Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

How High is High?

By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 19, 2014

Back again to the subject of Personal Culture. What are the aspects of this beast?

Admiral Horatio Nelson

First is Level of Aspiration. “How high are we aiming?”

Last year’s NBA champs were the San Antonio Spurs. Two up-and-coming teams from that season are the L.A. Clippers and the Golden State Warriors. Both squads are young and loaded with stars. The Spurs, on the other hand, are old and creaking. A few days ago the Spurs played the Clippers and the Warriors in back-to-back games. The Spurs thrashed them both.

For San Antonio entering this season, only one outcome is acceptable: they must repeat as champions.

That’s Level of Aspiration.

Among tech giants, in what position does Apple want to finish at the end of this year? In the arena of elite military units, where do the Navy SEALS see themselves?

Level of Aspiration is mental. It’s a mindset. It’s a self-generated and self-reinforced view, not only of our capacity but also of our expectations for ourselves.

Level of Aspiration starts at the top. If you and I are serving as midshipmen on H.M.S. Victory in early October 1805 and we see our commander, Admiral Horatio Nelson, stride aboard, how will we feel about our chances in the upcoming Battle of Trafalgar? Will we expect to win? To what standards of excellence and self-sacrifice will we now hold ourselves?

And Nelson doesn’t have to say a word. He steps aboard missing one leg and one eye. He is the victor at Cape St. Vincent, at the Battle of the Nile, and the Battle of Copenhagen. His presence alone elevates our level of aspiration—and with it our self-conception, our willingness to sacrifice, and our performance. When Lord Nelson’s silver-buckled slipper steps onto the quarterdeck, we are transformed and so is every lubber in the crew.

Of course the situation isn’t quite as simple as that. In fact the gunners, sail lieutenants, and foretopmen (in fact every man jack in the crew) has been hand-picked by Nelson and his officers. Sailors have bribed their way aboard, pulled strings, called in favors, so desirous are they to serve under a commander as illustrious as Nelson.

That’s Level of Aspiration in an institutional culture. The same principles apply, of course, to you and me in our personal cultures.

As artists and entrepreneurs, we are our own Admiral Nelson. The content of our personal culture starts with us. We set the level of aspiration. The crew—meaning ourselves—follows us.

At age thirty my all-consuming object as a writer was simply to complete a manuscript. Publication? Beyond my wildest dreams. Just finish, baby. I would die happy if I could only do that.

Over time, however, it became clear that it was possible for one to raise his sights. Nineteen-year-old Lieutenant Nelson in 1777 could not have led the British fleet against the French and Spanish at Trafalgar. But Lord Nelson, twenty-eight years later, could.

Last year in the NBA, the Clippers and the Warriors gave lip service to their aspirations to win a championship. But in their hearts they believed they weren’t yet ready. Level of aspiration is often self-fulfilling.

The questions for you and me are:

1. Are we aware of our Level of Aspiration?

2. What is that level? Is it realistic? If not, why not?

3. Do we wish to raise our Level of Aspiration? What steps must we take to make this elevated level realistic?

4. What’s stopping us?

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

19 Responses to “How High is High?”

  1. November 19, 2014 at 6:29 am

    So, I thought I aspired.

    Surely, I conspire. And perspire. But the choking feeling I have sometimes (often reading your blog/non-fiction, and now) makes me think maybe… 1. No.

    Maybe it’s that I have ambition, and that’s not the same.

    2. That must make my Level of Aspiration very low, art wise. I haven’t completed any of the things I know I am capable of. Barely even started, actually.

    3. Yes. The steps I’m taking now will work, as long as I do the work and…

    4. Ideas about my worth and purpose and service and avaliability and identity related to others, especially family, spouse, friends, etc. will have to change. And they are.

    Wow that was/is wierd. And hard. Thank you. :-)

    • November 19, 2014 at 12:40 pm

      Faith, I got my wakeup call from Steve some years ago, right here on this blog. Perspiring? Yup. But I wasn’t sure there was a “high” let alone that I could go to there.

      Now, I’m doing battle every day, and pondering how I might storm the Bastille singlehanded. Literarily speaking, that is.

      Take the knowledge you just learned about yourself and fly with it. You’ll love yourself for it.

  2. November 19, 2014 at 7:12 am

    As usual, your words are very timely for me, Steven. Having just submitted some substantial re-writes yesterday to an agent who is considering my work, I’ve had to answer this question of myself several times in the last few weeks. I know where I’ve been, I know where I am, and I know where I want to be, and I’m aiming for the top. I also know I have a lot to learn about this game of writing and publishing, but I’m willing to learn and work my ass off, because at 55 years of age, failure is not an option. I also know that if this agent doesn’t decide to represent me, I’ll be disappointed, for sure. I’ll probably even cry a few tears of disappointment and frustration, but it won’t stop me. I’ll move on and approach others, and I’ll start the next project, so that I’ll always feel that I’m moving forward toward that goal line. Oh, and when I reach my goal? I’ll set my sights on a new one and go for it, to the utmost of my ability. Thanks for the pep talk. :-)

  3. Paul Rink
    November 19, 2014 at 7:55 am

    “Aspiration” and “realistic” seem to me as contra or dualing words. Do you limit your aspirations because of what you believe to be realistic ? Do you dream big and learn along the way ? Or do you dream incrementally in baby steps ? The accomplishments of the world are ” reality ” because of the dreamer who didn’t buy into what was realistic for him or her at that moment in life. Steve you aspired and defied realism to be where you are today. The hell with fear based realism. Aspire big beautiful thoughts and dump realistic.

