For anyone, let alone those with kids, of any sort of calm is hard to achieve. The world demands attention; technology is constantly pawing at us. And kids? Well, kids require a lot of everything including attention. But, as we hurtle forward towards a society that pulls us in hundreds of directions, slowing down is more necessary than ever. These demands, well, demand all of us to be more intentional.
In his new book Stillness is Key, philosopher and author Ryan Holiday, whose other books include The Obstacle is the Way and Ego is the Enemy draws from the lessons of history to show how leaders and thinkers — from Marcus Aurelius to JFK — drew on stillness to benefit themselves and the world at times of crisis. Holiday builds the case for all of us to set up systems, interrogate our own reactions, and think: What can I do to be the best person for myself and my family? It’s a tough question, certainly. But one that all parents need to address.
Fatherly spoke to Holiday about manufacturing stillness, the JFK moment he looks to again and again, and why ‘winning your morning’ is essential.
Stillness is endangered. It’s harder and harder to find not only moments of calm but to not react immediately to texts or conversations or messages or news updates. Why do you think stillness is key?
It is the key to basically everything — at least everything that matters. It is something you need to be a good person, something you need to be creative, something you need to make good decisions, something you need when you’re stuck in traffic or facing a delayed flight at the airport. It’s inner peace or what we can embody during the most challenging situations in the best sense of the word. A professional baseball player is, one some level, trying to embody stillness to keep their nerves down, just as a leader is doing the same thing as they make difficult decision, just as a parent with a crazy kid running around a bit trying to calm down and center themselves. They need to be the solution and not the problem. Stillness is the thing humans have always needed. And it’s increasingly obvious that we need it more need it now more than ever.
In your book, you point to a number of historical examples from JFK to Seneca to Marcus Aurelius. What advice or vignettes do you keep going back to that are essential for people to understand and consider?
I kept coming back to Kennedy, particularly Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. Here you have maybe the most dire moment and in all of human history, with nuclear powers seconds away from a conflict that would kill millions, if not hundreds of millions. During this time, what Kennedy draws on is not the strength of his generals or vast fire power of his country. He doesn’t draw on self-righteousness or any of those things. Instead, he draws on inner calm. What he realizes is that things are so dire that without clear headedness and without a real plan this isn’t going to go well.
I was just struck by how much that contrasts our politicians today across all sides and how much we would all be better off if we brought that element of leadership into our own lives. I think if we could capture what Kennedy used during that time in a bottle and all drank from it every morning, the world would look a lot better.
He did a lot of self-care, too.
Yeah, he thanked the Rose Garden bardner because that was a place of calm for him. He would sit there and think. He went swimming at the White House pool that used to be where the briefing room is now. There’s a collection of the legal pad on which he would draw during that time and there were a lot of drawings of sailboats alongside personal mantras he wrote as a reminder to stay calm. He did a lot of that because he had to be a force of de-escalation during the whole affair.
What do you think stillness looks like today?
I think we have to build a life that makes stillness possible. I’ve got a three-year-old and a four-month-old and so this is something I’ve been wrestling a bit with myself. How do you do this right because if you just sort of go with the flow you are going with this chaos, right?
So, I think about how do you build habits and how do you build a routine that allows for stillness to be possible? Here’s what I do: My wife’s typically the one who gets up in the middle of the night with the kids, so each morning I take my son for 45 minutes to an hour. We go on a walk or a bike ride every morning as the sun comes up. We leave the house early so my wife and his baby brother sleep and we’re outside early. I don’t bring my phone so I don’t check it. We’re spending some quiet meditative time together.
After our ride, I spend time with a journal, then we have breakfast as a family, and I go right into my work. The idea of this is want to have a successful day by nine or so so whatever I have in the afternoon or whatever trouble I run into I’ve already gotten the most important thing for the day done.
Making the most of the morning is often an essential building block of establishing a good routine and trying to achieve a sense of stillness.
Absolutely. You want to win in the morning. If you can’t win the morning, you’ve set yourself up to sort of be on your back the whole rest of the day. There’s something really about the early mornings before the house wakes, before the phone is ringing, before you’re expected to do anything. It prepares you for the day and also makes it so that in the evening, that’s time for you and your spouse to connect and catch up.
What other efficiencies do you think are key?
To-do lists are very necessary. I know I struggle with is like you as a as a parent and as a professional. But I forget who I heard this from but they were they were saying like when you look at like the to do list of a billionaire it’s not 40 pages long, it consists of about three things. So I try to really consider: What are the big things I need to do today? I really think of what they are. And I want to tackle those early because that way I can have much more equanimity towards interruptions or frustration or unexpected problems. I’ve already put myself in a position where these things have a lot less impact on me. That’s one of the main parts of stillness.
