According to my guest today, many of the world’s most eminent leaders, thinkers, athletes, and artists have one thing in common: they cultivate stillness in their lives.
His name is Ryan Holiday and in his latest book, Stillness Is the Key, he highlights how great individuals have used stillness to do great things. We begin our discussion with how Ryan describes stillness, what it means to find stillness in mind, body, and soul, and how an individual can have stillness in one of these areas, but chaos in another. Ryan shares what we can learn about stillness of mind from JFK’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and how journaling and limiting media inputs can help us foster our own mental stillness. We then discuss the myth that relationships hold you back in life, and how they can in fact help you find both greater achievement, and stillness of soul. We also discuss what we can learn from Winston Churchill on how to find physical stillness, and why having hobbies is so important to finding balance in life.
- How Stillness the capstone of Ryan’s thinking on Stoicism
- Why Ryan missed some of Stoicism’s message on stillness earlier in his life
- How priorities shift as you age
- What does stillness really mean? Is it just meditation?
- The benefits that come from fostering stillness in your life
- What does it look like when your stillness is out of balance?
- JFK’s leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis
- Limiting your inputs and avoiding “breaking” news
- The power of reading and journaling
- Using silence to find stillness
- The biggest obstacles to finding stillness in the soul
- What people get wrong about Epicurus
- How do relationships help still the soul?
- What role does the body play in a still life?
- The power of walking (and some famous walkers)
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My first podcast with Ryan: The Obstacle Is the Way
- My second podcast with Ryan: The Ego Is the Enemy
- Books So Good I’ve Read Them Twice (or More)
- Meditations on a First Reading of Aurelius’s Meditations
- Ben Sasse: By the Book
- Does Meditation Deserve the Hype?
- Tiger Woods
- Decluttering Your Digital Life
- What It Really Means to Be Self-Reliant
- Is There Any Reason to Keep Up With the News?
- The Eisenhower Decision Matrix
- The History of the Peloponnesian War
- Jumpstart Your Journaling: A 31-Day Challenge
- 31 Journaling Prompts for Greater Self-Reliance
- The Daily Stoic Journal
- Bill Gates’ “Think Week”
- The Spiritual Disciplines: Solitude and Silence
- The Churchill School of Adulthood (including his take on hobbies)
- Clementine by Sonia Purnell
- Painting as a Pastime by Winston Churchill
- The Magic of Walking
- Solvitur Ambulando: It Is Solved by Walking
- Bhagavad Gita
Connect With Ryan
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. According to my guest today, many of the world’s most eminent leaders, thinkers, athletes, and artists, have one thing in common, cultivate stillness in their lives. His name is Ryan Holiday, and in his latest book, Stillness is the Key, he highlights how great individuals have used stillness to do great things. We begin our discussion with how Ryan describes stillness, what it means to find stillness in mind, body, and soul, and how an individual can have stillness in one of these areas, but chaos in another.
Ryan shares what we can learn about stillness of mind from JFK’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and how journaling and limiting media inputs can help us foster our own mental stillness. We then discuss the myth that relationships holds you back, and how they can in fact help you find both greater achievement and stillness of soul. We also discuss what we can learn from Winston Churchill on how to find physical stillness, and why having hobbies is so important to finding balance in life. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/stillness. Ryan joins me now via clearcast.io.
All right, Ryan Holiday, welcome back to the show.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So, you’ve got a new book out, Stillness is the Key, and it’s part of this trilogy you’ve been doing about stoicism, Ego Is the Enemy, The Obstacle Is the Way. How is this book a continuation or a capstone of that thinking you’ve been doing over the years with this idea of stoicism?
Ryan Holiday: What I’ve been trying to do with the books is take an idea from ancient philosophy, and then illustrate it through stories. So, The Obstacle Is Way was this quote from Marcus Aurelius about how we can turn what stands in the way in into the way. Ego Is the Enemy is about this idea of intellectual humility, batting away pride. You can’t learn that what you already know, which is a word from Epictetus. This one started out a little bit more Eastern, the idea of stillness of clearing the mind is slowing them down. And then, as I was researching it, it came flooding back to me how much the stoics had talked about the same thing.
And it’s interesting, I’ve obviously read all these texts all these different times, but I just totally missed that’s what they were talking about. Which is this interesting thing and it’s a kicker on recently, this idea of rereading books, depending on where you are in your life and what you’re going through. It’s like you interpret texts a certain way, and I just didn’t even notice that over and over again, Marcus is even using the word stillness and talking about things in a very almost Zen sense. And so, the book was just zooming in on that idea of how do we get to a place of inner peace, external peace, not so we can withdraw from the world, but so that we can be better when we are active in the world.
Brett McKay: What were you like this idea of you missed it the first time around? What do you think was going on in your life that caused you to miss? What were you focused on, say, eight years ago, when you were reading these texts? Were you like, that just totally was under the radar?
Ryan Holiday: Well, I think, being much younger, stillness was not the problem that I had. It was like, it’s like, I think what I was reacting to was like, “Oh, this is how you overcome obstacles. Oh, this is how you get your ego under control.” I was responding to what I needed at that point in my life. And then, as I got a little older, and I’m sure you relate to this, it’s like, oh, you realize like, this pace that you’re on this intensity is, although it’s been an advantage is not really sustainable, and so you have to think about it a different way. And there’s actually been some interesting studies, and they did this one where they scraped all this data about what young people versus old people were writing in blog posted on social media. And what they found is that younger people tended to associate happiness with achievement, and older people tended to associate happiness with contentment.
