This is a great, motivating conversation on learning not to “pull the pin” on the important commitments in your life. And we’ll explain what that means coming up.
Resources Related to the Episode
- Steven’s previous appearances on the show:
- Steven’s books mentioned in the show:
- AoM Article: 4 Key Insights From the Bhagavad Gita
- AoM Article: Hector and Achilles — Two Paths to Manliness
- Seth Godin’s pamphlet for learning to “ship it”
- AoM Podcast #849: Live Life in Crescendo
Connect With Steven Pressfield
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. In a world that celebrates overnight success, it’s easy to forget that very often achieving your dreams takes a heck of a long time. My guest knows this all too well. You may know Steven Pressfield as the best-selling author of books like The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, and The War of Art. But as he details in his new memoir, government Cheese, it took more than a quarter century for him to become a published novelist. Today on the show, Steven talks about what he learned on that journey and the many odd jobs, from driving trucks to picking apples that he took along the way. We discussed the lesson Steven gleaned that applied to achieving any dream, including how to overcome a propensity for self-sabotage. Get your ego out of the way. Finish what you start and develop a killer instinct. This is a great motivating conversation on learning not to pull the pin on important commitments in your life. And we’ll explain what that means Coming up. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/pressfield. All right, Steven Pressfield, welcome back to the show.
Steven Pressfield: Hey, it’s great to be back, Brett. Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: You got a couple new books out, but the one we’re gonna focus a lot on today is called Government Cheese, A Memoir. And what’s interesting about you is you’re a successful writer. You’ve published 10 novels, one of which The Legend of Bagger Vance was turned into a movie directed by Robert Redford. You’ve also published several non-fiction books geared towards, you know, creative-types entrepreneurs. And I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that you didn’t get your first book published until you were 52 years old. And I think, you know, most people would imagine you were publishing books from your 20s and 30s onward. I’m curious, did you know you wanted to be a writer in your 20s? And did you think finding success as an author would take as long as it did?
Steven Pressfield: I… No I didn’t. But here’s… Here’s the story. When I was, I guess 22 or something like that, I got a job, my first real grown-up job as a copywriter at, at ad agency in New York City, and I had a boss named Ed Hannibal, who wrote a novel called Chocolate Days Popsicle Weeks, which is a real… It’s a real thing, and it became a hit and he quit and he was like a star. And so I said to myself, well, why don’t I do that? You know, so I quit and, tried to write a novel and totally, you know, was, I had no business even thinking about doing something like that. It was just total immature idiotic thinking of thinking that something was gonna be easy, was gonna be a piece of cake, you know, just I’ll just walk into it and it’ll be fine, When obviously that was not the case.
And my life from there on sort of ran off the rails completely. So I sort of backed into the concept of writing. It wasn’t like I wanted to do it or I really thought that I, you know, this was a goal of mine, but it’s like once I kind of… The bottom dropped out of my life, it was like the only way that I could get back in my mind anyway, was to sort of write my way out of it. So I… The next 27 years or however long that was, was just sort of trying to, you know, what went wrong with the first novel was I got 99.9% of the way through, and I choked and blew it up, blew up my marriage, blah, blah, blah. So in order to sort of redeem myself in my own eyes, I sort of had to write my way out of that. And that’s kind of how I got on this 27-year passage through the wilderness.
Brett McKay: So in Government Cheese, you take readers through what you did with your life between your first novel failing, and then until you got The Legend of Bagger Vance published, it’s called Government Cheese. Interesting title for a memoir. What’s the story behind that title?
Steven Pressfield: Well, people today might not know in this day of food stamps and other sort of voucher programs that feed the Hungry, but, back in the day when this, when this story took place, they had the Department of Agriculture and State Departments of Agriculture had programs to feed the poor, and they literally would give away enormous blocks of cheese, government cheese, it would say USDA cheese product, you know, number one, whatever. And there would be, in addition to that, there would be things like, like powdered milk or dried beans, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, that kind of stuff. Canned peaches, whole… You know, you could totally live off of this stuff. And when I was driving trucks, one of the things that was part of this odyssey here was that we delivered this surplus food to poor communities. This was in North Carolina, out on the coast. And that was a real… One of the most satisfying things I did in this whole time because it really helped people, you know, and I also have a whole metaphor for it of how it relates to, to writing if, if we want to get into that at some, at some later date. But, that’s what the Government Cheese title means.
Brett McKay: When Did you sign up for this long haul company? Were you delivering… You know, not only… Sometimes you’re delivering tobacco, you’re delivering this government food. When did that happen and why did you sign up to become a truck driver?
