Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Art of War and The War of Art

            I have intended to "review" all the books I read on here, though I'm not sure why. I imagine it has something to do with being an English major, and well, that is what English majors do. I am admittedly behind; I finished Angela's Ashes a few weeks back- a wonderful, hilarious, brilliantly written book that certainly warranted the Pulitzer it won. It took me a long time to come around to reading anything that might in any way garner Oprah's approval, but I had been required to read McCourt's third book, Teacher Man during my graduate program and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I figured Angela's Ashes couldn't be so bad. I'm glad I overcame my bias. However, an extended review here seems rather pointless. Most people who are interested in reading it already have, most people who aren't never will.

             I also recently finished Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett, my favorite living philosopher, which is on the subject of free-will in a deterministic universe. As always, Dennett's ability to recast ancient philosophical battles (and few are more ancient than the fight over free-will), in modern terms by bringing the discoveries of science into the discussion, particularly evolution in this case, while simultaneously eliminating all of the arm-chair philosophical garbage that has accrued over millenia, and cut to the heart of the matter, is what, I believe, separates him from all of his contemporaries. However, while a review of Freedom Evolves will be forthcoming, it is to lengthy and dense a subject for me to attempt here, among other, more pressing, matters. (If you are impatient, besides the obvious recourse left to your free-will of purchasing and reading the book for yourself, you can watch him spell out some of the essential features of his argument here, in a lecture he gave at Edinburgh University. Even if you do read the book, it is worth hearing him, as he shares a countenance and demeanor with Santa Claus, but has a mind like a razor.)

            Today, however, I want to spend a little time sharing my thoughts on two books I read over the past few days; Sun Tzu's The Art of War and Steven Pressfield's The War of Art. The former I read mainly for historical curiosity, and because I have been playing a lot of Supreme Commander II lately, and will take any advantage I can get. The second I read upon the repeated recommendation of a good friend of mine, probably the only person whose recommendation could ever get me to walk into the Self Help section of the book store.

The Art of War

             Sun Tzu (if "he" was one person) wrote The Art of War around the 6th century BCE, in an attempt to prove to his emperor that he was worthy to lead his nation's, the Wu's, armies against their enemies, the Yueh. Much of the history of the text is disputed, even some of the details I gave above, but being not a scholar on these matters, I will not digress into those concerns here.

            The real question is, what can be gained by a 21st century citizen from a book of 2,600 year old military tactics? Much. Because, as Sun Tzu understood even those 26 centuries ago, most of warfare is about managing the people under your leadership, and this is an area that many of us could benefit from some tested advice. Further, Sun Tzu's advice has been adopted by many leaders, in the areas of business, sport and politics, which is a further testament to the universality of his thinking. While some people may bristle at the analogy to warfare, it is naive to think that all good things in this world can be brought about without conflict and sharp disagreement, as recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Wisconsin  and in the halls of Congress over women's rights demonstrate. I don't think I need to say that I am not advocating violence, but it is a fact of life that there are times where we are forced to pursue our objectives against the will of others, and tested strategy can be helpful here.

            However, I will not spend time here giving you a course in Sun Tzu; I will simply select one bit of advice and explain how I see this relevant to my own life. Do not expect anything profound, that is rarely the nature of wisdom. The business of good advice is not to reveal things you do not know, its business is instead to remind you of things you already know, but have let slip before more trivial concerns. Nothing in this book will change your understanding on its own, just hopefully serve as a reminder when life tries to get in the way of good sense.
            Opening the book, literally at random, I came across this, from Chapter 7, "Maneuvering:"

             28. Now a soldier's spirit is keenest in the morning; by noonday it has begun to flag; and               in the evening, his mind is bent only on returning to camp.

            Obviously. But how often do we organize our lives and our business in direct contradiction to this simple fact? I can relate this to my own career of education, thinking not of the days, but of the year as a whole. When we start the year in September, everyone, teachers, administration, even the majority of students are full of energy and excitement. Everyone, even the most sullen, have some secret hope, some plan, to make this year better than the last, whether it is to teach better, administer better, learn better or simply change our behavior and attitude. And what do we do with that energy, that excitement, in all of our wisdom? We crush it, smother it, destroy it, under a seemingly unending barrage of standardized tests, placement exams, standardized tests, language exams, and more standardized tests. By the time most of these conclude around early November, when instruction can proceed relatively free of interruption, all eyes are now only  on the Thanksgiving break, and then the Christmas break after that. When we return in January, to another round of standardized testing, and conclude this late in the month, all eyes once again turn towards break at the end of February. I am now in the last day of that break, and will be returning to school, six months into the school year, with three to go, and will surely be told by my superiors (through no fault of their own, for it is the truth we all work under), "Now we can start teaching."

