Lessons From Ryan Holiday’s Book “Stillness is the Key”

Especially helpful during these uncertain times — and full of stories followed by practical advice you can utilize today.

Tim Denning
Apr 9, 2020 · 14 min read
Image Credit: mattlange.net

I started reading Ryan Holiday’s latest book “Stillness Is The Key” right before the world transitioned into temporary darkness caused by a pandemic.

It’s funny how the book that changes your life often comes to you, accidentally, at exactly the right time. Before you fall asleep, let me say this is not a book about meditation or one based solely on ancient stoic wisdom.

The secret to this book is stories — and not just any stories. You can tell after reading it that Ryan has painstakingly searched all over the internet and through endless books to curate the short list of stories he shares.

Many of these stories related to stillness are not ones you would have heard before. He doesn’t take the lazy approach and retell the same Abraham Lincoln stories everybody else has already shared, over and over.

The brilliance of this book is the highly-edited stories Ryan tells and the simple lessons he shares with the reader after each story. During uncertain times, this book is a must-read.

Stillness will help you master these five practices that are essential to dealing with the current state of the world:

  1. Cultivate quietness
  2. Suppress the turmoil inside
  3. Slow the mind down
  4. Understand your emotions
  5. Conquer your body

These are the key lessons you can take away from the book.

Take Up Voiceless Hobbies

In Ryan’s book, he references a man named Randall Stutman. Randall took the time to understand what high-profile leaders did in their spare time. Their activities included:

  • Listening to classical music
  • Riding bikes
  • Scuba diving
  • Fly fishing

What became abundantly clear was that all the activities that came up were absent of human voices. Without human voices, they could hear rivers, the wind, animal sounds and the sound of their own heartbeat. These sounds bring us back to the present and give us a different view of the world, and this helped these leaders a lot.

Time to think (or not think) was crucial to them performing at a high level in their daily lives. Maybe what you need is a voiceless hobby to find stillness again.

Embrace the Artist’s Way of Life

Artists truly see, according to Ryan.

As a writer, one of my mentors said to me “It’s the way you look at the world. You see things other people don’t see or ignore. You describe the world in your own way.”

If you want to experience the power of stillness, treat life as an artist and see the little parts everybody else misses.

With all the chaos, see the nice lady helping an elderly man with his shopping. With all the possessions taken away due to a recession, see the beauty of free escapes to parks and nature and how silly a chunk of metal with four wheels or a brick veneer box with a front door really is.

The Garden Holds Many Secrets to Stillness

‘In the tensest moments, Kennedy sought solitude in the White House Rose Garden (afterward, he would thank the gardener for her important contributions during the crisis).’ — Ryan Holiday

My friend, who lost his business recently after a 15-minute speech, spoke of the same secret to his stillness and calmness during a crisis.

Be the Least Informed Person in the Room

Your ego says you need to know everything and be up to date. But there is quiet bliss in having no clue what people are talking about.

There is awesomeness in having the old model, the out of date software release, or the understanding of the news that is five days old. Being overly informed means you never get to create anything. All you do is consume, and that makes stillness and peace harder to reach.

Creativity reconnects you to the incredible feeling of stillness.

Seeing a Person Fully in the Moment is Rare

Marina Abramovic created art by being still and allowing people to come to MoMA in New York and see it for themselves. She sat silently in a chair, completely still, for 750 hours over 79 days.

1545 lucky strangers got the opportunity to sit across from her during that time and experience stillness. Many described it as a religious experience because religion has been making use of stillness for years through pray, meditation and quiet reflection.

The experiment seemed silly until those lucky few people got to experience a person in complete stillness and saw what it could do to a person. You have the same opportunity as Marina.

Stillness Creates Those Flashes of Insight or Inspiration

Words can pour out of you and onto a blank page — that’s what stillness can create. This process has produced some of my most shared pieces of writing.

I’d be nothing without the inspiration and brilliance that comes from stillness. It starts with a dumbbell in the gym before a writing session and then is amplified through movie soundtracks and writing the very first sentence of a blog post.

