Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Self-Doubt and Self-Reinforcement

By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 27, 2012

I never talk about a project I’m working on. It’s bad luck.

Lindy

Charles Lindbergh and "The Spirit of St. Louis." Lindy wasn't just lucky.

But something happened a few nights ago that made me think I should make an exception, both for the sake of my own thinking and for sharing an insight or two. So I’ll keep depiction of the project vague but the wisdom as clear as I can make it.

I was at a professional event with a friend who, each time he introduced me to a new acquaintance, described and made a pitch for the project I’m working on. (Don’t ask why.) He did this a number of times despite my excruciating embarrassment.

Bottom line: everyone he told the idea to went catatonic with boredom. Their eyes glazed over. They began edging toward the exit. Though they were too polite to say anything overtly negative, it was clear that they regarded me and my enterprise the way one might a Comic-Con trekkie describing his plans for solar self-levitation or, perhaps, Newt Gingrich flogging tickets for his colony on the moon.

I went home pretty depressed.

The people at the event were by no means imagination-challenged “suits.” They were bold, savvy entrepreneurs. Almost every one had multiple success stories across all spectrums of art, tech and business.

And their reaction to my project was universal snooze-o-rama.

I thought about it and thought about it and I came to a conclusion:

They’re wrong.

They can’t see what I see.

They have a superficial conception of what I’m planning to do, but they have no idea of how I’m going to do it.

Then I asked myself a second question: Does negative response make you consider giving up?

Answer: not for a nanosecond. I don’t care what anybody thinks. I’m seized by this project and that’s it.

I thought about books of mine from the past. From Bagger Vance to Gates of Fire to The War of Art, practically no one has believed in them at the concept stage. (With the exception of Shawn Coyne—which is why he and I are partners today). Most people thought I was crazy. That idea? It’s been done a hundred times, nobody cares about that any more, what can you possibly say that hasn’t been said already?

There’s an axiom among artists and entrepreneurs: to succeed, you have to be arrogant or ignorant or both. What that means is you have to blow off every response that says it’ll-never-work. Be arrogant. The nay-sayers are idiots. Or ignorant. Stay stupid and plunge ahead.

So I had a little talk with myself. Literally. I dictated my thoughts into a tape recorder and played them back. I reminded myself that what makes a good idea good is the fact that it hasn’t been done before—and that most people can’t imagine what hasn’t been done before. What they imagine instead is a crappy version of what has been done before. Then they reject that.

I kinda like the idea of a colony on the moon. And I’m not so sure there’s no future in solar self-levitation.

In other words: self-reinforcement.

One of the hallmarks of a professional is the ability to be his own best friend. Sometimes when I’m driving, I’ll phone home and leave a message for myself.

Steve, we’re behind you, brother. Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do it. Keep the faith, partner. You are on course and on target!

I always laugh when I get home (because invariably I forget that I’ve left myself the message). But the point is serious.

Almost no one recognizes a good idea at the idea stage. And the bolder the idea, the more people will be blind to it. That’s human nature. It’s the way the world works. If you’re seeking reinforcement from outside yourself, you’re in for a long, lonely haul. The answer to self-doubt is self-reinforcement.

Lindbergh made it to Paris, and you and I can too.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

39 Responses to “Self-Doubt and Self-Reinforcement”

  1. June 27, 2012 at 1:48 am

    Definitely one of the ways of feeling miserable as a writer, artist, etc. is expecting others (including family here) to cheer you, or even to care for what you do or plan to do. Learnt that the hard way :-)

    We’re frail human beings in need of appreciation, and I found this the most difficult thing to do: to be arrogant, stubborn, stupid and plunge ahead, leaving behind the chatter, the disapproving looks (type: ‘who does she thinks she is? a romanian, living in italy and writing in english! she’ll never make it!”. To that I always remind myself that Joseph Conrad did it, I can do it too), and why not, leaving behind people.

    I’m still working on the self-reinforcement part, and I have an inkling that it will be a lifetime work :-) What I know for sure is that I won’t give up, even if my walk becomes trudging at times.

