Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Start Before You’re Ready

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 7, 2010

In the past few weeks we’ve put up a couple of posts—“Cover the Canvas” and “Start at the End”—that seem like advice on the subject of writing. They aren’t. They’re about beating Resistance.

Erwin Rommel. "The Desert Fox" made a career of starting before he was ready.

A number of the principles that work against Resistance are counter-intuitive. They seem to make no sense, but in fact their logic is impeccable. Here’s one that’s worked for me many times:

Start Before You’re Ready.

Don’t wait till you’ve got your ducks in a row. Dive in now.

Have you ever asked a friend who’s an artist or entrepreneur how they’re doing on a project you know they’re psyched about? Sometimes you get the answer, “I’m getting ready to start on it.”

“I’m working up the outline.”  “I’ve almost got the business plan.”  “I’ve got a little more research to do.”

When Resistance hears phrases like that, it can hardly contain its glee. Resistance knows that the longer we noodle around “getting ready,” the more time and opportunity we’ll have to sabotage ourselves. Resistance loves it when we hesitate, when we over-prepare.

The answer: plunge in.

A lesson from the improv stage

In her wonderful book, Improv Wisdom, Patricia Ryan Madson puts forward an axiom: “Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up.”  Of course this is the essence of improvisation. The improviser has to trust her unconscious. If she thinks too much, she’ll freeze.

Patricia Ryan Madson's indispensable classic

Prof. Madson has an exercise that she used for years in her standing-room-only classes at Stanford. “Imagine a box, open the lid, see what’s inside.” The magic is that there’s always something inside. It may be different each time, but there’s always something. The Muse delivers; the unconscious provides.

That’s the payoff we get when we start before we’re ready. The novelist discovers a new character who pops up out of nowhere and enriches the story beyond all expectation; the painter finds the canvas tugging her in a direction she had never considered; the actor stumbles onto happy accidents, oddball readings, moments of authenticity that he could never have anticipated if he’d sat down and planned it out.

Good things happen when we start before we’re ready. Not only do we open ourselves to the blessings of happy serendipity, but we steal a march on the forces of procrastination, perfectionism, overpreparation, fear and self-doubt. Remember, the enemy is not the work. It’s not the difficulty of the work. The enemy is Resistance.

Stealing a march on the enemy

Can you stand another Pressfield military analogy? This one’s from WWII, the campaign in North Africa. In this story a German is the good guy. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, “the Desert Fox.”

In February of 1941, Rommel was given command of the brand-new Afrika Korps and sent from Europe to Libya, with orders to hold back the British, who had defeated Germany’s Axis allies, the Italians, and had pushed them back a thousand miles to the gates of Tripoli. Rommel landed with less than half of his tanks and men. He had strict orders from the high command to take no aggressive action. His superiors wanted him to wait till all his forces had landed and the Afrika Korps was at full strength.

Instead Rommel hopped into his Fieseler Storch scout plane and flew east to take a peek at the British lines. What he saw, amazed him. The Brits had pulled back; their defenses were thin to nonexistent.

Rommel attacked. He had only a handful of tanks and virtually no fuel. But the audacity of his assault rocked the British so hard, they wheeled and withdrew. One of the quirks of warfare in the desert, where there are no natural defensive barriers like rivers or mountain ranges, is that, once one side gets the other on the run, that “run” can go on for a long time. In this case it was a thousand miles, all because Rommel started before he was ready.

Ready is too late

By the time we’re ready, it’s too late. The moment has passed. Resistance has seen us coming and has marshaled all its forces to lay us low.

Bottom line: if you catch yourself uttering such phrases as, “I’m just about ready to start” or “I only need a few more days of research,” remember the Desert Fox. He attacked before he was ready–and kicked the enemy’s butt.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

20 Responses to “Start Before You’re Ready”

  1. July 7, 2010 at 2:50 am

    Mr. Pressfield,

    I’m grateful for all of your writings regarding Resistance and the creative process and, today, especially for this one.

    Yes, I have a few projects that percolate in my mind with the thought that I’m approaching readiness. And I’m sure even coddling a few possibilities instead of choosing one is letting my Resistance happily chomp on his cigar with satisfaction.

    Seth Godin talks about how ’shipping,’ delivering work on a deadline, is a key to success.

    It’s time to stop prepping, to make a choice, and to ship.

    Thanks,

    Kirk

  2. Kris Kato
    July 7, 2010 at 3:34 am

    Dear Mr. Pressfield,

    This particular topic could not have been more timely for me.

    Thank you.

    Kind regards,

    Kris

  3. July 7, 2010 at 5:37 am

    I just wrote about this at This Old Brain. I was on vacation and realized that my best thinking comes in the morning, before the bullshit of the day wakes up. It’s almost like I have to wake up before my old bs editor does.
    Resistance (what I call “mind”) has great intentions – it wants to protect us, it wants us to be safe, it wants us to live in inertia. Why? because change, the right kind of change, the kind that fits with what we truly want long term, is the death knell for “mind.”

  4. July 7, 2010 at 7:44 am

    I have to thank you for your post and for The War of Art. Your writing is making a significant impact on how I approach resistance and the work of expanding my reality. I’m on an amazing path and you are one of the people who inspires me to keep moving forward. Thank you.

  5. July 7, 2010 at 9:37 am

    Great post, and it’s timing is perfect for me too. I tend to “plan” and “outline” things to death – literally. Thanks for putting this particular Resistance tactic up where we can look at it with a more enlightened perspective.