And I think that’s just a natural evolution that we’re on. And so, early on, I was looking to the stoics for what they could help me achieve, what they could help me do, what sort of stresses they could help me manage. And then, as I’ve gotten older and I’ve been fortunate and privileged in my career, then all of a sudden, you have a different set of problems, which is what you can’t solve with this skill set that the first set of problems were solved with. And ironically, this all ties into a theme that shows up in meditations a lot, which Marcus really just gets from Heraclitus. He says, “No man steps in the same river twice.” And what he means is that everything is constantly changing, including you and the river.
And so, as I’ve gone back and reread a bunch of books, not just the stoics but a bunch of my favorite novels, I’ve found that I’m interacting with the material in a different way, even though, literally, it’s unchanged. The environment and myself have evolved. And so, all of a sudden, you’re getting something different from the same words printed in the same order.
Brett McKay: Right. It’s a good case for revisiting and rereading books multiple times.
Ryan Holiday: Totally. Did you have Ben Sasse on?
Brett McKay: Ben Sasse, no, I’ve not.
Ryan Holiday: No, Sasse, the senator.
Brett McKay: Sasse, no, yeah, no, Ben Sasse, I have not.
Ryan Holiday: So, he has this concept of a five-foot bookshelf. He says, and it’s almost sounds like an Art of Manliness post. But he said, every family should have a five by five bookshelf that is filled with your family’s texts. The books that you need to read and study so like be a good person. And I think this ties into something Seneca talks about, which is like, “It’s not about how many books you read in your life, but it’s about reading the same books over and over again and studying them very deeply.” And so, again, I think, early in my life, it was like, “Oh, I’ve got to read this. I’ve never heard of this. I don’t know anything about that.”
And so, it’s about doing, doing, doing, acquiring, acquiring, acquiring, and then, at a certain point, you go, “I don’t know if more is the answer, maybe it’s, better is the answer.” And so, you go back and you look at these things, and you discover them in a new way.
Brett McKay: We’re here talking about studies of shifting priorities between younger people and older people. They say the same thing goes with friends. So, like, when you’re young, the priority is like getting lots of friends. And as you get older, the priority shifts to just winnowing down to the friends who are the ones who give you the most fulfillment.
Ryan Holiday: Oh, sure. Yeah. No, that’s beautiful. And that it’s so funny philosophically, and all these cliches end up being proven, which is like, less is more.
Brett McKay: Right. So, let’s talk about what stillness means. Because I think when people, like you said, when you first started writing the book, it was sort of taking on this Eastern flair, you were going and looking at Buddhism, Eastern philosophies, and I think people have this idea of stillness being, just means sitting on a pillow, meditating under a tree like the Buddha. But, you highlight in the book that it’s not necessarily the case, stillness can be active in a weird way.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, I think we’ve done ourselves a disservice by making the word stillness synonymous with meditation. And there are many people who are sitting and meditating and who are probably the least still people you could possibly imagine. And so, what I wanted to do in the book was expand the definition and look at it from an Eastern and Western sense, a Christian sense. When they talk about, when Jesus says, “Peace be still, and know that I am God.” He’s not saying, “Sit and meditate.” So, these are different understandings of the same idea from all these different schools. But, at the core of it, I think they are talking about slowing down. They’re talking about equanimity. They’re talking about having an even keel. They’re talking about not being jerked around by interior, exterior forces.
So, it’s interesting, like, there’s kind of not two more different schools than the stoics and the epicureans. We almost take it that they are diametrically opposed. But the stoic word for stillness is apatheia, and the epicurean word is ataraxia. And they both have the same definition, which is like some form of tranquility, not being jerked around by interior or exterior passions. So, that’s the kind of stillness I’m talking about. And meditation is one way to get there. Although, I very deliberately do not talk about it at all in the book. You can get to stillness, paradoxically, on a long walk. You can get it sitting with a journal. You can get it reading a book of poetry. You could also get it sitting on a porch, watching the snowfall.
There’s lots of different ways to get to the stillness. And it’s when you hear reports from like professional athletes or people who’ve been in really high pressure situations, where they managed to do something incredible. When you sort of parse their descriptions of how they were feeling, what you hear over and over again is some version of that idea of, “I wasn’t thinking about anything, my mind was empty, I slowed it down, I was perfectly still.” Even as they were throwing a touchdown pass or playing a chess match, or whatever it is.
Brett McKay: So, I think there’s an inherent benefit of stillness. Like, stillness for its own sake, you can strive for there. But I think, let’s look like the people who are still in that mindset, who are like, “I have to do this for a reason.” Right? So, what would you say to those people? What are the benefits that come from fostering stillness in your life?
Ryan Holiday: Well, what we’re doing, whatever it is, but anything that is sort of professional or elite level is really hard. So, like one of the examples I talk about in the book is professional baseball. And you see these pitchers and these batters facing off. And the hitting of baseball is like the single hardest act in professional sports. You have something like 400 milliseconds to identify and begin the swinging process for a pitch, right? So, if you are not still, if your mind is going a million miles a minute, if you’re thinking about an argument you had with the coach 20 minutes ago, if you’re thinking about your contract negotiations that are going to happen at the end of the season, if you are thinking in advance of the home run you’re going to hit, you’re going to be in trouble, right?
Because, that 400 milliseconds requires 100% of your energy. Yogi Berra said, “It’s impossible to hit and think at the same time.” And so, I think, one of the arguments for stillness is that, it’s a resource allocation issue. Like, when I look at the best things that I’ve done professionally, I wasn’t doing eight things at the same time. My mind wasn’t wandering as I did it. I was locked in. And so, I think, one argument, aside from just that you’ll feel better as a human being, is like, this is how you get to access 100% of your resources.
