Summary: Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday

Summary: Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday

The front cover of Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday.

Quick summary and verdict

Stillness is the Key is designed to laud the merits of slowing down, living in the moment, and removing distractions to live a happier life.

Author Ryan Holiday looks to take the wisdom of ancient stoics and apply it to our modern, distraction-filled, always-on lives.

In the book, he uses examples of the good and the great throughout history overcoming adversity using the techniques or principles that he lays out. At times, some of these comparisons feel slightly labored, but they do help to get the point across.

Holiday has had success with other books in the genre but this isn’t considered to be his best work. However, reading this book does get you thinking. It questions what you are doing with your life and how you want to live it. 

Extended summary

Stillness is the Key is about why stillness is the key.

Ryan Holiday has always been very blunt with his book titles. For example, “Ego is the Enemy” is about why Holiday believes that ego is bad. It’s very on the nose.

Holiday states that:

“Stillness is the key to thinking clearly, to seeing the whole chessboard, to making tough decisions, to maintaining relationships, to building good habits, to being productive, to physical excellence, to feeling fulfilled, to capturing moments of laughter and joy… 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.”

Essentially, Holiday is saying that stillness is the key to anything important. 

The idea of stillness comes from various cultures but is most widely attributed to stoic and Buddhist philosophies.

Holiday takes this ancient wisdom and looks to apply it to the modern day. There is not a lot of new material in Stillness is the Key but what Holiday does do is take the best minds in stoic philosophy and collated them all in one place. He has then interpreted what they have said and looked to apply it to the bustling lives we all lead today.

The book touches on 3 key concepts:

  1. Stillness of mind
  2. Stillness of spirit
  3. Stillness of body
The inside of Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday.

Stillness of mind discusses achieving stillness for the reader within their own mind. The concept is quite simple to follow. 

It is about reducing the number of inputs that you are taking in. This may be spending less time on social media like Twitter, TikTok or Instagram. Or, it may mean not listening to the radio while working so that you can concentrate more on what you are doing.

Stillness of mind is also about being present. If you are doing something, do that thing. Do not do other things at the same time. Being present means appreciating what is going on around you. Taking everything in. If you are with a friend having a coffee and a conversation then focus on your friend. Do not focus on messages from other friends that are not even there or get distracted by emails from work.

It also refers to slowing down and thinking deeply. To help with this, Holiday recommends journaling daily. This will help you think about what you are doing with your life. Is it what you want to be doing with your life? It is very easy to live life on an auto-pilot. We do the same things every day and each of these days blends into each other without us making any deliberate or conscious decisions. 

Holiday wants the reader to reflect on what their values are. What defines them as a person and then consciously make decisions that allow them to live by those values. Stillness is the Key is a non-judgmental book. If a person’s values are to make as much money for themselves and forget about everyone else then that is still valid. But identifying your values is an important step within the book.

Stillness of the spirit is a harder concept to get your head around. Holiday does not do an excellent job of explaining this concept. This is understandable as the spirit is intangible.

However, stillness of the spirit is about living your values and appreciating what you have. For example, for many people, if they think back to what their goals were ten years ago and where they are now they will have achieved so much. 

But, now that they have achieved what they have done, they want more. There is a culture of always wanting more clothes, a better car, or a nicer house. Stillness of the spirit is about taking a step back and appreciating what you have and what you have achieved. 

It is also about appreciating the small things in life. Finding beauty in the sunrise, or in the smile of your child or partner.

Holiday also says that choosing love over anger is good for the spirit. Choose to deliberately be grateful for those around you as often as you can rather than choosing to be angry when small things go wrong.

Stillness of the body means having hobbies, finding time to relax, and not burning yourself out according to Holiday.  

Holiday argues that you only have one body and you must take care of it. If you have a broken body you will never be able to carry out your ideals. The body is so important because you can have all of the values you want but it’s what you do that really matters. You may believe you have a certain set of values but if your actions prove otherwise then you really don’t. 

This is arguably Holiday’s most action-oriented book so far. Most of his books are heavily based on theory but in Stillness is the Key, Holiday gives plenty of examples of how the great and the good have used the concept of stillness to impact their lives in the form of case studies. 

The front cover and spine of Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday

Who should read Stillness is the Key?

Those looking to make a change

Stillness is the Key will cause you to re-evaluate your life. 

Just because you read the book does not mean you will make huge meaningful changes. But it will cause you to question who you are as a person and why you are doing what you are doing.

