The Temptation

September 22, 2011

[The following is a message I posted to a group of people I met at a conference a few weeks ago. Following the event we were supposed to give an update on our work. I saw the community descending into the self-gratifying, escapist and Resistance-laden tendencies that often ruin the promise of great people and great groups. I thought it was relevant to everyone here too.]

Since I was a speaker, I am not sure I am able to win this thing but I thought I would post anyway. In the last 30 days I have: finished my book, written the business plan and secured investing for a new startup, negotiated a $3M Groupon deal, driven 3,000 miles, traveled to 4 states (two I’d never been to before), ran and swam almost every day, hosted some great dinner parties with friends, attended my first crab boil and did plenty of thinking. And most proudly, I posted in this group approximately zero times. I consider this last accomplishment integral to having been able to manage the others.

I hope the following message is not misinterpreted. I’m not looking to be a troll. But it’s a worthwhile risk to warn of the dangerous turn virtual communities can take.

The internet is seductive. It allows us to be a fantasy version of ourselves without the pain of earning it. Our natural tendency to inflate, distract and rationalize are—all too kindly—confirmed, supported and inflated further still. Congratulation comes easy, problems are glossed over, everything finds an audience. It becomes so easy to talk online about what we are doing or what we plan to do that, hey, the next thing we know the day is through and we didn’t have time to actually fit in doing any of it.

Add into that an inherently and achingly supportive group such as this and even the most grounded person can start to swim in the rising waters of their own grandiosity. Think about the temptation offered by all this: we can fly all over the world to meet with people who make us feel accomplished just by association, who keep us in our bubble of self-satisfaction. Feeling down? Hint at it and a dozen comments affirming your incredible worth are there by next time you log on. The idea that our work must earn these gifts is lost. After talking enough about them, our goals become so reified in our minds that actually accomplishing them seems unnecessary.

Here is the hard truth though: none of it is real. I would argue that it is toxic and self-destructive. I have seen plans for meet ups that will occur a half a year from now. I’ve seen links to conference calls, to web chats, to email lists and a dozen other things. There must be 50,000 words of kindness and inspiration posted here. In a different context, these are good things (they are certainly better than, say, doing heroin) but they are not what people like us need. We need to WORK. And to work quietly and humbly and with discipline. The only relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other. I have, and again I mean this with all the respect in the world, seen a lot of chatter in this group.

It was wonderful to meet all of you. I learned more at __________ than I have at every other conference I have ever been to combined, and then some. Some of the relationships I made there I know I will continue for years and years to come. If I could offer any service in return for the value I took from the event it would be this: the next time you see the red (1) alert from this group in the corner of your Facebook account, note it as a lost opportunity. Someone’s opportunity to work, to prove themselves, to say that thing which they claim to be compelled to say to the world, to make a difference, just evaporated. And needlessly so. Instead of seizing it, they came online and talked. They succumbed to taking easy credit instead of earning it the hard way. Don’t be that person.

Reading back what I have written so far, I feel I may have gotten a little carried away. But like the Stoics say to people who complain that their philosophy is too depressing: nobody needs a reminder that pleasure feels good. Sometimes its necessary to go the other direction and point out the negative side of things so we don’t become enslaved to them. I hope my post does that.

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.

42 responses to The Temptation

  1. This goes nicely with the Kierkegaard quote you posted a few months ago, which I think of often. Do you fantasize about disabling all comments on this blog?

  2. I am curious what the reaction to this post was? Did people say it was eye-opening or tell you off? Something in the middle?

  3. I think people do the same thing when they have a problem that they need to solve. I remember doing it a lot as a kid — “Mom, I failed this test and I have a really bad grade and I’m trying really hard but it was so hard and now I’m worried…” Once you enlist the sympathies of those around you, you don’t feel that push to make yourself work/create/achieve.

  4. I could see some taking this post in stride and others taking issue with it. As Andy Werner is, I am curious – what was the reaction?

  5. Hey Ryan, I’ve been following your blog for a bit and enjoy your musings. I like what you say here, mostly, but I find a strange parallel between your attitude in this most and your own frustrations not finding someone to date. Correlation is not causation but it seems like the same disconnect towards social interactions must somewhat influence how you interact with a potential significant other.

    Just something to think about – keep up the good work.

  6. Thanks Mr. Holiday.

    It’s mainly your writings here that have sensitized me to things I wouldn’t have noticed had I not read it, such as what empathy really is and the danger of reification.

  7. You have done all these things and yet a couple of weeks ago you were depressed. Congratulations.

    Having said that, I agree with you on the dangers of virtual communitites.

    • Those facts are related how? IN FACT, I believe I wrote a few weeks ago about not tying your feelings to accomplishments.

      • The relation: your way of living, which is conductive of what you’ve determined as accomplishments, is also conductive of depression.

        Ryan, I value the ideas you share with us through your writing. But, frequently, I am conflicted; I find that what you praise in a person’s character, in some ways, diverges from stoic values, the very foundation of what you advice.