Steven Pressfield: I think I was maybe 28 or 29, something like that. And I was trying to get back together with my wife back in North Carolina, and I was dead broke, and I went to a trucking school, and you know, one of those one month things where they teach you how to drive a tractor trailer. And I just couldn’t get a job. I, you know, applied everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. And, I… This was something that I really wanted to do because I felt like I had to get my life on track again with a kind of a job that would pay the rent, you know, and that had some hope of stability to it. So finally I had just gotten fired from another job and was driving out of town. I’d sort of said goodbye to my wife, given up on that whole thing. And I stopped at this one final trucking company that I had applied to before and been rejected a couple of times. And the dispatcher was a guy named Hugh Reeves, and the first book inside of a Government Cheese is called Hugh Reeves. It’s dedicated to him. He hired me. And so that kind of got me into that world, which was a world that I never thought I would be into.
Brett McKay: And in this part, talking about leading up, getting hired by the trucking company, you talk a lot about shame. Like you just, you just felt ashamed all the time, early in adulthood. So, you know, early 20s through your… Even your 30s, what were you like feeling ashamed about? ’cause I imagine that a lot of young men might feel this similar shame.
Steven Pressfield: Well, in my case it was because, you know, I quit this job in advertising, to write a, to write a novel, right? I thought I was pretty cool, and then I had a young wife and she supported me. And like I say I got right up to the one-yard line, and I totally choked and blew it. So I was ashamed of myself before my own self for failing like that. But then I was ashamed because I had let my wife down. You know, I’m supposed to be a husband, I’m supposed to be a provider, or at least I’m supposed to be, you know, a person that can finish a job. Even if you fail at it, at least you should finish it. And so that was sort of the great shame that, that I had. And also, I blew up the marriage by kind of acting out in ways I don’t need to talk about here on the show, but enough that I felt like I had really screwed up my wife’s life as well, you know? And so I carried a lot of that shame for a long time, and which in a way was a good thing because it was certainly a motivating force to keep me going forward.
Brett McKay: And you also talk about, there was just moments too at the trucking company where you just biff something up and you just beat yourself up, like, oh, look, I, here I am, I’m being a screw-up again. I can’t even do this simple trucking job right, either.
Steven Pressfield: Yeah, I mean, that was somehow for me, my demon was self-sabotage and self-destruction of just getting in my own way. I would just screw things up as if there was some demon inside me that was just waiting to, you know, would make my hand to do something that my head didn’t want it to do. And the thing about driving, you know, tractor trailer over the road, big rigs is when you screw up, you screw up royally, you know, it’s a big mess. So I was just fighting for years and years, this tendency within myself to get into my own way, to sabotage myself. And later on, and I’m sure we’ll get to this as we talk more today, Brett, when, I wrote the book The War of Art, which was about this internal force that I call Resistance with a capital R, that’s where my idea of resistance came from, from my own demons and a fight to try to overcome them.
Brett McKay: And were you still trying to write during this time, like you were, you know, working the big rig thing and then moonlighting as a writer? Was that still happening?
Steven Pressfield: No, I absolutely wasn’t. In fact, I… Once that first book sort of went down in flames, it was like I said to myself, this was a crazy mistake. I never should have done it. I’m never gonna think about it again. And so during this, this time, I never did try to write anything. But the weird thing, it’s almost like a character in a story. I kept my typewriter, I had my typewriter with me the whole time, and I just never got it out until one particular moment a few years later when things turned around for me.
Brett McKay: So you, you talk about when you were the long haul driver, you would oftentimes deliver government cheese, and especially you, you deliver them to like rural churches in the South. What did you learn about life and writing while making these deliveries?
Steven Pressfield: You know, it’s, it’s funny that the lessons you learn in these kind of jobs that have nothing to do with your true calling, which in my case was writing, are not direct lessons. It’s not something that you can use immediately or you can, you know, write about or use as subject matter, but you learn deeper lessons. Like one thing that happened when I was driving trucks is I dropped a trailer one time, talk about screw ups. If you’ve ever seen a trailer come unattached from a tractor and crash, that’s what happened to me. And it was my fault totally. And so a few days later, somehow the boss Hugh Reeves, who was… Who had hired me, he didn’t fire me for that, but a couple of days later, he took me out to, to lunch at this hotdog place in Durham, North Carolina, just to have a talk.
