Author Steven Pressfield. Ready for you to turn pro.

Are You Trapped in a "Shadow Career"? The Artist vs The Addict

A few months ago, a colleague of mine told me about meeting a young woman who was “passionate” about writing. He asked her what she had written recently, and she said nothing. In recounting the story to me, he said, “How can you say you’re passionate about something if you’re not doing anything about it?” Good question.

And yet, this is a common affliction. Many of us feel passionate about a particular job or creative project or cause, but we don’t take action on it. Why? Are we addicted to failure? Addicted to distraction? Addicted to money?

Novelist and War of Art author Steven Pressfield gets at the crux of this conundrum in his excellent new book, Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work. I was particularly struck by his distinction between “the artist” and “the addict,” wherein the former is living out a productive, creative career, while the latter is caught in an endless loop of aspiration and yearning that never gets backed up with meaningful action.In short, Pressfield calls bullshit on those of us who are passionate about our ideas, but aren’t acting on them. It’s bracing stuff:

Many artists are addicts, and vice versa. Many are artists in one breath and addicts in another.What’s the difference?

The addict is the amateur; the artist is the professional.

Both addict and artist are dealing with the same material, which is the pain of being human and the struggle against self-sabotage. But the addict/amateur and the artist/professional deal with these elements in fundamentally different ways.

(When I say “addiction,” by the way, I’m not referring only to the serious, clinical maladies of alcoholism, drug dependence, domestic abuse and so forth. Web-surfing counts too. So do compulsive texting, sexting, twittering and Facebooking.)


Displacement activities.

When we’re living as amateurs, we’re running away from our calling – meaning our work, our destiny, the obligation to become our truest and highest selves.

Addiction becomes a surrogate for our calling. We enact the addiction instead of the calling. Why? Because to follow a calling requires work. It’s hard. It hurts. It demands entering the pain-zone of effort, risk, and exposure.

So we take the amateur route instead. Instead of composing our symphony, we create a “shadow symphony,” of which we ourselves are the orchestra, the composer, and the audience. Our life becomes a shadow drama, a shadow start-up company, a shadow philanthropic venture.

My life used to be a shadow novel. It had plot, characters, sex scenes, action scenes. It had mood, atmosphere, texture. It was scary, it was weird, it was exciting. I had friends who were living out shadow movies, or creating shadow art, or initiating shadow industries. These were our addictions, and we worked them for all they were worth. There was only one problem: none of us was writing a real novel, or painting a real painting, or starting a real business. We were amateurs living in the past or dreaming of the future, while failing utterly to do the work necessary to progress in the present.

When you turn pro, your life gets very simple.

The Zen monk, the artist, the entrepreneur often lead lives so plain they’re practically invisible. Miyamoto Musashi’s dojo was smaller than my living room. Things became superfluous for him. In the end he didn’t even need a sword.

The amateur is an egotist. He takes the material of his personal pain and uses it to draw attention to himself. He creates a “life,” a “character,” a “personality.”

The artist and the professional, on the other hand, have turned a corner in their minds. They have grown so bored with themselves and so sick of their petty bullshit that they can manipulate those elements the way a HazMat technician handles weapons-grade plutonium.

They manipulate them for the good of others. What were once their shadow symphonies become real symphonies. The color and drama that were once outside now move inside.

Turning pro is an act of self-abnegation. Not Self with a capital-S, but little-s self. Ego. Distraction. Displacement. Addiction.

When we turn pro, the energy that once went into the Shadow Novel goes into the real novel. What we once thought was real – “the world,” including its epicenter, ourselves – turns out to be only a shadow. And what had seemed to be only a dream, now, the reality of our lives.

Learn more about Turning Pro here. It’s a slim but powerful book that you can read in just a few sittings.

Have You Turned Pro?

Are you still battling an addiction? Or do you have a story about the moment you turned pro? Tell us in the comments.