        Half of the achievements you listed relate to financial successes. I don’t understand how this relates to stoicism. To quote Seneca:

        “And then we need to look down on wealth, which is the wage of slavery.”

        You use the stoic methods, but not for the same purpose. Seneca, Marcus, and other stoics did what they did because it was what the logos required of them. Business plans, investments, start-ups, is this what the logos require of you? How do these compare, not in depth, but in purpose, to Marcus’ achievements?

        The divergence further deepens when you take into account your, acceptably mild, depression. Seneca:

        “A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.”

        In the face of this, I only see two options: (1) stoic principles are wrong, and thus, Seneca was mistaken in the resulting carefree happiness; or (2) the way you have used stoic methods do not embody stoic principles.

        Like you, I’m not looking to be a troll. I’m not attacking your character. I think you understand this. This same divergence is something I struggle with, and I post in the hope that you’ll bring some light to it.

        • Here’s the third option: You misread and misconstrued what I wrote, you’re using a much to literal interpretation of stoicism and finally, you’re assuming I ascribe to it like a Christian and will bow down to their words like Bible verses.

          This was a specific instance where I was asked to list business and work accomplishments. I did so. Yet there is no mention of wealth there. It’s not MY $3 million dollars and the start up is going to be run as a non-profit. See what happens when you make assumptions?

          You need to wake up and get rid of your illusions about stoicism. Marcus was an emperor–handed over absolute power by those who had stolen it from the people. He did not earn it. He did not have to think about money, an occupation or business because they were irrelevant concerns to him. Seneca was an incredibly wealthy man. His words on money were impressive in light of his riches. But he still had them and it was still important. He didn’t give the money away, you’ll notice. Seneca was no Diogenes.

          And lastly, dude, I do not use “stoic methods” or “embody stoic principles.” I am a person. I draw from everything I can when and where it will improve my life. It happens that stoicism is that much of the time. In fact, I drew on a stoic metaphor in the very post we’re commenting on. But it is not my fucking religion. I do not and have never called myself a stoic. If you’re going to parse my words to find how they ‘relate to stoicism’ you are going to be confused and disappointed. You’re also wasting your time.

          Focus on yourself my friend.

          • Think about it this way: I’ve been doing this a long time, written hundreds of posts and analyzed many people and situations. Have you ever once seen me take something and say “But the stoics say…”?

            Never. That is not how things get done and it is a misuse of the material.

          • Have you ever once seen me take something and say ‘But the stoics say…’?”

            Maybe I misread your point, but in this very post: “But like the Stoics say to people who complain that their philosophy is too depressing: nobody needs a reminder that pleasure feels good.”

          • You know the difference between a metaphor and quoting as an authority right?

            Although you’re right the wording is funny

          • Didn’t you have a post or comment reply that shit on people/someone that was using stoicism as an experiment like dipping their feet in the water first?

          • Yep, is very probable this guy is full of crap.

        • I must admit I made a mistake; I do not follow stoicism, I’m just curious about it and, mistakenly, saw you as an example of the philosophy.

          I don’t understand the purpose of your ascetic devotion to business. That’s why I brought the point about financial success. I admire your discipline and self-direction. But why? What are you working towards? Why turn “friends into business relationships” and everything into an “opportunity”? To me it seems like a purposeless waste of good virtues, and, most importantly, a waste of one’s time here.

          You mention you draw from stoicism, as well as from other sources, to improve your life. And yet you’ve managed to be a depressed young adult. What does this tell about the sources you draw from? What does this tell about your advice?

          PS: I hope you understand that by posting I’m focusing on myself; I’m not posting to demand accountability from you, but so that I better comprehend some ideas I do not yet understand.

          • You nailed me–I’m a depressed young adult and my only devotion is to business.

            Do you not see the problem with what you’re doing? Or did you just want to double down on the mistakes you made the first time around?

            This blog is a small sample of my life. ALL writing is a small sample of the writer’s life (as in the person writing it, not to say that I am a writer). If you’ve ever wondered why I keep most of my private life private and discuss issues in their general sense rather than specifics it is precisely to avoid this kind of misunderstanding: people reading into things and making concocting theories about ‘what it all means’ together.

            Let’s be clear: you’re not trying to understand anything. You’ve got a smug little judgement of other people that you put an immense amount of work into trying to hint at indirectly because it makes you feel good about yourself. I’m telling you it’s a lame and obvious waste of time, particularly to do it on the internet. But if it distracts you from what you feel about yourself, have at it. If it allows you discount or dismiss my work, so be it (Btw, the questions you asked are all questions I’ve asked many times on this site to myself in the very posts you cherry picked examples from.) At least have the confidence to say it in plain English. Or better yet, say it on your own site.

          • I did not “nail” you.

            You said yourself you feel depressed.

            You are not making anything clear. If you do not know what you are working towards, you could have simply said that. I did not assume your intentions, like you did mine; I asked you: “what are you working towards?” Instead of answering the simple question you called me names. Is this response of a “humble” person? Is this the response of a centered mind? Perhaps you are humble and kind only to the persons you need to be; like a dog to its owner, a slave to its master.

