We were talking last week about ambition. Judging from the response, the subject struck a chord. Apparently no few of us, if we’re honest, have to admit that, however egotistical or un-PC it may sound, we really do want to excel, to succeed, to make a mark. We want to do something great, and we’re not going to apologize for it.

Achilles didn't have it, but Homer did

So maybe this week we should balance things out and talk about humility.

A scary world out there

The artist and the entrepreneur (and all of us on the soul-level) live in an uncertain world. Our trade is in ideas, but who can say where the next one is coming from—or even if there will be a next one?

There’s a wonderful quote from John Gardner or somebody that, alas, I can’t find. The bad paraphrase goes something like this:

I make my living tapping a source that I cannot name or control, a force that appears and disappears based on factors that are unknown to and unknowable by me and that cannot be managed or manipulated, no matter how hard I try. I am at its mercy.

The author is talking about the Muse, the unconscious, whatever you want to call the mysterious source and wellspring of creativity.

The author’s world is a pretty scary place, if you think about it. To be dependent utterly on something that you can’t see, smell, taste, measure, summon, govern or control. No wonder artists and entrepreneurs act so crazy.

The virtue of humility

What, then, is the proper attitude of mortal man and woman toward this weird and unknowable, uncontrollable source?

Homer (not Simpson) believed it was respect, humility, even devotion. Both the Iliad

“Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles … “

and the Odyssey

“O divine Poesy, goddess, daughter of Zeus … “

begin with invocations of the Muse, as do countless other works by great artists down the centuries.

Homer was no fool. He understood the dynamic. Heaven gives, we receive. If we know where our bread is buttered, we will knock off the wisecracks and show a little respect.

There’s a terrific 19-minute talk that Elizabeth Gilbert gave last year at TED on this very subject. Ms. Gilbert was speaking about the pressure she felt (and was putting on herself) to follow up Eat, Pray, Love with another book just as good and, hopefully, just as successful. The strain, she said, was driving her a little nuts. What chilled her out in the end was the time-honored notion that the work doesn’t come from her, but through her. This understanding gave her permission to take the pressure off. Since the issue rests with the gods, the author can relax. Ms. G. was being half-facetious of course. But her thoughts on the source of creativity being outside ourselves are, to my mind, right on.

The difference between humility and passivity

That being said, there’s a critical difference between humility (healthy) and passivity (not healthy.) The gods want us to show them honor, true. But once we’ve paid our respects, the immortals expect us to display some huevos.

When we work, we must work with audacity and fearlessness. The actor has to take chances. The writer must turn off the self-censor. The space commander must boldly go where no one … well, you know.

Ambition, humility, audacity

Ambition is the artist’s foundation. Dynamis in Greek: the drive to seek, to discover, to become. The Muse approves of ambition. Ambition gives the artist the passion to start and the tenacity to finish.

But ambition must never be allowed to rise to the level of hubris. The minute we believe that we are the source of that which comes through us … that’s when the gods start dusting off their thunderbolts.

At the same time, humility must not become passivity. You and I may only be mortals, with all the foolishness and fallibility that that state implies, but we’re mortals made in the image of heaven. The gods can’t do their work without us. So let’s be bold, in their cause and in our own. It’s our job, we humans, to make manifest that which is unmanifest–and to raise into consciousness, in this material dimension, that which had been known before only in heaven.


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A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



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  1. Matt Cardin on August 4, 2010 at 5:32 am

    Absolutely beautiful. I just got one of those thrills that always accompanies a distinct synchronicity, since your focus here confirms and overlaps with *exactly* the themes that have been dominating my own thoughts and emotions recently. As always, I especially appreciate your focus on the complementary nature of effort and inspiration, which you always articulate so movingly.

    You said: “The gods can’t do their work without us. So let’s be bold, in their cause and in our own. It’s our job, we humans, to make manifest that which is unmanifest–and to raise into consciousness, in this material dimension, that which had been known before only in heaven.” Love this. More than love it. Words to live by. Thank you.

  2. Mark Andrew Edwards on August 4, 2010 at 8:22 am

    I agree. I need both, ambition and humility, kept in tension. I feel I can tell stories better than 90% of the stuff being published but I also feel my work isn’t good enough. Those two emotions drive my writing career. The first keeps me writing, the second keeps me revising. I want show what I can do and I want to learn more.

