Book Notes on Turning Pro, by Steven Pressfield.

Turning Pro

The War of Art, which precedes Turning Pro, was one of the selected texts for the altMBA. In it, Steven Pressfield talks about Resistance.

Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.

Resistance is fueled by fear.

Seth Godin refers to it as your lizard brain.

It’s the fear that prevents you from doing your work. That other project that you’ve been thinking about for a while but you’re not sure if anyone will care, or perhaps you’re a perfectionist and you don’t want to show work to others that you know could be better.

The way to combat Resistance, says Pressfield, is by Turning Pro.

Turning Pro is a mindset and a set of practices to help you do the work you feel you should be doing.

I’ve long thought about my freelance work as my main work, and everything else as side projects. Reading Turning Pro, I realised that I need to pick which of those projects I want to do first and then approach it as a “pro”. Austin Kleon says we’re all amateurs and quotes Charlie Chaplin:

That’s all any of us are: amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else.

I think it’s about having the humility of an amateur to recognise how little we know, while adopting the habits of a professional.

Here are the sections I highlighted

[What ails us] is that we are living our lives as amateurs.

The solution, this book suggests is that we turn pro. Turning pro is free, but it’s not easy.

When we turn pro, we give up a life with which we may have become extremely comfortable. We give up a self that we have come to identify with and to call our own. We may have to give up friends, lovers, even spouses.

What we get when we turn pro is, we find our power. We find out will and our voice and we find our self-respect. We become who we always were but hand, until then, been afraid to embrace and live out.

Shadow Careers

Sometimes, when we’re terrified of embracing our true calling, we’ll pursue a shadow calling instead.

That shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. Its shape is similar, its contours feel tantalisingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk.

Are you working in a support capacity for an innovator because you’re afraid to risk becoming an innovator yourself?

If you’re dissatisfied with your current life, ask yourself what your current life is a metaphor for.

That metaphor will point you toward your true calling.

The Shadow Life

In the shadow life, we live in denial and we act by addiction.

We pursue calling that take us nowhere and permit ourselves to be controlled by compulsions that we cannot understand (or are not aware of) and whose outcomes serve only to keep us caged, unconscious and going nowhere.


This book is about habits.

The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. An amateur has amateur habits. A professional has professional habits.

We can never free ourselves from habits. The human being is a creature of habit. But we can replace bad habits with good ones.

Art and Addiction

The addict is the amateur; the artist is the professional.

Both addict and artist are dealing with the same material, which is the pain of being human and the struggle against self-sabotage. But the addict/amateur and the artist/professional deal with these elements in fundamentally different ways.

(When I say “addiction”, by the way, I’m not referring only to the serious, clinical maladies of alcoholism, drug dependence, domestic abuse and so forth. Web-surfing counts too. So do compulsive texting, sexting, twittering and Facebooking.)

Distractions. Displacement activities.

When we’re living as amateurs, we’re running away from our calling — meaning our work, our destiny, the obligation to become our truest and highest selves.

Addiction becomes a surrogate for our calling. We enact the addiction instead of embracing the calling. Why? Because to follow a calling requires work. It’s hard. It hurts. It demands entering the pain-zone of effort, risk, and exposure.

So we take the amateur route instead. Instead of composing our symphony, we create a “shadow symphony”, of which we ourselves are the orchestra, the conductor, the composer, the audience. Our life becomes a shadow drama, a shadow start-up company, a shadow philanthropic venture.

Why I Don’t Knock Addiction

Addictions are not “bad”. They are simply the shadow forms of a more noble and exalted calling.

Our addictions are our callings themselves, only encrypted and incognito.

Addictions and shadow careers are messages in a bottle from our unconscious. Our Self, in the Jungian sense, is trying to get our attention, to have an intervention with us.

The question we need to ask of a shadow career or an addiction is the same question the psychotherapist asks of a dream. “What is our unconscious trying to tell us?”

The following is a sampling in no particular order, of garden-variety addictions that fall short of hard-code chemical dependency but are still more than potent enough to cripple, mal-form and destroy our lives.

