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Book Review: Do The Work by Steven Pressfield

Do the Work by Steven Pressfield

Steven Pressfield has gone Zen on us with this little tome dedicated to the triumph of the creative spirit over the self-defeating power of “Resistance”. Do the Work is both a distillation and a complementary addition to his previous and longer non-fiction examination of becoming “a professional” in a creative field, The War of Art, which I recommend highly.

Here’s my favorite passage in Do the Work:

I was thirty years old before I had an actual thought. Everything up till then was either what the Buddhists call “monkey mind” chatter or reflexive regurgitation of whatever my parents or teachers said, or whatever I saw on the news or read in a book, or heard somebody rap about, hanging around the street corner.

In this book, when I say “Don’t Think”, what I mean is: don’t listen to the chatter. Pay no attention to the rambling, disjointed images and notions that drift across the movie screen of your mind.

                                                           Those are not your thoughts.

                                                                        They are chatter.

                                                                    They are Resistance.

Something I try to impart in my students is the practice of metacognition. Not that I expect them to execute a precision analysis of their thought process the first time through, or even the fiftieth. Instead, I am trying to break them of habitually moving on mental autopilot, running “tapes” in their head recorded by cultural  osmosis, to stop and ask themselves, what do I really think here? With skepticism and active, focused, attention. For more than a few, it is the first time in their lives experiencing what it is like to be intellectually awake and in control of their own thinking.

Reading Do the Work is a little like reading the Mao’s Little Red Book or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations of writing. The sections are short vignettes of certitude that add up to a philosophical whole, in the case of Pressfield, a prescription for a personal creativity jihad based on in the moment creative action followed by reflection and refinement. It is meant for the person who can but doesn’t and doesn’t know why. Pressfield explains why and then, essentially, tells the reader to get off of the dime….NOW!

For the creative procrastinator ( like yours truly) or aspiring writer, Do the Work is a book that reads like an ass-kicking.

15 Responses to “Book Review: Do The Work by Steven Pressfield”

  1. Mark V Says:

    Sounds like I’ll need to get a copy of this one.  Sounds truly interesting.  Thanks for the head’s up, bud.

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    When Steven Pressfield writes:

    I was thirty years old before I had an actual thought. Everything up till then was either what the Buddhists call “monkey mind” chatter or reflexive regurgitation of whatever my parents or teachers said, or whatever I saw on the news or read in a book, or heard somebody rap about, hanging around the street corner.

    he reminds me of Hokusai, who said in his preface to One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji:

    From the age of five I have had a mania for sketching the forms of things. From about the age of fifty I produced a number of designs, yet of all I drew prior to the age of seventy there is truly nothing of great note. At the age of seventy-two I finally apprehended something of the true quality of birds, animals, insects, fish and of the vital nature of grasses and trees. Therefore, at eighty I shall have made some progress, at ninety I shall have penetrated even further the deeper meaning of things, at one hundred I shall have become truly marvelous, and at one hundred and ten, each dot, each line shall surely possess a life of its own.

    May Pressfield live long and prosper!

  3. zen Says:

    Well done Charles! I always assumed that with patient effort and decades of deep reading that….I’d become a Renaissance man wizard about ten minutes before I die

  4. PurpleSlog Says:

    "I was thirty years old before I had an actual thought." That is powerful. Who else among us want to admit that as the truth, though we know it to be accurrate?

  5. Joe Dixon Says:

    I struggle with thinking. I can’t do it very well. Mostly it is just noise. Occasionally, joined-up noise. But I love Zen’s idea of applying patient effort to become a death-bed Renaissance Man.

    I think I might have to add this book to my anti-library. (Unless I can blow through it in an hour or so, and then keep coming back.)

  6. Critt Jarvis Says:

    At 60 I learned how to stop the chatter. (16 weeks with Britta, http://greenanswers.com/news/229986/study-reveals-transformative-quality-beginner-meditation)At 61 I learned how to read. (The Harvard Reading Course)At 62 I will learn how to write.Doing the work, just sayin’.

  7. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    Reminds me of a conversation I had with a STEM (science, tech, engineering, math) advocate for higher education a couple weeks back.  He basically argued that there is no place for a liberal education in modern curricula.
    One of my arguments against that was essentially, unless you’re on the cutting edge of theoretical or applied research, all you’re doing is playing "catch-up" to what others have done, and what’s already been learned.  In reality, there’s little opportunity for truly creative, original thought.
    A liberal education, on the other hand, allows for entirely original thoughts rather early on, which I think is an advantage.
    (I’d also like to say that there is little in the modern humanities & "social science"  that could contribute to a liberal education.  Humanities & SS are both dominated by the worst kind of Groupthink–the political kind–so emphasis is often placed on lockstep thought rather than creative thought.)

  8. zen Says:

    Hi Nate,
    If a STEM advocate was arguing against liberal education, not only does he not understand liberal ed, he really doesn’t understand STEM either. Certainly not epistemologically. Instead he’s a concrete level thinker parroting memorized lessons who just wants more instructional time for ‘his" subject as an ego-status thing. I know STEM advocates who would be deeply embarrassed by that character. Sigh
    Nate, that’s just one of many examples of why both public ed and public ed reform makes me want to tear my hair out

  9. Steven Pressfield Says:

    Thanks, Mark!  I feel like I should be answering you via a koan, but both hands are clapping.  P.S. Amen to cheers for a liberal education.  Is there any other kind?

  10. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » A HipBone approach to analysis VII: world wide spiders & the web Says:

    […] enough, I think this spider’s web of mine ties in with the Hokusai quote I posted in response to Zen‘s quote from Steven Pressfield yesterday, and with a piece I read today […]

  11. J. Scott Says:

    Zen, Ok. So, between The War of Art, Godin’s Poke in the Box, and this new Pressfield title there are no excuses for sitting on one’s ass, as it were. I’ve given away at least 50 copies of TWOA—almost as many as Coram’s BOYD. I don’t have the new title, but will put in the queue. Many thanks for sharing!

  12. Chris Says:

    I read a quote somewhere that Bachelor of Science did not guarantee that a graduate knew any science, but it did guarantee that he did not know any Latin.  Of course, that quote was from around the infancy of the B.S. degree, and the BA degree that is the control in the comparison is all but extinct.  Anyway, I’d be interested in hearing Zen expound a little on STEM and the liberal education.  "…not only does he not understand liberal ed, he really doesn’t understand STEM either."  That’s a sentence that begs for a little more definition of terms.  

  13. zen Says:

    Hey Steve – you are welcome! Unfortunately, there are folks promoting illiberal education these days – mabe I will post on that topic soon.
    Hi Scott,
    Was not really aware of Godin’s book though I did like his Tribes presentation – will check it out.
    Hi Chris,
    STEM and classical liberal education have the same cognitive approach – they are inquiry based forms of learning where the student wrestles with defining and solving problems or questions and activities are primarily firsthand experiences – not teacher directed instruction, textbook based, memorization etc. 
    That Nate’s acquaintence didn’t realize that indicates that he does not really understand what he is allegedly advocating for and sees STEM as discrete "subjects" instead of a method of learning.

  14. Ruben Berenguel @mostlymaths.net Says:

    Lucky you that could read it before launch time! I had to wait for today before I could post my review of it 🙂 Enjoyed yours truly, also love the ecclectic nature of your blog.



  15. zen Says:

    Hi Ruben,
    Thank you for the kind words! Always good to "meet" another friend of Steve’s

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