The War of Art

It is a little book and it was on the schedule for July. July was a Lost Month in my life, but keeping commitments is still important to me and so today I invested some porch time with Mr. Pressfield.

The book is about the struggle to bring forth whatever is within us. Pressfield describes Resistance as an external force or monster compelling behavior. It shouldn’t have surprised me because this technique is at the center of narrative therapy and Pressfield is a master narrator. The monster has you clean the floors instead of writing a chapter of your book, take another course on creating the perfect Instagram feed instead of creating a good-enough one, or anything, anything except create the thing.

In Motivational Interviewing, we talk of resistance as an expression of ambivalence. Change challenges everything we hold dear and generally there are reasons to undertake a new venture and reasons to leave it be. When working with someone who is ambivalent, we honor indecision and talk it all the way through. Typically, when people feel pushed too hard or too fast, they dig in and push back against the thing they desire most but are afraid to reach for. It has been my practice to talk with clients about unfinished business in several ways.

If I can’t get started on a goal or if I sputter out before it’s done, what is at the root? I first consider if the thing I say I want is really what I want, or if it is a remnant of a long-ago inherited “should”. In contrast, Pressfield asserts the very thing we cannot bring ourselves to start or to finish is at the heart of our purpose and the resistance we feel is a product of fear. Life tasks which loom large should provoke fear. They are beyond our current capacities, mental, physical, and emotional, and they demand we grow or give up. Staring into this kind of abyss could drive a person to clean baseboards. Pressfield’s Resistance is actively working against us in the universe, keeping us from making the world a better place through our work. It is the very nature of the Devil.

How might this be related to perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking? These two cognitive distortions work against progress toward a goal by focusing on outcome goals instead of process. Let’s listen to Brene Brown talk about perfectionism for 3:24.

Perfectionism is a boundary violation, trying to manage others’ feelings in an attempt to protect ourselves. Perfectionism won’t let you send your story off because that third paragraph doesn’t flow quite right, invite friends over for an afternoon because the kitchen is “a mess”, start working with clients because you need one more certification to be of service. All-or-Nothing (AoN) works in Resistance by saying you have to be in the mood to write, or well-rested to work out, or you alternate between being “on diet” and “off diet”. Life seems to be a series of toggle switches with the settings “Always” and “Never”. Perfectionism and AoN thinking protect us from failure by keeping us from making incremental, good-enough, sustainable effort.

What about my friends and family and the support they offer? The War of Art recommends we abandon support because support as defined is unhelpful and a tool of Resistance. There is a difference between the friend who goes with you to a restaurant and agrees it’s been a hard week and you deserve the chili cheese fries and large Coke, and the one who looks at you and asks “Weren’t you working hard on choosing vegetables and lean meats?” The latter is a support, the former is trying to justify her own mozzarella sticks and hot wings. We tend to spend time with people who behave the way we do. We share interests and we share time together. Are the people around you a support or a hindrance? Gary Vaynerchuk recommends you cut one loser friend.

What then? The muses are with us, whispering in our ears and inspiring us to act. They come, says Pressfield, when we are disciplined enough to do the work and push past our fears of exposure, failure and do enough for today, every day. Back to a 6-minute rant from Vaynerchuk about luck and work.

The War of Art is a short book. Pressfield is a master storyteller, outlining what we know about long-term success

  • Achievement is a marathon, not a sprint
  • Focus on process, with an eye to outcome
  • Do the work and then let the results go
  • Show up anyway, ISYMFS
  • Have the courage to stop listening to people who cripple you, obvious critics and “friends”

Let’s end with Des Linden embodying the War of Art

 

 

Habit: On the One Hand…

In this series, we are looking at routine, ritual, and habit. If routine is the mid-point, habit and ritual are the end-points on a continuum. Routine is one or more actions taken as a matter of course, they are fairly automatic and can serve us if chosen purposefully. Today we are looking at habits. For a long-form treatment of habit, the book by Charles Duhigg is an excellent, easy read on how habits work and how you can establish new ones.

What makes a habit different from a routine? Habits live deep in the brainstem and become nearly as automatic as breathing. They are literally mindless. You can acquire habits without conscious thought, the involvement of active learning strategies or even memory structures. A habit has three parts.

