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Book review: Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be

I collected a copy of Steven Pressfield’s new book Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be as soon as it came out. It is a short book and did not take me long to finish. This is my fourth book by Steven. Previously, I enjoyed reading his excellent The War of Art, an all-time favorite among creative types, Do the Work and Turning Pro. 

Steven understands the trial and tribulation of creative life. Being an author himself, I think part of the understanding comes from his lived experience. The rest of it, as Steven puts it, comes from “the muse”. 

Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be can be called a follow-up of The War of Art. Steven introduced the idea of Resistance with a capital R in that book. In this book, he re-examines some of those ideas, expands on some, and proposes several new ideas. 

The ideas in the book are not uncommon if you have read Steven’s blog or his other books. And the approach he takes to put those ideas across is also familiar. To many people, these ideas may appear simplistic motivational hotchpotch. It may appear sometimes that he does not go deep enough into the roots of these challenges creative people face, which I would say is a weakness of the book. 

But the interesting thing about, at least in my opinion, Steven’s writing is that while the ideas are simple and direct, they don’t lack depth. He summarizes the challenges of creative types extremely well. He offers effective solutions to those challenges. While he does not go into the psychological rabbit hole to explain the source of many of these challenges, he offers effective diagnoses and resolutions. 

Creation is a difficult path. Be it a book, a painting, a song, or an enterprise. The work and the predicaments remain the same. Steven begins the first chapter with an overview of the challenge at hand and how to go about it. 

“We all know how hard it is to write a book, make a movie, or create a new business. Powerful forces line up against us — obstacles to entry, rivals, competitors, finances, funding, and the difficulty of the craft itself. But the most formidable antagonist of all resides inside each of our own skills. I’m talking about the negative force I call resistance with a capital R.” 

Resistance is an idea Steven writes extensively about in The War of Art. Many famous authors and creative professionals have spoken about it. For instance, another beloved non-fiction author Seth Godin calls it “lizard brain.” Steven writes: 

“What is resistance? It’s our own tendency — yours and mine and everyone’s — to yield to procrastination, self-doubt, fear, impatience, self-inflation, self-denigration, distraction, laziness, arrogance, complacency, and perfectionism. It’s our inability to focus, our incapacity to press on through adversity. It’s our terror of finishing and exposing our work to the judgment of the marketplace. It’s fear of failure. It’s fear of success. Fear of humiliation. Fear of destitution. It’s our inability to defer gratification, to acquire and act with self-discipline, self-validation, and self-reinforcement. 

Resistance is our tendency to self-sabotage, fail to start, and fail to finish. In its most extreme forms, resistance expresses itself as vice and even crime— abuse of ourselves or others, cruelty, addiction to substances, diva-ism, compulsive self-dramatization, self-aggrandizement, and self-diminishment.” 

I agree with the point that our tendencies and self-sabotage are the biggest obstacles to our progress. He then says sitting down and doing the work and making the necessary decisions regardless of how difficult they are is how we defeat the resistance and it is everyday work: 

“How do we defeat this monster that lives inside all of us and never tires, never loses strength, never takes a day off, and is endlessly ruthless and protean and subtle and clever and diabolical in the ways it can send snares for us and bring most noble and brilliant aspirations to nothing? How do we get past this force call Resistance and set on the path to achieving our dreams? 

The title of this book, as we said, is Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be. That, in nine words, is my answer. It is the simplest and most direct way to get up in the morning and do our work … and to lie down at night feeling at peace with ourselves, knowing for this one day at least we have defeated our demons and moved twenty-four hours closer to living the True Self and Best Self we were born to be.” 

The book then goes on to explain a ton of ideas about how to do it. Fear. commitment. Discipline. Distraction management. Creating a body of work. Addiction. Valuing your work and a long list of other important topics. 

However, my two major takeaways from the book are: first, to do anything meaningful we have to understand and learn how to sit down every day and do the work regardless of what happens in our external or internal world, and second, we have to be ready to make difficult decisions in favor of our venture and work including leaving our physical and mental comfort zone. 

1. Sit down and do the work. 

In Chapter one which is titled after the book, Steven writes: 

“Let's start with the most obvious interpretation of this axiom. (We’ll go deeper in succeeding chapters.) What do we mean by “ass”? In the first-level interpretation, the word means body. Our physical presence. When we say, “Put your ass where your heart wants to be,” we mean station your physical body in the spot where your dream work will and must happen. 