            I originally commented because I found it paradoxical for a depressed man to give life advice. Would you take health advice from a sick person?

            I really hope the rest of your readers understand the comparison.

  8. Ryan,

    Your post is an excellent refresher for me. As someone who loves to talk, especially about himself and his accomplishments, this does a great deal to remind me the value of quietness and humility.

    Thank you for your insight.


  9. Atleast you have a life which I wish. BOy these days I been seeing way down mate. way down because of the economy and what not. You indeed are a catalyst booster.

  10. Another great post Ryan. hope you will have future blogs telling us more about your upcoming projects (book, groupon deal, newco, etc…).

    Also hope the big easy is still treating you well.


  11. Just turn off comments, Ryan. Oh, the inanity of it all.

  12. Bravo, man, great post.

    I saw this in myself and learned to cut it out, when I spent more time reading “research” about the projects I wanted to do, than actually going out and doing them. And those supportive words, eventually they felt undeserved since I wasn’t doing anything to earn them.

    Like Carl posted, this is a good reminder of the priorities… do the work first, focus on doing something, not on building yourself an image of what you want to do. When the work is done, the rest follows and is real, not a construct.

    Thanks for your great writing!


  13. Ben Kenobii Sahle September 23, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    Your posts remind me of this quote from Dr. Viktor Frankl who was quoting Goethe:

    “If we take man as he is, we make him worse, but if we take man as should be we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”

    I have been reading your site from the very start and I can honestly say your writting has become not only emotional honestly and authentic but incredible inspiring.



    • I like that quote a lot. I actually use it in my book, I’m just not sure how it applies. Can you explain?

      • For me, the post was about doing rather than talking about doing and that quote reminds me of that fact.

        You shouldn’t be simply talking about the cool things you plan on doing someday but you should be actively taking the concrete steps to achieve them. Not settling for what you are (and who you tell yourself you are), but actively striving to become who you can be.

        Your first paragraph states all these pretty awesome things you are doing and it doesn’t come off as bragging but rather like an indivdual who is pushing himselves to become not what he is but what he can be andI think from what you wrote you were actively trying to get that group on on that forum to push themselves to do the same. Not settling for what they are but pushing themselves to becoming what they can be.

        I hope that helps to explain.

  14. It’s easy to forget in daily life that praise is one of Marcus Aurelius’ indifferents.

  15. Thanks, Ryan. This definitely hit home with me. Lots to take away for me from this post. I appreciate the honest words.

  16. And this is my new homepage.

  17. This is probably going to be a re-wording of what you wrote but I still think it’s worth it.

    It recently occured to me that a fantaisie is a way to maintain in yourself the idea of a possible. Wether it’s about you fucking your GF’s friends, killing yourself or getting all the fame and recognition for whatever it is you’re working on, the end result is that the fantasie tells you “The universe in which this could happen exists. The person to which this could happen exists. This is in me to do.” It’s a way to reassure yourself by making part of you whatever it is your not doing at a given moment.

    The problem with that is that it only works to the extent that you eliminate every other living being from the equation. Nobody else but you actually gives a shit about your potential. If it doesn’t exist outside of yourself then it isn’t real to anyone but you. Worse, it means that if your trying to BS people into seeing it the same way you do, then what you’ve effectively become is a con man, trying to get people to buy into things that aren’t real. (You’ve already talked about it when mentionning a certain kind of blogging. “I shook Warren Buffet’s hand!” “Does that make it more pleasurable for when you masturbate?”)

    But the perversity of it all, as you pointed out, is that the integration of things you haven’t done into your identity destroy the incentive to actually realize them. “Could do” become just as good as doing. “It’s already in me. I’ve got nothing to prove.” But it also act as a barrier to achivement. Given that you’ve tricked yourself into believing that your “potential” mattered, the biggest risk to yourself becomes the idea of doing and then failing. “Well I guess it wasn’t in me after all.” You don’t say.

    So the incentive is toward more word, more chatter, more fantaisies to protect what you’ve already build and the internet is the perfect place for a person to prolong that process. If there is one place in the world were you don’t need to produce anything, where achievement don’t matter, where the assumptions you make about yourself to other won’t ever be questionned, it’s in an internet community. I don’t think that it actively encourage the fantaisies, but it doesn’t question them and that’s good enough.

    So having said that, what we must then do is understand what it is about those fantaisies which are so powerful. Why do they work? As a consequence of what other kind of thought do they begin to rise? How do you dispell their attractiveness?

    But yeah I think we’re saying the same thing I just throwed “fantaisie” into the mix.

  18. Nice work, Ryan! I re-tweeted this from someone, although I know you’re not an active Twitter user. With that said, I’ve been thinking about your focus here for some time. It’s important to represent your real-life online, rather than making your online presence what defines you away from the computer, tablet or mobile device. I think many of us are striving for that balance between the two, so thanks for the reminder to keep reality in perspective. Good luck with all of the highlighted efforts underway — hope we can connect sometime soon, IRL! 😉