Ryan Holiday’s latest book, Stillness is the Key, brings into focus learning from both eastern and western philosophies around being deliberate and slowing down. It’s a significant challenge given the overabundance of stimulus in modern society, much of it not particularly fulfilling. The book tackles three vital areas, the mind, the soul, and the body. Consolidating advice from many ancient philosophers (and a few more modern names) in crisp chapters.
There is much to recommend the book, just a few items that stood out to me.
First, the idea that we must de-couple from the noisy environment. The constant connection and urgent notifications for unimportant things. Especially those in a leadership capacity, the ability to shut off the noise-making and open space to concentrate intensely is critical. I think, unfortunately, some mistakenly assume that this means we need to dumb down information for leaders. Sometimes executive is a euphemism for dumbed down. Executive presentation or executive project status becomes the simplest update that won’t cause too much thinking.
Leaders must be able to delegate or automate items that are not important, especially to the long term strategy of the organization. This doesn’t mean making inputs simpler; it means being selective about what inputs get dropped on the board room table. This requires thought from both the leader and the team to make those decisions. Perhaps it’s the amount of un-important information making it to leadership that devalues the important stuff. Eliminate the unnecessary and open space for the genuinely consequential.
Second, that continual learning is a baseline requirement for leaders (and everyone, but let’s stick to leaders fo now). One thing that really sticks out in this book is the amount of ancient wisdom that we’ve lost. In some cases, the wisdom isn’t really lost, but it’s repackaged as new, requiring a whole new set of defenses for people to believe. I suspect if more leaders understood that much of what we know about living a good life (in the broad sense, leading people and just living a happy existence) is very old knowledge indeed, there would be more understanding of it. At least I hope there’d be more curiosity about it.
Finally, the idea of “comfort creep” stuck out. Not in the sense of physical luxuries, which was the point in the book, but in the sense of the trappings of power, we accumulate as we climb the corporate ladder. Managers obtain benefits, some material, like bigger offices or parking spaces, others social like deference and positional power. I think that just as we need to remove unnecessary things from our lives, we also need to remove unnecessary benefits that don’t help us lead. When we increase our wealth, we buy a bigger house and more stuff to fill that house; it becomes the new normal. What was perfectly fine yesterday is no longer good enough. So is the case of the benefits of increasing rank in a company. The bigger your office or nicer your furniture versus the average employee, the better your retirement package or travel allowance, the more people bow to you in the elevator all of this sets a new bar that makes it increasingly difficult if a change is needed. What happens when we need to move to a team-based approach that respects the individual expertise on teams. We need to eliminate overhead and bureaucratic quicksand. The problem is even if we know what he right thing to do is, it will seem like a step back for the management staff rather than the elimination of the unnecessary to open up space for what’s truly important and fulfilling.