One of the most interesting things I took away from The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is the distinction between territory and hierarchy. Pressfield introduces the concepts as follows:
“In the animal kingdom, individuals define themselves in one of two ways - by their rank within a hierarchy (a hen in a pecking order, a wolf in a pack) or by their connection to a territory (a home base, a hunting ground, a turf). This is how individuals - humans as well as animals - achieve psychological security. They know where they stand. The world makes sense.”
Pressfield goes on to remark that the hierarchical way of defining yourself seems to be the “default way” for humans. Children form groups, gangs, and cliques, with everybody instinctively knowing his or her position within the group. Only later, when people study, reflect, learn about themselves, and find their own way, will some of them start to shift their thinking towards a territorial mindset.
Pressfield warns us that hierarchical thinking is disastrous for “artists”. Now, I have never thought of myself as an artist, and maybe you haven’t, either. However, the term is used a lot more broadly here, and includes inventors and creators of any kind, or even just anyone devoting time and effort to become better at an activity. Arnold Schwarzenegger used to be an artist of the gym. Steve Wozniak is an artist of computers. You might be an artist of writing code.
So, hierarchical thinking is bad for artists. Why? Because hierarchy is about what others think of you. You wear certain clothes, drink a certain brand of beer, and say certain things, all with the intention of pleasing others, so that they think more highly of you. A lot of schools probably work this way, because, as teenagers, we tend to be insecure and look for our place in the tribe.
However, for an artist, it is detrimental to define herself in hierarchical terms, for several reasons. First, the hierarchically thinking artist will not follow her own conviction and inner voice if these are in conflict with what others may say or think. Like a public company who has to please the analysts, she will be busy focusing on short-term satisfaction of the audience. This leads her to take the easy, fast path, instead of investing in her convictions and long-term vision. That, in turn, is where her best potential lies.
Second, the hierarchically thinking artist’s happiness will be greatest when she can advance in the ranks, or defend her rank. This is, on average, not healthy or sustainable in the long run. An artist’s happiness and satisfaction should rather come from the creation of something of value and meaning. Or, still better: Satisfaction should come from the doing, above all things. If something of value is the result of this process, all the better, but the mere activity must already give the artist her motivation and a rewarding feeling.
Third, if you act for others, dress for others, think for others, etc., you put yourself at the mercy of their flüchtige Launen. If you follow your firm conviction, you will have stability.
Fourth, not only will you judge yourself by your rank in the hierarchy, but also everybody else. You will seek creative discourse with those who hold high ranks instead of those who can best guide or help you in your creative search.
The numbers are too big
Besides the detrimental mindset that comes with hierarchical thinking, there is another reason to abandon it: In our modern world, there are simply too many people you meet each day for a hierarchy to work. Take a ride in a crowded subway, or go shopping in a supermarket on a Saturday. Is there a hierarchy? There is not. Therefore, hierarchical thinking breaks down when the numbers get too big. In Pressfield’s words:
“The individual in multitudes this vast feels overwhelmed, anonymous. He is submerged in the mass. He is lost.”
He introduces the concept of territory as the better alternative to the hierarchical approach - at least for artist-like people. Animals, like bears, monkeys, or birds, claim a territory, and defend it vigorously. Pressfield argues that humans have territories, too. The territories he talks about, however, are not necessarily spatial, but psychological. They are tied to certain activities.
“Stevie Wonder’s territory is the piano. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s is the gym. … When I sit down to write, I’m on mine.”
If you discover and cultivate such a territory within you (because that is where it really resides), it can do a lot for you (quotes are from the book):
- “A territory provides sustenance.” When we are stressed or otherwise out of balance, turning to our territory can take us back to our center. I remember one time when my friend and then-flatmate Kristian was really stressed because he was packing for a long journey, and not sure if he had thought of everything, and a thousand little things were swirling around in his head. So I took him to the Squash court and we hit the ball with everything we got for an hour or a bit more. Afterwards, he was calm and relaxed. On this day, Squash was our territory.
- “A territory sustains us without any external input.” There is only the territory and you. There is nothing between you and nothing around you. You put in your effort and dedication, and the territory provides you with well-being and peace of mind.
- “A territory can only be claimed alone.” Nobody can put in the effort and love for you. It has to come from you, and you alone. In my Squash anecdote above, we were two people. However, each of us was getting out what he put in, not what the other put in. Still, the good thing about teaming up with a partner is that you can drive each other to put in more.
- “A territory can only be claimed by work.” In order to make, say, running your territory, you have to run for many hours, and pay your share of sweat, short breath, and sore muscles.
- “A territory returns exactly what you put in.” Putting in time is fine, but if the time is spent with half-hearted practice or low-energy exercise, then the sustenance you get back from your territory will be weaker accordingly. Give it everything you have, and you will be repaid in kind.
Not all territories are equally accessible to each of us, however. Since we all have our unique natural talents, my feeling is that there are some territories that we can claim more easily (those that are in line with our talents), and some that will come extremely hard.
The creator and the territory
The properties mentioned above make it important, maybe even essential, for a creator to claim her territory. If you try to create something that only you can envision, you are on your own. However, that is fine, because you do not need help from other people. You are on a territory that will reward your effort. Other people and their opinions are secondary. The question is not: “What can I create that people will like?” The question to ask as an artist is: “What do I feel growing inside me?” Then, your job is to do your best to bring that forth - for its own sake, not for somebody else. Turn to your territory, and you will be fine.
How can you tell if you are territorially or hierarchically oriented? Pressfield recommends to ask yourself what you would do when you feel anxious, out of balance, and insecure. If you would talk to some people to get reassurance, then your orientation is rather hierarchical. If you would go running (1) for an hour to be self-centered again, this is a sign of a territorial orientation.
To tell if you do a certain activity out of territorial or out of hierarchical motives, ask yourself: If I was the last person on earth, would I still do it? Would I still code for hours at a stretch? Would I still swim a kilometer each day? Would I still write or play the guitar? Remember, you would be the last person on earth, so there is nobody to impress. If you would still pursue the activity, then you do it territorially.
I think that finding one, or several, territories for yourself, is something extremely valuable. It can give you strength, self-confidence, and be a great tool for personal development. Especially in our fast, noisy world that floods us with information every day, a territory can be your way to maintain inner peace and balance.
I will end with another Pressfield quote: What’s your territory?
1. I use the example of “running” a lot. Feel free to replace it with “coding”, “painting”, “swimming”, “playing the piano”, or anything you can relate to.
This blog post took me around 3 hours to write and research (and, of course, I needed a couple of days to read the book, although it’s really short).