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Every man I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of him. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

The legend of Genghis Khan has echoed throughout history: A barbarian conqueror, fueled by bloodlust, terrorizing the civilized world. We have him and his Mongol horde traveling across Asia and Europe, insatiable, stopping at nothing to plunder, rape, and kill not just the people who stood in their way, but the cultures they had built. Then, not unlike his nomadic band of warriors, this terrible cloud simply disappeared from history, because the Mongols built nothing that could last.

Like all reactionary, emotional assessments, this could not be more wrong. For not only was Genghis Khan one of the greatest military minds who ever lived, he was a perpetual student, whose stunning victories were often the result of his ability to absorb the best technologies, practices, and innovations of each new culture his empire touched.

In fact, if there is one theme in his reign and in the several centuries of dynastic rule that followed, it’s this: appropriation.

Under Genghis Khan’s direction, the Mongols were as ruthless about stealing and absorbing the best of each culture they encountered as they were about conquest itself. Though there were essentially no technological inventions, no beautiful buildings or even great Mongol art, with each battle and enemy, their culture learned and absorbed something new.

Genghis Khan was not born a genius. Instead, as one biogra­pher put it, his was “a persistent cycle of pragmatic learning, experimental adaptation, and constant revision driven by his uniquely disciplined and focused will.” He was the greatest conqueror the world ever knew because he was more open to learning than any other conqueror has ever been.

Khan’s first powerful victories came from the reorganization of his military units, splitting his soldiers into groups of ten. This he stole from neighboring Turkic tribes, and unknowingly converted the Mongols to the decimal system.

Soon enough, their expanding empire brought them into contact with another “technology” they’d never experienced before: walled cities. In the Tangut raids, Khan first learned the ins and outs of war against fortified cities and the strategies critical to laying siege, and quickly became an expert. Later, with help from Chinese engineers, he taught his soldiers how to build siege machines that could knock down city walls. In his campaigns against the Jurched, Khan learned the importance of winning hearts and minds. By working with the scholars and royal family of the lands he conquered, Khan was able to hold on to and man­age these territories in ways that most empires could not.

Afterward, in every country or city he held, Khan would call for the smartest astrologers, scribes, doctors, thinkers, and advisers — anyone who could aid his troops and their efforts. His troops traveled with interrogators and translators for precisely this purpose.

It was a habit that would survive his death. While the Mongols themselves seemed dedicated almost solely to the art of war, they put to good use every craftsman, merchant, scholar, entertainer, cook, and skilled worker they came in contact with. The Mongol Empire was remarkable for its reli­gious freedoms, and most of all, for its love of ideas and con­vergence of cultures. It brought lemons to China for the first time, and Chinese noodles to the West. It spread Persian carpets, German mining technology, French metalworking, and Islam. The cannon, which revolutionized warfare, was said to be the resulting fusion of Chinese gunpowder, Mus­lim flamethrowers, and European metalwork. It was Mongol openness to learning and new ideas that brought them together.

As we first succeed, we will find ourselves in new situations, facing new problems. The freshly promoted soldier must learn the art of politics. The salesman, how to manage. The founder, how to delegate. The writer, how to edit others. The comedian, how to act. The chef turned restaurateur, how to run the other side of the house.

This is not a harmless conceit. The physicist John Wheeler, the physicist who helped develop the hydrogen bomb, once observed that “As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” In other words, each victory and advancement that made Khan smarter also bumped him against new situations he’d never encountered before. It takes a special kind of humility to grasp that you know less, even as you know and grasp more and more. It’s remembering Socrates’ wisdom lay in the fact that he knew that he knew next to nothing.

With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pre­tend that we know more than we do. To pretend we already know everything. Scientia infla (knowledge puffs up). That’s the worry and the risk — thinking that we’re set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, con­tinual process.

The nine­-time Grammy– and Pulitzer Prize–winning jazz musician Wynton Marsalis once advised a promising young musician on the mind­set required in the lifelong study of music: “Humility engenders learning because it beats back the arrogance that puts blinders on. It leaves you open for truths to reveal themselves. You don’t stand in your own way. . . . Do you know how you can tell when someone is truly humble? I believe there’s one simple test: because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve. They don’t assume, ‘I know the way.’” No matter what you’ve done up to this point, you better still be a student. If you’re not still learning, you’re already dying.

It is not enough only to be a student at the beginning. It is a position that one has to assume for life. Learn from everyone and everything. From the people you beat, and the people who beat you, from the people you dislike, even from your supposed enemies. At every step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn — and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.

