Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Your Personal Culture

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 11, 2013

Several of the streets I normally drive are blocked these days by construction for a new light rail line. As I was detouring around one blockage yesterday I thought, “Mass transit is a great idea but it’ll never work here in Los Angeles.”

Stevie

Stevie Nicks. "That whole Welsh Witch thing ... "

The reason it won’t work is that it runs counter to the culture of the city. L.A. is a car culture. Even when the Metro Line gave away free passes, the trains were still 90% empty.

That got me thinking about cultures in general.

Institutions have cultures. Apple has a culture, IBM has a culture; so do NASCAR and Wired magazine and the surfing locals on the North Shore of Oahu. The Roman legions had a culture, the Navy SEALs have a culture. Al Qaeda has a culture.

Institutional cultures give shape and identity to the individuals within their organizations. If you’re a bubble-headed bleached blonde working for Fox News, you will dress, think, and act differently that the Commie pinko socialists at MSNBC.

Cultures persist. The New York Yankees of today share indelible DNA with the Bronx Bombers of the Babe Ruth era. The reason Marissa Mayer was hired at Yahoo was to change the corporate culture. That’s why new studio heads are brought in by Paramount and Warner Bros. and fresh coaches are recruited by the NBA, the NFL, and the NCAA.

To change an organization, change its culture.

The strongest institutional culture I can think of is that of the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marines have two boot camps—one at Parris Island, SC and another at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, CA. For a hundred years these places have been stamping out identical Marines. I can testify from personal experience that no matter how hard you try to resist that culture, in the end you will drink the Kool-Aid. You will buy in to the culture, and that buy-in will be ineradicable.

But the most amazing proof of the power of Marine culture comes from the experience of the 1st Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, winter 1950. Surrounded and outnumbered 8-1 by 67,000 soldiers of the Chinese 9th Army at temperatures that hit thirty-below, these Marines fought their way out over a period of seventeen days in one of war’s all-time ordeals of suffering and endurance. But here’s the incredible part:

Many of these Marines were reservists who, at that time, had never been through boot camp. In other words, USMC culture was so strong that its members imbibed it even without being formally exposed to it.

That’s an institutional culture.

But there’s such a thing as individual culture as well. A personal culture unique to one individual. Personal culture is what you and I have to have, and if we don’t have it, we have to acquire it. As artists and entrepreneurs we must design, construct, and perpetuate an interior culture that is as vivid, unique, and self-empowering as that of the corporations and institutions we work with and compete against.

Who is an example of someone with an “individual culture?”

Stevie Nicks has a culture. Bruce Springsteen has one. So does Louis C.K. Chris Christie has a culture. Nelson Mandela’s personal culture was so strong it could change a nation and even the world.

In my experience the evolution of a personal culture takes place in two stages.

First, we have to find it. We’ve got one already, never fear. It was there from the minute we were born. Our personal culture is constituted of our point of view, our style, our sense of humor, our unique gifts and drives. Our personal culture is our voice. It’s our artist’s sensibility. It’s our Authentic Swing.

When we embark on our hero’s journey, we are seeking our individual culture, whether we realize it or not. The climax of that journey is our discovery of that voice, those gifts, that unique point of view.

Phase two is the construction and reinforcement of that individual culture. Sometimes it just happens without us even thinking about it. Stevie Nicks picked up a tambourine. She found the top hat, the swirling skirts, the whole Welsh Witch thing. It’s been working for her from “Rhiannon” in 1975 to “New Orleans” in 2009.

Hillary Clinton’s culture has evolved dramatically, but who can deny that it has remained consistent since her days at Wellesley, even before she met Bill?

Why do you and I need a personal culture? Because a culture supports us and empowers us. When we’re down, it holds us up. A culture is different from a brand. A brand can be false; it can be constructed artificially to monetize our work or to hype our ego and our narcissism. (A brand, it should be said, can also be real. That’s the best kind.)

A personal culture is true, whether we’re selling something or not. Our culture works in a crowd and it works when we’re alone; it works at the North Pole or in outer space.

