Stillness Is the Key by Ryan Holiday [Actionable Summary]

This is a comprehensive summary of the book Stillness Is the Key by Ryan Holiday. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.

Worksheet: Download the interactive sheet for taking notes.

The Book In Three Or More Sentences:

The book praises a certain quality which almost all great athletes, artists, politics, and long-forgotten inventors possess. By meshing Stoic and Buddhism philosophy, the life of famous historical figures and modern-day athletes, Ryan Holiday’s main goal throughout the whole book remains the same – to convince us that practicing absolute focus, calmness, and stillness are all key factors for achieving self-mastery, success, and happiness.

The Core Idea:

We have very little time to pause and reflect. We are overfed, overworked, and overstimulated, and we struggle to find meaning and feel contentment. Stillness Is the Key by Ryan Holiday aims to show us how to remain steady while the world spins around us. How to mute the outside noise so we can focus and essentially live a better life.


  • Stillness will sharpen your focus and help you remain calm under high-pressure situations.
  • Instilling stillness in your life won’t be easy. But it’s a necessary quality for the busy 21st century.
  • Deciding what’s important for you will allow you to arrange your thoughts and block the ones that are not relevant to you.

5 Key Lessons from Stillness Is the Key:

Lesson #1: Cultivate Mental Stillness To Successfully Navigate Through Life

To be still, is to think clearly. To make tough decisions. To control your emotions. To harness your thoughts and take control of your mind.

Think it’s easy?

Try it now. Turn off all the gadgets around you and try to remain calm. To sit alone with yourself for a couple of minutes.

Are you able to concentrate on a single thought for more than 10 seconds?

I don’t believe you can. Most of us can’t. That’s why we’re so overwhelmed and we feel anxious all the time.

Actually, Blaise Pascal said it a long time ago, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

We can’t calm our minds because we crave novelty and entertainment all the time. Our mind believes that the more we consume the greater our chances for survival are.

But it’s quite the opposite.

To survive and thrive in the world today, you need to develop this skill called stillness. To be able to remain calm and focused no matter how loud and busy things are around you.

Stillness is the key to, well, just about everything. To being a better parent, a better artist, a better investor, a better athlete, a better scientist, a better human being. To unlocking all that we are capable of in this life.” Ryan Holiday

Lesson #2: Don’t Let Social Media and Trivial Problems Lord Over Your Life

In the book, Ryan Holiday mentions how the “CNN Effect” made it harder for politicians and business owners to run their corporations in the 1990s. Instead of focusing on their work, they consumed information and consider every little detail thinking, that this way of doing things will help them make better decisions.

The opposite happens when you simply sit and watch the news.

Instead of acting, you react to what’s happening. And that’s now a problem for everyone.

Since we have access to information 24/7, we fool ourselves by thinking that we need more of it to make a well-calibrated choice. We convince ourselves, that it’s part of our job to read all the emails, all the reports, check all relevant sites before we act. But is it, really?

When we expose ourselves to too many things we have little time left for actually doing our work. We let trivial problems dominate our thoughts and lord over our lives.

Clearly we must stop this.

If you wish to improve, you must embrace being ignorant about the newest things. To be OK with not knowing what are the latest trends and what are the newest shows.

Direct your full attention only to the most important things. Everything else usually resolves itself.

Give things a little space, don’t consume news in real time, be a season or two behind on the latest trend or cultural phenomenon, don’t let your inbox lord over your life.” Ryan Holiday

Lesson #3: Decide What To Ignore And What Not To Think About

One of the reasons American Apparel, US-based retail company failed was its open-door policy.

Dov Charney, the founder, thought that being completely accessible as a boss was a great idea to run a business. And while it might be the right thing to do if you’re running a small shop, it’s surely disastrous when you’re the largest clothing manufacturer in the world. You simply can’t handle everything.

But that’s what Dov was trying to do. He wanted to be constantly up-to-date with everything happening in the company. However, this prevented him from doing his job. And, eventually, this preoccupation with the wrong things led to a loss of money for six consecutive years and a subsequent filing for bankruptcy.

Most good CEOs do the opposite. They limit their interactions with other people. And they don’t do it because their ego is off the roof, at least not all of them, they do it so they can focus on the big picture. To have enough time to think about what should be the best course of action for the company and for the employees.

Even if you don’t own a company, you can do the same. You need to do the same.

Give yourself enough time to think about your life. Limit the number of people who have access to you and also the number of possessions in your life. This will give you the so-needed space and time to do what you really want with your life.

Lesson #4: Conserve Your Energy

When asked, “To what do you owe your success in your career and in life?” Churchill replied, “Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.”

Hard work is one thing, but trying to squeeze every last drop of energy from your body borders on insanity. Unfortunately, we often try to do the latter.

Modern life is full of noise and there is also this constant pressure that we should always check social media, email, the news, watch another video, listen to another show, and so on. We now believe that we should do things all the time because we’ll otherwise fall behind.

