Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with author Steven Pressfield (@SPressfield). Steven was 52 years old before his first novel was published. Since then, he has written the million-sellers Gates of Fire and The War of Art, as well as The Legend of Bagger Vance, A Man at Arms, and many others. His newest book, the memoir GOVT CHEESE, is about those years before that first publication. It is coming out on December 30th, and you can pre-order signed copies here.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, ladies and germs, boys and girls. This is Tim Ferriss, obviously. Look at the shiny dome I have here. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. This is a rare, in-person filmed edition, so thank you for joining us. My guest today is Steven Pressfield. Steven was 52 years old before his first novel was published. So you’re saying there’s a chance. This guy might have a chance. Since then, he has written the million-seller, Gates of Fire and The War of Art, one of the best titles of any book of all time, as well as The Legend of Bagger Vance, A Man at Arms, and many others. His newest book, the memoir Govt Cheese, and I have it right here, this one is about those years before the first publication. You can find him online. Steven, that’s with a V, stevenpressfield.com. On Twitter @SPressfield and Instagram, @steven_pressfield. Steven, so nice to see you.
Steven Pressfield: It’s great to see you, Tim. We’ve never met in person.
Tim Ferriss: I know.
Steven Pressfield: We’ve had a lot of interaction, so it’s great to be here in the flesh. Thanks for having me.
Tim Ferriss: Of course. I’m so happy we were able to do this. We were chatting and chatting and chatting, not just remotely, not just in the last podcast, which I loved, which spurred me on to do all sorts of experiments and fiction. So thank you for that. But we were chatting and chatting and chatting about creative process before hitting record and both of us. Certainly, I was saying, “Oh…”
Steven Pressfield: We wasted half of it.
Tim Ferriss: “…we just keep some of it.” So I wanted to roll back and say thank you again for really helping me and helping so many people to pick up the pen, pick up the keyboard, pick up the brush, whatever it might be, and overcome this resistance. I’m sure we’ll revisit resistance because I don’t want to assume that anyone listening to this or watching this has heard our first conversation. So why don’t we set a little bit of context. In our first combo, we talked about the halfway house that you lived in, in the cabin with no electricity and a running water, et cetera.
And my question that I thought we could start with is about ambition. If I understand correctly, at the time you felt guilty for having ambition. So I’d like you to do two things, if you wouldn’t mind. Just set the table a little bit. So how did you end up in a halfway house? And then if you could talk about ambition a little bit at that time, how it occurred to you?
Steven Pressfield: Let’s see if I can remember. This is in Govt Cheese. I was in the middle of a divorce, a middle of a breakup, and living at my mother-in-law’s house in the country in North Carolina, had a job delivering industrial food, institutional food. I got fired from that job and just sort of wound up in Durham, North Carolina with $20 in my pocket and found just a room in a place that turned out to be a halfway house for people coming out of mental institutions and would be reintegrating into society.
At that point, I actually got lucky. I found a job at a trucking company and so I was settled into that place for a little while. But about ambition, I had a dream at that time where — this is in the book The War of Art, where I came back into my little basement room and instead of it being a total mess, the room had organized itself and my shirt had all folded themselves and my boots had shined themselves and sat.
Somehow I realized that the dream was about ambition and the dream was sort of saying to me, “You have ambition, Steve,” which is like you were just saying, Tim, at that time my mindset was out of the ’60s, the whole thing of if you are ambitious individually, it’s kind of a betrayal of your brothers and sisters. You really want to stand out above them or achieve more than they, that kind of thing. And so that was really a bad thing to do. I really saw that as immoral, unethical, or any of that kind of thing. And this dream kind of said the opposite. It said, “It’s okay. It’s okay for you to want to achieve something. It’s okay for you to want to work hard at something.” And that felt that as a real liberating kind of moment for me.
It took a long, long time for any of that to pay off. But that was sort of a turning point for me where I said, “I do have ambition. I do want to achieve something and it’s okay.”
Tim Ferriss: And with that dream, when you had that dream, when you wake up the next morning, I think for many people our dreams come and go and some dreams stick. But oftentimes they come and go and the memory degrades over time. Did you have that dream and then change things, or at least your thinking or focus shortly thereafter? Or was it something that went away just as most dreams do and then came back and revisited you enough that you then started to change your behavior? What’s your experience?
Steven Pressfield: It absolutely stuck with me, and you’re absolutely right. At least in my experience, dreams are such evanescent things. I mean even from one minute to the next, they’re gone. But this was like, I know you’ve read Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, right?
And it’s his life stories, autobiography. One of the things he says in it at the start is that he’s not going to talk about events in his life like meeting Mahatma Gandhi, but he will talk about a dream he had when he was six years old. And this was one of those for me. It was a big dream that never left me, that always stuck with me. Took a long time for it to pay off, but it stuck with me forever.
Tim Ferriss: Now I recall, and I want you to fact check this if I’m not getting this right, but I remember that I believe you said in the halfway house, these weren’t, by and large, stupid people.
Steven Pressfield: No not all.
Tim Ferriss: They seemed to be smart. And perhaps their being in halfway house was indicative of them not being able to cope with the sort of collective delusion of normal life in a sense. So my question, because I was listening to a podcast recently, Hidden Brain, I’ll give it credit, and they were talking about discussing literature that seems to support — I haven’t looked at the studies, so who knows that people who would self-describe as depressed or who are assessed as depressed have a more accurate perception of reality in a number of different capacities.
So I’m wondering, how do you — and this is a leading question, but how do you create helpful delusions for yourself? Because even if it is maybe accurate to perceive reality in a way that causes you to be depressed or be in a halfway house, it’s not necessarily hugely functional, if that makes sense. And I say that as someone who’s suffered from a lot of depression. So this is a bit of meandering thinking out loud question, but are there helpful delusions that you can forge for yourself or cultivate for yourself?
Steven Pressfield: I’ve never really even thought about that, Tim, but I think it’s absolutely true. I mean, my version of that is denial. I believe that denial is the greatest thing to, as a resource, to just simply — for instance, I’m a certain age and I’m in complete denial of it. I absolutely refuse to accept it. And so that’s a helpful delusion. I truly sort of work on that kind of thing. I see certain challenges for myself that if challenges in the sense of if I let myself think in this certain manner, that’s not going to be a good thing.
So I have to work at it. I’d be interested if you do the same thing, Tim, where I will actively deny something like that or actively sort of brainwash myself. For instance, at the age I am now, it would be very easy, which I don’t even want to say what it is because I’m in denial yet is, it’d be very easy to start thinking, “Okay, you can take it easy now.” You’ve sort of hit a certain point. You can put it on cruise control.
I know not if I do that, “I’m about one foot on a banana peel, another one on a roller skate.” So I definitely have to say to myself, “Okay, I’m projecting 10 years into the future. What’s my mindset going to be for that time?” And I want it to be even more ambitious than it was before. I’m not sure that’s an answer to the question.
Tim Ferriss: No, it is. It is an answer. I think about this a lot in part because recently on an extended hike, let’s call it, multi-day hike with a group of people. Two of them were very accomplished scientists and scientific thinkers and two of them were also very smart, but hyper, hyper optimistic to the point where it almost to me seemed pollyanna-ish. However, they were also easily the two happiest people in the group. And this stuck with me where I was like, “Okay, sure. I might be able to see the grime under the fingernails of life at every turn, but is that actually serving me?” Not convinced it always is.
It helps for things like risk mitigation. But in the case of say, creative projects, so we were chatting before we started recording and I was mentioning that after our last conversation, I ended up putting together my first fiction, short story that I shared with the world, which you were very kind to take a —
Steven Pressfield: Which was really good.
