On playing hurt and abandoning shadow careers: Steven Pressfield’s guide to creating your life’s work

Sometimes a slim volume is packed with wisdom. Such is the case with Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work by Steven Pressfield.

His concept of “shadow careers” is very interesting and one I hadn’t ever thought of before:

“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 tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us.

…Are you getting your Ph.D. in Elizabethan studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies that you know you have inside you?…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, as yourself what your current life is a metaphor for. That metaphor will lead you towards your true calling.”

That insight alone is worth the brief amount of time it takes to read this book. Fortunately there’s more:

The amateur dreads becoming who she really is because she fears that this new person will be judged by others as ‘different.’


Here’s the truth: the tribe doesn’t give a shit.

There is no tribe.


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.

When we truly understand that the tribe doesn’t give a damn, we’re free. There is no tribe, and there never was.

Our lives are entirely up to us.

Pressfield also writes about how a professional trusts mystery and that the Muse always delivers. Here are his five axioms derived from this principle:

  1. Work over your head. It’s possible to write from a place that is far deeper than your personal ego. For example, an author who writes a character who is smarter than they are.
  2. Write what you don’t know. Pressfield wrote a screenplay about prison life even though he had never set foot in a prison. More than one person asked him afterwards where he did his time.
  3. Take what the defense gives you. There are bad stretches in any endeavor where you feel like giving up. To fight the resistance Pressfield urges us to “take what you can get and stay patient. The defense may crack late in the game. Play for tomorrow.”
  4. Play hurt. There is never a good time to switch careers or start a new project. “Athletes play hurt. Warriors fight scare. The professional takes two aspirin and keeps on truckin’.
  5. Sit chilly.  This maxim comes from a famous teacher of horsemanship. Horses are highly sensitive creatures and will pick up on any anxiety the rider feels in the saddle. “Sit chilly” means to stay in your seat even in moments of terror or panic.

I’m embarrassed to admit I still haven’t read Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles even though I’ve come across dozens of admonitions to read this classic book. That one will now go to the top of my reading heap.

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