Stoicism: Day 26 – Overcoming Resistance when Pursuing Creative Projects

After my ice bath yesterday I took a nap, dropped my girlfriend off at the airport, came back and ate dinner, watched Skyfall on Netflix while having a few beers, and then went to sleep.

Spending Friday night alone relaxing felt good, but it only felt good because I accomplished what I wanted to with the Ancient Wisdom Project this week. It felt good because I went to work everyday, which acts as a constant, minor stressor, and the arrival of the weekend relieved me of that stress.

Two summers ago, I moved to DC without a job. I moved into a hostel, and spent most of my time doing nothing. Yes, I looked for a job. That took at most a few hours per day before I hit the point of diminishing returns.

I had a few side projects I could have worked on, TrekDek and my blog.  I only worked on them sporadically. Because I had essentially unlimited time to work on them, I was able to put off working on them indefinitely.

I spent most of my time doing the activities I did last night. Sleeping, watching movies on Netflix, drinking. It didn’t feel good. In fact, I’m pretty sure I would have become an alcoholic had I not received a job offer when I did.

A former television writer who was making $300k a year and ended up homeless (this is an excellent story to read in the context of Stoicism by the way) describes how monotonous his days were during the first few months of homelessness and how he would go to the library, do the crossword, wander to Whole Foods for the free samples, head back to the library, go to the coffee shop, and repeat.

Sundays were the same, and so were Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday. On public holidays, the libraries closed and I needed to find someplace else to spend my days. Only the rare job interview broke the monotony.

I wasn’t homeless or poor, but I was bored and depressed. I could have gotten a ton of work done on whatever project interested me. There was just so much free time to kill.

But that’s the fallacy of the aspiring entrepreneur or writers or artists or anyone who desires to pursue a creative project. Not having enough free time is not the problem. It’s Resistance.

I’m borrowing the term Resistance with a capital R from Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art. It is a guide to overcoming the obstacles that plague people from pursuing and accomplishing their creative work.

What is Resistance?

Pressfield doesn’t define it exactly, but the entire first section of his book describes the characteristics of Resistance, when it is likely to appear, and the forms it takes.

The most common form of Resistance, at least in my experience, is procrastination.

Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it’s the easiest to rationalize. We don’t tell ourselves, “I’m never going to write my symphony.” Instead we say, “I am going to write my symphony; I’m just going to start tomorrow.” 

The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit. We don’t just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed.  

But it comes in other forms as well. Perhaps you think you need the perfect conditions to sit down and do your work. Maybe you worry about the criticism you will face when pursuing your work. Or, perhaps you are a master of rationalization.

What’s particularly insidious about the rationalizations that Resistance presents to us is that a lot of them are true. They’re legitimate. Our wife may really be in her eighth month of pregnancy; she may in truth need us at home. Our department may really be instituting a changeover that will eat up hours of our time. Indeed it may make sense to put off finishing our dissertation, at least till after the baby’s born. 

What Resistance leaves out, of course, is that all this means diddly. Tolstoy had thirteen kids and wrote War and Peace cancer and won the Tour de France three years and counting. 

I see elements of Stoicism in Pressfield’s book. Actually, the whole book is very Stoic.

Seneca wrote a letter titled “On quiet study.” He writes that there are an infinite number of noises and distractions that might cause him to deviate from his studies. I couldn’t help but chuckle when he wrote about “grunters

I have lodgings right over a bathing establishment. So picture to yourself the assortment of sounds, which are strong enough to make me hate my very powers of hearing! When your strenuous gentleman, for example, is exercising himself by flourishing leaden weights; when he is working hard, or else pretends to be working hard, I can hear him grunt; and whenever he releases his imprisoned breath, I can hear him panting in wheezy and high-pitched tones.

Yea, those guys still exist and they still annoy me. It comforts me to note that their Roman ancestors managed to make it into Seneca’s letters.

But I digress, the point is Seneca found that with training, he could force himself to concentrate on his studies regardless of the external distractions around him.

But by this time I have toughened my nerves against all that sort of thing, so that I can endure even a boatswain marking the time in high-pitched tones for his crew. For I force my mind to concentrate, and keep it from straying to things outside itself; all outdoors may be bedlam, provided that there is no disturbance within, provided that fear is not wrangling with desire in my breast, provided that meanness and lavishness are not at odds, one harassing the other. For of what benefit is a quiet neighbourhood, if our emotions are in an uproar?

Seneca overcame resistance to pursue studies that would enrich his mind and soul. He realized that Resistance comes from within. Nothing external to us can distract us if we don’t let it.

During this month, I’ve beaten Resistance in several forms.

My first victory is the ice bath; I have not missed a day. I’ve been tempted by Resistance in the form of rationalization. During my first week of ice baths, I though, oh it’s the weekend, I don’t need to take an ice bath on the weekend because that’s the time to relax!  I forced myself to take ice baths anyway. Embracing and accepting discomfort is a Stoic practice and a critical technique to overcoming Resistance.

The artist must be like that Marine. He has to know how to be miserable. He has to love being miserable. He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or jet jockey. Because this is war, baby. And war is hell. 

My second victory is my writing. I have written every day since I started this project. It has become easier to beat Resistance, but it’s not gone. I often run out of ideas and worry that if I try to write anything it will be garbage.  I write anyway, and the ideas often come to me after I begin writing, not before.  If it’s garbage, so be it. If others hate it, I should not let myself be disturbed by their opinions.

The professional cannot allow the actions of others to define his reality. Tomorrow morning the critic will be gone, but the writer will still be there facing the blank page. Nothing matters but that he keep working. Short of a family crisis or the outbreak of World War III, the professional shows up, ready to serve the gods. 

My third victory is consistently waking up early to go to the gym. The Stoics would say it’s my perception of the cold and fatigue that makes me hit the snooze button. I think about this and then force myself to get up, get dressed, and get my ass to the gym.

The amateur, underestimating Resistance’s cunning, permits the flu to keep him from his chapters; he believes the serpent’s voice in his head that says mailing off that manuscript is more important than doing the day’s work.  

The professional has learned better. He respects Resistance. He knows if he caves in today, no matter how plausible the pretext, he’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow.  

Maybe you should consider adopting Stoicism the next time you feel like watching House of Cards instead of working on that novel you’ve been thinking about.