Tim Ferriss: — handful of time to look at. So thank you for that. And your main feedback was like, “Don’t overthink it. Just keep going, keep going, keep going.” Which I did. And I’ve been working now on more fiction because I’m enjoying the process of trying to develop those muscles. And when resistance shows up, when procrastination shows up, it seems like having a set of beliefs, whether they’re true or not, to hold onto, to white knuckle can be really helpful.
Maybe I’ll give you a real example because I’ll give you an example of resistance and I’d be curious to know what you might do about it because this is an area of your expertise, or how you might think about it. I’ll give you a very clear example. I’ve been editing a number of vignettes of these greater houses I mentioned that exist in this fantasy world
So there are these eight houses in this fictional realm and when I started writing it was very easy because I didn’t have to connect any dots. And then it got increasingly more complex as everything was interwoven. I took a note here of one of your characters names. You’re going to find this funny, I think, and I’m looking for it, Arcadia. Arcadia.
Steven Pressfield: Telamon of Arcadia?
Tim Ferriss: Yes. Telamon of Arcadia. What a name. And I have found that I’ve been hemming and hawing and going back and forth, and renaming, and renaming, and renaming things like a hundred times. So this has become my way of not finishing things. I suppose there are two questions. Number one, because there’s one particular piece which has to do with this greater house, which is a house divided of spellcasters, long story. And there are a lot of names in this one particular piece, and I just let it go on and on and on. It’s my undone homework that’s been sitting there for now, probably two weeks. Even though I’m fiddling with it.
So I suppose, first, or actually you can choose which one you want to go with first, how do you come up with your names of characters? I would love to know how you just think about naming fictional characters or fictional places. And then second, am I crazy? Is this one of the stranger examples of how resistance has come up?
Steven Pressfield: I don’t think you’re crazy at all. It’s a really good question. I mean if you think about Game of Thrones, the names of the characters there were so fantastic.
Tim Ferriss: So good.
Steven Pressfield: Daenerys Targaryen. Brienne of Tarth. What was her name, Brienne? I know Scott Fitzgerald used to keep a file. I’m sure a lot of writers do. Any time they’d come across a great name in real life, they’d write it down and he had a whole list. I do think in some crazy way, you’ve got to get the name right and if you do get it right then — it’s like the character is a living thing, right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Steven Pressfield: They won’t really speak for you if you don’t have them with the right name. I don’t think resistance at all.
Tim Ferriss: Which is very appropriate for spellcasters, the power of the name.
Steven Pressfield: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, in real life, think of how parents take so much time with the name they’re going to give their kid because they feel like, “Gee, if I give them the wrong name, they’re going to turn out to be — if I give them the right name, Gwyneth Paltrow, something like that. So I don’t think that is resistance. I would say, don’t worry about it, take your time and let the names come.
Tim Ferriss: All right. It’s good to hear. All right.
Steven Pressfield: I myself spend a lot of time in the names.
Tim Ferriss: How do you grease the wheels for that?
Steven Pressfield: You just put the word out to the muse that you need some names. And it seems to me like they sort of pop into your head rather than sitting down —
Tim Ferriss: Thinking about it.
Steven Pressfield: — doing a list or something like that.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. All right.
Steven Pressfield: But one thing I do is anytime something does pop into my head, I will write it down. Even if it’s for another — it might be for a book, three books down the line. But names are really important, I think.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So that makes me feel a lot better. I’m going to continue to plod along on this. And it’s making progress.
[BREAKING NEWS CLIP]
Tim Ferriss: Pardon the interruption, folks, but I do have some news. The fiction that Steve and I are talking about, this thing I’ve been working on, is now live. The first two short-fiction pieces are live in audio form on something called the COCKPUNCH podcast. I’m not making that up. And each one is just around five minutes long, very short, and you can find them at COCKPUNCH.com/podcast or wherever you find your podcasts. Just look for COCKPUNCH and it’ll be there.
It debuted at number one in the fiction category and has been top 100 of all podcasts on Apple Podcasts since it came out.
Now, back to the show.
The other challenge I’m having with this particular chapter, because I’m sure a lot of people who are listening or watching this will have had the experience, will be having the experience, or at some point will have the experience of hitting an impasse with some type of creative project. Doesn’t even need to be something as obvious as say fantasy. It could just be a memo, internal memo to a company. Maybe there are going to be layoffs, who knows? And they’re just agonizing over editing something.
With this particular piece, it’s very complex compared to some of the other histories. I’ve been thinking to myself like, “All right. Should I just try to cut this in half as an exercise?” Because maybe this one vignette is trying to do too much, which I find very easy to do if a sentence is trying to do too much. I’m like, “Yeah, it’s too long. It’s trying to do too much. I break it into two or three sentences or just get rid of it.” When you are having any challenges in the editing process with an area that is gummed up in whatever way, do you have any advice for editing?
Steven Pressfield: Now, are you talking about, say, a first draft, an early draft? Or are you a later draft?
Tim Ferriss: A later draft. So it’s past the first draft. I would say I’m probably eight or nine revisions in.
Steven Pressfield: Wow.
Tim Ferriss: One of my challenges here is, and I think it’s a sign of me being a novice, is I’m trying to establish some connective tissue in world building as a setting for what’s happening. But I suspect that I’m doing an information dump that is going to be hard for people to digest, especially since this will probably be in written form and in audio form. So especially as audio, if they can’t go back and reread a sentence, it’s going to be challenging for them to catch it. So this is a later draft.
Steven Pressfield: Okay. Let’s see if I can — this is a really interesting conversation here that I don’t have. My first go-to thing is, “Can I cut this?” And a lot of times you can. A lot of times you can cut a lot and the audience will accept it or the readers will accept it. For instance, I just was watching on the airplane, I was watching Top Gun, the Maverick one. Have you seen it at all?
Tim Ferriss: I have, yeah.
Steven Pressfield: The opening sequence, he’s in this plane, this super — it’s going to mach 10 or something like that. And that sequence ends with the plane exploding at 9,000 miles in the sky. Cut to him alive, walking into a diner in the desert. Obviously, he’s somehow bailed out and survived. I thought, “I accept that.” I know from The Right Stuff that there’s such a thing as you bail out and you land in — whatever. So sometimes you can really cut something.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. You don’t have to describe every step in between because the audience can fill it in.
Steven Pressfield: The other way, now the reason I was asking is it a first draft or a later draft and it’s like, I’m certainly a believer in first drafts or early drafts, the concept of Blitzkrieg, which is the concept of Blitzkrieg is as your tanks are rolling across the enemy, whatever it is, if you encounter an obstacle, go around it. Leave it behind, even if it will threaten your supply lines and stuff like that. So sometimes in an early draft, if I hit a real hard spot like that, that’s driving me crazy, I’ll just go around it. I’ll just leave it alone and let the muse and the unconscious, because maybe a week from now or two weeks from now, an idea will come to me. “Oh, that’s how I solve that.” Whereas if I stay there hammering at that, I’ll drive myself crazy.
Tim Ferriss: You’ll lose momentum too.
Steven Pressfield: Momentum I think is everything in a case like that.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s double down on momentum because there’s momentum in this micro sense. You’re putting out a first draft and you hit a bump. Maybe it’s a name and you don’t want to sit there and just cogitate and perseverate on this one name and lose all your momentum. You want your tanks to keep rolling.
Steven Pressfield: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: So you’re just like, “Ah, TK, I’ll come back, whatever.” And you leave it and you keep going. Paul Rink, does that name ring a bell?
Steven Pressfield: Yeah. So there’s also —
He’s a chapter in Govt Cheese.
Tim Ferriss: He also, I believe, gave you some advice as you were — was it finishing your first novel or your novel that was about to be published?
Steven Pressfield: I think I know what you’re going to say, but keep going.
Tim Ferriss: I think that he had also mentioned, this is just an example.
Steven Pressfield: It was close enough. Is that the one you’re talking about?
