Stillness is the Key – by Ryan Holiday
ISBN: 0525538585 READ: October 2020
Another book by Ryan Holiday that absolutely nails the punchline. I have been studying conciousness recently and this was the perfect next step in my learning. While other literature I have read on the subject is somewhat esoteric, this nails home all the points with concrete examples from leaders in the conciousness space in standard Holiday format. The best part is the actionable items that are written for the 21st century; based on research from the best thought leaders throughout history.
I didn’t take my own notes on this book. See below for wonderful notes from James Stuber
The following are rough notes I took while reading. These are mostly paraphrased or quoted directly from the book.
“You may be sure that you are at peace with yourself,” Seneca wrote, “when no noise reaches you, when no word shakes you out of yourself, whether it be flattery or a threat, or merely an empty sound buzzing about you with unmeaning sin.”
In this state, nothing could touch them, no emotion could disturb them, no threat could interrupt them, and every beat of the present moment would be theirs for living.
Nearly every other philosophy of the ancient world came to the exact same conclusion. The Buddhist word for it was upekkha. The Muslims spoke of aslama. The Hebrews, hishtavut. The second book of the Bhagavad Gita, the epic poem of the warrior Arjuna, speaks of samatvam, an “evenness of mind—a peace that is ever the same.” The Greeks, euthymia and hesychia. The Epicureans, ataraxia. The Christians, aequanimitas. In English: stillness.
The promise of this book is the location of that key..and a call not only for possessing stillness, but for radiating it outward like a star—like the sun—for a world that needs light more than ever.
You have tasted stillness before. You have felt it in your soul. And you want more of it. You need more of it.
While we may naturally possess stillness, accessing it is not easy. And answering the call requires stamina and mastery.
To achieve stillness, we’ll need to focus on three domains, the timeless trinity of mind, body, soul—the head, the heart, the flesh.
Part 1: Mind
Our job is not to “go with our gut” or fixate on the first impression we form about an issue. No, we need to be strong enough to resist thinking that is too neat, too plausible, and therefore almost always wrong.
Never corner an opponent, and always assist him to save face. Put yourself in his shoes—so as to see things through his eyes.
An emotional, reactive response—an unthinking, half-baked response—will not cut it. Not if we want to get it right. Not if we want to perform at our best.
In these situations we must: Be fully present. Empty our mind of preconceptions. Take our time. Sit quietly and reflect. Reject distraction. Weigh advice against the counsel of our convictions. Deliberate without being paralyzed.
Limit Your Inputs
“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” – Herbert Simon
As a general, Napoleon made it his habit to delay responding to the mail. His secretary was instructed to wait three weeks before opening any correspondence.
he told messengers never to wake him with good news.
The CNN Effect is now a problem for everyone, not just presidents and generals.
There is ego in trying to appear the most informed person in the room, the one with all the gossip, who knows every single thing that’s happening in everyone’s life.
Not only does this cost us our peace of mind, but there’s a serious opportunity cost too. If we were stiller, more confident, had the longer view, what truly meaningful subject could we dedicate our mental energy to?
The point is, it’s very difficult to think or act clearly (to say nothing of being happy) when we are drowning in information. It’s why lawyers attempt to bury the other side in paper. It’s why intelligence operatives flood the enemy with propaganda, so they’ll lose the scent of the truth.
Much that was happening in the world or on the job, Eisenhower found, was urgent but not important. Meanwhile, most of what was truly important was not remotely time-sensitive.
The first thing great chiefs of staff do is limit the amount of people who have access to the boss.
Knowing what not to think about. What to ignore and not to do. It’s your first and most important job.
“Before we can make deep changes in our lives, we have to look into our diet, our way of consuming. We have to live in such a way that we stop consuming the things that poison us and intoxicate us. Then we will have the strength to allow the best in us to arise, and we will no longer be victims of anger, of frustration.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
The way you feel when you awake early in the morning and your mind is fresh and as yet unsoiled by the noise of the outside world—that’s space worth protecting. So too is the zone you lock into when you’re really working well. Don’t let intrusions bounce you out of it. Put up barriers.
