Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Depth of Commitment, Part Two

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 19, 2012

We were talking last week about depth of commitment. I was saying that the main difference between an amateur and a pro is their depth of commitment. The amateur’s commitment is shallow. The professional’s is deep.

Lebron

Lebron took his game to the next level

The question then becomes: Can depth of commitment be increased? Can we move from shallow to deep?

My answer is an emphatic yes.

If fact I believe that’s how we all learn. That’s what improvement is. It’s not only an increase in skill or knowledge. It’s a deepening of commitment.

I have a friend at the gym named Craig. He’s not a gigantic bodybuilder, just a regular athletic guy. He told me the following story:

See that machine there, the iso-lateral arm press? I’ve been stuck at 110 for weeks. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t lift more than 110 pounds.

Then one morning I happen to glance over just as that tiny blonde, Jeannie—you know the one I’m talking about: 5′4″, 140 pounds?—heads over to that machine. I watch her slap a 45-pound plate and a 25-pounder onto each side, 140 total. She sits down and bangs out three sets like there’s nothing to it.

I said, Are you kidding me? I was blushing. I’m not kidding. My heart stopped. I thought, How can this little girl, who is seven inches shorter than me and sixty pounds lighter, make me look like an absolute punk?

I asked Craig how much weight he was doing on that machine now.

One-fifty, man. Took me a few weeks but I got it. All because of that cute little Jeannie. After watching her, I said to myself, “I will burst a blood vessel, I will pass out, I will make my heart explode … but I will get that weight up!”

That’s called increasing your depth of commitment.

I’ve thought about it a lot. There seem to be several stages to the process.

The first is shame.

We fail at some endeavor and we feel terrible about ourselves.

Shame leads to self-respect.

Our toes touch bottom. We say, “I know I can do better. I cannot accept defeat in this endeavor.”

With that, our depth of commitment increases.

We resolve to overcome. We make up our minds. We gird our loins.

My first real job was as a junior copywriter at an ad agency in New York called Benton & Bowles. My boss was a very smart, very ambitious guy named Ed Hannibal. One day Ed quit.  He was going to write a novel. Sure enough, he did—and it was a hit.

The book was called Chocolate Days, Popsicle Weeks and it was a real-deal success, not just critically but commercially.

I was twenty-two years old. I thought, “Hell, if Ed can do it, I can do it.” So I quit too.

Cut to seven years later. I’m dragging myself out of divorce, poverty, despair, blah blah etc., thinking, “Am I ready to try to try this same stunt again?”

I was. But the difference, this second time, was depth of commitment. The first time around, I thought writing a novel would be easy. The second time I am suitably chastened. I have had my butt handed to me and I know now, a little at least, how hard the job is and how much it is going to demand of me.

I finished that second novel (unlike the first), but I couldn’t find a publisher. Two years later: try again? Okay, but now with even greater depth of commitment.

That one flops too. Try again? Okay, now even deeper.

In a way, failure is fuel for depth of commitment. It raises the stakes. When our history is constituted entirely of Failure #1, Failure #2, and Failure #3, what else can we say to ourselves except, “I will burst a blood vessel, I will pass out, will make my heart explode … but I will NOT crap out a fourth time!”

What we’re really talking about here is cluenessness.

I was just plain dumb. Most of us are. We have no idea how hard things are. We think we’re bulletproof, we believe we’re invincible.

I think about Lebron James and how bad he felt, after all that “taking my talents to South Beach” stuff, when he and the Miami Heat flamed out in their first try at an NBA title with Lebron on the team. Next year they won. Why?

Depth of commitment.

Lebron went back to the drawing board. He looked in the mirror and realized that what he thought was good enough, wasn’t. He had to take his game to the next level, and he did.

Depth of commitment can be learned.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

17 Responses to “Depth of Commitment, Part Two”

  1. LaVonne Ellis
    December 19, 2012 at 3:32 am

    Thanks, just what I needed right this minute.

