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Big Ideas

Are You Trapped in a “Shadow Career”? The Artist vs The Addict

Do you have a "dream project" or career that you consistently neglect? Steven Pressfield breaks down how addiction can stifle your ability to act.

A few months ago, a colleague of mine told me about meeting a young woman who was “passionate” about writing. He asked her what she had written recently, and she said nothing. In recounting the story to me, he said, “How can you say you’re passionate about something if you’re not doing anything about it?” Good question.

And yet, this is a common affliction. Many of us feel passionate about a particular job or creative project or cause, but we don’t take action on it. Why? Are we addicted to failure? Addicted to distraction? Addicted to money?

Novelist and War of Art author Steven Pressfield gets at the crux of this conundrum in his excellent new book, Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work. I was particularly struck by his distinction between “the artist” and “the addict,” wherein the former is living out a productive, creative career, while the latter is caught in an endless loop of aspiration and yearning that never gets backed up with meaningful action.In short, Pressfield calls bullshit on those of us who are passionate about our ideas, but aren’t acting on them. It’s bracing stuff:

Many artists are addicts, and vice versa. Many are artists in one breath and addicts in another.What’s the difference?

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.)


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 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 composer, and the audience. Our life becomes a shadow drama, a shadow start-up company, a shadow philanthropic venture.

My life used to be a shadow novel. It had plot, characters, sex scenes, action scenes. It had mood, atmosphere, texture. It was scary, it was weird, it was exciting. I had friends who were living out shadow movies, or creating shadow art, or initiating shadow industries. These were our addictions, and we worked them for all they were worth. There was only one problem: none of us was writing a real novel, or painting a real painting, or starting a real business. We were amateurs living in the past or dreaming of the future, while failing utterly to do the work necessary to progress in the present.

When you turn pro, your life gets very simple.

The Zen monk, the artist, the entrepreneur often lead lives so plain they’re practically invisible. Miyamoto Musashi’s dojo was smaller than my living room. Things became superfluous for him. In the end he didn’t even need a sword.

The amateur is an egotist. He takes the material of his personal pain and uses it to draw attention to himself. He creates a “life,” a “character,” a “personality.”

The artist and the professional, on the other hand, have turned a corner in their minds. They have grown so bored with themselves and so sick of their petty bullshit that they can manipulate those elements the way a HazMat technician handles weapons-grade plutonium.

They manipulate them for the good of others. What were once their shadow symphonies become real symphonies. The color and drama that were once outside now move inside.

Turning pro is an act of self-abnegation. Not Self with a capital-S, but little-s self. Ego. Distraction. Displacement. Addiction.

When we turn pro, the energy that once went into the Shadow Novel goes into the real novel. What we once thought was real – “the world,” including its epicenter, ourselves – turns out to be only a shadow. And what had seemed to be only a dream, now, the reality of our lives.

Learn more about Turning Pro here. It’s a slim but powerful book that you can read in just a few sittings.

Have You Turned Pro?

Are you still battling an addiction? Or do you have a story about the moment you turned pro? Tell us in the comments.

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (66)
  • Bill Coffin

    I turned pro at the end of my freshman year in college,
    while I was sitting in an English lit class and the idea for my next novel
    struck me like a thunderbolt. I had written my first novel earlier that year
    mainly to see if I could actually do it. This time, I figured not only will I
    write this, but I will publish it also. I have kept the same mindset with very
    subsequent novel I have written. All have been published. (My most recent are Pax Morgana and Pax Arcadia, from Reliquary Press. Pax Britannia is due out later this year. Sorry, but how could I write a note about going pro and not flog my work?)

    I have often looked at it like this: There is everybody who would like to be a writer. 1% of them actually write. Of them, 1% finish what they write. Of them, 1% show it to other people. Of them, 1% take their criitcism seriously and re-write. Of them 1% try to get published. Of them, 1% keep trying until they get accepted. If you’re serious about being a pro at this, you really don’t have as much competition as you think.

    P.S.: Even for pros, the distraction and displacement can be a hard thing to battle. I recently spent $20 to equip my computer with Freedom and Anti-Social. Yeah, yeah, I know that some honest willpower to get to work would have been free, but since installing those programs, my productivity has skyrocketed, so I suppose for me, it was worth it.

  • James

    Need to make sure people don’t just read self-help literature but act on it also, otherwise this itself becomes an addiction.

