Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Sphere of Self-Reinforcement

By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 20, 2014

The last two Wednesday posts, Process and Spot and The Game of Numbers, have been about the mental game of writing. Specifically, they’ve been about self-reinforcement.

Can you strive here and keep believing?

This is a subject they don’t teach at Harvard.

What exactly is self-reinforcement?

It’s not just patting yourself on the back or telling yourself, “Good work, kemo sabe” (one of my own favorite me-to-me phrases). In the two examples above, we’re talking about self-reinforcement for actions we’ve taken that have not produced results and that may not for a long time to come.

This, of course, is the most important kind of self-reinforcement. It’s self-reinforcement at the Ph.D. level. It’s professional self-reinforcement.

Let’s review, from last week’s post, Nick Murray’s concept of “the game of numbers.” Nick is a guru to financial advisors, i.e. the investment professionals that you or I might hire to help us take care of our money, to be sure we have enough to get our kids through college or to see ourselves and our spouse through a possibly-multi-decade retirement.

According to Nick, the most important skill a financial advisor needs is the ability to “prospect,” that is, to make cold approaches seeking clients. This is a helluva daunting chore. It elicits in most individuals profound, monumental, excruciating Resistance. Many financial planners fail simply because they can’t make themselves prospect or keep prospecting.

Nick Murray’s answer: make X approaches a day, rain or shine, and evaluate your success only by the fact that you made the approaches, not whether they produced immediate results.

If you keep prospecting, says Nick, the Law of Large Numbers infallibly kicks in. It may take 500 calls to get one client. It may take a thousand. But if you keep grinding, you will get the clients. The law permits of no exceptions.

Your job, Mr. or Ms. Financial Advisor, is to keep believing. And keep making approaches.

And you, Mr. or Ms. Writer, your job is to keep doing your pages. And keep believing.

Which brings us back to self-reinforcement.

How do we keep believing?

What keeps us from quitting?

Let me make a non-overstatement:

Self-reinforcement is more important than talent.

I myself possess no massive abundance of talent. I’ll bet 90% of successful working artists would say the same. I can’t remember the last sentence I wrote that I didn’t have to twist, tweak, and twerk before I accepted it as ready for prime time.

But I can self-reinforce.

I can self-validate.

I’ve taught myself over decades.

Seth Godin’s famous mantra is “Don’t wait to be picked. Pick yourself.” The inner version is, “Don’t wait for someone else to validate you. Validate yourself.”

But let’s get more specific. How exactly do we reinforce ourselves? What is the arena of self-validation?

Its seat is upon the most barren, glamourless, nether sphere of our psyche—a monde perdu out of Dante or Milton. Upon this plain, no visored knight stands at our shoulder. No sun. No soundtrack. No audience.

There we stand, a twenty-three-year-old financial-advisor neophyte sharing a $750-a-month office suite with a secretarial service and not even a parking space. It’s seven-thirty at the end of a profitless day and we’ve just gotten off our fifth total-waste-of-time cold call to a soon-to-be retired dentist or a just-starting-out English teacher, both of whom have hung up on us or, worse, taken pity on our obvious plight and signed off with, “Good luck, buddy.” We turn off the lights, lock the door, and phone our spouse, telling her/him we’re on our way home.

This is the landscape upon which self-reinforcement dwells.

In this moment, can you say to yourself, “I made my five calls today,” and keep believing?

Can you tell yourself, “I did my day’s pages,” and hang onto your faith?

In the movies courage is usually depicted amid explosions and fireballs and epic Technicolor landscapes.

But the artist’s courage (and that of the athlete or the entrepreneur or the recovering alcoholic) reveals itself in a far less cinematic arena—a sphere that is silent, unseen and unheard, void of romance, and in which the artist/athlete/entrepreneur is profoundly, inevitably, infallibly alone.

Can you strive here and keep believing?

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

38 Responses to “The Sphere of Self-Reinforcement”

  1. TJ
    August 20, 2014 at 2:05 am

    I remember a Japanese martial arts teacher once telling me, “the ability to continue is also a kind of talent.”

    • Pen Davenport
      August 20, 2014 at 9:35 am

      Excellent!

    • August 20, 2014 at 1:55 pm

      Thank you. I needed to read that today!

  2. August 20, 2014 at 4:35 am

    Steve,
    Did you develop a specific little routine to help nudge yourself towards self-reinforcement? Like closing the ‘work day’ with 5 minutes of speed writing in a journal, or something that helped reinforce the habit of self-reinforcement?