And he said to me, he said “son, I can see that you’re going through some process in your head. I could see you’re living out some kind of something” He said “I don’t know what it is and I don’t wanna know what it is, but what I want you to realize is you’re working for me and your job is to deliver loads. That’s all your job is. When I send you out on the road, I don’t care what’s going on in your head, you’ve gotta finish the mission, whatever it is” and so that was an amazing sort of moment for me, a really come-to-Jesus moment for me that almost anybody else would’ve known that from their whole… Just any… Just growing up. But that was something that I’ve used forever since then. And particularly as a writer that, you know, when you’re… When you’re a writer, you’re completely on your own. You have no boss. If you take on a project and you start it, there’s nobody that you have to report to, to finish it. It’s all up to you. It’s all self-discipline. And so many times I’ve sort of had a vision of Hugh Reeves in my head saying that thing to me, I don’t care what your issue is, your job is to complete the mission at all costs. And that has worked for me over and over again to just remember that.
Brett McKay: And then you also talked about when you would make these deliveries to these churches, you were just driver, right? The people were very friendly, very polite, had that southern hospitality, but they’d just say, driver, take your truck over here and, we’ll take care of everything else. And then when they were done unloading the things, they’d say, driver, thank you for your time. They didn’t care who you were, you were just driver. You’re just there to, to deliver the goods.
Steven Pressfield: Yeah. Which was kind of odd to me at the time, you know, because I made… We did a lot of other loads other than surplus food, but I probably delivered maybe 40 of those loads to different churches all over the place. And it was always the same for… I don’t know why it was, but they would always address you as driver. You were anonymous and they didn’t want you participating in any of the offloading or anything like that. I would go smoke a cigarette, you know, under a live oak somewhere and just, you know, be an observer, which I considered to be a real privilege because these scenes were so human, you know? And so heart-rending that, you know, I just considered it a privilege even to be part of it and particularly be a part of it that was helping, you know.
But later on as a writer, I started to think that writing was a lot like this. Like when you’re a writer, you are delivering a load, and the load is the book and the content of the book. And you hope that like government cheese or surplus food, you hope it’s gonna be sustenance for somebody, but yet you the writer, you didn’t make the cheese, you know, you didn’t harvest the pinto beans or can the peaches. All you are is a vehicle to deliver it, and nobody really cares who you are. They’re just there for the material, which I think is exactly as it should be, that you are anonymous. You know, I’m a big believer in the Muse and in other dimensions of reality and that kind of thing. So I really felt like that particular load where you’re anonymous was a real, metaphor for what the writing or any artistic endeavor is. You are a vehicle and you are not the maker of the stuff.
Brett McKay: I think it’s a good point. ‘Cause I, I’ve noticed there’s a tendency today with a lot of the social media stuff for creatives like writers or even entrepreneurs to really think, talk about themselves and like, you know, what they go through. And it’s, I think that can be useful in some instances. Like you do that a lot with your work, kind of give insights to the process, but sometimes there’s something about when you get yourself or your ego too attached to your, whatever it is, the work that you’re delivering it messes it up. It just doesn’t land the same.
Steven Pressfield: I think it’s absolutely true. In fact, I would say that any artist’s task as they’re developing from a neophyte to somebody that’s capable of doing work, is to somehow get past their ego. And as long as their ego is there, it’s gonna screw them up and they’re never gonna get it right. You have to I think, deliver from another place, you know? And I also think when you start to think that you are the one that’s creating this, you’re in trouble too, because it’s not true. You are getting it from somewhere else, from some other level of reality. And your job is to be enough of a professional and to be enough of on top of your craft that when you get this kind of transmission from the cosmic radio station, that you are capable of delivering it in a digestible form to people on this material plane, if you know what I’m talking about, Brett.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And then to connect it to, your other book “Put your ass where your Heart wants to be” You talk about this like the ego, and there’s this great chapter, it says, when we try to sing or write or dance from the ego, we fall on our face. It is impossible to sing a right or dance from the ego. And I think that’s true. And like that’s what is happening to you, you’re getting… Your ego was getting in the way of… That’s why you probably choked on that first novel.
Steven Pressfield: Yeah, for sure. And my ego was totally connected to my tendency to sabotage myself.
Brett McKay: How do you overcome that, right? Like, what did, what did it take for you? Was it just like you had to drive the trucks and do these jobs not related to the writing for you to finally figure that out?
Steven Pressfield: I mean, I do think, you know, I’m doing a kind of a, a video series on Instagram now that I’m calling “In the Wilderness” And it refers to the kind of passage that we all sort of have to go through, I think, where we’re kind of outcasted from what we would call our normal world. And we sort of… It’s like an analogy would be the Odyssey. Odysseus’s story by Homer, you know, which was his 10 year odyssey. That’s sort of the, the grandaddy of all legends that have to do with this. And where I do think you have to suffer and you have to be humbled and, you have to have this shit kicked out of you one way or another before you sort of finally get to a point where you, in a way, not even in a way, I think it’s absolutely exact where you give up. And that giving up is a giving up of the ego, you know, where you just say, I can’t fight this anymore. You know, I’m in, I just can’t do it anymore. And some shift happens in that point. At that point, it’s sort of like someone who has a problem with alcohol finally saying, I’m defeated by this. I just can’t.