We are afraid of the silence. We are afraid of looking stupid. We are afraid of missing out. We are afraid of being the bad guy who says, “Nope, not interested.” We’d rather make ourselves miserable than make ourselves a priority.
Empty The Mind
“To become empty is to become one with the divine—this is the Way.” – Awa Kenzo
“‘Childlikeness’ has to be restored with long years of training in the art of self-forgetfulness. When this is attained, man thinks yet he does not think.”
Just like the overactive voice in a slump, the voice in a streak is an equally deleterious racing mental loop. Both get in the way. Both make a hard thing harder.
Yes, thinking is essential. Expert knowledge is undoubtedly key to the success of any leader or athlete or artist. The problem is that, unthinkingly, we think too much.
Whatever you face, whatever you’re doing will require, first and foremost, that you don’t defeat yourself. That you don’t make it harder by overthinking, by needless doubts, or by second-guessing.
You don’t just have to control what gets in, you also have to control what goes on in there. You have to protect it from yourself, from your own thoughts. Not with sheer force, but rather with a kind of gentle, persistent sweeping.
Read my notes on The Inner Game of Tennis (yes, it’s related)
Slow Down, Think Deeply
There is, on the surface, a contradiction here. On the one hand, the Buddhists say we must empty our minds to be fully present. We’ll never get anything done if we are paralyzed by overthinking. On the other hand, we must look and think and study deeply if we are ever to truly know
We have to get better at thinking, deliberately and intentionally, about the big questions. On the complicated things. On understanding what’s really going on with a person, or a situation, or with life itself. We have to do the kind of thinking that 99 percent of the population is just not doing, and we have to stop doing the destructive thinking that they spend 99 percent of their time doing.
Zen master Hakuin was highly critical of teachers who believed that enlightenment was simply a matter of thinking nothing. Instead, he wanted his students to think really, really hard. This is why he assigned them perplexing kōans
The choreographer Twyla Tharp provides an exercise for us to follow:
- Sit alone in a room and let your thoughts go wherever they will. Do this for one minute.
- Work up to ten minutes a day of this mindless mental wandering.
- Then start paying attention to your thoughts to see if a word or goal materializes. If it doesn’t, extend the exercise to eleven minutes, then twelve, then thirteen
- find the length of time you need to ensure that something interesting will come to mind.
“Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain.” – Jack London
This is what the best journals look like. They aren’t for the reader. They are for the writer. To slow the mind down. To wage peace with oneself.
What’s the best way to start journaling? Is there an ideal time of day? How long should it take? Who cares?
It’s spiritual windshield wipers, as the writer Julia Cameron once put it.
John Cage’s 4’33”: The performance instructions for the song are themselves a beautiful contradiction: “In a situation provided with maximum amplification, perform a disciplined action.” In fact, 4′33″ was never about achieving perfect silence—it’s about what happens when you stop contributing to the noise.
How [did] several hundred senior executives of major corporations recharged in their downtime? The answers were things like sailing, long-distance cycling, listening quietly to classical music, scuba diving, riding motorcycles, and fly-fishing. All these activities had an absence of voices.
If Zeno and Buddha needed teachers to advance, then we will definitely need help.
Wrestle with big questions. Wrestle with big ideas. Treat your brain like the muscle that it is. Get stronger through resistance and exposure and training.
Wisdom does not immediately produce stillness or clarity. Quite the contrary. It might even make things less clear—make them darker before the dawn.
Find Confidence, Avoid Ego
Confidence is the freedom to set your own standards and unshackle yourself from the need to prove yourself. A confident person doesn’t fear disagreement and doesn’t see change—swapping an incorrect opinion for a correct one—as an admission of inferiority.
But confident people are open, reflective, and able to see themselves without blinders. All this makes room for stillness, by removing unnecessary conflict and uncertainty and resentment.
There are going to be setbacks in life. Even a master or a genius will experience a period of inadequacy when they attempt to learn new skills or explore new domains. Confidence is what determines whether this will be a source of anguish or an enjoyable challenge.
