Reinforcement and Self-Reinforcement

Let me start with an overstatement:

For writers and artists, the ability to self-reinforce is more important than talent.

What exactly is reinforcement?

It’s when your coach or your mentor or your spouse tugs you aside and tells you how well you are doing, and how proud of you they are, and how certain ultimate success is if you just keep doing what you’re doing.

Nick Murray’s “The Game of Numbers”

That’s reinforcement.

What’s self-reinforcement?

It’s when you do the exact same thing for yourself.

Let me rephrase my original overstatement by quoting my (fictional) literary agent, 96-year-old Marty Fabrikant:

“Talent is bullshit. I seen a million writers with talent. It means nothing. You need guts, you need stick-to-it-iveness. It’s work, you gotta work, do the freakin’ work. That’s why you’re gonna make it, son. You work. No one can take that away from you.”

Self-reinforcement, however, is about more than just patting yourself on the back when your efforts have produced results.

When self-reinforcement really counts is when it’s for actions that have not produced results and may not for a long time.

This is self-reinforcement at the Ph.D. level.

It’s professional self-reinforcement.

Have you read Nick Murray’s book, The Game of Numbers?

If there is one work I would recommend to a young writer after The War of Art, it’s The Game of Numbers.

Full disclosure: Nick Murray is a good friend.

Full disclosure #2: The Game of Numbers costs forty bucks. [Available at Amazon and at]

But back to Nick and the meat of his concept:

Nick is a guru to financial advisors, the investment professionals that you or I might hire to help us take care of our money.

A big part of succeeding as a financial advisor is the ability to “prospect,” i.e., make cold approaches seeking clients. This is a helluva daunting chore. It elicits MAJOR Resistance among financial planners trying to do it. Many go out of business simply because they can’t make themselves pick up the phone and make the cold calls necessary to acquire clients.

Nick Murray’s answer:

Make five approaches a day, rain or shine, and evaluate your success (i.e., self-reinforce) based exclusively on the fact that you made the approaches, not whether they produced a new client.

It may take 500 calls to get one client. It may take a thousand. But if you keep doing the work, you will get the clients.

The law permits of no exceptions.

Your job is to keep believing. And keep making approaches.

And you, my fellow writers in the trenches, your job, like mine, is to keep doing your pages. And keep believing.

Which brings us back to self-reinforcement.

How do we keep believing?

What keeps us from quitting?

What force stops us from throwing in the towel?

It’s not talent.

It ain’t literary genius.

The ability to self-reinforce is more important than talent.

Believe me, my own gift for the profession of letters is iffy at best. Nine-tenths of my ideas are terrible. I can’t remember the last sentence I wrote that I didn’t have to twist, tweak, and rejigger half a hundred times before I accepted it as ready for public consumption.

But I can self-reinforce.

I can self-validate.

I’ve taught myself over decades.

What is the arena of self-validation? In what inner sphere does self-reinforcement reside?

Its seat is among the most mundane, glamorless, least sexy parts of our psyche. In this place, no champion or mentor stands at our side. Glory has fled. The world is black-and-white. No soundtrack. No audience. No paycheck.

There we stand, a twenty-three-year-old financial advisor (or writer) sharing a $450-a-month office suite with a secretarial service and not even a parking space. It’s seven-thirty at the end of a fruitless day and we’ve just gotten off our fifth total-waste-of-time cold call to a soon-to-be retired dentist or a just-starting-out English teacher, both of whom have hung up on us or, worse, taken pity on our obvious plight and signed off with, “Good luck, buddy.” We turn off the office lights, lock the door, and phone our spouse, telling her/him we’re on our way home.

That’s where self-reinforcement lives.

That’s where we stand when we must call upon our deepest resources.

Can you say to yourself, “I made my five calls,” and keep believing?

Can you tell yourself, “I did my day’s pages,” and hang onto your faith?

In the movies we see courage depicted amid explosions and gunshots and fireballs of violence.

But the artist’s courage (and the financial planner’s) plants itself in a different arena—a sphere that is silent, unseen and unheard, void of glamor or romance, and in which the artist/writer/entrepreneur is profoundly, inevitably, excruciatingly alone.


















Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

do the work book banner 1


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.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"



  1. Mary Doyle on November 21, 2018 at 6:04 am

    How did you know I needed to hear this today? A thousand thanks!

  2. Allderdice on November 21, 2018 at 6:22 am

    You said it. Keep that thumb out there. You’ll get a ride eventually.

  3. Rock Kendzior on November 21, 2018 at 6:27 am

    Love this one! I’ve made many cold calls in my past, but never considered making cold pages. I’ll keep grinding. Thanks for reminding me how important self-reinforcement is. I could use an entire book on that topic! Cheers!

