19 April 2024

The Pressfield Synchronicities


The Man in the Velcro Mask.

Every morning since January 1 of this year, I have observed the same ritual to start my morning. I get to the office early and slip into an inflatable jacket and helmet. The radiation treatment I underwent in 2022 damaged the lymph nodes in my face. If I don’t pump my face free of the excess liquid, over time I’ll wake up mornings looking like a bullfrog. When the motor kicks on, the suit squeezes my chest and face, filling my ears with the breath of an unseen giant. In the 32 minutes it takes to run my cycle, I read a page from three books in quick succession.

And yes, I’m well aware that I’m about to sound pretentious, but work with me here. The first book is the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The second is The Daily Stoic, by Ryan Holiday, a collection of daily readings culled from the works of Seneca, Epictetus, and Aurelius, with Holiday’s modern commentary. The third book is a 2023 collection of daily meditations on the writing life by the author Steven Pressfield. It’s the book I devour like potato chips, often peeking ahead and blowing my daily allotment. Pressfield’s words go down smoothly, and leave me thinking and nodding for the rest of the day.

If this author’s name sounds familiar, it’s because you fit into one of three demographics. You’re one of those folks who hang out in sports bars, tossing back cocktails while glued to the Golf Channel, thus absorbing a bajillion viewings of the 2000 movie, The Legend of Bagger Vance, based on Pressfield’s first novel of the same name (pubbed 1995; 450,000 copies sold*).

Or maybe you attended a military academy, and in order to graduate your instructors had you read Pressfield’s historical novels Gates of Fire, about the Battle of Thermopylae (pubbed 1998; 1 million copies sold), or Tides of War, about the Peloponnesian War, (pubbed 2000; 125,000 copies sold).

Or you are simply a person who has dreamed of better things. You want to commit to a daily mediation practice, lift weights, lose weight, do yoga, paint, dance, or sculpt. You want to chuck your stupid day job and open an Etsy shop to sell your handmade jewelry, leatherwork, or pottery.

Or, God help you, you want to write.

In that case, you have probably read—or probably should read—Pressfield’s 2002 book, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (pubbed 2002; 500,000 copies sold).

With more than 27,000 reviews on Amazon and 103,000 on Goodreads, the latter is one of those books I had heard about forever but never bothered to pick up. One summer, when I was bouncing around the east coast with my wife on one of her research trips, I tucked War and few other slim sequels to this title in my bag and read them as we traversed nine states.

That one experience with his books sparked a series of Pressfield Synchronicities that I am still experiencing. I’ll read a nonfiction book by Writer A, who announces he is a Pressfield fan. I’ll read a book that that writer recommends, only to find that Writers B, C, and D in turn are all Pressfield fans. Everywhere you look, in other words, everything is coming up Pressfield.

The O.G. paperback is about 165 pages, with chapters that are a page or two long. Each reads like a mini-sermon, wherein Pressfield addresses the central question facing any creative person: Why the hell don’t we do the things we say we want to do? Why don’t we write that novel? Why don’t we start that business? Why don’t we tell our bosses to shove it and go off on our own? Why don’t we pursue in this life what our souls are meant to achieve?

The villain, he says, is something called Resistance:

“Most of us live two lives,” he begins. “The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two lies Resistance.”

He could have called it Procrastination or Avoidance. But Resistance nails it. It is a pernicious evil that threatens to crush us, that wants to keep us in our lower, unrealized state. To keep us ordinary, perhaps, or boring, so we don’t threaten our comfort level or the comfort level of others.


“Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. The more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and the growth of our soul.

“That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”

Amen, brother, I thought, remembering the years I longed to do more with my writing but never did. I worked editorial jobs to support myself, and I convinced myself that I was too tired by the end of the day to do my own writing. By Pressfield’s definition, I was living a shadow life—close to the dream but no cigar.

Pressfield knows what he’s talking about. For years he lied to himself, too. Said he was a writer but instead of sticking his butt in the chair, he wrote ad copy, picked fruit, drove trucks and New York City cabs. He wrote only when “inspired.”

One day, he chose to become a professional and write regardless of how he felt. He packed a bag lunch and showed up for work, so to speak, the way any gainfully employed person does.

That said, his craft books are probably not for everyone. Many will take offense at his language and his gruff, tough-love message. Don’t get me wrong; he is supremely erudite. (His golf novel is based on the Bhagavad Gita, for Pete’s sake.) For all his scholarship, his command of classical philosophy, Eastern thought, and ancient military battles—he’s the plainest of plain speakers. Like the titles of his other books suggest—Do the Work; Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be; and Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t,—when he speaks, you hear the ex-cabbie, the ex-trucker, and the ex-Marine.

When I’m immersed in his texts, I imagine him slowing his cab down to give me a piece of his mind. “How many years are you going to waste not doing what your soul knows it must to do, huh, Joe?” he says, lecturing me from the front seat while the meter runs. “What do you think this is, a joke? Stop the bullshit—sit and write already. That’ll be twenty bucks. Don’t slam the door on the way out.”

