Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

How Pro Are You?

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 12, 2012

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The question is, “What’s the main difference between a pro and an amateur?”

Puss

Puss in Boots to Humpty Dumpty: "Si, I can commit."

My answer: depth of commitment.

I’ve always wanted to meditate. But my depth of commitment is unbelievably shallow. I can’t count my breaths past twenty. And pain in the knees? At the first twinge I’m up and outa there. It’s pathetic. I’m ashamed of myself. I’m an amateur. I will never succeed on my meditation cushion, and I don’t deserve to.

I lack depth of commitment.

One way to measure depth of commitment is to ask yourself of any calling, “How much adversity am I willing to endure to pursue it?”

Can you stand being broke? Can you live in a garret? Are you willing to work through pain—emotional, psychological, spiritual? Can you weather doubt, fear, despair?

The artist or entrepreneur must be like the hero of a movie. He has to be the protagonist of his own life, meaning be willing to pursue his objective (rescue his daughter from kidnappers, save the earth from vampires, kill Osama bin Laden) to the ends of the earth and then catch a ride on a rocket and keep on pursuing.

Humpty Dumpty, voiced by Zach Galifianakis, is considering taking Puss in Boots (voiced by Antonio Banderas) as a partner on his dream of climbing Jack and Jill’s beanstalk into the clouds and stealing the eggs of the Golden Goose.

HUMPTY DUMPTY

I need to know if you can commit.

PUSS IN BOOTS

Si, I can commit.

In real life, depth of commitment is more important than talent. It’s more important than beauty or skill, more important even than luck, because its produce is perseverance, endurance, tenacity.

My friend Hermes Melissanidis won a gold medal in gymnastics at the Atlanta Olympics. (Here’s his final performance if you want to see something amazing.)

When Hermes was nine, he saw gymnastics on TV for the first time. He knew at once that this was what he wanted to do.

I went to my parents and told them I wanted to dedicate myself to training and win a gold medal in the Olympic Games. Would they let me? I promised to work and pay them back.

My family are all doctors. The idea that I would pursue gymnastics instead of medicine was out of the question. I was nine years old. My mother and father refused to even hear of it.

I decided to go on a hunger strike. I don’t know how I even knew what a hunger strike was. But I announced that I would not eat until my family agreed to let me study gymnastics.

After four days, they caved. Not all the way though. They made me promise that, along with training as a gymnast, I would continue my studies and become a doctor. I agreed.

Hermes did both.

That’s depth of commitment. You can possess it at nine years old.

Another way to measure depth of commitment is to ask yourself, “How much am I willing to sacrifice to pursue my calling?”

Will you give up one hour a day? Can you pass on watching the Steelers down at the sports bar? How about creature comforts? Can you do without?

Can you give up financial security? Can you leave your boyfriend? How about your whole family?

Depth of commitment is critical on the artistic level. We can never fool the Muse. She knows when we’re faking it.

But depth of commitment is make-or-break too in the real world of commerce and career. Do you dream of being a ballet dancer but you’re not willing to move to New York City? The screenplay that gets mailed in to Tinseltown from Madison, Wisconsin is rejected before it’s even out of the slush pile. The producers think (and rightly so), If this writer is not committed enough to even move here, why should we respond to his submission with our own commitment of time and attention and energy?

The third test of depth of commitment is this:

How crushed will you be if you never fulfill your dream or live out your calling?

This is the big one, because there’s only one answer and all of us know what it is.

[Next week: Can depth of commitment be learned? If we don't possess it now, can we build it up and increase it over time?]

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

23 Responses to “How Pro Are You?”

  1. Corey
    December 12, 2012 at 3:43 am

    I’ve recently had to make the very difficult decision give up one creative path for another. It’s hard because of all the work I’ve put into my first choice, but the thing is, I cannot commit to something that’s lost its meaning and excitement.

    The new road I find myself on is not safe, and I may even crash and burn, but it’s work I can enjoy doing no matter what the outcome. My philosophical self says that creation is all one, whether music, painting, film, dance architecture etc. Love is in all creation.