Brett McKay: I like it. So, you highlight that there are three areas of life, three domains of life we can find stillness, in mind, spirit, body. And we’ll talk about different ways we can access stillness in those three domains. But, I’m curious, is it possible to be still in one of these areas, but not the other? And if so, what are some examples of that?
Ryan Holiday: Well, that’s actually sort of my argument in the book, which is that, we are often out of balance. So, one of the characters I was fascinated with, that I wrote a lot about is someone like Tiger Woods. So, here you have a guy who physically is complete master of himself. Mentally, golf is such a mental game, complete master of themselves. And yet, it’s hard to argue that, spiritually, emotionally, at the soul level, that, for a long time, he wasn’t sort of tearing himself to pieces, right? And eventually, that part of himself that he kept compartmentalized, but was dealing with all sorts of wounds, and urges, and passions, and temptations, eventually overwhelmed then and destroyed his considerable mastery of the other two.
And it took, basically, 10 years, for him to claw his way back, with a lot of fits and starts along the way. And so, I talk about someone like Tiger Woods, not from a position of judgment, but to talk about how out of balance we can get. I mean, it’s not a coincidence, a lot of these sort of gurus of the Eastern world, turned out to sort of be like depraved monsters, right? It’s like, they had this sort of mental stillness and physical stillness they can sit for hours on in, and then, it’s like, when they get up, they’re doing some me-too stuff, right? And my point is like, this has to be integrated. You can’t be a saint in one part of your life, and a monster in the other, and expect that to be sustainable.
Brett McKay: All right. So, you have to focus on all three at the same time.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah. Well, it’s like you’re tackling it from all these different elements. Because, it’s like, okay, let’s say you do get to a place where, mentally, you can kind of tune things out. You’ve built a really great environment that encourages stillness. But then, in your heart, all you feel are jealousy and rage and insecurity, that’s not going to be sustainable. Or, you could be someone who is pure-hearted, but you’ve developed this hoarding habit, and you walk into your house and it’s just chaos and dysfunction and you’re about to be swallowed by piles of your own garbage, that’s going to cause a lot of anxiety and worry, right? And so, it’s, how do we tackle this from all parts of it? Whether it’s the sort of habits that we practice into the course of a day, the discipline we have of our mind.
And then, also, just like the sort of standards and principles that we operate by, I think you’re kind of triangulating your way towards some semblance of stillness. That’s, at least, the way I think about it.
Brett McKay: Well, so, let’s dig into these three domains. The first section you talked about is the mind, stillness of mind. And you start off talking about JFK, John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as an example of finding stillness in mind. So, walk us through that, and how you think JFK purposely looked for stillness to solve this problem.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, we were talking earlier about active stillness, or what does stillness look like in the real world? How do you make a self-interested case? I think it’s hard to find a better example of stillness in the real world that had more of an impact than John F. Kennedy waking up in 1962 and finding out, “Hey, the entire balance of nuclear power in the world has shifted overnight. And I am sitting on a powder keg of a situation that if I’m not careful, literally hundreds of millions of people will die.” And he manages over the subsequent 13 days, to de-escalate, to avoid rush into judgment, to avoid taking the wrong steps or making irrevocable mistakes. He gets Khrushchev to back down. He saves humanity from a nuclear holocaust.
And he does this by, not just from the sort of Zen perspective of thinking of nothing, but in fact, by really slowing down and thinking quite deeply about the situation, about what was at stake. He says at one point, like, “I’m not interested in the second step of this sort of exchange,” he’s like, “What about the third step? And the fifth step? And the seventh step? And the ninth step?” And he’s like, “You generals who are telling me that we’ve got to bomb Cuba to hell and back, and then we may have to invade the USSR for setting this all in motion,” he’s like, “I’m worried that you’re so wrong, that no one will be around to tell you I told you so, when we find out.” Right?
And one of Kennedy’s expressions, he says, “You want to use time as a tool, not as a couch.” And I think, even that the missile crisis transpires over 13 days is impressive, right? Like, I’m not sure every president who has held office before or since, would have taken, had the fortitude and the clarity to allow for that kind of time. And really what Kennedy was doing was allowing Khrushchev to come to his senses, right? It was like five or six days in, and Khrushchev’s like, “Oh, man, this was a huge mistake.” But, Kennedy, realizing that this is going to happen, has given him room to back down and then ultimately were able to come to a peaceful conclusion.
Brett McKay: And he learned from a primary state with the Bay of Pig Invasion, which failed.
Ryan Holiday: Exactly.
Brett McKay: And that he had that, there was like, you’ve got to act, act, act, act, and it just ended up a disaster, and he used that as a learning experience, “And now I’m going to slow things down this time.”
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, I think it’s almost inconceivable that the same president oversaw Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis because they were so transformatively different and such transformatively different examples of what leadership is supposed to look like. He was kind of bullied into one, and then he had the strength and the confidence and the clarity to do the right thing in the second one. And it’s just filled with all sort of genius little insights, right? Like, everyone was like, “You’ve got to bomb Cuba.” And he’s like, “Well, what’s Russia going to do if we bomb Cuba.” And they were like, “Well, we haven’t thought that far.” He’s like, “Well, if I was president of Russia, and someone bombed a place we had missiles, I would be forced to attack.”
He was like, “What do you think Khrushchev’s advisors are telling him to do right now?” This sort of practice of empathy was, I think, really important. But one of my favorites is when he decides to put a blockade around Cuba. He’s like, “Look, we’re not going to bomb them, but we’re not going to let this continue.” He’s like, “We’re going to put our navy around Cuba and prevent anything from coming or going.” He realizes that even blockade sounds a little aggressive. And so, he calls it a quarantine. It’s the same exact thing. But even down to the language he’s using to describe what he’s doing, he is thinking about how this is going to be received.