I don’t have power over this, help, somebody help me. And when that person makes the decision, “Okay, I’m gonna join the AA or I’m gonna quit, or I’m gonna… Whatever it is they’re gonna do that’s gonna change my life, that’s I think, the same thing that happens to anybody that’s trying to find who they are and what their calling is.
Brett McKay: No. So tying this back to The Legend of Bagger Vance, it’s based on the Bhagavad Gita, and it was a…
Steven Pressfield: Gee, you’re a great reader Brett. It’s great that you know that.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And I think at the beginning of The Gita, Junuh has that moment where he sees this epic war going on and it’s like family against family, and he’s like, I don’t know what to do, I can’t… And that was his surrender moment.
Steven Pressfield: Yeah, exactly. Actually, I had never thought about that before in that terms, but it’s exactly true. Like in screen writing, that was in another career that I had along the way here, there’s a term called the “all is lost moment” Have you heard of that before, Brett?
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Steven Pressfield: And that’s what R. Junuh was in. And that I think in our real life, we need to get to one of those, and maybe we need to get to many of those because that’s the only way real progress, I think is made when you run into an absolute brick wall and the resources that you’ve called on in the past are not sufficient to get over that brick wall, and you have to somehow find something somewhere.
Brett McKay: Right. That’s when the ego dissolves and that’s when you can receive… I know you’re a big fan of divine help, the muses, that’s when you become more receptive ’cause the ego has finally fallen away.
Steven Pressfield: Yes. Exactly.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay, so you did this long haul thing, still weren’t writing during this time, you left that job because they were re-arranging, they were gonna make you like a… Instead of an employee, a contractor, and you’re gonna be in charge of your own truck, you left and then you took a job picking apples, what was going… Like why that? How did you end up doing that?
Steven Pressfield: Well, there are a few other things between the two, and one of them was that I did start writing a book, and I had, in fact, it was a book about the trucking company, a novel. And I had saved money, I worked in New York in advertising for, I don’t know, a year or something. I’ve saved 2700 bucks, and I moved to a small town in Northern California and just to write. And I did for, I think maybe 20 months, and then I ran out of money. And so I thought it made sense to go do this migrant labor thing because it was something that you could go, you could make money, if you come back and you’d have enough… I’d have enough to finish the book. So I sort of stumbled into that thing kind of by accident. And so again, it wasn’t like a plan thing or anything, but it was just…
Brett McKay: You needed money.
Steven Pressfield: I think… On the fly.
Brett McKay: Well, when you were working on the second novel, were you still haunted by those previous demons of you just sabotaging yourself.
Steven Pressfield: Absolutely. In fact, the whole… Because with the first book, I couldn’t finish it. That was my self-sabotage demon, I couldn’t get to the end of it. And so for the second one, when I went to go do this migrant labor, I still hadn’t finished it then. So it was very much in my mind, I gotta finish this son of a bitch you know, one way or another, whatever happens to it, I don’t care if a guy throw it in the trash, I gotta finish it. So yeah, that was very much in my mind.
Brett McKay: So you took the job. What did you take from that experience, picking fruit? And then there is this… I wanna talk about this phrase you picked up there, “pulling the pin” What does that mean?
Steven Pressfield: Yeah. A great question, Brett, and it’s right on target here. Well, I don’t know what migrant labor is like today, but back then it was done… It was like the depression, in a way, it was done by what they call Fruit Tramps, and these were guys that would follow the harvest, and most of them were alcoholics, winos. And the joke is a tramp is an itinerant worker, a hobo is an itinerant non-worker, and a bum is a non-itinerant non-worker. And so a lot of these guys were at least heirs of the writing the rails school of tramp life. And when a car is uncoupled from a train, the train-man pulls a pin out of… Between the coupling of the two cars. So the phrase “pulling a pin” means to quit something. So like you would wake up in a bunk-house in the morning and somebody would be missing and you’d say, Hey, what happened to Harry? And they say, Oh, he pulled the pin. So for me, that was absolutely on target, I pulled the pin on this book that I tried to write, I pulled the pin on my marriage, I pulled the pin on the trucking company where I really just bolted.
I just couldn’t do it anymore, I bolted. And so I was absolutely determined not to do that, but the demons were there, and actually, like I said, the first book in Government Cheese, is named after Hugh Reeves, who was my mentor or boss at the trucking company. And the second book, which was about fruit-picking is named after a guy whose name I didn’t even know his last name, I just call John from Seattle, and he was a guy who was a great picker and one of these hardcore road guys, and he knew, he just sort of sussed it out in me, he could see what I was struggling with and he wouldn’t let me… He kinda rode me, wouldn’t let me sneak out of it in any way, and he would come over to me, and when I was in one of these moments and he would just tap me on the forehead with one finger, with his forefinger. And what he meant by that was, it’s all up here, kid. You gotta get your mind right. And for some reason, again, this is one of the lessons that you learn that stick with you forever.