If you can be still, you can learn to harness those flashes of inspiration and turn them into insights that help you do the best work of your life.

Be Like Marcus: “Is this necessary?”

Ancient stoicism is brilliant because it’s stupidly simple. Ryan Holiday is the master of finding ancient quotes and turning them into modern-day lessons we can use right now to get perspective.

“Is this necessary?” gets you closer to stillness. Getting all of the noise out of your life, and those activities which make other people happy gets you closer to stillness. You need less before you can reach a peaceful state of mind.

  • Do you need to watch that movie?
  • Do you need to sweat over a new career to make $10K more?
  • Does that new possession bring you happiness one year from now?
  • Do you need more things to do, or would it be better to find one passion?

Could you live in someone else’s house without any of your current stuff and survive?

These are questions that help you figure out what is necessary. In the limited list of necessary you will find stillness, and with it, increased fulfilment, focus and present moment awareness for what truly matters.

Image Credit: motherjones.com

Once You Abandon Thought, You Can Go Deeper

Having too many thoughts makes you lose your mind. You connect at a deeper level when you abandon thought for a while and become aware.

This is one of the reasons why when I write, my goal is to abandon thought. Many of the pieces of writing that have been most helpful started with no thought what so ever. There was no plan, format, or headline technique. I showed up to write with an empty mind.

A deeper state of consciousness brought the ideas to the surface that mattered the most and ended up on a blank page.

Show up to create without any thoughts, so you can be connected to something greater inside yourself, at a deeper level.

Develop Intellectual Humility

We hear about acting humble all the time. But what does it mean to be intellectually humble? This was a new phrase I hadn’t heard of before reading Ryan’s book.

Being intellectually humble is the art of questioning your own biases, experiences, beliefs and current level of learning. It’s the simple idea that you never know all there is to know about any topic. Your experience represents a tiny piece of knowledge in every area of your life. There is so much more to know and you will never know it all.

Be humble with the idea that you will always know a tiny amount in every area of your life despite how many hours you spend learning. That’s intellectual humility.

Disconnect Your Position in Society With Your Ego

This one I have spoken about a lot. Let’s say you have built up an audience online on a particular platform. If you attach your ego to that level of achievement represented by your social media stats, and it’s taken away, your ego is going to go down with it.

When I was banned from LinkedIn for life, I got a small window into what this reality looks like.

If your position online or in your family or at your workplace is compromised, and your ego is still attached, it’s going to hurt like hell. You can do without whatever progress you have made in any area of your life. You have to for your ego’s sake.

You will enter this world with no position and leave it the same way.

Confidence is the Absence of Opinion

A young writer emailed me today and asked me to edit their work. I told them that more opinions about their writing is not going to make it better.

Confidence in writing is hitting the publish button without the need to seek validation or opinion before doing so.

Rather than ask for endless opinions, back yourself. You got this. Give yourself permission to make your vision come true.

Peace Equals Productivity

If you focus too hard on the outcome, you miss respecting the process. If productivity is measured in outcomes, then don’t get romantic about how far you’ve come.

  • Practice the process.
  • Become the process.
  • Be obsessed with the process.

Because the process makes you productive. The process gives you the fulfilment you need to drive forward and achieve the extraordinary. And when you focus on the process, you become at peace because it’s the one factor you can control. You decide whether to show up every day.

You’ll be incredibly productive when you develop a love for the process and feel the peace that comes with it.

Photo by Colton Duke on Unsplash

“What Would I Rather Die for Than Betray?”

This is a question Ryan asks. It’s a brilliant one.

Ryan says that stillness comes from being in alignment with the high moral standards that we create for ourselves.

Your morals are a compass towards which direction to head when you face uncertain times or a significant problem you didn’t expect. That kind of inner map creates calmness.

Become a Parent to Your Many Surrogate Children

To avoid the deep anguish we carry with us, Ryan recommends being a mentor. Mentors act like parents. They teach their surrogate children lessons and give what they didn’t have as a child. Their aim is always to give more.