But if we’re constantly rushing, we’ll never be truly satisfied with our existence. We’ll simply live to chase something that will supposedly happen in the future.

That’s why “stillness is key” as Ryan Holiday writes. When you learn to slow down and to enjoy simply being, not always doing, you’ll conserve your energy and learn that what you have, currently, is usually enough.

Don’t try to outpost other people on social media or focus on doing too many things all at once. We tend to be most satisfied when we do one thing exceptionally well. All the other things that are trying to disturb your peace you can simply ignore.

Lesson #5: Build a Life That You Don’t Need to Escape From

Do you know why we use social media and why we constantly look for new things to buy?

Yeah, I mean, despite the fact that these things are obviously fun.

Not sure?

Let me enlighten you…

The real reason is that it’s way easier to scroll through pictures on your phone than it is to sit alone, all by yourself, and code. Or write. Or learn how to edit videos so you can become super successful on YouTube, for example.

Even if we love writing or coding, if we’re feeling desperate, anxious about what others will say about our work, we’ll most probably avoid doing these activities so we can escape from possible future criticism.

That’s why we travel and we make more “friends” online. We spend a lot of time doing all kinds of things so we can numb the pain and the worries that exist in our heads.

But as the author says in the book, “You can’t escape, with your body, problems that exist in your mind and soul. You can’t run away from your choices – you can only fix them with better choices.”

If you constantly pursue pleasurable activities and you neglect the work you must do, you’re either mentally damaged or the job you perform is not aligned with your views of the world.

So, our task in life is twofold: First, to find work that feels deeply meaningful to us. Second, to stop seeking for shortcuts and understand that true fulfillment comes from our ability to sit alone in a room with our own thoughts – and be happy about it.

When you make no attempts to flee from your thoughts and camouflage your worries with more social media and more traveling, you’ll find peace and finally have a life from which you don’t want to escape from.

Routine, done for long enough and done sincerely enough, becomes more than routine. It becomes ritual—it becomes sanctified and holy.” Ryan Holiday

Actionable Notes:

  • Resist the impulses: We’re overstimulated. A single flashing notification icon can easily become the reason we waste a couple of hours of our time. If you learn to ignore and resist the daily urges, you’ll develop mental toughness and a stable mind that can better focus.
  • The power of nonaction: New social media platform is gaining traction? Your competitors are copying your features? You can safely go back to bed. There are a lot of times where acting is required but in most cases, it’s best to wait and don’t do anything. Just wait for a better opportunity. That’s the power of wu wei, the ability to remain still, or acting without acting.
  • Question what you own: You can’t achieve stillness until you have complete control over your surroundings. Or in other words, don’t get trapped by your own garbage. The more stuff you own, the more time you’ll spend thinking about them and maintaining them. Remind yourself the following by Xunz when you’re shopping around: “The gentleman makes things his servants. The petty man is servant to things.”
  • What do you do with your time? Simple, yet very powerful question asked in the book. Will you be happy with what you see if you can rise above your physical body and observe yourself for a day? If not, what can you do to change things?
  • What do you stand for? Our focus is corrupt and we rarely have time to think and reflect. But if you figure out the main reason you’re living, find your purpose sort to speak, you’ll know what’s important and what you can safely disregard. So, choose what to stand for. Find something important, noble, worthy. Everything else, throw away.

Commentary And My Personal Takeaway

The writings of Ryan Holiday online are usually in the form of in-depth articles full of different references and anecdotes. Not that there aren’t enough references here. There are. But in this book, he decided to take another route – short chapters, each covering their own unique topic while trying to convince us that “stillness is the key.”

Personally, I’m a fan of brief chapters where you usually find a quick summary of what was discussed. However, a lot of readers might find this style a bit shallow and crave for more at the end of each chapter.

Nevertheless, the point the author is trying to convey here is really interesting. Also, quite important for our time. We need to learn about stillness! To be OK with fewer things and to stop adding more to our lives. By doing so, we’ll find inner peace and we’ll be able to relax our minds.

The last is my personal takeaway: Stop adding to your life, start subtracting.

Notable Quotes:

To see people who will notice a need in the world and do something about it. . . . Those are my heroes.” Fred Rogers

To have an impulse and to resist it, to sit with it and examine it, to let it pass by like a bad smell—this is how we develop spiritual strength. This is how we become who we want to be in this world.” Ryan Holiday

Our stillness depends on our ability to slow down and choose not to be angry, to run on different fuel. Fuel that helps us win and build, and doesn’t hurt other people, our cause, or our chance at peace.” Ryan Holiday

The same weight. The same food. The same introduction. The same close to the day. Boring? The truth is that a good routine is not only a source of great comfort and stability, it’s the platform from which stimulating and fulfilling work is possible.” Ryan Holiday

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