Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Giving Ourselves Some Props

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 23, 2015

I missed out on the self-esteem movement. My day was about twenty years too early.

Serena at Wimbledon. "Good job, kid. You did it."

My generation was more like the Un-self-esteem movement. The Self-Disesteem Movement. We were constantly being told what bums and losers we were. Be a man! Suck it up! What’s wrong with you? Those were the child-rearing mantras that our parents, teachers, and coaches—the Greatest Generation—dished out to us. If you brought home a report card with straight A’s, the only question was, “Where are the A+s?”

Personal validation became a big issue with my peers and me. I’m not sure where this topic sits with Gen X or Y or the Millennials or the generations after. Maybe those waves are cool with themselves. I don’t know.

But for my era, this area is a problem. The tough love cited above is pretty much the soundtrack playing inside my generation’s heads.

Now add Resistance. We all know what those tapes sound like. Pretty soon we’ve got a whole symphony, or dys-symphony, of self-denigrating abuse running non-stop on a loop inside our skulls.

Stir in the next element of this toxic brew—the fact that you and I are artists and entrepreneurs, i.e., we’re on our own, with no supporting social structure to pat us on the back, tell us when we’ve done a good job, give us a raise or a promotion, etc.

Now add the final component: the reality that, no matter how great a job we do at whatever we’re pursuing, there’s every chance that when we expose it to the real-world marketplace, it’ll fall on its face. Our screenplay will not be optioned, our novel will not be picked up (or worse, it’ll get published and sell 200 copies—199 to our immediate family), our app will fizzle and die.

Oh, I almost forgot the kicker. Our family and loved ones. It’s not that they don’t care or don’t understand. They’re just busy. They’ve got their own issues. And they’re a little pissed off at us, if you wanna know the truth, for spending so much time on that stupid script/novel/app instead of bringing home some real rent money. And by the way we haven’t been spending nearly enough time nurturing and caring for them and supporting their dreams.

These are First World problems, I know. They’re not like getting your entire city blown off the map in Syria. But they’re real, just the same.

This is the world we live in.

So what’s the antidote to this relentless tide of rejection, isolation, negativity and disdain?

Self-validation.

Self-acknowledgment.

It sounds crazy, I know. What are we supposed to do—lock the door to the bathroom, stand in front of the mirror and tell ourselves we’re doing great?

Well, in fact … yeah.

Did you watch the women’s final at Wimbledon a few weeks ago? One thing I always wonder: what does Serena do when she gets back to the house she’s renting for the fortnight? When it’s late and the reporters are gone and her family and friends have slipped off to bed. Is there a moment when she sits alone with that golden Rosewater dish (the trophy for the ladies’ singles champion) and says to herself, “Good job, kid. You did it.”

Of course your world and mine is not as palmy as Serena Williams’. She’s got external validation coming in from everywhere. Trophies, checks, bonuses, sponsorship deals, her picture on TV and the covers of magazines.

You and I may get lucky. Once in a while, we may hit the jackpot. But over the course of a long career, the bottom line is this:

What the world does for Serena, we have to do for ourselves.

We have to self-acknowledge.

We have to self-validate.

(And actually Serena has to self-validate too.)

Who else is gonna do it?

Dumb as it sounds, we have to say to ourselves (and really make it sink in): “Okay, maybe we didn’t hit the best-seller list this time. Maybe we didn’t crack the top 10,000 on Amazon. But we did what we set out to do. We finished. We shipped. Yeah, our stuff could’ve been better. But we learned. We’re still standing. We got better. Good job, kid. You did it.”

Another critical aspect of validation:

Give it to others.

Show it to your homies. Kick it to your rivals. Give ’em some props when they hung tough, when they showed class, when they bit the bullet.

Full many a flower may be born to blush unseen, but that doesn’t mean you and I can’t see and appreciate them—and can’t single them out for praise. And it doesn’t mean we can’t see ourselves when we’re that flower.

There’s a term for this type of behavior.

It’s called mental toughness.

It describes those silent internal actions and habits, the ones that nobody sees but us, that no one knows about but us.

You won’t see these moments portrayed in movies. They’re not cinematic. They’re not heroic.

Even the people who perform them won’t talk about them. It’s unseemly. To admit to such actions seems silly, even a little shameful.

But these private actions and habits are make-or-break. They’re the difference between success and failure, between being a pro and being an amateur, between hanging in and dropping out.

I think back to my Mom and Dad, whose worldview was shaped by Depression and war. Maybe they were smarter than I thought, when they withheld easy praise and set standards for me that were higher than I believed I could achieve.

Whose opinion counts most in the end?

Who’s the one person we can’t fool?

Who really knows how deep we dug or how true we played it?

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

33 Responses to “Giving Ourselves Some Props”

  1. Mary Doyle
    September 23, 2015 at 5:57 am

    Self-validation can also get tackled by that other well-intentioned message from the Greatest Generation that is wired into many of us – “don’t get too full of yourself.” Showing up here every Wednesday keeps me grounded. As always, thanks Steve!

