Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

“In the End, We’ll Succeed”

By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 1, 2013

Not long ago I took a wilderness trek with an old friend who had been the commander of a Recon company in the army. We were out in the boonies for five days, with no check-ins with civilization. I had never done this kind of thing before and I noticed two things:

boonies

It ain't so easy, navigating in the boonies

One, my friend was completely confident of our whereabouts at all times.

Two, we were lost at least half the time.

A phrase kept re-appearing in my friend’s conversation: “In the end, we’ll succeed.”

At first I didn’t pick up on this theme, but after the twentieth time or so, I started saying it myself. It was a great mantra, and I think it applies equally well to such diverse enterprises as writing a novel or starting a business or undertaking any long-term, high-aspiration project.

What is a “Recon commander” anyway? As my friend explained it, recon teams or platoons (among many other assignments) guide larger formations across unfamiliar territory. Their job is to go into the unknown and make it known to those who follow. My friend’s vintage is the era before the invention of the GPS or other satellite-based navigational technology. He’s old school. A map. A compass. The sun.

I know from unimpeachable history that my friend is a superb land navigator. But, trust me, when you’re out in the deep boonies with no highways or man-made landmarks within miles, everything starts looking like everything else. My friend taught me about “blind maps”—a map with no place names on it, just topographical features. It’s amazing how hard it is to scan the horizon and say, “Ah, that peak over there is this peak on the map.”

One evening as the sun was setting we couldn’t find our way out of a box canyon. I was starting to freak. My friend was calmly collecting firewood. “In the end we’ll succeed.”

Another day we hiked all morning toward a road that had ceased to exist since the map’s publication. No problem. “In the end we’ll succeed.”

And we did.

There seemed to be two components to my friend’s principle:

1. Commitment to the ultimate object.

“In the end” meant to him the final goal. What happened along the way was purely anecdotal. There was a goal. That was where we were headed. Nothing would stop us from getting there.

2. Indifference to setbacks along the way.

My friend claimed to know exactly where he was at all times but, as I observed more than once, “If you know where we are, why do you keep checking the map?” “I’m checking the map,” he said, “so I know where we are.”

He was advancing, I began to understand, from being “slightly lost” to being “slightly lost” to being ultimately found.

“In the end we’ll succeed” is the ideal attitude for a long-term project because it helps you take incremental setbacks in stride. We progress not from success to success but from defeat to defeat. We screw up. We miscalculate. The unexpected confounds us. The trick is to remember that the sun will rise in the morning, we’ll be able to see the rocks and the handholds; we’ll climb out of the canyon. We’ll get back on track.

The amateur often fails because he mistakes an incremental setback for ultimate defeat. He gives up halfway to the finish. Trekking through a maze of canyons behind my friend, I could feel panic bubbling up in my brain at certain points. But always my friend’s footsteps continued confidently forward.

I was telling him, over the campfire one night, about John Keats’ concept of “negative capability.” What Keats meant by that phrase was the ability to keep functioning with confidence, even when you don’t know where you are or what you’re doing. Keats of course was talking about writing poetry. How do you progress through the composition of a monumental work like, say, Endymion when at point after point you find yourself lost and dazed and confused?

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing

A flowery band to bind us to the earth,

Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth

Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,

Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways

Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,

Some shape of beauty moves away the pall

From our dark spirits.

In a way Keats was talking about Recon, only he identified his fixed and guiding principle (as a poet should) as Beauty.

Over the campfire, my friend agreed. “In the end, we’ll succeed.”

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

27 Responses to ““In the End, We’ll Succeed””

  1. May 1, 2013 at 3:09 am

    I enjoyed this post very much. The point is a very useful one, and a little Keats a day is sweet balm.

  2. Basilis
    May 1, 2013 at 3:59 am

    I’ll keep in mind the recon mission metaphor.

    It happens to me a lot these-days and -I’m sorry to say that- not so because of amateurism, but of problems in cooperating with Pros in the creating process…

    Resistance of the co-workers is also a problem -among others- that we have to solve anyway, haven’t we?

    :-)

  3. May 1, 2013 at 5:04 am

    A great reminder on never giving up. Thank you!

  4. May 1, 2013 at 5:16 am

    Yet another inspirational article! Thank you Steven. I’ll keep this in mind as I stare at my computer sometime around midnight, waiting for inspiration, resisting my pillow and wondering if another cup of coffee might just do the trick! In the end, I guess I’ll succeed!

  5. May 1, 2013 at 5:33 am

    Steve, like you, when I go backpacking, I have moments where my heart may pluge when I don’t know exactly where I’m at. This is a great metaphor for the work process, because just as important as not giving up, is being realistic about getting that goal. It is about the journey, but you gotta progress to that next destination, right?