So, to me, this is just like the peak performance of leadership and presidential power. And hopefully, we never have to see anything like it again, but he was just sort of firing on all cylinders there.
Brett McKay: And he did some meditative practices unknowingly. Like, he would just walk into rose garden.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, he would swim.
Brett McKay: Yeah, swim.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, he sends a note to the gardener at the White House, thanking her for her important contributions to saving humanity. What I think is really interesting, and you can Google and see these, Kennedy’s notes from the missile crisis survive. He was doodling on these legal pads. And he was writing kind of mantras to himself. But, like, you can see a picture of a sailboat that he drew on the White House stationary, as he’s having to think about this terrible weight on his shoulders, and yet, he’s finding the ability to sort of zoom out and get some perspective. And I think, mostly just calm himself down. But, both the stoics and the Buddhists use the metaphor of the mind as muddy water, and that you have to let the dirt and the silt settle down, before the water becomes transparent, and before you can see through it. And I think that’s what Kennedy was doing.
Brett McKay: Well, Kennedy is one of those examples, too, where he had incredible stillness of mind, but not so still in other areas of his life, particularly at the soul part of his life.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, that’s what I mean about this compartmentalization. It’s like, okay, so, in those 13 days, if you only look at it from a policy perspective, or a geopolitical standpoint, is flawless. But then you zoom in at the personal, and it’s like, there’s a scene where Kennedy has one of his aides drive in a beautiful co-ed from a college near D.C., and they have an affair in a hotel room. And so, it’s like, he didn’t know how the missile crisis was going to end up. Right? He couldn’t know. But, somehow, he decided that a good use of those last few days on Earth would be better spent hooking up with a stranger than then spending it with his wife and children. And so, to me, that doesn’t strike me as a particularly enlightened decision. And it doesn’t sound like someone who’s in control of themselves, right?
And when you look at Kennedy’s sort of twisted relationship with his father, some of it starts to make a little bit of sense.
Brett McKay: So, one of the tactics you suggest for getting stillness of mind is limiting inputs. What did that look like in some of the lies of the famous folks that you came across and talked about in the book?
Ryan Holiday: I’ve always loved this story that Emerson tells about Napoleon, which is that Napoleon would delay the opening of his mail. And he would instruct his secretary to wait sometimes as much as three weeks before he checked his mail. Knowing that by the time most of these letters were open, they would have been rendered irrelevant by subsequent events. And he said, “Look, if there’s something important, do not delay. But if it’s not important, if it’s not urgent, if it’s good news,” he said, “Don’t bother me with it, I’ve got important things to do.”
And the amount of people that I see today, who, it’s like, they wake up in the morning, and instead of doing whatever they know they need to be working on, and I know you’ve written about this a lot with this sort of Eisenhower Matrix, they wake up and the direction of their day is determined by what people have tweeted in the few hours that they were asleep, or, what unsolicited emails came in, or, whatever is running on CNN that morning. And so, I mean, we have to limit our inputs, because, naturally, we’re reactive, right? And we live in a time where there’s way more information to react to, than is remotely necessary or important.
And so, we have to really zoom in on what we’re going to care about, what we’re going to monitor, so that we can not just be still, but so we can excel at the few things that we’re put on this planet to excel in. So, for me, that’s like, I don’t watch a lot of news, I don’t check my phone in the morning. I have no alerts on my phone. I don’t schedule things usually before noon, because I want to do the important things before I’ve been interrupted by the various inputs that are coming my way.
Brett McKay: Well, what would you say to folks who think, who’d say like, “Well, things are going fast, changing fast, in order to stay ahead of the competition, you have to be on top of all this stuff that’s coming in at you”?
Ryan Holiday: Sure.
Brett McKay: What would you say to those guys?
Ryan Holiday: I mean, I look at the facts, right? The most successful living investor is Warren Buffett, who invests from a value standpoint and thinks in terms of decades, right? The best books, the best music, these are not popular because they are cashing in on a trend of the moment, they’re working because they connect to something timeless, right? Most of the things that are going on politically right now, if you have any sense of history, you probably have a better grasp on, than the person who is refreshing their Twitter feed in real time. So, I’m not saying that you want to be uninformed, I’m saying that, following a breaking news or up to the minute information, is oftentimes the worst way to be informed. Not only is it incredibly inefficient, but it’s often very misleading and gives you a false picture of the world.
It’s like, if you pick up, I don’t know, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, and you’re reading about this sort of jockeying between two powers, I think this will give you more timeless insight about China and America, than following this sort of petty squabble about the NBA and the Rockets’ GM who tweeted about the sort of uprising in Hong Kong. So, the question is, is the information that you’re going with, is it likely to be rendered irrelevant? Or, is it likely to be proven incorrect or insufficient by the next breaking report? And so, when we’re limiting our inputs, we’re not going to live in a bubble or we’re not choosing ignorance, what we’re trying to choose is more sort of sustainable, reliable, universal information instead.
Brett McKay: Ryan, books, books are a great source of universal long-term information.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, look, and obviously, as an author, I’m a little biased, but, you think about like this book, it’s like I spent three years writing it. So, that’s like, for the time that it would take you to read 10 articles that took probably 10 hours to write, you’re getting three years of research and thinking, that is a compression of all sorts of human experience over the centuries, you’re getting all of that. And because you’re paying for it, the author is much more obligated to deliver you high quality information. And then, I would say on top of this, just the meditative experience of sitting down quietly in a corner with a book where you can’t be interrupted, where there’s not a million graphics zinging around or noises or updates or whatever, I think, reading is just a better medium for stillness than the phone or the television or the desktop.
Brett McKay: So, another tactic for stealing the mind, stealing the mind is journaling. Who were some individuals that have journaled to find stillness in themselves?