More insights on: Books, Career Development

Jocelyn K. Glei

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A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with understanding how work gives our lives meaning. She has authored three books about work, creativity, and business, including the Amazon bestsellers Manage Your Day-to-Day and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.
load comments (65)
  • Kizito "Kizzy" Katawonga

    This is insanely true about myself. For too long I’ve been living in the shadow. An addict to excuses, whining, wishing. I have reached a fork in the road of my life where I’m faced with the hard decisions to change all that. I have no idea how to do that exactly. Yes, it’s fine enough to remove the distractions but what do you replace them with.How do you become a professional when you no longer know what profession you want? Fantastic article. Thankyou

  • E j Carr

    Well I’ve been at this for 30 years and now with your
    Wisdom see that I’m an addict to some degree.
    I can so relate to much if this. Ie: completion , fruition.
    So what is the bridge from addict to artist , entrepreneur,
    Success ?

  • Jack

    Going pro is as hard as knowing what field you want to be pro on. That’s actually my problem. I have a lot of interests – social sciences and history, music, language, sports, etc. But I excel at nothing because I don’t know where to exactly devote my energy.

    While this may be disappointing, I view the situation from a positive light. After all, uncertainty can open new opportunities – most of which are unimaginable. Currently I’m trying out football, learning a new language, seizing creative times to re-live my passion for writing, and refreshing my social science skills – all of which while working as an IT consultant.

    I just hope and pray to eventually find something I could pour my heart out for life.

  • claudine crangle

    This summer I read the ART OF WAR, DO THE WORK and TURNING PRO. I’ve read them all now at least TWICE (not as a form of resistance :) the re-reads have happened as part of my bedtime reading ritual) …. and these books are now circling among my friends who are feeling equally juiced.

    As often happens in life (when you are paying attention)… is that the message comes when you are ready to hear it. I’ve never felt more like I’m on the right track in my life. Thank you Steven Pressfield!!!

  • Maria Ana Neves

    Doesn’t it remind us Nelson Mandela’s “Our Greatest Fear” quote?

    Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate,
    but that we are powerful beyond measure.

    It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.
    We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?
    Actually, who are you not to be?

    You are a child of God.
    Your playing small does not serve the world.
    There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
    so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

    We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
    It is not just in some; it is in everyone.

    And, as we let our own light shine,
    we consciously give other people permission
    to do the same.As we are liberated from our fear,

    our presence automatically liberates others.


    I think that Mr. Pressfield is wrong when he say: “the addict is the amateur; the artist is the professional”. When I read that I stopped reading this article, so my comment is based upon first few paragraphs. You don’t have to publish You work to be considered an artist. An artist is a state of being, of inner emotions and talent. If you think that an artist is an artist only when reflected in others you are wrong. Perhaps I don’t publish because I have no money to do so, perhaps I am scared of success, perhaps I …. . But being scared of success is a psychological term, and a relevant one and if fear was input in your mind early enough it prevails over a force of creativity. Your own biotope has much to do with realization of your own work.

  • Nicolas Fourie

    I’m a 26 year old graphic designer. How does an artist deal with what is reffered to in this article as addiction – but what I would also call distration. I’m one distracted guy, especially at my job. I can especially relate to this section in the article above –


    Displacement activities.

    we’re living as amateurs, we’re running away from our calling – meaning
    our work, our destiny, the obligation to become our truest and highest

    Addiction becomes a surrogate for our calling.
    We enact the addiction instead of the calling. Why? Because to follow a
    calling requires work. It’s hard. It hurts. It demands entering the
    pain-zone of effort, risk, and exposure. “

    How do I avoid distractions – for example – at work I need to draw inspiration from other artists, as designers we are stimulated with visual creative material and are inspired by other artists, but one can spend more time looking for inspiration, than actually working and creating something fresh, and basically getting the job done. I think this part of the design process is where alot of designers struggle with “addiction to surfing the web” – distraction and disillusion, instead of focusing on the crux of the matter which is to get the job done without delving into the airy-fairy world of “art for arts sake” – one can get lost in this instead of offering the client a good service.