So thanks to him, I did get through that thing, I did finish it out. Oh, here’s one thing, just for whatever this is worth, it’s a silly detail, but I thought it was interesting. The way you pick apples or any kind of fruit is… They will pay you like three-quarters of your salary for what you do, but they’ll hold a quarter of it back and they’ll give you that as a bonus if you finish the season, but if you don’t finish the season, if you pull the pin, you lose that bonus, but yet still so many people don’t make it to the end that… The orchards or whatever it is. They make a lot of money off of that. So in any event, thanks to John from Seattle, I did finish that and I did finish the book, even though it never got published.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah. So what happened there? So you actually finished this book, you didn’t choke and stop, not like the first one. You finished the second book, what were you hoping? Did you really think like, This is it. This is gonna be my big break?
Steven Pressfield: No. No. [chuckle] I mean I sort of had well you know, crazy hopes about that, but I just wanted to finish it. And actually I write about this moment in The War of Art, which was the moment when I finally finished that book, and this was before computer, so it was on a typewriter so you actually had a stack of pages and when you finished a book in those days, you would roll the last page out and put it on the bottom of the stack, and I looked at that and I thought, I did it. Nobody knows that I did it. Nobody cares, it doesn’t make any difference to the world or to anybody, but I know. And I would say this to anybody that’s listening that has that same sort of demon in him, I have found over the years since then that once you defeat that demon, you’ll never have any trouble finishing anything again, and I never have, but getting over that hump was a big one.
Brett McKay: And not only do you know, by finishing something, you’re able to show yourself you can do this, the muses know as well. You talk about this is Chapter 49, in “put your ass where your heart wants to be” it says, the goddess is like Santa Claus, she knows when you’ve been naughty or nice. I’m not being facetious, somehow by some mechanism, unknown and unknowable to mortals, the higher dimensions see and know what’s going on down here on the material plane. When you and I put your ass you know where, the muse notices and she responds.
Steven Pressfield: I think as I wrote it and I believe it completely, that when we’re trying to do anything creative, our role is to connect to the higher dimension, whatever that is, to our SELF, capitalize SELF, and that the Greeks gods and goddesses there, you could think of it as the quantum field or something else, if you looked at it in another way, but somehow they do know. The goddess knows, and she does reward you and she does grant you respect. And I felt that in that moment too, Brett. I felt like even though I couldn’t really put my finger on it, I felt like I had scored some points with heaven, even if I didn’t score any in the material world.
Brett McKay: And that’s an important distinction. I think sometimes people expect everything they do to have some sort of public recognition. And you make the point, that’s not the most important thing, the most important thing is that, that private recognition, ’cause that’s what’s gonna keep you going.
Steven Pressfield: Yeah, and the most important thing, period, is to keep going, because if you think about it, if you and I wanted to be brain surgeons or concert pianists, we would say to ourselves, Well, okay, it’s gonna take 15 years or something full-time to get to that place. But yet, when people think about writing or acting or something like that, they think, Well, I’ll just slip into it, and it’ll be fine. I mean, that’s what I thought like an idiot. And so the main goal is to just keep going, to find the sustenance, the emotional sustenance to keep going because at least in a field like writing, where you can write till your 80, 90 years old, it’s not like professional football where your career is over at whatever age. You do get better. And the state that you were in when you were 30, is not the state you’ll be in at 45, you’ll be much better, and so on and so forth. So, the name of the game is to find the wherewithal to keep going, because you do get better, and you can get closer to the dream by just keep hammering away.
Brett McKay: Okay. So after this second book, it didn’t get published. So did you just keep writing? You was like, Well, I finished that one, I’m going On to the next one?
Steven Pressfield: Yeah, when I did… I saved more money and I was driving a cab in New York City at that time, and then I wrote another one that also didn’t get published, I couldn’t find anybody, and at that point, I said to myself, I talked about an all is lost moment, I said to myself. Okay, I’ve done three now, and it’s probably a total of seven years full-time in addition to all the other work, just trying to support myself, and I just don’t have it in me to do a fourth one. I can’t do it. And that was an all is lost moment for me, followed by an epiphany where the epiphany was, let me move to Hollywood and try to write for the movies, figuring that I failed as a novelist, why don’t I fail as a screen writer too. So that kept me going for another 10 years.
Brett McKay: So after this third novel, how old were you at this point?
