The Best Article of My Career
I wasn’t able to share this article when it first came out, because it promptly sent the book out of stock on Amazon, where it remained so for almost the entire month of December. But now I can and I hope you like it.
Sports Illustrated: How a book on stoicism became wildly popular at every level of the NFL
At the center of perhaps the most unlikely Venn Diagram ever drawn, an even more unlikely group of humans overlap. There’s a former governor/bodybuilder/actor (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a hip hop star (LL Cool J), an Irish tennis pro (James McGee), an NFL lineman (Garrett Gilkey, Bucs), a renowned sideline reporter (Michele Tafoya, NBC), an Olympian (cross-country skier Chandra Crawford), a performance coach (Andy McKay, Mariners), a baseball manager (Joe Maddon, Cubs) and a college basketball coach (Shaka Smart, Texas). That’s just to start.
They’re connected by a book, The Obstacle Is the Way, by Ryan Holiday. It’s a book they’ve digested, drawn inspiration from and applied to their careers. It’s a book about stoicism, the ancient Greek philosophy and its principles, and it has sold more than 100,000 copies, been translated into 17 languages and reverberated in one place not even Holiday expected it to—the wider world of sports. He describes that as a “happy accident.”
The article goes on to talk about how the teams found it, what they got out of it and, what’s most interesting to me, why Stoic philosophy seems to be finding an audience in professional sports. It interests me because it’s so very much not what I expected when I wrote the book. When I pitched Portfolio—a business imprint—a book about an obscure school of ancient philosophy, athletes and celebrities were not who I had in mind. I was thinking business folks, everyday people, lovers of history.
But this was pretty absent minded of me. Because not only did the stoics love borrowing metaphors from wrestling, the Olympics, gladiatorial combat, chariot racing, stoicism had an immediate impact on me as a runner. The idea of pushing the body, testing its limits, preparing for trying ordeals, the presentness inherent in experiencing flow state, the importance of routine and commitment—these are the things that get me up each morning or away from my desk each afternoon to run. At a certain level, most athletes (and really, this is true in all fields) are more or less equally talented. What separates success from failure is the ability to manage the mental component, the motivation factor and the will to endure. The stoics have wonderful wisdom on morality and principled living, but their writing is particularly amazing on those three things.
In any case, one of the best parts about writing a book is watching it leave your hands and reach those of people you respect or admire. You often think a book will have one effect, but it turns out to have a completely different one. Robert Greene certainly didn’t expect The 48 Laws of Power to become popular in hip hop, yet it did. I certainly didn’t expect to talk to any NFL coaches when I wrote the book, but it’s been an eye-opening and educational experience.
Ironically, it’s also been one that introduced me to a bunch of books that have now become my favorites. I read Education of a Coach by David Halberstam about Bill Belichick after hearing from the Patriots. One coach recommended I read The Winner Within by Pat Riley, another that I read The Way To Love by Anthony de Mello. There have been many others.
I’ll add one other thing that helped make this possible. I put my email in the back of it—and I put my email prominently on my site and encourage people to use it. Yes, that’s meant I get a lot of email and spend a lot of time replying—for free—answering questions, helping people with problems, giving recommendations, dealing with jerks, haters and boatloads of spam. But it’s also opened me up to the serendipity of the coaches who felt OK shooting me a note after they read the book. One conversation led to another, which led to introductions, which led to sending books out, which led to the article. That doesn’t happen if you build walls around yourself, that doesn’t happen if you don’t put the time in.
I should have expected that too. I’ve always been the type of person who ‘reaches out.’ When I read something I like or have my mind blown by someone, I don’t just let that thought flitter away. I try to do something with it. Some of the mentorships I’ve had were a result of this impulse, some of my favorite friendships and memories too. I should have figured that successful coaches, athletes, musicians, entrepreneurs would be the same way. They wouldn’t have gotten where they were without that habit. I just (thankfully) wasn’t presumptuous enough to figure it would happen to my book that would trigger it in them.
Thanks for letting me share and most of all, for supporting the book and my writing before anyone else. I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you and enjoy the article.
PS, if there is someone in sports or business that you think might like the book, please send them the link (or a copy). If you need help, let me know.
The Obstacle is the Way helped pull me out of a bad funk nearly two years ago and I’ve been applying its wisdom ever since. There’s always more improvement to be made, but I’ve been very fortunate to make the improvements I have thanks to the foundation laid by this book. It’s been great diving into the themes and lessons presented here. Much thanks from a big fan.
I was first exposed to The Obstacle Is The Way via this SI article. I don’t even read SI regularly. I understand the Amazon issue, I bought 5 copies and handed one to my 24 yr old son, who is frozen with indecision post graduation and I’m sure this book will help him gain understanding and hopefully feel excited about jumping into the future with energy and enthusiasm. Thanks Ryan!
Without a doubt this book is in my all time top 5 and is something I recommend often.