My friend David Leddick says in his dry way, “Do you have a style? If not, please think about acquiring one.” I say the same for a personal culture. It’ll evolve. You’ll find one only to shed it like a snake sheds its skin. That’s fine. Because the new culture, if it’s true, will be a deeper, more authentic version of the older one.

Hemingway had a culture. So did Proust. One guy was in Africa hunting lions, the other took to his bed and never got out. Both cultures worked.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

33 Responses to “Your Personal Culture”

  1. December 11, 2013 at 4:21 am

    I think that we all have this “Personal Culture”, but what a difference it makes when we know that we have it; and when we know what it is and how it plays out on our hero’s journey.
    Thanks Steve!

  2. Mary
    December 11, 2013 at 5:19 am

    Thanks for another thought-provoking piece! I’ve never thought of myself as having a personal culture before but the concept makes sense. Culture is broader than “identity,” and more authentic than “brand.” My own personal culture, thanks to your work and the community of this blog, is that of “Resistance Fighter” and it has changed my life, not only with my writing, but with how I take care of myself, what I say “yes” and “no” to, and the necessity of self-supporting my art.

  3. December 11, 2013 at 6:15 am

    Good Morning Mr. Steve,

    I have a personal culture, but I think it is time to acquire a more authentic one.
    Right now I am having trouble fighting resistance. Napping all day in sunbeams is making it hard to finish my book. Thank you for another delightful post.
    all the best,
    xo
    Love Mr. Pooh

  4. December 11, 2013 at 6:20 am

    About a year ago, my personal writing style locked into a systematic way of doing things – and life got so much simpler.

    I figured out what worked for me. I blogged about it (though I am quirky enough that it will probably only amuse other people). I started producing reproducible results: all the scenes now have everything I consider essential, and go through a process that keeps them written consistently – tone, word choice, pov – the components of a personal style of writing.

    Best, I know what I’m doing, and why – and my control is getting better.

    I really like the feeling.

  5. December 11, 2013 at 6:26 am

    I agree whole-hearted with your premise, but is it one that is predicated on incomplete information. At one time, Los Angeles had an extensive trolley/rail system, which was dismantled in the 1940’s in what is now known as the “General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy.” Car culture was the result!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Motors_streetcar_conspiracy

    My own “culture” has everything to do with the performing arts, and rediscovering practices that are being lost or forgotten.

    Thank you for your work! It has influenced me greatly: I am happy to report that I’ve just published my first book!

    • Mary
      December 11, 2013 at 6:28 am

      Congratulations Daniel!

      • December 11, 2013 at 6:40 am

        Thank you, Mary!

    • December 11, 2013 at 6:43 am

      Yay Daniel…it’s a great feeling, isn’t it?

  6. December 11, 2013 at 6:36 am

    My uncle used to say me – “Create a style. A style (by that he meant personal culture) that creates you, makes you and fulfills your passion”.

    I strongly agree with both my uncle and Steve – It is our culture/style that’ll hold us when we fall down.
    Loved this article :-)

  7. December 11, 2013 at 7:05 am

    Let us consider for a moment the intersection of “culture,” “brand” and “identity.” Working toward the outside, “brand” is the most external, directed towards others – from us to them (or, as The Beatles put it, from me to you). This is why a brand can be false, because it is always a construct and must contain some of the artificial as well as the artifice. Monetizing our work is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s a form of feedback, after all. But “brand” is about audience perception and audience reception.

    How does that fit with your observation that brand can ” hype our ego and our narcissism”? Since brand is reflective – it can function only as a mirror. That may explain why, ultimately, false brands fail: the audience realizes it’s only a reflection of you, and you’re not a reflection of them. A real brand, on the other hand, is both mirror and window. Or, perhaps, it works like an electron, as both wave and particle. Regardless of the metaphor, a real brand transfers something from the “identity” or “culture,” something that resonates so that it is both absorbed and reflected.

    Now identity. Identity turns inward. Who am I? Self-definition. Obviously (I hope obviously), we do not exist in a vacuum. Identity is shaped by – wait for it – culture. Even our genetics are not wholly our own. But identity we perceive as that untouchable, ineffable core. It is not amenable to definition or description, but it is what we treasure most and fear losing the most. Tied to memory, identity is the deepest part of our sub-conscious, the wellspring of the soul, so to speak.