Lust Destroys Peace

You can’t experience peace if you continually give in to your cravings. Ryan says the worst form of lust is envy. Wanting what other people have in this social media bragging culture we live in will rot you from the inside.

Nobody has to lose for you to win. Nobody has to lose for you to experience peace — quite the opposite.

The Consequences of Your Desires Help Take Away Their Power

If your desires are robbing you of stillness, a simple trick I learned from the book was to sit down and dissect the desire.

When you think about what will happen when you give in to the desire, you’re less likely to give in to your impulses. You might want to have a rowdy night on the town, but if you sit there in stillness, is that really what you want?

By giving in to your desire and spending Friday night at the bar, how will you wake up on Saturday and spend time on your hobbies and passions that bring you so much fulfilment? Can you be fully present doing something you love when you’re tired and have a throbbing hangover?

Unlikely. That desire now has much less power than before as a result of pulling it apart.

The Knowledge That You Have Enough

Already having enough brings about incredible peace. It takes away the need to work your butt off in a business, or take on a career to prove someone wrong. Always ‘wanting’ is exhausting.

In this goal obsessed society, what would happen if you already had enough? How would that change where you allocate your time?

In my life, knowing I have enough has given me the permission to write for the hell of it. Having enough has given me the time to write. It’s removed the boulders of other people’s goals from my path so that I can do what matters to me: inspire people through writing.

Endless wants separate you from the attainment of peace. Choose to have enough.

Step Outside Yourself Through Ecstasis

‘Ecstasis’ means to step outside yourself. Another way of explaining ecstasis is a phrase you’ve heard before: “flow states.”

When you are in flow, hours pass and it feels like only minutes have gone by. In flow states, you are at peace and able to tap into your creativity and the power of stillness and incredible levels of concentration.

Ideas link themselves together for you. Words flow out of you. Ideas are abundant. Life is beautiful. At the end of a state of flow, there is peace, followed by stillness. It’s a heavenly experience, according to Ryan.

Faith and Belief Lead to the Achievement of Stillness and Inner Peace

A key idea from the book is that the greats many of us respect, like Marcus Aurelius, all seem to believe in a higher power. They have no evidence of a higher power but the very belief in one is what counts.

If you believe there is something special about yourself, you’ll act on that belief. You will act as if you are special rather than waiting to be told you’re special or being given permission by a company, person or award ceremony that supposedly validates the idea.

Faith in a higher power is having faith in yourself and your imaginary superpowers — that become real when you believe in them.

Every day you are defying gravity, says Ryan, so you’re already battling some higher power that can’t be explained and winning. Go you.

A Pure Self-Driven Focus is an Empty Ease

Those who are selfish and reject the notion of family, children, or the company of work colleagues, miss one important detail: isolation is an empty ease, not peace or stillness.

If all you do is focus on yourself and your selfish objectives, you will produce silence as a result, but something is always going to feel like it’s missing. It’s how you fit into humanity that brings about stillness.

To Understand People is to Forgive All

Imagine if you forgave every person who ever wronged you. It’s an idea I have been thinking about a lot since reading Stillness is the Key.

It’s hard to be at peace when you are racking up petty debts in your head and expecting them to be paid by people who supposedly wronged you. Many of them don’t even know they wronged you in the first place.

Choose forgiveness no matter the situation and you’ll feel an overwhelming sense of peace.

In my life, I had to forgive:

  1. Bad bosses
  2. A brother
  3. Ex-partners
  4. Former friends
  5. Work colleagues
  6. Social media trolls

By looking past what they did and seeing a bit of myself in their actions, I was able to experience this level of stillness that Ryan talks about all the way through his book.

To choose to forgive is to be at peace. To forgive is to understand the world. And when you understand, you feel at peace as a result.

Find the Universal in the Personal, and the Personal in the Universal

This lesson from the book was an eye-opener. It’s the sort of idea you need to repeat a few times and think about.