  6. July 7, 2010 at 9:53 am

    I couldn’t agree with this post more. I had been planning my business for well over a year. Instead of walking out the door to my job and getting started, I always needed a little more planning, a few more things in place, find just one more mentor… And then my dad said “shit or get off the pot.” Four years later we’re blasting past our projections of how successful we would be and I couldn’t be happier. Resistance is haunting me right this second, but thanks to the Art of War, I’ve got a growing artillery to defeat it when it rears its ugly head.

  7. Ines
    July 7, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    Ugh! How do you know? How do you know!

    Thanks!

  8. Anonymous
    July 7, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    Maybe good for entrepreneurs but not so in the corporate realm, unless the culture and leadership support such a mode of operation. Being first is not always being the winner. M. Porter states that without a strategy you cannot sustain your wins. And I doubt if speakers do not prepare…. ;-)

  9. July 7, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    Here is the exact same principle of overcoming resistance, from a lawyer’s perspective.

  10. Myke
    July 7, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Another point to be made is that the mentality alone of believing there is an end point to your preparedness will hinder you even if you do hit the starting line. The first bump in the road will knock you off your horse as it’ll be “proof” that you haven’t yet prepared yourself to the extent you thought was enough. Your work will come to a halt and you’ll head back to the research room to try and plug the holes that will be there waiting for you regardless.

  11. July 7, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    Seems like Resistance and Perfectionism are two sides of the same coin. Both prevent from delivering what we really want.
    I wonder how to recognise the difference between being ready enough but not feeling it and not being ready at all but simply try to be bold and hope for the best.
    It looks as there is a very fine line between the two….
    Best

  12. Sandra
    July 8, 2010 at 3:10 am

    Thank you so much for this post. I’ve spent lots of time planning, researching and “getting ready”, and haven’t gotten much of anywhere…time passes and I’m no further along…yet, in my head, I’d done all this “work”. (Work being planning, researching, etc. but no legitimate action.)

    This morning, I realized that acting in starting a business or a writing project was no different than my deciding to have a double mastectomy at 38.

    Let me explain…I knew it needed to be done…3 aunts had the disease and only one made it past 45. My mom had also had it. I was sure of what I was doing and why…yet, the morning of the surgery, every fiber of my being wanted to run out of the hospital…it was a matter of noticing that this was a natural response (not a “sign”) and leaving no room for internal debate.

    Sounds odd – but I’m seeing that ACTing is separate from feeling and thinking. Like you said, “Open the box.”

    Thank you for the insightful perpsective on resistance. I had come to associate the pain of resistance with the work – when truth is, the work is fun.

  13. July 9, 2010 at 5:20 am

    While I give this advice every day, I really needed to hear this good advice today. Thank you for mentioning Improv Wisdom.

  14. July 9, 2010 at 9:47 am

    For “anonymous” who commented about speakers not preparing. You miss the point. The world is full of people who would love to be speakers, and who probably have something worth saying, but who never do speak because they never just go find an audience and give an awful speech (and first speeches are almost always awful).

  15. July 13, 2010 at 1:49 am

    A good, provocative post but I don’t know if I agree with this one.

    Spontaneity might make for a good few laughs on an improv show but if a teacher tries that everyday in his classroom, his pupils aren’t going to learn very much. Ditto a businessman who wings it everyday when he rolls into the office.

    You can’t constructively or creatively disregard the rules until you know what they are and how (not) to play by them.

    The idea that creativity is something entirely inspirational and comes from nowhere is false. Some kind of structured creativity which takes into account what’s happened before and where you’re going is much more fruitful.

    I don’t think the Rommel example holds out either: clearly this is a case of him reassessing his strategy in light of new information. In this case, the mission (something along the lines of ‘”kill the British”) didn’t change but his strategy did when he hopped into his light aircraft and discovered new information—that the reality on the ground was different from what they had previously thought it to be.

    Ergo a change of plan and tempo, not a change of mission. The Germans were famous for this ‘mission command’ approach to military planning and the orders process—something which the British and Americans belatedly copied decades later. We Brits didn’t pick up on it properly until after the Falklands war, I believe. I bet he made sure he had enough diesel and shells for his tanks as well.

    I agree that you shouldn’t plan everything ad infinitum and never actually DO anything, but we should be careful not to equate changing the plan with a lack of proper preparation.

    “Throw it all over the wall and get on with it” is alright but not if you forget your essential widgets or have no clue about why you’re jumping over the wall in the first place. Especially if you have no idea at all what’s on the other side.

  16. July 25, 2010 at 4:50 am

    Hi Steven,

    It’s 4:30 am Sat morning and I finished the very last crumb of that delicious book of yours, The Art of War.

    You uncovered the wares of the enemy, Resistance, and my appetite to battle it out is no longer a weak tummy ache.

    For me, starting before you are ready is a DECLARATION OF WAR against the enemy.

    I’m claiming my position on the wall, “I’m not the one who is broken. These voices of self-destruction are only that. Voices and nothing more.”

    It took our young nation seven years more of life-threatening battle — after declaring Independance in 1776 — to achieve freedom from tyranny and see peace finally inked into a treaty.

    I finally started writing just one year ago and have felt defeated everyday I wrote. Would I never be free?

    On my 1 year anniversary, I went to Borders this morning and bought a 165 page paperback that told me the time to start fighting is NOW.

    Steven, thank you for not listening to the voices of Resistance, and writing TWOA.

    Because now that I’ve read it, I can turn my eyes away from the enemy and onto the target. Square, in the middle.

  17. August 15, 2010 at 7:59 am

    Very intresting post thanks for sharing. I will deffo be back shortly.

  18. October 7, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    Interesting post about resistance, which I’ve written quite a bit about too. I’m not sure Rommel is a good example though – he may have made some short-term gains through acting before he was ready – but he was finally licked completely by Montgomery, who refused to attack until he was completely ready in every detail.

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