Killer Instinct, Part One
I’ve been doing a video series on social media called “The Warrior Archetype.” One of the points I’m trying to make is that exterior virtues that we often associate with soldiers and physical combatants can also be called upon by you and me as we fight the interior “war of art.”
One of these virtues is Killer Instinct.
I know, I know. Immediate pushback says, “Kill kill = bad bad.”
I tried to write my first book in New York when I was twenty-three. I spent two years and got 99.9% of the way through. I choked. I couldn’t finish. I wound up blowing up my marriage and what remained of my sane life, rather than cover that last few feet to the finish line.
No killer instinct.
One of the laws of Resistance is that
Resistance is always strongest at the finish.
The example I cited in The War of Art was of Odysseus at the end of his voyage home from the Trojan War.
Ithaca was in sight. The ship was so close to shore that Odysseus’ men could see the cookfires on the hillsides. Their skipper, alas, had chosen this moment to lie down for a snooze. The men knew he had a hide-covered sack that he would let no one touch. They decided to plunder it.
What the sailors didn’t know was that the sack contained the Adverse Winds, gifted to Odysseus by King Aeolus. When the men opened the bag, the winds rushed out in one furious blow, driving the ship back across every league she had traversed on her long voyage home.
It took me years to learn to finish a project.
In other words, to develop killer instinct.
Seth Godin prefers the verb “ship.” He means if we’ve spent the past eight years designing the latest iPhone and it’s now ready … don’t hesitate. Ship it!
That’s killer instinct.
Plunge a stake through the heart of that project you’ve got 99.9% done. Force yourself. Close your eyes and polish it off.
What are we “killing” anyway?
We’re killing Resistance.
We’re sinking our dagger into the insidious, pernicious, rotten, sneaky, evil force of our own self-sabotage. Our own hesitation. Our own fear of success (or failure).
Another story I told in The War of Art was of a friend who had written his magnum opus. It was done. He had the typed pages in their shipping box, ready to be sent to his agent.
But my friend couldn’t make himself pull the trigger.
That horrible, strongest-at-the-finish-line Resistance got to him.
The tragic ending to this story is my friend died.
His book never got sent off.
Killer instinct is not negative when we use it to finish off a book, a screenplay, any creative project that is fighting us and resisting us to the bitter end.
Steel yourself and put that sucker out of its misery.
Kill kill = good good.
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Steve, great post. We have to finish these MoFos. I keep in mind one of your dictums, maybe, paraphrased, that I take responsibility for showing up and working the process, and leave the quality to itself. Another is that I remember that I never promised myself that the work would be good, only that I’ll finish that sucker no matter what.
Thank you sir!
Peter, great comment. Work the process, leave the quality to itself. Thank you for that.
Thanks for sharing the story about your friend – his failure to ship will inspire a lot of readers here today and remind us just how determined a devil Resistance is.
I needed this so much today.
Back in early May of 2011, Kelly and I were walking the dogs talking about an idea I had as a fundraiser for our animal rescue. The idea was a race up and down the stairs of an infamous stadium in our city (10 Things I Hate About You High School–where Heath Ledger sings to Julia Stiles).
Kelly is one of the most conscientious, diligent, thoughtful people I’ve ever met. She checks, double checks, and considers the implications of her actions on others in nearly everything. I,uh, not so much. Much more high energy impulsivity.
So, I tell Kelly I really think we should do this race. We have about 11 weeks to pull it off. She is saying, logically and sensibly, that we should wait until next year. “Why do we need to rush ahead this year?”
“Kelly, I’ve been a great starter my whole life, but I rarely finish. I need to finish. I have to see this all the way through…”
She agreed. In hindsight, I would never encourage someone to plan a race with only 11 weeks. That said, f we were not interrupted by COVID, this summer would have been our 10th annual “Unleashed at Stadium Bowl”. It is small–between 400-500 participants–but it is GRAND in so many other ways.
You’ve just given me the inspiration to call the Governor’s office to tell him my plan for a safe race in November. Our community needs to be reminded how to live.
