What We Learned About Stillness from Bestselling Author Ryan Holiday

Bestselling author Ryan Holiday at The Hutton House with Studio/E

As part of our Hero Speaker Series, we brought author Ryan Holiday to Studio/E for an event with our community. Ryan released his 10th book, Stillness is the Key, in October, which quickly made its way to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

Hear about the event from Studio/E writer Kolina Cicero:

We dutifully clean our cars, our homes, and our offices. We visit the dentist regularly and purge our excessive belongings at the turn of the seasons. But how often do we de-clutter our minds? Why is a clear mind not a higher priority than a clear desk? Than a clear inbox?

Silencing distractions, decluttering our minds, and creating space to reflect and improve – this is what we should prioritize, not responding to the countless (and often meaningless) bids for our attention.

Reflection brings clarity to our actions and helps us move forward and make progress. While important, few create enough space for this quiet action. I see it in myself as I check my email for the twentieth time of the day, even though I’m not waiting for anything in particular. I already see it in my two-year-old, who is more interested in my phone than her toys. And I see it at work as we get caught up in day-to-day tasks instead of pausing to make sure we’re aiming our energies productively.

Founder and managing partner of leadership and team development firm The Boda Group, Jennifer Porter says:

“Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions. For leaders, this ‘meaning making’ is crucial to their ongoing growth and development.”

Nobody is exempt from the need to reflect, and yet our prioritization of reflection has all but disappeared. Consider this from physicist and writer Alan Lightman:

“The loss of slowness, of time for reflection and contemplation, of privacy and solitude, of silence, of the ability to sit quietly in a chair for fifteen minutes without external stimulation — all have happened quickly and almost invisibly. A hundred and fifty years ago, the telephone didn’t exist. Fifty years ago, the Internet didn’t exist. Twenty-five years ago, Google didn’t exist.”

He goes on to say the situation is dire. “Invisibly, almost without notice,” Lightman says, “we are losing ourselves. We are losing our ability to know who we are and what is important to us.”

If we continue down this path, what will become of us? We cannot make good decisions without reflecting. Where did our time for reflection go?

What we need – what we all need – is stillness.

Author of the new bestselling book Stillness is the Key, Ryan Holiday argues stillness is the key to getting better at anything you do. He defines stillness as being steady while the world spins around you, to act without frenzy and to only hear what needs to be heard, and to possess both exterior and interior quietude on command.

With dozens of examples, as is characteristic of Ryan’s books, Stillness is the Key reveals how athletes, presidents, philosophers, religious leaders, and other greats of past and present tap into stillness to reach their full potential.

I read this book in the days leading up to Studio/E’s event with Ryan. It was a beautiful fall afternoon when I was sitting outside finishing up the book and came across the chapter titled Take A Walk. After finishing it, I put my book down and did as he suggests. With my phone, and therefore distractions, at home, I created the space to hear the leaves crunch under my feet. I felt the cool breeze chill my arms, I spotted one perfect crimson leaf in the scattering of thousands — and I picked it up. I brought the leaf home and taped it on the inside cover of my book. Days later, I pulled the leaf out of my book and showed it to Ryan. This, I believe, is the stillness he is suggesting. This, I believe, is the way we need to approach decluttering our minds and reflecting on our journey – because we only get one.

In this one journey of mine, I had the opportunity to ask Ryan a few questions. Some were work-related (What is your process for writing a book?); others were personal (What is your superpower? What fiction do you like to read? How old are your kids?).

Here are six things I learned from bestselling author, Ryan Holiday:

Bestselling author Ryan Holiday at The Hutton House with Studio/E1. Stillness doesn’t necessarily mean sitting still

“Paradoxically,” Ryan says, “sometimes movement is the best way to find stillness.” He considers swimming to be one of the most meditative activities in which to engage. It’s repetitive and low-impact enough that your mind is still able to operate while your heart rate increases. Plus, it’s one of the few places where there are no screens. Other active ways to find stillness are fly fishing, long-distance biking, running – anything with the absence of voices and silence enough to think.

2. Enjoy the process — the whole process

Writers famously find writing to be difficult. It’s hard and often painful work. While writing Stillness, Ryan repeated to himself that the moment of writing was enough. He didn’t defer his happiness for how many copies the book would potentially sell or delay rewards for the day it came out. Instead, he enjoyed the moments he experienced while writing. He tweeted here a photo of the New York Times bestseller list featuring his book with this caption: “You don’t control results so it’s a mistake to focus on them, but two weeks in a row on the list for Stillness is the Key is pretty nice.” Calling it a mistake to focus on this outcome – arguably one of the most strived for outcomes amongst authors – says something about how he approaches his work.

3. Choose experiences from which you are most likely to learn

When given a choice between two or more opportunities, forget about which will make a better story or is more impressive. The question should be: which will teach me the most? Ryan dropped out of college and went down a path that ultimately turned him into a bestselling writer. Part of his path was capitalizing on experiences with maximum opportunities for growth. His exposure to new and different experiences became a vast well of material for his numerous books.

4. Manage your inputs

Garbage in, garbage out, as the idiom goes. When you allow your mind to become congested with too much or poor-quality input, your output will be similarly poor. Managing your informational inputs is one way to achieve stillness and, as a result, be more productive. This might look like turning off phone notifications or skipping the morning news. Personally, this was the impetus to me taking a mini social media vacation. While at times entertaining, social media adds very little value to my life. If you clutter your mind, your output will likely be cluttered, too – and nobody needs more clutter in their lives, so manage what you fill your mind with.

5. Identify your ideal day, then design your life around it

Day to day, what do you want your life to look like? When Ryan was in his twenties he identified what his ideal day was, then he made decisions around how to achieve his vision. Rather than focusing on being the best in your field or winning this prize or making that amount of money, Ryan suggests asking yourself what life you’re trying to build, then determine what it’ll take to get there. And whatever it is you want, don’t push it off into the future.

6. Stop worrying about what’s next

Ryan frequently refers to the Stoic phrase Memento Mori: remember you must die. This helps him remain rooted in the present moment – the only moment he is guaranteed. Of course, the same goes for the rest of us. It’s easy to think about what’s next instead of enjoying what’s in front of us. But what if we don’t get to choose what’s next? What if right now is all we have?

Bestselling author Ryan Holiday at The Hutton House with Studio/E

Ryan Holiday is bold and opinionated. He’s unapologetically firm on his beliefs while being detached from his ego. I learned a lot about stillness in the short time I spent with him, and it was aggressively beneficial for me. But the benefits have revealed themselves over time – in the days and weeks since the event. I’ve found myself paying more attention. I watched the creamer swirl into my coffee this morning, glowing like a galaxy. While sitting down to write this, I felt gratitude for the process rather than my typical agitation of finding the right words to accurately portray somebody or something. My drives in the car have been silent; they’ve been a dedicated space for stillness.

I have a lot of work to do, but I’m already seeing the value of integrating more stillness into my life. But don’t listen to me (or to Ryan) — try it out for yourself. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by your experience.

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If you want more stillness, Ryan shares 28 proven exercises drawn from the ancient wisdom to help you find stillness here. If you’re interested in attending events like Stillness is the Key with Ryan Holiday, view our calendar of upcoming events.

Photos by Frank Denney

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