This is key. Both egotistical and insecure people make their flaws central to their identity—either by covering them up or by brooding over them or externalizing them. For them stillness is impossible, because stillness can only be rooted in strength. That’s what we have to focus on. Don’t feed insecurity. Don’t feed delusions of grandeur. Both are obstacles to stillness.
He preferred instead to teach his students an important mental skill: detachment. “What stands in your way,” Kenzo once told his student Eugen Herrigel, “is that you have too much willful will.” It was this willful will—the desire to be in control and to dictate the schedule and the process of everything we’re a part of—that held Herrigel back from learning, from really mastering the art he pursued.
He wanted them to detach even from the idea of an outcome. “The hits on the target,” he would say, “are only the outward proof and confirmation of your purposelessness at its highest, of your egolessness, your self-abandonment, or whatever you like to call this state.”
after a bull’s-eye, Kenzo would urge them to “go on practicing as if nothing happened.”
If we aim too intensely for the target—as Kenzo warned his students—we will neglect the process and the art required to hit it. What we should be doing is practicing. What we should be doing is pushing away that willful will.
“People don’t understand that the hardest thing is actually doing something that is close to nothing,” Abramović said about the performance. “It demands all of you . . . there is no object to hide behind. It’s just you.” Being present demands all of us. It’s not nothing. It may be the hardest thing in the world.
How much ordinary wonderfulness they closed their minds to.
We do not live in this moment. We, in fact, try desperately to get out of it—by thinking, doing, talking, worrying, remembering, hoping, whatever. We pay thousands of dollars to have a device in our pocket to ensure that we are never bored. We sign up for endless activities and obligations, chase money and accomplishments, all with the naïve belief that at the end of it will be happiness.
Tolstoy observed that love can’t exist off in the future. Love is only real if it’s happening right now. If you think about it, that’s true for basically everything we think, feel, or do.
Don’t reject a difficult or boring moment because it is not exactly what you want. Don’t waste a beautiful moment because you are insecure or shy. Make what you can of what you have been given. Live what can be lived. That’s what excellence is. That’s what presence makes possible.
Part 2: Soul
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.
Tiger Woods could stare down opponents and unimaginable pressure, persevere through the countless obstacles in his career. He just couldn’t do the same for his own spiritual demons.
His mind was strong but his soul ached.
Everybody’s got a hungry heart—that’s true. But how we choose to feed that heart matters. It’s what determines the kind of person we end up being.
Tiger Woods was mentally tough. He was cold-blooded and talented. But in every other part of his life, he was weak and fragile—bankrupt and unbalanced. That stillness existed only on the golf course; everywhere else he was at the mercy of his passions and urges.
We are incapable of seeing what is essential in the world if we are blind to what’s going on within us.
We don’t need to judge Tiger Woods. We need to learn from him, from both his fall and his long and valiant journey back to winning the Masters in 2019 at forty-three years old with a fused back
Understand that there will never be “enough” and that the unchecked pursuit of more ends only in bankruptcy.
Virtue, the Stoics believed, was the highest good. Virtue is not holiness, but rather moral and civic excellence in the course of daily life.
No one is more exhausted than the person who, because they lack a moral code, must belabor every decision and consider every temptation.
Life is meaningless to the person who decides their choices have no meaning.
each of us needs to sit down and examine ourselves. What do we stand for? What do we believe to be essential and important? What are we really living for?
Confucius said that virtue is a kind of polestar. It not only provides guidance to the navigator, but it attracts fellow travelers too.
Heal the Inner Child
Many of us carry wounds from our childhood.
This should be a relief: The source of our anxiety and worry, the frustrations that seem to suddenly pop out in inappropriate situations, the reason we have trouble staying in relationships or ignoring criticism—it isn’t us. Well, it is us, just not adult us. It’s the seven-year-old living inside us.
The insecure lens. The anxious lens. The persecuted lens. The prove-them-all-wrong lens. The will-you-be-my-father? lens that Leonardo had. These adaptations, developed early on to make sense of the world, don’t make our lives easier.
