Stillness Is the Key

Ryan Holiday Speaks to Gravity About His New Book and Finding Meaning in a Chaotic World

On October 16, Gravity welcomed author Ryan Holiday to our Seattle office to talk about his new book, Stillness Is the Key. The book, which recently hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list, is a sequel of sorts to Ryan’s previous titles The Obstacle Is the Way and Ego Is the Enemy. In each of these books, Ryan draws on ancient wisdom, particularly that of the Stoic philosophers, to illustrate timeless lessons that modern people can use to improve their lives.

Ryan’s talk opened with an introduction by Gravity CEO Dan Price, who credits Ryan’s work with helping him overcome several challenges in his life. After taking the floor, Ryan offered a brief overview of the book’s central theme, which argues that the key to high performance and effective leadership lies in your ability to slow down and interact more meaningfully with yourself, your surroundings, and the people in your life. When you learn how to practice stillness (or what others may call meditation, mindfulness, or presence), you can better focus on what’s most important instead of succumbing to distraction and anxiety about things you cannot control. Ryan summed up the problem by quoting seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Ryan then went on to debunk some notions about what it means to lead a “still” life. Stillness, he argued, does not require you to quit your job, sell your belongings, and retreat to a monastery. Instead, it’s about finding “stillness in the real world for your real problems.” In other words, you don’t need to abandon the modern world or avoid all forms of stress; you just need to learn to cope with stress effectively and slow down in meaningful ways in order to enjoy and appreciate life.

Rather than wax philosophical, Ryan shared several of the practical habits he’s cultivated over the years to help him achieve stillness.

1)  Wake up early. “I don’t want to start my day on my back foot,” Ryan said. “I don’t want to start from a place of reaction.” By waking up an hour or two before you need to, Ryan argued, you can start your day from a place of stillness instead of frenzy. You can use this time to meditate, spend time in nature, cook a nice breakfast, read a book, or anything else that brings you peace but may be difficult to do later in the day. Ryan says he uses his morning hours to take a technology-free walk outside with his three-year-old son. This gives them quality time together while also forcing them to pay attention to their immediate surroundings.

2)  Journal. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, called journaling “spiritual windshield wipers.” Spending a few minutes each morning writing for yourself allows you to clear your mind of any thoughts and feelings that are often easier to process on paper. As Ryan put it, “I want to unload my baggage onto paper, not people.” Doing this in the morning allows him to begin the day with a clear head.

3)  Do the hard work first. Mark Twain famously advised people to “eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Most days, there is something on your to-do list you’re dreading, either because it’s unpleasant, difficult, or both. Ryan suggested following Mark Twain’s advice by getting the most challenging tasks out of the way so the rest of the day is relatively easy. “Get the win as early as possible,” he said, “And the rest of the day is just bonus.”

4)  Say no to things. “Stillness comes from saying no,” Ryan advised, especially as you progress throughout your career. Other people are constantly vying for your time and attention, and there are a thousand things you could be doing at any given moment. But if you say yes to everything, you’ll always be busy and won’t have the space for stillness. Saying no to things allows you to focus on the opportunities that are most important.

5)  Reduce distractions. Technology makes it easy for us to access all sorts of information at all hours of the day. But most of this information isn’t actually useful, and too much of it can lead to stress and burnout. A couple of techniques Ryan suggests include putting your phone in a different room while you sleep and not checking it for 30 to 60 minutes each morning. He also suggests reducing or cutting out most news programs, especially 24/7 cable shows, which are designed to hold your attention rather than actually inform you. Instead of seeking snippets of poorly organized information, seek real knowledge by reading books, listening to experts, or discussing important subjects with people whose opinions and perspectives you value.

6) Prioritize important relationships. Ryan, who is married and has two small children, said he wanted to debunk the myth that having a family kills creativity and ambition. He spoke about how his wife has helped enrich his life and support his career and how having children has added a dimension to his life he would have otherwise missed. “I’ve found that having kids is not only deeply satisfying and rewarding and meaningful,” he said, “but it’s also helped me say no to a bunch of stuff that I didn’t need to be doing anyway.” Making time for family and other close relationships forces you to create stillness.

7)  Memento mori. For millennia, philosophers have adopted some version of this phrase, which translates to “remember you must die” as a source of inspiration. While Ryan acknowledged this may seem morbid, he’s found it can help you live life to the fullest. Asking yourself “What if this is the last hour I have on earth?’ or ‘What if this is the last shot I have at doing x y or z?’” Ryan explained, will make you more present in your life and guide you to make meaningful choices.

After Ryan shared his tips, Dan interviewed him about his own quest to find stillness. Dan spoke about the anxiety he feels about global problems like climate change and income inequality and his relative powerlessness to solve these problems at a grand scale. He asked Ryan how it was possible to find stillness in the face of such seemingly intractable challenges.

Ryan acknowledged the social, economic, political, and environmental problems that plague our world today but cautioned that worrying excessively about massive issues is usually not the best strategy to fix what’s broken. He spoke about the “dichotomy of control”—the idea that we often pay more attention to things we can’t control than we do on things we can. “We become very concerned with the macro picture and much less concerned with micro,” he said. For example, Americans often spend a lot of time debating who should be president but very few actually take the time to inform themselves about local issues and participate in local elections, even though the latter could actually allow them to have a direct impact on their communities. He encouraged Dan and everyone in the room to think about the places where they can effect real change instead of spiraling into anxiety or shouting into the void (aka Twitter).

After speaking with Dan, Ryan took a few questions from the audience. One person challenged his ideas, pointing out that some people have less control over their time and schedules than others. While it may be easy for a writer like Ryan or an executive like Dan to say no to things or dictate their schedules, it’s much more difficult for a factory or retail worker to do the same. Ryan acknowledged this imbalance but insisted that anyone could apply the general lessons in a way that works for them. He referenced the four Stoic virtues—courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom—and said anyone can benefit from living by these virtues, regardless of their other circumstances.

The final question came from someone who asked how Ryan continues to produce work on days when he doesn’t feel particularly creative or motivated. One mechanism Ryan said he’s found useful is getting comfortable with producing low-quality work in order to jumpstart his creative process. “A couple of crappy pages every day ultimately adds up to a manuscript that you can refine and edit,” he said. But in order to produce those pages, you need to discipline yourself to sit down and write every single day, even if you don’t want to. “For me it’s about ass in the chair every day, producing every day, but not being super precious about what is produced every day because it’s about creating momentum and creating progress.”

Perhaps you’re not a professional writer like Ryan. Perhaps you’re at a stage in your career or work in a job that doesn’t allow a lot of flexibility. Perhaps you have other demands on your life that eat into the time you have for creative and personal pursuits. But stillness, like any discipline, is a long-term process. It takes practice and dedication and may require you to start small. But even a small amount of stillness is better than none at all.

By Brooke Carey, Lead Storyteller

The Gravity Speakers Series brings experts from a wide range of fields–from business to politics to arts and entertainment–to our office to share their insight and knowledge with our team. For more about recent speakers, click here.

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