  4. Mia Sherwood Landau on November 21, 2018 at 6:27 am

    While I may be alone and the room is silent, plenty of action goes on in my head. Resistance is holding court in there, and I am the accused. In this scenario, self-reinforcement looks like a defense attorney deftly eviscerating my opposition. Yes it does. Now you’ve got me excited about prevailing in the on-going matter of my productivity as a writer. I love this!

  5. Linda McLean on November 21, 2018 at 6:28 am

    This is my favourite ever. Thank you, to you and your guiding energies that keep you tuning in to what we struggling romantics need to hear.

  6. Mando on November 21, 2018 at 6:34 am

    Thanks for this one Steve. Came at the right time…

  7. Adam Abramowitz on November 21, 2018 at 6:38 am

    Awesome stuff

  8. Evelyn Starr on November 21, 2018 at 6:50 am

    I agree that self-reinforcement for showing up and doing the work is the writer’s lifeline to staying sane. It saves me more days than not.

    But your friend Nick Murray’s example backfired with me. As a marketing consultant to financial advisors (and wife of one), I can tell you the days of believing that cold calls lead to clients are long past. The five calls now need to be relationship-building ones. Drops in the trust accumulation bucket that will lead the prospect to remember and choose that financial advisor when he or she needs one.

    I make this point because the pages you are talking about must relate to the work-in-progress to merit self-reinforcement. The cold call example to me is like writing pages in your journal and self-reinforcing. Yes, you showed up and wrote. But no it won’t lead to your ultimate goal. That’s not to say that on occasion just writing anything isn’t a win – it is – but ultimately you have to keep at the relevant work to make progress and achieve your goal.

  9. BarbaraNH on November 21, 2018 at 6:50 am

    Every week I am just wowed and grateful.

  10. Don Akchin on November 21, 2018 at 7:01 am

    Thanks, pal. I needed that.

  11. Graham K. Glover on November 21, 2018 at 7:02 am

    I’m a fashion photographer. My day job work week ends late Saturday afternoon. My fashion work week begins after dinner Saturday night. I have all of the tasks I need to do over the week listed in a mind map. There’s “Planning for the Week”, “Scout for models” (need to capitalize models in my mind map!), “Shoot project”, “Post process”, and “Create projects”. My day job is full time. I have a family, though the kiddo is now off at college. My fashion week begins with a ritual on Saturday evening. I bring a cup of coffee to the computer room, I look at the tasks for the week to come, and I open a browser to Model Mayhem where I will presently review the latest models. The ritual ends and the work week begins.

    I check everything off that I do as the week progresses. Not every week is the same. I have a goal to contact two models each week; there are weeks there are none to select. Sometimes when there’s no project to shoot I spend quality time with the owner’s manual for the camera to see if there’s some obscure feature I’ve missed that would help me. I post my photos, deliver them to my models, share a few on Facebook, and so far the ROI is…

    …that I’ve done the work and have occasionally made a few people happy. It’s still the most important job in the world.

    I work my fashion week, and some are better than others. I try to keep believing. I keep my faith. One recent project involved a 2 hour shoot with a model/actor in NYC. It was just 2 hours. It was 2 hours plus the other 100+ hours in prep, collaboration with the model, post processing of photos, creating a video, and creating a magazine, with the total cashflow being “out”. The concept for that project was, “A young woman opens her eyes and decides to believe in herself, taking control of her life.” Maybe there’s something autobiographical here.

    At the end of my fashion week, I can say, “I worked my fashion week tasks, and they were the right things to do.” I hang on to my faith. I keep believing in my work and I try to keep believing in myself. When I doubt myself, I reflect for a moment – I came from nothing, I live in a place where fashion doesn’t matter, and yet I work as a fashion photographer with intelligent bright young female models, I’ve had two fashion shoots in New York City which is THE world fashion center – and I realize I’m still on a path to being a commercial fashion photographer. Belief quickly evolves to gratitude for such a good and supportive Universe.

  12. Jon on November 21, 2018 at 7:22 am

    Well timed article. I’ve struggled this week revising a novel and this helps to know as I chug along tearing out pages and my hair that I can encourage myself and move forward. Thanks Steve.

  13. Joe Jansen on November 21, 2018 at 7:30 am

    Early on, I spent a couple years in office equipment sales. Photocopiers and fax machines. The company sent all their new reps to a Tom Hopkins sales training seminar. Once I got past the observation that his hairpiece looked borrowed from evangelist Ernest Angley, I was able to settle in and listen to what he had to say.