Stillness is the Key takes you out of your daily routine and causes you to question it. If you think you may be stuck on autopilot then it is worth reading this book.

People who wish to appreciate life more

An important lesson in Stillness is the Key is to “bathe in beauty.” 

This simply means taking the time to appreciate the small things in life. When you get home from work and your child’s face lights up because they are delighted to see you then make sure you take a moment to take some joy in that instead of just thinking: “I have to make dinner, and prepare lunch for tomorrow, and iron my shirt for work.”

Stillness is the Key will teach you to take joy in the small things.

Tone of the book

As much as Stillness is the Key is a book about Stoicism and Buddhist philosophy, it is essentially a self-help book.

As such, Holiday takes the tone of a teacher or a philosopher. However, at times the tone can come across as less teacher-like and more “new-age preacher.”

At times, the language can feel overblown and pompous. Holiday attempts to dress up simple concepts to appear more intellectual or insightful than they are. However, on the whole, Holiday is simply attempting to inform and the majority of his writing reflects this.

It is clear that Holiday is very widely read in stoic literature. Throughout the book he constantly quotes and gives examples of the thinking of a who’s who of Eastern and Western philosophers. 

The book also illustrates the points that Holiday makes with plenty of examples of successful people. Holiday explains their situation and how the concept of stillness was applied and then resulted in a positive outcome. Those featured in case studies include: Napoleon, Ann Frank, Mr. Rogers, baseball player Shawn Green and more.

Holiday has come in for some criticism with regards to the lack of female case studies throughout the book

What do readers say about Stillness is the Key?

Forces you to re-evaluate your life

Stillness is the Key forces the reader to take a step back and ask themselves questions about what they are doing with their lives and who they are as a person – what they stand for.

This is a very simple concept but many readers stated that they had not done this for so long and had just been going through their lives without really living it to the fullest or appreciating it.

A number of readers stated that this simple act changed their lives from simple ways to more complicated ways. 

Some readers stated that they simply started to appreciate spending time with their children and watching them grow up rather than being fixated on all of the tasks they had to do to take care of them.

The back cover of Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday

A take-away for everyone

There is a lot of suggestions jammed into Stillness is the Key. The chances are that not everything in the book will be applicable to every reader. 

On the other hand, there are some concepts that are universal, and almost everyone who sits down and reads this book will take something away from the experience that will cause them to think more deeply about some aspect of their life.

Real-world case studies and examples

Throughout the book Holiday uses a number of real-world examples and case studies. 

These case studies include situations like President John F. Kennedy and his handling of the Cuban missile crisis or baseball player Shawn Green and how he managed to get out of a slump.

Green was going through a slump where he was struggling to hit the ball and get on base. At the time, he was in his third season in the major leagues and was starting to get criticism that he was overpaid at $14m and should be dropped down to the minor leagues.

As the criticism got louder, he started to try harder, and become tenser, and it had the opposite effect of what he had hoped. 

Green took a step back and relied on the Buddhist philosophies he had been following for a while. He repeated the mantra: “Chop wood, carry water. Chop wood, carry water” to himself. It essentially meant, don’t think, don’t overanalyze, just do the work.

He managed to end his slump in spectacular fashion by hitting 4 home runs in one game having not hit one for a long time. Over the next 3 games, he hit a further 7 home runs using the same technique.

Analogies are tenuous

Not all readers found the large number of examples to be helpful, however. A number of readers commented that the examples were very loosely linked to reality. They could not see how it was actually the concept of stillness that resulted in the outcomes and felt like Holiday was trying his best to credit stillness as being the deciding factor when it actually probably wasn’t in most cases.

Audiobook review

Stillness is the Key lasts for 6 hours and 59 hours. The book is narrated by Ryan Holiday himself. 

As is the case whenever an author chooses to perform the audiobook themselves, there are positives and negatives that come from it. 

The main positive is that Holiday knows the material inside out and you can tell that he truly believes what he is telling you.

However, given that he is not a professional performer, the drawback is that Holiday’s narration is not very exciting. He performs in quite a monotone voice that struggles to convey the story in a compelling way.

A woman reading Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday

Should I read Stillness is the Key?

Positive

  • A takeaway for everyone
  • Will have you questioning yourself

Negative

  • Tenuous analogies
  • Few female case studies

Yes.

Stillness is the Key is not a perfect book but it will cause you to take a deep look at your life and question why you are doing what you are doing.

Stillness is the Key will also have an impact on how you perceive the world around you and the small moments in your life. It’s definitely worth reading.