Why Quieting Your Mind Is The Key To Unlocking A Better Life
With the books Ego is the Enemy and The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday showcased an ability to stitch together historical anecdotes and classic wisdom into useful tips on how to better organize our inner lives. He also managed to launch himself into self-betterment stardom in the process. Now he's out with another book, Stillness is the Key, this time tackling the tranquility trend taking over wellness (as self-care evangelists everywhere run away from the frenzied panic of burnout and towards the inner calm of meditation).
“To me, stillness is what makes life worth living,” Holiday says during our conversation. “If you have all the money in the world, all the power in the world, but you are frantic, at the mercy of your own thoughts, what's the point?”
Holiday’s stillness, though, is not just about sitting your way to personal serenity. It involves slowing down, sure, but it’s also about finding confidence (not to be confused with ego, he cautions), building better routines, knowing when (and how) to say no, and, mercifully, sleeping. He draws lessons from Anne Frank and Alcoholics Anonymous; from Winston Churchill and Mr. Rogers; from stoic thinkers like Seneca and... Tiger Woods.
Here, he offers some sage advice on slowing down—both for those who already have, and for those who feel like there's no way they can.
You’re on a book tour right now. You run a business. You speak around the country. How have you found a semblance of stability or stillness, juggling all that?
What I try to do is [figure out], what are the handful of things that I do every day? Having these touchstones that you return to is really important. I try to take a long walk, journal, write, do some sort of physical activity, and have family time every day.
That also gives me a sense of whether I'm saying yes to the right opportunities or not. Let's say I start agreeing to too many consulting opportunities or speaking opportunities, and now I don't have time to write—I'm going to notice that. I have a really clear idea of what kind of day I want my life to be built around. Too many days in a row of me not having that is evidence that I'm going away from success, rather than towards success, even if I'm being compensated quite well or everyone else thinks it's glamorous and awesome.
How would you define success?
Success is autonomy. The world is so unpredictable, and there's so many things we don't control: what we look like, how tall we are, what Donald Trump does. So, for me, success is: do I have control over the reasonable things that a human being should be able to control?
A criticism, and a fair one, that gets lobbed when it comes to self-betterment is that you can only worry about these things if you are safe from other more dire worries, like feeding your family.
Look, I think most of the smart people in this space too can see that, in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, if you're starving or if you're worried about the lights getting cut off, focusing on your spiritual health or your self-limiting beliefs is probably not a good use of your time and energy. At the same time, just because you are privileged, just because you manage to achieve success, or you have some level of financial freedom, it doesn't change the fact that these are very real problems.
"You're just never going to solve inside issues with outside stuff."
I'm surprised that you don't have a podcast at this point, but I assume that's intentional.
Very much so. Actually, that’s one of the things that I've said no to several times, and it maybe haunts me a little bit. You say no to something because you want to focus on whatever your main thing is, and for me, the main thing is writing. I just didn't think I could or should be not doing that thing. I watched a bunch of friends make shows that now make many millions of dollars a year, so sometimes I wonder: was I holding myself back because I was afraid? Or was I actually being disciplined? I like to think that I was being disciplined, but I guess you never know.
Where do you find solace when you start wandering down that what-if path?
I think you want to not look at what other people are doing as much as possible. Teddy Roosevelt said, "Comparison is the thief of joy," and he's very right. The more you compare yourself to other people, the less you are looking intrinsically at the value of your own work and your own life.
In the book, you write, "Most people never learn that their accomplishments ultimately fail to fully provide the relief and happiness we tell ourselves they will. We get to the finish line, only to think, 'This is it, now what?'" I'm curious when you had that realization.
I wanted to be a writer, which meant having a published book. So I sold my first book when I was 24. It came out when I was 25 or 26. You think that'd be it, right? I fucking did it. But before that book was even out, it had to be a bestselling book. Then before I'd even framed the bestselling thing, I had the proposal out for the next one. You tell yourself this is what success is, and the goalposts constantly move. You understand why, from an evolutionary standpoint, that moves the species forward, but at the individual level it can't possibly be good for one's mental health.
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So I don't know if there was a moment where it all turned to ash in my mouth. It's just, more, you go, "Oh, if you don't have it here, you're never going to have it." If your parents aren't proud of you naturally just for who you are, no amount of success is going to give it to you, because it wasn't something you should have had to earn in the first place. You're just never going to solve inside issues with outside stuff. I think I’m trying to get to a place where I'm still working and striving to be better, but I don't need it. It's not coming from a place of desperation, it's coming from a place of confidence.