    I now understand that the key is to love thyself and follow one’s intuition, rather than hanging on to the past and a discipline that no longer interests you.

    Page 158 of The War of Art: “Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it?”

    That was how I reached my decision. Thanks, Steven.

  2. Michael
    December 12, 2012 at 4:37 am

    Love this post. I am relating to it a lot right now. I moved away from family and friends in a chicago suburb to pursue a musical dream in NYC. Roommate slept with a girl I’d been seeing, constant construction, crazy boss at my day job,not making enough money and breathing shitty air yet I am still fitting in my practice and keeping the dream alive. Hoping this level of adversity prepares me for the next…making the full leap and having no day job to support myself.

    Thanks Steven – Keep posting and writing. You’re an inspiration to us all!

  3. Olivia
    December 12, 2012 at 7:04 am

    My bottomline question:
    Can you be a good parent and have this true depth of commitment at the same time? When I use the term parent, I don’t mean a sperm donor or an egg donor. Can you be a real parent to young children, and commit?

    • Basilis
      December 12, 2012 at 8:42 am

      Dear Olivia, that’s a tough one!

      How can we define what is actually a “good parent”?. Everyone has his own criteria (usually based on their childhood).
      The one day we may suck, the other we might be great.
      There are a lot of artists that have to deal how will they spend their time to do the work and be great parents.

      But there might be something important that we should consider: If we don’t follow our dream, how happy can we be?
      Kids sense what their parents feel immediately! And they react to that. If our children sense (and they always have a great sensor working hours after their birth!) that we are somehow depressed,confused, uncertain, this will affect their behavior…
      They will feel insecure. We are the strongest and the most important person in their world. I believe that it would be better for them to feel that they have a confident parent that struggles to combine art and family.

      Anyway, any thoughts on that are welcome. It’s an important subject.

    • Michael
      December 12, 2012 at 10:02 am

      Olivia,
      I’ve thought about this often. Many of the people I professionally look up to have, admittedly, let their parenting slide way beyond the pale. I cut myself slack for all my dad duty and am brutal on myself for slacking off in most other areas. Works for me. Don’t sleep much sometimes.

      • December 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm

        As a stay-at-home mother of three, one a toddler, I understand the question of commitment to writing vs. parenthood. Like Basil mentioned, part of the reason I finally decided to write, as I feel I’ve always been meant to do, was to improve my mothering. I was unhappy, and unsatisfied because I’d left my dream behind. I needed to be a whole being, not just someone under a “mom” hat. Children are perceptive; they know when we’re faking it(just as much as the muse Mr. Pressfield mentioned).
        My husband played the “what’s the first thing that comes to your mind” game and asked me what would make me happy. Writing was the only answer I could think of.
        There are nights, sometimes weeks and months, that I sleep fewer than five hours a night, or I’m squeezing in words between potty-training and helping the older kids with their homework. I write after I put everyone else to bed, and I go to sleep happy.
        Commitment to our art, as a parent, sometimes means we miss the fun stuff- like family game night. But we’re giving our children a legacy of what it takes to make a dream come true- commitment, hard work, and passion. The hardest part is finding balance, but that’s more of a sliding scale, and possibly a lot of hype. Take it one word, one day at a time.

        • December 31, 2012 at 11:14 am

          There is so much good stuff here and in these comments. As a single parent, working full time, it’s challenging to find energy and time to create and yet I think “how can I NOT create when I know what I need to do?”

          In some ways, it helps to think of my time like I do my finances. Truly review how I spend my time and what can be cut out that does not adhere to my deepest values. I don’t sleep a lot. But, there is satisfaction in pursuing your passion. And I think it’s a gift to KNOW what I’m good at and what I’m passionate about. When you know what you must do, there is no alternative.

    • December 12, 2012 at 12:14 pm

      Olivia, yes, you can, because I am.

      I have the benefit of a marvelous wife who, of course, takes the lead in raising our little one, but I’m not an absent parent. We both work from home; we have that advantage. There are days when I get less done than I want, but it’s not for lack of wanting it.