Ryan Holiday: Almost every person you could possibly imagine, half of histories exists because people kept diaries and journals. And I think they did it not because they were performing for history, but because they were trying to process and wrap their heads around what they were thinking. Marcus Aurelius’ meditations is his diary. It’s his journal. But he’s not saying, “I had fruit for breakfast.” He’s saying, “Why do I keep losing my temper? How can I get better at this?” And he’s saying like, “Why am I so easily riled up or upset or concerned? Why am I so worried about this or that?” I think Anne Frank’s diary is one of the most incredible documents. I got to imagine being a 13-year-old girl is already pretty difficult, but then to be trapped in an attic with your parents afraid that the Nazis are going to come in at any moment, would have been obscene, right?
And she sits and works on these thoughts in this journal that give us such an insight now into the human experience, but she has a great line, she says, “Paper is more patient than people.” And every time I find myself getting upset or angry or bitter about something, I try to spend some time just writing that down and hammering it out of my journal and I almost always feel better, and almost always need to do less. I need to say less or argue less or coarse someone less, because I’ve taken some of the edge off of that on the paper.
Brett McKay: I think what it does for me, and this is my theory, there’s probably psychologist who has confirmed this, I’m definitely sure there’s a psychologist who’s confirmed this. But I think one of the benefits of journaling is that it allows you to take your emotions and put it through your prefrontal cortex, right? Because the act of writing is very linear and logical. So, it allows you to think about your emotions more, even more with a clear mind. And so, you feel better, because you’re able to do something with your emotions, and it just goes through that prefrontal cortex and you feel better afterwards.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah. Well, just think about how often our emotions are in conflict with each other. It’s like, we love someone, and then we hate them for what they just did. These are love and hate simultaneous for the same person. And when that’s in your head, they’re like in real close proximity to each other, and they’re bumping up into each other. But when you write it down, now you have some distance, right? You’re like, “I’m so angry that they did X, why do they keep doing X to me? How can I blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” But now you have like a foot and a half of distance from that thought, and you can stare at it and look at it. And I think this is just a healthier place for that thought to be.
Brett McKay: How have you kept the journaling habit steady and consistent in your own life?
Ryan Holiday: I do it every morning, and it’s one of those things that, I think the more you do it, the more you get out of it. But I would just, I would start small. One of the things I recommend it, I use a journal called the one line a day journal, and you just write one sentence a day for five years, but you can see exactly where you were five years ago. It’s really cool. I’ve done it for about three and a half years. So, I’ve three years of looking at it. And then, a couple years ago, I made a journal called The Daily Stoic Journal, which gives you a question to answer every day. So, I find that to be really effective and interesting.
I guess, it’s like, if you’re having trouble journaling, don’t just go buy a blank book. I think that’s a hard place to start. There’s all sorts of cool guided journals that help you build a familiarity with a habit that could be prompts or there’s a specific way to do it, and that can be a great way to start building the habit.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I like that idea of starting small. Because I think if you go out and buy a blank journal, and you just have like one line, you look at the blank page like, “Well, I didn’t really journal.” And you’re just like, you stop. So, I like start small.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah. You’re like, “What should I say today?” And it’s like what they’re telling you.
Brett McKay: Right. So, another way you can find stillness of mind is finding silence. So, any examples from people and from history where they purposely found silence to find stillness?
Ryan Holiday: I don’t know about you, but I don’t know how these writers write in coffee shops. It just seems insane to me.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I don’t get it.
Ryan Holiday: I think the environment that you choose to do your work, whether it’s creative or otherwise is so important. The open office concept is just, it’s literally my nightmare. I would rather not have a job than have a job where I have to work in an open office where people can interrupt you at any time. So, I was really fascinated by Bill Gates taking these sort of think weeks. He goes off a week or two a year, where he just has complete silence and solitude, and he just thinks. He just sits alone and he reads, and he catches up, and he has ideas, and he goes for walks. It was just sort of building up time, both, I think, daily, but also regularly in your calendar, in your life, where you have time to just be disconnected.
Because, if you don’t have that, what you’re preventing is those sort of thoughts that just popped in your head. My next book idea came to me when I was playing on the beach with my son on a family vacation. And it was early in the morning and it was quiet and there was no one there and we were just hanging out. And I wouldn’t have had that, had I been in back-to-back meetings, let’s say.
Brett McKay: All right. So, get out in nature, disconnect. That’s an easy way to do that.
Ryan Holiday: For sure.
Brett McKay: Yeah, one thing that I really enjoyed as I went to a monastery for a weekend.
Ryan Holiday: Oh, really?
Brett McKay: Which was really nice. Yeah, there’s a monastery at Clear Creek Abbey, it is a Benedictine monastery. It’s just like an hour out of Tulsa, it was awesome. It’s like, there’s no Wi-Fi, there’s no cellular coverage, and it’s just completely silent there. And it was wonderful.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah. And I think what happens oftentimes when you experience that silence is, now all of a sudden, you can really hear what’s going on inside your own head, and you realize that’s where the noise is coming from, and then you’ve got to do work on yourself to quiet that down.
Brett McKay: So, let’s move to the soul aspect of finding stillness. What do you think are the biggest obstacles of finding stillness in the soul?
Ryan Holiday: Well, I think a lot of people are sure ruled by their emotions. And I’m not saying the alternative is to suppress your emotions, but the stoics were big at asking, “Is this emotion, is this urge, is this desire that I’m feeling, is it helpful? Or not? Is it constructive? Or deconstructive? So, I just see so many people led around through life by a bunch of different feelings. Sometimes that feeling is anger, sometimes that feeling is a need to be loved. Sometimes that feeling is, it can be any number of feelings, but they’re led through life by this sort of emotional reactiveness or this sort of compulsion. And then, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t end well and often gets them in trouble.