  2. December 19, 2012 at 4:01 am

    Thank you so much for this. I’ve been wavering in my commitment and playing at writing where once it was all I wanted. I haven’t made any progress with my novel- and now I understand why.

  3. December 19, 2012 at 5:09 am

    You are the human equivalent to Yoda.

    You impart the right wisdom at the right time.

    And just as LaVonne said above, I often feel it’s just what I need to hear at this very minute.

    That happens more often than not when I read your stuff.

    Thanks for this blog, your books and all you do.

  4. December 19, 2012 at 5:49 am
  5. Beth
    December 19, 2012 at 7:21 am

    Thank you for this. I wish I had already read this two years ago when I was an absolute beginning painter and so ashamed of my efforts. Steven, your writing has been one of my greatest sources of encouragement to keep on working and think like a pro even when I wanted to yell and scream and smash my canvases!

  6. December 19, 2012 at 8:36 am

    Steven,

    You mentioned “cluelessness.” Gerald Graff wrote a wonderful book called “Clueless in Academe” which discusses the role of cluelessness in learning. It’s sort of like cholesterol. There’s good cluelessness – coming to a subject – or skill – not knowing what we don’t know, realizing we don’t know, and muddling through to skill and competence – through, as you say, deeper commitment. (The bad cluelessness refuses to recognize itself.) As a parent (and grandparent), your post also reminds me of the Love & Logic approach: consequences with empathy. Letting children fail at small, manageable tasks, learn the consequences and grow (stronger and better). Isn’t revision a matter of cluelessness and commitment? As always, thanks!

  7. TLRay
    December 19, 2012 at 9:46 am

    Thank you!

    Currently floundering in revision and it’s been like pulling my toenails out slowly to sit down and work at it everyday…where the first draft was a fun ride. With the first draft, I thought…”Oh my God, I’m writing!!” With this second…it’s like. This is horrible! Hard, I suck! This isn’t any fun, and I must NOT be a writer, because I’m not having fun!! I still write everyday on this second draft, because I will not allow my dream, my passion to die. Nobody said it would be easy, if it was (as the old saying goes) everyone would do it. And the fact is, that everyone DOES NOT do it!…but I have. I can’t give up my commitment!

  8. Basilis
    December 19, 2012 at 10:31 am

    I agree with David!

    Actually all writers are children moving to a deeper level of commitment. We seem to learn that only with the hard way though.

  9. Harlan Gleeson
    December 19, 2012 at 11:30 am

    well what can i say? it is hard hard hard. how do we “just do it” when we have mouths to feed? but we must. we must plan and do and fail and do again. we must get up earlier, stay up later, eliminate more until we find the nugget and hold fast. nothing is more important. perserverance, tenacity, morality, hope. they are all giants in this field of endeavor. and what is this endeavor? it is all, it is the holy grail. it is movement into darkness and trust. spooky stuff, but oh what a payoff. THE payoff. might not make you rich in cash but surely in humanity. all this is known and still we, amazingly, are checked at the door to it all more often than not. you’re a wise one. why? because you coach us along, all the while, living it yourself. quite a mentor, steve.
    thanks so much.
    har

  10. December 19, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Steven,

    I always enjoy your posts, this one included. But your claim that amateurs have a shallow level of commitment; professionals a deep one is on shaky ground. Just one example: 1980 Olympic hockey semifinal between the professional Russians and a bunch of American college kids. Level of commitment and professionalism do not necessarily go-hand-in-hand.

  11. December 19, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Thanks so much for writing this! It is especially meaningful to me because this week two new writers came to me wanting to know how to get published, since they’re having no luck with first novels. I told them just what you did: work hard, commit deep, pay your dues, and then I gave them resources to check into. They both got mad at me. Ugh!

    You are I are lucky in that we’ve been in this business for decades, well before the internet was invented. We learned our craft the old way: submitting to publishers and magazines, receiving enough rejections to wallpaper our houses, and learning from those rejections how to craft salable novels and become good editors of our work.

