You can do whatever you want. Seriously.

March 4, 2008 — 23 Comments

I’ve said it before. I doubt it sometimes (like everyone) it but I’m in a constant battle to prove to myself that it’s true.

Last week, Robert handed me three books and asked if I’d read them for as research for 50 and pick out all the important parts. That coincided nicely with the fact that I’d already read, tabbed and written about them on my own. Now I was going to get a check for it.

Fridays, now, are study days. I redid my schedule, basing it around something I’ve wanted for a long time: A day spent totally on learning. I drive back to college and spend most of the day in the library. I go to a few classes, but mainly it’s just a day for learning. I take books, my laptop and an iPod and spend the entire day working. I read Academic Journals and archived articles from Lexis Nexis. It’s what I wanted and what I worked for. I not only found a person who was understand enough to see that I needed it but great enough to see that it’d help with everything else I did.

I get paid for all kinds of stuff that I didn’t even know it was possible to make money doing. Stuff I used to do with my friends in college, sites I’d read anyway for fun, what I do to relax, things I can’t even talk about publicly – it’s all interwoven into the niche I’m setting up for myself. And slowly, it’s being filtered through a schedule that keeps me sane and excited. It was hard, sure, but it wasn’t impossible. I just listened to people who cut their own path before me.

I’ve always known that I was a bit different – that I had something that most people don’t have. But instead of feeling confident, like that was an asset, I doubted myself. I knew that I wouldn’t be doing what everyone else was doing but I didn’t know that I’d be doing something better – I thought I’d be rejected instead of doing the rejecting. (Or something close to that. Needless to say, it wasn’t a positive state of mind) That’s how it works, the system is aimed at breaking people who can disrupt it. The superficial incentives all point to mediocrity and sameness. But when you leave that state of mind, everything changes.

It’s scary sure. It’s not somewhere devoid of work or effort or inconvenience. Still, it is a space where your priorities are the things that matter to you – not other people – and you don’t waste time on things that mean nothing. Since that makes you massively, massively more efficient, you start lapping people. And then you learn about a wonderful thing called cumulative advantage.

Here’s my thinking: You can do whatever you want for as long as you continue to believe that it’s true and it will be. When you start resigning yourself to “this is what I have to do” or “this is what I have to be” that’s when you’re done. So don’t. It’s pretty simple. Find out what matters to you, decide what you want and ask for it.

(And if you want evidence of how shitty it feels to be broken and bitter and full of cognitive dissonance, just wait and read the comments)

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

23 responses to You can do whatever you want. Seriously.

  1. I’m broken and bitter and full of cognitive dissonance and it feels soooooo shitty!!!!

    (you’re welcome. :) )

    Not a bad post, inspirational even, though defect is just on the other side of a million fine lines. Be aware, I guess.

  2. This is an awesome post. It takes work to get to where you want to be, but if you are willing to put in the effort and keep focused anything is possible. I listened to an interview with Ryan Grant (a running back for the Packers) this winter in which he said that he wanted to out work everyone and he knew that if he put in the effort the results would come. Things may not turn out exactly as desired, but if a person works hard enough good things will happen. Good luck in whatever you are doing Ryan.

  3. No cognitive dissonance inspired rant here–just a somewhat personal question.

    What’s your schedule that keeps you sane? School, work and play seems to not have any distinction in your week; is that fair?

  4. Dude, I am going through this. I go to my shitty community college and wonder if I really want to be there. I wonder if I want to drop out or if it’s just laziness. I see people who go to work in unfullfilling jobs and take care of their kids. And that’s it. I don’t want that. Anyway, it’s comforting to see someone around my age can do it.

  5. I like this post… and your personal touch adds evidence that people can shape their life and their lifestyle they way the envision it. The problem is that a lot of people tend not to envision or work for it, and they just settle instead.

    Life is what you make it, and I think its more simple and attainable than people think, but like what you said, people have doubt and dont believe.

  6. Geez,

    you sound like such an arrogant ass. I notice how cognitive dissonance is your favorite phrase, as you use it all the time. Or, maybe it’s just that your not an ass, and your writing just comes off as cold.

  7. Fight club club called, they want their story back!

    Fight club club called, they want their story back!