Want to write? Sit down at the keyboard. 

Wanna paint? Step up before the easel. 

Dance? Get your butt into the rehearsal studio. 

Dumb and obvious as it sounds, tremendous power lies in this simple physical action. 

When I sit down to write in the morning, I literally have no expectations for myself or for the day’s work. My only goal is to put in three or four hours with my fingers punching the keys. I don’t judge myself on quality. I don’t hold myself accountable for quantity. The only questions I ask are, Did I show up? Did I try my best? 

If I have done that, then I’ve put my butt where my heart wants to be. I can’t ask anything of myself.” 

Then in the next chapter, he goes on to explain some of the things that hold us from sitting down to do the work such as fear, distractions, lack of commitment, etc. But the only way we can potentially beat the fear is through doing the work. 

If you are into a creative profession, be it writing or entrepreneurship, you know how powerful this can be. Often we fail to achieve our goals and fail to get things done because we don’t take the time to sit down and do the work. Almost all creative people agree with this. The hardest part is sitting down and starting typing. 

It is the same with entrepreneurship. Doing the sales. Raising money. Running a team. Hiring. Everything falls into place when you finally manage to sit down and start making the call. 

If you read the biographies and accounts of famous writers and entrepreneurs, this is apparent. They maintain a strict routine and show up every day. They don’t care much about the quality of their work. They learn to get past distraction, addiction, and all the other melodies that can keep you away from your desk. They don’t worry about what will happen or whether their work matters or not. They simply put in the hours. 

Take this account of Stephen King, one of the greatest authors of our time, as described in Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King by Lisa Rogak:

“There are certain things I do if I sit down to write,” he said. “I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning,” he explained. “I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, “you're going to be dreaming soon.” 

“It’s not any different than a bedtime routine,” he continued. “Do you go to bed a different way every night? Is there a certain side you sleep on? I mean I brush my teeth, I wash my hands. Why would anybody wash their hands before they go to bed? I don’t know. And the pillows are supposed to be pointed a certain way. The open side of the pillowcase is supposed to be pointed in toward the other side of the bed. I don’t know why.”

Now read this account of one of my favorite novelists of our time and one of the greats Haruki Murakami: 

“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.” 

And here is Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel laureate in literature in an interview with The Paris Review in Fall/Winter 2005: 

INTERVIEWER: Where do you write?

PAMUK: I have always thought that the place where you sleep or the place you share with your partner should be separate from the place where you write. The domestic rituals and details somehow kill the imagination. They kill the demon in me. The domestic, tame daily routine makes the longing for the other world, which the imagination needs to operate, fade away. So for years I always had an office or a little place outside the house to work in. I always had different flats. But once I spent half a semester in the U.S. while my ex-wife was taking her Ph.D. at Columbia University. We were living in an apartment for married students and didn’t have any space, so I had to sleep and write in the same place. Reminders of family life were all around. This upset me. In the mornings I used to say goodbye to my wife like someone going to work. I’d leave the house, walk around a few blocks, and come back like a person arriving at the office. Ten years ago I found a flat overlooking the Bosporus with a view of the old city. It has, perhaps, one of the best views of Istanbul. It is a twenty-five minute walk from where I live. It is full of books and my desk looks out onto the view. Every day I spend, on average, some ten hours there.

INTERVIEWER: Ten hours a day?

PAMUK: Yes, I’m a hard worker. I enjoy it. People say I’m ambitious, and maybe there’s truth in that too. But I’m in love with what I do. I enjoy sitting at my desk like a child playing with his toys. It’s work, essentially, but it’s fun and games also.”

Although it is quite common sense that to get things done, you have to sit down and start working, doing so is not easy. Otherwise, we all would have been making great art. Sitting down is the most difficult task of all. We often fail to do so owing to many maladies. However, we can make it easier for us to sit down and do the work by turning it into practice and creating a structure around it. Here are a couple of ideas for getting started: 

  • Practice sitting down in silence for a certain period every day. You can call this meditation or whatever you may prefer. But this is a powerful practice. Here is an excellent LessWrong on this. 
  • Create an office hour, meaning a routine, and make sure you adhere to it every day. 
  • Maintain a daily consistent working hour. For instance, if you want to work between 8:00 am to 12:00 pm, make sure you do so every day. 
  • Force yourself to sit down every day no matter what. Sitting down daily has magic in it. 