    A great article, as always! Thank you!

  2. yvon
    June 27, 2012 at 2:12 am

    bloody brilliant.

    since I’m in Paris already, I’d rather make it to New York instead

  3. June 27, 2012 at 3:12 am

    Precis, Genau, Claro.

    Breautifully told and certainly experienced. Thanks.

    I keep finding evidence of a 4 year ‘delay’ before those who had the glazed over look twig (get it) with regards to what I do.

    Let me end and share a phrase I heard recently: “Before you go doubting yourself, first make sure you’re not surrounded by doubters (or assholes, but that’s a harsh way of putting it)”

    Regards All & Thanks.

  4. skip
    June 27, 2012 at 5:56 am

    the courage of your convictions!

  5. June 27, 2012 at 6:38 am

    Wow, thanks so much for this post! It is so timely for me. I opened up about a project I am working on to my father and it was squashed. Today, I have been really depressed about it and this gave me a beacon of hope.

    “There’s an axiom among artists and entrepreneurs: to succeed, you have to be arrogant or ignorant or both. What that means is you have to blow off every response that says it’ll-never-work. Be arrogant. The nay-sayers are idiots. Or ignorant. Stay stupid and plunge ahead.”

    To ignorance and being stupid 😉

    Thank you, Steven.

    Krishan

  6. June 27, 2012 at 8:27 am

    Sound like you and J.K. Rowlings have a thing or two in common. I’d also add that you are working on a higher plain than you give yourself credit for or others can see on the surface. What you describe here is a soul steeped in self-actualization and it’s a gift to not only listen to your Muse but inspire it. I heard the Dalai Lama once describe it this way and I’m going from memory here so forgive me- “Bad news/negativity take it on the logical level… in one ear out the other… good news/positivity take it on the emotional level… let it wash your heart and body.”

    Steve, I’m confident you can sustain these body shots… I’m sure you feel them… that is human and part of being in the ring… but what others don’t realize is your creativity and resilience to jab, combo, and knockout the best that Resistance has to offer or even it’s proxies.

    Keep up a strong training camp for your next bout… after all it’s the miles and pages that matter… the book or article is just the product of your commitment.

    I believe in you (I’m sure many others do too)… but even better… you believe in you!

  7. June 27, 2012 at 8:27 am

    I have a hard enough time talking about finished works, let alone explaining what I’m trying to work on. But the “reactions” (I put it in quotes because I think it was more your perception than truth)you got are also why I never talk about my WIPs–it is so easy to have your hopes for a project dashed. Talking about a project shares the same disadvantage that writing a synopsis about it does, there’s none of the great words on the page that make an idea work. So I’m glad you’re going for it.

  8. June 27, 2012 at 8:35 am

    Great article, you continue to inspire and energize me and I really appreciate it. Keep slugging away brother, we are all behind you! BTW, I love the idea of leaving yourself a message but I am also amused by the notion of leaving a message at ‘home’. In this day of cell phones/google voice I live the life of an urban bedouin carrying my tools and my belongings in my backpack.

    Have Wacom, will travel.

  9. Harlan Gleeson
    June 27, 2012 at 11:28 am

    Well said Steven. I am in the midst of my own transformation and these gales are strong now. Gotta hang on with my fingernails most days. Like you said the nay-say’ers are idiots both inwardly and outwardly. Its only the muse we must aim to please.

  10. June 27, 2012 at 11:44 am

    Steven, for my own taste, this is the most important and powerful piece I have read by you. Oh, did you get my phone message? It said: “We’re all behind you.”

  11. June 27, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    Having interviewed two Nobel prize winners in medicine, Both were almost ostracized in the medical community for their new ideas. They spent years testing, presenting, and getting laughed at. But they kept going and finally after years, their new ideas were taken seriously and they were rewarded for them. One of them, Dr. Barry Marshall discovered the true cause of ulcers.

    Both creatively, in business, and science, it’s been proven to me over and over again how difficult it is to give birth to a new idea and bring it out into the world. I so appreciate you shedding some light on this Steve.

