Stillness Is The Key by Ryan Holiday: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Stillness Is The Key by Ryan Holiday.

In short

Stillness Is The Key is the third book in a series by Ryan Holiday in which he distills ancient wisdom and applies it to modern times. The main topic of this one is how to achieve stillness – how can we, in a world that’s constantly on the move, be still and present?

Most people probably realize that rest, relaxation and some time off to think are essential for your work, happiness, and your life overall. But not many people actively set out to improve this in their lives. Holiday divides Stillness Is The Key into three different areas: the mind, the soul and the body (see summary below for details on each category).

If you liked Holiday’s first few books you will enjoy this one as well. Stillness Is The Key again contains a lot of short chapters, with quotes and stories that have a Stoic/Buddhist theme. But, as with his other books, don’t expect a lot of depth and groundbreaking ideas – it remains quite shallow.

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Book Notes & Summary

All text that is quoted & italicized is taken directly from the book.

Decision makers and leaders should not go with their gut instinct and their first reaction. Instead, they should be strong enough to be still and think through the consequences, and look at the bigger picture. Holiday uses the example of Kennedy during the missile crisis: his advisors urged him to retaliate, but Kennedy slowed down and came up with a much better solution.

The domain of the mind

In any difficult situation we should:

  • “Be fully present
  • Empty our mind of preconceptions
  • Take our time
  • Sit quietly and reflect
  • Reject distraction
  • Weight advice against the council of our convictions
  • Deliberate without being paralyzed”

From presence in the moment, we get stillness, and from stillness, brilliance – so we should fully appreciate the current moment. Like an artist who focuses intently on every little detail of the moment.

“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” – Herbert Simon

Holiday uses the example of Napoleon when discussing limiting your inputs. Napoleon told his secretary to wait three weeks before opening his mail, and when he did finally read them, many of the so-called “important” things were already solved. Likewise, he instructed his subordinates never to wake him up with good news – that can wait. But if there was bad news he should be immediately woken because then every moment matters.

“Man is a thinking reed, but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. ‘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.” – D.T. Suzuki

“It is in Stoicism and Buddhism and countless other schools that we find the same analogy: The world is like muddy water. To see through it, we have to let things settle. We can’t be disturbed by initial appearances, and if we are patient and still, the truth will be revealed to us.”

“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…until you find the length of time you need to ensure that something interesting will come to mind. The Gaelic phrase for this state of mind is “quietness without loneliness.” – Twyla Tharp

“Thought will not work except in silence” – Thomas Carlyle. If we want to think better, or create insights or ideas, we must make sure that we have the space and time to do so. This means stepping away from distractions and stimulations.

“Confident people know what matters. They know when to ignore other people’s opinions. They don’t boast or lie to get ahead (and then struggle to deliver). Confidence is the freedom to set your own standards and unshackle yourself from the need to prove yourself. A confident person doesn’t fear disagreements and doesn’t see change – swapping an incorrect opinion for a correct one – as an admission of inferiority.”

Stillness also means learning how to let go. Archery master Awa Kenzo told one of his students: “What stands in your way is that you have too much willful will.” Meaning the will to control every little detail of everything we do. Instead we should try to detach ourselves from the outcome, because this holds us back from truly learning.

“If we aim for the trophy in life – be it recognition or wealth or power – we’ll miss the target. If we aim too intensely for the target […] 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.”

The domain of the soul

“This is why those who seek stillness must come to…

  • Develop a strong moral compass.
  • Steer clear of envy and harmful desires.
  • Come to terms with the painful wounds of their childhood.
  • Practice gratitude and appreciation for the world around them.
  • Cultivate relationships and love in their lives.
  • 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.”

Virtue is not some stuffy word and the virtuous life is worth living for its own rewards. If you cannot differ right from wrong, you won’t have serenity. If you don’t have a moral code, every decision and every temptation needs to be thought about. If you think your choices are meaningless, how can your life have meaning at all? If, on the other hand, you know what you value and what you’re principles are, and behave according to them you will be able to find stillness.

