Use resistance as a compass


We often say, “I don’t know what to do, can you help me?”.

Sometimes of course, we genuinely don’t know, we’re stumbling for the next step.

But more often than we like to admit, the question is more honestly “I don’t like what I’m meant to do. Can you help me come up with an excuse?”

We shouldn’t feel bad about feeling this way – it’s a fact of life.

When we pursue something worthwhile, we experience resistance.

The resistance we feel toward a course of action is often as good indicator of its value. It’s a compass that points us to what we should be doing.

As Stephen Pressfield notes in The War of Art.

“Resistance only only opposes in one direction.

Resistance obstructs movement only from a lower sphere to a higher… So if you’re in Calcutta working with the Mother Teresa Foundation and you’re thinking of bolting to launch a career in telemarketing… relax. Resistance will give you a free pass.”

Resistance will grease the easy path, but obstruct the valuable one.

If we listen honestly, our resistance will tell us what to do next. It will make the best option look the most terrifying and that’s how we know it’s the right one.

Defined by its shadow

Sometimes it’s easier to definition an object or concept by its shadow because, the shadow is more familiar, it’s easier for us to identify and work with.

In the case of Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art (about creativity), the shadow was “the resistance” – the force which conspires to stop us doing our most meaningful work.

Pressfield pitches us at war with the resistance, at war for the meaning and fulfilment in our life. And it works, because it’s easier for us to feel the resistance than it is to feel the burning drive of our own creativity. The resistance is familiar and by identifying it, naming it and calling it out, he creates the moment required to take it down.

It’s compelling stuff and is definitely worth the hour or two it will take you to devour it.

But right now, I’m reading a book about vulnerability by Brene Brown which does the same thing. It defines a lot of vulnerability and its importance by what it’s opposed to, by what it neutralises, by what it fights. But in Brown’s book the shadow is not easy to name, to identify or call out.

The shadow side of vulnerability is shame – and I’ve never found anything else which is so difficult to read about, but so important to understand.

I can’t really stress how weird it feels to be read a book which is urging you to open the Pandora’s box of your own personal shame and then take a look inside. And then go to work.

Shame is horrible. It’s insidious and malevolent and just plain fucking awful. And it’s also a key driver of our action and behaviour, so you better believe it’s worth understanding.

A big reason why it’s so important, is that we never talk about it. It’s not part of any broad conversation, except as an instrument, a weapon which is often publicly wielded at those who are caught doing in public, things which we might all do in private.

And it’s hard to talk about shame. I certainly don’t want to write about it here. But I feel like I have to. I feel like we’ll all have to at some point. Because shame is a viscous catalyst of isolation. It’s horribly contagious and it thrives on secrecy, silence and judgement.

It might not be the kind of topic that you strike up at the bus stop, but it’s going to have to come out somewhere.

You might not get on board with the value in supercharging vulnerability, but it doesn’t take much of a look inside, at its shadow before you realise that it’s worth doing something about shame.

Peeking into the sausage factory


I’ve been reading The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield which is amazing and you should absolutely grab a copy if you care about doing the things which matter most to you.

I’ve also been folding lots of washing, which I can also recommend. It’s not an inspirational or insightful activity, but it’s valuable if you don’t want to get divorced.

Normally while folding, I’ll listen to an audiobook version of whatever I’m reading at that time. That way I can do something I like when I’m also doing something I don’t.

Since it’s not that easy to track down The War of Art as an audio book, I’ve been listening to YouTube interviews with Stephen Pressfield whilst I fold. I thought that since I like the book so much, it would be useful and inspiring to listen to him talk about it in depth. It wasn’t.

And herein lies the challenge of peeking behind the curtains of something. Especially something you love. While you’re hoping for additional insight which takes you to a new level of understanding, it’s possible you can find yourself on a tour of a sausage factory, watching someone sweep up a pile of lips and arseholes which are then crudely mashed into that thing you (used to) love.

This got me thinking about when you should and shouldn’t peek behind the scenes (given the opportunity) and whether or not it’s possible to have some helpful guidelines for navigating the decision.

My (unsupported) intuition is that there fundamentalists on both sides of this argument – those who want to know all at all costs, and those for whom ignorance is bliss.

I can see the arguments for both sides having merit, but circumstantial merit. I don’t think that either approach can be applied universally without sacrificing something important.

In the case of this book and listening to the interviews, the peek didn’t add to my enjoyment or appreciation. It offered a strict(er) interpretation of the work which, if taken, eroded a lot of what I felt made it important. In this instance, the peek wasn’t worth it.