Addicted to Failure

The lure of failure can be as intoxicating as the hardest of hard-core narcotics. Its payoff is incapacity. When we fail, we are off the hook. We have given ourselves a Get Out of Jail free card. We no longer have to ask Stanislavsky’s famous three questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What do I want?

Addicted to Sex

My own theory is that the obsessive pursuit of ex is an attempt to obliterate the ego, i.e. “normal” consciousness, the monkey-mind that tortures us with restlessness, fear, anger, and self-centredness.

Addicted to Distraction

Resistance hates two qualities above all others: concentration and depth. Why? Because when we work with focus and we work deep, we succeed.

Resistance wants to keep us shallow and unfocused. So it makes the superficial and the vain intoxicating.

Have you checked your email in the last half hour?

Addicted to Money

The real utility of money is its convenience as a medium of exchange.

But when we’re addicted to money, we become hooked on the metaphor.

Is money how we keep score? Is it magic? Is wealth a currency that opens door, realises possibilities, produces transcendence?

Addicted to Trouble

The individual addicted to trouble will never get out of jail, because he is safer behind bars than free out in the world. each time he is released, he will find a way to get sent back.

Accidental Incapacitation

The habits and addictions of the amateur are conscious or unconscious self-inflicted wounds. Their payoff is incapacity. When we take our [gun] and blow a hole in our foot, we no longer have to face the real fight of our lives, which is to become who we are and to realise our destiny and our calling.

A Definition of the Amateur

The amateur is young and dumb. He’s innocent, he’s good-hearted, he’s well-intentioned. The amateur is brave.

He’s inventive and resourceful. He’s willing to take a chance.

The amateur is not evil or crazy. He’s not deluded. He’s not demented. The amateur is trying to learn.

The Amateur is Terrified

Fear is the primary colour of the amateur’s interior world. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of looking foolish, fear of under-achieving and fear of over-achieving, fear of poverty, fear of loneliness, fear of death.

But mostly what we all fear as amateurs is being excluded from the tribe, i.e. the gang, the posse, mother and father, family, nation, race, religion.

The amateur fears that if he turns pro and lives out his calling, he will have to live up to who he really is and what he is truly capable of.

The amateur is terrified that if the tribe should discover who is really is, he will be kicked out into the cold to die.

The Professional is Terrified Too

The professional, by the way, is just as terrified as the amateur. In fact the professional may be more terrified because she is more acutely aware of herself and of her interior universe.

The difference lies in the way the professional acts in the face of fear.

The Amateur is an Egotist

The amateur identifies with his own ego. He believes he is “himself”. That’s why he’s terrified.

The Amateur Lives by the Opinions of Others

Though the amateur’s identity is seated in his own ego, that ego is so weak that is cannot define itself based on its own self-evaluation. The amateur allows his worth and identity to be defined by others.

The amateur craves third-party validation.

He is imprisoned by what he believes he ought to think, how he ought to look, what he ought to do, and who he ought to be.

The Amateur Permits Fear to Stop Him from Acting

Paradoxically, the amateurs self-inflation prevents him from acting. He takes himself and the consequences of his actions so seriously that he paralyses himself.

The amateur fears, above all else, becoming (and being seen and judged as) himself.

The Amateur Seeks Permission

The amateur believes that, before she can act, she must receive permission from some Omnipotent Other — a lover, a spouse, a parent, a boss, a figure of authority.

The Amateur Lives for the Future

The amateur and the addict focus exclusively on the product and the payoff. Their concern is what’s in it for them, and how soon and how cheaply they can get it.

The Amateur Lives in the Past

Because the amateur owns nothing of spirit in the present, she either looks forward to a hopeful future or backward to an idyllic past. But the past evoked by the amateur is make-believe. It never existed. It’s a highlight reel that she edited together from events that almost took place or should have occurred.

The payoff of living in the past or the future is you never have to do your work in the present.

The Amateur Will Be Ready Tomorrow

The sure sign of an amateur is he has a million plans and they all start tomorrow.

