Review of Ryan Holidays book that ‘teaches us all how to maintain our focus and presence of mind amid the sometimes overwhelming conflicts and troubles of twenty-first century life’, according to Robert Greene.

I got this book sometime in the end of September 2020, and read it from late november to early January. I read Drive just before, and Miracle Morning after. You can find more books I have read and reviewed here.


Content

It is a book about stillness, as the title suggests. It has many names, but has been remarked to be very important by many people across history. Only a fool would ignore something like this.

Part One: Mind

  • as long as you can reach peace within, the whole world could be at war and you could still think, work, and be well.
  • The modern world is not quiet. Stillness allows for focus, preserverenece and success
  • Everyone depends on leaders having a calm mind. Good news: it can be learned

  • being present might be the hardest thing in the modern world
  • usually, we try to desperately get out of the moment
  • you can only do your best when being present, with body and mind

  • Limit your inputs
  • there is a lot of opportunity cost lost in trying to stay up-to-date

  • empty your mind, don’t overanalyze everything

  • slow down to see beyond misleading first impressions

  • journaling is a great way to slow your mind down. It’s a way to ask tough questions, and an environment to think them through
  • there’s some journaling prompts on page 55

  • cultivate silence: many high-stakes professionals use silent activities to recharge their energy

  • In every school of wisdom-thought appear the needs to:
    • ask questions
    • study and reflect
    • intellectual humility
    • power of experience (especially failure and mistakes)
    • open eyes for truth and understanding
  • seek book recommendations from people who achieve what you aspire to

  • find confidence in experience (competence), and knowledge about yourself and your limits
  • people aren’t thinking about you, they have their own problems to worry about

  • stillness necessitates being detached from the outcome (which one it will be: success/failure)

Part Two: Spirit

  • Sources of stillness and elements of a balanced life:
    • an open heart
    • being true to oneself
    • meaningful relationships
    • selflessness
    • moderation
    • a sense of right and wrong
    • it needs to be about more than yourself
  • those who seek stillness must come to:
    • develop a strong moral compass
    • steer clear of envy and jelousy and harmful desires
    • come to terms with the painful woulnds of their childhood
    • practice gratitude and appreciation for the world around them
    • cultivate relationships and love in their life
    • place belief and control in the hands of something larger than themselves
    • understand that there will never be “enough” and that the unchecked pursuit of more ends only in bankruptcy
  • choose virtue: it is the highest good and should be the basis for all of your decisions
  • examine yourself: what do you stand for?

  • heal the wounded inner child inside you, it needs to be healed soothed, recognized and embraced

  • consider the effects of desire, and be aware of them. Be able to resist them, if necessary

  • be mindful of how much is enough

  • bathe yourself in beauty: it remains even in misfortune
    • generally speaking, just enjoy the little things to sustain you
    • forest bathing
    • accept it as something clearly more than you
  • accept a higher power
    • it’s not about accepting a god, but that large parts of the world are out of your control, e.g. the chaotic forces of nature
    • suffering without meaning and purpose is not bearable
    • don’t do it for the evidence, but the power and calmness it brings you
  • enter relationships
    • human interaction is vital for success
    • Stillness requires other people to depend on you
  • conquer your anger
    • have some form of mastery or idealism as your goal instead
  • all is one
    • as can be seen from space, we are all part of one world
    • too often we forget, and we forget ourselves in the process

Part Three: Body

  • Domain of the body
    • winston churchills’ secret: conservation of energy, so that he never shirked a task or backed down from a challenge
    • aim high
    • never allow mistakes or criticism to get you down
    • waste no energy on grudges, duplicity, or infighting
    • make room for joy
    • sometimes, everything just breaks down: love the discipline you know and let it support you
    • even if you don’t your body will keep score about what you do and request its due relaxation eventually
  • Say no
    • when you know what to say no to, you can say yes to the things that matter
    • have something that matters enough to say yes to, to say no to everything else
  • take a walk
    • walking is an exercise in peace, and many great minds got inspiration doing it
  • build a routine
    • freedom is opportunity for self-discipline -> freedom through discipline
    • something done regularly with sincerity and feeling becomes a sacred, essential routine
    • The purpose of ritual is to settle our bodies and minds down, starting in control
      • choices are bad
      • limit interruptions
      • limit uncertainty
  • get rid of your stuff
    • The petty man is servant to things - social media, computer, money, other materialistic stuff
      • don’t let things in the material world own you
    • more money and stuff tends to bring more problems as well
    • be aware of ‘comfort creep’: getting used to a certain level of convenience and luxury -> the mind becomes toxic and scary (ego!)
  • seek solitude
    • it’s difficult to understand yourself if you’re never by yourself
    • biggest problem in information age: lack of reflection
    • but: solitude without purpose is a killer of creativity, but most lack solitude, not purpose
  • be a human being
    • you need a balance, don’t overwork yourself
    • to make good decisions consistently, you cannot be stressed too much
  • go to sleep
    • working harder is rarely possible or actually the solution
    • Working smarter always is
    • You can’t perform at your best, without having slept enough
    • Sleep is a time of stillness
  • find a hobby
    • greek: ‘leisure’ is rendered as ‘schole’ - freedom from the need to survive for intellectual or creative pursuit
    • have something you can do purely for yourself
    • To do leisure well, without letting become a job, is hard
  • beware escapism
    • despair and restlessness go together, but you can’t flee from despair
    • instead of escaping, turn inside, to stillness. It might actually improve the situation.
  • act bravely
    • according to your morals / spiritual ideals, in moments of truth
    • do kindness when you can

