In this week’s episode of The Mag Life Podcast, we have the honor of featuring American writer, Steven Pressfield. Known for his fiction, non-fiction, and screenplays, Steven has written bestsellers such as The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, The War of Art, Do the Work, Turning Pro as well as film scripts for Above the Law and Joshua Tree. As a Marine, Steven has been able to seamlessly combine warrior culture into his complex storytelling.
Daniel and Steven discuss the virtues of being a warrior, fighting your inner cowardice, becoming a writer, and embracing adversity.
Host: Daniel Shaw
Guest: Steven Pressfield
Introduction/Timeline: Eric Huh
02:26 What drew you into learning and writing about warrior culture?
Daniel kicks off his question to Steven by asking what exactly inspired him to center his novels and books on various warrior cultures. Steven explains that through his genuine interest in legendary stories of ancient warriors, he was able to relate his own Marine Corps wartime experience to these warriors of old. This was especially true regarding the Spartan hoplites. Steven found himself reading a book by Herodotus, the great ancient Greek writer, and historian, that detailed the Battle of Thermopylae.
“There’s a famous passage where Spartan warrior, Dienekes… was told that the Persians were on their way and that they were so numerous that when their archers fired a volley, the mass of arrows blocked out the sun. And he responded, ‘Good then we’ll have our battle in the shade.’ And when I read that I just thought, ‘This was really a Marine sort of thing…’ I know guys just like that! I know that exact same sense of humor, I know that exact kind of gutsy thing to say. I thought at that moment, ‘I could write about this guy.’”
In fact, it was Steven’s own warrior experience that brought him straight to writing and researching about other warrior cultures in his books.
04:58 Warrior Humor and Fighting Cowardice
Daniel notes that that specific example of the Spartan making light of his situation of facing certain death would come off as exaggerated bravado to the average civilian or to anyone not part of the warrior culture. Steven agrees, that Marines, just as Spartans, would make similar cracks at a potentially deadly situation. It is less about appearing strong or brave and more about accepting the reality of the circumstances. By accepting the reality, warriors are able to do their job more efficiently and galvanize their comrades to do the same. If you’re going to die, you might as well do it with a smile and while accomplishing the mission.
Daniel further adds that as humans with the built-in instinct for self-preservation, we are all cowards in our hearts. It’s simply about not showing that you are a coward by doing brave actions. While in his early years in the Marine Corps, Daniel was told by his superior that even if he is feeling weak, tired, or scared, he could never show that he was any of those.
Steven similarly speaks upon how as warriors, whether Marines or Spartans, their community and culture instill the behavior and attitudes to counter against the mounting pressures of war. The first step in being effective in combat is to fight that inherent instinct of “flight” at the first
sign of trouble. Oftentimes, warriors do not flee because they would be ashamed or out of a sense of duty to their comrades.
Daniel relates this idea of defeating cowardice or defeating self-preservation in his daily life. He makes the extra effort to run every day, not because he takes any ounce of pleasure from it, but because it’s something that forces him to defeat his own inner weakness. Daniel
understands that little by little, taking each step makes him stronger both mentally and physically.
“There is always that enemy whatever it may be: to be lazy, to be the one that doesn’t put himself forward, to hang back and let somebody else go forward. It’s there 24 hours a day, constantly. And if we’re going to not be ashamed of ourselves, if we’re going to have self-respect, at the end of the day we have to have some kind of mindset that will propel us to overcome that. To be the one that does step up.”
18:58 How did Daniel get into writing?
Steven now asks Daniel what inspired him to get into writing as a passion?
Daniel explains that growing up he disdained the idea of writing, due to the manner it was presented to him. Formalized institutions such as high school hardly made writing seem fun and creative when the vast majority of it is just essay papers on specific subjects.
It was not until after working in videography in the gun and outdoor industries did Daniel realize his passion for telling stories. He eventually attended film school at the University of Miami and acquired a master’s degree in creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University.
While attending school, scriptwriting seemed foreign and restrictive but it was not until he read more in-depth from several books did Daniel truly learn to appreciate the art form. Now, Daniel has written scripts of his own for film festivals and is currently developing a novel of his own.
22:37 “Turning Pro” and Overcoming Obstacles
Daniel observed from many of Steven’s books that the idea of overcoming life’s obstacles stems from the virtues of being a warrior.
The question is asked, what tools did you use to help you overcome these obstacles? Steven references his second book, Turning Pro, which details exactly this concept of surpassing your own inner resistance. When an individual can shift their mindset from being an amateur at a craft to thinking like a professional, everything changes. He explains amateurs will often encounter a form of resistance and fold —essentially what amounts to self-sabotage. Professionals take each encounter and not only learn from it, but persist in their actions.
