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Personal Growth

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.)

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 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.

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)
  • jkglei

    Ha. Thanks Sarah. Good to hear from you!

  • jkglei

    I fully agree, James. Which is why we don’t review every self-help book coming down the pipe. This one felt like a particularly good kick in the pants to me tho. : )

  • Zulficar Ali Muhamed

    It has struck the chords.. some deepest thought of thinking about being successful in the future; but failing to realize the present moments.

  • Ted Kusio

    So perhaps the “professional” artist is one who actually created something, or one who’s actually doing his/her art, and shares the results? Sure is easy to say the “doing-nothing-about-it wannabe” ain’t no professional artist!

  • Jake Sullivan

    Definitely some good thoughts, but it seems important to remember that even for the “professional” there is no static state of being. Meaning, everything and everyone is a constant work in progress. If the addict must take everyday one day at a time, so too does the professional. Today’s champion can just as easily become tomorrow’s has been.

  • Michelle Deplois

    I find it interesting that this article has a reference to Miyamoto Musashi. I’m in the process of reading a translation of The Book of the Five Rings. Although the work pertains to martial arts, it can be applied to other areas. Simple is better. I’ve seen too many people with brilliant ideas set them aside due to distractions. I spent nine years developing a book series. I can’t begin to descibe the amount of resistence I had to plow through to get the first one published and it all came from me.

  • Milena Tobias

    Good message.

  • Kris Embree

    This article was just what I needed to get “back on track”. Looking at it in that way has helped me redirect my mind back in the right direction. Thank you! 🙂 I am looking forward to reading the Turning Pro book!

  • Sofia Garcês

    Completely agree with you Jake, it’s easy to slip back into the “addict” we must constantly make vigil so that we do not abandon the way of the professional and by doing so abandon ourselves!

  • Lidz1

    I think courage is the defining quality in dying to self so to speak (the ego and self-centeredness that drives most) and starting to live out the “artist” in ourselves. I know of many people who prefer to stay an amateur because it’s safe and familiar. I also think people are sometimes more scared about how much they can achieve and succeed with their potential and alternatively prefer to hide under the auspices of the amateur.

  • Derrick Michaels

    I am a 26-year-old musician from Baltimore. Three years ago, I was stuck, blocked, living the addict’s life. I worked in a music store 6 days a week, avoided performing too often under the pretense that I didn’t want to “give too much away.” I was consumed by ego – constantly comparing myself to everyone else, judging everything that I did hierarchically (something Steven Pressfield spells out as a huge no-no.)

    I read Pressfield’s “The War of Art” three years ago – the same year that I first read Kenny Werner’s “Effortless Mastery” and Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”. Steven writes about how a professional does not define him/herself by their craft – the craft is the territory on which he/she develops into the best possible version of Self. In February 2011, After 2 years of reading about dissociation from ego – learning that it is “better to be taking hits on the field than judging the game from the stands”, I made the decision to turn pro.

    I broke up with my girlfriend of two years, left my job, and have devoted my life to completing my work. It’s fucking hard – I have very little money, I’ve stayed away from relationships, I’m watching every earthly desire I had disappear in front of my eyes – life is scary. But at the end of the day, I’ve turned it all around. I was a wannabe creative musician, hating my life working in a music store, developing my “shadow career” talking about what I was going to do “one day” – now, in the year and a half since turning pro, I’ve made two records of original music, established myself in the scene of creative professional musicians in my city, joined an improvised music collective, I’m currently in six bands and freelancing a ton, and paying my bills between performing and teaching my students how to connect to their inner music.

  • Tameka

    No comments because this is one I need to digest and apply. Thank you for this post!

  • damned

    I like this but I seem to just keep failing at everything I do. My grades in Design College were great, but I can’t get a design job for shit. I can write, but I can’t seem to get published. Some of us are just meant to fail and die alone.

  • E

    How timely! I recently realized that I am more obsessed with the idea of writing than actually sitting down to do it. Ordering this book now!

  • Minette

    Haha! That’s *SO* me! Glad I’m not the only one.

  • RebeccaTracey

    Gone pro baby! Finally gave into my passion for inspiring others to get off their asses and live the lives they want, and decided to actually do the same for myself. Am currently fueling my constant need for adventure by bringing my coaching business on the road on an 8 month rock climbing trip. Living in a van is amazing and I can’t believe it took me so long to get here!

  • Emily Stone Davis

    I have turned “pro”–I am working on the 2nd draft of my first novel– but this piece reminds me that being an artist is an on-going condition. Write is a verb. If I’m not actively engaged, I will lose my pro standing. Dream. Dare. DO.

  • Sally Bain

    I like that Artist Vs the Addict. I particularly like it that the Stephen Pressfield gives us our due by calling us Artists, if nothing else we deserve the title. Strikes me that if we can embrace our vocation, as opposed to constantly justifying why, and apologizing for, not earning as much as those trapped in their ‘shadow careers’ we might actually make some.

  • Mullai selvan

    thank u sir

  • jkglei

    GREAT story, Derrick. Thanks so much for sharing it.

  • jkglei

    Good for you, Rebecca! I rock climb, too. If you’re going to land at Brooklyn Boulders in Brooklyn, NY, give me a holler. : )

  • Karthik Radhakrishnan

    A good one to share! But do you think just a professional life is all what you have got? What about your personal life? You don’t need to have loose your relationship and stay like this ever!
    I don’t think being an artist here means, that lose your ‘You’. You might need to re-design the way you are now! 🙂

  • k

    BUt how to know what you should devote to?

  • Andrew Chando Yu

    wow, great story! congrats on taking that scary step – wish all the best for you

  • Lawrence Philp

    ditto to Wallace Stevens. Thank for the article and the feedback all.

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