    I’ve put aside all my business and have been doing nothing but write over these past two years. Writing is difficult enough…but then trying to get it made, or produced is a whole other endeavor that is it’s own difficult undertaking.

    So appreciate you.

  12. June 27, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    And then there are moments you’re reinforced by someone who doesn’t know you, but nonetheless knows exactly what you’re going through. Thanks!

  13. Denise
    June 27, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    This is exactly what I’m going through and so deeply this week. Feel very blessed to have read this from you. I bawled and the energy shifted. Funny how that works.

    You’re a Gift. Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing your stories.

    Denise

  14. June 27, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    Excellent piece from an excellent man! Mahalo nui loa, good sir!!!

  15. Brian Randall
    June 27, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Great article again, Mr. Pressfield. Years ago I fell in love with a book based on a true story that I just KNEW was a movie. No one I pitched the project to was as excited about it as I was, but I knew they were all wrong. I pitched the project to a development exec who told me, “I just don’t see the movie in it.” Guess what…that same development exec gave the book to another writer friend of hers who also loved it and submitted the book to a studio with himself attached as the screenwriter! The movie got made and it was a blockbuster with the biggest stars and biggest director in Hollywood. Ironically, the development exec that “didn’t see the movie in it” got a co-producer credit in the opening credits of the film and I spent three years in a lawsuit (which I “won”). So…I learned the hard way to never listen to anyone elses opinion but my own, AND to better safeguard my projects before pitching!

  16. Randy
    June 27, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    “Sometimes, one man believing in a thing is all that stands between the impossible and the inevitable.”

  17. June 27, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    Good thoughts to keep in mind when an agent sends your novel’s 50th rejection letter, or when you ask a family member (the one who you told about your blog only a week or so ago and they asked for the web address and you carefully wrote it out for them)if they liked your last post, and they respond with “You have a website?”

  18. June 27, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    Steven,

    I still can’t believe someone as prolific as you feels the self-doubt and needs the reinforcement just like I do. I recommend The War of Art to all my students (how to write a one-person show). Thank you for your courage and for continuing to share what you’ve learned on your journey with Turning Pro. You’re a true inspiration. Can’t wait to read it.

  19. June 27, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    I’ll share a Resistance ah-ha moment. My latest novel is just about done – a final read-through be a Beta reader, getting the cover art finished, and ebook time when…the title doesn’t fit the story. I was fine with it, I knew what the title was supposed to signify, but two trusted readers said, huh? I spent a day backing my head against a wall (won’t say if it was literally or metaphorically) trying to get to another title. My subconscious said no, that’s the title. Resistance said, but…

    I’m added two brief sentences of dialogue and the title stays.

    Lesson: Resistance comes in many forms. Sometimes when we think we’re fighting resistance, we’re giving in to it. Resistance is good at mimicking the muse/subconscious. One says, no, that’s not working or that doesn’t feel right; the other says, no, you can’t do that. One is sensitive to the river’s flow; the other dams it.

  20. Basilis
    June 28, 2012 at 3:04 am

    That’s the spirit!
    No Resistance at all is allowed to take control of us, not even disguised as an opinion of other people (who actually can’t know what you have in mind)!

  21. June 28, 2012 at 6:07 am

    So this doesn’t just happen to newbies???
    Thank you for this!

  22. Ian
    June 28, 2012 at 10:57 am

    I will simply say “Good luck” to your project—whatever it is.

  23. June 28, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Steven: Just what I needed to hear. When book sales are flatlining, nobody’s reading your blog, and you second guess every new book you think of writing or attempt to write because you’ve got two others that still haven’t sold yet, there is nothing else to do but grab arrogance in one hand, willful ignorance in the other, and lean into the wind. Ignore the voice in your head–“Maybe it’s me… maybe I have nothing worthwhile to say… maybe I’m just not good at this…”–and just press on, assured that the world will catch up with you.

    Keep it up. Your words give me strength.