  6. May 1, 2013 at 5:38 am

    Have we met? I am the person you write about and for. I am a cereal entrepreneur, as in I eat lots of cereal to conserve my bootstrapping budget for the next idea I am bound to pioneer. I have quit prematurely many times, I now recognize, from those misguided and disorienting emotions of confusion, frustration, fear, terror and despair. Only later did I realize they were but Gollums, dressed in wolf’s clothing and wearing stilts. They are only temporary and all come with work-arounds. Now, I know better. Nothing is going stop me, including myself. Thanks for posting this excellent teaching story.

  7. Teddy
    May 1, 2013 at 5:39 am

    Thanks, Steven. Your posts are a weekly inspiration to me on a very deep level.

  8. May 1, 2013 at 5:57 am

    Brilliant, per usual. Thanks, Steven!

  9. Kent Faver
    May 1, 2013 at 6:13 am

    Awesome – thank you! Ugly things happen – but we never forget beauty.

  10. May 1, 2013 at 6:55 am

    Nice post. And quite an adventure too.

  11. Stacy
    May 1, 2013 at 7:27 am

    Terrific post, Steven. I’ve only learned this very thing about myself recently. Artists of all stripes must learn to be optimists—particularly when it comes to their own endurance.

  12. May 1, 2013 at 7:30 am

    One of your all-time best posts (and I’m a long-time follower). Perfect timing as I set my goals for the month and the remainder of the year. I believe I’m nearly there now (even if I’m treading forth into negative capability).

    I’m saying it aloud: “In the end, I’ll succeed,” for the first time, but not the last. You’ve been my guiding compass for many years now. So thanks, Steven.

  13. May 1, 2013 at 8:25 am

    Well said Steven.

    What my mind kept going back to, as I read this excellent post, was what it must have been like for ancient explorers when they traveled a strange land without the benefit of a map or knowledge of what lay ahead. For me, writing is a lot like scouting unexplored territory, much like “stout Cortez” climbing the backside of Darien. You have no idea of what is ahead of you. It could be the end of the story, it could be a startling climax, it could be a scene you didn’t even imagine until it flows from your fingers like a secret kiss.

    All you have is what you carry with you; hope and the will to succeed. Now, thanks to you, that hope has a name. It is: In the end we’ll succeed.

    Indeed.

  14. David
    May 1, 2013 at 10:09 am

    ‘We progress from defeat to defeat.’
    The chizuk endlessly hits the spot. Thanks.

  15. skip
    May 1, 2013 at 11:17 am

    nothing like excellent situational-awareness to keep up the confidence.

  16. May 1, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    Great post Steven! One I’ll be reading more than once. It reminds me of a friend once telling me about always getting lost in Morocco, and how much he loves it. I was baffled when I first heard that, but I can see now how being “lost” is a good thing. We get to choose to trust that we’ll succeed. Adding Keats was brilliant. Again and always, thanks.

  17. May 1, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    I’ve often joked if our business had a logo it would be fog.

    I’m okay with that.

    The older I get the less it matters where I’m going — as long as I’m having fun getting there.

    • May 2, 2013 at 3:18 pm

      That’s great, Maureen. That should be ALL our logos: a fog.

      But sunshine on the far side!

  18. May 1, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    Thanks, Steve. Always a boost.

  19. May 2, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    This was so great! Thank you for sharing and for trekking on that mission – so now we don’t have to!

  20. Jason
    May 2, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    Thank you, yet AGAIN, Steven! You and Callie are absolutely on FIRE right now, the muses speak loudly and clearly through you both!
    #keepthefaith

  21. May 3, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    That was delicious. Thank you.

  22. May 3, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    Perspective: The right sort will give you energy and hope, the wrong kind can leave you despairing and lethargic.

    Great stuff!

  23. May 3, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Ahh I love the optimism I feel in the lines,

    “The amateur often fails because he mistakes an incremental setback for ultimate defeat. He gives up halfway to the finish.”

    I feel optimism because I have felt defeated but gotten back up too. OK.. good then, the road goes on.

  24. Matt McConnell
    May 9, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    That’s also perfect for golf.

  25. May 19, 2013 at 10:09 am

    Great story and really awesome and useful mantra. Sounds like a lot of fun hanging out in the wilderness, I think I really need to get some new friends…

  26. May 22, 2013 at 8:06 am

    Ok Pressfield – now you’ve forced me to rework similar ideas (in my case, how marital/relationship problems help us grow/mature) that are not nearly as clear and refreshing as this one.