    Even within a culture, identity will out. Within the Marines there are individuals, talents that reveal themselves. This marine is a pilot, that marine is a strategist, the other marine takes point, a fourth marine is a tracker, etc. (An overgeneralization, almost a cliche – but in war movies, there’s a reason for the types in the unit.)

    And now culture. Culture, then, is the link between identity and brand. Culture is our voice, our talent, within the context of the larger organization or institution. Culture is fluid, even flexible. That’s why, as you point out, Steven, an individual culture can change, just as a national or organizational culture can change. And yet, at the core of every culture remains an identity – this is true of sports teams, businesses, nations, arts, etc.

    A few examples: Keats found his voice, his personal culture, within the context of the Romantic movement. His sonnets play over-against Shakespeare’s and Wordsworth’s. Or let us look at the field of science fiction: the voice of the greats remains consistent, and yet how much their work – their culture – changes over the decades.

    This is why culture must be two-staged and a continuous process: the constant rediscovery of identity and the subsequent structuring of that identity within a context – a context that must be reflective of the large culture and institutions. This may also explain why identifying and developing one’s culture is so hard, and so subject to Resistance.

    Thanks, Steven, as always.

    • December 18, 2013 at 7:04 am

      That’s a lovely expansion on Steve’s theme David. I’ll be chewing on that one for awhile. Thanks.

  8. Randy
    December 11, 2013 at 8:44 am

    Another great article Steve. I loved the nod to Don Henley. You are a treasure trove of cultural references!

    • Laurie
      December 13, 2013 at 6:37 am

      Yes! I was trying to remember where I’d heard that “Whole Welsh Witch” reference before… thanks, you saved me the trouble of googling. :)

  9. skip
    December 11, 2013 at 8:55 am

    my USMC reserve unit was a howitzer battery. i was an 0844 (fire direction control-155 howitzers). the unit’s history traces at least back to that korean war/chosin attack! Over 80%+ of my unit was k.i.a. in that attack! my gunny was a young man then. he survived that attack. he was one of the few, the proud, and one tough sob who i learned from every time we were together. yes, the Marines are a culture beyond compare. Semper Fi, and Happy Holidays!….and as always–>thnx Steve! ………sr

  10. Katie
    December 11, 2013 at 9:01 am

    Not sure I fully get what you’re trying to say. Aren’t you talking about style, values, personality and simply using another word for, maybe, a belief system? Is it that you think the combination of these things is a “culture”. How does it hold us up and support us? Maybe it’s similar to the idea of following our truth. Semantics, I suppose. But I feel like you skimmed the surface … or maybe I just don’t get your drift.

  11. Katie
    December 11, 2013 at 9:07 am

    Hmmm, maybe Daniel has it. It’s like a mission statement or sense of purpose that drives you forward, informs your art and keeps you feeling in tune with your true self. At least that’s what I got from his comment above.

  12. December 11, 2013 at 9:10 am

    Thanks. Love it.

    Any help on exploring, discovering and clarifying personal culture?

  13. December 11, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Very interesting notion Steve. Since culture is determined by beliefs and behaviors, the longer one remains in a particular environment and maintains certain habits of thought and action, the stronger the culture becomes.

    In contrast, brands gains strength by changing to adapt to a rapidly changing external environment. This tension is real, and is having a devastating effect on legacy brands with rock solid cultures.

    Perhaps culture conjures the resistance.

  14. Ken Smith
    December 11, 2013 at 9:40 am

    Can you succinctly give your definition of “culture ” in a sentence or two? You used the word about 30 times. A plausible definition would make this post stronger .

    • December 11, 2013 at 9:49 am

      Here goes, Ken:

      A culture (in an institution or an individual) is comprised of a belief system, a style, a clearly-defined aspiration, a set of virtues that are cultivated and a set of vices that are forbidden or at least discouraged. Under “style” we could include sense of humor, looks, point of view in expression (in words, music, film, etc.) A culture would include heroes to whom the group or person looks up, paragons, role models–and it would include an Enemy, even if that foe were purely internal, i.e. Resistance, self-sabotage, etc. — against which it could (partly) define itself.