It’s something I’ve had to learn as an author, personally. Just because one book does well, doesn’t mean that the next one will. It certainly doesn’t mean that everything that I’ll write is good or that I know everything there is to know about this profession either. Thinking that way is a recipe for falling off and disappointing both publishers and audiences. A better attitude is to start from scratch with each project — to focus on all there is left to learn and all the room we have left improve. That’s what I’ve tried to do with each subsequent project, including this most recent one (appropriately about ego).

Too often, convinced of our own intelligence or success, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to learn or reconsider what we know). It obscures from view various weaknesses in our under­ standing, until eventually it’s too late to change course. This is where the silent toll is taken.

Each of us faces a threat as we pursue our craft. Like sirens on the rocks, ego sings a soothing, validating song — which can lead to a wreck. The second we let the ego tell us we have graduated, learning grinds to a halt. That’s why UFC champion and MMA pioneer Frank Shamrock said, “Always stay a student.” As in, it never ends.

The solution is as straightforward as it is initially uncom­fortable: Pick up a book on a topic you know next to noth­ing about. Put yourself in rooms where you’re the least knowledgeable person. That uncomfortable feeling, that defensiveness that you feel when your most deeply held assumptions are challenged — what about subjecting your­self to it deliberately? Change your mind. Change your sur­roundings.

An amateur is defensive. The professional finds learning (and even, occasionally, being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled, and engage in education as an ongoing and endless process.

Most military cultures — and people in general — seek to impose values and control over what they encounter. What made the Mongols different was their ability to weigh each situation objectively, and if need be, swap out previous prac­tices for new ones. All great businesses start this way, but then something happens. Take the theory of disruption, which posits that at some point in time, every industry will be dis­rupted by some trend or innovation that, despite all the resources in the world, the incumbent interests will be incapable of responding to. Why is this? Why can’t businesses change and adapt? A large part of it is because they lost the ability to learn. They stopped being students. The second this happens to you, your knowledge becomes fragile.

The great manager and business thinker Peter Drucker says that it’s not enough simply to want to learn. As people progress, they must also understand how they learn and then set up processes to facilitate this continual education.

Oth­erwise, we are selling ourselves — and our careers — dreadfully short.

This piece is adapted from Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy, published by Penguin Portfolio



“Among men who rise to fame and leadership two types are recognizable—those who are born with a belief in themselves and those in whom it is a slow growth dependent on actual achievement. To the men of the last type their own success is a constant surprise, and its fruits the more delicious, yet to be tested cautiously with a haunting sense of doubt whether it is not all a dream. In that doubt lies true modesty, not the sham of insincere self depreciation but the modesty of “moderation,” in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose.” – B.H. Liddell Hart

When we’re young and just setting out in our careers we tend to assume that the greatest impediments to our progress and success are external to us. We blame our bosses and “the system” but we rarely think that we might be our own worst enemies, sabotaging ourselves right when we are beginning on our path.

Too often the obstacle that impedes our progress the most is internal—our own ego.

Yes, all of us, with all our talent and promise and potential, if we don’t control our ego, risk blowing up before we start. Talent, as Irving Berlin put it, is only the starting point. What we also need is self-management, self-control and humility.

Here are three ways that ego is the enemy of those important traits.

1. Talk, talk, talk.

At the beginning of any path, we’re excited and nervous. So we seek to comfort ourselves externally instead of inwardly. There’s a weak side to each of us, that—like a trade union—isn’t exactly malicious but at the end of the day still wants to get as much public credit and attention as it can for doing the least. That side we call ego.

The writer and former Gawker blogger Emily Gould—essentially a real-­life Hannah Horvath—realized this during her two-­year struggle to get a novel published. Though she had a six-­figure book deal, she was stuck. Why? She was too busy “spending a lot of time on the Internet,” that’s why.

“In fact, I can’t really remember anything else I did in 2010. I tumbld, I tweeted and I scrolled. This didn’t earn me any money but it felt like work… It was also the only creative thing I was doing.”

She did what a lot of us do when we’re scared or overwhelmed by a project—she did everything but focus on it. In fact, many valuable endeavors we undertake are painfully difficult, whether it’s coding a new startup or mastering a craft. But talking, talking is always easy. So we do that instead.

It’s a temptation that exists for everyone—for talk and hype to replace action.

Doing great work is a struggle. It’s draining, it’s demoralizing, it’s frightening—not always, but it can feel that way when we’re deep in the middle of it. We talk to fill the void and the uncertainty.