Finish strong. It is what coaches for years have yelled at their athletes. Finish strong.
How many times have I told you I love you in these comments to your posts? I have lost track… But this one makes me love you the most, Steven. Really. Slaying that bastard does not seem like a good thing until I hear your words echoing in my soul. And they do, those words truly echo within me tn a way that works. I can see the blood dripping off the dagger and feel the heat of life escaping from the lifeless corpse of my enemy. Wow, I love this post the most of all! Thank you.
Unfinished work nags me to finish. If I don’t finish, it keeps nagging me, sucking up time I could spend on other things.
Finishing releases pent up energy for the next project.
My wife just finished her first novel, sent it out, got it published. With that behind her, she can move on.
Sometimes we have to decide that the work is “good enough” and ship it.
I’ve been writing books and software for four decades. Finishing is hard, but it is the best medicine.
The next book will be better. The next software release will be better, but you have to let this one go.
There is a saying in software, “Software doesn’t release, it escapes.” Let your work escape.
I ran track and cross-country in HS, and our coach would tell us ‘run through the finish line.” We did, and in the past 54 years I’ve never been beaten in the last few yards. Who knew that running the 880 and the mile in 1966 was training for writing today?:
Sports teaches valuable lessons, for sure. Growing up playing a variety of sports, there was always pressure to make the throw (or catch), hit the free-throw, or finish the race. Pressure, I suppose, like the work “kill”, can be positive or negative. We can put healthy pressure on ourselves to meet a deadline or allow crippling pressure to derail our progress. My son had a basketball coach while in middle school who was a former NFL linebacker. His coach had a unique perspective on pressure given his experience as a D1 and professional athlete. One of the tactics he used to manage pressure was to, during warm-up, have each boy shoot two free-throws while his teammates looked on, always focused with no side conversations. The boys were instructed to always encourage their teammates (by using names, clapping, cheering, and giving knuckles or high-fives after each shot attempt) whether or not free-throws were made. In other words, shooters were affirmed either way – as opposed to being ridiculed or hazed for missing shots (which, incidentally, is the norm on the middle school playground). The result was a group of boys whose reflex was to support and encourage one another, no matter what. While there was still plenty of pressure to make free-throws during games, it was a healthy pressure that spurred performance rather than a crippling pressure that hindered it.
Thanks to Steven and those who support their writing community by fostering a healthy pressure to make the shot, cross the finish line, or ship the manuscript!
We could all use a coach like that! That is going into my toolkit…if only for myself and my wife. Reminds me of what Carol Dweck wrote in Mindset. You can get an 18 min version on her TED Talk.
Steve, I am literally 99% done with my first book ever, something I’ve worked on for years but especially the last 7 months. I’m talking early mornings, late nights, side of the road, hotels, airports, etc. I decided that if we have COVID, I’m going to finish this book. Last week I stopped writing. I have wondered why I’ve felt so much angst to finish this last 1%. I’m probably 6-8 hours away from finishing my first draft. This article couldn’t have been more timely. Thank you so much. I’m going with the killer instinct now and will finish this bad boy up.
Todd, if you have to lock yourself in a room with no food or water till you finish, do it! Once you’ve driven the stake through the heart of this one, you’ll never have trouble finishing again.
Right on Steve, thank you! I am off tomorrow and this is all I’m going to do.
Todd, give us a report. How did it go?
Thanks for this informative text. I would not describe the attitude we are talking about as “killer instinct” but as self-confidence. But so be it.
In one of your last videos on YouTube you wonder about the fact that there is hardly any overlap between the readers of your book “The War of Art” and those of your novel “Gates of Fire”. This should not surprise you. The allegorical use of war, its myths and clichés to describe the process of writing or creating is acceptable and, as in this case, often instructive. However, the glorification of Spartakians and other ancient peoples is in my view an insult to intelligence. These were people who still had one foot in the animal kingdom, who followed their instincts, who lived a miserable life, and whose highest spiritual good was, at best, superstition. One can transcend this like in the genre of fantasy, for example, and that is then again ok. But to portray these semi-wild creatures and their pitiful deeds as heroic is really anything but inspiring.
