Ryan Holiday's work introduced to me Stoicism. More accurately, reintroduced. I had learned about the Stoics in college, but for all his knowledge, my professor failed to convey their wisdom. Ryan’s work unlocked the wisdom of Stoicism by making it relevant and applicable. He has a gift for showing us how to leverage ancient wisdom to solve modern problems. In this interview, Ryan was kind enough to answer questions regarding his latest book: "Stillness is the Key"
RC: Is there a difference between stillness and silence?
RH: I think silence tends to facilitate stillness—it’s very difficult to have stillness without it. I quote Melville in the book. He said everything wonderful and sacred is preceded by stillness. But the truth is that, for many of us, the outside noise is the least loud sound buzzing around us. For some of us, sitting in a quiet room is torture because of what’s going on inside our own heads or hearts. So I think it’s really important that we realize right here and right now that just running away from the city or a pair of noise cancelling headphones is not going to be sufficient if real quiet and reflection is what we’re after. That will only come from a more comprehensive approach.
RC: You cite one of my favorite quotes in your book: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Why do you think that is?
RH: For some of the reasons we were just talking about. We are afraid of our own thoughts and what we might discover in that quiet room. There was a study where they asked people to sit by themselves for like fifteen minutes or they could administer themselves a painful electrical shock and leave right then. People would rather be shocked! Which tells you something about how painful it must be to be alone with themselves. I think it’s much easier to find meaning and feel valuable when you are doing things. It’s easy to not have to think when you’re active or engaged with something. You don’t have to wrestle with your emotions or that creeping sense of distraction if you’re always on to the next goal. And so this fleeing that we do—from ourselves, from our problems—ends up creating new ones.
RC: In a time where we’re struggling to connect, and spend ever more time “alone together,” pursuing stillness can appear like further isolation. Can there be “quietness without loneliness”?
RH: I guess I don’t think about it that way. You can have stillness sitting on a porch swing with someone you love. You can have stillness over a long, raucous but thought-provoking dinner, one of those ones where you lose track of time. I get stillness each morning when I go on a walk with my son. This idea that zen or stillness is about reducing your attachments to other people is the wrong way to think about it in my opinion. I think you’re actually trying to make more room for these things, because they make life worth living. What you’re cutting out is stupid arguments on Twitter and sitting at your desk longer than you need to, answering emails that don’t matter.
RC: What do we stand to gain by allowing less into our lives?
RH: As Socrates would say, life itself! I don’t know about you but every time I take a load of stuff to Goodwill, I feel better. Every time some appointment in my calendar gets cancelled, I feel a sigh of relief. Now if only I could just not acquire those things in the first place or not agree to the thing I was relieved not to have to do, I’d really be on fire.
RC: We live in a world that worships productivity. How does one balance stillness with ambition?
RH: Marcus Aurelius talks about the problem of tying your ambition to things other people say or do. To him that was the definition of insanity. So I like productivity, I like having goals. I just try to make sure my goals are related to things I control. Writing a book I am proud of, that’s up to me. It getting published? Less so. Really throwing my heart and soul into the marketing and the promotion, up to me. Whether the New York Times decides to put it on the list? Nope. And look I don’t say that lightly. I say that as someone who had eagerly waited to see where Stillness would land, but I put a lot of work into making sure that good or bad news was not material to how I judged the success of the project as a whole. Hitting number one this go around was great, but it was extra.
RC: A book requires the author to sacrifice a period of their life in order to research and write it. It’s a big risk for the author. Was there a particular moment in your life when you realized that writing about stillness was worth the risk?
RH: I don’t know if you can think about it that way. In my experience, you write the book you can’t not write. It has to be absolutely stuck in your head and your heart to the point where it’s painful to not work on it or think about it. Each one of my books has been like that, almost like a monkey I was trying to fling off my back. It’s better if you don’t have a choice. If you’re doing this because of some kind of ROI or payoff, I think it goes to what I was just saying—you’re taking a big risk. Because now you’ve decided it will only be worth it if you get X in return. I want to love the process of it.
RC: It’s said that we write in order to learn how to think. I found that to be true. What changed in your own life as a result of writing a book about stillness?
RH: Oh man, let me tell you. I wrote a book about being Stoic, about not having an ego, about the inner peace that comes from stillness. I did not do that because that comes naturally or easily to me. I don’t think many people would have described me as particularly still even just a few years ago. I like to tackle projects that force me to grow, that force me to look in the mirror. I think the benefit of that is that it’s honest and it prompts the reader to do the same. Because they know they aren’t being lectured or condescended to.
RC: How do you bring stillness into your life?
RH: Every morning I go for a long walk with my son (now sons) . I don’t take my phone. I don’t do anything but just walk and see the sun rise. Then I take that stillness back to our breakfast as a family and right into the writing I have to do for the day.
RC: What small things can we do to bring stillness into our lives?
RH: So many things: Take social off your phone. Turn off alerts. Wake up early. Get a good amount of sleep each night. Say no to crap you don’t want to do. Don’t watch CNN. Take walks. Go swimming. Read books!
RC: Do you use a notebook? If so, what purpose does it serve in your life?
RH: Um, yes of course. I just finished my morning with my Bullet Journal and with The Daily Stoic Journal. I also keep a “commonplace book” where I record quotes and ideas from all the books I read. It’s now made up of many thousands of notecards and it serves as the backbone to all the books I write. I strongly recommend starting one in some form or another…but not in Evernote. Doing it by hand is the whole point.
About the Author:
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying; The Obstacle Is the Way; Ego Is the Enemy; Conspiracy and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into over 30 languages and has appeared everywhere from the New York Times to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as multiplatinum musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.