Book Summary

Stillness is the key By RYAN HOLIDAY 

On the morning of October 16th 1962, United States President John F Kennedy woke to learn that the Soviets were assembling ballistic nuclear missile sites in Cuba; 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Kennedy’s advisors urged him to strike immediately. “Aggression must be met with aggression”, they said. “Every second you waste risks the safety and reputation of the United States.

Thankfully, JFK remained calm. Throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy routinely went to the White House garden to think before returning back to the war room to determine his next move. After a 13-day standoff between the Americans and the Soviets, JFK’s patience and thoughtful response to Soviets’ aggression; like deciding to set up a blockade around Cuba and not Attack, allowed for cooler heads to prevail. The Soviets realizing their position was untenable backed down.

JFK’s stillness during the Cuban Missile Crisis saved millions if not billions of lives. His sound judgment under intense stress was a result of stillness. The author, Ryan Holiday says, “Stillness inspires new ideas. It sharpens perspective and illuminates connections. Helps us resist the passions of the mob and makes a space for gratitude and wonder. Stillness allows us to persevere to succeed. It is the key that unlocks the insights of genius.”

To reap the full benefits of stillness, we must focus on three domains: mind, body and spirit; empty the mind, move the body and satisfy the spirit.

First, empty the mind.

If you look at the Cuban Missile Crisis archives, you’ll find pieces of paper where Kennedy wrote “missile, missile, missile” or “consensus, consensus, consensus”. In one tense meeting Kennedy drew two sailboats at the top of a yellow legal pad to calm himself with thoughts of the ocean he loved. On a piece of White House stationery, he clarified his primary aim by writing, “we are demanding draw up the missiles.” Kennedy consistently put pen to paper to calm his mind and achieve clarity.

Julia Cameron, author of ‘the artist’s way’ does something similar. She has a writing practice that helps empty her mind and create space for creative thought every morning called ‘Morning pages’. ‘Morning pages’ is a stream of consciousness writing exercise in which you write out your thoughts longhand without stopping to fix mistakes for three pages.

As you fill the three pages with thoughts, you trap the muddy, maddening, confusing thoughts, nebulous worries, jitters and preoccupations on paper so that you can face the day with clear eyes what you write doesn’t have to make sense because it won’t be read by anyone.

Brian Koppelman, screenwriter for the movie ‘Rounders’ and the TV show ‘Billions’, swears by his morning pages practice and credits much of his professional success to his morning pages daily ritual. To find stillness at the beginning of every day, Fill three pages with your thoughts then throw out the paper and start your day free from internal distraction.

Stillness strategy number two: move the body.

In the mid-1920s Winston Churchill signed a contract to produce a six-volume three thousand page account of World War one while still trying to manage his responsibilities as Chancellor to the National Treasury. Rather than power through the heavy workload and turn it into a ball of stress, Churchill took up an odd form of leisure to rejuvenate him in between work sessions. That odd form of leisure was bricklaying.

The slow methodical process of mixing mortar and stacking bricks was perfect to keep his body busy while simultaneously allowing his mind to unwind. Churchill’s daily regimen was laid 200 bricks right 2,000 words.

A generation before Churchill, British Prime Minister William Gladstone would routinely go to his country cottage grab an axe from the shed and go into the nearby woods to chop down dying trees. According to Gladstone’s diary, he did this more than a thousand times often bringing his family with him. Gladstone said he found the tasks so consuming that he had no time to think of anything but where the next stroke of the axe would fall.

These two men; Churchill and Gladstone, found stillness through a meditative physical activity. As their bodies completed repetitions, their minds were restored.

What meditative physical activity can you lose yourself in and return to your work refreshed and ready to produce great work? Whatever the activity, put it on your weekly calendar first and then schedule your work around it.

Stillness strategy number three: satisfy the spirit.

Several years ago, two well-known authors attended a party hosted by a New York City billionaire. As they walked through the billionaire’s mansion, the one author turned to the other and said, “How does it feel that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel has earned in its entire history?”

The author smiled and replied, “I’ve got something he can never have.”

“Oh yeah! What’s that?”

“The knowledge that I’ve got enough!” He replied

That author was Joseph Heller. Even though Heller felt he had enough, he was still wildly productive. After his smash hit novel ‘catch-22’, he wrote six more books, one of them a best-seller.

Ryan says no one does their best work driven by anxiety and no one should be breeding insecurity in themselves so that they may keep making things. That is not industry that’s slavery. The feeling of never having enough might motivate you to achieve more but it will ultimately be destructive.

Ryan holiday reminds us that we will never feel okay by way of external accomplishments. Enough comes from inside it comes from stepping off the train and seeing what we already have; what we’ve always had. If we can do that, we will be wealthier than any billionaire. We must give ourselves the feeling of enough each day.

Today, when you sit down to have a meal or pull out your phone, pause and realize that the wealthiest person in the world a hundred years ago would envy you today. He or she would marvel at your ability to instantly access information, listen to an endless supply of music, watch an endless supply of movies and pick from a vast array of delicious food.

The goal each day should be to cultivate a feeling of abundance, to hit pause on the desire for more and find a bit of stillness. In that stillness, you’ll find you have more presence, more clarity and more insight.

If You enjoyed this reading, check out our other book summaries.

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