Tim Ferriss: Let’s see. This is actually from your website. So this story in The War of Art, “…about the afternoon when I finally, finally finished my first novel manuscript…” That’s good. And then here’s a word I always have trouble saying. “…after failing ignominiously…” Am I getting that right?
Steven Pressfield: Ignominiously.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I always screw that up. “…in numerous attempts over the previous 10 years. I was living in a little town in Northern California then; I trotted down the street to my friend and mentor Paul Rink and told him the triumphant news. ‘Good for you,’ he said without looking up. ‘Start the next one tomorrow.'” So why did he say that?
Steven Pressfield: That’s another great question. I’m absolutely a believer in this. Sometimes people will ask me, “What do you do between books?” And my answer to that is “There should never be ‘between books.'” Seth Godin calls it a dip, if I understand it. The worst thing a writer or filmmaker or anybody can do, I’m sure you know this, Tim, it’s like finish something, put it out there, and then sort of wait for the world to respond.
Tim Ferriss: Yep.
Steven Pressfield: Right? Because they’re either not going to respond at all or they’re going to hate it. And meanwhile you are sitting there driving yourself insane, So I’m definitely a believer that by the time I finish one book — let me put it a different way. As I’m coming towards, say, the last six months on a book, I want to be starting the next book simultaneously. Even if it’s only notes. So that when I do — like Paul Rink said to me, “Start the next one tomorrow or today.” Because it’s so hard to do that. And resistance is so hard, you’ve got to just keep going.
So people will sometimes ask me too, “When do you take a vacation? When do you take a break?” And the answer to that is, let’s say I’m finishing one book. Okay, can I get another one sort of started so that on Tuesday when I finish that book, Wednesday, I plunge into the next one and I’ll go long enough until I have a kind of beach head where I sort of know I’ve got the troops are on the beach and there’s enough momentum that if I stop for a week or two weeks, I’ll be able to pick it up again. That’s when I’ll take a vacation. Not in between because it’s so hard to get.
So Paul Rink was a mentor to me. I used to have coffee with him every morning when I was trying to finish my first book. I was just totally focused.
Tim Ferriss: Was he a writer?
Steven Pressfield: He was a writer. He died a while ago. He was like maybe 30 years older than me. He lived in a camper, in a pickup out in front of his little house of his. We would have coffee in his little camper every morning. He sort of had taken me under his wing.
Tim Ferriss: Sorry, stupid question. If he had a house, why was he living in his camper?
Steven Pressfield: He liked the camper better. What can I say?
Tim Ferriss: Okay.
Steven Pressfield: He would go in the house to pee. That was it. But he sort of took me under his wing and would tell me books to read and just give me the writer’s “psyching you up” talk each morning.
Tim Ferriss: What type of advice did you find helpful? I mean I know this is a while ago, but were there any particular pieces of advice aside from the start the next one tomorrow or any particular books you recommended, anything come to mind in terms of lessons that you either picked up explicitly from him or things that you absorbed just by —
Steven Pressfield: That’s another great question, Tim. I mean he certainly gave me many, many books that I had to read. He really had me read the canon. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. All of those things.
Tim Ferriss: Classics.
Steven Pressfield: Where he would just say to me, “You’ve got to read, you’ve got to know this. You can’t be a writer and not know this.” But the other thing was that he really believed in fiction writing as a calling. It wasn’t for money, it wasn’t for bullshit. He really made you feel like this was important to the planet and that when you sat down and do your work, you’ve got to do it the best you absolutely can. And the other thing that he said to me that really helped me evolve the idea of resistance was that it’s a war and that you’ve got to be in there every day going after it. This is not a part-time occupation. That it’s a war and you’ve got to do it.
So that was great to me at that very early stage of trying to formulate my own ethic, coupled with that dream about ambition, you can see how those two things are, as you’re evolving as a young writer, go into your head and help.
Tim Ferriss: So a number of followup questions. The first would be why did he or why do you feel like fiction writing as a calling is important to the planet? Is it because you are and each person is endowed with certain gifts and it’s your obligation to share those gifts? Is it because, for instance, I happen to believe this, that truths can be transmitted sometimes much more effectively in fiction than in any nonfiction?
Steven Pressfield: Definitely.
Tim Ferriss: Why is it important?
Steven Pressfield: Well, let me back up a little bit here, Tim, on that. At the time I didn’t think that. At the time I was just trying to survive. At this particular time when I knew Paul Rink, I had already written one novel all the way through and then quit at the last minute. Blew up my marriage, blah, blah blah, my whole life. So at this particular point where I was in, I was working on it the second one, and my objective was just to finish this motherfucker. So I didn’t have any grander — even to sell it. Forget it. I didn’t even think about it.
Tim Ferriss: And so people have context, the first one, when you stopped it right at the — a hundred feet from the finish line. That was, I assume, a form of self-sabotage. But how did you justify it to yourself at the time?
Steven Pressfield: I didn’t. It was a catastrophe to me. A total failure like losing the Super Bowl by fumbling on the one yard line.
Tim Ferriss: “I can’t finish this thing. I don’t know how to finish it.” I mean, was that the internal voice at the time?
Steven Pressfield: The voice was, “Steve, you were an idiot to even try to write a book. You don’t know anything about this. You’re not prepared mentally. You’ve had no training, da, da, da, da. This is beyond you. It’s like taking a tab of acid. That was that big. You can’t handle it. You are a loser. You are a bum. Don’t ever do this again.” You went down one road, you’ve totally flamed out.
Tim Ferriss: And boom, you just kind of pressed the Looney Tunes detonation on your life at the time.
Steven Pressfield: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: So then we flash forward to Paul Rink like, “I just want to finish this thing to prove to myself that I can finish it.”
Steven Pressfield: Exactly. And also to prove to my ex-wife that the whole thing — because she thought I was — God knows what she thought, but I wanted to prove to her even though that was silly.
Tim Ferriss: I mean, that’s useful fodder then. Of course, I mean you’ve got to use what you can.
Steven Pressfield: All I was trying to do was sort of get to the end of a project and just say, “I’ve finished it.”
I did finish it and for the rest of my life I’ve never had any trouble finishing anything. Whereas I couldn’t finish anything before and that really meant something.
Tim Ferriss: When you finished it, because, I’ll be honest, in my case I go through recurrent bouts of finishing and not finishing. So I haven’t had this phase shift. Although I think I complete more things than I don’t if they’re worth completing.
Steven Pressfield: I would say you do, definitely.
Tim Ferriss: But the stuff that I don’t finish, no one ever sees. So they get this highlight reel of the things that have been completed. What changed for you? And was it immediate? As soon as you finished were you like, “I am now a person who finishes things,” or, “I am a person who finishes things?” How did it show up as a voice that, if it did, help you, then, in future projects?
Steven Pressfield: It did. Again, it was like the dream about ambition. It did kick in right then and I knew it. I was writing on a typewriter then. This was pre-computers. So when you finish, you roll the page out of the typewriter. Yeah, and you have a stack of pages. You put the last page on. It says “The End.” In those days, I had carbon paper because you had to have a copy, that you couldn’t just copy something. So I really felt like “That’s it. I did it.” I didn’t know that I would never have trouble because you don’t know the future. But it did feel like, “Yeah, I did something that I couldn’t do before.”
Tim Ferriss: And that’s that. I’ve proven it to myself. I have that counter example of finishing.
Steven Pressfield: Let me ask you a question, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Steven Pressfield: Is this helping you, us talking like this in your challenges with fiction?
Tim Ferriss: It is. Because as always, I’m just going on a fishing expedition for myself. So I’m looking at, for instance, momentum. I felt this in my own life. So I was looking for examples of momentum. So you’re talking about very macro level, project level momentum having almost — well, let’s see. I’ll give my Hemingway comparison later. But the project lead up and the note taking setting of the table before you finish a project so that you can pick up the very next day without having a lull. The question of when to take a break so that you do not lose momentum.