    • September 23, 2015 at 10:52 am

      I remember boys and girls being called “conceited”, girls being called “selfish”.

      Thanks for this post, Steve. I think your message is very important for all of us.

  2. September 23, 2015 at 6:21 am

    Thank you…this is manna from heaven. There are so many blogs to encourage artists in the first decade of their practice. Your blog really hits the nail for the lifer. Oh yes, and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year of energy and blossoming.

  3. September 23, 2015 at 6:33 am

    “Boy! You’re lazy!” was my father’s constant refrain. Tough to argue with a man who quit school after sixth grade to walk along the train tracks gathering bits of coal and scraps of copper to help support his widowed mother and two younger siblings. Maybe he was right. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to prove him wrong. But just when I think I’ve succeeded, there are his spit-gray eyes glaring through steel-rimmed bifocals, unconvinced.

    • September 23, 2015 at 6:51 am

      Um, pretty sure if we were brothers I’d know it, Jack, so how come you know so much about my dad?

      Remind me to gift you a copy of my next mystery. The sub-subplot theme is my guy proving himself to his father, long dead (as is mine.) And of course, he can’t, and he shouldn’t.

  4. September 23, 2015 at 6:40 am

    There’s a huge bonus to treating yourself well. You’ll teach your children how to treat themselves. They’re not listening so much as watching, after all!

  5. September 23, 2015 at 6:47 am

    Ah, reminds me of my great grandmother’s comment as her only daughter marched proudly to her college graduation podium. “There goes my fool!”
    But. “her fool” turned out to be great after all- a wonderful creative woman- the light of my life for many years.

  6. September 23, 2015 at 6:54 am

    “Where are the A+s?”

    Story of my life, all my childhood and 23 years of my first marriage.

    Funny how marriage now to someone who loves everything I do has helped me find more balanced and realistic self-criticism and self-praise.

  7. Tom
    September 23, 2015 at 6:59 am

    Great job Steven.
    You’re good enough, you’re smart enough and doggone it you deserve congratulations. (Stuart Smalley)
    Thanks for the advice. As usual, you help me have a better day.
    I am your age and agree with you completely.

  8. September 23, 2015 at 6:59 am

    I could hear my father’s voice saying “You’re all alone in this world, kid.” And yes, add in Resistance and the couch is where I end up, not my painting easel. Thank you Mr. Pressfield, you just laid out my childhood and my present.

  9. September 23, 2015 at 7:00 am

    Not being Jewish, BUT today being A Day of Atonement that I understand Yom Kippur is – I needed within myself have it be a Day of Atonement for me “in taking” ownership for “my part” now being “the adult” when “my child” had “no choice.”Being the Pro and not the amateur “in life”. Letting go that “the past” could have been different. It could not have been. They all did when they knew. Not for me to judge, blame or crucify. Being the Warrior – Justice meaning Peace and understanding for all.

    Words by Gangaji: “Surrender to the truth of who we are rather than from withholding, restraint, excuses or postponement. Always recognize your own true face.”

  10. Sonja
    September 23, 2015 at 7:01 am

    I loved this. Those voices in our heads! Man, mine can be pretty vicious.

    I appreciate that you point out how silly it may seem, but the importance of self-validation, even if it feels unnatural to many of us who are still trying to prove ourselves to whatever/whoever it is that tried to make us feel inferior or not good enough. Maybe that’s why we became artists…we have a lot to prove!

    Thank you!

  11. September 23, 2015 at 7:17 am

    Wow…I’m amazed at how that hit me. I still remember getting a 96 on a history test…my very worst subject…and Mommy Dearest saying “did anyone get a 100?”.

  12. Joan
    September 23, 2015 at 7:27 am

    You got off easy. I not only got all the same from my parents, I also had grandparents telling me that I “should be ashamed of myself” (never knew for what), and I cannot join the circus because my name was not Walenda. I can only do what my family has done, never more than that. I did grow up believing that. Then, I showed them by taking gymnastics, dance, and horseback riding in high school. Thank God for those rebellious teenage years. Then again, those activities kept me too busy for drinking and drugs, so maybe it all worked out! I made sure my son knew he could do anything he worked extremely hard at. I also told him that anything I paid for, he had to commit to and do his best (not the best but his best). I hope that I have taught him to be a happy and loving person. I guess we won’t know unless he responds to my post!

  13. September 23, 2015 at 7:30 am

    As for lazy:
    I once read a man’s opinion that there’s no such thing as lazy. He said that you are either sick or unmotivated.

    As an intellectual, I will never enjoy activities where I need to flatline my brain as much as other people do. In other words, I can spend time cleaning house successfully and then feel depressed at the all time I just wasted.

    (And yes, you need clean to attract the muse)

    Happily, writing and editing time is never feels like a waste.

    • Aaron C
      September 23, 2015 at 11:39 am

      “And yes, you need clean to attract the muse” -> Tell me more?

      • September 26, 2015 at 3:19 am

        And,yes, you need clean to attract the muse. In my world, that is the very thing my family derides. I need clean to attract the muse! Thank you for putting such nonsense to words (not!!)