And so, I think what we’re talking about is not avoiding, or, sorry, not eliminating all emotions, but just getting to that place of ataraxia, as the epicureans were talking about, where you’re not jerked around by your passions. Where you have a freedom from those compulsions and desire. So, in the book, I talk a lot about anger, which, I think, is a very prominent driver in a lot of people’s lives. I talk about envy as one of them. As Theodore Roosevelt said, it’s sort of a comparison being the thief of joy. It’s the thief of joy, but it’s also the driver of a lot of accomplishments. I talk about lust and desire as one to be wary of. And the final was, I think a lot of people don’t have stillness because of just traumas or experiences that they’ve had in their life, that they have left untreated.
And so, Tiger Woods, John F. Kennedy, both examples of people who experienced profoundly screwed up childhoods from their overbearing fathers. And then, instead of processing that, it ultimately led them both right off a cliff.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about this idea of managing or bridling desires. Because both the Eastern philosophies and the stoics, they talk about desire. Like, desire for more, desire for either more money, status, sex. That was the big driver of suffering. So, what do these guys say about what we can do to bridle those desires, so we feel like we have enough, that we’re content in life?
Ryan Holiday: Well, I really became fascinated with Epicurus, because Epicurus has this reputation of being this kind of like depraved hedonist. But there’s almost no evidence of that, whatsoever. In fact, one of the few letters that we have that survived from him of asking for something, he had all these rich patrons, he could have had access to women, or alcohol, or pleasures of any kind, Right? And in this letter, he’s asking these patrons like, “Can I do anything for you?” And he’s like, “Yes, I’d really like a small pot of cheese. I think that would be wonderful.” Here you have a depraved hedonist and he’s finding great pleasure in cheese. And so, Epicurus talks about it, he goes like, “Look, really think about, if you get the object of your desire, what are you actually going to feel? What is it actually going to change?”
Because, what we tend to think about, let’s say, it’s, I’m talking to a married person and they see someone and then it’s, “I would love to sleep with that person.” What they’re thinking about is that moment, they’re thinking about the sexual encounter, and the sort of pleasure of that. But Epicurus is asking them to flash-forward to what you think about and how you feel right after. Or, what happens if you get caught? And what happens if you can’t stop yourself after? He’s going like, “Don’t just think about the pleasure of the acquiring, think about what this is actually going to do and feel like more comprehensively.” And it was a way of checking those desires. It’s like, we all have lusted over something, right?
Let’s say it’s a career accomplishment, we’re like, “I want to be X. I want to win a Super Bowl, I want to be a best selling author, I want to be a millionaire, I want to have a big fancy house.” Or, “I want to be the CEO of this company.” And then we’ve gotten it, right? Or we had something, we wanted to get into Harvard, and we got into Harvard. And I would urge you to try to remember what that actually felt like. Which is, at least, in my experience, and I think this is just borne out by the literature, is kind of a little disappointing. It’s like, it wasn’t the magical cure all that you thought it would be, it didn’t transform really anything, you still felt the same desires and urges, you just were directing it to the next thing.
And so, they really want us to stop and think about this, because it’s what’s going to hopefully help us have a little bit of power over that impulse to do it over and over and over and over again.
Brett McKay: Another aspect of stilling the soul are relationships. How do you think relationships can help still the soul?
Ryan Holiday: I was trying to sort of punch back at this weird thing that’s taken hold, I think, generationally, but I was pretty universal, I guess, with ambitious people, which is somehow that relationships and success, or relationships and achievements are mutually exclusive, or that one kind of takes away from the other. I tend not to find that’s true. You and I have talked about Churchill before. Churchill says that his greatest accomplishment was convincing that Clementine Churchill to marry him. There’s a fascinating biography of her that I read a few months ago. But, you just see that, in really great, great people, it was almost always a team effort of some kind, right? And then, I found the opposite. When I look at people that I thought I admired, and then I find out that they were terrible mothers and fathers, or that they were horrible spouses or horrible children, it just changed.
Like, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, you find out that he gave all these kids up for adoption. And to me, it just throws the philosophy right out the window. Or even Buddha, the idea that in seeking enlightenment, Buddha walked out on his wife and his young child, it’s like, suddenly, it doesn’t feel so impressive anymore. You know what I mean?
Brett McKay: Right. So, I mean, your own experience, what does that mean on your experience? Some of the people you’ve come across, you mentioned Churchill, finding relationships, bringing stillness to his soul. Any other people you highlight in the book?
Ryan Holiday: Well, yeah, I think what you find is that, often to be great, you’re kind of out of balance. You have an excess in one trait or another. So, in Churchill, it was ambition and energy, and it was a desire to win, and all of that. And someone like Clementine balanced that out, so they became a really great team. I’ve got to imagine, it’s the exact situation just flipped gender-wise, with Angela Merkel and her husband. So, at least, in my relationship, just having someone at home, who understands you, who gets you in a way that maybe you, being inside you, doesn’t get. Is hugely beneficial, it calms you down, it gives you perspective. But then, also, it’s like, what are you doing all this for?
If you’re doing it all, and then you’re just sitting home alone in your enormous mansion with no one to share it with or with a revolving door of people that work for you or want something from you, I don’t know, that seems very empty to me.
Brett McKay: I just pictured There Will Be Blood, when you mentioned the empty mansion. You’re right, that’s him.
Ryan Holiday: Totally, yes.
Brett McKay: Daniel Plainview.
Ryan Holiday: And yeah, again, what are you doing this for? Who are you sharing it with ultimately?