And then we were talking about in the process of drafting, say moving around on obstacles again to preserve momentum. I was thinking even for me, this is the Hemingway point, which may be apocryphal. I don’t know if it’s accurate, but stopping almost mid-sentence where I know what is going to follow. So I don’t sit down and agonize over what the next few sentences are. I use that all the time and I find it really, really helpful.
Steven Pressfield: I agree with it completely.
Tim Ferriss: And we’re having this conversation also a few weeks before — as we record this, it may come out a lot closer to this date — going to be releasing this baby, which is very strange, into the world. And so hearing you talk about charging forward and having some type of locked and loaded next step prior to waiting for the reception that you may or may not get at all. It could be crickets. It could be good. It very often is going to be negative or the negative voices will be the loudest. That’s what we’ll pay attention to. So yes, I’m finding this out there.
Steven Pressfield: Let me go back to something we were talking about before. You were asking me about, not denial, but about having positive thoughts. Here’s a couple things that just occurred to me. One is, I try not to have very many friends who are writers. I don’t want to get into a world of writers and I don’t want to be talking with other people about it. I don’t even want to know about it. And the reason I do that is when I sit down to work on something, I want to believe I’m the only person in the world.
I don’t want to start thinking, “Oh, shit, I’m competing against this person. They’re so smart. How am I ever…” Because that’ll drive me crazy. So I keep a sort state of denial that maybe there are three or four other writers out there, but basically it’s only me. And that’s another thing that I definitely want to do. And another thing is going forward and thinking as I’m working on something, “Is this going to be any good? Are people going to respond to this in any way?” I have a sense of denial or whatever where I say, “People are going to love this. This is going to be great.” And I won’t let myself think about anything else like that. I won’t let myself go down any of those rabbit holes, and I think that’s also very helpful. And it is delusion.
Both of them are deliberate delusions that I think you need to have in anything. If you’re General Jim Mattis and you’re leading the first Marine division up to Baghdad. You have to say to yourself, “I’m not going to worry about Saddam Hussein having whatever. Our guys are just going forward.”
Tim Ferriss: And many of my questions have questions behind them that I’m not voicing. So I asked you about you and Paul and your interactions and how fiction was viewed as a gift or maybe even an obligation. I’m asking in part because I’m experimenting with fiction. I get energized by it. So I’m paying attention to it. There’s something there. There’s there for me personally. But at times I wonder, “Am I being self-indulgent?” A lot of what I’ve done in life has been from a place of moral obligation and dealing with really, in some cases, let’s just say I’m working with therapeutics for things like treatment-resistant depression, end-of-life anxiety with people who have terminal illnesses. It’s very heavy.
So I’ve wanted to maybe explore how I can try to transmit truths that are hidden like Easter eggs in this fictional landscape. But that’s maybe another form of resistance that’s coming up for me. Should I really be doing this? Is this just self-indulgent? Am I just playing with toys in a corner and not doing something that’s meaningful?
Steven Pressfield: I don’t think it is self-indulgent at all. Let me see if I can answer that from two questions. One is looking at it from the inside out. You, as a creator, as a writer, as doing something like that, why is it important? I think for our own soul, forget about anybody else that even sees it. If you don’t do that, it’s when we have an idea, we are pregnant with that idea. And that idea has a life of its own. It wants to be born. And if we don’t let it be born, we’ll pay the price one way or another.
But I also believe that that creativity, a dance, a song, whatever you’re doing with NFTs and eight different houses or something, whatever. I don’t know what it is at all, but I know that the world needs it.
In some cosmic way, I’m definitely a believer that there’s another dimension of reality, the muse or God’s consciousness or whatever that wants to bring beauty and truth into the world and that it comes through you and me. We’re sort of conduits for it, or co-creators of it or whatever. So that there is a cause — it’s not self-indulgent. It would be the opposite. It’s really an obligation I think we have. We all have an obligation to bring that forth, whatever it is. I can’t prove that that’s doing any good. I mean, you look at the world, it looks pretty screwed up. But I do think that it’s not self-indulgent at all to do that. And it really is important, I think, to believe.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you for sharing that. As you were talking, I was thinking about the very fundamental piece of getting so much energy from doing what I’m doing because that energy transfers outside of a writing session. So it can be applied to many, many other things. So it’s providing overall to me more fuel for everything that I can do. So that is also a reason in and of itself to do it.
Steven Pressfield: Let me ask you a question about what you’re doing. Your fiction, where does that fit in? because I know you have so many other things that you’re doing. Where does it fit in? Is it a number one priority? Is it a size thing? What is it? And is it evolving? How do you see over time?
Tim Ferriss: I’ll answer the last part first. So it is evolving. If I look at my first histories that I wrote, and actually my friends have given me feedback that if who have read drafts, that if they look at the first, it’s like, “All right. Tim is really trying to find his feet.” It’s a little stiff. And if you look at then what was written three months later, as I’m reading classics, as I’m soaking in this, as I’m experimenting more, as I’m getting more, I wouldn’t say confident, but less constipated about how I let things move, I think it has improved a lot and that’s just based on feedback.
It was invisible to me because it’s like the boiling frog, right? I didn’t see the degree-on-degree change. And to that extent, I do think it is evolving. Part of what excites me about all of this is I don’t know where it’s going. I think so much of my life has been scheduled down to the minute for decades it was kind of 15-minute increments in a Outlook calendar and now is a Google calendar.
I find that predictability to be somewhat stifling, right? It’s reassuring from a safety perspective, but it doesn’t provide a lot of excitement. Not that I need excitement in the form of disasters nonstop, but the fact that I could build in some unpredictability in the form of, say, fiction where I set the initial conditions. I set some initial scenarios, but beyond that, I don’t know where it’s going. It is very exciting.
In terms of priority, I would say it’s a very high priority for me because it is giving me so much creative energy that I am also applying to other things. Furthermore, because I have this focus, and this actually comes back to having a project.
So for, I’d say, two years prior to that, I decided to let there be as much negative space as possible. No major projects. And in retrospect, psychologically, that was a disaster. It was not good to have that much negative space. I think there were things that came of it, and I learned lessons including maybe you don’t want that much negative space.
But I had sort of let go of the trapeze without having another one to grab onto. And I think that was a mistake. And for that two-year period I really got much less done for myself and other people than any proceeding two-year period that I can think of. Whereas now, I’m doing this fiction and I’m spending a lot of time on it which by the way, just for anybody listening does not guarantee that you’re going to like it or it’s going to be good, but it’s giving something to me that is helping me to be better at everything else than I’m doing.
Case in point, we’re having this conversation right now, and we can actually have many portions of this conversation because I’m working on it. And you are a domain expert. You have so much time in the trenches. So there’s a direct carryover. I mean, it’s not accidental that I wanted to have this conversation with you, but it’s helping other things. So there’s that. I think I’m kind of dodging the question a little bit because I don’t know if I can confidently say it’s my number one priority, but it is absolutely from a creative project perspective what I’m paying the most attention to right now. Why do you ask?
Steven Pressfield: Because when you’ve tentatively brought up in our last discussion, I kind of said, “Are you working on fiction?” Which I didn’t have any idea that you were, and you lit up at that. I really felt like I’d hit an electric circuit with that. I’ve been wondering. Where does that fit in Tim’s head? Is he going in that direction? Because he’s got so many other things that I know are important projects that I know are important to you, things you care about for the planet and for everything like that. So I was just really wondering where that fit in, where fiction fit in.
Tim Ferriss: I feel like fiction is fuel for the other things that consume fuel.
Steven Pressfield: Interesting.
Tim Ferriss: It’s adding to the black side of the ledger, whereas a lot of these other things are important, but —
Steven Pressfield: Energetically.