      Our little one knows there are times when Daddy is working and she needs to wait to talk to him. But she also knows that if she needs me now, she needs me now.

      Think about it: if you have more than one child, can you properly parent them both? Of course you can!

      If one child is your art, you can still do it.

      And I think the fact that you even ask the question says that you’re qualified to give it a shot.

  4. Basilis
    December 12, 2012 at 8:26 am

    Commitment is actually a gift. You must have it or else you will be miserable for the rest of your life!

    Can you forget a dream of yours with out any consequences?

  5. December 12, 2012 at 10:04 am

    Hi Steven,

    The last time that I sustained the type of commitment you write about was when I decided to get serious about earning my degree at 34. Already a family man, I had to be totally committed to my goal because there were a lot of difficult choices that had to made along the way. I graduated at 39. It was totally worth it.

    After reading your post, I think that it’s about time that I experience that kind of passion toward achieving a goal again.

  6. Sonja
    December 12, 2012 at 11:16 am

    Wow, I really got this today, Steven.

    You know how to call us out on our B.S. and I needed that kick in the gut.

    As always, grateful for you and your site.

    Best,
    Sonja

  7. December 12, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    Before I became the first person in the modern world to walk the 900 mile route of the Cherokee Trail of Tears and later write the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, Walking the Trail, One Man’s Journey Along the Cherokee Trail of Tears, published by Random House, I asked myself: “If I was the last person on earth, would I still do it?” I answered without hesitation: “It’s what I MUST do.” With all respect to your book, Steven, I did the walk and wrote my book before yours was written. I do, indeed, admire your wisdom and it’s so important that you share you insights with the world. I can’t help but wonder, however, if a man isn’t born with the FIRE. Others have sparks but the world’s tidal waves often put them out. I hope I am wrong, and that human beings can turn those sparks into the sacred FIRE to create and prosper.

  8. December 12, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Need a facebook “share” button at the end of these -they are so good! I have no accomplishments to try to one up you with by being “first” lol. Steve Jobs asked himself daily – if it was the last day of his life would he do what he planned to do that day? Mary Oliver writes, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (my fave) I don’t believe that there is a first for anything anymore but there are many ways to express timeless concepts of committment and showing up and being true to your calling. I benefit greatly from your style and words – always inspiring, always just the right amoung of “zing”. I just watched Bagger Vance again last night and always end up inspired to get moving and deepen my committment and willingness to be seen through fulfilling my purpose. Thank you for your writings – as always!

    • December 12, 2012 at 2:55 pm

      Michelle, just click on the title of this article, then highlight and copy the URL and paste it in your FB status.

  9. December 13, 2012 at 10:19 am

    Hey Steve,

    Re: meditation/zazen

    Try counting to slow your respiration instead. Not as distracting and will calm your system and improve your focus. Start by trying ten seconds to inhale, ten to exhale

    • LaVonne Ellis
      December 19, 2012 at 3:57 am

      I would add that pain in the knees is an indication that another position, like sitting in a chair, is in order. There’s no requirement to sit cross-legged on the floor. The point is to focus the mind, not to ignore the body’s signal that you are injuring yourself.

  10. Tom
    December 13, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    Steven et al.,
    My question is this–what if you have that commitment, you have that desire, and it gets you NOWHERE? I have been writing since I was ten; I’m now forty-nine. I’ve only achieved what teeny-tiny success I have since 2005. I’ve sold two stories and a novel. My first story won an award from a major writer’s organization; the publisher of the anthology, for reasons I have never learned, cut me out of his world entirely. My first novel came out in April of this year; I got a crappy advance (paid 6 months late) and ZERO PR support from my publisher. My mother is the only member of my family who has read the book; not one iota of emotional support from anywhere else. My father, battling cancer now, has NEVER supported what I do, and has openly insulted me for it (his latest, from his recovery bed, was “I just can’t get past the title of your book. I’d never buy a book with a title like yours”). My friend who I have known since high school somehow ‘just can’t find the time’ to read my book. I’ve been bogged down in the second book because I wonder what the point is. Now I’m not perfect; I’ve had periods where the desire wasn’t as strong as I’d have wished, but it never went away. When I don’t write, my life isn’t right. But it’s torture to pour yourself into something that no one, especially those closest to me or the project, seems to give a damn about. I despair more and more, and wonder whether I ought to listen to the world and just give up. I would be miserable, but at least I wouldn’t be tormented by unrequited hope and the slings and arrows of everyone I know. I’ve read your books, Steven, and I get a spark from them, but it seems like it never catches fire. Any suggestions?