As Thich Nhat Hanh has written: After recognizing and embracing our inner child, the third function of mindfulness is to soothe and relieve our difficult emotions. Just by holding this child gently, we are soothing our difficult emotions and we can begin to feel at ease. When we embrace our strong emotions with mindfulness and concentration, we’ll be able to see the roots of these mental formations. We’ll know where our suffering has come from. When we see the roots of things, our suffering will lessen. So mindfulness recognizes, embraces, and relieves.
Take the time to think about the pain you carry from your early experiences. Think about the “age” of the emotional reactions you have when you are hurt or betrayed or unexpectedly challenged in some way. That’s your inner child. They need a hug from you. They need you to say, “Hey, buddy. It’s okay. I know you’re hurt, but I am going to take care of you.”
Give more. Give what you didn’t get. Love more. Drop the old story.
How many great men and women end up losing everything—end up, in some cases, literally behind bars—because they freely chose to indulge their endless appetites, whatever they happened to be?
“Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.” – Joseph Epstein
if you had to trade places entirely with the person you envy, if you had to give up your brain, your principles, your proudest accomplishments to live in their life, would you do it?
What will happen to me if I get what I want? How will I feel after?
Think about the times when you feel best. It’s not when you are pining away. It’s not when you get what you pined for either. There is always a tinge of disappointment or loss at the moment of acquisition.
To have an impulse and to resist it, to sit with it and examine it, to let it pass by like a bad smell—this is how we develop spiritual strength.
In truth, enough is a beautiful thing.
Solving your problem of poverty is an achievable goal and can be fixed by earning and saving money. No one could seriously claim otherwise. The issue is when we think these activities can address spiritual poverty.
You will never feel okay by way of external accomplishments. Enough comes from the inside.
No one does their best work driven by anxiety, and no one should be breeding insecurity in themselves so that they might keep making things. That is not industry, that is slavery.
It’s perfectly possible to do and make good work from a good place. You can be healthy and still and successful.
Bathe In Beauty
The philosopher must cultivate the poet’s eye—the ability to see beauty everywhere, even in the banal or the terrible.
Shinrin yoku—forest bathing—which is a form of therapy that uses nature as a treatment for mental and spiritual issues.
Professor John Stilgoe has simple advice: Get out now. Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around. Do not jog. Do not run. Instead pay attention to everything that abuts the rural road, the city street, the suburban boulevard. Walk. Stroll. Saunter. Ride a bike and coast along a lot. Explore.
Accept a Higher Power
“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself.” – Arthur Conan Doyle
[In 12 step addiction recovery programs,] the step that many addicts—particularly the ones who fancy themselves thinkers—struggle with intensely is the acknowledgment of the existence of a higher power.
Acknowledging a higher power is difficult because submitting to anything other than their own desires is anathema to what one addict describes as the “pathological self-centeredness” of addiction.
“I don’t believe in God” is the most common objection to Step 2. Step 2 isn’t really about God. It’s about surrender. It’s about faith.
While addiction is undoubtedly a biological disease, it is also, in a more practical sense, a process of becoming obsessed with one’s own self and the primacy of one’s urges and thoughts. Therefore, admitting that there is something bigger than you out there is an important breakthrough. It means an addict finally understands that they are not God, that they are not in control, and really never have been.
If we told a Zen Buddhist from Japan in the twelfth century that in the future everyone could count on greater wealth and longer lives but that in most cases those gifts would be followed by a feeling of utter purposelessness and dissatisfaction, do you think they would want to trade places with us?
Realism is important. Pragmatism and scientism and skepticism are too. They all have their place. But still, you have to believe in something. You just have to. Or else everything is empty and cold.
Nihilism is a fragile strategy.
It’s always the nihilists who seem to go crazy or kill themselves when life gets hard. Why is that? Because the nihilist is forced to wrestle with the immense complexity and difficulty and potential emptiness of life (and death) with nothing but their own mind. This is a comically unfair mismatch.
As subjects to the laws of gravity and physics, are we not already accepting a higher, inexplicable power? We have so little control of the world around us, so many inexplicable events created this world, that it works out almost exactly the same way as if there was a god.