    These days the writers who come to me for advice want to skip all those steps. Then they wonder why they can’t get the attention of an agent or publisher, or why their self-published first novel isn’t selling? You can’t skip all the steps in the middle. And one of those is diehard persistence. Only the tough survive and prosper in this business. Thanks so much for saying this! And many thanks to Seth Godin. He mentioned you on his blog last week, I clicked the link, and have been enjoying your posts ever since!

  12. John Thomas
    December 19, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    Great post, Steven.

    Interesting that you mentioned Lebron. I’m not a sports junkie, by any stretch of the imagination, but I read a Sports Illustrated article on Lebron a few months ago (only copy of SI I may have ever bought). The crux of the article was: Lebron was willing to suck it up, break down his game, get coached, and reconstruct his game to take it to the next level. He busted his butt through the off season so he could bring it when the season started again. After I read it, I thought, “I get it now. Lebron is a professional and willing to put in the work.” I was impressed.

    BTW, Rolling Stone had a great interview with Neil Peart, drummer for Rush, back in June that touched on his dedication to his professionalism. Great interview. Another great example of someone willing to do the work even in the “off season.” http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/q-a-neil-peart-on-rushs-new-lp-and-being-a-bleeding-heart-libertarian-20120612

  13. December 20, 2012 at 5:04 am

    “In a way, failure is fuel for depth of commitment. It raises the stakes.”

    Absolutely true. Thanks for another great post, Steve!

  14. December 20, 2012 at 6:43 am

    Steven, this is one of my favorite blogs you have written. I love and admire how you cut to the chase to get to the gold. I also identify profoundly with this post because you have incorporated lifting weights. I started weight lifting and bodybuilding (oh, boy, this guy loves to talk about himself, damn)when I was 14. It was something I could do without others. It totally depended on my commitment, right? Adding more weights week by week, right? Right. In the coming years I built the body I wanted. I set the bench press record in the Southeast when I was only 16. Hang in there, this gets to writing books and my level of commitment to it: The next year I thumbed from Alabama to New York, my first great adventure. Thumbing back to Alabama, I was given a lift on the New Jersey Turnpike by Joe Abenda, Mr. Universe , and Dennis Tinerino. Dennis had just won Mr. Teenage America the week before and these guys were headed to York, PA to meet with the infamous John Grimeck. John was editor of Muscular Development Magazine and my new “friends” were taking pics of the Mr. Teenage American Contest to John. One of the pics would soon be on the cover of the magazine. My new road friends invited me to go with them, have lunch and meet my hero, John Grimeck, who had won all possible bodybuilding titles at the time. I went and it was a life-altering experience. It set me on fire to hit the road more often with hopes of having more profound encounters: I did and those later encounters led me to become a writer, collecting stories from those I met On the Road. Here’s my point: Lifting weights and traveling the road for a whole decade gave me the confidence to deepen my level of commitment to making it as an author. Did I go through hell at times to become a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author? Of course. But I still look back today on how lifting weights linked to my understanding of progress. Some weeks I could add 5 or 10 pounds, other weeks I couldn’t. But I knew I would eventually get beyond the “sticking point” if I kept at it. This was true for writing as well: Some projects would hit the “sticking point” and not get published–at that particular time. I just stayed with it, determined and convinced my mind and spirit would strengthen enough to get the job done. I have lived in Rome, Italy every spring and fall for ten years now, and, of all things, when seeing Rome’s many marble sculptures of muscular men, I sometimes think back to when I was 17 and was befriended by Joe and Dennis on that New Jersey Turnpike. I stayed up with Dennis over the years and he went on to win Mr. Universe. That he would later go to prison is another story, one I write about in my new book, Ciao From Roma, Spring in the Eternal City of Love, out on Kindle with all 5 star reviews at Amazon.

  15. December 20, 2012 at 7:16 am

    Inspirational. I like the idea that failure is the fuel for greater committment. When I really thought about it and some of my spectacular failures and success it’s true.

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