The question is, when faced with your particular challenge—­whether it is researching in a new field, starting a business, producing a film, securing a mentor, advancing an important cause—do you seek the respite of talk or do you face the struggle head­-on?

2. Early pride.

At 18, a rather triumphant Benjamin Franklin returned to visit Boston, the city he’d run away from. Full of pride, he had a new suit, a watch and a pocketful of coins that he showed to everyone he ran into. All posturing by a boy who was not much more than an employee in a print shop in Philadelphia.

In a meeting with Cotton Mather, one of the town’s most respected figures, Franklin quickly illustrated just how ridiculously inflated his young ego had become. As they walked down a hallway, Mather suddenly admonished him, “Stoop! Stoop!” Too caught up in his performance, Franklin walked right into a low ceiling beam.

Mather’s response was perfect: “Let this be a caution to you not always to hold your head so high,” he said wryly. “Stoop, young man, stoop—as you go through this world—and you’ll miss many hard thumps.”

The problem with pride is that it blunts the instrument we need to succeed—our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride. Most dangerously, this tends to happen either early in life or in the process—­when we’re flushed with beginner’s conceit. Only later do you realize that that bump on the head was the least of what was risked.

The question to ask, when you feel pride, then, is this: What am I missing right now that a more humble person might see? What am I avoiding, or running from, with my bluster, franticness, and embellishments?

It is far better to ask and answer these questions now, with the stakes still low, than it will be later.

3. Don’t be passionate.

Early on in her ascendant political career, a visitor once spoke of Eleanor Roosevelt’s “passionate interest” in a piece of social legislation. The person had meant it as a compliment. But Eleanor’s response is illustrative. “Yes,” she did support the cause, she said. “But I hardly think the word ‘passionate’ applies to me.” As a genteel, accomplished, and patient woman born while the embers of the quiet Victorian virtues were still warm, Roosevelt was above passion. She had purpose and direction.

Today it’s all about passion. Find your passion. Live passionately. Inspire the world with your passion.

People go to Burning Man to find passion, to be around passion, to rekindle their passion. Same goes for TED and the now enormous SXSW and a thousand other events, retreats and summits, all fueled by what they claim to be life’s most important force.

Here’s what those same people haven’t told you: your passion may be the very thing holding you back from power or influence or accomplishment. Because just as often, we fail with—no, because of—passion. To be clear, this is not about caring. This is passion of a different sort—unbridled enthusiasm, our willingness to pounce on what’s in front of us with the full measure of our zeal, the “bundle of energy” that our teachers and gurus have assured us is our most important asset.

Instead, what we require in our ascent is purpose. Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundar­ies. Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function. The critical work that you want to do will require your deliberation and consideration. Not passion.

Passion is about. (I am so passionate about ______.) Purpose is to and for. (I must do ______. I was put here to accomplish ______. I am willing to endure ______ for the sake of this.) Actually, purpose deemphasizes the I.

Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself. “Great passions are maladies without hope,” as Goethe said. Which is why a deliberate, purposeful person operates on a different level, beyond the sway or the sickness.

It’d be far better if you were intimidated by what lies ahead—humbled by its magnitude and determined to see it through regardless. Leave passion for the amateurs. Make it about your purpose: what you feel you must do and say, not what you care about and wish to be. Then you will do great things. Then you will stop being your old, good-­intentioned, but ineffective self.

Early on in our careers we are setting out to do something. We have a goal, a calling, a new beginning. Every great journey begins here—yet far too many of us never reach our intended destination. Ego more often than not is the culprit.

We build ourselves up with fantastical stories and talk, we pretend we have it all figured out, we let our star burn bright and hot only to fizzle out, and we have no idea why. These are symptoms of ego, for which humility and reality are the cure.

Do not let ego derail your career—before it even begins.

This piece is adapted from Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy, published by Penguin Portfolio.



Sometimes there is nothing like a 900-page biography. Most of the time though, nobody has time for such a thing. Especially with many modern biographers who refuse to take a stand that resembles judgement towards their subjects.

After all, we read biographies to learn and improve ourselves, not to simply accumulate facts about someone we’ll never meet.

This leads to one of my favorite categories of books I like to recommend: moral biographies. That is, short biographical sketches about great men and women in history, written with an eye towards practical application and advice. As in, have a moral rather than about morality. They are often more anecdotal than historical, apocryphal than accurate but they get the job done. (Incidentally, this was the model I tried to base my book The Obstacle Is The Way on, though I hardly consider myself in the same league.)

Below are some of my favorites. I hope you enjoy them.

