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In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes about two styles of work ethic: hierarchical and territorial.
An artist who works hierarchically always has the audience in mind. They’re concerned with how their artwork will be perceived by others, what people will say about their work, how it will sell.
Conversely, an artist who works territorially creates art solely for the sake of the art. They feel an inward burning that needs to be expressed through a creative medium. Failure to produce their art would be an unforgivable crime.
Theses two styles of work present a natural polarity: The hierarchical artist may succeed monetarily, but at the expense of losing their unique voice. They fail to produce art for the sake of art. Through the constant monitoring of what will sell best in the market, they lose their sense of self and direction.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the territorial artist remains true to herself, but at the expense of losing the approval and social acceptance of others. She holds steadfast to her values and listens carefully to the voice within, constantly asking “What can I do to produce this art within me?”
The territorial artist cares more about the beauty of the art than the feedback from the critics.
Pressfield offers a simple exercise to help us differentiate between the two styles of work:
“Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it? If you’re all alone on the planet, a hierarchical orientation makes no sense. There’s no one to impress. So, if you’d still pursue that activity, congratulations. You’re doing it territorially.”
Pressfield points to Arnold Schwarzenegger as a clear example of a territorial artist. If Arnold were the last person on earth he would still lift weights. He would still hit the gym each day in a never-ending effort to sculpt the perfect body because that aligns with his inner purpose. He doesn’t care if anyone else is lifting. He lifts because it’s his art. This is a territorial work ethic.
Hierarchical vs. Territorial Living
In a much broader sense, this idea of hierarchical vs territorial behavior applies to the way we decide to live our entire life.
Someone who lives hierarchically constantly has others in mind. They obsess over what people will say about their life, their house, their car, their family, their spouse, their profession. Their actions are predicated upon what people will think. Living hierarchically is synonymous with constantly monitoring where one falls in certain areas relative to their peers.
Someone with a hierarchical mindset is obsessed with how their life appears from the outside looking in:
Does my Facebook page make my life look fun? Do people think I have a great marriage? Is my house big enough? Does my clothing accurately reflect my salary?
On the flip side, someone who lives territorially focuses solely on their own happiness. They’re obsessed with how their life feels, not how it looks.
Am I happy with my lifestyle? Am I making a positive impact on others? Am I doing work I love? Do I have healthy relationships with people closest to me? Am I spending my time on the right things each day?
Territorial living is predicated on finding what makes you happy, filling up your life with this happiness, and forgetting the rest.
Hierarchical Living: Our Default Setting
As social creatures, territorial living does not come naturally to us. Hierarchical behavior is our default setting.
After all, the only way we even learn how to behave is by observing others. When we’re little kids our parents teach us what is normal behavior. They explain to us ‘how things are done’. Then most of us enter a school system and observe how our peers act, dress, and speak for five days a week for 12 years. Along the way we receive subtle advice on how to live from our teachers, coaches, parents, neighbors – all with good intentions.
But one behavior we don’t have to be taught is to constantly keep tabs on where we stand in society. We do this naturally.
We look at our stuff and compare it to their stuff. We look at our house, then their house.
We look at our salary, then their salary.
Our car. Their car.
Who’s winning? Who has better stuff?
What most people realize far too late in life is that you can’t win. No one wins. It’s a never-ending competition to make it appear we have a better life than our peers.
Going Against the Grain
Embracing territorial living can be daunting at first. From the outside looking in, it looks a lot like voluntary deprivation. When you make choices that align with your well-being, it won’t always make sense to others.
People will talk. Your peers won’t understand. Your parents will ask if something is wrong.
Are you sure you want to downsize your home? Why would you want to retire early? You’re selling your flat screen TV? For God’s sake, you need to be admitted into a mental institution.
Territorial living goes against the grain. But the more you embrace it, the more obscure hierarchical living begins to look. The “normal” way of doing things suddenly seems insane.
You start to think, why on earth would I purchase a new car when that clearly adds 5 years to my working life? You begin to wonder how people could possibly choose to spend their time watching reality TV shows instead of reading a life-changing book. You’ll wonder why more people don’t spend any time getting a grip on their finances.
The good news is: people don’t need to understand why you live the way you live. You don’t have to explain yourself to others. You don’t have to constantly provide updates on your social media to show the world you’re happy. When you embrace territorial living, you focus on what brings you fulfillment and you forget the rest.
You can snag The War of Art by Steven Pressfield here.
Feature photo credit: seagull
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