    A few years ago when I learned some near fatal news for my race-when I was gripped with abject terror, wanting to drive to Tijuana never to return, suck my thumb and wet my pants–frozen with fear–I chose to return to something that was easy for me. I’d drive to the Stadium and pass out flyers for my race. It was the only positive step I could take. I’d interact with my ‘target demographic’, and talk about the race. It renewed me.

    The next day, the news wasn’t as fatal. Still sucked, but I had perspective or a possible solution.

    TJ mentioned it was a talent, and you said you trained yourself over the years. I am curious about the ‘enabling step’ to set the conditions for self-reinforcement.

    Thanks again for this important blog.
    bsn

  3. August 20, 2014 at 4:56 am

    Degas said “Everyone has talent at 25, the thing is to have it at 50″. I think he was talking not so much about talent as staying power. As a visual artist, I have seen so many starting artists, who did beautiful work, drop out, while the artists who really developed a vision were the ones who kept plugging away over the decades.

  4. Mary Doyle
    August 20, 2014 at 4:59 am

    I joined a Yahoo group 120 days ago called “Club 100 Writers.” The goal is to write a minimum of 100 words every day for 100 days – if you skip a day you have to start over. The ritual of emailing the group with my word count every day has been great self-reinforcement for me. I also enter my word count on the calendar next to my desk and when I get discouraged I remind myself that I’m at least showing up and doing the work.

    And, of course, this blog is an important part of my week – thanks for what you and the rest of the team continue to do for all of us Steve! We are in your debt.

  5. August 20, 2014 at 6:04 am

    A correction on Degas’s quote, “Everyone has talent at 25, what is difficult is to have it at 50.”

  6. Eric
    August 20, 2014 at 6:12 am

    Amazing.

  7. August 20, 2014 at 6:13 am

    I started painting faces (after several years of other types of art-making) and now have 100+ stacked up in my studio. But, I sold one a couple months back, and had another 2 juried into a competition and sold one of those. I’m not setting the world on fire (or making money) but I keep at every day.

    • Patti
      August 21, 2014 at 6:28 pm

      Very good, Patti. I started drawing faces a couple of years ago with no prior artistry and have a goal to finish 365 faces in the next three years. Thank you for sharing the inspiration.

  8. August 20, 2014 at 6:19 am

    the key is this when prospecting: hacking the no’s, and then feeling accomplishment when after 200 no’s you get one yes.

  9. August 20, 2014 at 6:29 am

    A couple points: 1) artists and entrepreneurs oftentimes have to go through major losses in life, this symbolically lowers the threshold of “validating” outcomes. Many times our work has to be “all we’ve got left” and it acts as a built in self-reinforcement system.

    2) My technique isn’t quite “self-reinforcement” as much as it is “delayed reinforcement.” When it comes to giving a speech, or writing a blog post, or any project I work on, I delay judgement on it until the next one. I tell myself “but will I come back tomorrow?”(to give it another shot.) That’s the only measure of success, even if the project didn’t go as smoothly as I hoped. “Will I come back tomorrow?!” If I come back tomorrow then I mark up that previous attempt as a win, no matter how clumsy the shot was.

    • August 20, 2014 at 8:30 am

      Thanks, Alex. Yes, clumsy shot but returning! Always circling back to begin again.

    • August 20, 2014 at 12:33 pm

      Alex, I like that “delayed reinforcement.” I’m gonna steal it from you.

      • August 21, 2014 at 5:51 am

        Steve-it would be my honor. Go for it!

  10. August 20, 2014 at 6:48 am

    Love this post and ending.

    This is the prime time where as creatives, we can use our ability to come up with stories to our advantage. Or, we’ll use our creativity to tell ourselves horrible soul crushing narratives.

    Choosing to see ourselves in an epic fight takes strength. But finding the energy to tell ourselves that story is crucial. When doubt creeps in we can either use our imaginations to self sabotage, or create a narrative where we’re the hero.

  11. August 20, 2014 at 6:55 am

    Most of my life was spent in approval seeking and disapproval avoiding. A leftover from my childhood. When I get discouraged I ask my self to be awake and aware. What is the background thinking that is creating my discouraging thoughts? Pulling out the stops can give me a little bit of go power.

  12. August 20, 2014 at 6:56 am

    I have just recently started following you, after reading your book “The War of Art”. Of all the books I’ve read and people who have inspired my growth and awareness, you are the least likely to have been someone who I could have guessed would speak to the depth of my soul. (I’m sure this sentence needs editing, but I’m just writing from the heart). :)

    And yet here you are. You keep blowing my mind. This morning I woke up wanting to write about this lonely place I find myself in at the age of 64. I feel so defeated. When I read your post and came to the end of it, things really hit me. There are so many ways that we as human beings can experience loneliness. I seem to have them all at the moment.