Steven Pressfield: How old was I? It’s a good question. I think I was 30… Let’s see, 38, something like that.
Brett McKay: Okay, so yeah, you were hitting middle age at this point. And let’s talk about this, so we’ve talked about you did the truck-driving, you did the fruit-picking, also during this time from your 20s until through your 40s, you did a stint as an oil field worker, you were a school teacher, you worked at this rural doctor’s office, you drove a taxi. When you look back on the diversity of jobs you had, like do you think they shaped you into the man you are now, and the writer you are?
Steven Pressfield: Yes. Yes. I know that that’s not the kind of thing that people do anymore, as a kind of the University of Hard Knocks type of thing. But for whatever reason, if I look back on it, I needed to do it. I grew up as a sheltered kid and I needed to get my butt kicked a little bit. And so yeah, I really do think that what… Although I never set out to do any of those things, if you think about those jobs that you just rattled off, they’re all the kind of jobs that require no skill other than trucking, that you actually had to know something, but the other things are things you can just walk in, if you got a pulse, you can do them. But like I say, you learn lessons along the way, that passage through the wilderness is necessary, I think.
Brett McKay: Okay, so you’re about 38, you’ve given up writing novels ’cause none of them were getting published and you start writing screenplays and you found some success in writing screenplays, you started to make good money, you started to be a pro at it, but then at a certain point, you decided to leave screen writing and go back to novels. What led to that decision, what led you to say, I’m gonna quit this thing, this thing that I’m making money on and go back to writing another novel?
Steven Pressfield: That’s another great question, Brett. This again, is kind of a… Reinforces my belief in the muse, the novel was The Legend of Bagger Vance, and it just came to me one day, the idea came to me, but it came to me as a book, not as a movie, and I had an agent at the time, a good agent who had worked really, really hard for me to get me established and I had a meeting with him, and I said, I have good news, and I have bad news and I have worse news. I said the good news is that I’ve got an idea that I’m in love with. The bad news is it’s a novel, so you can’t help me. And the worst news is it’s a novel about golf, which is like the dumbest subject that anybody could possibly write an a novel about. So Pete basically fired me and he was right to do that, so the question… And again, Brett, it wasn’t like this was a conscious decision on my part, Oh, I’m gonna now try to write a novel, it just… The idea came to me, and that was the form it came to me in, and I was absolutely seized by it and I had to do it.
And at the time when I was working on that book, I thought, This is the dumbest idea I’ve ever had. It’s completely un-commercial. Nobody is gonna want a book on this subject, and they certainly are not gonna want it as a movie, but to my amazement, they did. So that was kind of how… When once you write one, then you get a chance to write another.
Brett McKay: Well, why do you think it was a success when your other novels had failed, what changed, did you change, or was it the circumstances? Or Was it both?
Steven Pressfield: I think for sure, I wrote that story from a different place than anything else I had done before. Now, some of the screenplays that I had done, particularly the ones that never got saw the light of day, but just circulated in the town, but never got made. Some of them were really good, they had really good ideas and they were really good, but they weren’t completely from my heart, in the sense of they weren’t coming from that other dimension of reality, and he weren’t coming from The Muse, and The Legend of Bagger Vance was. Even as I was writing it, I thought… Like I say, I thought, This is crazy. Who’s gonna like this? I love it, but who else is gonna, it’s so different from everything. And so I think I had finally turned a corner, maybe by paying the dues for all those years, that finally the goddess said, Okay, I’m gonna give this guy a break, but for whatever reason, I was writing it from a different place and it was coming out in a different way. And when I was done with it, I felt a kind of a pride that I had never felt before where I really…
Before, I’d been able to appreciate some of the best screen plays that I had done, the ones that never got made, I thought, these are good, these are really good, but I had never really felt like, on my death bed, I’ll be proud of this. And I felt that way about The Legend of Bagger Vance, the book, not the movie. So that was a huge turning point, and that really is where this book that we’re talking about Government Cheese ends, because at that point, I really had become a working right or a pro-writer that had found my own calling and my own groove. And the story from then on really is just a question of serving the craft and learning the craft.
Brett McKay: Well, then… A company has booked and published this book, we’ve been talking about it, “Put your ass, when your heart wants to be.” What do you mean? It’s a pretty provocative title, what do you mean by that? And like I’m again, maybe… Did you learn this idea from just your varied life you had before, The Legend of Bagger Vance?