Brett McKay: So, let’s move on to the body. What role does the body play in a still life?
Ryan Holiday: Well, I was making a playoffs of mind, body, soul. But, in the body, I’m referring to anything physical. The environment, actions, movement, all of that sort of thing, it’s, how do you get to stillness through what you’re doing? And so, one of the ones, again, I’m sort of a Churchill nerd, but I was just fascinated that the Churchill wrote a book about painting. Churchill painted 500 paintings in his lifetime. And he said, in the painting book, he talks about how the most important thing that a powerful public person can have is a handful of hobbies. And I think the power of hobby is that it gives you something else to pour your energy into, it forces you to take time off from what you’re doing, and in so doing create some balance, but it also creates room for reflection.
So, I’m talking to you today from my farm outside Austin, and it’s like, people go, “Oh, isn’t having that farm a lot of work?” And it’s like, it is, but it gives me something to worry about that’s not, how’s my book selling right now? Or, where’s that contract they said they were going to give me. It gives me an opportunity to go outside and go fishing. My son and I, we went for a bike ride this morning. It encourages better behaviors and sources of stillness for me, even though, in some ways, and then I am able to apply that to the work in a constructive way. And so, even though it takes me away from the work, it actually makes me better at it. It generally, I think, makes me a happier person.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I liked how you started off talking about Churchill, to start off your chapter or your section about body. Because, about all people know about this Churchill. Yeah, he painted, he also, he laid bricks, he enjoyed laying bricks. This is during the war, he’d go out to his country estate to build a wall, he enjoyed it. I mean, he had his daily routine, you talk about his daily routine, very physically active, he was standing, walking, taking baths, feeding ducks, but it allowed him at the same time to just be a prolific writer, and then also save democracy, save the Western world during World War Two.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, I say in the book, his paintings are not in museums because they’re good paintings, they’re in museums because what the person who painted them was able to do through, and because of his painting habit. After one of the allied war conferences, Churchill takes a five-hour car trip to go paint a sunset in Marrakech. And you can imagine him just desperately needing a few minutes or a few hours to not think about the horrible suffering and struggle and stress. And then we imagine he returned, I think he returns and begins planning the D-Day Invasion. So, it’s not escapism, it’s the opposite.
Brett McKay: And I think this is sort of counterintuitive. People think in order to recharge and find stillness, you have to not do anything. For Churchill, that wasn’t true. He even said that, “A change is…” He said, “A change is as good as a rest.”
Ryan Holiday: I love that.
Brett McKay: And I found that in my own life, I found that there’s always, that you have those moments which you’re like, “I just not want to do anything.” And then you do nothing, and you feel exhausted from doing nothing.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah. No, I get more energy out of going for a run than I do watching two hours of Netflix. And I think it’s because you feel like you’ve accomplished something versus like you know you just wasted two hours of your life you’re not getting back.
Brett McKay: Right. So, then you talk about different things you can do to find stillness of body, one is taking walks regularly. So, who are some famous walkers you’ve encountered in your research?
Ryan Holiday: Again, the walkers are almost as universal as the journalers. But, Hemingway was a big walker, Kierkegaard is the main character that I talk about, every day, he would go for a walk. He would write until he kind of hit a point of diminishing returns, and then he just walked. And it’s weird, I think we think people used to walk a lot more, but it’s like, when Kierkegaard was walking around, sidewalks were a new invention. We didn’t used to do that that much. And in some sense was, we used to walk more, but in another sense is we used to walk less. And so, it’s just about going outside, it’s putting the body in movement. The Buddhists do talk about a walking meditation. And as someone who has trouble sitting still myself, I tend to find that walks are where I get that from.
I actually do two kinds of walks, I tend to, I walk or I take my son for a bike ride in the morning, just to get outside, start the day, and it’s wonderful. But, also, when I do phone calls, I most always take them outside walking as well. It’s like, I have this 30 minutes of dead time that I’d probably rather not be doing if I had a choice about it. But, I’m going to walk because it’s a chance to be outside to get some sunlight, to put the body in motion, to sort of lure yourself into a place where your best thinking can happen. And I find that I perform better on the phone calls because I’m walking.
Brett McKay: Now, I’ve noticed in my own life, moving my body, I get a lot of good thoughts doing that.
Ryan Holiday: Well, I find, when I take my son for a walk, he’s only three, so, he doesn’t walk, he sits in a stroller. Like, we’re up country, so, it’s sort of an off road, his stroller. But the point is, on the mornings, like, let’s say it’s raining or it’s too cold that I don’t take him on the walk, he’s somehow crazier and more amped up throughout the day, than it is when we have that walk. And so, it’s not the physical part of it. Because he’s probably burning more calories running around inside, than he is, me pushing him around in the stroller. But I think it’s just the being outside, walking just at the right pace that you’re able to think, your heart rate isn’t really elevated too much. I think it’s just the rhythm of it that’s really so valuable.
Brett McKay: So, another way we can find stillness of body through activity or hobbies. You mentioned that earlier, a lot like Churchill said, everyone should have, every statesman should have a hobby. Besides Churchill, any other people you encountered that did great things, but also made time for hobbies that people would think, “Well, that’s just a waste of time”?
Ryan Holiday: I was fascinated by Churchill’s predecessor, William Gladstone, who love to just chop down trees. That was his hobby. He had this biggest estate, and he would go out, and anytime he saw a dead tree, he was like, “I’m chopping that thing down.” And he chopped something like 3,000 trees down in his lifetime. And so, it’s worth saying, it’s not like he’s clear-cutting for us, like, he was helping us, but, the point was, by hand, one of the most powerful people in the world, was sharpening an axe and then chopping down a tree. And he was saying that, as he would get into the rhythm of it, he would have some of his best thoughts, his emotions would calm down, and it was just a deeply meditative experience for him. And when you look at the hobbies of successful people, it’s almost always something surprising.
