You’ve Got to Conquer Your Resistance. Here’s How.

Until recently, I was most familiar with Steven Pressfield as the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance
, though he has written a number of other well-received books.  And then a year ago, I ran across The War of Art.  Curious, since I’d just finished The Art of War, I started reading and found myself drawn into a world that I quickly recognized as my own.

“It’s not the writing part that’s hard.
What’s hard is sitting down to write.”

“Most of us have two lives.  The life we live, and
the unlived life within us.  Between the two lies Resistance.”

Pressfield’s thesis is that we all have something within us that both seeks and runs from expression.  The book is written expressly for creatives, but even a cursory read reveals that it applies to everyone who has a big goal or calling of some sort.  Pressfield speaks specifically to divinely-inspired genius, and the latter part of the book delves into the role of the divine in genius and talent.  Whatever the source of this talent, however, Pressfield’s focus and his brilliance lies in explaining the role of Resistance and how to recognize and ultimately vanquish it.

Pressfield defines Resistance as “the enemy within”, a “repelling force” that “prevents us from doing our work”.  Resistance comes in many forms:  procrastination, personal drama, and “plausible, rational justifications for why we shouldn’t do our work”.  As I read, it became clear to me that “our work” refers equally to writing or any other form of art and to the work of practicing law, including building a book of business.

In The War of Art, Pressfield introduces the pro, meaning one who combats Resistance and is determined to do the work.  The pro knows that “if he caves in today, no matter how plausible the pretext, he’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow.  The professional knows that Resistance is like a telemarketer; if you so much as say hello, you’re finished.  The pro doesn’t even pick up the phone.  He stays at work.”  In Turning Pro, Pressfield further distinguishes the amateur from the pro and offers insight into making the shift.

The concept of Resistance (and Pressfield’s specific identification of its dangers) prompted me to read The War of Art through a lawyer’s eyes.  As I did, I discovered that Pressfield describes almost every one of the key mistakes I see among would-be rainmakers.  For example:

  • Would-be rainmakers often plunge headfirst into activity, frantically doing everything that seems like it might lead to new business.  Pressfield identifies the cause of this hyperactivity as Resistance:  “Resistance gets us to plunge into a project with an overambitious and unrealistic timetable for its completion.  It knows we can’t sustain that level of intensity.  We will hit the wall.  We will crash.”  Instead of the pedal-to-the-metal approach, he counsels, look on the work as a marathon, and prepare for the long haul.
  • Likewise, engaging in over-the-top activity leaves little time for study and developing skills.  Like firing up a new gadget without reading any of the instructions, jumping from one activity to another can yield superficial success but will never lead to the level of success that results from truly mastering skills.  “The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.”
  • Fear can paralyze the aspiring rainmaker, resulting in too much planning and little, if any, action.  We lawyers don’t often talk about fear in a professional setting, but the truth is that stepping up to build a book of business can arouse fears of saying or doing the wrong thing, looking dumb, seeming pushy or desperate, being rejected, being perceived as unprofessional, and so much more.  Preparation can reduce some of those fears, but as Pressfield observes, anyone who succeeds in doing the work “knows that once he gets out into the action, his fear will recede and he’ll be okay.”  The only way out of fear is to move through it.

What’s in it for lawyers?  The War of Art and Turning Pro both address a problem that often goes unaddressed in the business literature.  Self-sabotage is rampant, and Pressfield nails both the why and the solution in his description of Resistance.

While you may not feel that your practice rises to the level of a calling, committing fully to becoming a rainmaker (through study, planning, and action) requires deep dedication to the goal and a compelling reason to continue despite the inevitable setbacks and difficulties.  Success requires conquering Resistance.

Nearly every successful author adheres to the discipline of daily writing.  Even if the writing for the day is dreadful, the act of writing makes the flashes of inspiration possible.

Parallels exist for every pursuit you might imagine.  In the context of business development, daily activity ensures that something happens each day.  On some days, that something may be fairly meaningless, but showing up and doing the work every single day creates the opportunity to be in the right place at the right time to meet a key contact or to have a conversation with a potential client just after an unmet legal need has popped up.

The War of Art and Turning Pro are poetic, juicy books that might be best consumed on vacation or over a glass of wine.  They speak to the mind, but they influence the heart.  Having read the books, you will be better able to identify and combat Resistance.  You’ll also find yourself inspired by the drama that Pressfield describes.  Although the books are somewhat light on step-by-step “how to” instructions, you’ll find gems throughout.

What You Know Can Keep You Stuck

Book Review: Strategy and the Fat Smoker

By: David Maister

As the title of David Maister’s book Strategy and the Fat Smoker suggests, the problem isn’t that we don’t know what to do: it’s that we do know and yet we choose to ignore that knowledge. Maister promises a dose of “real” strategy: “Real strategy lies not in figuring out what to do, but in devising ways to ensure that, compared top others, we actually do more of what everybody knows they should do.” In other words, it’s all about implementation, and that’s the focus of the book.

Organized in sections pertaining to how organizations should think about strategy itself, clients (including marketing and selling), and management, Strategy and the Fat Smoker speaks to those who understand that knowing without doing brings little value. This can be a trap for lawyers, because we like to find the best answer and so we can research and think and plan well past the point of diminished returns. But “best” can sound like “perfect,” and perfect is unattainable.

Maister’s introductory chapters on strategy include several gems, including:

If you truly want to succeed (and many people do not want it badly enough to make it happen) then you must never settle, never give up, never coast, never just accept what is, even if you are currently performing at a high level.


[T]he primary outcome of strategic planning should not be analytical insight or smart choices, but a superior resolve to accomplish something.