The point of this belief is in some ways to override the mind. To quiet it down by putting it in true perspective. The common language for accepting a higher power is about “letting [Him or Her or It] into your heart.” That’s it. This is about rejecting the tyranny of our intellect, of our immediate observational experience, and accepting something bigger, something beyond ourselves.
“There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with.” – Seneca
It is true that relationships take time. They also expose and distract us, cause pain, and cost money. We are also nothing without them.
Anyone can be rich or famous. Only you can be Dad or Mom or Daughter or Son or Soul Mate to the people in your life.
the single best decision you can make in life, professionally and personally, is to find a partner who complements and supports you and makes you better and for whom you do the same.
By ourselves, we are a fraction of what we can be.
Conquer Your Anger
Leaders, artists, generals, and athletes who are driven primarily by anger not only tend to fail over a long enough timeline, but they tend to be miserable even if they don’t.
Seneca’s argument was that anger ultimately blocks us from whatever goal we are trying to achieve. While it might temporarily help us achieve success in our chosen field, in the long run it is destructive.
Seneca once more: There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on its own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insane—since it’s not driven back by weariness even in defeat, when fortune removes its adversary it turns its teeth on itself.
The Buddhists believed that anger was a kind of tiger within us, one whose claws tear at the body that houses it.
All is One
All Mitchell could think of, when he looked at [Earth] from the quiet, weightless cabin of his spaceship, was grabbing every selfish politician by the neck and pulling them up there to point and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”
Whether it comes from the perspective of space, a religious epiphany, or the silence of meditation, the understanding that we are all connected—that we are all one—is a transformative experience. Such quiet peace follows this…such stillness.
The Christian word for this term is agape. The Greeks spoke of sympatheia, the kind of mutual interdependence and relatedness of all things, past, present, and future. Mitfreude, the active wishing of goodwill to other people, instead of schadenfreude. Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner. To understand all is to forgive all.
We are all thinking and feeling the same things, we are all made of and motivated by the same things. We are all stardust. And no one needs this understanding more than the ambitious or the creative, since they live so much in their own heads and in their own bubble.
The less we are convinced of our exceptionalism, the greater ability we have to understand and contribute to our environment, the less blindly driven we are by our own needs, the more clearly we can appreciate the needs of those around us, the more we can appreciate the larger ecosystem of which we are a part.
On to What’s Next
Examining our souls is not as easy as clearing our minds, you’ll find. It requires that we peel back what the writer Mark Manson has called the “self-awareness onion” and take responsibility for our own emotions and impulses.
What follows then is the final domain of stillness. The literal form that our form takes in the course of day-to-day life. Our bodies (where, you must not forget, the heart and the brain are both located). The environment we put those bodies in. The habits and routines to which we subject that body.
Part 3: Body
As Paul Johnson, one of Churchill’s best biographers, would write, “The balance he maintained between flat-out work and creative and restorative leisure is worth study by anyone holding a top position.”
How did he do it? How did he manage to pull so much out of himself? The simple answer: physical routine.
In a little book titled Painting as a Pastime, Churchill spoke eloquently of a reliance on new activities that use other parts of our minds and bodies to relieve the areas where we are overworked. “The cultivation of a hobby and new forms of interest is therefore a policy of first importance to a public man,” he wrote.
“To be really happy and really safe, one ought to have at least two or three hobbies, and they must all be real.”
As they say, the body keeps score. If we don’t take care of ourselves physically, if we don’t align ourselves properly, it doesn’t matter how strong we are mentally or spiritually.
This will take effort. Because we will not simply think our way to peace. We can’t pray our soul into better condition. We’ve got to move and live our way there.
“The advantages of nonaction. Few in the world attain these.” – The Daodejing
The green light is a powerful symbol in our culture. We forget what Mr. Rogers was trying to make us see—that the yellow light and the red light are just as important. Slow down. Stop.
Our best and most lasting work comes from when we take things slow. When we pick our shots and wait for the right pitches.
We should look fearfully, even sympathetically, at the people who have become slaves to their calendars, who require a staff of ten to handle all their ongoing projects, whose lives seem to resemble a fugitive fleeing one scene for the next. There is no stillness there. It’s servitude.
