The Terrain

January 10, 2010 — 17 Comments

Your mind plays tricks on you. They brought me in because I’m the best. They want me to implement my way. This is foolish. This is ego-driven self-destruction.

Most of your impulses are bullshit. Most of your ideas suck. What you think is so important now will embarrass you not long from now.

Now that you’re out of school and on your own, you need to carve a space where these failures don’t define you. Where they don’t provide ammunition for others to dismiss you. In fact, the most important thing a company looks for when they hire a young person is not his skill but his ability to maintain and utilize those skills within the existing order. Doing this depends on your ability to understand and appreciate the terrain – the realities of the environment you’re hoping to succeed in.

Terrain takes a variety of forms. In social politics, Alinsky knew that tradition was the terrain. On the internet, it’s the way that information is communicated and spread. In organizations, personalities are the terrain.

Understanding and internalizing these intricacies requires a certain type of patience and humility. The wherewithal to come in and say nothing. You have to subjugate what you want with how things are.

Michael Polanyi, the scientist and philosopher, knew that belief in tradition was the key with which scientists often unlock the greatest discoveries. Each advancement takes for granted those that preceded it – implicitly they value the current system by nature of expanding and altering it. Those without the ability to take certain assumptions as a matter of faith are unable to proceed in any direction. They’re paralyzed by their own skepticism, like a revolutionary movie producer so distracted by the inefficiencies in union rules that he takes on the Teamsters at the expense of actually making a movie.

Thurgood Marshall had a mentor who refused to give him a job after law school. He told him he needed to get his “head kicked in” before he was worth anything to him. So Marshall left and was thrown around by racist judges and double standards and garbage cases. Through it he learned the secrets of the white legal system, secrets he later used to dismantle its many problems.

Consider a scientist who rejects Polanyi’s notion or a more conceited Thurgood Marshall. Both are stopped short of contribution because of their inability to develop a foundation with which they advance their goals. They are like a young person too fragile to stomach and tolerate conditions they don’t approve of.

The next time you find yourself in a new environment, dedicate weeks or even a few months to understanding the terrain. Give yourself time to be underestimated. Familiarize yourself with the system so you know what to do when you fuck up, so nothing is irreparable or permanent. Quieting your ego is not the same as changing your principles, in fact, it’s the best way towards implementing them.

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.

17 responses to The Terrain

  1. I was in the US Army during Vietnam – yes, I’m an old fart. What you said, was summed up in “You have to earn your stripes,” meaning ‘don’t come here mouthing orders until you know what to do and have some experience’. It also meant that a new guy did not have the privilege of expressing his opinion until he had proved himself worthy of informed opinion.

    How often I wish people could learn these lessons early in life. Good post.

  2. Opinions are like hookers: they all suck. Some just cost more.

  3. I think the answer to much of all of this is to not take yourself so damn seriously. Studies have shown that high status people usually have a better sense of humor than low status people. While some may believe that it is their position that allows them to have a sense of humor, I believe that it is their sense of humor that allows them to have the position. Slavery is a state of mind. High status/character is one as well, and you don’t achieve it unless you eliminate the ego.

    Very thoughtful post. Got me thinking some as always. Thank you.

  4. Mr. E: Eliminate the ego and then what? Have a bit of fun? Congratulations: you’ve achieved a state of complete mediocrity. Take yourself seriously, take your work seriously. If this wasn’t serious then you wouldn’t care what paths you took anyway. What matters is separating the layer of ego driven illusion from the reality that lies beneath. You do this because reality matters to you, not because you want to feel better, which incidentally you will when you fully come to terms with it.

  5. I agree with Mr. E, and think you misinterpreted him James. He’s not talking about neglecting your responsibility. He’s talking about not being high strung (This is not an implied accusation against you). Your last few sentences pull almost straight from The 50th Law. I’d cite a different Robert Greene example and the image of water, fitting the container we’re placed in.

    An easy-going jovial nature and a dedication to your craft aren’t mutually exclusive. Letting the stress blow over you makes you more adaptable.

  6. P.S. – I think the important part about pliability is that it prepares you better to quiet your ego. You’re more open to humility about what you’re doing and the possibility that you’re making mistakes that should be corrected. I think more high strung people are perfectionists, certainly, but they also tend to be more closed to criticism once they get an inkling of experience.

  7. James, what I read in your comment was, “You can’t have fun, take things lightly, and still be productive.” I disagree wholeheartedly. Then you go on to tell me to separate ego-driven illusion from reality? Why even strain yourself separating it when you could just throw it out altogether. There is no you. That’s mental garbage.

    You can indeed take yourself lightly and still be wildly productive. There is a strange phenomenon in the universe that rewards the nonchalant and tortures the desperate. I’m not saying don’t have goals, just don’t make them life or death. Simply do what has to be done, and eliminate the ego. The world will be a better place when people begin to act in accord with nature rather than getting caught up in the “me me me” mentality.

  8. The thing is: you don’t need to be humble to not be arrogant. You don’t need to relax to not be vain. By all means, have fun and enjoy life, but don’t make fun of the stuff that matters to you. It’s a fallacy to assume that someone who takes themselves seriously is desperate or high-strung. It’s also wrong to assume they cannot have fun. They can and they will, just not at the expense of things they strive towards: their ideals.