Like, you wouldn’t think Mr. Rogers would have been a lifelong swimmer, but he swam at the Pittsburgh Athletic Club every day. And you just tend to find that successful people have hobbies. And the hobbies are not, ideally they’re not stamp collecting, if you’re already working at the desk job. Maybe if you’re a professional athlete, Chris Bosh famously taught himself how to program. He taught himself some programming languages one off-season. You can imagine that’s a deeply interesting thing for someone whose profession has them be really active all the time. So, he’s balancing out the physical with a mental activity. Most of us today don’t have physical professions, and so, exploring some physical hobbies maybe the best way to do it.
Brett McKay: And I think what was interesting about these guys is that their hobbies, they did it for just the love of the hobby itself. I think there’s this tendency in our culture today, it’s like, if you’re going to have a hobby, you’ve got to find a way to make it a side hustle and make money from it. But these guys didn’t, they didn’t care about that.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, it’s a side hustle, and then it also, I think the other part is, it’s, and I know you’re into weightlifting, and so, I was watching your PR and I’m very impressed by it, boy. As a runner, what I’m actually like, I like to tell people I’m training to not run a marathon. I know I can run one because I’ve done the distance before. But the point is, I’m not trying to win at my hobby. I feel like it’s not healthy for me to have more competition in my life. And so, it’s more like, the marathon is like, can I do it? Can I do it on a regular basis? Not, can I win at exercise? And so, I think it can be important depending on your personality. So, this isn’t a one size fits all thing. But don’t turn, don’t suck the fun out of your hobby by making it results-based.
I think that’s what’s so great about Churchill’s paintings, is that, he wasn’t very good at it. He loved it, but he certainly wasn’t world class.
Brett McKay: No, I think it’s interesting, with my hobby, with weightlifting is like my main hobby I got, when I first started, it was very oriented on the results and it was a big driver of my motivation. But I found like, really this year, 2019, I just don’t really care. I just train because I enjoy it and it’s like the PR comes, great, fantastic. If it doesn’t, no big deal, I still enjoy. But before, if I didn’t hit a PR, I would just ruin my day and I don’t care anymore. I’d just enjoy the movie. And I think that’s what happens as you mature in a hobby you are in interest.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah. And that’s where I’m trying to get in my writing career, but it’s also what I’m trying to say in the book generally, which is like, it’s not that you get to a place of stillness and suddenly you don’t care about your job anymore, that you don’t do it. It’s, no, you want to be great at what you’re doing and you want to improve, but you want to be coming to it from a place of fullness, rather than a place of craving. So, it’s like, the weightlifting, if it’s like, “Hey, I have to get this PR, because if I’m not improving, I suck. Or I’m bad or someone else’s better than me.”
It’s exactly as you’re saying, it’s like, “I genuinely love doing this, and I’m going to keep doing it.” And from the love and from the commitment, as it happens, the byproduct is often better results.
Brett McKay: Right, this goes back to the Gita. That’s like the main message of the Bhagavad Gita. It’s like, you just love the work for the work itself, don’t worry about the rewards of it.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, and I talk about that in Ego Is the Enemy, it’s like, the effort has to be enough, because you don’t control the results. At least, in weightlifting, you kind of do, or running, you kind of do, right? But it’s like, I had to get to a place with writing where it’s like, when this book came out, it debuted at number one, that was wonderful, but I didn’t control that. It just as easily could have been like all my other books, which is that it sold well, but was somehow snubbed by the Time’s list.
And it’s like, if I had decided that success was this thing that I didn’t have control, not only would I be upset, but I would have rendered this meaningful experience that I just went through, as somehow less significant because somebody else decided that that’s what it was. And that’s not it. That’s not a place of fullness, that’s what craving gets you.
Brett McKay: Did you enjoy writing this book the most compared to the other two?
Ryan Holiday: I really did, but I don’t think it was an accident. I mean, I really had to remind my… This was the first time on a book that I really forced myself to slow down, and I also actively thought throughout the process, it was like, “Okay, consider the book done today.” It’s like, I’m finishing for the day, I don’t know whether I’m going to get to come back to it tomorrow. Because, you don’t know, right? We could go in at any moment. So, am I actually enjoying and feeling gratitude and feeling sort of purpose in the day-to-dayness of it, not in the, “I’m working hard every day for the next two years, so that when this comes out, I will be rewarded.”
To me, that’s a very fragile, vulnerable strategy. It’s a much more resilient strategy to be like, “I am getting benefits out of this every day for two years.” And then it comes out, and if you get the results, that’s extra, but if you don’t, you already got your money back, you already got your investment back.
Brett McKay: Well, Ryan, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Ryan Holiday: So, you can go to ryanholiday.net everywhere. I’m @RyanHoliday on pretty much every social. And then we should probably tell people about Daily Dad as well, if you want.
Brett McKay: Oh, yeah. That’s right.
Ryan Holiday: It’s father inspired meditation on philosophy and self-improvement.
Brett McKay: Yeah, there’s a newsletter you’ve got coming out, is that delivering now?
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, yeah, just go to dailydad.com.
Brett McKay: Dailydad.com. Well, Ryan Holiday, thanks so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest there’s Ryan Holiday. He’s the author of the book, Stillness Is the Key, it’s available on amazon.com. Check out his website ryanholliday.net, where can find out more information about his work. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/stillness, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about physical fitness, personal finances, how to be a better husband, better father. And if you like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, use code, Manliness, sign up, get a free month trial. When you’re done signing up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of The AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you, please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member, who you think would get something out of it.
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