I also try to think about, what are the things that only I can do? Only a dad can have father-son or father-daughter time with his kids but there are other things that you might sort of related to your job as a parent but actually like anyone could do. And so, making the decision to sort of separate the essential and make sure that like the majority of my time is spent on the essential thing. It helps slow things down and give you a bit more stillness and makes you a better father because you’re not spreading yourself so thin.
It’s about being more intentional and focused on the things that are absolutely essential.
Yeah, and not set yourself up with unrealistic expectations. Like, if you know you’re going to travel with your family and have to go city-to-city with two kids and two layovers along the way, you have to understand that that day is going to be stressful and not make yourself miserable by layering expectations of other things you need to get done. You’re going to disappoint yourself if you set up not just unrealistic expectations but those that will also make you burn out.
As a father, you must deal with tantrums or times when your son is being extremely rambunctious. How do you work stillness into those situations? What does stillness look like for parents?
What I learned from my wife and then I tried to apply more generally in my life is that you have to understand that your kid is throwing a tantrum and really upset but it’s not reflective of who he is as a person. He doesn’t know what he’s doing or need to do what he’s doing. Chances are there some underlying factor. Chances are that there’s something you can address that is unrelated that might solve the problem. So, if he’s crying that he wants to go upstairs and play with a toy, why is it so urgent that he goes upstairs? If I think about this for two seconds, I’ll realize, oh he hasn’t eaten in a while and dinners going to be ready in 30 minutes. So maybe if we give him something to eat he’ll calm down and more effectively communicate what he actually wants.
It’s about taking a beat and figuring out the underlying issue.
Yes. It’s about exercising stillness and taking a moment to see what the real problem is. Like any relationship people are usually mad about not the thing they’re reacting to but some underlying issue. And you can’t solve it by getting upset about it yourself. You need to be like Kennedy in the missile crisis. The Soviets are doing this so they must have a reason so if we figure out the reason it will inform our response in an intelligent way.
It’s about thinking: what’s going on in this person’s head? What are they doing and how can I use that to inform my response instead of just reacting to whatever triggers it brings up.
I imagine you’ve come across a number of historical quotes in your research that you’ve applied to your life as a parent.
Yeah. One that always comes to mind is Marina Abromovich saying that her art is all about being present and that doing something that is close to nothing is the hardest thing to do. And I find over and over again in my life, especially as a parent, you’re constantly challenged that you think parenting is this or that and so often parenting is sitting there doing nothing while they do something that you might be the most boring thing in the entire world. And so I think being a parent has been hugely informative for me in terms of realizing no, what we’re doing right now is this and this doesn’t have to be anything and I don’t have to make it into anything. And I can just enjoy what I’m doing and be present. That has been a constant battle and growth process for me for sure.
How do you communicate stillness to a child?
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Five hundred years ago Blaise Pascal noted that all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. And we don’t equip children with any sort of training that would allow them to do that. So if your kid is quietly playing on the floor, can you allow them to continue playing quietly on the floor? Do you have to intrude and interrupt and say something like “oh that’s not exactly how that goes” or “sorry, you’re actually playing with the box. Here’s the toy.” Can you allow yourself to be hands off enough to allow your kids to be self sufficient but teach them to be self sufficient in doing that?
That’s something we think about a lot. Your life doesn’t have to be an endless parade of stimulus and excitement. It can be quiet and relaxing and you can have moments on a porch swing or sitting in a pool. When my son wakes up in the morning, and I hear him stirring, I try to stop myself from rushing in and getting him. I want him to learn how to be alone with himself quietly. Not in a neglectful way or anything. But I want him to know what time alone feels like.
I love that. Allowing kids to exist and be okay without stimulus. Finally, for parents who are at their wit’s end, what’s a way to calm yourself down?
I think one of the things that I think is important is what hobbies do you have? What areas do you channel the frustrations you have or process the frustrations you have that are apart from your family? It’s so easy to make your family your whole life or your job your whole life. But how can you cultivate in your life a strong hobby or outlet that allows you to unwind? I can have the crappiest day as a father or a writer but I very rarely have a bad swim or a bad run and I bring whatever equanimity, centeredness, or insight I have from that experience to my family. It’s about having something that’s very different than what you do all day. If you’re in business? Trading stocks is a bad hobby. But if you’re a poet? Not a bad idea. Winston Churchill was painting. It can be anything. But it should be real and it should be active and it should give you restorative leisure.