             This is a travesty. The educational  system today is crushed by the value placed  on high-stakes testing by Washington bureaucrats, but this is only a part of the problem. The real problem lies in the fact that far more value is placed on administering the students than educating them. Assessing, assessing and reassessing their worth, measuring student against student, school against school, district against district, state against state and country against country. What is lost in all this is that there is nothing to assess because they haven't had time to learn anything since the last time we tested them! That vital morning energy, in both the morning of their lives and the morning that begins with each new year, is squeezed out so that it can be measured before the fruit has even begun to ripen. I wax poetic, (I've been watching a lot of Spartacus) but I hope my point is clear. Sadly, I am in that embarrassing position of being able to identify a problem without being able to proffer a solution, but when that is all one can do, that at least must be done.

            I love learning above all things, and I hope for nothing more as a teacher to be able to inspire the same thing in my students. I am not a great teacher, by any means. Most days, I doubt if I am even a good one. But I have had my successes here and there; a student of mine who last year was headed for expulsion, is now a model scholar and citizen at the high school. Sometimes that morning energy is simply not being channeled in the right direction. But, as Sun Tzu reminds us, it doesn't last forever- there are times when even the most resolute of us are ready to call it quits for a while. We should heed his advice, and organize our lives around reality, rather than trying to force the impossible reverse.

The War of Art

           I can only sincerely recommend Sun Tzu to those like-minded individuals who fret at the thought of leaving any influential book un-perused. If you are not one of those people, it is probably not worth your time, though it won't cost you much, $4 and 2 hours for me. The next book I am going to write about, whose title (and format and even purpose) are adapted from Sun Tzu, I can recommend unequivocally. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is one of those rare books that reminds you, as I said above, of all the things you know, but have let life get in the way of.
             While I will not do Pressfield the injustice of attempting to convey his point for him, I will try to convince you why you should read him. His premise is simple; if you are someone who has ever wanted to write a book, or a screenplay, or paint, or start a band, or a business, or a farm, or a non-profit, in short do anything that matters to you, but you find yourself, year after year, not doing it, he has some advice for you. 

            First, you need to know your enemy, and we all share the same one- Resistance. This is Pressfield's term for anything that gets in the way of you achieving what you want- and 98% of Resistance is internal. Resistance is excuses; "I'm not good enough," "No one will want to read this," "As soon as I get to this point in my life I start that." Resistance is vices; alcohol, television, junk-food, sex, etc.- things that aren't bad in themselves, but become Resistance when we use them to stifle that nagging unhappiness we feel when we know we are not doing what we want to be doing with our life. Resistance is drama and trouble; problems we create to manufacture excuses for again, not doing what we really want to be doing with our lives. The first step is recognizing that Resistance, something inside yourself, is the real problem, not your parents, not society, not your job or mortgage, nothing except your decision to not be doing what you want to be doing.

           Second (and I'm painting this in very broad strokes), after you have identified Resistance as the enemy (not overcome it, Resistance is never overcome, we just become aware of its tricks and better at counteracting them), your goal should be to become a "professional." Pressfield uses this term not to describe someone who gets paid for what they do, although this is nice, but someone who recognizes all creative endeavors for what they are- a lot of work. Again, without stealing his message, I think much of his point can be summarized in a quote he uses from Somerset Maugham. When asked one day if he wrote every day, or only when inspiration struck him, the famous writer said, "Only when inspiration strikes me. But fortunately, it strikes at precisely nine o'clock every morning." In short, do the work, the inspiration will take care of itself.

           Lastly, Pressfield discusses what it takes to keep going, even once you have recognized and are wary of Resistance, and have formed the habits of a professional. But I'll let you read that part for yourself.

           For me, like most things in life, the book came at the right time because I was ready to read it. This blog has been good for me in many ways. First, it has been a bit of a "coming out;" it has allowed me to unburden myself of some things that I have kept quiet about for too long. Second, it has gotten me into the habit of writing regularly. Third, it has given me a sense of what it means to write for an audience, and I owe a debt of gratitude to all of those whose feedback has kept me at it. Pressfield's book came at the right time in my life, because I was already in a place to see that some of his advice works, since I had already started putting it in place.

          But his book also helped me see that this blog, for all the good it has done me, has become a bit of my own Resistance. Before I started this blog, I was about 120 pages into a novel I was writing. I am still 120 pages into that novel. The posts I put up on this blog are very easy for me to write; any one of them is less work than writing a single, good sentence of fiction. But I have devoted, without regret, any writing time I have had to writing here, and none to writing the novel. And like anyone trying to "go pro," I need to spend more time on the things that frighten me, not the things I can do in my sleep. 

         So while I am certainly not signing off, I am trying to say that my posts may become less frequent than they have been. I still have dozens of post-ideas in my head, and more come to me every day, but I haven't done the work to keep up the same level of inspiration for the novel, or any novel, and that is where I need to turn my attention.

          I hope you will pick up Pressfield's book, and I hope you will continue checking-in here from time to time. The easiest way to see if there is anything new up is to friend me on Facebook, if you aren't already, since I share all of these posts there. Thanks for reading.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks Robert, and I wish you luck on your novel. I will still continue to come here and check in. CHEERS!