December 8, 2010

There is a famous speech by Demosthenes that he ends by chiding his fellow statesman for their flattery. As was common in Athens, the speakers who’d gone before him had filled their orations with examples of great and proud moments in the country’s history like victories at Marathon and Salamis. This was a distraction, he said, a trick to tell the audience what they wanted to hear instead of prompting them into the action they desperately needed to take, which in this case was war. “Reflect,” he concluded, “that your ancestors set up those trophies, not that you may gaze at them in wonder but that you may also imitate the virtues of the men who set them up.”

This is an interesting way of looking at things. Particularly for whatever it is that you may consider to be high arts of human achievement—be it sports or music or religion or finance. For me, I’d think of a book that was important. After we’ve finished we tend to think about how impressive or ground breaking it was. Maybe it changes how we think about the world or we use it for a project we’re working on but then after we’re finished, we just put it on a shelf…like a trophy. But Demosthenes’ point is that this is a hollow use of their achievement—even a self-destructive one.

Ignore this impulse. And ignore the charlatans who try to sell you a kind of congratulation by association—retroactive or through proxy—instead of on the bold action that they required. Focus on the precedent set by the accomplishment and the people who put it together. Like Demosthenes figured out: make them exhortations instead of examples.

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 Trophies

  1. Awesome post Mr. Holiday.

  2. I just delved back into some of the shit you’ve been writing, and it resonates, hard. I just finished up my bachelor’s (of commerce, fuck) and its just another trophy. A way to self-define. I didn’t work hard, I partied too much, and every day I thought about dropping out, starting a company, or travelling the world, because I hated where I was. Now I’ve got a piece of paper that means something to someone, but not me.

    Our generation is bombarded with bullshit advice daily. We see everyone everywhere who are travelling the world, coaching people and helping them achieve their dreams, being more productive, making $10,000 a month!, lifestyle designing….whatever bullshit you can come up with. And its hard to focus on anything, because there are a million examples of people doing better, more fun things, and making more money than what you’re going to end up doing. Making the decision to stop dreaming and start working is harder than its ever been.

    I’m just ranting here, but here’s one thing I’ve struggled with. Is it possible to be successful in the online world without all the bullshit pseudo-marketing follow your dream passion live anywhere make money positive thinking get rich quick bullshit? You call out some of the scams here (, but is it worth it to call them out? People don’t like realizing that what they believe in and model their lives after is complete BS. People don’t like to realizing that they probably won’t change the world. That everyone can read a Gladwell book and feel smarter because of it. But does calling them out do anything for you?

    I posed a simple question to my friend who changed their Facebook profile picture to a cartoon character to raise awareness for child abuse, (“Don’t you think that posting a funny cartoon as your profile trivializes an important cause without actually doing anything?”) and got absolutely torn apart by about 15 people who truly believed they were making a difference. All of a sudden I was an asshole, negative, cynical, and pro-child abuse. For calling out a bullshit campaign that is going to result in nothing positive. People like to believe they are making a difference without ever questioning their motives. Does it not make more sense to embrace it, even though you don’t believe it, then to fight it? Or is the best option to just quietly go about your work?

    • If you let “will this be the successful in the online world” act as your criteria for decisions you’re setting yourself up for a really shitty life.

  3. Its not that its my criteria for decision making, its the question whether or not its worth it to piss people off for no reason besides one’s ego. There’s definitely some people ‘online” doing things I respect and making money at it. But they tend to not call out the bullshit, and just keep doing what they’re doing.

    • Of course. But look who we’re not talking about: spammers, hackers, fraudsters–outright, blatant criminals. Why? Because its obvious to everyone that they are misleading or manipulating people.

      What I occasionally point out is the way that certain types play off our good intentions, our natural inclinations in order to enrich themselves (at our expense). The problem is that productivity bloggers and the like are not thieves or robbers, they are con men. The only way to lessen the impact of a con is to make its inner workings common knowledge.

  4. Great post, but I think the comments are even more interesting. I think many things could end up going wrong if you chase a path that is driven by an image that doesn’t really exist. James you seem pissed because you felt you should’ve “made it” somewhere by now (and annoyed that hacks are making buttloads of money.) I could be wrong, but I think this is becoming very common among recent graduates who hit various forms of a “brick wall”, and the image (or lack of image) they had for themselves hasn’t reach fruition. Also the lack of a social and professional safety net leaves one feeling mentally lost and well, meaningless? On attacking bullshit advice givers, I think the approach of calling them outright liars will make you the new target in defense of person A, which will just help his/her audience. Im not saying dont criticize, but do it differently. Just speculation, I could be entirely off base with my comment towards James.

  5. Another thought on trophies:
    I love the idea of viewing works of art/literature much less in a passive manner and in a more inspiring/proactive light. For instance, books should be read, analyzed and applied, but they could also relate a message of “this is what I’ve done, now its your turn”.BTW I don’t mean that it should be an endless game of one upping someone

  6. Impressive Ryan. It’s become a personal goal of mine to write like this by the time I’m your age (in four years).

  7. I don’t like you, and maybe that is because i really like Violent Acres, but i will admit, your writing style and skill is great, though i may not like the topic. Although it pains me to say this, you sir, are an excellent writer, keep it up.

  8. I can’t for the life of me find a particular quote by I think Marcus Aurelius… I looked through my copy of Meditations (Hays translation) and can’t seem to find it.

    All I can remember is the gist of the quote… “People will always root against you. Do you stop to interpret the sounds……” and then I blank out…. Was it even Marcus Aurelius or am I off base? If anyone can point me to the quote or the page number the quote is on in the Hay’s translation, I would be most appreciative. Thanks.

  9. Can I just say what a reduction to search out somebody who actually is aware of what theyre talking about on the internet. You positively know methods to deliver a difficulty to mild and make it important. Extra individuals need to learn this and perceive this side of the story. I cant imagine youre no more standard because you definitely have the gift.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Tweets that mention Trophies « -- - December 9, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Hobbesian, Old Pro. Old Pro said: Trophies: There is a famous speech by Demosthenes that he ends by chiding his fellow states… […]