    And if I may, that was a beautifully written final sentence.

  3. Ines on August 4, 2010 at 9:53 am

    Yes Steven! I think ambition and humility are like the two sides of a single coin. It is the currency writers use to buy words for the paper. The combinations of words come from deep inside of us, from our soul. They appear to have been there from the beginning waiting to be set free. But the drive to write them comes from somewhere unknown. Have you ever wondered why you must write? Why wrestle with your brain? Why not paint, play the guitar or garden? There is a source pulling the words from the inside out. We must honor that source and show reverence for its power. We must be aware that our ambition can be harmful to us. The muse is a jealous God, and “God opposes the proud, but give grace to the humble.”

  4. Andrew Halfacre on August 4, 2010 at 11:35 am

    I love the distinction between humility and passivity – something I needed to hear again. CS Lewis said something like ‘Pray as if it all depends on God and work as if it all depends on you’ putting his finger on the eternal mystery of creativity. When Elizabeth Gilbert reaches back to Rome and Greece for a metaphor it still doesn’t quite work for me; I don’t think she goes far enough.

    She’s right on the money about the philosophical failure of rational humanism. Dethroning God and replacing him with ourselves has not done us any good at all – that’s just idolatry, as Steve wrote a few weeks ago. If we are not the pinnacle then what is? A being or entity outside human comprehension? A spirit or collection of them who we cannot perceive yet who communicate with us through flashes of insight and gifts that appear to be far beyond the sum of our talents?

    For me, this is where the metaphor of the muse/genius breaks down. If you accept that something is influencing human creativity you have to accept that it is not always good nor helpful. Where did napalm come from? Who whispered in the ear of Smith and Wesson? Who nudged us towards boiling up poppy resin and then chewing it? What spirit whispered in the ear of those young men training to fly an airliner into a building?

    To accept that these things are not of human origin is to postulate the existence of a ‘bad muse’ which is where the whole metaphor comes apart (IMHO). I find the Christian notion of angels and unclean spirits makes more sense when you look at the whole range of astounding creations – the sublime and the downright evil.

    Paul (starting every letter with an invocation) writes about the artist’s dilemma in his letters to the early churches – what to make, how to be, how to act. He argues that what is good comes ultimately from God while what is bad comes from the father of lies. You can’t control what comes but you can sure as heck control what you do with it.

    What is the struggling writer to do? A set of words appear in your mind as if dictated. They are complete, erudite and striking. They are also nasty, vindictive and will do real damage if you publish them. What do you do? Clearly an unclean entity is trying to get some airtime with you. Or maybe, with humility, you acknowledge that you are not as nice as you thought you were. So you make a judgement. You hit the delete key and pray for more love so you can write words that build up instead of destroy.

    For me there is more than a ‘muse/genius’ at work.

    • Matt Cardin on August 4, 2010 at 12:49 pm

      Provocative thoughts, and well expressed. Thanks, Andrew.

      As you may already be aware, James Hillman deals at some length with the questions you raise. In The Soul’s Code, for instance, he goes into depth about his idea of the seed-self, the daimon self — which can be compared to a personal muse — that’s the core of each person’s identity, and that provides the overall life template. And he includes a chapter titled “The Bad Seed” in which he addresses the obvious question this raises about evil possibilities, as in, e.g. and most obviously, the emergence of people like Hitler.

      He talks at length about it in this interview, if you’re interested: http://www.personaltransformation.com/Hillman.html

  5. Christina on August 4, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    My favorite passage from the Bhagavad Gita tangentially addresses this topic. It’s verse 2:47:

    “You have the right to work only, but not for the results of work. Do not let your motivation for action be influenced by reward, and do not become attached to inaction.”

    Years ago I read an essay Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about sending work out into the world. She said something like – if my memory is working – “Your job is to send out the work, not decide when it’s ready for the public. That’s someone else’s job.” I’ve always remembered that.

  6. Marci Segal on August 5, 2010 at 7:59 am

    Beautifully written. Thank you.

    Question: in what ways is it possible for people to have their ego needs met and create simultaneously?

    Question Context:
    1) I’ve heard ideation facilitators take credit for the ideas produced during client sessions, as if had those facilitators not been there the ideas would not have happened.