  8. J,

    That’s a really good question and it’s something I am working on. I’m not sure it’s an awful thing that there isn’t a distinction – it means I like what I do. But my girlfriend is working on forcing me to let go and to try to spend more time not doing anything.

  9. What you wrote is the truth. One thing I’ve noticed is that when you initially start out on this path, everyone and their grandmothers will attempt to weigh you down with their doubts. “Doing ___ wont pay enough;” “You’ll limit your career options if you don’t go the corporate route;” “There is a difference between a dream and real life;” etc.

    Perhaps these attitudes arise from the artificial notion of success that traditional career/life paths provide. If you’re a document filer at MEGACORP then, people can rationalize your current state by thinking “well, in 10-20 years, he’ll be a manager.”

    Non-traditional routes lack structure and security — or, at least they appear to lack structure and security, but once you’re living the life, the opposite is usually the case. Branching out and finding work where there appears to be none is an invaluable skill. If an accountant’s firm shuts down, he says, “I’ll have to apply at another firm.” Having multiple options, employers, and talents, however, is a much more fluid existence. It makes change commonplace since you exist in a state of flux.

    The funny thing is that a few years into your path people will start to change their attitude. A few weeks ago a close friend said “you know, coming out of university I thought you were retarded for doing what you wanted, but now I respect that you made that choice.” He has a better job, but now it’s all he has. Meanwhile, my life is starting to come together with new and seemingly limitless opportunity. I don’t and never have regretted it for a second. Well, except maybe when I see my friend’s paychecks next to mine, but in time, with enough dedication, I should be making more than them to do what I love. I think following one’s dreams is how leaders are born.

  10. “What you wrote is the truth. One thing I’ve noticed is that when you initially start out on this path, everyone and their grandmothers will attempt to weigh you down with their doubts. “Doing ___ wont pay enough;” “You’ll limit your career options if you don’t go the corporate route;” “There is a difference between a dream and real life;” etc.”

    I always find that phenomenon to be interesting. Let’s take the exemple of parents.

    Are they trying to weight you down because they think you’re gonna screw up, and they want you to be safe and happy (ie normal job, good wage)? Or is it because seeing you taking a path they did not have the courage to take a see you succed would make them suffer too much?

    It is sometime painful to see someone succed where you yourself failed.

  11. I think this was a great post. It defintely focuses on something 99percent of the world doesent realize, if you promote yourself and believe in what your doing, you can do anything. Ryan has that figured out and is a living example.

    That said, I think he gives way to much credit to Tucker Max. Max is appealing because he acts like an asshole online. Big deal, anyone can do that. While he is intelligent and innovative like Ryan, he’s just in for a reality check because of the arrogance he is convinced puts him ahead of the pack…


    Idiot, with the exception of the lucky geniuses, your fight will fail. I am very wealthy and I embrace the path but I laugh at those few who try to fight it and inevitably turn into piles of failure.

  13. You mean 50 doesn’t do his own research? I was hoping I’d be applying the 50th law to my life by summer, I can’t wait for that one to come out. I know its a slim chance but I’ve got to ask someone on the inside, is there any credence to the rumors that they’re also working on a rap album together? I’d love to rock some gangster rap about growin up all hard stayin up past bedtimes to read about Talleyrand.

  14. I think some of your best writing comes from your own self-evaluation of the life you’re living. This post is no exception.

    Also, it may be my opinion, but anyone who takes the pseudonym of “dingo” willingly isn’t qualified to talk about success, let alone to do it with such condescension.

  15. You can do anything you want, but can you do what you don’t want?

  16. Thank you, Charles. I am dismayed by how frequently the phrase “cognitive dissonance” is used on this blog, and it never seems to really fit with how Festinger (or hundreds of other researchers) described it.

  17. I wonder, do you still feel this way 3 years later? Especially now that you have other, different projects that you are working on. Do you still have a day dedicated entirely to learning?

    • I do. Although with a bit more exceptions and a deeper understanding, I would hope.

      I have actually flipped the schedule–one full day of administrative work stuff, the rest are all learning/reading/writing.

  18. Ryan you’re absolutely right. I went too long by listening to what people (e.g. my parents & society) told me to do. I never had enough confidence to do what I believed in. Thank you for your encouraging words.

    P.S. I enjoyed reading your book.

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