Kicking the Resistance

Review of
Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work
by Steven Pressfield
Black Irish, 2012

Resistance. You face it (whether you know it or not). I face it (all. the. time.). Steven Pressfield has made a mini-career of writing about it, and we are the better for it.

Author of numerous novels exploring warfare in the past, and even the future, Pressfield also explores our inner warfare, the struggle that keeps us from creating, from doing the work. He first wrote of that Resistance in the classic The War of Art. The Resistance is that inner self that seeks to distract us, sabotage us. It is why during finals week I had the irresistible urge to go to the local arcade rather than study Latin. It’s why you check your email/Facebook/Twitter every five minutes. It’s why some turn to alcohol or drugs. Why aren’t you able to finish that novel, dissertation or sermon series? Doing the work, it turns out, looks a lot like work.

It is both a comfort to know that one is not waging the only such battle, but also sobering when confronted with the reality of our own shortcomings. The Resistance leverages our weaknesses against us and, most of all, our fears so that the work we should be doing, that Great Thing, never gets done.

In this sequel to The War of Art, Pressfield uses the battle with the Resistance as a jumping off point to discuss what the transformation from an Amateur (one controlled by the Resistance) to a Pro (one who controls the Resistance) looks like. Those are the only options. One can never vanquish Resistance.

Pressfield breaks Turning Pro into three sections “The Amateur Life,” “Self-Inflicted Wounds” and “The Professional Mindset.” As is his wont, Pressfield tells his story through small, often less than one page, vignettes. Most are autobiographical.

Initially, he was in hiding from his desire to write. Pressfield reveals, “In the back of my Chevy van, under piles of junk and rusting spare parts, sat my ancient Smith-Corona typewriter. Why didn’t I throw it away? I certainly wasn’t using it.” The quest away from that work, driven by his own Resistance, takes him from picking apples in Washington state to truck driving.

Pressfield puts forth a theory of “shadow careers.” These are lived out metaphors for our true calling. The Resistance pushes us away from what we ought to be doing into something lesser for “[i]f we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us.” But while we are insulating ourselves from failure, that shadow career can also point us to the substance that it is obscuring.

At root “[t]he amateur,” Pressfield explains, “is a narcissist.” And “the amateur’s self-inflation prevents him from acting. He takes himself and the consequences of his actions so seriously that he paralyzes himself.” Ease of distraction, jealousy, seeking instant gratification are all the marks of the amateur.

But life becomes simple (as distinct from easy) when we turn pro: “we stop fleeing.” The pro has a different mindset. He embraces habit and constancy. Pressfield asks, “Do you understand how the mystery can be approached via order?”

Like The Art of War, Turning Pro is a challenge. It is a challenge to stand up to the Resistance that weighs us down, that tricks us, and lies to us. It makes us stop looking through a glass darkly, but finally face to face.

Pressfield writes in many ways as an old pagan rather than from a Christian worldview. He comes to us from Sparta rather than Jerusalem. But while some of his pronouncements may run counter to our sensibilities, in its essential elements Pressfield is writing truth. It is a truth that we will recognize one way or another if we are ever to do that thing we are supposed to do.

As Pressfield writes, “Becoming a pro, in the end, is nothing grander than growing up.”


Wrecking Your Life

Wrecked: When a Broken World Slams into Your Comfortable Life
by Jeff Goins
Moody Publishers, 2012
[At the time of this writing you can buy Wrecked for $.99 for Kindle.]

The longing for heaven, even among Christians, likely is at an all time low in the Western world. Technology, wealth, “progress,” have done well in providing a comfortable, insulated existence for us. We are all bubble boys now, and as a result we are at ease on earth with little perceived need of heaven. Satan has anesthetized us with materialism, tricked us into turning God’s material blessings against ourselves.

Jeff Goins has written a book about what happens when a fallen world intrudes into that bubble. It surprises us, makes us uncomfortable. We are “disabused of the status quo.” Goins argues it can leave us wrecked.

Goins recounts his personal experiences from Spain and Mexico to the streets of Nashville as he comes face to face with beggars, the homeless and destitute single mothers. Goins writes, “these are the experiences we need. Our brokenheartedness at the injustices we witness is what gives us compassion. So when we rush past these messy and uncomfortable moments we take away the experiences that teach us mercy.”

It also challenges our self-centered assumptions about life. “We’ve believed a lie. We’ve been told life is about us.” Being wrecked is when we are whacked on the side of the head with the realization that it is not.

Built around the framework of Goins’s own life experience, Wrecked also includes episodes from others, mostly missionaries. By day, Goins works for a mission organization helping missionaries tell their stories. It’s a job that constantly brings him into contact with the newly wrecked, men and women often overwhelmed when they come face to face with the distress and poverty that exists beyond our shores.

Goins recounts the restlessness that the “wrecked” feeling brings, that it can lead to a dangerous self-righteousness, looking for hits of compassion to assuage the guilt. But these are in some ways necessary stages to lead us to a point where we can truly be useful.

Being wrecked is in some ways an easy thing. It’s not comfortable; it is reorienting. But the initial realization that there is suffering is but a first step. Some never move past this stage. Their lives can become chaotic, overwhelmed with trying to fix the world. Goins rightly warns, “The world is broken and remains that way, in spite of our efforts to help it.”