    2) Authors of creativity methods books, proposing scenarios, techniques and processes, advocate use of their own principles as ‘the best’.

    3) Ego needs may or may not be tied to economic value. I recently heard an economist repeat the phrase, what you are paid reflects your worth to society. And, to divorce the need for subsistence and survival within society from the creative act may be difficult, especially during the shifts we are currently experiencing economically, environmentally, socially, technologically, politically, etc.

  7. avidya on August 5, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    Clear, sweet and specific. Love your style Mr. Pressfield absolute honor to be able to read your work!!

    Going through life with this state of mind opens the possibility to the limitless world of the muse. We would no longer be afraid to take a chance and do what we love to do, because if we have that ambition it would mean the gods found a servant- a faithful one at that.

    Life would also be more pleasant knowing there’s a bigger picture and we as individuals must serve the collective.

  8. SJB on August 6, 2010 at 8:28 am

    My subconscious has some issues with ambition and humility. It’s difficult to embrace ambition without facing failures. By ignoring one, I have given myself permission to ignore the other. I have allowed humility to morph into passivity. I’m like that mole, in the Whack-A-Mole game in the carnival midway. My ambitious self pops up out of the hole, but unfortunately, I’m also the one standing there, ever vigilante, with the mallet.Whack!

    • Ines on August 6, 2010 at 8:56 am


      I like this: “My ambitious self pops up out of the hole, but unfortunately, I’m also the one standing there, ever vigilante, with the mallet.Whack!”

      Great analogy! I completely relate. Thanks for giving me a reason to laugh at myself. I needed that! So often we/I confuse self-destructive methods with signs of humility or meekness. Nonsense!

      Ines 🙂

  9. JT Ellison on August 6, 2010 at 11:14 am

    I want to read this every morning, right before I invoke the Muse through prayer. Absolutely wonderful piece, Steven.

  10. John Roth on August 6, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    The relationship between humility, ambition and the Muses seems aptly captured in another classical (Roman) epic poem, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura:

    I wander through the pathless regions of the Muses
    Trodden before by the foot of no one.
    I take joy to go to the untouched springs and to drink greedily.
    I delight to pluck new flowers and to seek then a distinguishing crown for my head
    From where the Muses have garlanded the temples of no one before. (Book 4, 1-5)

    The poet seems to say that venturing into the unknown is a source of great joy and satisfaction. The road untravelled leads to the font of inspiration and distinguished success.

  11. Melissa on August 7, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    Steven, your posts are guiding, humbling, and mentoring me week after week. They also interact with each other (often based on the comments) and Writing Wednesdays is turning into a virtual dialogue informing my creative life.

    As others have pointed out, you got into a zone with this one. Your conclusion was straight from the mouth of the Muses! Thank you for your mighty contribution.

  12. Jeff on August 9, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    Best. Post. Ever. Thanks for writing this, Steven.

  13. Andrew on August 16, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Olivier Blanchard (thebrandbuilder) sent me here from Twitter. I think I found a new blog for google reader. Some nice thoughts on how ambition is good if tempered with humble pie. I love it.

    We all want to make our mark on The universe. Nothing wrong with dreaming big. 🙂

  14. Bryan R, on September 7, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    This was utterly fantastic! This is not adoration (I learned that lesson a long time ago) but a hearty “well done!”

    Because of what I experienced while growing up the lines of understanding between Passivity, Humility and Ambition were skewed for me. Many of those that I saw who were “successful” were anything but modest and it drove me away from having “ambition.” I saw them, time and time again, put that ambition before family and friends. I came to think that in order to be successful you had to be a certain kind of person regardless of where the thunderbolts fell.

    I’ve been successful lately in re-wiring a lot of that programing and it’s posts like these that have helped. Especially that last sentence which was, at one time, unmanifest. Thanks for bringing it to the Earthly realm.

  15. mark on September 13, 2010 at 9:55 am

    Read this, and the inspiring comments, with interest. There is always the danger of getting too big for your boots and humility becoming hubris.

    I doubt this is an original thought but I am going to start seeing things this way: Each time I help someone, act from a place of unconditional love, even if it is just holding a door to let someone through, etc..I am honouring my Muse. At the very least, I will be bringing an extra bit of good manners into the day! But, I would say that by doing so, it is also cultivating an attitude of humility and gratitude which does help creativity flow.

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