April 20, 2009

No offense to my dad, but I don’t remember getting a whole lot of advice as a kid. And considering how many of the former responsibilities of the family are getting pushed off onto society or dropped all together, this was probably a good thing. Today, the onus to learn life lessons falls almost entirely on the individual.

On my bookshelf, I have Life books. Books that were formative or influential and had implications outside their immediate reading. When I don’t feel like reading something new, I pick one of them up and flip through it. There’s this book called The Harder They Fall, which for about 300 pages is entirely about some boxing match, but it’s on that shelf because the last page has this wonderful paragraph about thinking we can “deal with filth without becoming the thing we touch.” I also have a delicious tag that I try to keep important articles in. Ones that make me think “what an asshole” or “keep that in mind” or “you should be so lucky to ever become that person.” The people who wrote them probably had no idea that their topic could be interpreted in such a way, which is the whole point.

The problem with a lot of advice is that it’s a good part projection of the other person, and not about you. What I like to do is search out things that speak to me, that I can tweak into becoming some sort of lesson rather than an explicit instruction from someone else. Chances are you’re going to wake up one day and find yourself in a situation you don’t know how to deal with. But if you’ve properly prepared yourself, you should have the tools on hand to work something out.

What I’m saying is that there is a critical distinction between the crap you read about box office economics, or tech acquisitions or random chatter about the future of the media and what has real implications for your actual life. One is like the clacking chatter on the floor of the stock exchange and the other, a private conversation in a lush, quiet office. One matters, and the other is distracting, vicarious bullshit that would so instantly go mute if someone told you that you were dying or had a few million dollars in a bank account.

So which one should you spend the most time organizing or collecting? Which one are you going to turn to if things go to shit? Or, finally, who is more respected, a master of wisdom or information?

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.

7 responses to Life

  1. I have far more respect for a master of information. That encompasses people like Henry Ford, not so intelligent himself, but he build a framework of smart people and could get any question answered. I see people today who can’t even get a correct answer from google and just shake my head. Aside from being the best thing invented since the alphabet, the internet also has the distinction of dumbing down the population, and even more so than news print, people are easily led astray. DIGG has a scary sort of power over the weak minded.

    I have only met 2 masters of wisdom in my life. Most people try to pass themselves off that way, but really only know a few ‘Asian clichés’. Keep in balance, flow like the water type stuff. Heck, anyone can sound wise of they only speak half as slow as they do normally and don’t finish every other sentence.

    ps ever been to BRC?

  2. Ha, Ben, Fortune asked if Dov wanted to give any advice for that article you linked to. It was one of the first things I handled for AA.

    @other guy (since I’m not calling you pizzamancer)

    What are you talking about? Not only is your Ford analogy like the definition of someone who wasn’t a master of information but was wise and practical and knew how to make important, ethical decisions but it’s the same type of person I talked about last week when I wroter about tinkerers.

    There is a large difference between an actual wise person and the strawman you made up based on some weirdos you met.

  3. I never really understood your penchant for biographies, but this sheds some more light on it. Seeing how other people (especially successful people) lived their lives is a great way to figure out your own.

    Or am I way off?

  4. Great post, Ryan. I don’t have anything profound to say. Just wanted to show my appreciation for being a consistently quality writer. Thanks man, and keep up the good work!

  5. You could just call me Chris if you liked. BRC=Burning Man.

    I agree there is a huge difference, but my point was that finding those actual wise people is hard. It is pretty much easier to discount them all and throw away the baby and the bath water rather than look for them. I found the biggest (deepest, wisest?) masters of wisdom when I wasn’t looking for them. Conversely, you can find Masters of Information by looking for them.

    Henry Ford was a bad example. In fact he was probably one of the rare masters of both, with his vision based on wisdom and his ability and success based on information.

  6. So, what “speaks to me” from this entry, Ryan, is the notion of a choice: we can look for a prescription for how to live, or we can equip ourselves with tools to deal with whatever comes at us.

    It takes constant effort to develop the latter, and I think your critique might be a little harsh since, as Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it,

    “What is the hardest thing in the world? To think.”

    Your system of Delicious bookmarks sounds easy on the surface, but it’s obvious that the real value is the mental effort you put into “tweaking” other peoples’ writing for your own life.

    Also, “distracting, vicarious bullshit” is the best turn of phrase I’ve heard all week.