In perhaps the most valuable section of Wrecked, Goins calls for moving into a life of mature commitment. This is not simply a commitment to helping others, but creating a habit of balanced commitment in our lives: a commitment to our marriages, our children, our church, our jobs. It’s picking up our lives when the adventure ends, which is when we begin to have true lasting impact on the world. Goins writes, “God wants to use our restlessness to call us out of the world and into a new reality characterized by order, not chaos.”

Goins’s book is not easy. It’s often raw. And it does challenge, challenges us to do the hard things, not the exciting things. He tells us, “What you ought to be looking for in your search for your life’s calling is struggle, not resolution.”

Indeed, “it’s hard to get your heart broken on the couch. You have to go.”

World Domination For a C-note

The $100 Startup
by Chris Guillebeau
Crown Business, 2012

Chris Guillebeau of the Art of Non-Conformity blog (and likewise titled book) has released his new The $100 Startup between trips to every country in the world. Guillebeau writes in the vein of success gurus Tim Ferriss and Seth Godin. But although Guillebeau lives a seemingly high flying life, he connects with the reader in a down to earth way that reflects his contagious idealism.

Based on an underlying bootstrapping philosophy, The $100 Startup argues that we have the ability to pursue our unconventional dreams in the new economy if we have the courage to start. The enemies to our dreams include the notions that we need thousands of dollars in capital and a highly detailed business plan before we can act.

But Guillebeau is a realistic entrepreneur. Not every dream is marketable, he warns. The key is finding the convergence point between passion and the market. By bootstrapping (the $100 part) we insulate ourselves from the potential consequences of failure. Hard work, imagination and passion ultimately win the day in Guillebeau’s world.

The book is filled with real world case studies, and not every success story in the book is an Internet wonder. Many are more traditional businesses, some even brick and mortar. All, however, are small, microbusinesses. Guillebeau writes from the perspective of life as an adventure, not life as a desk bound manager. He’s not interested in teaching you how to build Apple, but how to make a living with a MacBook under your arm.

Many have a dream that they’re not embracing. It might not be a new career, but a new direction for the one you have; perhaps it’s a charity or non-profit. Whatever it might be, the reality is that there’s never been a time more open to more people to embrace those dreams than right now. For a Benjamin it’s worth a shot.

(Review copy supplied by the author/publisher.)

The Song of Roland March

Nothing to Hide (A Roland March Mystery)
by J. Mark Bertrand
Bethany House, 2012

Roland March, aging Houston homicide detective, is back for a third installment courtesy of Christy Award Finalist author J. Mark Bertrand. Bertrand successfully builds on the earlier Back on Murder and Pattern of Wounds in what is March’s most cohesive outing yet.

A pointing headless corpse discovered on a basketball court begins an investigation that leads March to wrestle with demons from his past. This in turn uncovers for the reader the events that propelled the detective to avenge the dead as a career. March must navigate department politics, stonewalling from the FBI and a gang of rogue mercenaries. And if anyone is happy about the current Fast & Furious gunrunning scandal it surely is Bertrand as it gives his detective story a ripped from the headlines feel (Bertrand confesses as much in an afterward).

Nothing to Hide has what every suspense novel ought to have: an unfolding, multi-layered plot that makes the reader burn the midnight oil to read just one more chapter. The writing is smooth and natural, the dialogue unforced. If you’re looking for a summer page turner to haul to the beach look no further.

But it would be a disservice to dismiss Nothing to Hide as simply an ephemeral summer novel. Bertrand is not only writing exciting fiction, he is also attempting to rescue the notion of “Christian fiction” altogether. Christian fiction is its own ghettoized genre. The Christian fiction shelves are filled with “safe” romance novels with a strong moral message, likely a dramatic conversion story climax and a modestly clad female on the cover. (Yes, I recognize this is an over simplification of the Christian fiction landscape, but it’s closer to reality than anyone should be comfortable with.)

That this is our culture’s understanding of Christian fiction is an insult to the foundations of all of Western literature, which for over a thousand years was to a letter “Christian” in its approach and assumptions. This began to bifurcate with the secularization of our culture, and what was presented as Christian art became not the standard, the cultural norm, but rather a bowdlerized imitation of a pop secular world.

Bertrand shows with his three Roland March novels that he is a serious writer within his chosen genre of hard boiled detective fiction. But he has also flipped the tables on the assumptions of the modern Christian novel. Rather than kidnapping the police procedural, cleaning it up and dragging it to Bethany House and LifeWay Christian, Bertrand has instead dragged them to the serious detective story.

We are reminded of our Christian literary heritage with the novel’s allusions and overt references both to Dante’s Inferno and the classic Song of Roland. Will March blow the olifant as overwhelming danger surrounds him? Is hell simply a construct of our own making, created to punish those we deem deserving of it, or is there true justice? Bertrand plays with the literary background, reminds us of it, but does not slavishly follow the storylines of old. He has his own story to tell.

Some have been frustrated with the perceived lack of a proper spiritual arc for March, his failure to play the Christian fiction game. But Bertrand is playing the long game, much like the enigmatic Magnum in his novel. It’s not about a contrived conversion scene for the hero March, but rather about his struggle with the implications of good and evil, judgment, choice and destiny. It’s even about March wrestling with the notion of conversion itself. Playing on the age old cliche, Bertrand very directly asks does the foxhole produce atheists or believers? And if it produces both, what is the true character of those men?

Roland March continues to be a hero worth reading about. He is a fallen hero seeking redemption in a fallen world. For that redemption he first must seek, and with gracious help he will find.