway?” It was just like I’ve been willing to do anything anyway. And it turned out I did make a deal, and I did have enough money to pay for it … thanks to my agent, Sean Cohen, at the time.

But, yeah, all I ever wanted to do is just pay the rent, you know? Just like Butch Cassidy says in that movie, “As long as we break even,” I think is what he said. So, money has never been a motivator for me at all.

I know we touched on it before, but give people the in-depth view of what Resistance is.
Okay, so when you are a writer, and I’m sure this is true of musicians at the keyboard. You can kind of feel it radiating off that keyboard—at least I can—a powerful, negative force, and that force is trying to stop you from doing your work. To stop you from making your music, stop me from writing whatever it is I want to do. And the negative force will say things like, “Well, let’s go to the beach,” “Let’s have a drink,” “Let’s go call up our friends and sluff off for the day,” “Let’s go have an affair,” “Let’s go…” whatever.

The other thing is the voice in your head—the voice of Resistance. The other thing the voice of Resistance will say to you is, “You are a bum. Who do you think you are trying to write a symphony? What background do you have? Every idea in your head has already been done by Beethoven, by Keith Richards, by Barry Manilow. They have done it better than you will ever do it. You are too old, you’re too young, you’re too fat, you’re too skinny, you have no training, you have too much training.” In other words, it will be this negative, negative, negative screen to stop us from doing our work. Self-sabotage, fear, procrastination and the opposite side—arrogance, complacency, ego, that kind of thing.

So, I know that you and Debra were married by [our mutual friend] Rabbi Finley, who is my rabbi—a great guy and a former Marine. He told me that in Jewish mysticism, there is a concept that we live on the lower plane, and above us is a higher plane, the soul, the neshamah. And that on the lower plane we are reaching up to the higher plane through what you might call prayer, would be one way. But also, if you are a writer or a musician, you are reaching up to that higher plane saying, “Give me an idea. Give me an idea for a song. Give me an idea for a book. Help me do what I’m doing.” And according to Jewish mysticism, that plane, the soul, the neshamah, is reaching down to us with good intention, trying to help us. Like they say, Kabalists say, that every blade of grass is an angel saying, “Grow, grow.”

But here’s the rub, between these two things is a third level, and the third level is what they call in Jewish mysticism yetzer hara. And that third element, its job is to stop us, to stop the soul from talking to us and to stop us from talking to the soul. And as Rabbi Finley said to me, “The yetzer hara is what you would call Resistance.”

So, the whole idea that there is such a thing as this negative force, that was really the key for me that allowed me to become a professional. Just recognizing that I wasn’t insane; I wasn’t inventing this only in my head; I wasn’t the only person doing this. This is an objective force, this negative force, just like the turning of the seasons or gravity. It’s an objective force of nature. I mean, if you were a Christian, you would say it was Evil, it was the Devil—Evil with a capital E. Whatever you want to call it is for real, and it will kill you.

“What’s hard is sitting down at the keyboard, and then sitting down the next day, and the next day and the next day, right?”

So, it’s this negative force that is trying to stop us anytime you want to go from the lower level to a higher level. If we bring home a treadmill because we want to get in shape, immediately Resistance will kick in and come up with a million reasons why we can’t use it. If we sign up for the gym—Resistance—because we’re trying to go from a lower level to a higher level. It’s also true ethically. If we’re trying to take a position of being kind of a crook and swineball and a cheater, and we want to go on to being an honorable person, Resistance will kick in and try to stop us. In relationships, if we’re trying to get through a rough patch in a relationship and we’re trying to move from suspicion and fear to love, Resistance will try to stop us, you know? It’s the Devil.

And as I say in The War of Art, that’s what The War of Art is all about: It’s just about Resistance. That Resistance is protein in the sense that it’s the shapeshifter. It will take a million forms to try to fool you. And it will constantly ride you and tell you that, like I say, you’re not good enough, you’re not prepared enough, you’re a bum, this idea is a terrible idea, nobody’s gonna like this idea, give it up, etc.

TAXI Road Rally Keynote Interview With Steven Pressfield

So, to me, one of the first chapters in The War of Art—a really short chapter, about 20 words long—says that one of the secrets that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t know is that what’s hard is not writing, what’s hard is sitting down to write. And what that means is Resistance. What’s hard is getting through the Resistance. The actual writing, the actual making of music, is not that hard. What’s hard is sitting down at the keyboard, and then sitting down the next day, and the next day and the next day, right? And the face of it all… the adversity comes up. So that’s what Resistance is all about. There it is.