Tim Ferriss: Energetically, they feel like debits. And I haven’t had something to countervail that depletion. But these days, man, it’s like I wake up, I’m excited to jump into this stuff. It’s been a long time since I felt this excited. I could see it informing a lot of what I do in the future. And also on the same walk I was mentioning earlier with these guys, a number of us repeatedly, someone brought it up and then all of us quickly agreed that it seems like a lot of us were all — I think we were all past the age of 40, I’m 45, that maybe around 40, a lot of these guys who are very good in their respective fields had come back to what made them joyful as 13- or 14-year-olds.
At that time, what was I doing? I wanted to be a color book penciler. I was drawing all the time and I was creating fictional worlds in the form of comic books because I was basically creating panels and doing storyboarding for the movie of my mind, which at the time took the form of comic books. So in a sense, this is returning to the source of a lot of that joy and energy as a kid that I just lost sight of because I viewed it as childish, self-indulgent. This is what kids do.
Now, I’m supposed to be an adult. I threw the baby out with the bath water. So it fits in a very fundamental way. It’s just that it took a long time for me to maybe reclaim or resurrect that piece.
Steven Pressfield: Let’s look at this for a second from the point of view of the other dimensions of reality or from the muse’s point of view that somehow in you there’s an underground river flowing from childhood, from doing that sort of stuff. And obviously now, it’s like when you tell me about eight different houses, I say, where is this coming from? I mean it’s not something that you just sit down, “Oh, let me do this giant worlds of different time dimensions and everything.”
That’s coming from somewhere. If we were going to look at it from the point of view of the Greek gods, then there would be a muse that’s got all this stuff, all this papers in front of her and saying, “I’m giving these to Tim.” So if you don’t do that, and then the fact that your energized by that and the fact that when you don’t do that, you’re being depleted.
That sort of gives a picture of reality where you are sort of a receptor of flow of energy coming from somewhere else. And it’s not just random energy, it’s very definitely a world, a story, a universe, a cosmos that you or I, or anybody doing that we can’t know what it means. Does it help anybody? And it does seem self-indulgent. Why am I just drawing these pictures? But it isn’t. In some way it isn’t. And in fact it’s the most important thing.
Everything we learn in this commercial world says the opposite to that. You should be seriously working on, when in fact, what this is that you’re working on, the story you’re working on, in my mind, it’s probably the most important thing.
Maybe I’m prejudiced because I don’t know other stuff, but I think that’s — and that’s true for everybody. If we don’t do it, that underground river is going to fuck us up one way or another if we don’t let it flow.
Tim Ferriss: As you’re mentioning this it coming from somewhere, part of what has been, so I think rejuvenating about this for me is that if I sit down, and this is not meant as a slight against nonfiction, because I love nonfiction. I read nonfiction. I’ve written a lot of nonfiction, but at times, not always, but a lot of the time it can feel like carpentry. You’re like, “All right. I’ve got to lay these bricks. There are 1,200 of them. Here we go.” And you know what the wall is going to look like. You have to know what the wall is going to look like in most cases.
Whereas with this, there have been a number of these vignettes where, it doesn’t happen every morning, it doesn’t happen every day. But when I sit down to write and it just comes out, it all just kind of lands almost like a finished piece. There’s revision, everything’s going to fall, but all of these unusual story elements and characters just kind of appear. I’m not pausing at all. And that is a feeling that is very hard for me to capture in words, maybe ironically. But that flow state, which is a term that’s overused, which is why I’m grasping for maybe another way to put it, but that dancing with the muse, that feeling of being a conduit for something, which I don’t feel in many other places.
There are a few. Maybe in psychedelic experiences, maybe in certain sexual experiences where something is happening through you as opposed to you doing something. I mean, this project is going to be absurd and really strange. So I don’t want to make it sound like I’m hatching the next Tolkien masterpiece. But that doesn’t matter. It’s kind of beside the point because it’s the feeling that I’m paying attention to and it’s so unusual. And it gives me so much endurance. I’m like, “Okay, there’s something here that is worth paying attention to. I don’t need to be able to explain it. I don’t need to be able to even describe it necessarily, but it’s feeding me in a way that I haven’t been fed.”
Steven Pressfield: It’s fascinating, isn’t it?
Tim Ferriss: It’s super fascinating.
Steven Pressfield: I mean, they don’t teach you this in school. This is not the reality that they tell you is what the world is all about. But it is what the world is all about for certain kinds of people.
Tim Ferriss: Definitely. So there’s this experience, say, of popping up on the wave and just riding it perfectly and being in that flow state, metaphorically speaking. And then there’s the work and there’s the regimentation. I’d love for you to tell the story of, and I have a lot of pages here. Usually, I have my fancy clipboard, but I had so many notes for this conversation. I was like, “This isn’t even going to work if I had a clipboard. I’ve got 20 pages here.” Let me find, and I could probably just prompt you. You know what? I can’t find it here, but when you got your job as a driver, trucking, delivering, there was a conversation I want to say that your boss at the time or soon-to-be boss had with you. It seemed like that was a slap in the face that sort of changed your orientation towards work, at least up to that point. Can you tell that story please?
Steven Pressfield: And this is all in Govt Cheese, by the way. I really wanted to tell those stories in detail. And Tim, you actually, when you were asking me these questions on our last conversation, that was sort of what inspired me to actually write this book.
Tim Ferriss: We can hit all that first too. So let’s actually just hit that and then we can talk about this conversation. But you can write a million different things. Why write Govt Cheese, and why the title Govt Cheese?
Steven Pressfield: Well, it’s a memoir, and like I say, when we had our last conversation and you started asking me about specifics in my life, how did you go from it where you were there to where you were there, you were sort of interested in the creative process and the whole thing. And I thought for the first time that — I thought about telling those stories and writing that all down at some point, but I thought nobody’s going to be interested in this. But the fact that you were, and then I did a podcast with Rich Roll and he was interested in it too. And with Diana, my significant other who you just met, she also was all about that.
Tim Ferriss: And she’s like, “Wait a minute.”
Steven Pressfield: I thought I’d better do this and that maybe my resistance to this is pure resistance. So what I did want to do was tell the real stories of my evolution as a writer and my years in the wilderness, struggling doing other jobs and not succeeding, et cetera, et cetera. So I thought, “Let me write a fucking memoir. Let me just tell the true story.” Because I thought it would be helpful to other people who were on that odyssey. That was what sort of tipped me over into doing it. Of course, I wanted to do it myself or my own reasons.
But anyway, so back to this particular story that you were asking me about. I’ll give you the long version. You can edit whatever you want.
Tim Ferriss: This is long form, so we’re in the perfect place for long story.
Steven Pressfield: So by luck, I had gotten a job as a long-haul tractor trailer driver. I was the youngest guy at a trucking company and hanging on by my fingernails and trying not to screw up because self-sabotage was the thing in my — and the short version of it was I dropped a trailer. $300,000 worth, 40,000 pounds of textile machinery — I pulled out from under a park trailer, not knowing that I hadn’t coupled — I think crashed to the deck. It was just a total fuck up that I felt was also self-sabotage. It was me trying to screw myself up. So I had a boss, his name was Hugh Reeves. One of the — book number one in here is called “Hugh Reeves” because he was such a great mentor to me. So he didn’t fire me immediately. He didn’t fire me anyway, but he took me out to a hot dog place in Durham, North Carolina for lunch and he said to me, he said, “Son, I can tell that you’re going through something in your mind, that you’re living out some kind of issues.” He says, “I don’t want to know what they are. I don’t give a shit what they are. Just remember you drive for me. This company is a commercial enterprise designed to make money. You’re not living out any odyssey here.” And he said, “I hired you to deliver a fucking load and you better deliver it every time. You’re a professional driver. Do it.”