  • Sean A. Metcalf

    This is amazing. Thanks.

  • Peto1500

    Great article. Great website also. For the second time in a row, you hit the key with a subject I was just wondering about. Thanks for the answers!

  • Lameen Abdul-Malik

    I had the safe life, top government job and coffee addict & then I turned pro, top cafe in Cape Town (escape caffe – the only cafe owned and run by a Nobel peace prize laureate), but now I may be forced to satisfy another addiction, be the best husband and father I can be by taking the “safe” route to get a high paying job to pay for my kids education and not stress my wife with debts, so where am I and what am I ? Pro-addict ? It ain’t easy.

  • BunBun

    Julia Cameron talks a lot about the shadow artist and who is one and how to overcome it in her book The Artist’s Way.

  • Virginia Postrel

    Anti-Social is great.

  • Keegan

    It’s all well and good to put a name to something we already knew was there, but what I am interested in is figuring out how to break free from the addiction.

  • BunBun

    Agreed. Right on, Keegan. I’d say try Julia Cameron’s books. Especially the morning pages. Morning pages work miracles.

  • Dawson

    Quite possibly the best treatise I have read in years. Be gone damn addiction !! A bias towards real action is the route to really fulfilling, productive work.

  • Denise Torres

    Holy-heck this is true! I am my own worst enemy and I know it! The harder I try the less I seem to get done. Have to clear out the clutter (both mental & physical) and Focus! Following this interesting link via Twitter isn’t helping!
    I do look forward to reading, “Turning Pro” – Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  • Stephanie Press

    There is a lot here about identity and knowing yourself that is only just being touched on. People who are addicts are constantly looking for things and people to make themselves feel complete. Some can get pretty far on natural charisma and false confidence, but they ultimately remain empty. When you know yourself and are aware of your calling, you’re ready to give to others. Whether you do it perfectly or not. It’s a process. From a recovering addict. 🙂

  • Dawn Wiley

    I find your insight into your self-sacrifice for your family similar to my own; gave up that shadow job for the mommy track and it’s a damn hard to trek back from here. Being there for the kids is necessary, gratifying at times, but hard on the soul once they need you less. There are good examples of people with feet in both worlds, I forget the author’s name, but he worked by day in insurance and still had time to write what we call classic lit today. this topic is easy when you are alone, much harder when you strive to do well by your family

  • Sinjin Smythe

    Still battling! Drink too much, smoke too much, sedentary too much. Play my guitar regularly but need to record more. Write on dumb websites too much and want to write a novel.Do well at my job but my wife is exceedingly lazy and has all but given up on her career. We built our lives around two incomes and now we are just scrapping by on mine. Gets me down and I take comfort in substances.

  • lifeboatb

    You might be thinking of Franz Kafka, but he didn’t have kids to deal with (not that he would have had to do as much as today’s fathers if he had). Anthony Trollope also had a demanding job as a post office official, but I think the gentry’s working hours were a little shorter then than they are today. Also, they had servants! (But they didn’t have dental anesthetic, so there’s that.)

  • Ted Kusio

    Is a “professional” one who gets paid for his/her art, or one who creates his/her art?

  • Matthew

    For Real! These words were the most convicting I’ve come across, possibly ever.

  • Sarah E.

    Jocelyn, you are my favorite. You rocked it at Flavorpill and I’m grateful that you’re rocking it here on the %. Thank you for this powerful piece.

  • Frank Kozik

    went pro 25 years ago. art career has been great ever since and yeah, I dress like a hobo and never go out. 7 days a week in the studio, every week.

    -Frank Kozik

  • Michael Hernandez

    I know this life…like a mirror

  • Shyam

    Well, apart from the Addict and the Artist; there is the serious Amateur. How do you distinguish between the Addict and the Amateur? The serious Amateur knows his capability (to some extent) and knows his limitation in terms of time/energy (very well) and unlike the Addict, he is content; he is not unhappy. Mycroft Holmes in the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, for example. Both he and Sherlok Holmes know that he is far better at analysis; but he is unwilling to do all that comes with private investigation. And he has no qualms

  • jeremy beasley

    Agreed although I do feel 99% tends to have a more practical slant than most in the “creativity”/”self-help” genre.

  • Sam kirkman

    If monetary compensation were the defining factor then Van Gough was an amateur. It has to be something else.

  • Daniel Tang

    Well said James.

  • Greg McKenna

    Wallace Stevens.

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