Embracing Territorial Living

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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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15 Replies to “Embracing Territorial Living”

  1. “why on earth would I purchase a new car when that clearly adds 5 years to my working life?”

    Wow, this was a fascinating post. I wonder if most people who embrace territorial living do so intentionally or if they just gradually evolve? I am mostly territorial at this point but don’t remember a specific time or event precipitating the change from heirarchical living. Mrs. Grumby and I made some conscious decisions that are consistent with the territorial philosophy, so maybe a combination of “accidental” and deliberate actions did it.
    Thanks for the interesting post. I’ll check out the book.

    1. I think it seems more natural for people to just gradually evolve towards territorial living over time, as they slowly begin to realize that each step they take towards territorial living brings more joy. I certainly think Mrs. Grumby and yourself have embraced this type of living as you’ve downsized your house – in fact your writing about downsizing partially inspired this post 🙂

  2. I’m definitely in the ‘territorial’ category, but this is definitely not a word I would use to describe it. I reference Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in my workshops and I mention that a lot of people get caught in the ‘esteem’ category, where they need to show the exterior accolades like titles, salaries, trophy wives/husbands, cars, homes, etc… But true happiness comes from transcending to self-actualization. You might also like “The Icarus Deception”, by Seth Godin. That book changed my life. I like to describe myself as living for my inner ‘musts’ and not just societal ‘shoulds’.

    Here is a great quote I came upon recently: “Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” – Carl Jung

    1. I love that mantra – live for inner “musts” rather than societal “shoulds”. I also love a lot of the work done by Seth Godin and his ideas about unconventional but meaningful living. Icarus Deception is a classic! Thanks for the feedback 🙂

  3. What a great way to think about our motives. I’ve never heard of the “territorial” vs. “‘hierarchical” view, but love the perspective.

    I’ve become more “hierarchical” as the years have passed, and I’m better for it. I think being self aware, and having a bit of both in your thinking process, is the best solution. Ultimately, it’s best to do the things that mean the most to you, but don’t do it in a vacuum, and be aware of the perspective of others.

    Great post, congrats on getting “Rockstar’d”, well earned!

      1. Fritz, I agree the terms aren’t terribly intuitive! I agree with your point about not making decisions in a vacuum. It’s important to hear the thoughts and decisions of people that are important to you, but ultimately you should be the one making the decision about how you choose to live at the end of the day. I think this is the real power of territorial living – doing what feels right for you, not necessarily what looks right to others.

  4. I LOVE this! Wow. I now have words like “hierarchical” and “territorial” to describe the transformation I have been making and continue to make in my own life. Not that long ago, I fell dead into the hierarchical category. I have since seen the light and am moving ever more towards the territorial category. I am now to the point you describe where the hierarchical way of living has become more obscure and the “normal” way of doing things seems pretty darn insane.

    Thanks for the fantastic post, Zach!

  5. Man this was an awesome post, really makes you think. I loved the line: “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.”

    I completely agree, we need to live our own lives and stop comparing ourselves to others. I think I’ve been making progress on territorial living, I’m focused more on happiness and enjoy living frugally. Practicing contentment and gratitude on a daily basis is so key.

    1. Focusing on happiness and enjoying frugal living are definitely two steps in the direction of territorial living, that’s awesome. I couldn’t agree more that gratitude is key as well – in fact I wrote an entire post on the power of gratitude called ‘How To Drastically Reduce Your Expenses’ through using gratitude. Thanks for the feedback, I hope you keep stopping by!

  6. Brilliantly said.

    It’s fascinating (and kind of horrible) when you are doing something in a territorial way, and then someone makes you aware of the hierarchical view.

    Example, me. I started working out my upper body because I had a knee injury and couldn’t run, skate, ride… all those things I used to do. I had a blast, developed great habits and kept pushing more and more.

    Then someone noticed and praised me. Suddenly I was aware of how others were viewing my efforts. I had to improve because they were watching. I had to do more so I could brag. My workouts went to hell and I stopped enjoying them.

    I’m taking a massive life lesson from that. Keep your head down and do the things that work for you because you want to. Other peoples opinion (praise or otherwise) will just disrupt your flow.

    1. That’s fascinating that someone else’s compliments actually backfired and made your workouts worse! But you’re spot on, this is the nature of hierarchical behavior – constantly thinking about how people view you and your life. It really is difficult to focus on what you need to do and ignore the noise, which is why territorial living is so unnatural to us, and yet it can be so rewarding when we learn to embrace it.

      Cheers to you for learning a lesson from that situation and becoming better for it. Thanks for the feedback 🙂

  7. The last paragraph is a spot on! If we keep on minding what other people will think of us, we will never be happy and fulfilled.

    I used to live the way other people expect me to be. The relatives and even loved ones gives so much more pressure. However, as I have matured and had a paradigm shift, I don’t care what others think of me anymore. Its my life and I’m responsible for it. I don’t owe anyone an explanation in my life’s choices.

    Thanks for having this great post!

    1. One of the tough aspects about listening to the advice of close relatives and loved ones is that they genuinely do want the best for us, but ‘best’ in their eyes isn’t always ‘best’ in our eyes. Everyone sees life through their own perspective, that’s why you’re the most qualified individual to make the decisions on how to live your life in a way that brings you fulfillment. Thanks for the feedback 🙂

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