Stillness is the Key, by Ryan Holiday

StillnessWhy this book: Strongly recommended by Peter Attia on his podcast and I’ve listened to interviews with Ryan Holiday (author of The Daily Stoic, Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy) on other podcasts and he impressed me. Attia says this is the book he has gifted more than any other and he’s read it several times.  Good enough for me.

Summary in 3 sentences: This book has a simple message that the author skillfully and beautifully approaches from many angles and with many anecdotes, quotes and stories of people we’ve all heard of. That message is to slow down, seek quiet and stillness by separating from the noise and busy-ness and pay attention to who we are, how we are living, and what is going on around us.  He sneaks in other related insights to living well  – like seeking virtue, get a hobby, get enough sleep, appreciate beauty.  The book is short, easy and enjoyable to read and full of the wisdom of the ages for living well in busy and complicated times.

My impressions:  A wonderful little book – short, engaging with short chapters, full of great insights and wisdom – which we all need to be reminded of regularly.  He starts (p 2) with a quote from Blaise Pascal in 1654 “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  He reminds us that thinking requires silence. Thinking deeply means regularly experiencing silence and stillness.

Holiday says “The premise of this book is that our three domains – the mind, the heart, and the body – must be in harmony.   The truth is that for most people not only are these domains out of sync, but they are at war with each other.” He divides Stillness into three sections – Mind, Spirit, Body, and addresses various aspects of his theme in the appropriate section.

Some parts of his message don’t quite seem to fit into the “stillness” theme, but I didn’t mind – his advice and stories were wise and useful, and all connected to living better in our busy complicated world.  His chapter titles offer insight into his approach:  Become Present, Slow down/Think deeply, Cultivate Silence, Start Journaling,  Choose Virtue, Seek Wisdom, Heal the Inner Child, Conquer your Anger, Take a Walk, Build a Routine, Find a Hobby, etc.

The chapters are short and easy to read. I found myself reading one or two in the evening before I went to sleep. Great insights and inspiration to consider before turning out the light.  Slow down, smell the roses, recoup your energy for those times when we need to have our wits about us to fully engage in our job, our community, the world to be at our best. Be wary of too much noise, activity, fun, excitement – Be wary of being too busy, stretched too thin, too distracted.   His message – we need intervals of sitllness, to be quiet, to pay attention to what is going on around us, and to remember who we are.

He spices up his chapters with stories and examples,  both positive and negative,  from the lives of well known people and historical figures, to include President Kennedy, Churchill, Tiger Woods, Fred Rogers, Leonardo da Vinci, Emerson, Anne Frank, Thomas Merton, and many more.   The book is treasure trove of great quotes to live by.  Fred Rogers: “The child is in me still…and sometimes not so still.”

He points out how the best CEOs recharge during their down time, by seeking silence – a quiet place with an absence of voices, media, and stimuli.  They recognize that they need a space to be out of the spotlight and under no pressure to perform, not having to make the tough calls, to be comfortably engaged and recharging, to let their inner wisdom bubble up.  “Stillness is no an excuse to withdraw from the affairs of the world.  Quite the opposite – it’s a tool to let you do more good for more people.”(p. 249)

He encourages us to seek wisdom by reading,  to access the insights and perspectives of the wisest people who have ever lived.  I would add, listening to podcasts to listen in on  conversations between some of the wisest and most interesting people alive today. That in fact is how I have been introduced to some of the best books  I’ve read recently — to include this one – listening to podcast interviews with the authors.

He warns us against focussing too much on our goals, and missing the joys in the process.       The process is life – attaining the goal is a short duration pleasure.  So he advises us to embrace the process, the individual steps on the journey, on the climb up the mountain. If we put all our hopes and dreams in summiting the mountain, we miss the joys along the way – and if we don’t summit, the trip has been a failure.

He uses the wonderful example of those who are so busy trying to capture that perfect picture of the sunset, that they miss savoring the beauty of the sunset.  The magic is in the moment of joy and beauty in watching the sunset.  The picture is but a cheap substitute.

In his chapter “On to the Final Act,” he tells us that “Seneca reminded himself that before we were born, we were still and at peace, and so we will be once again after we die.  A light loses nothing by being extinguished, he said, it just goes back to how it was before.” (p. 256) This resonated with me, after having jus posted my blog post  “200 days..”

There is so much wisdom, joy, and insight in this little book. Now that I’ve finished writing this review, I’l put it back on my nightstand to read again, a short chapter at a time, as I savor the Stillness I find, at the end of the day, as I’m preparing for the stillness of sleep.



About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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