  1. Cue. The cue starts the chain of events. Substance misuse counselors will talk about “people, places, and things” for cues for unwanted habits like alcohol use, smoking, or substance misuse. Waking up can be a cue to pick up your phone or to go sit and meditate. A feeling can be a cue. The story in Duhigg’s book everyone appreciates involves his afternoon cookie habit. Duhigg realizes he has put on weight by standing up in the middle of his afternoon at the office and going to the breakroom to eat a cookie every day. Was hunger the cue? Not at all.
  2. Routine. The middle part is the thing you do. Duhigg would stand up, go get a cookie from the breakroom and chat with his colleagues for a few minutes and then return to his desk.
  3. Reward. There are two kinds of “rewards” – positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.
    1. A positive reinforcement is a good thing you get as the result of the action or activity in Step 2. This is what we usually think of when we think of rewards – work hard, get a raise or promotion, behave yourself during a meeting, get an ice cream. Do the action, get something good.
    2. The second kind of reward, negative reinforcement, is a bit more subtle and wickedly effective. Put on your seatbelt, make the stupid beeping/pinging/plonking sound stop. Eat a whole pizza, make the hole in your heart stop aching. Give in to your child’s whining about the candy bar, the whining stops. Do the action, make a bad thing stop. The reward is what sends us to the activity again and again, building up strong biological connections between the cue, activity, and reward.

Learning theory tells us habits are never “broken”, the biological connections always exist. Thus the biblical exhortation to “raise a child up in the way he should go“. Early learning theorists, before the age of fMRI and brain scans, estimated replacing an old learning/habit with a new learning/habit would take three times the initial effort to establish the old habit.

Let’s return to Duhigg and his cookie problem. He realizes the afternoon cookie is a problem, and also realizes the cookie is solving some other problem. The $1,000,000 question is – what problem? The cue is easy to identify, mid-afternoon at his desk. He tries substituting healthier snacks like apples or granola bars, but still ends up in the breakroom with a cookie more afternoons than not. Over a period of weeks, he comes to understand he isn’t hungry. What he wants is a break and a chance to chat with people for fifteen minutes, about the time it took to eat the cookie. By replacing the cookie action with something else, he is able to work within the established chain. The cue still sends him to the breakroom to talk with friends, the reward.

For example, my husband and I have very different habitual movement patterns when we first enter the house. This means vehicle keys are either in a “Dad place” or a “Mom place.” Neither place is bad and we don’t feel the need to establish a single place for keys to go, however it does mean when looking for keys you have to know who drove the vehicle last. In college, I knew people who only smoked when they drank beer from a bottle of a particular shape and were baffled by it. There are people who will immediately run through their mental to-do list if they find themselves with a few moments of ease.

If half of your life is by pseudo-choice, there are a series of cues for you and the beings you live with, do those habits serve you, or by solving one problem ineffectively, are those habits creating other problems?

To analyze a habit pattern, look for the three pieces.

  1. What started this?
  2. What action am I taking?
  3. What do I get out of it?

Remember the cookie problem? It isn’t about the cookie.

Here is Duhigg making an entertaining 15-minute presentation.

Habits establish themselves. The cure for maladaptive habits is mindfulness and intention. Next, we will talk about the ritual or supercharged mindfulness and intention.

Ready Player One.

Read the book last year, saw the movie tonight. I found the movie to be a disappointment for a variety of reasons and combined with a reflection on Molly Ringwald’s piece on the drive home, realized the Cool Kids still only pretend to understand and like us. Molly Ringwald doesn’t realize she was not the innocent hero in Breakfast Club, her character deserved to be called names and her job was to realize she wasn’t any better than the other kids. The audience understood.

I was never a gamer, and quit playing my one MMORPG before starting grad school. There were, however, years when slipping on the headphones and sliding into my online persona felt more real than my life. A gamer friend pointed me toward the William Gibson book, Neuromancer, because he said I reminded him of the main character. “You aren’t playing the same game the rest of us are.”

Tonight in the theater, the audience laughed at the fat woman dancing on a pole in her VR universe. Alone in her trailer, she wore hot pink velour and danced for an unseen audience who appreciated what she had to offer. Somewhere, she was desirable, and people in the theater found the notion preposterous, as intended, and laughed. The movie played lip service to the tragedy with a voice-over by the main character, explaining how people could be anyone in the Oasis. The book was much more direct, showing as the economy moved from real life to virtual life, real life ceased to exist except for the people who operated the online universe and its requisite real life infrastructure. There should have been no people on the streets in the movie. Everyone is at home, imprisoned by rigs which allow them to pretend to escape their imprisonment, receiving deliveries from drones, isolated from other people. Only the very poor and very rich still are outside.