Thank you. Writers are always in need of a push. Thank you.
I’ve listened to your books and been a fan of your work for many a year, Mr. Pressfield. But low and behold—there is everything so damn-sure clear, direct and perfectly terse in your “Killer Instinct, Part One” writings of today that is empowering me to move my chicken-shit ass into action to finish the dozen lingering, festering and so-far-scared-to-be-completed projects heaped on my desk. For this, I wholeheartedly THANK YOU brother Steven !!!!!!!
Perfect timing! I’v been working on a book project for two years now and I can feel myself slowing down, lossing steam, getting bored. It might be time to reread The War of Art. Thank you.
Thank you so much for this. I’m getting close to finishing my first novel for publication, and Resistance is especially kicking my butt, and I couldn’t figure out why. I was frustrated and angry with myself, wondering why i can’t seem to get out of my own way to just finish, and now I know…I had forgotten your proclamation of how “Resistance is always strongest at the finish”. I’m sorry to hear about your friend, but your story was instructive for me, especially after celebrating a “milestone” birthday recently (feeling like time is shortening to get my work out there). I don’t want to leave things undone. I have things to say, stories to share. Thank you so much, Steve.
P.S. You guys, sorry about the missing photo. Something’s going haywire with the innards of the website. I’m working to fix it.
Thank you Steve, just the kick in the butt I was needing today!
Steve, I loved the post. Great motivator – procrastination is my downfall. Now I can just kill it!
Man I needed this post right now. I’m at the finish line with my first non-fiction project and for whatever reason I’ve stopped. I look at the pages. I read them. I like some of them. I don’t like a lot of them. My wife asks, “What are you going to DO with that thing?” She’s Norwegian. Very practical. I can see a finish line but I’m not applying my Killer Instinct. It’s a swamp ass place to be. Somehow proud to not have finished something. Thanks for the push to kill.
Wow, really love this post. And great tip to ship it when you’re 99% there!
Hi Steve thank you, this was terrific and reminded me of the quote from Les Brown …
“Imagine being on your death bed, and standing around you is the ghost of the dreams, the ideas, the abilities, the talents given to you by life..That you for whatever reason, you never went after that dream. You never acted on those ideas. You never used them talents. You never used those gifts; and there they are standing beside your bed, looking at YOU with large, angry eyes saying we came to you and only you could have given us life!.. And now..we must die with you forever.” –
This. Today. Last chapter of first draft. Big rock. Steep hill. Thank you.
Great post Steve! And, we are part animal with killer instinct.,
look at the wars and politics I like that you use “killer instinct” as a positive, putting a fire under our ass to finish our work!
Wow!!! Your Killer Instinct message couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time for me. I have 32,000 words written on a non-fiction book and I’m so close I can smell the finish line. But, I’ve been lingering and procrastinating for the last 9 months now. Resistance has definitely jumped up and bitten me . . . right where it counts. Thanks for the “sage” words of advice and encouragement. I just need to “Kill the Damned Thing” and be done with it.
A PRO finishes what he started; a PRO owns a “killer instinct”.
good share. thanks https://stevenpressfield.com
The battle must be fought anew every day.
I found this quote yesterday and believe it’s essence is what you’re saying, Steven:
“Procrastination is the arrogant assumption that God owes you another opportunity to do what you had time to do.”
KILL PROCRASTINATION! GREAT one Steven and THANKS
This is so good!
Hi Steven, I was wondering if you could answer a question for me please?
I’ve read Turning Pro three times now and I could have sworn that there was a part about relationships but I can’t seem to find it now, so maybe I read it on your blog. It was something along the lines of ‘The amateur seeks out relationships with people who have conquered their own Resistance. The amateur is not truly loving the other person, they only love the quality that they wish they had in themselves.” Have you ever done a blog post about this or do you have any more to add on this topic?
Thanks for your time!
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