The Amateur Gives His Power Away to Others

Have you ever followed a guru or mentor? I have. I’ve given my power away to lovers and spouses. I’ve sat by the phone. I’ve waited for permission. I’ve turned in work and waited, trembling, the judgement of others.

The Tribe Doesn’t Give a Shit

The amateur dreads becoming who she really is because she fears that this new person will be judged by others as “different”. The tribe will declare us “weird” or “queer” or “crazy”. The tribe will reject us.

Here’s the truth: the tribe doesn’t give a shit. There is no tribe.

That gang or posse that we imagine is sustaining us by the bonds we share is in fact a conglomeration of individuals who are just as fucked up as we are and just as terrified. Each individual is so caught up in his own bullshit that he doesn’t have two seconds to worry about yours or mine, or to reject or diminish us because of it.

Life Gets Very Simple When You Turn Pro

What happens when we turn pro is, we finally listen to that still, small voice inside our heads. At last we find the courage to identify the secret dream or love or bliss that we have known all along was our passion, our calling, our destiny.

This, we acknowledge at last, is what we are most afraid of. This is what we know in our hearts we have to do.

How Your Life Changes When You Turn Pro

Before we turn pro, our life is dominated by fear and Resistance. We live in a state of denial. We’re denying the voice in our heads. We’re denying our calling. We’re denying who we really are.

We’re fleeing from our fear into an addiction or a shadow career.

What changes when we turn pro is we stop fleeing.

When we turn pro, we stop running from our fears. We turn around and face them.

How Your Day Changes When You Turn Pro

When we turn pro, everything becomes simple. Our aims centre on the ordering of our days in such a way that we overcome the fears that have paralysed us in the past.

We now structure our hours not to flee from fear, but to confront it and overcome it.

We plan our activities in order to accomplish an aim. And we bring our will to bear so that we stick to this resolution.

This changes our days completely.

It changes what time we get up and it changes what time we go to bed. It changes what we do and what we don’t do. It changes the activities we engage in and with that attitude we engage in them. It changes what we read and what we eat. It changes the shape of our bodies.

[There is an extensive list of other qualities explained in more detail in the book.]

A Marine Gets Two Salaries

There’s a well-known gunnery sergeant who, when his young marines complain about their pay, explains that they get two salaries: A financial salary and a psychological salary.

You and I, as artist and entrepreneurs, receive two salaries as well.

The first might be called conventional rewards — money, applause, attention. That kind is fine if we can get it. The problem for most of us is we can’t. We bust our butts training and practising and studying and rehearsing and nobody shows up, nobody notices, nobody even knows we exist. No wonder people quit. The struggle requires too much agony for too little payoff.

That’s the conventional reward.

Then there’s the psychological reward.

Krishna told Arjuna that he had the right to his labour, but not to the fruits of his labour. What he meant was conventional fruits.

Does the monk meditate only to achieve enlightenment? What if that never happens?

When we do the work for itself alone, our pursuit of a career (or a living or fame or wealth or notoriety) turns into something else, something loftier and nobler, which we may never even have thought about or aspired to at the beginning.

It turns into a practice.

A Practice Has a Space

A practice has a space, and that space is sacred.

A Practice Has a Time

You and I may have to operate in a more chaotic universe [than monks]. But the object remains the same: to approach the mystery via order, commitment and passionate intention.

When we convene day upon day in the same space at the same time, a powerful energy builds up around us. This is the energy of our intention, of our dedication, of our commitment.

A Practice Has Intention

Our intention as artists is to get better, to go deeper, to work closer and closer to the bone.

Play Hurt

The amateur believes that she must have all her ducks in a row before she can launch her start-up or compose her symphony or design her iPhone app.

The professional knows better.

Has your husband just walked out on you?

Has your El Dorado been repossessed?

Keep writing.

Keep composing.

Keep shooting film.

Athletes play hurt. Warriors fight scared.

The professional takes two aspirin and keeps on truckin’.

If you have a nagging doubt that you aren’t yet following your true calling, then reading Turning Pro may give you the nudge you need.