      That’s part of it anyway. Hope that helps.

    • December 11, 2013 at 9:52 am

      Shared rules of behavior.

  15. December 11, 2013 at 11:51 am

    Never thought of the word “culture” in this way. When I think about “It’ll evolve” I can relate to this. One can grow up in the same family and have a completely different “individual culture.” Did not realize this until I took myself out of what I am going to call “dynamics”. Really, really interesting. LOVE the English language – there can be so many different meanings to “a word”. Been using a lot of your words, Steve, thanks :-)

  16. gs
    December 11, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    1. Attributed to an eminent piano virtuoso: I only perform music that is better than it can be played. IMHO what he may have meant by that is that great art, as it exists in the Higher Realm, is multidimensional; any given projection into our constrained world necessarily excludes some facets in the very process of expressing others.

    In that spirit, I welcome and encourage you to describe creative issues in different ways. This was a terrific post.

    2. Recently I’ve felt like a combination of Buster Keaton and Inspector Clouseau. Thanks to your post on Advanced Resistance, the light dawned. Thus alerted, hopefully I’ll avoid self-inflicted damage.

  17. December 11, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    Another gem!
    As it happens, I’ve been working with a coach/professional organizer, and have finally come up with a routine that supports my individual culture. I now make time for writing fiction, painting, growing my business, and what I call “farmer tasks”—the tedious things that I hate doing but that need doing. Thanks to this coach, I now give myself permission to do all the fun stuff first, and end the day with the scut work.
    Really love this post, Steven. Thanks for your generosity!

  18. Nik B
    December 11, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    My great uncle was a young 2nd Lt. In the USMC 1st Marine Division during that Korea engagement you mentioned. He was an anti-tank platoon commander who won a Silver Star for rescuing four infantrymen who were wounded and pinned down:

    http://projects.militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=39044

    Which reminds me that I have recorded some of his memories from Korea and Vietnam, but not enough. I never realized they put guys out there without sending them to boot camp first. That’s insane!

    Anyway, in reference to mass transportation in LA, here’s an interesting article that ran yesterday in Slate about urban design and how it impacts mass transit vs walking vs diving. Engineers are learning that it’s not enough just to plop a train line or bus route between a downtown and the surrounding suburbs — neighborhood and road layouts are apparently bigger factors in how people utilize them:

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_eye/2013/12/10/why_cul_de_sacs_are_bad_for_your_health_happy_city_by_charles_montgomery.html

    • Nik B
      December 11, 2013 at 6:36 pm

      Er, I meant *driving*, not diving. Haha like people are swimming to work.

  19. Craig Colquitt
    December 11, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    I am a salesman and have I a style; Develop relationships. Our company has been built and sold twice on the development culture of these relationships which yields referrals. My style and company culture is relationships that yield referrals.
    The article is A great piece reminding me I have style, culture and a job.

  20. December 11, 2013 at 11:52 pm

    Can you define the “Authentic Swing” in more detail?

    • December 12, 2013 at 4:25 pm

      Carol, you can read my book “The Authentic Swing.” If you’ve signed up for First Look Access, you should have received a code for a free eBook from us. Use it to order the book. If you don’t like it, I’ll give you your money back.

  21. Ulla Lauridsen
    December 12, 2013 at 6:16 am

    You just sent me a code for a free e-book. I LOVE you guys! Thank you so much and have a very merry Christmas and a wonderful new year.
    Actually, you sent me two codes, but I’ll just redeem the one in the spirit of things here :-)

  22. Mark
    December 12, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    Steven and Team, thanks so much for the free eBook! I read Writing Wednesdays, every week! -I’ve got “The Authentic Swing” ;)

  23. Rick
    December 17, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    C’mon, Steven. Cultures exist? Get back to where you where, in terms of blog entries, a year ago.

    Thanks

  24. December 17, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    Hero’s Journey! Yes! That sums up the roller coaster I’ve been on much better than “ah, life…what can you do?”