Steven Pressfield: Yes, absolutely. And this phrase, “Put your ass where your heart wants to be at.” I don’t even know… I don’t think I stole it from anybody, I think it’s my original thought, but I’ve had it kind of rattling in my head for like 10 years, and the idea of it is simply that it’s another way of saying, commit. When you say, “Put your ass somewhere”, you’re really talking about your heart, your physical body, the commitment to where if you fail, it’s gonna hurt, and there’s something magic about making that commitment to whatever it is, and you were talking before about how heaven does notice, the Gods notice, and they do notice when you put your ass where your heart wants to be like, people say, “Okay, how do I be a… I wanna be a writer.” well, the answer to that is sit down in front of the freaking typewriter and start doing it. If you wanna be a painter, put your ass in front of the easel, if you wanna be a dancer, get into the studio, there’s something magic about putting your physical body and putting your commitment, your commitment from the heart into whatever it is you wanna do where your heart wants to be what your dream is, that good things happen.
I’m sure that when you started The Art of Manliness, it was a leap, I’m sure, and I’m sure that you were putting your ass where your heart wanted to be and whatever issues, and I don’t know the full story behind this Brett, but I’m sure that things started breaking your way at some point in ways that you couldn’t account for, because the gods and the goddesses notice it, and the universe does intercede and intervene in your behalf when you put your commitment where you really live or your heart wants to be…
Brett McKay: No… Yeah, I started this while I was in law school, and so my time was limited, but I committed to publishing three articles a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and I stuck to that schedule religiously, and that meant, I had to get up early and crank out an article and yeah, it is a point where I had those breaks come away, and then now it’s my wife and I, and we’re still… We try to be pro about this, it’s like we have a schedule like Monday and Wednesday, we’re gonna have new podcast up, Tuesday, Thursday, we’ll have an article, new articles up. We’ve stuck to that for years, and sometimes things go awesome, sometimes things don’t land, but we just try to be consistent with it as much as possible.
Steven Pressfield: And it takes guts to do that, doesn’t it? I mean… A lot of people talk about it, but very few people actually do it. So I take my hat off to you. You got into this thing before a lot of people got into it, you were one of the first people, and it took even more guts then. So the success that you’ve had is well earned.
Brett McKay: Well, thank you so much, and I’m curious, how did you keep that commitment going for the long term, like “Keeping your ass where your heart wants to be.” When you’re not experiencing any success, what did you figure out that helped you?
Steven Pressfield: For me, I had… In those wilderness years, I had no plan B. Every time I tried to sort of go straight and get a regular job, I just couldn’t stand it, I couldn’t stand going through the door that morning, and I’ve heard that from a bunch of other people who’ve been in the same kind of situation. So there was really no way out of it for me except to keep going forward, and it was very clear.
Brett McKay: Well, you have this idea in your book about self-reinforcement. What do you mean by that? And how do you develop it?
Steven Pressfield: This is a question Brett, kind of about how do you last over the long haul, because they’re gonna be a long, long periods when you’re not getting any external third-party validation, and the only way to overcome that, those periods is you have to validate yourself, self-validation, self-reinforcement, and they don’t teach you this in school, if anything, they teach you the opposite, and certainly social media teaches you the exact opposite, social media teaches you to validate yourself based on number of likes, number of followers, and all that bullshit, right? But the true reality is you are the only judge of your own stuff and your own endeavor, and your own commitment and your own progress, and so self-reinforcement is really self-talk, and a lot of times it’s almost inane and silly and embarrassing when you think about it, but you do have to sort of basically look in the mirror and say to yourself, today was a good day, you know, we didn’t make any money today. We didn’t move the ball three inches today, but we tried as hard as we could and we stuck by our guns and validating yourself for that, and learning to make that stick.
So you believe it, is more important, I always say more important than talent, and I believe it’s absolutely true, ’cause talented people are a dime a dozen, but people that can actually stick it out are very, very rare.
Brett McKay: You talk about John Keats and this idea of negative capability, and I really like this idea a lot, and you quoted him from a letter that Keats wrote to his brother George, and he gets to this idea of self-reinforcement, and I’ll read it here, and this is what he says, “Several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously. I mean, negative capability. That is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” So self-reinforcement is just being able to… When things aren’t going your way or you don’t know if things are going to go your way, still being okay with that…
Steven Pressfield: Yeah, that’s exactly it. It was the idea of being uncertain, being racked by self-doubt, but keeping going.
Brett McKay: You also talk about developing a killer instinct that writers, creators, entrepreneurs, need to have that. What do you mean by that? And what does it look like.