A pilot gets to say, “Sorry, I’m on standby,” as an excuse to get out of things. Doctors and firemen and police officers get to use being “on call” as a shield. But are we not on call in our own lives? Isn’t there something (or someone) that we’re preserving our full capacities for? Are our own bodies not on call for our families, for our self-improvement, for our own work?
Always think about what you’re really being asked to give. Because the answer is often a piece of your life, usually in exchange for something you don’t even want. Remember, that’s what time is. It’s your life, it’s your flesh and blood, that you can never get back.
What is it? Why does it matter? Do I need it? Do I want it? What are the hidden costs? Will I look back from the distant future and be glad I did it? If I never knew about it at all—if the request was lost in the mail, if they hadn’t been able to pin me down to ask me—would I even notice that I missed out?
Take a Walk
“It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
“do not lose your desire to walk: Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” – Kierkegaard
The key to a good walk is to be aware. To be present and open to the experience.
When you feel the tug of your responsibilities or the desire to check in with the outside world, push yourself a bit further. If you’re on a path you have trod before, take a sudden turn down a street or up a hill where you haven’t been before. Feel the unfamiliarity and the newness of these surroundings, drink in what you have not yet tasted. Get lost. Be unreachable. Go slowly.
This isn’t about burning calories or getting your heart rate up. On the contrary, it’s not about anything. It is instead just a manifestation, an embodiment of the concepts of presence, of detachment, of emptying the mind, of noticing and appreciating the beauty of the world around you.
The mind might be active while you do this, but it is still. It’s a different kind of thinking
Walkers perform better on tests that measure “creative divergent thinking” during and after their walks.
Build a Routine
Boring? The truth is that a good routine is not only a source of great comfort and stability, it’s the platform from which stimulating and fulfilling work is possible.
Routine, done for long enough and done sincerely enough, becomes more than routine. It becomes ritual—it becomes sanctified and holy.
It’s strange to us that these successful people, who are more or less their own boss and are clearly so talented, seem prisoners to the regimentation of their routines.
Ah, but the greats know that complete freedom is a nightmare.
“The repetition itself becomes the important thing,” he says, “it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
A routine can be focused on order or arrangement.
Routine can be built around a tool or a sound or a scent.
A routine can also be religious or faith-based.
Most people wake up to face the day as an endless barrage of bewildering and overwhelming choices, one right after another. Needless to say, this is exhausting. It is a whirlwind of conflicting impulses, incentives, inclinations, and external interruptions.
When we not only automate and routinize the trivial parts of life, but also make automatic good and virtuous decisions, we free up resources to do important and meaningful exploration.
A master is in control. A master has a system. A master turns the ordinary into the sacred. And so must we.
Get Rid of Your Stuff
Mental and spiritual independence matter little if the things we own in the physical world end up owning us.
Just as every hoarder becomes trapped by their own garbage, so too are we tied down by what we own.
“If a man can reduce his needs to zero,” he said, “he is truly free: there is nothing that can be taken from him and nothing anyone can do to hurt him.”
The person who is afraid to lose their stuff, who has their identity wrapped up in their things, gives their enemies an opening. They make themselves extra vulnerable to fate.
But now that we have more, our mind begins to lie to us. You need this. Be anxious that you might lose it. Protect it. Don’t share.
It is difficult to think clearly in rooms filled with other people. It’s difficult to understand yourself if you are never by yourself.
Sometimes you have to disconnect in order to better connect with yourself and with the people you serve and love.
“If I was to sum up the single biggest problem of senior leadership in the Information Age,” four-star Marine Corps general and former secretary of defense James Mattis has said, “it’s 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.”
Solitude is not just for hermits, but for healthy, functioning people.
Bill Gates has, twice a year for many years now, taken what he calls a “think week.”
Do not mistake this for some kind of vacation. It is hard work—long days, some without sleep. It is wrestling with complex topics, contradictory ideas, and identity-challenging concepts. But despite this struggle, Gates emerges recharged and refocused.
Grab these moments. Schedule them. Cultivate them.
Be a Human Being
“I go on working at my treadmill, as life seems to me,” Albert said.