(By the way: considering our audience, I should says that one of his books, a hilarious crime novel called The Knowledge, is a semi-autobiographical take on his taxi-driving days.)

On that research trip with my wife, I peeked at the copyright page of one of his books. We were traveling in Massachusetts that week, and I thought, “Huh, that’s funny. We’re in the exact same town in New England where his editor and publisher is based.”

That was the first coincidence. I get home, and I run into a young bartender friend who’s announced that he wants to move back home to Long Island. He’s got a good side hustle selling his artwork—abstract paintings—but he craves the financial security that only his parents’ basement can provide. He knows it’s a slippery slope. If he goes back to the old homestead, there’s a good chance that he will get sucked back into the drama of his hometown family and friends, and maybe, just maybe, he won’t devote himself to his artwork and the burgeoning Instagram clientele he is slowly building.

“People tell me I should read this book,” he says. He struggles to remember the name…

I got you, kid, I thought. We bought and presented him with a copy of The War of Art on his last day in town.

Another young man, the brother of a friend, returns home after a long deployment in Afghanistan. Obviously bright, he served in a crypto-linguistics unit in the U.S. Army. Now he wants to become a journalist. An obvious underachiever, he quickly lands himself a journo fellowship at Harvard. Christmas week, as we all gather around his mom’s table, he confides that he loves historical fiction. While in the military, he devoured the books of—

I stop him right there, and tell him he should go out right now and spend his money on his favorite author’s books about writing. “Pressfield writes books about writing?” he says.

Months before this, Pressfield released an ambitious, 534-page book called The Daily Pressfield. (I sprung for the signed copy via his website.) It offers 366 inspirational readings drawn from his work, meting out one passage a day for a year. This is the book I am supposed to be reading page by page each morning. Except, I keep skipping ahead and devouring giant chunks.

How’d did I hear about it? I was listening to a self-publishing podcast some weeks earlier that had the now 80-year-old Pressfield on as a guest. He explained that he’d gotten the idea from the author Ryan Holiday, a young Pressfield fan who is best known for resurrecting Stoic thought for the Instagram masses. Derek Sivers, another entrepreneur and thinker who founded CD Baby and later sold that company for a $22 million, holds Pressfield’s work in such regard that he has summarized most of the former’s books on his website. Another writer, the marketing guru Jeff Walker, urges his readers and clients to read Pressfield as well. Don’t even get me started on Oprah…

So yeah, I don’t know how this happened to me, but for a while there one conversation or piece of media after another sparked a chain of Pressfieldian references.

Then the synchronicities petered out. After the holidays, I was too busy to get out much, and winter was too cold for socializing. On a warm day in February or March, I went to the fancy resort in town with views of the mountains. Over a couple of tangy beef lettuce wraps, I got to talking with one of the resort’s F&B managers. He’s worked in the food and beverage biz his whole life, starting as a server, mixing drinks as a bartender, slinging tacos and margaritas in a food truck that his brother owned in Costa Rica, before eventually landing here and becoming everybody’s boss.

But wouldn’t you know it? Deep down inside, he longs to write songs and play music the way he did in his teens, before marriage, the kids, the mortgage, and all these exhausting responsibilities. He’s built a studio in his home so he can rock out in his free time. But he worries. He’s in his forties, you see, and it all feels too little too late.

He sighs and shakes his head. I can feel his frustration. Out of the freaking blue, because he knows I’m a writer, he goes, “Hey—you ever hear of that book, The War of Art?”

* * *

* Sales figures courtesy of the author’s website.

See you in three weeks!



  1. Damn, Joe, your mask and suit look more steam punk than Captain Nemo. There be squid below.

    I"ve read Aurelius and Seneca, but hadn't realized I'd read Pressfield until halfway through your article. Thanks for the heads-up, Joe. When people complain about bad language, they're usually referring to swearing, which of course can become tiresome. But writers should be offended by bad grammar, bad spelling, bad punctuation.

    1. Wonder which one of his books you read. I'm going as the Michelin man next Halloween.

  2. It is a very steampunk look, Joe. There's a story right there!
    I've read Pressfield's Peloponnesian War book, and Marcus Aurelius - BTW, Stoicism is great until you actually feel something, and the that's the main trouble. Avoid suffering, and you also avoid pleasure, which is a thing the Buddha was also into. Me, not so much. I hold to the theory that it's really emotions that make us human.

    1. The military book of his I want to read first is the one about a mercenary assigned to stop a letter of Paul's to the Corinthians from reaching its destination. It's called "A Man at Arms."

  3. Elizabeth Dearborn19 April, 2024 15:18

    Wow. I never knew of Steven Pressfield's existence until today but it sounds like he says a lot of things I might need to hear, so I went to eBay & purchased a used copy of "Do the Work". Can you tell I have a terminal case of tsundoku?

    1. I think the later nonfiction craft books are less critical if you have read "The War of Art." Of course I obsessively read them all, so who am I to judge your tsundoku?


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