So that really was something, again, that stuck with me from that moment on and was reflected in writing, in learning how to write. This is not a joke. “You’re a professional person. Do it. Whatever it takes. Do it.” And so that has lived with me forever since then. And that was a great mentor situation, Hugh Reeves, wherever you are.
Tim Ferriss: And he was former military?
Steven Pressfield: Yeah. He was a Marine from a few generations before me.
Tim Ferriss: Did you have military background as well yourself?
Steven Pressfield: I mean, I was a Marine reservist. I was never in combat, but I was an infantryman in the training.
Tim Ferriss: And the wilderness. So you mentioned the wilderness. What is the sojourn in the wilderness? And can you skip it?
Steven Pressfield: I don’t think you can. I mean, I’m doing a little thing on Instagram. As you know I’m sure, called — a little series. I think we all have a passage.
Tim Ferriss: “In the Wilderness,” for people who want to —
Steven Pressfield: “In the Wilderness,” meaning the bottom falls out of our life. Maybe it’s addiction. Maybe it’s PTSD. Maybe it’s abuse of others or abuse of ourselves. For me it was like a geographic odyssey where I was working hard labor jobs in crazy parts of the country that I never thought I would ever be in and I couldn’t get out of this thing. I do think that we all need that passage somehow.
Like The Odyssey, I know I’m probably getting way too deep into this, but Homer’s Odyssey, the story of Odysseus returning from the Trojan War. 10 years, he’s blown hither and thither about, trying to get home. That to me is of the granddaddy of all hero’s journeys in Western civilization, anyway.
The reason that The Odyssey still is so powerful 3,000 years after it was written is because it’s all in our blood. It’s in our bones. We all have that. I mean, it can happen. You can go to jail and that’s your wilderness time. We all sort of need that, I think. And this book, Govt Cheese, is my time in the wilderness. And like I say, the reason I wanted to put it on paper was because I thought it might help other people because one of the other things about — I know I’m blathering on here, Tim, but we’ve got a lot of tape.
Tim Ferriss: We’ve got all the time in the world.
Steven Pressfield: One of the factors, one of the characteristics of a time in the wilderness in my experience is that we’re blind to its significance while we’re in it. We think it’s meaningless. We think our life is meaningless. We’re lost, right? We don’t have any concept of why we’re doing what we’re doing, why we’re fucking up like we are. But what I’m trying to say is there is meaning to it. Again, it’s that sort of other dimension of reality that we were talking about that that dimension is wiser than we are. It has sent us on this passage, I believe, to teach us.
Every passage to the wilderness, like The Odyssey, is a journey toward home, and home meaning who we really are. We’re trying to find our authentic self where we can say, “Ah, this is what I should be doing that I can’t do. That I can’t do, but this is where I should be. This is the lane I should be in.” And that’s home. And it takes a while to find it.
Tim Ferriss: As I’m listening, it makes me think that those — I mean not exactly, but pretty close to the last two years that I mentioned, which were fucking awful. I’ve got to be honest, in the moment, I was just like, “I’m lost. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Maybe I’m not supposed to do anything. Maybe this is it. I’m generally feeling pretty depressive. What the fuck is this? I don’t know how to find my way out of this. I don’t know anyone who’s been able to tell me how to get out of this.”
Steven Pressfield: How did you get out of it? Was there an event? Was there a time, a moment?
Tim Ferriss: I think it was a decision to — well, I don’t want to take too much credit for it.
Steven Pressfield: No, go ahead. Take credit.
Tim Ferriss: Being exposed to a bunch of absurdity and comedy and realizing how much meaning I was able to — enjoyment and joy and laughter, I was able to take out of that, but also how much profundity can be hidden in the absurd.
Steven Pressfield: Was this a psychedelic experience?
Tim Ferriss: I mean, certainly I could describe some of my psychedelic experiences that way. It was also seeing what a number of friends were doing in the NFT space, which is just, on its face in every way, fucking ridiculous. I mean, it’s so silly on so many levels. And yet I saw people finding meaning. I saw people creating incredible artwork. And so that prompted me to begin to ask, and this was really at some of the darkest moments to say, “Okay, I’ve tried to do everything very seriously. I’ve tried that. It doesn’t seem to be really working for me.” It’s produced some amazing things. I’m very proud of those things. But net-net, it’s a hard slog.
It’s just like holding a heavy backpack over my head and walking through mud that’s waist deep all the time. Maybe I don’t have to do it that way. Maybe I can walk around the swamp. Maybe there’s a hang glider, a zip line that I can take across. I just decided that that’s cheating and I have to do it the hard way. And that’s when I started to think about what I could do that would simply — because one of my experiences, and it’s hard to say which way the arrow of causality points with this, but any type of depression or experience of melancholy is always accommodated with a feeling of fatigue, lethargy.
So the fight, for me, the goal, the life raft that I’m looking for is energy. Wherever I can get energy, if that’s jumping rope for five minutes, if that’s jumping into an ice cold bath, if it’s waking up at a certain time, if it’s drinking less coffee after 2:00 p.m. because I need to go to sleep, everything in my life begins to revolve around thinking about energy.
What I found was the more I engaged with absurdity and fiction, which could be visual products of the imagination, let’s put it that way, products of the imagination with no obvious practical application, the more energy I had.
Steven Pressfield: Interesting.
Tim Ferriss: And I was like, “Okay. Well, if that’s what’s presenting itself, let me keep focusing on that.” And then once I began to — and this might overlap in a way with your story about — what was his name again, your mentor?
Steven Pressfield: Paul Rink.
Tim Ferriss: Not Paul.
Steven Pressfield: Hugh Reeves.
Tim Ferriss: Hugh. So this might overlap with Hugh in a way because as soon as I then started to engage other people to help me with creating, say, art, now I had people who are depending on me or that I was depending on. Now I had some accountability. Now there are things on the calendar. There was some structure around this free-floating desire to use fiction to energize myself.
But now I had some scaffolding. And I think that is in large part what pulled me out. It was that. Once I had enough energy, and this is a chicken or the egg kind of thing, but once I had just a basic modicum of energy from engaging with absurdity — and I don’t use absurdity. I mentioned this word online recently because there was a Camus quote, which was something like, “Absurdity and happiness are brothers arm in arm. You cannot have one without the other.” Something like that.
I’m mangling the quote, but I saw a number of people reply to that saying, “What is wrong with happiness? Why do you need to make it negative with absurdity?” And that in and of itself seemed absurd to me because I was like, “That’s not what I’m saying. I don’t think that’s what he was saying.”
And in fact, absurdity, paradox, I more and more think, is this incredible ingredient of the human condition. I know I’m talking a lot. I’ll stop my TED Talk in a second. But the lift up that the absurdity gave me then provided enough energy that I could begin exercising regularly.
Now what happens? Now, I have this flywheel of exercise and absurdity that is charging my batteries. So I think if I had to explain it, and maybe I can’t explain it. Maybe it just happened because one day I woke up and my neurochemistry was different because I had four nights of good sleep. Who knows? But that’s how I would say I got out of it.
Steven Pressfield: Ah, pretty good. Let me take a shot at absurdity for a second. I’m just thinking this as we’re talking. Any time something is brand new, it seems absurd. Because I’m sure when Columbus said, “Let me sail west.” Was it east? Let me say west, to go to the East Indies.” Everybody said, “That’s absurd.” Right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Steven Pressfield: But it wasn’t absurd, was it?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Steven Pressfield: Or whatever you are working in on fiction now, because it’s new, and I guess NFTs come into this too, they seem absurd because they’re not what we know. They’re the unknown, but they’re not absurd. They’re just one step into the unknown. I can say when I first had the idea for The Legend of Bagger Vance or for Gates of Fire, both of them, I thought, “These are the dumbest ideas I’ve ever had in terms of — who’s going to be interested in this?”