But there are just as many, if not more examples, of times when it’s been helpful to look behind the scenes, even if it’s ruined my appreciation for something. Peeking behind the scenes of factory farming, ruined my appetite for meat, but I’m grateful that I have the information, because now I feel I have a better position on eating meat (I don’t eat it).

After the fact, it’s easy to know if the peek was worth it since you can judge whether or not your position has improved based on what you have learned. Unfortunately, hindsight only works one way.

You could also argue that your position always improves by learning more, it’s just that you might not learn precisely that which you were looking for.

I didn’t get more nuance and insight about the book, but I did get a good lesson in not projecting your feelings about at artwork, onto its creator. You can love a work and dislike the artist. The reverse is also true.

I’ve been trying to find the criteria which might help make the choice not to look behind the scenes in appropriate circumstances, but doesn’t offer a haven to those who, like in the farming example, don’t want to face the grim reality of their own choices.

I think there are some useful questions to ask which might help determine if it’s worth your time, but I don’t think any (with perhaps the exception of the last one), help to really get us closer to a guideline.

  • Will this peek help me make better decisions, regardless of what I see?
  • Is my understanding of this thing nuanced or advanced?
  • How attached am I to my perception of this thing?
  • Is the value purely in my perception, or is it somewhere external?
  • What is the value / cost of having that perception shift?
  • How long will it take to look behind the scenes, and what will I have to sacrifice to do so?
  • Do I have an ethical obligation to understand more about this thing?

Despite where I thought that I might get to when I started writing this, I think that I’m coming down on the side of “always look”. Sure, somethings you’re going to see things you don’t like and which don’t really help you in the short term.

The only exception to this, might be when it’s very costly/time consuming to look, and there is absolutely no ethical obligation of have a peek.

It’s frustrating not to be able to get to a more solid position, but sometimes you just have to recognise there is more value in admitting something is grey than attempting to declare it black and white.

As for The War of Art, you should still get the book – it’s great. But when you’re folding washing, maybe you should just concentrate on what you’re doing. I know I should.

Let me know in the comments which side of the fence you come down on with respect to having a peek.

Shipping, fear & the resistance

I gorged on some Seth Godin videos over the weekend. Hey, you can judge me, but you gotta do something while you fold the washing for a family of five.

I was aware of Seth, but not particularly familiar with his work. His name would pop up, associated with an idea which sounded challenging, but intriguing, and I would dutifully note it down in under a category of things best described as “I probably should, but never will, look into this further.” It’s a big category full of vague, knotty items like “learn more about affiliate marketing, explore Dostoyevsky & find out why men your age like Taylor Swift”.

Anyhow, he has lots of interesting ideas which do sound worth exploring, one of which is this notion of “shipping”.

It’s a product term relating to the act of actually getting your product to customers, but in a broader context could be analogous to “completing”. When you ship something, you’re putting a version of it out into the world with your name on it. People will (may) see it, and when they do, they’ll know that you’re responsible for it.

OK, so while this is Mickey Mouse stuff (do stuff, then put it out there), the interesting thing is this gulf between having an idea, and shipping it. Lots of people have ideas, but very few people ship. Everyone has a great idea for a product, a movie, a book – but very few people become product designers, directors or authors.

Why is it that we all have these ideas, but that most of them die as scribbles in Moleskin notebooks and not out in the real world?

Godin contends that it’s because people assume that coming up with ideas is the work, but that the actual work is shipping. Ideas are a penny a pound, but commitment to ship is rare.

He suggests that partly what makes shipping so difficult is the social fear of failure generated by our brains in our Amygdala (or Lizard Brain).

Our Amygdala is one of the most primitive blocks of our brain and is hardwired to respond to some of our most primary needs and mechanisms. Memory modulation, aggression and the utility of fear as a motivator, all fall under it’s purview. While the Amygdala’s response to fear was originally primarily to physical threats which tended to be short-lived (either the leopard ate you or you got away), it is now capable of triggering the same response in the presence of more chronic, social pressures such as email, public speaking and anything else which can make you look stupid in front of other people.

Since “shipping” a product or idea into a public space has the capacity to make you look publicly silly, the Amygdala will create a fear response to the notion of shipping. This fear can become one of the primary barriers to bridging the gulf between having an idea and shipping it. Godin calls these barriers, The Resistance, a term which was coined by Stephen Pressfield.

The real challenge, according to Godin, is how to manage this fear so that you can move beyond it to just ship.

Shipping is where the exposure to criticism will come, but it’s also where all the value is found.

There’s a lot more in this, and I haven’t done enough work to have an opinion on most of it – but I thought it was worth capturing for a start.

Here are links to:
Seth Godin’s site
Seth’s talk on shipping and fear
Stephen Pressfield’s site