By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 8, 2014
I was having breakfast with a friend and we were talking about Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” You know, the pyramid with food and shelter at the base and self-actualization at the apex. My friend was making the case that before we can take a shot at fulfilling the needs at the top of the pile, we have to have taken care of our other more basic sleep-and-eat needs at the bottom.
I respectfully disagreed. I understand what Maslow was saying. He’s absolutely right—and his insights are brilliant and original.
But what about you and me as we enter this new year? How are we gonna write our novel or start our new business or pursue our artistic calling? Do we first have to have a house? A job? Love? Security?
Do we have to be organized? Disciplined? Emotionally stable?
We do not.
I know, I know. This blog advocates all of the above—professionalism, focus, intensity, perseverance. That’s all true and it all counts.
But the making of art is a weird little enterprise, and the Muse visits the wicked along with the just. A writer, a woman, sent me a note the other day reporting that, at age fifty, she was moving back in with her father. What I loved was that she wasn’t complaining or laying any kind of shame trip on herself. She’s working on a book. So she’ll skip a few bricks in the Maslow pyramid.
The starving artist is not a cliche. Henry Miller was broke; Charles Bukowski drank up his salary from the P.O.; Dostoevski went without sleep; Van Gogh had to borrow the knife to saw off his own ear. (I’m making that last part up, but you get the point.) They all chose to do their work as artists and blew off such “indispensable” needs as security, family, property, even health.
An artist can choose to do without. She can be unconventional. She can skip the middleman. She can shoot from the garret straight to the stars. For many of us it’s a conscious (or nearly conscious) decision. We’ll sacrifice creature comforts. We’ll do without dental. We’ll trade the necessities for what to us is the ultimate luxury: time.
Time to work. Time to learn our craft. Time to get better.
Again, I’m not knocking Maslow or his great work. All I’m saying is, as we head into the New Year of 2014, if we have to move in with our dad, so be it. If we have to get up at five in the morning (like Shawn does), if we have to work two jobs, if we have to couch-surf like Llewyn Davis, we’ll do it. That’s the price we pay and we’ll gladly pay it.
I used to torture myself in my days driving cabs and living in the back of my Chevy van. What’s wrong with me? Am I a hopeless loser? How come all my friends have jobs and families and respect and I’ve got nothing?
I didn’t realize it at the time but I had made a choice and, to this day, I stick by it. I chose time and I gave up everything else.
Did you see that article by the actress Maria Bello a few weeks ago in the New York Times? The nutshell version is she acknowledged that her personal life, her living arrangements re love, child-rearing, etc. were “unconventional.” The mail came flooding in. Thousands wrote, “You go, girl. My world is just as not-normal as yours, and it works for me too.”
We’re choosing. We’re jumping to the top of Maslow’s pyramid—”morality, creativity, spontaneity,” etc.—and skipping some of the indispensable stages in between. Who needs ‘em?