    As life has gone by, I have become more and more of an entrepreneur. I’m now a yoga teacher, health coach, and always an aspiring writer. At the same time, I’m also physically alone, as a twice divorced woman with no children. I’ve moved 7 times in the last 10 years, and I’m now living in Connecticut managing my 95 year old mothers life, who has dementia. My sister has MS, and my brother….well let’s not go there. I have no friends close by or sense of community here and am having trouble connecting with people.

    I’m not physically sick (thanks to yoga and eating healthy), but I feel emotionally and spiritually broken. The icing on my lonely, poor me cake is that after years of having some financial stability, I’m now financially depleted. I know that I have to find work to sustain myself, but I feel like I need to be cared for to get back on my feet. Where can I go with all this? We shall see. But I can understand the extraordinary need at this moment for heroic self-reinforcement. Thank you Steven. I wish I could hang out with you.

    • August 20, 2014 at 8:37 am

      Hi Catherine,
      I relate. I’m 65, am starting over financially with a new venture I’m risking everything on. It is lonely and I too find myself TOTALLY inspired by Steven – came upon his book a few weeks ago and it’s become my bible.

    • August 20, 2014 at 3:39 pm

      Catherine,
      For what it’s worth: I felt connected to you as I read your post. I think the definition of inspiration is to witness human suffering without quitting. Victory is not nearly as valorous as simply enduring.

      Your post inspired me. I doubt you meant to as you wrote–but it did. I don’t Facebook, nor troll other social networking sites. I do, however, read this blog religiously to include every post. It is a tribe of doers. Doing may sometimes simply be enduring without knowing the end or outcome. I applaud you.
      bsn

    • Patti
      August 21, 2014 at 6:25 pm

      Thank you for the post, Catherine. As Brian said, I connected with you, also. You inspired me as this blog has done now, for the last few weeks.
      Thanks to the community who reside here.

    • August 24, 2014 at 6:40 am

      Hey, I’ve found some kindred spirits over 60. I’m 70, raising a 9 yr old and a 13 yr old and my mother is 94 and still trying to prove she is a professional basketball player when the insurance company comes to evaluate her. I write humor. I like Steven ’s advice. It is better than hiding under the bed eating chocolate and less fattening. I am going to try action before I am too large to get under the bed. The Medicare Mom.blogspot.com

      • August 26, 2014 at 10:55 am

        It was so good to read Jody’s blog. I too am ‘old’!Bit older than you, but who’s competing!! Three years ago, my divorced son left home and the four granddaughters began leading their own lives. Writing became a serious career. I completed two features, went to LSF and met up with Stephen May. I had attended a couple of his pitching work shops. Screen Arts Major Project was just what I needed. I used my funeral fund to pay for it and did a commute to London from South Wales every Monday for ten months. I developed one of my screenplays and by the end discovered that that was just the start. I now have to sell it. This is where the ‘keep sending it out’ process comes in. When you have passed the three-score-years-and-ten’ milestone self reinforcement is easy with the grim reaper breathing down my neck!!!!!But I’m determined to get there. Thank God my health is good.

  13. August 20, 2014 at 7:10 am

    It might be a chicken-egg question: does believe lead to reinforcement, or does reinforcement lead to believe? Perhaps it’s a dialogue – or a dance. I think that it might also be a question of control. Seth Godin today talked about controlling gravity – or not. The news debilitates because it suck energy into “areas of concern” over which we have no control. The daily word/page count, the 5 cold calls, the pitcher’s hundred extra fast balls, the athlete’s routine – these we can control. What can I do, not, what do I wish to have been done? Perhaps the hardest part is staying within the zone of control, so that self-reinforcement, self-validation can take place.

  14. August 20, 2014 at 8:38 am

    Thank you for this one. Perfect reinforcement:)

  15. Christine
    August 20, 2014 at 9:39 am

    In response to your closing line:

    I can strive. I can make myself write 100 words a day for 100 days. I can pat myself on the back for that. But can I believe? Ay, there’s the rub.

