The Ties That Bind

November 10, 2010

A good contemptuous expression to remember: how power is inextricably linked with its inverse. Become empowered and simultaneously disempowered. For instance, the now standard prescription for a president after he leaves office—the former most powerful man in the world—is sign a book deal, relegating him, no obligating, him to slock it on television shows and an endless series of hostile interviews. Then he has to raise the money for his own monument to his own honor, the Presidential Library. And it’s all downhill from there, see: Bill Clinton, the most powerful man in the world twice removed, finding himself on Pittsburgh’s 96.1 Morning Freak Show with Mikey and Big Bob.

Listen to a CEO answering dumb questions from shareholders during conference calls with resigned disdain. Watch celebrities gain the love of the world only to lose the ability to ever be in a loving relationship with one person. Wonder why the narrative of history seems to be inescapably similar for every generation of important people. Think about often authority over actually means compelled to and that the more powerful the position, the more inalterable the prescription. This is what Seneca meant when he said that ‘slavery dwells beneath marble and gold.’

It goes without saying what an empty, misguided emotion jealousy can be but it’s a little more difficult to consider that what we’ve been aspiring to was really to wrap ourselves up in chains. That we seem to think that achieving more and moving higher is to take a step towards freedom instead of what it really is: a different but likely smaller cage. This is not to convince ourselves to sit around and do nothing but to come to the conclusion, after adjusting our eyes just right in order to see how comically predetermined most of the choices famous, rich, powerful or otherwise ‘inspiring’ people make, that perhaps we ought to orient our priorities accordingly.

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.

20 responses to The Ties That Bind

  1. Ryan, your blog is always thought-provoking, and you seem like a smart guy. But you REALLY need to do a better job of proofreading your writing. “Then he has to start he has to raise the money.” Almost every post has some blatant error like this, things I’m sure you could catch yourself if you just reread them a couple times. Now, I know that little mistakes like this don’t make your statements any less true or useful – but they detract from the experience of reading, and they make it seem like you haven’t put that much thought or planning into your ideas. Even if you have.

    No need to post this as a visible comment. Just take the advice for what it’s worth, and keep up the good work.

    • This is a legit criticism. Part of the problem is that I actually spend too much time on them and that I can’t notice the errors. They almost always come in post-editing when I’m just making little changes. Thanks for catching it.

  2. Funny – I was just thinking about this today. W is making the rounds pimping his new book, and I kept thinking about how it’s probably a double-edged sword for him. In one respect, he probably loves being in the limelight again. (Let’s face it – who doesn’t?) But, it’s probably also a real hassle, and by the time he’s home again, he’ll have had his bubble burst a dozen times. For what??? Money? Nah, he’s got plenty. Legacy, which is really just canonized status, right? You bet.

    It’s amazing how much of what we do is driven by emotions that were designed for a world that doesn’t even exist. We admire and pursue people with high status and emulate them because we want status for ourselves. We do this because tens of thousands of years ago – when humans were cavemen and women living in small groups with close kin – our ancestors obtained at least enough status to stay alive long enough to reproduce.

    Now, like carbon-based robots, we’re simply executing the programs that kept our ancestors alive. And, as if the story comes right from Aldous Huxley or Isaac Asimov, most folks are completely oblivious to how little control they really exercise over the things they want and the decisions they make. Most people are on auto-pilot and they don’t even know it.

    To me, it isn’t enough to remind people to be careful what they wish for. My experience has been that less than 10% of people act on good advice. Most just agree and then go on doing what they’ve always done. However, when people learn to spot the caveman programs at work in their daily lives, the reminder that we have a choice becomes more than words. It’s a matrix-like disillusionment. And making choices because of what *we* want in life (versus what would have produced offspring for our ancient ancestors) becomes an imperative.

    For me, it’s simple. I focus on “the option”. I want to be able to do whatever I want, wherever I want, for as long as I want. And what I want revolves around the people and activities that are really important over the long haul in life. I pursue money to have the option, not to impress people I wouldn’t like if I knew them. I don’t pursue status-based power, because the option is true power. Let the caveman robots squabble over the deck chairs.

    • I think it’s partly legacy, but honestly, I think it’s that even the most powerful people in the world get swept up in the Standing Operating Procedure. This is just what people do in those situations so why not do it? Have a successful blog, turn it into a book! Even if most blog books sell poorly and you know it will reach less people than your site? Yes, this is what people do in this situation.

  3. There’s a couple ideas in here that could and should be separate posts.

  4. Perhaps this raises a bigger question of succumbing to predetermined (yet imaginary) obligations?

    Signing a book deal after losing your position as President might be similar to going out with the town whore after a divorce. You’re not pleased, but you have to do something to feel better.

  5. Ryan I appreciate that your responses to comments have been more friendly of late.

    • And you, Justin, must be the self-appointed evaluator of the friendliness of blog owners? Pleasure meeting you! 😉

      • I, for one, agree with Justin. Ryan makes great points but has posted some acerbic replies to commenters.

        The friendly replies are appreciated by me as well, just communicating that appreciation 🙂

        • Justin…err, sorry, DCF,

          If the tone of a blogger’s comments moves you more than his posts, you must take your subscription elsewhere*. Pronto! As for the rest of us, we love Ryan AS HE IS…the complete package.

          *Try this :

  6. Like all great truths, your posts are rattling at first, and then profoundly calming. Keep them coming dude!

  7. Who the fuck are you, Karma? Did you just give your dick a nice lingering swipe when you typed that shit out? I bet you think you’re real smart. Dude gives feedback and then you respond to it like its a personal insult. Fuck you.

    • Wasd, I think your reply was way too un”friendly” and “acerbic” to be acceptable around these parts. Just you wait till Justin and DCF read it. They are sure to pull you up.

      p.s. Please don’t come back in a fourth avatar. This is getting boring now. *yawn*

  8. I appreciate you coming to my defense and all but I don’t think this is really a big deal.

    • Actually it *is* kind of a big deal. A person comes to your blog and enjoys your posts but instead of expressing gratitude, and encouraging you to write more, he whines about some imagined slight in your tone of voice.

      This is like fleeing to a free democratic country to escape the repressive regime back home. But instead of expressing gratitude to the natives of the new country, and adapting to their customs and helping make their institutions stronger, you do the reverse! You force your new country to adapt to your regressive ways (the very ways that you fled from!).

      This guy who keeps taking offence at your comments doesn’t realize that you owe your readers NOTHING. Heck, if you wanted, you could start every comment with a “You fu**ing retard, don’t you understand…” and nobody could do a thing about it. The only choice readers have is to stay or leave. But this guy’s constant whining makes me concerned that you may take his view to be the popular opinion, and change your style and become more of a …*shudder*… nice guy who avoids friction (aka BORING!). And that would be a loss to me. So as you can see, this is more about MY selfish interest than about defending you. 😉

      p.s. I’m enjoying unmasking his avatars 🙂

      • The reality is that you are closer to a troll than any of these other people, regardless of your intentions. From now on, I’ll decide what I do or don’t owe people as well as whether or not that gets articulated.

        You can take your own ultimatum to stay or leave. But if you stay, it better be toned down and less crazy than what you have been showing.

  9. With each passing year, I realize with increased clarity how much of modern life is really geared toward the increase of social status — either for ourselves, or for our children.

    So many of the decisions we make are unconsciously motivated to improve our presentability, to help us “move up,” or give our kids better “opportunities.”

    When I was a kid, one of my favorite fables was The Emperor’s New Clothes. Some part of me must have been very wise at that age!

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