So it did seem absurd, but it wasn’t absurd. So absurd is a word that has negative connotations. It should be another word, but I think that’s what Camus must have meant, not knowing what the quote was.
Tim Ferriss: I think it is.
Steven Pressfield: So it’s positive, I think. It’s just new.
Tim Ferriss: I think it’s positive. I take it as very positive, or at the very worst, neutral.
This makes me think of something that I highlighted from our last conversation, which is — and this is the note that I have. Regarding how to start SP, that’s you, acknowledges that Tim will need to learn the principles of writing fiction. Nevertheless, he thinks Tim should just dive in with something he loves and follow it. And then this is a quote from you, “Say to yourself, when I show this to people, they’re going to look at me and go, ‘What happened to you, Tim? Are you okay?'” That’s what I mean by big. And I’ve used that as a north star of sorts. It’s like if it’s too comfortable, if people aren’t going to look at me and go, “Are you okay?” Then I’m probably playing it too safe is how I looked at it.
I mean so far, good Lord, it has really — I mean, it’s paying off so far. I’ve said, also, to many people because this thing is going to launch and when it does, what’ll happen will happen. But what I’ve said, and I’ve maybe for the first time really feel that I can say with a straight face is that I’ve already gotten all I need to get out of this. I don’t care how it’s received at all.
Steven Pressfield: I’m sure that’s true.
Tim Ferriss: Just by reactivating and embracing these deep elements of myself that I’ve forced to be dormant for so long. Oh, man, it’s all icing on the cake from here.
Steven Pressfield: Let me take a shot at your bad two years.
Tim Ferriss: Please. Yeah, that was terrible.
Steven Pressfield: Let’s try this as an interpretation. This underground river that we were talking about of creativity that goes back from your comic book drawing days when you were a kid has been flowing through you all along. It kind of built up to a head maybe two years ago or whenever the time was where you went into your period of the wilderness. And for whatever reason you should have started it then. But probably because of fear, possibly just ignorance, blocking it out somehow. Instead, you came up with another thing.
Let me go into — how did you describe it? Not a fallow period, but a period of — an offline period or something like that. So what happened was you took that turn and meanwhile that underground river was flowing through you in a negative way, went into a negative channel.
Tim Ferriss: Right. Got diverted.
Steven Pressfield: Because you weren’t expressing it. And instead of giving you energy, it was draining your energy. Right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Steven Pressfield: And then you had a moment where you said, “Well, what the fuck? Let me just do this thing.” Right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Steven Pressfield: And you started to do it and all of a sudden the energy, the battery got plugged in, got plugged into the wall, and you came out of it. So a passage to the wilderness, to me, starts with a denial of some creative thing or moral or ethical or expression of love. That usually we deny it out of fear or because our conditioning tells us, “This is foolish, this is self-indulgent,” this is whatever. Right? So “I can’t do that. I can’t do that. I can’t sail across the Atlantic Ocean thinking I’m going to get to the East Indies. That’s insanity, right?”
So we don’t do it, but we pay the price. And that price is our time in the wilderness until finally it gets so bad that we have to say, “Where did I fall off the track?” Or somehow we get back to that point and we finally do embrace the thing that we were afraid of, and then we’re okay, and then we’re out of it, I think. That’s my theory.
Tim Ferriss: I like the theory. I mean, it does make sense to me with so many things. If you suppress them and attempt to compartmentalize them or block them, divert them, they squeeze out in where they can squeeze out the edges in very pathological ways. Because you’re just —
Steven Pressfield: They come out in addiction. They come out in depression and alienation, and all that sort of stuff. I think.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I agree with you. In our last conversation you mentioned Richard Rohr.
Steven Pressfield: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Franciscan Monk, I want to say?
Steven Pressfield: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So Richard believed the first half of your life is creating the vessel that is your life. And the second half is filling the vessel. Is that something that you still find resonates with you?
Steven Pressfield: Absolutely. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan or Benedictine monk. I think he lives in Albuquerque or somewhere like that. And he wrote a book called Falling Upward. This is what we were talking about.
Tim Ferriss: This is third or fourth time this book has come up.
Steven Pressfield: And Diana turned me on to.
Tim Ferriss: This is the third or fourth time this book has come up in the last probably month for me. So I feel like I should probably take a look at it.
Steven Pressfield: Yeah, it’s short. And basically his concept, like you just said, is that the first half of our life is about establishing our ego identity. “I have a job. I have a wife and kids. I have a house. I’m a lawyer.” Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And you talk about your friends that had reached the age of 40 when you were on the hike, right? At that point, people start to think, “Well, okay, I built up this thing. Why? What am I going to do with it?”
It’s a vessel according to Richard Rohr. And what am I now going to fill that vessel with? And I think it’s a fundamental shift. The second half of life now becomes usually more about giving to other people or about really finding what our real creative center is and going for that.
Now, I wrote a book called The Artist’s Journey that — I had never heard of Richard Rohr. I saw this as a completely same concept and in a slightly different way. And what I said was that the first half of our life is our hero’s journey, which is sort of like Odysseus, our time in the wilderness, whatever that ends when we sort find our calling. We say, “Okay, I’m a dancer,” or, “Okay, I’m an environmental activist,” or whatever. And we say, “I don’t give a shit what happens to me. This is what I am I’m going to do. I’m going to do it.”
And then the second half, I would say, rather than our hero’s journey, is our artist’s journey. At that point, we actually start to produce the works that we’ve been running away from producing for all that time. If you’re Bruce Springsteen, you suddenly start doing album, album, album, album, album, and your life changes at that point. I think, in outer sense, it becomes much more boring because you’re working on your shit, right?
You’re producing the work. If you’re Twyla Tharp, you’re going to your dance studio every morning and you’re doing choreography, whatever it is that you’re doing. Right? Or if you’re Stephen King, you’re writing books. So I would agree with Richard Rohr that life is divided in half. The first half you start searching for your real authentic self. And once you find it and you become attached to your gift, the second half is, “How do I deliver that gift? And how do I train myself so that I’m capable of handling the voltage?” And it’s sort of what you were saying, Tim, about —
Tim Ferriss: Actually, I want to underline that, handling the voltage. So please don’t lose your place, but that’s an interesting line. Can you say more about that?
Steven Pressfield: Yeah. But also before I say that, yes, you’re also learning the craft. Let’s say your calling is to produce the fastest land-driven vehicle in the world, motorcycle, car, whatever it is. Now you’ve got to learn that skill. You probably already have it, but you’ve got to learn it, so the car won’t disintegrate on Lake Bonneville at 600 miles an hour. But back to handling the voltage, it’s like when you are now sitting down to right, and you’re tapping into that whatever that creative flow is of the eight different worlds and all that sort of stuff, that’s voltage coming from another dimension of reality or coming from inside your soul or wherever it’s coming from.
And that voltage can overwhelm us if we’re not ready to do it. I know I have a friend, I’m sure we all have friends that are deeply into meditation, and they say that you really have to be physically fit in addition to being spiritually and psychologically fit once you get into the deeper levels of meditation because whatever energy is coming down — I don’t know this myself, I take this second hand, is coming and it can be too much. You can’t handle it. It’s like psychedelics, right?
It’ll blow your mind, right? You have to have some sort of a capacity to endure that.
Tim Ferriss: You have to build and cultivate capacity.
Steven Pressfield: So we do have to sort of learn, in the second half of our lives, I think, to handle that voltage.
Tim Ferriss: What did it feel like to you to write a memoir? Because you mentioned some of your hesitation around whether or not it would be interesting to other people, but it was interesting to me, interesting to Rich Roll. Interesting also, goes without saying, to millions of people who heard those conversations. And then to your significant other. What was it like then to sit down and write a memoir, whether at the beginning or in the middle?