Both Daniel and Steven have experienced rejection or failure in one form or another, but they refuse to allow one failed attempt to deter them. Steven explains that life is longer than you think and that one moment does not define you. It’s about what you have lined up next in the pipeline. Steven retells a time when great American musical composer, Cole Porter, had taken a harsh rejection over one of his songs in Hollywood. When asked how he was taking the bad news, Porter said, “I got a million of them!”
“Right now… people tell me I’m a ‘talent.’ But for 30-40 years, people told me I was a bum. And the only reason I’m a ‘talent’ now, (if I am), is because I’ve been working all that time… You can get better at anything just by putting in the time and grinding. And in many ways I think, that’s a better way to get good than to be blessed with talent right at the start… There’s so many five-star athletes that come out of high school and three years later you never hear from them again because it came too easy for them.”
36:30 Value in Learning from Others
In Steven’s book, Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit, he found a profound moment of humility and value from collaborating with a more established writer in the industry. Daniel inquires how that moment changed Steven. During those early years of Steven’s writing career, he was faced with difficulty in finding real work as a writer. His agent suggested he join a team under a more seasoned writer in the film industry that would take lead.
It was under this mentorship environment that Steven began to expand his writing knowledge as well as being able to recognize what makes a good script in the context of films.
Understanding genres such as 1930s Noir or famous films such as Citizen Kane allowed Steven to spot what audiences and filmmakers are looking for.
42:09 Warrior Virtues
Daniel found Steven’s book, The Warrior Ethos, to be incredibly insightful as it relates how a warrior’s virtues held guide individuals throughout life. Daniel then asks what these virtues have meant to Steven. He replies by listing a series of virtues he strongly abides by:
• Courage: the act of doing what’s right even while afraid or facing resistance.
• Selflessness: giving yourself to others before yourself. In the Marine Corps, this is a universal principle that every Marine must adhere to.
• Embracing adversity: the willingness to put yourself through hardship in order to emerge stronger than you were before.
“Why would a human with no fur, no claws, no [strong] teeth, [that’s] slow, dumb, no great vision, no great hearing… how come we survived and prevailed instead of lions and bears…? Partly it’s because of tribes we formed ourselves in, but also it’s because we were built for adversity… If there was ever a kind of a secret, that’s it. To be willing to embrace the hard stuff”
Similar to the idea of a principled warrior, Steven holds great admiration for the virtues of mothers. A mother’s love and sense of duty to her family is a force to be reckoned with, as she is willing to sacrifice any hint of self-preservation if it means protecting her children. Steven
asserts that if you want to study strong individuals, do not just study the Spartan warriors but also study the mothers who raised them.
50:48 Shame-Based Culture
Both being Marines, Daniel and Steven understand that much of their military service was based upon a form of shame-based culture. And contrary to popular belief, this shame-based culture actually kept each other accountable for their actions and instilled discipline in their
lives. Daniel notes a famous line from The Things They Carried: “Men fought and died and killed because they were too embarrassed not to.” This perfectly describes war and the people who fight them.
Steven adds that a shame-based culture extends beyond a community or group, but applies to the individual as well. This essentially boils down to having self-respect. An individual with discipline cannot look themselves in the mirror if they can’t measure up to their own standards.
54:20 Categorizing American Culture
Daniel asks Steven, “How would you categorize American culture today?”
Steven does not hold a lot of what’s become of American culture in high regard, mainly due to observing how it has normalized laziness. He notes that Americans live under a consumer culture and it defines so much of their everyday lives. Steven would like the idea of discipline and maturity to be more of the norm.
“We are told if we own more, if we buy more, if we eat more, if we consume more, even if it’s good stuff, even if it’s healthy food… That’s sort of the engine that keeps the economy going… That can be very dangerous because it produces a very selfish mindset and a very shallow mindset.”
Steven argues that pure unregulated freedom can at times promote the idea that people are simply allowed to do whatever they want, regardless of the greater good of society or their fellow man. This is in stark contrast to the warrior culture of the Marine Corps for example, as each individual Marine is instilled with their sense of duty to their country, to their fellow Marines, to the greater good of protecting their community. Gross individualism is a cancer to society.
01:00:11 Love over Fear
Daniel has noticed the overwhelming trend of our media and press to popularize fear and divisiveness over unity and community growth. In his books, Steven has noted that love is the opposite of fear and Daniel could not agree more. Many Americans fall into the trap of believing the narrative of “conservative vs liberal” or x vs y, the idea everyone should fear each other. Finding love for your neighbor and the people around you is the only way to build a better world.
America has incredible freedom and that comes with it a level of responsibility for each individual citizen. Steven observes that Americans have the freedom to fail, to succeed, and to try again. With those privileges and independence comes the pressure for each American to hold themselves accountable for their actions. Daniel agrees, noting that many Americans are easily swayed by group thought or tribal thinking when it comes to major social issues. Steven adds it takes tremendous discipline to truly think for yourself.