Remember, the main cause of injury for elite athletes is not tripping and falling. It’s not collisions. It’s overuse.
Man is not a beast of burden. Yes, we have important duties—to our country, to our coworkers, to provide for our families. Many of us have talents and gifts that are so extraordinary that we owe it to ourselves and the world to express and fulfill them. But we’re not going to be able to do that if we’re not taking care of ourselves, or if we have stretched ourselves to the breaking point.
Good decisions are not made by those who are running on empty. What kind of interior life can you have, what kind of thinking can you do, when you’re utterly and completely overworked?
Go to Sleep
By 2012, [American Apparel CEO] Charney was sleeping only a few hours a night. By 2014, he wasn’t sleeping at all. How could he? There was always someone with a problem and someone somewhere in some distant time zone taking him up on the open-door policy.
As we approach twenty or so hours without sleep, we are as cognitively impaired as a drunk person.
The overworked person creates a crisis that they try to solve by working harder. Mistakes are piled upon mistakes by the exhausted, delirious mind. The more they try, the worse it gets and the angrier they get that no one appreciates their sacrifice.
People say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” as they hasten that very death, both literally and figuratively.
We have only so much energy for our work, for our relationships, for ourselves. A smart person understands this and guards it carefully.
If you want to be your best, there is just one thing to do. Go to sleep.
Find a Hobby
When most of us hear the word “leisure,” we think of lounging around and doing nothing. In fact, this is a perversion of a sacred notion. In Greek, “leisure” is rendered as scholé—that is, school. Leisure historically meant simply freedom from the work needed to survive, freedom for intellectual or creative pursuits. It was learning and study and the pursuit of higher things.
It’s a physical state—a physical action—that somehow replenishes and strengthens the soul. Leisure is not the absence of activity, it is activity.
What is absent is any external justification—you can’t do leisure for pay, you can’t do it to impress people. You have to do it for you.
“If an action tires your body but puts your heart at ease,” Xunzi said, “do it.” There is a reason philosophers in the West often trained in wrestling and boxing, while philosophers in the East trained in martial arts.
There’s nothing to feel guilty about for being idle. It’s not reckless. It’s an investment. There is nourishment in pursuits that have no purpose—that is their purpose.
In his own words, Fante pissed away decades golfing, reading, and drinking, and by extension not writing novels. Because that felt better than getting rejected again and again.
That’s the difference between leisure and escapism. It’s the intention.
The problem is that you can’t flee despair. You can’t escape, with your body, problems that exist in your mind and soul. You can’t run away from your choices—you can only fix them with better choices.
Despair and restlessness go together.
The one thing you can’t escape in your life is yourself.
The people who built the sights and wonders that tourists liked to see didn’t do so while they traveled. You can’t make something great flitting around. You
A plane ticket or a pill or some plant medicine is a treadmill, not a shortcut. What you seek will come only if you sit and do the work, if you probe yourself with real self-awareness and patience.
The next time we feel the urge to flee, to hit the road or bury ourselves in work or activity, we need to catch ourselves. Don’t book a cross-country flight—go for a walk instead.
Build a life that you don’t need to escape from.
High-minded thoughts and inner work are one thing, but all that matters is what you do.
Virtue is not an abstract notion. We are not clearing our minds and separating the essential from the inessential for the purposes of a parlor trick. Nor are we improving ourselves so that we can get richer or more powerful. We are doing it to live better and be better.
Action is what matters.
It will be scary. It won’t always be easy, but know that what is on the other side of goodness is true stillness.
Will we fall short of our own standards? Yes. When this happens, we don’t need to whip ourselves, as Clamence did, we must simply let it instruct and teach us, as all injuries do.
The Final Act
The denial of this simple, humbling reality—the denial of death—is why we attempt to build monuments to our own greatness, it’s why we worry and argue so much, why we chase pleasure and money and cannot be still while we are alive. It’s ironic that we spend so much of our precious time on earth either impotently fighting death or futilely attempting to ignore the thought of it.
Most of this book has been about how to live well. But in so doing, it is also about how to die well. Because they are the same thing.