    • Azure
      December 13, 2012 at 11:37 pm

      Tom, congrats on getting your first novel published!! Wow, that is really, really awesome, and something to be so proud of! Think of how many people attempt to do that and never accomplish it. Plus you won an award on one of your stories? Sounds like major validation of your talent to me. SUCKS that your friends and family are unsupportive…that must be so incredibly upsetting, and they must have their own issues. Honestly, do NOT take that as a reflection of your worth or your work. Anyone whose son has published a novel should be absolutely beaming with pride and bragging to all of his friends, in my opinion. Write the unhelpful people off, in this area anyway, and proactively seek out supportive friends/groups/etc. that will be enthusiastic and bring positive energy to your endeavors. (Ideally, just write for yourself–I think that’s when the magic happens.)

      What’s the name of your novel? I’ll read it!

    • Novelisto
      December 14, 2012 at 7:33 am

      I’m in the same boat as you, most of my family either hates the fact that I’ve written a book, or don’t care. My parents in particular make fun of me for it, and my dad thinks it’s really stupid. But guess what? I don’t care, because I knew these people were retarded ahead of time. I didn’t EXPECT them to support me, so I wasn’t let down.

      You are holding on too strongly to the validation of others. When I read your post you have a victim mentality. Blaming others for your own problems. You know what, maybe they are to blame, but the fact is you can’t change THEM, you can only change yourself, so do it, or die miserable. Man up and do what you were meant to. If the publishing world sucks, self-publish. No one promoting your book? Go do it yourself. Meet people, sell/give them copy, get their feedback down the road.

  11. December 14, 2012 at 4:44 am

    To Olivia and Tom–

    You’ve both struck a nerve with me. Olivia, I just became a father this year, and dealing with the natural stresses of my son’s first year has been compounded by the fact that we had to make some unpleasant choices about where to live and how to live in order to have the baby. Which brings me to Tom’s indication of what a long, hard slog it can be: I think those natural first-year baby stresses were compounded by the fact that I’m 37 and don’t feel that I’ve ‘made it’ yet, either, even though I’ve been writing seriously for almost 15 years now (and not so seriously for 15 years before that). So I’m having both crises as once: can I stay committed to my calling and be a good parent and husband; and, can I maintain that commitment even in the face of the frustration and hopelessness I’ve been feeling lately. Ironically, Tom, I managed to publish my first book just a year ago, with a small press. Sure, sales are low and I feel like the proverbial voice crying in the wilderness–but the fact is, it’s something, it’s out there, and so far, not a single person–friend, family or stranger–who’s read the book has NOT enjoyed it (which is really what this whole writing thing is all about, isn’t it?).

    I’ve tried to take the notion (addressed by Steve on several occasions) of the ‘All Is Lost’ moment to heart. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve hit rock bottom–or at least a brick wall–but if I’m the hero of my own story, I’ve just got to figure out how to climb back out of the hole and re-invent myself, don’t I?

    So hang in there, and I’ll do the same.

  12. December 16, 2012 at 10:07 am

    I would like, in the new year, to find a way to work from home. I have no illusions that I’ll sell enough books to replace my “too big to fail” corporate income. I have no illusions that it will be easy. But I think we all make a choice about what’s important to us. Is it money? Is it how we spend our time here on earth? We have the freedom to choose. It’s nice to have someone that comes along and asks us to think….

  13. December 18, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    Thank you for another kick in the ass.

    In regards to writing, there are SO many ways to get published these days. I’m interested to know how many people are still going the traditional route and how many people are seeking to self-publish? I am asking myself that question daily.

    Thank you Steven.

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