  16. August 20, 2014 at 10:42 am

    Writing is a lonely art
    We sit, we sigh, and then we start

    We sit in fear with no one near
    And then begin to prose what’s dear

    We scribble, cry, write down our lie
    That’s really truth though none knows why

    We try to stop; find another shop
    A game, a job—but we can’t stop

    Loneliness, the best truth we know
    And on the page our friendships grow

  17. August 20, 2014 at 10:47 am

    I think the big secret to “self validation” comes from the ability to drop the STORY that’s active in that moment, and coming back into the simplicity of reality: this breath-by-breath, tangible moment. In other words, not automatically buying into the whole dramatic movie that your mind is playing before your eyes (e.g. “poor me”). But rather as your heart-rate begins to quicken, you recognize in that moment that you’re buying into a “poor me” story, and come back into reality of the room you’re in.

    And then just doing the next step that is available. And then the next step after that.

    When I have another 5 minutes to go on the treadmill and my cardio is failing and my body is crying to stop and give up… if I get really honest I find that the biggest source of pain and struggle comes from the *story* of 5 more minutes of enduring hell. But when I drop that for the *reality* of how I truly am feeling and just focus on putting the next foot in front of the other, it really ain’t that bad.

    I think one fascinating reframe of Steve’s themes these last couple weeks is the same spiritual teachings of e.g. Eckhart Tolle. The amateur gets easily sucked into the story of the mind, and they’re off to the races of future/past imaginings. The pro seems to have developed space from this – they don’t buy into it as easily, and instead consistently come back to the moment and whatever action is required next (e.g. picking up the phone for the next approach of the day).

    • August 21, 2014 at 5:50 am

      Very true! I agree on all points here

  18. August 20, 2014 at 11:02 am

    All this wisdom also instructs us to be kind and caring to all artists and entrepreneurs we encounter, despite our evaluations of worth. They are working lonely work. Love them for it!

  19. August 20, 2014 at 11:53 am

    Yes. As a writer, I can keep believing in myself. As an entrepreneur and one who sells products and services, I’m still working on this, on the threshold of believing, aware of all the ways I don’t believe, and feel so utterly alone. I guess the question is: “I can I be there for myself, even when i doubt myself?”

  20. Scott Flanders
    August 20, 2014 at 11:59 am

    I have been calling myself a writer ever since I won the 4th grade chocolate Easter Egg for the best Easter story and other early writing “wins”. I spend my days as a technical writer for a big California Hospital system. I read tons of good and bad literature on my Kindle. But what I haven’t done lately is made myself finish something. A story. Any story. Any kind. I just give up so early. I lose interest. I don’t even have a little faith. I’m in my late 40’s. If there was a time to do it. It is now. Thank you, Steven for talking about this and giving me a place to comment. At least I wrote today.

  21. Nick Stump
    August 20, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    My late wife did the reinforcing around our house. She was the one who told me I was good enough and dedicated enough to write for a living. I didn’t get started til I was 48. I wrote and sold my first screenplay within six months and was working at Warner as a writer-for-hire within the year. I haven’t had a ton of success but these even now, a year and a half after Bonnie’s death, I still draw on her confidence and the encouragement she gave me over the years. She was a successful writer in her own right and always said, “Stop thinking and write your pages. Don’t give into the fear.”

  22. August 20, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    I already have and am at that place again and again…sent off art submission #29 to the same publisher I have been over a period of 7 years. That’s alright prospecting I’d say? I have prospected so many other publishers over the past 7 years to no avail, all closed doors. It gets very tiring slowly I admit. But I’m hanging tough. Something inside of me keeps pushing me to knock again. It feels like sheer insanity most of the time so your posts about Nick’s book have helped me to feel more sane! Thank you!!
    Awesome post Steve, perfect timing as so often is the case…thank you ever so much!!! Love the ballet shoes photo btw, so perfect, I danced til I was 14.

  23. August 20, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    I think I’ll read this once a week.

  24. Lee Poteet
    August 22, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    The War of Art just arrived in the mail. I finished The Warrior Ethos yesterday and am reading and re-reading The Gates of Fire. And I am writing again. But what caused it all was two pages in the last book. Thank you.

  25. Maurice
    August 29, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    Stephen

    You were dramaticaly quoted Wednesday at the Dallas Cowboys 2014 FLowserve Season kickoff by Randy White former NFL quarterback.

    I was falling out of my chair because I understood the significance, but not sure anyone else got the name recognition or reference…http://www.dallascowboys.com/multimedia/videos/2014_Kickoff_Luncheon/e9ea2a88-e656-445a-89c2-2428634c74c4

    BTW you signed a book for me as a Christmas Present from David Allen

  26. September 15, 2014 at 5:37 am

    How to get the free e-book of the Authentic swing?