Steven Pressfield

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Steven Pressfield was on the Art of Maniless podcast to promote his latest book. It was a good interview. This post won’t be the traditional notes, but a qustion: Would Steven Pressfield pass the Marshmallow test?

If you were unaware, “The Marshmallow Test” is a catchy catch-all for delayed gratification. The Marshmallow Test is also a book from Walter Mischel, creator, designer, and recorder of results of said test. If you aren’t aware, Mischel noticed that young children who were able to delay gratification – wait for two treats later rather than one treat now – had a smorgasbord of positive results later in life. They were in prison less, married more, earned higher incomes and had a lower BMI. These results, along with the name, The Marshmallow Test, have brought a lot of attention.

“If you’re glued together, honorable, get up every morning and keep doing it, keep learning everyday, and you’re willing to go in for a lot of deferred gratification in your life you’re gonna succeed. It may not be as much as you want but you’re going to succeed.” – Charlie Munger

Pressfield is well known for coining his own memorable term, resistance. In The War of Art he opens with this:

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In the podcast Pressfield says:

“If you’re a writer you know that when you sit down in front of the blank page you can feel a force radiating off that empty page. It’s a negative force that makes you want to get a hot fudge sundae or go surfing or something like that. Anything other than face the page, and that is resistance…When in doubt it’s resistance.”

That Pressfield uses food is notable. Mischel’s research wasn’t only about marshmallows, the subjects got to choose their rewards, but food qualifies as something Mischel says is a ‘hot’ reward. Marshmallows not only taste delicious but they have a pleasing texture, substance, and elict thoughts of joy.

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If you compare that to something like crayons, another reward selected by children, Mischel notes different scores for different rewards. For rewards like pretzels and crayons, children waited 2x-3x as long as for marshmallows. I notice this in my own life. In February 2017 I have access to a recent delivery of Girl Scout cookies & a ski slope. I enjoy both. However, the cookies are more salient and easier to come by than the ski slope which requires ninety minutes in the car. It’s also easier to think about the taste of cookies rather than feel the wind and thrill of speed. In Michel’s words, the cookies are a much ‘hotter’ temptation.

The key to success with delayed gratification (Munger), resistance (Pressfield), or marshmallows (Mischel) is “psychological distancing.” Mischel writes that this can be physical as in out-of-sight-out-of-mind. It can be mental, I’m not checking the ski slope’s Instagram feed. It can be abstract too, thinking about the things you want in the future rather than the current temptation.

Wen Pressfield moved to Hollywood he noticed a form of “psychological distancing.”

“When I first got out to Hollywood and started work as a screenwriter I learned that many writers were incorporated. They had their little one-man corporations. When they signed a contract to write a script or screenplay it would be FSO: For Services Of. Their corporation would sign a deal for their services as an individual. I thought that was a great way to separate the entity of yourself that does the work from the entity that manages. It’s a great device to sort of, split yourself in half and one-half can kick the ass of the other half.”

Screenwriters created a psychological distance for work.

We should note that this isn’t all about willpower. That helps, but all genetic gifts do. You can be thankful for nature, but you get to choose your nurture.

That’s exactly what Pressfield did. He said, “there are so few people that possess self-discipline….coming up I had one friend that got up at the crack of dawn and he was a role model for me. I basically tried to become him. I copied so much of the way I live right now from this one particular friend.” And later in the interview, Pressfield came back to this idea, “Working in the movies was a real Ph.D. in storytelling, how to conduct yourself, and how to manage your emotions.”

There’s a huge value to see it to believe it. Here’s Malcolm Gladwell on that:

(Our list is at this post) That’s what happened to Pressfield. But, what exactly is it?

In the case of delayed gratification, the ‘it’ is structure. If you can create structure in your life, Mischel found, then delayed gratification is much easier. Pressfield’s Ph.D. was in “how to conduct yourself.”

One solution is the If/Then statement. Plan out what you’ll do ahead of time. You can further enhance this tool by identifying your hot spots. Mischel found that kids – like adults! – act in domain dependent ways. Sometimes kids broke the rules when confronted by an adult, sometimes by another kid. Sometimes the same adults you see in church will be the ones that scream at the soccer referee. The context mattered.

We’ll add two more notes about delayed gratification. First, it takes a long time. Pressfield said, “I had flipped the switch to being a professional but it was six or seven years before I made the first penny. There was plenty of struggle and lessons learned. It was like getting a Ph.D. in a field that doesn’t have an actual college.”

Second, you have to be like Sisyphus and not expect a panacea.

Pressfield said about resistance:

“Oh yeah. It never goes away. You have to slay the dragon every morning. It never goes away. It never gets any easier. But when you have enough success, when you’ve faced it down enough times, you know you can do it which is different from when you were first starting out.”

Thanks for reading.

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