  • Alex

    I said just this, in the Universe do not exist such thing like universal solution for same problem, when comes to the meter of human soul (O.K i don’t mean on constipation)If you would strictly interpret the formula for the
    transition from real addicted amateur to pro, then I am for his 42 years
    passed from one stage to another many times, Why? because first , all artist don’t live in just one country, if we talk strictly about Western highly developed world , things are very different on the place where people on the first place must to to meet basic life needs(pay the bills, pay the food, pay for children school and later education..etc), and the PAINTING in the apartment or house, they will buy a printed reproduction of Monet and bookstore, and
    there is “famous artists in my apartment” But in such country Artist exist to, If I’m dedicate almost 10 years of my education to Arts and have years when i was in situation to live from my works, excellent(Mr. burns), but then again i have periods, in which i can’t buy the bread from earned money of my “Works”, I just saying , that global social factor in some state play big role in “Game of artist professional Pain”

  • Alex

    Both is correct, but because of your first question “is a professional” one who get’s paid for his/her work” that is what in real world make real distinction.If you can live in social economic terms from your Art, you can freely call your self Pro, never mind those your Art belong to pro niche or amateur, if you can’t live from your art, after 10 years of dedicate work, because you do not have good connection, good social skill, good haggling skill, and you do not want to be rob by Nice gallery owners who will initially taking 70% from the sale of artworks. Even you work is very good and have many people which like it, but they is equal “poor” that can’t buy or paid some nearly money for oil on canvas 120X80, than what, you can do, start to “pack your works in white paper whit red bows” and make a nice gift to all your friends, or make a pail of ART on the street doused whit gasoline and make a big nice fire(something like artistic performances) Just one question more, are Jean Basquiat was a Pro or Addicted Amateur?! I really wish to get answer on that, or is just meter of (ingenious perverted) soul of Andy whit Le équipe.

  • isacris

    Nice article. I turn in pro, when I decided begin again with my life before I broke up with the father of my children, got my jobt with the government in education as a teacher and I acomplish my goals every day. Today I have been working for 12 years , I feel happy with my job, I have been recognized by my work, my son is finishing his career and my daugther too. I feel that I can do more, for me, for the students, for my family and for the world. This is turn in pro for me.

  • merchant credit card processin

    Thank you for making this site very interesting! Keep going! You’re doing very well!

  • Sue

    This is a quote that is actually mis-quoted a lot. It comes from Marianne Williamson’s, “A Return to Love,” not from Mandela.

  • PJ

    This is not an answer EJ, but like you I’ve been “holding back” Tsunamis of creativity for decades now. I had an art scholarship, a natural inclination to create. I start to cry every time I look at a newly bought set of paints now. Hey, I bought the paint and I have many dreams of what I would do… but I avoid it, I can only think it must be fear.

  • Dreamer

    Thanks for the great article. I am an Addict and turned Pro recently but it’s been tough I won’t lie. I have moved to a new city Johannesburg without many resources but only with the intention of finishing my play. I love going to other environments to write. But the city that I now reside is incredibly dangerous to walk as a female with a laptop. There isn’t safe public transport at night so when the sun goes down I am caged into my room. I have not one friend in this city. So I am feeling rather bleak. But I suppose that is a life of an addict and an amateur really. A penny less dreamer, an uncalculated fool really.

  • Pollyanna Darling

    Brilliantly put! The Facebook thing is really getting my goat. It’s the fear of not being enough, of my writing being mediocre or substandard that leads me into addictive behaviours and distractions. But you don’t improve in your art if you never do it, or crawl into it sporadically and pretend to yourself that the occasional foray is the real deal. On the ironic side, I wouldn’t have found this timely reminder if I hadn’t been surfing Facebook!

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