    Paul

    • November 20, 2014 at 1:04 pm

      Love this, Paul. I have a mentor who talks about aspirations and realism in terms of where your dreams are and where you are willing to start. In other words, don’t be afraid to dream colossal dreams. But don’t spurn the need to start small based on a realistic understanding of where you are now.

      Most people do the opposite: they’re “realistic” about their dreams, but totally unrealistic of where or how they’re willing to start working on those dreams. That’s a recipe for failure.

      Related to this, I think people tend to overestimate how much progress they can make in a year (because they’re unrealistic about where they’re going to start), but they tend to dramatically underestimate how far they can get in three years (because they’re afraid to acknowledge their real aspirations or dream big).

      So the time to be realistic is when asking yourself if you’ve moved your ass where your heart wants to be. If you’re doing the work. In assessing just how committed you are. And so on.

      • Sonja
        November 20, 2014 at 4:44 pm

        This was great….I think we underestimate how long things will take too. I liked this analysis on dreams vs. reality. Thanks!

  4. November 19, 2014 at 8:21 am

    I don’t understand aspiration and ambition. It never occurred to me that you couldn’t do what you wanted. There is a very narrow gate, that once you pass through everything flows. It matters not if you are a prince or a road sweeper – once you find your true creative tone, fear dissipates and worries and insecurities simply fall away. Listen to your unique voice – there is no right or wrong, just a creative impulse seeking perfect expression.

  5. Mary Doyle
    November 19, 2014 at 8:34 am

    I’m where you were when you were thirty Steve – I just want to finish this thing and then start the next one. I’m trying not to get sidetracked by “what next” — how will I ship this work, how will I market it, what will become of it — because that feels like Resistance. I do my work every day – it’s going to get done. That’s my Level of Aspiration right now. As soon as I finish this, I’ll adjust upward. Thanks for keeping the important questions in front of us.

  6. Melissa
    November 19, 2014 at 8:49 am

    I think my high might not be quite high enough. Thank so much for helping me see a bit further.

  7. November 19, 2014 at 8:50 am

    MJ Penny has it right – why can’t we do what we want? But since only a talented few write a bestseller out-of-the-blocks, most of us need to do this in steps:

    1-We raise our Level of Aspiration as we improve our craft and gain experience.

    1A-Is the next level of Aspiration realistic? If we’re honest with ourselves, then yes, but this is almost a nightly discussion between us and our Muse.

    And then it’s just effort and energy – I can do that!

  8. Nancy Finston
    November 19, 2014 at 9:46 am

    I’m imagining Admiral Horatio Nelson walking into my house, sitting down with me and having a cup of coffee (tea for him of course). Watching me as I plan my day, sit down to write, go to the gym to exercise….

    I suspect I would (and WILL) up my game!

    Thanks Steve!

  9. Marvin Waschke
    November 19, 2014 at 9:49 am

    “Aspirational” has replaced “smoke and mirrors” in the high-tech industry to describe product features that exist only in the minds of the developers. That sounds bad, but it is not. If you go back far enough in the development process, all features are aspirational. Nothing can be developed without aspirations. Outrageously great products come from outrageous aspirations.

  10. Sonja
    November 19, 2014 at 10:26 am

    You are my Admiral Nelson, Steven Pressfield. : )

    Just reading your books has upped my game…even on the days that Resistance defeats me. I get back up again…

    Thank you!

  11. November 19, 2014 at 11:11 am

    Inspirational and thought-provoking as always.

  12. November 19, 2014 at 11:16 am

    1. I’m aware and name it even when it makes me laugh. I don’t tell others.
    2. Vision is high level, beyond my ability, and not realistic. “It doesn’t make any sense; that’s why I trust it,” said Rose to Jack in Titanic.
    3. I raise the bar, cuz if I’m not failing, wallowing in doubt and awake nights with worry, I’m nothing. (I meditate and work out to de-stress.)
    4. I let naysayers stop me, really piss me off…then regroup and get to work.

    Thanks Steve for continued infusion of what it takes! xoxoxo

  13. November 19, 2014 at 11:38 am

    I like the idea that we should shoot for realistic goals. Mine is just to show up every day and do what I promised myself I would do.

  14. York
    November 19, 2014 at 8:26 pm

    This made my day. Just what I needed.

    Thanks!!!

  15. Jeremy
    November 20, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    Thank you for this. Your blog keeps me going, trying to write, on days when it’s hard to see the point. Thank you.

  16. November 22, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    Thank you, Steve!!