    You shouldn’t throw out the ego (that will be throwing yourself out), you only throw away fantasies that are clouding your vision. You do this because you want to achieve more, and you want these achievements to matter.

  9. You want to take yourself seriously to achieve more and make your achievements matter more? Being so attached to the outcome is exactly what will drive you crazy. You are so worried about how things will look at the end that you are missing the whole journey of getting there. Detachment from outcome has a weird way of allowing you to achieve MORE, since you are more focused on what you have to do right now.

    And if your achievements are worth anything in the first place, they will matter no matter how you think of yourself. When you say that you want to take yourself seriously to make your achievements matter more, that reeks of a high-strung, praise-seeking mentality.

    There is no need for the ego, or for “yourself” for that matter, because that’s not really you. You are your actions, your values, your relationships. You are not that ego-driven illusion that you conjure up in your mind.

    Nick brings up an excellent point in pliability as well.

  10. Ryan- a small housekeeping note: your ‘how things are’ link is not working. Says the URL is invalid.

  11. Mr. E: But surely the ego is the main element here? The only person whose judgement of my own achievements matters to me is myself. It cannot be another way because it’s you who’s living your life and it’s you who decides what’s valuable to you and what’s not.

    My definition of “you” lies in what you’ve created, not in who you are. The “you” — the person, the character, the ego, the human being who lives every day — will ultimately die and perish. Your accomplishments however will live on. They are the real “you”. If you’ve made a difference in this world, if you’ve developed new technologies, built useful products, wrote books or spearheaded vital research projects then this will live on even after you die. Perhaps for a few years, perhaps for many. Names like Leonardo da Vinci, Socrates, Thomas Edison, Julius Caesar among many, manny others are immortal. Do I want this form of immortality? Certainly. Can I get it? Only one way to find out.

    But you might say, what if you never accomplish anything remarkable and only suffer years of work — what if you miss out on all the fun and excitement of life by being too focused on whatever it is your goals are? It won’t matter. Why? Because I would have lived a life true to my ideals. If I die tomorrow, I would die as a man who’s walking the path he set before himself — a man with his own ethics, vision, ideals and determination. Pleasure is easy. You can submit to it daily for short term rewards, but ultimately what you’ve had will die with you. I’m not after this way of life because I don’t attach much value to it. This doesn’t mean I’m not having fun — it just means that the destination matters more to me than the journey because thats where *my* ego lies — my “me”.

  12. James and Mr. E:

    I’m enjoying the discussion the two of you are having, and I hope you’ll continue it. I used to live in a way similar to James, judging from what I’ve read in James’ posts. At some point in the last few years, I found myself hopeless and inexplicably panicked. After some reconsideration of how I was living and thinking, I came to see the value of non-attachment and not-doing, and I believe that this has opened me up to live in a more free and genuine way.

    Ultimately the earth and the sun will collide, and more ultimately the universe might collapse in on itself entirely at some point, and maybe even more ultimately all that matter might burst forth in another Big Bang-like event. So what does it all mean? Perhaps strangely, accepting these limitations has allowed me to appreciate living and working more than actively trying to produce something of value ever did.

    This is a conflict I face in my thoughts fairly often. I think I see where both of you are coming from, but I’d really like to see you guys continue this conversation. I would have just said that, but I felt like I should subject my own thoughts to some critical evaluation as well.


  13. What now? Let’s just all give up.

  14. Discovery has very little to do with tradition, but an extensive amount to do with terrain. You hollywood people don’t understand that it has nothing to do with ‘who you know’, or ‘who you quote’. You name drop like its important, giving less credit to the original idea and more importance to the fact you are using his/her ideas. The shallow connections that ‘Networking’ creates are very disheartening for people who are trying to be real people and still succeed. The terrain is very important not because it can get you places but because the real terrain isn’t just land, its also the people who inhabit the land.

    A real book is a book that you don’t already agree with.

    You are not the problem.

    Reading your blog, I don’t know anything about you or your identity, only superficial things like who you know, who you’ve read. You’re book list is filled with male dominating, self empowering, ‘how-to’, and these books lack any real thinking. What do you think about when you meditate, other than better ways to think? A worth meditation, no doubt, but useless unless you use this improved thinking to do actual thinking.

    btw, nice neuro-linguistic programming… having to type in ryanholiday at the end of this…

  15. Email this to Ramit Sethi…

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  1. 29 Lessons From The Greatest Strategic Minds Who Ever Lived, Fought, Or Lead | Thought Catalog - August 24, 2016

    […] 23. Study the Terrain — One of the most outstanding Union commanders from the Civil War was William Tecumseh Sherman. But before any of his achievements, he was a young officer who in his first few years in service, traversed nearly the entire United States on horseback—never taking the same path twice—and slowly learning with each posting. These lessons came surprisingly useful later on. His famous march to the sea—a strategically bold and audacious plan—was rooted in his reliance on the exact topography he had scouted and studied as a young officer. You need to study and understand the terrain you are operating in—whatever form it takes. […]