By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 28, 2011
Some of the most popular posts in this space have been those in the “Artist and Addict” series. One point those posts made was that there’s not that big a difference between an artist and an addict. Many artists are addicts, and vice versa. Many are artists in one breath and addicts in another. They’re in the studio on Monday and in Betty Ford on Friday.
What’s the difference?
The addict is the amateur; the artist is the professional.
Both addict and artist are dealing with the same material, which is the pain of being human and the struggle against the self-sabotage of Resistance. But the addict/amateur and the artist/professional deal with these elements in fundamentally different ways.
(When I say addiction, by the way, I’m not referring only to the conventional vices of alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic abuse and so forth. Web-surfing counts too. So do texting, sexting, twittering, facebooking; not to mention living on your iPad, dancing with the stars, and keeping up with the Kardashians.)
When we’re acting as amateurs, we’re running away from our calling—meaning our work, our destiny, the obligation to become our best and truest selves. This is where addiction comes in. Addiction becomes a surrogate for our calling. We enact the addiction instead of embracing the calling. Why? Because to follow a calling requires work. It’s hard. It hurts. It demands entering the pain-zone of effort, risk and exposure.
So we take the amateur route instead. Instead of composing our symphony, we create a “shadow symphony,” of which we ourselves become the orchestra. Our life becomes a shadow drama, a shadow start-up company, a shadow philanthropic venture.
Have you ever been to New Orleans? In Tennessee Williams-esque southern cities (Savannah and Charleston also come to mind), you find “characters.” The colorful old lady with 39 cats, the purple-haired dude who has turned his apartment into a shrine to James Dean. In the South you can get away with stuff like that. It’s kinda cool. The shadow enactment has been elevated to such a rarefied height that it becomes folklore, even (almost) art.
My own life used to be a shadow novel. It had plot, characters, twists and turns, action scenes, sex scenes; it had mood, atmosphere, texture; it was scary, it was weird, it was exciting; the stakes were life-and-death; it was a real rock-em, sock-em saga. I had friends who were living out their own shadow movies, or creating shadow art, or composing shadow rock operas. These were our addictions, and we worked them for all they were worth. There was only one problem: none of us was writing a real novel, or painting a real painting, or composing a real rock opera.
When you turn pro, your life gets very simple.
The zen monk and the samurai swordsman often lead lives so unadorned they’re almost invisible. Musashi Miyamoto’s dojo was smaller than my living room. Externals became superfluous. In the end he didn’t even need a sword.
The amateur is an egotist. He takes the material of his personal pain and uses it to draw attention to himself. He creates a “life,” a “character,” a “personality.” (This is not to say that Lady Gaga is not an artist; she is.)
The artist and the professional, on the other hand, have turned a corner in their minds. They have succeeded in stepping back from themselves. They stand “at one remove.” They have grown so bored with themselves and so sick of their petty bullshit that they can manipulate those elements the way a HazMat technician handles weapons-grade plutonium.
Turning pro is an act of self-abnegation. Not Self with a capital-S. Little-s self. Ego. Shadow. Distraction. Addiction.
When we turn pro, the energy that had gone into the Shadow Novel now goes into the real novel. The shadow symphony becomes a real symphony. Elements trade places. What we had believed was real—“the world,” including its epicenter, ourselves—turns out to be only a shadow. And the calling and purpose that had seemed to others (and to ourselves) to be only a dream becomes, now, the central reality of our lives.