Inside your personal situation, is an attachment to something universal. When you see humanity in your personal situation, you feel connected. That level of connectedness makes human-centered pursuits like business, relationships and hobbies take on a whole new meaning.

When You Experience Peace, You Are Motivated to be Good

Experiencing peace for yourself motivates you to treat people well. The crazy thing is when you treat people well, you realize that you treat yourself the same way.

Don’t Trade Your Peace Away

When a request of your time is made, what is really being asked of you is to give away a little piece of your life. And if you think carefully about the ask, you’ll probably see it’s not worth trading your peace for.

Having time for stillness is highly underrated. Having time to use how you wish is peaceful bliss. Is the ask really worth your peace? If it is, then go for it. If not, say no. “No” can be a peace-enabler during times of overwhelm.

Walking is a Peaceful Habit

Reading about walking never made sense to me. I’m not a roman emperor ruling over huge numbers of people while wearing sandals and eating grapes.

Walking has only started to make sense to me since enduring these uncertain times caused by a pandemic. Now, a walk around the neighbourhood is an escape from the loneliness and repetitiveness of isolation. Without walking, I’d have gone crazy.

The habits that produce peace are often overlooked. Telling someone to walk it off might seem stupid or generic. When you try it, you realize that walking allows you to dump the thoughts you can’t get out of your head.

While you walk, for added effect, listen to the sounds your shoes make against the gravel, or the loose stones, or the concrete. It helps take your mind of whatever situation you’re battling today.

Freedom Can Be a Nightmare

Last year I had six months off to do whatever I wanted. People preach the beauty of having endless amounts of time as a result of some mirage known as the laptop lifestyle.

When you have some level of success or have the luxury to take extended time off, you realize too much freedom can actually be an inhibitor.

Having freedom is a test of your discipline to use your time well.

I failed that test when I had too much time on my hands. I wasn’t ready for freedom and many people find the same problem when they too are given it, often unexpectedly.

Good habits and a routine are just what you need to unlock your potential — not endless freedom where you will likely self-destruct and give in to all your deadly desires.

Repetition allows the mind to relax.

The Best Car is the One You Have to Worry About the Least

Ryan wrote extensively in his book about possessions and how to think about them. This nugget of wisdom on selecting a car really helped.

I have owned a few fancy possessions in my life and one problem has always come with the obsession: the fear of losing it or having it damaged. When you have that really nice car, you’re worried about protecting it which is why you buy insurance. Imagine driving a car where you don’t care what happens to it and its easily replaceable. Now that is peace.

According to Ryan, having a family you never see so you can pay off those extra two bedrooms you never use is an odd choice many people make. Your possessions could be robbing you of your peace unconsciously.

When selecting what possessions to buy, choose peace as the defining feature.

Step Away From Your Work to Pursue Purposeless Activities

Leisure activities often have no purpose. Their usefulness lies in allowing you to step away from your work and be at peace with doing something which has no specific outcome.

If you chase purpose in everything you do, you’ll burn out. There is great purpose in doing mindless activities like doing the dishes, chopping firewood, and the type of fishing where you don’t catch a thing. These are moments of leisure to reward you.

Leisure’s purpose is to push your mind’s reset button — nothing else.

The Takeaway

These are the lessons you can take away from Ryan Holiday’s book “Stillness Is The Key.” It’s the kind of book that puts everything in perspective.

During these crazy times, what you need is stillness and now you have a long list of strategies and ideas to explore, to help you get there. If it weren’t for Ryan’s book, I’m not sure I’d be so calm about the current state of the world.

Stillness is a way to superior performance. Stillness is the key when the world is facing a transition from light to dark and back again.

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Tim Denning

Written by

Aussie Blogger with 100M+ views — Writer for CNBC & Business Insider. Inspiring the world through Personal Development and Entrepreneurship — timdenning.com/wc

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Tim Denning

Written by

Aussie Blogger with 100M+ views — Writer for CNBC & Business Insider. Inspiring the world through Personal Development and Entrepreneurship — timdenning.com/wc

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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