How They Succeeded: Life Stories of Successful Men Told By Themselves by Orison Swett Marden Written in 1901 these are uplifting business oriented biographies of men like Marshall Field, John D Rockefeller, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison and women like Helen Gould and Julia Ward Howe (creator of Battle Hymn of the Republic). I was referred this book by Maria Popova over at Brainpickings and loved it—I’ve referred to it many times since reading it.

Lives of Eminent Philosophers Volumes I & II by Diogenes Laertius Ironically, Diogenes’ most famous biography in this collection is of the other Diogenes—Diogenes the Cynic. Other excellent and illustrative sketches include Zeno, Ariston, Cleanthes and Chrysippus the Stoic. Heraclitus is another great biography. All of these vary in length. Zeno is over 150 pages, Herillus (not to be confused with Heraclitus) is 2 pages. But regardless of length, they are all quite good. My favorite little quirk of the book is Diogenes’ weird poem that he writes about each philosopher and of course the credulity with which he reports on their unusual deaths (on that note, you may also like the book The Book of Dead Philosophers, a book on how many of the world’s most famous philosophers supposedly died.)

Lives of the Later Caesars by Anonymous Written by an anonymous author (possibly multiple) in the 4th century, these biographies are a mix of myth, legend and fact about some of the most powerful men who ever lived: the Roman emperors. We have Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Trajan, Avidius Cassius, Severus and countless others. I’m sure you can guess my favorite subject. Also try The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by the peerless Robert Graves, these are more biographies of the Roman emperors—from Julius Ceasar to Domitian.

Plutarch’s Lives Clearly the master of this genre, Plutarch wrote biographies of famous Greeks and Romans around the year 100 AD. As always, I tend to default to the Penguin collections. I strongly recommend Plutarch’s Lives Vol. I & II, Essays, and The Makers of Rome: Nine Lives. His book On Sparta is also a collection of biographies (and aphorisms) from the famous Spartans. There is a reason that Shakespeare based many of his plays on Plutarch—not only are they well-written and exciting but they exhibit everything that is good and bad about the human condition. Greed, love, pain, hate, success, selflessness, leadership, stupidity—it’s all there.

The Works of Robert Greene You can argue that the master heir to this tradition is Robert Greene. What is the 48 Laws of Power but a series of biographies—moral lessons—from interesting figures in history? Naturally when I say moral I don’t mean morality, I mean the stories have a moral. From Robert Greene you can learn about Napoleon, Machiavelli, Cortez, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, FDR, Temple Grandin, PT Barnum, and 50 Cent in an accessible way that is really quite difficult to replicate anywhere else.

Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy Written by President Kennedy when he was bedridden after back surgery, Profiles in Courage recounts the inspiring acts of eight different American Senators, including John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston, and Robert A. Taft. Kennedy had recently been elected as the junior Senator from Massachusetts and was inspired to write a book after reading a passage from The Price of Union about an act of courage by John Quincy Adams while serving in the Senate. It was heartening to read about Senators willing to cross party lines and stand up for their principles given the current state of our Congress.

The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by Giorgio Vasari A friend and peer of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael Titian and all the other great minds of the Renaissance sat down in 1550 and wrote biographical sketches of the people he knew or had influenced him. What I like about this book is that the profiles are not about statesmen or generals but artists. There are so many great lessons about craft and psychology within this book. The best part? It was written by someone who actually knew what he was talking about, not some art snob or critic, but an actual artist and architect of equal stature to the people he was documenting.

Founders At Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days by Jessica Livingston Now this one is certainly a little less historical than the others, if only because most of the profiles are about companies founded in the last ten years. Written by Jessica Livingston, a founder of YCombinator, the book profiles some of the hottest and most successful startups in Silicon Valley history. It shows how the founders managed to create massive growth, usually with very few resources. Now I’m not saying that companies like Hot or Not compare with the accomplishments of Pericles or Da Vinci, but you can certainly see how this book captures a moment in time—and its leading men and women—and what that means. This is the most current book on the list (besides mine) but I think many of you will like it. Plus you can learn a lot about the tech scene in one swoop.

If you never took a history course, hell if your parents never taught you anything, these little books could help. They show us how to live and how not to live. And best of all, you can read about a bunch of different people in one book.

What we choose to do with that information is up to us, of course. I hope you all use it wisely and get as much out of it as I did.

And if you have room for another book of such stories, try my book The Obstacle Is The Way for stories about Amelia Earhart, Arthur Ashe, Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Abraham Lincoln.

This post was published originally on Thought Catalog