Stillness Is The Key

By Aaron Ayers

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I am a fan of Ryan Holiday’s work.  I read everything he writes regardless of the subject.  Despite that fact, I will admit I was skeptical about this book.  I wasn’t sure how well it would complement Obstacle and Ego, two books of his I’ve read on numerous occasions.  While this book is slightly different from Obstacle and Ego in that there is more of an Eastern theme, Ryan holds true to his formula of using anecdotes to demonstrate principles of the Stoics and Eastern philosophy.  I recommend it as worthy to be considered with his other works. 

One thing that American culture has placed value on his busyness.  Western culture values accomplishment and in doing so, busyness.  Everyone talks about how busy they are as a badge of honor.  This book challenges the premium Western culture places on this.  As the level of the world increases in complexity, there is a downside to frenetic schedules we commit to- we don’t allow ourselves the time necessary to think.  “If I was to sum up the single biggest problem of senior leadership in the Information Age, it’s a general lack of reflection.  Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting.  We need solitude to refocus on prospective decision-making, rather than just reacting to problems as they arise (p. 215).”  It wasn’t an academic that provided that quote; it was General (retired) James Mattis.  As I reflect upon that quote, I can’t help but ask myself- How often do I  get caught up in busyness and does it distract me from my priorities?  As we find ourselves in this crisis, one way to leverage this downtime for self-reflection is to ask yourself- How could I take advantage of the current situation to help me better prioritize?

Ryan provides some illuminating stories that illustrate how leaders took time to cultivate stillness amidst the chaos of their life.  He tells the story of President Kennedy taking time to center himself during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  He tells about the stillness President Lincoln sought which helped him personally determine the strategy (both military and political) necessary to prevail during the Civil War.  He talks about Winston Churchill and how he utilized his hobbies such as painting to recharge himself for the arduous effort leading during WWII.

In order to provide both sides of the story, Ryan also provides examples of people whose lack of stillness resulted in falling prey to their ego- Tiger Woods and Dov Charney.  Despite achieving an unprecedented level of professional success, Tiger’s personal life was a mess.  He had deep insecurities from his childhood that he never acknowledged and perpetuated which ultimately, led to his downfall.  He was unable to replicate the control and stillness he displayed on the golf course in his personal life. 

Ryan once again recounts the story of Dov Charney and American Apparel which is a personal one for him.  Dov Charney was the CEO of American Apparal and Ryan’s former mentor when Ryan was the Chief Marketing Officer as it ascended, and then left prior to it being run into the ground.  As I’ve read Obstacle, Ego and Stillness, I can’t help but wonder if Ryan is using these books to make sense of his own personal experience at American Apparel.

I highly recommend this book.  I believe it is some of Ryan’s best work.  He wrestles with some uncomfortable subjects.  If you are willing to wrestle with them yourself, you might find some of the stillness Ryan writes about.

Thought provoking quotes:

“You can’t do your best if your mind is elsewhere.” (p.28)

“it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.”  (p. 163) As quoted from the fox to the little boy in The Little Prince

“It is difficult to understand yourself if you are never by yourself.” (p. 215)

“When we embrace our strong emotions with mindfulness and concentration, we’ll be able to see the roots of these mental formations.”- Thich Nhat Hanh (p. 110)

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” – Blaise Pascal (p.2)

“They (the philosophers) developed unique paths to the same critical destination: The stillness required to become master of one’s own life.  To survive and thrive in any and every environment.” (p. 2)

“Stillness is what aims the archer’s arrow.  It sharpens perspective and illuminates connections.  Stillness allows us to persevere.  To succeed.  It is the key that unlocks the insights of genius, and allows us regular folks to understand them.” (p. 2)

“It is in the stillness that we can be present and finally see truth.  It is in this stillness that we can hear the voice inside us.” (p. 36)

“The world is like muddy water.  To see through it, we have to let things settle.” (p.47)

“There are going to be setbacks in life.  If you’re miserable every time things are not going your way, if you cannot enjoy it when things are going your way because you undermine it with doubts and insecurity, life will be hell.” (p. 73)

“And as any seasoned captain of the seas of life can tell you, what’s happening on the surface of the water doesn’t matter- it’s what’s going on below that will kill you.” (p. 87)

“Only those of us who take the time to explore, to question, to extrapolate the consequences of our desire have an opportunity to overcome them to stop regrets before they start.”  (p. 118)

“Finding the universal in the personal, and the personal in the universal, is not only the secret to art and leadership and even entrepreneurship it is the secret to centering oneself.” (p. 161)

Fifteen words or less takeaway– Mastery begins with the self.  Self-mastery requires stillness which allows one to see below the surface.

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