Review

I am quite glad to have read the book. I was looking for some insight into stillness. stillness didn’t fail me, it is I who failed stillness.

Recommended for everyone anxious or striving for inner calm.

  • Glad I read it?
  • Short verdict

Main Takeaways

Reminders

It did serve as a good reminder that stillness takes a continuous and active effort to achieve. It does list a number of things, which I know are good for me, but I currently neglect. Hobbies are one such thing, but I don’t think that will change before I’m vaccinated.

Still. All of these are very good reminders about the core of living a fulfilled life in the present. Usually, worry and stress will take over.

A new way of Reading

I figured out something else, but it isn’t directly related to the book itself. It’s more about how I’m reading books.

Chronological (front-to-back) might not be the best way. In this case, reading chapters I’m interested in and skipping others I’m not interested in would have probably kept my motivation higher and I wouldn’t have ‘skipped’ reading so often. Even a few books later, I haven’t tried this yet - but I will, should a similarly disconnected book come across next time. The Personal MBA would have been a good candidate for this as well.

Criticism

Sometimes when reading a book, I get an aversion to continue reading it for a bit. So instead of reading this book, I read some other book, or not read at all. This happened with Ego is the Enemy, and I hoped to not experience something similar. In Ego is the Enemy, I assumed it was because the content was uncomfortable for me, as I was struggling with my own ego a bit.

Something similar happened when reading Stillness is the Key. At this point, I assume it is because of how Ryan Holiday structures his books: Many small stories and concepts, loosely tied together. The mistake is probably trying to read it as a book, from front to back - there is rarely chronological dependency after all.

He focuses a lot on stillness and other behaviours being held high by numerous noteworthy historical figures, and not so much on the underlying principles why or when this would not work. Scientific references are rare, historic ones all over the place. It is still a great book, and I believe most claims are correct, but I would have preferred more references to scientific backing - at least where they exist.

  • Clearly structured?
  • Good Examples?
  • Clear Explanations?
  • Concise reasons why?
  • Is the advice actionable?
  • Book is easily skimmable?
  • Misc, specific to book
  • Whom would I recommend reading this book?

Favourite Quotes

Love is only real if it’s happening right now. (page 27)

“If you wish to improve”, Epicectus once said, “be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneuos matters.” (page 31)

Whatever you face, whatever you’re doing will require, first and foremost, that you don’t defeat yourself. (page 43)

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

People who don’t read have no advantage over those who cannot read. (page 65)

Both egoistical and insecure people make their flaws central to their identity - either by covering them up or by brooding over them or externalizing them. (page 73)

We cannot be in harmony with anyone or anything if the need for more, more, more is gnawing at our insides like a maggot. (page 94)

Life is meaningless to the person who decides their choices have no meaning. (page 99)

The leaders we truly respect, who stand head and shoulders above the rest, have been motivated by more than anger or hate. (page 153)

The less we are convinced of our exceptionalism, the greater ability we have to understand and contribute to our environment […]. (page 162)

Life is hard. Fortune is fickle. We can’t afford to be weak. We can’t afford to be fragile. (page 165)

Epicurus once said that the wise will accomplish three things in their life: leave written works behind them, be financially prudent und provide for the future, and cherish country living. That is to say, we will be reflective, we will be responsible and moderate, and we will find the time to relax in nature. (page 183)

You don’t solve a maze by rushing through. You have to stop and think. (page 188)

You were born free - free of stuff, free of burdon. (page 212)

If solitude is the school of genius, as the historian Edward Gibbon put it, then the crowded, busy world is the purgatory of the idiot. (page 215)

If you see fraud, and do not say fraud, the philosopher Nassim Taleb has said, you are fraud. Worse, you will feel like a fraud. (page 252)

Do kindness where you can. Because you’ll have to find a way to live with yourself if you don’t. (page 252)