Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday – Here are my Seven Lessons and Takeaways

Stillness is the Key“People don’t understand that the hardest thing is actually doing something that is close to nothing,”Performance artist Marina Abramović said about the performance, after sitting still for 79 days.

What is the point? — We are so frazzled, so overloaded with thoughts and information and content and worries and problems and dilemmas and challenges and…Stop. Listen. Look.Be still; be mindful.


I presented my synopsis of the newest Ryan Holiday book, Stillness is the Key, at the January, 2020 First Friday Book Synopsis in Dallas.  It is a very good book.  But, more importantly, it addresses a very, very big problem.  We are too divided, too distracted, too frazzled and unfocused.  We need to be still.  We need a little quietness.  We need to stop, and think…  The noise and the clutter and the bombardment of so much, of too much, is really, really hurting us in ways we do not fully grasp.

As with all the books I present, this book is filled with terrific stories.  This one includes stories of Winston Churchill, John Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Ulysses Grant, Marina Abramović, Tiger Woods.  They all illustrated the value of finding ways to embrace stillness.  (And, in the Tiger Woods story, what happens when you lose it).

So, let me just say that this is a book worth putting on your reading list, and reading…slowly.

In my synopses, I always ask “Why is this book worth our time?” Here are my three reasons for this book:

#1 – This is a book that reminds us that the work that we do is work that we, as human beings, do. Thus, we have to take care of our bodies; our souls; us…
#2 – This is a book that beckons us to slow down, and be still, in a noisy, very fast-moving world.
#3 – This is a book that challenges us to specific practices – disciplines – to cultivate stillness.

And in my synopsis handouts, I include the best of my highlighted passages.  Here are a few of those: 

• And when basically all the wisdom of the ancient world agrees on something, only a fool would decline to listen.
• This is, in fact, the first obligation of a leader and a decision maker. 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. Because if the leader can’t take the time to develop a clear sense of the bigger picture, who will? If the leader isn’t thinking through all the way to the end, who is? 
• The best athletes, in the biggest games, are completely there. They are within themselves, within the now.   
• Books, spend time reading books—that’s what she (Dorothy Day) meant. Books full of wisdom.
• Knowing what not to think about. 
• Socrates was intellectually humble. In fact, he spent most of his life sincerely proclaiming his lack of wisdom. …Diogenes Laërtius would write that what made Socrates so wise was that “he knew nothing except just the fact of his ignorance.” 
• Paul 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.” 
• 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. 
• This book is an attempt to answer the pressing question of our time: If the quiet moments are the best moments, and if so many wise, virtuous people have sung their praises, why are they so rare?
• …The premise of this book is that our three domains—the mind, the heart, and the body—must be in harmony.
• …stillness–to be steady while the world spins around you. 

So, how do we attain this stillness.  Here are thirteen things to “do” that I gleaned from reading the book:

#1 – Limit your inputs… — A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.—HERBERT SIMON
#2 – Start journaling… — 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.
#3 – Cultivate silence — “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise,”
#4 – Seek wisdom
#5 – Develop a strong moral compass. – Choose virtue. — Marcus Aurelius famously described a number of what he called “epithets for the self.” Upright. Modest. Straightforward. Sane. Cooperative. Honest. Patient. Caring. Kind. Brave. Calm. Firm. Generous. Forgiving. Righteous. — Virtue is not holiness, but rather moral and civic excellence in the course of daily life; pure rightness that emerges from our souls and is made real through the actions we take.
#6 – Conquer your anger — The point is that people who are driven by anger are not happy. They are not still. They get in their own way.
#7 – Realize we are truly all connected. – 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.
#8 – Embrace routine — (one model is Churchill) — Routine, done for long enough and done sincerely enough, becomes more than routine. It becomes ritual—it becomes sanctified and holy.
#9 – Take a walk! — It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth. —FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE
#10 – Reflect more! – “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.
#11 – Sleep! And Eat! And Walk! — The philosopher and writer Arthur Schopenhauer used to say that “sleep is the source of all health and energy.” — If you want peace, there is just one thing to do. If you want to be your best, there is just one thing to do. Go to sleep.
#12 – Find a hobby! – Fred Rogers had his swimming… Einstein had his violin. – Leisure; but not escapism…
#13 – Act Bravely — To see people who will notice a need in the world and do something about it. . . . Those are my heroes. FRED ROGERS It’s the old Boy Scout motto: “Do a Good Turn Daily.” — Action is what matters.

And here are my seven lessons and takeaways:

#1 – Noise and activity and information; overwhelm; overload, will not go away. Stress will not go away. We must find ways to cope.
#2 – The practice of stillness is increasingly a business survival skill.
#3 – Silence and solitude – stillness – will not just “happen.” We have to develop the ability to cultivate such practices.
#4 – Stillness enables us to focus; to practice empathy. To be present. All of these are critical abilities for this era of overwhelm. (as in every era).
#5 – You have to actually do some of this – stop; listen; look. Be mindful; journal. Sleep. Walk. Do the actions that lead to stillness cultivation.
#6 – To state the obvious: the inner life (the interior life) shapes everything about us. Pay attention to your inner life. Shape it well.
#7 – And, after you cultivate your practice of stillness, you can be better at being present. You can be here. You can be aware. You can…

It really is hard to stop, to be quiet, to genuinely focus, to…be…still.  But stillness is the key.  It would help us all to develop the ability to cultivate such stillness.


Here is an interesting serendipity.  I present synopses of two business books each month at our event. The second book I presented in January was Trailblazer by Marc Benioff.  He is a practitioner of mindfulness (stillness), and wrote of his practice in his book.  It was a perfect complement to the Holiday book.  (I will post my lessons and takeaways from the Benioff book soon on this blog).


You can purchase my synopsis of this book (soon to be uploaded), and many others, at the buy synopses tab at the top of this page.  Each synopsis comes with my multi-page, comprehensive synopsis handout, and the audio recording of my presentation from our First Friday Book Synopsis event in Dallas.  Click here to see our newest additions.


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