The best way to approach this re-evaluation [of the organization’s purpose, mission, vision and values] is to begin with a very small inner circle of top management leaders, who can look each other in the eyes and ask: “Are these really the decision rules we as leaders are prepared to stick with?”

Maister invites readers to plunge in with any chapter, and Chapter 17, titled The Trouble with Lawyers, invites study. Maister’s preface to this chapter indicates that he originally wrote it to explain, “Why lawyers and law firms are different from other professions.” He then notes that others in consulting and the financial services industry identify with the culture and behavior that Maister ascribes to the legal profession, but almost any lawyer who reads this chapter will recognize that Maister is indeed speaking to us.

Maister highlights four problems that prevent “lawyers from effectively functioning in groups:”

  • problems with trust;
  • difficulties with ideology, values, and principles;
  • professional detachment; and
  • unusual approaches to decision making (referring to lawyers’ propensity to attack any idea presented to locate and highlight its weaknesses, with the result that “within a short time, most ideas, no matter who initiates them, will be destroyed, dismissed, or postponed for future examination.”)

Having identified and explained these peculiarities, Maister asks why lawyers do so well financially if the profession is riddled with these problems. His answer?

The greatest advantage lawyers have is that they compete only with other lawyers. If everyone else does things equally poorly, and clients and recruits find little variation between firms, even the most egregious behavior will not lead to a competitive disadvantage.

Writing in 2007, Maister suggests that only client pressure is likely to compel firms to begin to act “as firms — delivering seamless service, practice areas that have depth (and not just a collection of individualistic stars), and true, cross-boundary teamwork.” The last few years have demonstrated exactly that client pressure, and some firms have prospered while others have self-destructed. Maister’s books (including the classics The Trusted Advisor and Managing the Professional Service Firm) offer numerous insights into how lawyers and firms may shift with (or even in advance of) client pressure.

Other chapters of Strategy and the Fat Smoker have application to lawyers and firms as well. (See, for example, a chapter on client relationships that asks the key question, Do You Really Want Relationships? and the chapter titled Strategy Means Saying “No”.) The book does an excellent job of delivering its subtitled promise of teaching organizations and individuals to do “what’s obvious but not easy.” It’s readable, practical, and insightful. Buy it, read it, and apply it.

Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt way

Over a year ago when I was visiting my very favorite bookstore (the Upstart Crow, in San Diego’s Seaport Village), I saw a book titled Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way.  Because I am a fan of Mrs. Roosevelt, I knew I had to grab it, but then something happened and distracted me, and I left the bookstore without the book in hand.  One thing led to another, and I never got around to ordering it.  So I was truly delighted when I visited again last month and the book was still there!

Part biography, part instruction on leadership in the business context, Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way is an easy and interesting read.  The author gives a chronological review of Mrs. Roosevelt’s life and draws out the lessons in each stage, which makes for a reasonably effective presentation.  My only quibble with this approach is that Gerber occasionally shifts from the historical recounting to a present-day business example without much warning, calling for closer attention than the book requires otherwise.

The book’s focus, not surprisingly, is on women’s leadership, though many of the lessons transcend gender.  Its opening explains that leadership is particularly important to overcome the gender disparities that continue to exist, giving examples from business and politics.

In additional, the study found that male equity partners out-earn female by average of $87,000.  While these statistics are limited in scope, they indicate that at least in the firms studied, significant disparity remains.  As Gerber wrote,

Although these issues differ somewhat in kind or degree from the problems of Eleanor’s day, the solutions rest on the same foundation: leadership.  Why?  Leadership is about change.  It means intentionally achieving a helpful, ethical purpose, and doing so in a process of reciprocal motivation and support between leaders and those they hope to lead.

Gerber pulls leadership lessons from every stage of Mrs. Roosevelt’s life.  More extensive in number than in depth, the lessons are nonetheless instructive and likely to provoke readers’ reflection.  For example, the following lessons (learned “the hard way”) flow from the painful period in which Mrs. Roosevelt discovered FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer:

  1. Respond.  Every leader experiences difficult circumstances that she cannot control.  The solution, then, is for the leader to learn to control her response.  Self-mastery is a key leadership competency because, as Mrs. Roosevelt wrote, “[t]he influence you exert is through your own life and what you become yourself.”  Leaders must master reactive tendencies and respond to problems instead.
  2. Reflect.  Upon suffering a blow, a leader must reflect upon the situation and his response.  A leader must understand himself thoroughly, including what a crisis means to his sense of self and the sources of strength upon which he can draw.
  3. Find Courage to Change.  When a crisis occurs, fear is a natural response.  Mrs. Roosevelt’s response is instructive: “Courage is more exhilarating than fear, and in the long run it is easier.  We do not have to become heroes overnight.  Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing that it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”
  4. Accept Change and Take Action.  Having reflected and gathered sufficient courage, a leader must act.  Mrs. Roosevelt wrote, “People can surmount what seems to be total defeat, difficulties too great to be borne, but it requires a capacity to readjust endlessly to the changing conditions of life.”  Leaders must learn to take considered action and move forward, despite setbacks that occur along the way.

What’s in it for lawyers?  As the foregoing example indicates, the leadership lessons Gerber offers are often drawn from Mrs. Roosevelt’s writings or speeches. Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way offers many leadership lessons, generally at a somewhat superficial level that introduces a general principle without fleshing it out in depth.  As a result, those who are seeking deep discussion of leadership or its practical application may be disappointed.  If you enjoy the Roosevelt history, though, and don’t mind a good but topical discussion of its leadership lessons, you’ll likely find benefit from reading Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way.