2. Move where things are happening 

The second takeaway for me comes in chapter three of the book. Steven presses on and offers a radical idea of sorts. He offers a new explanation for what he means by putting your ass to where your heart wants to be. The chapter is named “move your ass where your heart wants to be”. Steven writes: 

“Now let’s take the principle a step further. 

Leave the town or city where you live and move to the hub of the creative or entrepreneurial world where your dreams are most likely to come true. 

Let me repeat that. 

Pack up your total establishment—spouse, kids, dog, couch, treadmill—and move to the metropolis that’s the epicenter of your career or creative dream. Yes, I know we can all work remotely. Zoom will put our face before potential friends, mentors, and collaborators without us leaving the comfort of our home. But it ain’t the same as being there.” 

Steven writes there are many reasons why one should move to the center of happenings. He mentions two: resources and people. You should seek out resources and move to places where resources are. The second reason he mentions is people. Although both are connected because oftentimes, it is the people who bring your resources. 

Steven suggests you have to move to places where you can meet people who can help you the most with your craft. Friends, mentors, investors, and employees. 

Steven is spot on here. The history of creative and entrepreneurial successes suggests that it is imperative to move to the center of happenings if you are willing to achieve your goals. 

This is quite evident if you look at the successful tech entrepreneurs of our time. From the founders of Intel to Tesla to Sun Microsystem to Instacart to DoorDash, major tech success stories are littered with people who came to the US from the outside. It is the community and the access to resources in Silicon Valley that have made it possible for many of these people to make great things happen. 

This is, however, not a modern story of our time alone. This has been happening throughout history. People migrated from one place to another for knowledge, business, and other purposes. For instance, one of the great Muslim scholars Abu Hamid Ibn Muhammad al-Tusi al-Shafi al-Ghazali was born in Khurasan (Iran). However, he later moved first to Nishapur and then to Baghdad to pursue scholarship because these were the two most famous centers of knowledge in those days. 

I recently had an opportunity to meet influential economist and author Professor Tyler Cowen at an Emergent Ventures event. I asked him what is a common trait among the best-performing EV winners that separate them from others. I was expecting he would say something along the line of hard work, intelligence, conviction, ambition, and so on. But he offered an unexpected insight. He said it is where they live — whether they are living in the places where things are happening. Someone living in San Francisco naturally does better than the ones who live in cities where nothing much is happening. 

This observation appears to be true in the lives of great creatives, writers, scientists, musicians, and all sorts of creative people from across times and places. Take, for example, Henry Miller. For Miller, his breakthrough came after he moved to Paris in 1928 where he met some of the people who changed his life. Almost all his influential works were published when he was living in Paris. In Paris, he met Anais Nin, who financed and supported his early work. Here is from MIller’s Wikipedia page

“Miller had little or no money the first year in Paris. However, things began to change after meeting Anaïs Nin who, with Hugh Guiler, went on to pay his entire way through the 1930s including the rent for an apartment at 18 Villa Seurat. Nin became his lover and financed the first printing of Tropic of Cancer in 1934 with money from Otto Rank.” 

Miller is not alone. This has been the story of an endless number of famous creatives and entrepreneurs. Steven also offers several names in the book, people who moved to different cities in order to find their success: 

“Hemingway moved to Paris. Arnold Schwarzeneggar left Austria for Gold’s Gym in Venice, California. Bob Dylan moved to Greenwich Village. Joni Mitchell left Saskatoon for Laurel Canyon. Why did they move? First resources. In ‘68 there were no gyms like Gold’s anywhere. If you wanted to be the best, like Arnold, you had to go where the resources were.”  

To that end, it seems where you live is at least as important as your talent, if not more. 

The book is short, about 100 pages, and written in a manner that is directional and gets to the heart of the matter. Like other non-fiction books by Steven, it is easy to read and many of the ideas appear simplistic, which I would argue is a weakness of the book because it makes overlooking many of the other important ideas of the book easy. 

The book has a ton of practical advice, but without strong intentions, it will be hard to apply any of the ideas. While some of the ideas are redundant with The War of Art, it is an enjoyable read. Moreover, I would argue we need to fight our resistance every day. To that end, it is excellent reinforcement for your creative force. 

Ruhul Kader is a technology and business analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Future Startup and author of Rethinking Failure: A short guide to living an entrepreneurial life. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, technology policy, and society. He can be reached at [email protected]

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