“But that he is facing his greatest demons and he’s facing them head on, and he’s facing them like a professional. He is not a weekend warrior, he’s not a dabbler, he’s not a dilettante.”

You know, here’s a great example of somebody that I think is great at overcoming Resistance. He may tell me otherwise if we would include him in this conversation. But one of our members named Randon Purcell, gets up and starts working on music at 4:30 in the morning every day, so that he can get his music stuff done. Because up until recently he had a day gig. He recently left the day gig to become a full-time composer, which I think is everybody’s dream. He was a computer programmer, and he would get up at 4:30 in the morning, go down to the basement, and just force himself to sit in the chair and start working on music, and he created a great secondary income while he was still employed with the other job. He’s got a family with three or four sons, which raising little boys or teenage boys can be a full-time job in and of itself, but yet he beat Resistance. Whatever it was that you found within you to do it, whatever he found, man, if they could put that in a pill.
Let me give a little validation here. That to me, in many ways is what he does is the highest form of heroism, because it’s something that nobody else sees. You know, his family, maybe they are aware of it, and they probably admire him for it. But that he is facing his greatest demons and he’s facing them head on, and he’s facing them like a professional. He is not a weekend warrior, he’s not a dabbler, he’s not a dilettante. I mean, any Marine, any Navy Seal, any Special Forces would be proud of a guy like that. That is guts, and my hats off to him—hundred percent.

Thank you for saying that. He’s probably watching. I’m glancing at the chat room to see if he’s in there. If you are, good morning, Randon. Congratulations.

It’s funny, because he’s almost egoless, which would go along with this. He is very humble about it, and he also has started creating musical instrument software, and he flips houses occasionally. Like, how do you find the time? He is superhuman.

“The fear of success is a terrifying thing, and I think that’s what stops people from doing it.”

Let’s move on to an observation that you and I share. People don’t finish a book or a painting or a song for what reason? Why is it that you think people don’t finish?
In one word, Resistance. Because if we finish, we are going to move to a higher level, and Resistance doesn’t want that. There may be a million reasons that we might come up with, but it’s basically a failure of nerve. It’s understandable; I’ve done it myself a million times; I don’t put anybody down who yields to it; it’s a hell of an enemy. But the scariest thing in the world is to live up to your potential, to actually be who you think you can be, to actually do what you think you are capable of doing. That’s terrifying for people. The fear of success is a terrifying thing, and I think that’s what stops people from doing it. Whereas the flip side of it is, I have discovered, was the first time I finished something. When I finished that one book that I told you I spent two years in this little house, I never had any trouble finishing something ever again. Once you sort of breakthrough that… And before that, it was unbelievably difficult for me. So anytime you can finish something and put it out there. You guys are familiar with who Seth Godin is, right?

“To finish something is tremendously empowering, even if it’s a complete failure.”

Oh, Seth Godin, yeah. He’s the only guy I’ve read more of his books than yours, and I think I’ve read most of his.
Seth is an amazing guy, a Rabbi Finley kind of a guy. The word that he uses for this concept is shipping. In the sense of like if you are Steve Jobs and you’ve got the iPhone and you’ve finished it. The day when you ship it—you ship it in the stores, you put it out there—that’s that day of finishing. That’s like publication day; that’s like when your album comes out if you’re a record guy. And people are terrified of that day because now you’re exposed; now you are exposed in the real world where people can say, “The iPhone, this sucks. What a moron.” Or even worse, which is what happens to most of us, the stuff gets out there and nobody pays attention to it at all. They don’t even take the time to knock it. So, Seth is a big guy for saying, “Ship it.” Now when it’s ready, ship it. Get it out there and let the world see it.

Now there are a lot of other sidebars to this. You could ship it in a bad way so that it sort of dies immediately. I’ve done that many times, as opposed to really getting out there with a bang. To finish something is tremendously empowering, even if it’s a complete failure.

Yeah, you mentioned that if you don’t finish it you can’t be judged and being judged is what we all fear. And that obviously goes back to Resistance. If it doesn’t come out, nobody’s ever going to read it or hear it and judge it.
You know what? Above and beyond that, I would say it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what anybody thinks of it. The judgment is really nothing. I am definitely a believer that when you finish a project—a book or an album or whatever—by the time it’s published, you should be on to the next one and the one after that. So that when you get good reviews or the bad reviews, you have moved way beyond it in your mind and in your journey.

I think the worst thing that we can do is to wait with bated breath to hear what the world thinks of our stuff. Screw ’em! You know, we’re going to move on to the next thing and the one after that!

Don’t miss Part 4 in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!

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