    He pulled ten audience members on-stage and sat them in a row of chairs. He said, “Imagine that you have to make 10 approaches to get one sale. And imagine that one sale will net you $100.”

    He gave each person a crisp $10 bill, with these instructions. “I’m going to walk down the line and ask each of you a closing question. I want you to answer with the rudest, most negative and mean response you can come up with.” He said to person #10, “When I get to you, you can answer my question with a simple ‘yes.’ Okay?” People nodded and you could tell they were already formulating their best faux-nasty responses.

    Tom: “Could I have the name of the person responsible for purchasing your office equipment?”
    #1: “Get out! You’re the fourth sales rep in here this morning asking me that question!”
    Tom: Reaches out and plucks the $10 bill from #1’s hand and says, “Thanks for the ten!”

    Tom: “Would Wednesday or Friday be better to schedule a product demonstration?”
    #2: “Neither! We’re not buying! Maybe you should use your time on Friday to replace those scuffy shoes of yours.”
    Tom: Snatches the bill. “Thanks for the ten!”

    Tom: “Can you see how this unit can cut your paper budget in half?”
    #3: “How about you cut your copier price in half? I see what kind of car you’re driving.”
    Tom: Takes the bill. “Thanks for the ten!”

    You get the idea.

    He gets to the end of the line. “Do you agree this copier can help your office staff make better use of their time?”
    Customer #10: “Yes. Yes, I do.”

    Tom took the final $10 bill, counted to 100, and looked at the audience.

    “See how that works?”

    • Steven Pressfield on November 21, 2018 at 2:40 pm

      Joe, U R the Bomb!

      • Joe Jansen on November 22, 2018 at 4:18 am

        If I accept your words, I risk falling prey to the siren’s song of “external validation.”

        But if I self-reinforce and walk around repeating, “I AM THE BOMB, I AM THE BOMB,” I risk getting scooped up by TSA and being put in a small room with no windows.

        Jeez, this stuff is hard.

    • Julie Murphy on November 22, 2018 at 5:07 pm

      Yes! Thank you!

  14. Lyn Blair on November 21, 2018 at 7:31 am

    Persistence, perseverance. They’re vital. Nobody gets it right on the first try.. “Keep on keepin’ on” as it says in the urban dictionary. “Weather the storm,” “look for the light at the end of the tunnel,” so many expressions to convey this timeless idea. You sure nailed it with this post!

  15. Jack Henke on November 21, 2018 at 7:44 am

    Steve, all of your posts make me think, but this one stopped me in my cold-calling tracks of fear. Perfect for my day-job and my passion. Thank you, I’m grateful for you and Callie. Have a helluva Thanksgiving.

  16. Pete Dudley on November 21, 2018 at 6:56 pm

    I know many writers and two of them both started out better than me. The slightly better one, just writes the same type of absurd short stories over and over. He was better five years ago. The other person is a beautiful story teller. Once in twenty of my chapters I might approach his skill. He develops characters, I would love to write novels around, but he can’t see how to do himself. I don’t think he’s putting in the time. Meanwhile I’ve been plugging away, reading, studying the craft and have written 112 thousand words on my first novel. 80% of the time I’m loving the writing and editing. If it never sells a thousand copies, I’ve still had the time of my life. Thanks for your inspirations to my writing.

  17. Stacy Chambers on November 22, 2018 at 2:54 am

    This is what I needed to hear right now. Thank you!

  18. Julie Murphy on November 22, 2018 at 5:10 pm

    Thank you, Steven.

    This sticky point is connected with the paradigm shift of turning pro.

  19. Patrícia Caldas on November 23, 2018 at 9:08 am

    Thank you so much for this!

  20. Sandra on November 24, 2018 at 12:18 pm

    Reinforcement when I need it most. Thank you!

  21. Andrew on November 28, 2018 at 8:10 am

    I’ll start doing this from today. I appreciate the emphasis not on the quality of the work, but that the work was done. That we show up. It’s a great reminder. Thank you!

  22. Jenny Leigh Hodgins on November 29, 2018 at 8:34 am

    Wonderful perspective and well-written, too! Thanks for the much-needed reminder to appreciate what I’m doing daily as a creator (writer/composer) and entrepreneur! Self-praise, self-check, daily steps of action, rinse, repeat!

  23. Hester on December 16, 2018 at 1:35 am

    Ichh muss bei Ihnen dafür bedanken diese gut lesen !! Ich auf jeden Fall
    liebte jedes bisschen es. I haben Buchh markieet zu sehen neue Sachen, die Siee veröffentlichen …

  24. Leonardo on December 18, 2018 at 11:23 am

    What a beautiful post! Thank you.
    Thank you.
    Thank you. <3
    Now, back to work.

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