Steven Pressfield: In a way… For me, like I was talking, my demon was finishing something, right? I’d get right to the end of it and then I’d choke, and I think one of the ways I defined that for myself later was I said I don’t have killer instinct. I got a… The… I’m locked in a struggle with this freaking book and I’ve gotta win. This is a war and I have to win. And from that point, I always decided I’ve gotta have killer instinct to just bust through however hard it is and kill that son of a bitch.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, I think that’s something I’m seeing my kids start to develop… Right? You see this in sports. When kids first started playing sports, they’re kind of timid, a lot of… Some kids just have that natural killer instinct, they’re naturally aggressive, but some kids, they had to learn it. This reminds me of… There’s this great analogy of Hector and Achilles. Achilles, he was just born manly, he just had that, ’cause he’s this divine being, Hector, on the other hand, it talks about it in The Iliad… He had to learn how to do it. I think a lot of people are like that. They had to learn how to develop that killer instinct, and it’s tough, there’s really nothing you can do to tell your kid except like,”Be aggressive.” And they ask, “What does that mean?” And I have a hard time even explaining them to my kids, like what I mean by that, but it means just going for it, just going for the ball and not caring, within the rules, but like not being… You have to lose your self-consciousness and just care about scoring the point.
Steven Pressfield: Yeah, yeah, it’s really a question of risk, because if you fail, if you go for it and you fail, you lose, right? And then you have all that terrible feeling, but like Seth Godin has this… He uses the phrase, “shipping” Are you familiar with what he says about this sort of stuff?
Brett McKay: Yeah, I did. But let other people know.
Steven Pressfield: He figures if you’re Steve Jobs and you’ve been working on the iPhone, for the first time, your company’s got it together, there comes a day when you gotta ship it, you got… There comes a day when you have to say, “Okay, there may be some glitches in here, but we can’t keep noodling with this sucker forever, we gotta ship it today.” That’s killer instinct to push the button and make it go, ’cause if it fails, then who knows what the consequences are for your career, but Seth is a great believer in shipping when something is ready don’t noodle with it anymore. And that’s killer instinct.
Brett McKay: So you’re approaching 80 and you’re still putting out work… What keeps you going?
Steven Pressfield: I am a servant of the muse, Brett. I sort of take my assignments from her, and as long as she’s got another one for me, I’m gonna keep doing it, and that’s kind of the… That’s the way I live my life. I live it from… That’s the way I live my life from the time when Bagger Vance first got published, when my life really changed, and I became a full-time working writer. So I go from project to project and I become completely absorbed in it. And when one is done, I go on to the next one, and to me, this is another idea from Seth Godin, it’s a practice, like a Zen practice or a practice in martial arts, where the “end result success is not the goal”, the goal is the practice itself, and you hope that you’ll have a hit here and there, or you’ll pay the rent here and there, but mainly… I have a calling, it took me a long time to find it. And the way I view my life is that I’m following that calling and I’ll follow it as long as I can still breathe.
Brett McKay: This reminds me of a Stephen Covey, we had his daughter on, Cynthia Covey, she finished a manuscript that he was working on before he died about a decade ago, and it was about living life in crescendo, this idea that you still have stuff to put out even if you’ve done well in your career. And he’s a lot like you, the 7 Habits didn’t come out till he was in his mid-50s, and after he wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, family and friends, would be like, well, Steven, do you got anything? How can you top that, I imagine maybe you got that question, like How can you top Legend of Bagger Vance were Robert Redford wanted to make it out into a movie, and Steven said, “No, I’ve got something better than 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I’ve got this calling, it might not be as prolific as 7 Habits, but it doesn’t diminish the importance of that work.
Steven Pressfield: Yeah, I agree completely. There’s a famous story about Cole Porter when he was writing songs for Hollywood, where he had just written a song for some movie and they had rejected it, the studio or the director, or somebody had rejected it, and a friend said to him, “Cole, what are you gonna do, your songs just got shot down?” And he said, “I got a million of ’em. There’s another trolley coming down the track all the time.” And I think that’s a great attitude to have, because to get a little mystical, Source, capital S infinite, and there isn’t another trolley coming down on the track all the time. You just have to believe in it.
Brett McKay: You just gotta be the driver… You gotta become the driver.
Steven Pressfield: Yes.
Brett McKay: Right? Deliver the goods.
Steven Pressfield: Deliver the load.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, Steven, this has been a great conversation where can people go and learn more about the books and your work?
Steven Pressfield: I am on Instagram, just under Steven Pressfield, and I have a website and… But it’s just my name, Steven Pressfield. And in fact, if you go there right now, you can pre-order Government Cheese, a signed copy that will be hand-delivered by me just about… And I’m on Amazon and all those things, just like every other writer that’s in business.
Brett McKay: Awesome, well, Steven Pressfield. Thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Steven Pressfield: Hey, thanks, Brett, thank you for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Steven Pressfield, he’s the author of the book, Government Cheese, it’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, stevenpressfield.com, also check at our show notes at aom.is/pressfield where you find links to resources when you delve deeper into this topic.
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