Steven Pressfield: It’s a great question, Tim. It was really challenging in the sense that the resistance that you feel, I think to writing a memoir, the voice in your head says, “Who’s going to give a fuck about your stupid stories? Everybody in the world’s got a million of these things. Why is yours going to be any different?” So that was a big part of it. The flip side of that was, “Before I die, I want to put some of this shit down. It shouldn’t just go away.”
Even if it’s only my family, my nephews and nieces, that they should be able to read this. But then above and beyond that, and this is, I know where we’ve been trending into this conversation about the hardcore physical reality of this stuff was like, “How do I tell this fucking story? What do I leave out? What do I leave in? What’s the point of view? What’s my tone of voice? Who is I in this story, if I’m telling it in the first person?”
So that was sort of a big challenge. And again, I sort did what we were talking about before, or what I was talking about, Blitzkrieg of it would’ve overwhelmed me if I didn’t just do it. So I just did it. When it was done, I’d left out a lot of chunks and a lot of this. I thought, I wished I had a real editor, which I didn’t at this point. And I just sort had to make the decision of, “I’m going to edit it myself. This is it. This is what it’s going to be for good or ill.”
Tim Ferriss: So Govt Cheese, what’s the title about?
Steven Pressfield: One of the articles that we delivered in this trucking company was surplus food to poor communities on the coast in North Carolina. And because I was the most junior driver for this company, this was the lowest-paying job and the load that people wanted the least. To make these runs was like, I would make $15.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Steven Pressfield: But I really loved these runs. And you would make them — you would drive all night and arrive really early before dawn. It was always to a church. You always distributed at a church and it was always a Black church with a Black congregation. A lot of the recipients were sharecroppers and stuff like that. But they also were, sometimes you’d have guys come in with hot Mustangs, with great-looking young girls, that kind of stuff.
What you were delivering, the government cheese and the dried powdered milk and pinto beans and stuff like that, was stuff that was going on people’s tables. It was going to keep them alive. So you really felt like you were doing some good. I just really enjoyed these things. I can’t tell you how much fun they were.
And the other aspect is you were anonymous in these things. When you would pull into the lot, I never had anybody — you would talk to the minister. The minister would tell you, “Pull your vehicle over here,” da da, da, da. And they would always address you as “Driver.” They’d say, “Driver, would you mind pulling this over here?” Never ask you your name. I don’t know why. And your role was really to recede into the background. You didn’t participate. You opened the doors, and they took the food off the way they wanted to.
So when all was set and done, and this kind of goes back to the story I was telling about Hugh Reeves, I feel like writing is about delivering a load and its sustenance. You hope it’s sustenance, right? It’s a load of surplus food, of government cheese, that’s going to go on people’s tables. And the other aspect about that is you are a vehicle for it.
I didn’t grow the cheese. All I did was deliver it. When I’m done, the trailer is empty. I close it up and I go away and do it again somewhere else. It’s a metaphor for writing for me in other words. That’s what it was.
Tim Ferriss: That is a great backstory.
Steven Pressfield: That’s what “government cheese” means.
Tim Ferriss: What else would you like people to know about this memoir? Is there anything else that you would like to say about it? I mean, your stories are incredible. Your writing is incredible. The cover quotes you have are spectacular from a lot of people I respect. What else would you like to say about Govt Cheese, if anything?
Steven Pressfield: There is one other thing I would like to say. Like I say, it’s a writer’s odyssey. It goes from somebody that at the start, can’t do it. At the end of it, can do it. One of the big takeaways from my story at least is that there are a series of breakthroughs along the way, emotional, but almost always, they never pay off in the moment.
It’s like you have a breakthrough and nothing happens. It’s like 10 years later, it pays off. So that if anybody is listening to us today, Tim, and trying to get any sustenance out of that, one of the big lessons is it takes a long time. It’s a real process. You’re working on your eight houses thing. It may be a few years before you really get a handle on this thing.
Tim Ferriss: For sure.
Steven Pressfield: It would be amazing if you came right out of the chute and it worked. Yeah. It seems to me that the way these breakthroughs work is they need to mature, that they take time. You think, “Oh, I finished a book.” And then for me, I couldn’t sell that book. I couldn’t sell the next book. It was years and years before I could. But there is a process and there is significance and change is happening.
Tim Ferriss: Steven Pressfield, what a story you have. What a life you’ve had, too. And what a life you will have.
Steven Pressfield: What a life you have. And so does everybody that’s listening to us.
Tim Ferriss: Before we wind this second conversation to a close, is there anything else that you would like to add? Anything else you’d like to point people to? Of course, you have many books. The newest book is your memoir, Govt Cheese, which is about all those years before the first publication, which in a way, I don’t want to say is the most important, but to me is certainly one of the most interesting untold stories, because it sets the foundation. It talks about the breakthroughs that took a long time to germinate it. It explains all of the development in the form of these stories and these mentors leading up to you becoming the Steven Pressfield that people recognize today.
Is there anything else that you would like to add? Any other closing comments or things you’d like to point people to? Of course, you’ve got the Instagram video series and the wilderness. You’ve got the website, Steven Pressfield, again, folks with a V. And then people can find you on Twitter @SPressfield and on other social that we will link to in the show notes. But anything else that you’d like to add or make any requests of my audience? Anything at all?
Steven Pressfield: I would just say to you, Tim, for your story that you’re working on now, for whatever this is, that to trust in that greater wisdom, whatever that is, some goddess somewhere knows what she’s doing.
Tim Ferriss: I like that.
Steven Pressfield: You may not know what you’re doing.
Tim Ferriss: Take some of the weight off my shoulders.
Steven Pressfield: But I think it’s great that you’re trusting in it. Even though it’s absurd, even though it may totally fall on its face, which I’m sure it won’t. So that’s what I would say to you. And really to anybody that’s listening to us that it always seems absurd at the start, just like Christopher Columbus going the wrong way to the Indies. But I think that’s our real life. All this other stuff is, it’s okay. But that’s our real life, I think.
Belief is a big thing. We started out, the first thing was like, “Do you have any beliefs that go contrary to dark reality or depression?” And I think the belief in this greater wisdom, this other dimension of reality, that’s the key thing. And it’s so hard to do. Again, you just have to deny all the other — this doesn’t count. I don’t believe those voices. These voices, I dismiss them too. I’m just going to stay in this lane and just keep going. So that’s why I say to you, Tim, and everybody that’s listening to us and to myself, same thing,
Tim Ferriss: Steven, so nice to actually spend some time in person.
Steven Pressfield: Tim, it’s been great.
Tim Ferriss: So lovely. And to everybody listening and watching, we’ll link to everything, including the new book, Govt Cheese, by Mr. Steven Pressfield. We’ll also link to any resources, any gods, any myths that we may have mentioned at tim.blog/podcast as per usual. Until next time, just be a little bit kinder than is necessary to yourself as well. Believe in that greater wisdom, pick a lane that matters to you. And thanks for tuning in.
Steven Pressfield: All right.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you so much for listening, everybody. Thank you also to Steve for coming on the show.
Some of the fiction writing discussed in our interview is now live on a brand-new podcast, called COCKPUNCH—as it sounds, that is how it’s spelled, believe it or not. It launched last week with a short and very bizarre, let’s call it, movie trailer, and the podcast debuted at number one in the fiction category on Apple Podcasts. It’s now been in the top 100 for all podcasts on Apple Podcasts in the US and other countries all week.
This is the first new podcast I’ve launched in many years. The episodes are very short, roughly five minutes each, so please check them out.
You can find them anywhere—Apple Podcasts, Spotify, wherever you listen to your fine podcasts—and this entire thing is intended to add some laughter and levity to a world dominated by doomscrolling and pessimism. So if you like fantasy, if you’re looking for a little humor, and you want to see me take a stab at fiction, check it out. Cockpunch.com/podcast.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.
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