What's the carrot in that situation?
I don't think you're chasing anything except the actual deep love of the process itself. I look at books that I've written, and I think about how in retrospect they would have been better had I been less concerned with what people thought of them, if I was coming from a place where I was really just writing what I thought was the absolute best book.
"You tell yourself this is what success is, and the goalposts constantly move. You understand why, from an evolutionary standpoint, that moves the species forward, but at the individual level it can't possibly be good for one's mental health."
I hear all the time: Fall in love with the process. I've never understood that. For me, it's always just seemed like a nice way to say, "Grit your teeth and bear the bullshit."
I don't think it's that. There's definitely pain points, but I don't think it's that. When your motivation is not really outcome focused, and you intrinsically like the thing, I would argue that the best work comes from that place. Not from [thinking], "I've got to prove people wrong. I want to pay for a house in the Hamptons. I want to win a Nobel Prize." When you're doing it because it's connected deep with who you are as a person, and what you feel like you're put on the planet to do, that's where you're best.
I work with lots of different writers. I ask, "Why do you want to write a book?" And whenever someone tells me it's because they want to be a New York Times' bestseller, I'm out. Because it's a bullshit goal. It's a goal that you have almost no control over. So the idea that you are going to spend a year or two years or five years of your life engaging in a process to get an outcome that you don't control is insanity. Ultimately, you've got to do what you're doing because you actually love it. There are moments when I was working on this book where I had to go to myself, “I'm stopping for the day, I don't know that I'm going to ever get to publish this. I could get hit by a bus, I could die of a heart attack in my sleep, was this actually worth doing up until this point?” You want your answer to be yes.
When you went on Pete Holmes’ podcast, I think you said that you have a sign that says "Death is not an error" in your bathroom?
That's him. I carry a coin in my pocket that has a quote from Marcus Aurelius. It says, "Memento Mori" on the front, and then on the back it says, "You could leave life right now." He says, "You could leave life right now, let that determine what you do and say and think." So that is how I try to go through life, and I find it not only helps me from a career standpoint, but it also helps me if I'm leaving the house, and my wife and I have cross words. If I've got another 80 years, I'm going to sit on this. I'm going to let that hang in the air, because I'm mad. If I'm going to get hit by a car in five minutes, you better believe I'm going to call and apologize, even if I don't think that I'm the problem, because I'm not leaving it like that.
It's not that you expect to die—it's just not leaving anything dangling. You're not leaving anything undone. That's the key. To me, that's what Memento Mori means. It's not morbid, it's like, "Dude, where do you get off taking this for granted?"
It's a mechanism to maintain perspective. What is that thing Stephen Colbert’s mom said?
"Where does this fit in the light of eternity?" The answer is almost always like, "It doesn't f**king matter."
As someone who's relentlessly curious and ambitious, who’s talked about working too much when you were younger, what have you learned about turning that off? How do you get out of the spin cycle of anxiety and productivity?
There’s a new book that my friend was telling me about [that details] how baseball players—particularly the players from desperate impoverished countries, when you’re swinging at pitches with your whole future tied up in it—swing at every pitch. Then you make the league, and it's all about: Can you not swing at pitches? Can you hold something back? Can you not blow yourself out early in the season? Can you pace yourself? That's trouble for me.
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I was worried that having kids would impede on my creative pursuits. Like a lot of people, you're somewhat worried that being married or falling in love, being in a relationship, will cost you something. When it was just me, I would say yes to everything. Fundamentally, I didn't care if it caused suffering for me. But now, if I say yes to something I shouldn't do, I'm not causing suffering for myself, I'm not burning up my time. I'm stealing that. I can see it in a defenseless child's face that I've taken this from them. It makes it so much more vivid, and it was a huge wake-up call for me.
Having kids turns your whole world upside-down, but for me, it also had this stabilizing effect. It was like, no, this is where I'm supposed to be. I've got to be protective of that. I can't say yes to everything. A kid will cry when you take something from them. Your wife or your husband, or your life partner will just be like, "If that's what you want to do, I guess you can do it." It's not as clear as a two-year-old shouting, "Where's Daddy?!"
This interview has been edited and condensed.