War of Art

I just finished a book “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. The subtitle says it all: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. What I like about the book is that it seems like you are reading his bedside journal. Each chapter is a page or two where he describes the subtle techniques used by resistance, which you can think of as procrastination, screwtape, or any number of things that keep you from starting that excercise routine, writing your novel, starting your new business or any other creative endeavor that God put him on this earth to do. The central notion is one I’ve heard before, but cannot hear enough: What you fear most doing is what you need to do. In this case, for him it was writing the screenplay for “The Legend of Bagger Vance”, a novel about golf of all things, that was made into a motion picture. This fear is like a pointer to the true north of what you really need to do, but may be avoiding for a number of reasons.

The second notion that was powerful was the distinction between the professional and the amateur. Where the amateur has an avocation, and might stake his self worth on the performance of that thing, and therefore have an idealized view of his potential greatness, the professional has a vocation, and does not stake his self worth or ego on the performance of that thing be it writing a play, performing a play, or writing a poem. He clocks in at 9am, puts in 5 hours, clocks out and gets on with his life. The distinction is subtle but important, for when you become a professional you stop worrying as much about the possible perfection you could do, and recognize that important thing is the reality of the doing, warts and all.

I had dinner with a business colleague and her partner the other day. Her partner (Doug) was someone who just finished his first novel. He said he split up the novel by looking at the target words for the book (in this case 80,000), his target date (in this case 3 months from today) and figured out how many words he needed (1000 a day) to hit his target. He had a full time job. Each evening, after dinner he would force himself to write 1000 words a day. He said it wasn’t easy to do at first, but he got in the habit of sitting down, writing and putting in the time. The interesting thing was that he told me was that in the last week, he took a full week off of work. This was the most difficult part of the whole 3 months, because he had a 12 hours a day to agonize over his 1000 words a day, rather than 3 to churn out his 1000 words.

There is a lesson here, and it is part of Parkinson’s law which states that a task expands to the time given to do it. Doug mentioned that if he would have had 4 months to do the novel, it wouldn’t have resulted in any better quality or productivity, he would have just stretched out the task to fill that amount of time. Now obviously, there is a breaking point. You couldn’t write the Brothers Karamazov in 24 hours. But nevertheless, the principle generally applies to creative endeavors.

Tying this back to the War of Art, I think the notion that you can have some perfect idealized work is a tool used by the devil, otherwise known as resistance, and only blocks our creativity of channeling the very fleshy creativity we have here, in the real world. After all, Gershwin wrote the greatest

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Simplicity, humility and Craigslist.org

When I was in San Francisco, I was walking over to the local grocery store. They don’t have chain grocery stores in San Francisco. Kei and I were cooking dinner late on a Saturday night, so we went out of our way to find an open convenience/grocery story. On our way, we passed by a normal looking house with a wire gate. Kei said, “Hey Ed, there’s Craigslist HQ.” I turned and looked for the distant skyscraper, towering on the horizon. Not seeing one, I looked back at Kei quizically. She pointed at the house beside me.

There beside me, in simple Courier New was the sign of Craiglist.org. It was refreshing to look at something that has become as core to everyday life as Google but has remained small, simple and true to its roots. Come to think of it, it makes sense that the non-profit community bulletin board site would keep to its humble beginnings. In this world of IPO and rampant conquest, this was a refreshing site. Either that, or San Francisco real estate is more profligate than I worst stories I had heard!

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