  24. June 28, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    Hi Steven
    So excited to discover you [from chris brogans blog]
    And love your idea of leaving messages for yourself!!
    Best regards

  25. Trish
    June 29, 2012 at 11:18 am

    I have yet to come up with a strategy that I feel comfortable with for when others ask me about what I’m working on. The old “under contract” excuse doesn’t apply anymore, so I’m stumped.

    Any suggestions for how to gracefully decline discussing one’s current work?

  26. June 29, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Steven, Inspiring as always! I shared your phone message idea on my fb fan page as a writing prompt. I feel my own support behind myself when I drafted my own phone message to myself! Thank you for doing what you do, for being a shining example of a writer at work.

  27. June 29, 2012 at 7:27 pm

    I’ve always taken heart from this quote from Nassim Taleb:

    “The test of originality for an idea is not the absence of one single predecessor, but the presence of multiple but incompatible ones.”

    Examples that spring to mind: telling a story as old as Sparta not in staid classical narrative but with raunch and grit, or discussing the writer’s craft like it’s any old dayjob rather than some lofty pursuit reserved for the witty elite or the artfully disturbed.

    Whatever field you’re fighting on keep fighting until it’s yours entirely. I might think the new project is shit and I might think it’s genius, but it doesn’t matter what I think. It’s your field.

  28. June 29, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    I *love* the idea of the phone call home. I’m going to have to give that a whirl.

  29. Jeffrey Wilson
    June 30, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    I get it. Steven doesn’t want to be a guru. 100% of the followers would adore him. Only 10% would actually do the work.

  30. Alex Ginzburg
    July 2, 2012 at 12:10 am

    Steven….I didn’t have to call myself today, thanks to you. I got my needed reinforcement from the last sentence of the last page of your last book “Turning Pro” that I bought a few days ago! Thank you so much for guiding us dilettantes to climb the barricades on the way to becoming PRO’s, screaming out “Vive Le France!”

  31. July 2, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    Your post made me laugh out loud and breathe a big rich breath of…”of course!” Thanks Mr. Pressfield! I too have left myself notes, voice mails, and even sent flowers to self with sonnets of “good job, keep it going, hot hot!” Beautiful! Thank you!

  32. J. Parker
    July 3, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    What, they’re not enthusiastic about a remake of KING KONG lives directed by Tim Burton, starring Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise?

    No, it’s not that…

    Seriously, this is one chapter that was a little too late for Turning Pro, as Shawn wrote, you had to end it and publish it but this is inspiring, one of your best.

    All we can do is have faith in ourselves, give it our best, and I don’t know, put in a discrete, polite word to well meaning friends to talk about sports at the next social function…

    It’ll turn out great, Steve, because you are a Pro.

    The rest of us are working on it. Time for me to shut up and “Do the Work”.

  33. July 5, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    On the spot again 😉

  34. July 10, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    It’s a constant sort of inspiration that “real” writers require the same sorts of encouragement that I do, even on book number–what?–thirteen? Just so you know, after reading War of Art I now grab hold of my lucky miniature conch shell, gathered in the outer Bahamian islands, and recite my prayer to the Muse, typed up on my antique typewriter and pinned above my desk. Don’t know the Muse. She works.

  35. Jen Young
    July 17, 2012 at 11:29 am

    Right post at the right time. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Steven!

  36. September 10, 2012 at 4:08 am

    Totally agree. The bolder the idea, the less people will understand it.

  37. October 1, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    These are all amazing posts, and this one very much resonates with me! I am going to copy that message to myself part from you. You’ve touched on the crux of the artistic dilemma, mainly that we have to validate ourselves, yet we tend to seek validation elsewhere. It’s a human condition, but really speaks out in the artistic process, for me at least.

  38. Will Rogers
    July 14, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    Steven, it’s been over a year since this post, and I’m curious about whether the idea you’re discussing has yet sprouted into the public sphere. If so, I would love to see a “the rest of the story” update. And if it is still percolating, I’m interested in hearing about that too.

  39. October 10, 2013 at 2:32 am

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