  14. September 23, 2015 at 8:58 am

    I LOVE THIS!!

  15. Rich Wells
    September 23, 2015 at 9:27 am

    Sounds familiar. But then, of course, we had the Human Potential Movement, that worked to pull us out of it, at least for me.. age 77. That helped a bunch.

  16. Marian Bruce
    September 23, 2015 at 9:29 am

    Man, did this message ever come at the appropriate time! I’ve just found out that I did not get the writing grant I applied for. Aside from the fact that I need the money, this tells me that a) I have no talent and b) my project is stupid. Part of me knows better, but I’m still feeling sad.

  17. Aaron C
    September 23, 2015 at 11:38 am

    When I read, “We were constantly being told what bums and losers we were. Be a man! Suck it up! What’s wrong with you?” I was thinking for sure you were talking about Gen X. I was born in ’69 and even though Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street were telling me how special I was, it was just people on black & white TV. My dad knew me personally, so of course, I trusted him more to know exactly who I was. That turned out not to be a good plan. Luckily, I have a great relationship with him now.

    I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me. – Stuart Smalley

  18. September 23, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    Thanks for this. I self published my first book, and even though it has sold quite well, I still wrestle with the doubt on an almost daily basis.

  19. September 23, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    Sometimes you have to pay for your own support! Employ a therapist, a personal assistant, a nanny, a life coach. Get a dog. Visit the niece who thinks you walk on water. Order your own personal Jesus from the home shopping network. Whatever it takes, man! Whatever it takes!

    • September 23, 2015 at 6:05 pm

      Well said Erika.
      bsn

    • September 26, 2015 at 6:08 am

      I agree! Paying for one’s self support is a noble and benevolent act.

  20. September 23, 2015 at 5:07 pm

    You’re a gift to all artists and anyone who struggles with Resistance (everyone). Thanks for all the work you do.

  21. September 23, 2015 at 6:04 pm

    I’m with Aaron C. GenXer born in 69 that didn’t get a trophy for last place. The fact is those attitudes and beliefs leave marks. They change the way we think, and eventually it becomes hard-wired.

    Changing self-talk is not easy. It sounds so damn corny. Even when I’m only saying it to myself. I agree with this post deeply–but (probably Resistance) there is another part of me that belittles the guy that is trying to boost myself.

    Thank God Stuart Smalley is now in the US Senate, safe from having any real impact in the world. His act on SNL adds to my own flavor of Resistance.

    Thanks again for the wisdom, and to all that posted. I read both religiously.
    bsn

  22. September 23, 2015 at 7:09 pm

    To Aaron C,
    since you asked, I was quoting War of Art where you need a clean tidy workplace so the muse can enter without soiling her gown.
    It’s common sense, and it’s a very deep metaphor.
    If you aren’t ready for the last third of Stephen’s book, where he resorts to such classic “impractical” power sources such as a muse, then just dwell on his first two-thirds. Myself, I liked the whole thing.

    To Brian,
    Like you, I have found that self-talk works wonders. If our society doesn’t “get it.” then maybe it’s because of our Resistance. I don’t know if old messages go away, or if my new messages simply “win the firefight” (to then allow manoeuvre and assault) by outnumbering my old messages.
    By “works” I mean my objective behaviour, (as seen with a movie camera) has changed. Hurray!

  23. September 24, 2015 at 6:22 am

    Thank you. Sat down to hammer out the next chapter in my novel and happened to check my email first. I needed that.

    Back to writing.

  24. September 24, 2015 at 9:45 am

    You nailed it. I experienced the same with report cards and all A’s. But it’s not that simple when it comes to publishing and entrepreneurship, is it?

    Crazy as it sounds, after all these years I still surround myself with validation. It helps – all of it – a lot.

  25. September 24, 2015 at 12:17 pm

    The theme of the first 40 years of my life was about trying desperately to win/earn my father’s high esteem, only to find out that he was proud of me all along!
    To Erika: It’s amazing how simply reducing the sheer number of naysayers can improve one’s entire outlook! Consciously surrounding one’ self with folks who like me and who are authentic further boosts productivity.
    RESULT: Spending less time and energy on the “I’m not good enough” conversation or defending myself and more time doing the creative work.

  26. September 24, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    P.S. Keep a file of Feel Good notes and cards. Read them when you’re feeling less than your best. Simple, but…

  27. Kim Jwa Jin
    September 25, 2015 at 7:52 am

    My dad was part of the greatest generation. To young to fight in WW II but he did remember the war coming to an end and experienced the long shadow of the great depression. I am a member of Gen X and my wife is Millennial. How my parents reared me better prepared me for life than hers.

    My wife is slowly realizing how the world really does not care. No your not a special great person for waking up today and there are no first place prizes for participation.

    She is just beginning to do the work to become a truly exceptional person and getting the grit to produce the shear amount of work you must produce to get someone to even take a glance.

    Thank your parents Steven for creating a man that is willing to do the work and face his reality. I see first hand how the millennial mind set leaves them completely unprepared.

    Love your work, changed my life, keep writing.