The appearance of the Molly Ringwald piece was coincidental,  but the leader of the corporatist scum of IOI was styled to resemble the vice principal from Breakfast Club, Richard Vernon. Do you remember when the Internet was the opposite of corporatist? When it was going to free us, connect us, and let us wander the world of ideas? Now you’re imprisoned by your Facebook advertiser profile and aggregate activity, with Twitter and Google deciding what you may see and read and watch. We accept the deliveries from search bots as if they were all the world had to offer, and remain isolated from people who don’t think as we do.

The amount of time and effort it takes to master game content is staggering, and the high-end gamers I knew would shrug it off as inconsequential. It was possible to spend thirty or forty hours a week playing the game and still not reach the highest levels of play. Excellent play required research, preparation, and social capital inside the game. Moving to higher levels of play involved remembering incredible minutia, e.g. running into the walls of an elevator while it descends in a particular quest allows the player to drop through the floor and reach the bottom a split-second earlier. Only noobs ride it all the way down. Someone had to find that hole, reproduce it, and transmit the knowledge through their social network. The movie invented an impossible first stage to the easter egg hunt. It is inconceivable that an entire player base of expert VR gamers didn’t turn around to find the back way to the solution and the first key. Only noobs run the actual quest. The key to winning is in the metagame, which the book illustrated again and again. The movie missed the mark by trying to make a movie which appeals to the masses, who, like Molly Ringwald, don’t realize they aren’t one of us.

Sometimes I miss being able to sit down with a glass of iced tea, a sandwich, and tirelessly roam lush landscapes with my great sword in hand. I miss all the people and the laughter and the sense of accomplishment. There is a line in the movie, uttered by the female lead, Art3mis, to Perzival  “You don’t know me. You only see what I allow you to see,” as if this were some sort of revelation on the nature of online life and not the human condition.

It is difficult to “be” IRL. It is difficult to “be” in-game. The pressures are similar, other people have expectations, needs, and wants. They make demands on your time, energy, and resources. The persona in-game doesn’t have to worry about endless laundry or paying bills and can log out when the grind is all too much. Maybe the checking in and checking out is what prevents us from mastering either world. The difficulty lies in remaining present to experience, to the Self, and answering the great questions –

  • Who am I?
  • What’s important to me?
  • What am I willing to trade?
  • What’s non-negotiable?

Tomorrow is squat day.

 

Strength in Contradiction

Humans can hold two contradictory thoughts at one time. It can be maddening when you’re working with a client, because it surfaces as ambivalence. It can also be empowering if you can tap into it just right.

I was first introduced to the idea of power in contradiction by the Benedictines, Living with Contradiction, by Esther de Waal. It deserves a re-read, and it took me two passes to understand a glimmer of what she was proposing. For a very approachable introduction, we can turn to Gary Vaynerchuck.

Hustle and patience. Pulling from both sides, because you have to be both things at the same time. What about enough?

I am enough. It’s a mantra of the times, swirling so thick in the zeitgeist you could choke on it. What does it mean, to be enough? Are we done? Do we sit on the porch and drink peach tea and watch traffic go by? We could. However, there is this tension from the opposite side. I am growth and change. In Vaynerspeak, I’m macro-enough and micro-growth-and-change. By accepting my inherent worth, and at the same time accepting the constant change in every cell of my body and the world, I can engage in work without fear.

What might I fear? Failure, the opinion of others, an uncertain future. I am enough, and you are too. It doesn’t matter how it turns out. I’ll do the thing, or learn. Either way, I win. I was enough before I started, and enough when it finished.

By the way, a “B” is a fine grade.

 

12 Books / 12 Months

Reading challenges are special for me. The first challenge was to read the Top 10 books by southern authors as ranked by some author’s journal. Other than Flannery O’Conner, the genre had never appealed to me and this was my first introduction to some beautiful literature. Over the years, I created my own challenge by asking new acquaintances for two books I should read if I had two weeks and was gifted authors and genres beyond my imagination.

This year, my challenge is to read one book per month from Seth Godin’s recommendation list, This is Broken.

  • January – Body of Work, Pamela Slim
  • February – The Art of Possibility, Benjamin Zander
  • March – Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds
  • April – Slide:ology, Nancy Duarte
  • May – Read this Before our Next Meeting, Al Pittampali
  • June – Do the Work & The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
  • July – Graphics for Business, John McWade
  • August – How We Decide, Johan Lehrer
  • September – Tribes, Seth Godin
  • October – Call to Action, Bryan Eisenberg
  • November – Awakening the Buddha Within, Lama Surya Das
  • December – Little Brother, Cory Doctorow

There are other things in store for 2018 and the debate is always – talk about it and get support, or keep quiet and crush it?

Keeping quiet for the moment.

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