As part of developing our virtuous qualities we should develop a moral code – a standard that sets out what is important, and how we want to live. If we have answers to these difficult questions our ‘inner citadel’ will be strengthened for those difficult moments in life.

“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.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

What is enough? “No one achieves excellence or enlightenment without a desire to get better, without a tendency to explore potential areas of improvement. Yet the desire – or the need – for more is often at odds with happiness.”

We don’t have to continue to work forever, to be worker bees on this planet, doing the same things over and over again. We just have to decide when we have reached our stage of enough. This doesn’t mean that we should stop working, but we should do it from a good mindset and a good place. Not to produce ever more to earn more money, or continue the rat race, but because we want to ourselves.

Relationships are a part of achieving stillness as well, stillness is not something that should be achieved alone. It is better when shared.

“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 it’s adversary it turns its teeth on itself.” – Seneca

“We are all strands in a long rope that stretches back countless generations and ties together every person in every country on every continent. We are all thinking and feeling the same things, we are all made of and motivated by the same things. We are all stardust.”

We are all linked together, including our collective fates. If we stop being convinced of our exceptionalism, we can understand and contribute more to those around us, if we are less driven by our own needs, the more we can help others and the more we can appreciate the ecosystem we live in.

“Peace is when we realize that victory and defeat are almost identical spots on one long spectrum.”

The domain of the body

“We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones.” – Henry David Thoreau

“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. Johnson as a seventeen-year-old, decades before his own career as a writer, met Churchill on the street and shouted to him, “Sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?”
               Immediately, Churchill replied, “Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.”
               Churchill conserved his energy so that he never shirked from a task, or backed down from a challenge. So that, for all this work and pushing, he never burned himself out or snuffed out the spark of joy that made life worth living.”

“Epicurus once said that the wise will accomplish three things in their life: leave written works behind them, be financially prudent and 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 time to relax in nature.”

In the domain of the body, and if we want to achieve productivity and joy and stillness in life, we need to:

  • “Rise above our physical limitations
  • Find hobbies that rest and replenish us
  • Develop a reliable, disciplined routine
  • Spend time getting active outdoors
  • Seek out solitude and perspective
  • Learn to sit – to do nothing when called for
  • Get enough sleep and rein in our workaholism
  • Commit to causes bigger than ourselves.”

“It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

One of the advises Holiday gives is to take a walk. Kierkegaard described it as followed: “Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: Every day I walk myself into a state of wellbeing 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.”

“The greats know that complete freedom is a nightmare. They know that order is a prerequisite of excellence and that in an unpredictable world, good habits are a safe haven of certainty.
               It was Eisenhower who defined freedom as the opportunity for self-discipline. In fact, freedom and power and success require self-discipline. Because without it, chaos and complacency move in. Discipline, then, is how we maintain that freedom.”

Solitude is essential for stillness, but also for clarity and breakthroughs. It becomes more difficult to think clearly if you’re in a room full of people – to disconnect from the world means to connect to yourself. “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.”

You cannot make good decisions if you’re overworked, stressed, and running on empty fumes. Not only will you have to spend more time to fix the errors you make, it also won’t help you in the long run – more work does not lead to freedom. You can take a break, respond to that email later on, and decide not to do more work today and take care of yourself.

Sleep is not a luxury, it’s an essential, and it should not go out the window first when dealing with urgency and stress. As Arthur Schopenhauer said it: “Sleep is the interest we have to pay on the capital which is called in at death. The higher the interest rate and the more regularly it is paid, the further the date of redemption is postponed.”

To modern ears, ‘leisure’ means doing nothing. But in Greek the world is derived from scholé – school. Leisure was time to learn and study and pursue interesting things, it means working on something not to survive, but to satisfy an intellectual or creative craving.

“We must be disciplined about our discipline and moderate in our moderation.
               Life is about balance, not about swinging from one pole to the other. Too many people alternate between working and bingeing, on television, on food, on video games, on lying around wondering why they are bored. The chaos of life leads into the chaos of planning a vacation.
               Sitting alone with a canvas? A book club? A whole afternoon for cycling? Chopping down trees? Who has the time?
               If Churchill had the time, if Gladstone had the time, you have the time.”

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