Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday [Book Summary & PDF]

The aim of Stillness Is The Key is to show why slowing down is the secret weapon for those charging ahead, how to uncover and draw upon the stillness we already possess, and examines figures who exemplified its power.





Who is this book for?

The book is an attainable path to enlightenment and excellence, greatness and happiness, performance as well as presence, for every kind of person.

About the author

Ryan Holiday is an American author, marketer, entrepreneur and founder of the creative advisory firm Brass Check. He is a media strategist, the former director of marketing for American Apparel, and a media columnist and editor-at-large for the New York Observer.

In this summary

The aim of Stillness Is The Key is to show why slowing down is the secret weapon for those charging ahead, how to uncover and draw upon the stillness we already possess, and examines figures who exemplified its power.

Let’s dive into it!



Car horns, stereos, cell phone alarms, social media notifications, chainsaws, airplanes, personal & professional problems.

Who has the power to stop? Who has time to think or fight that deafening noise?

It’s impossible, however, to find a philosophical school or religion that does not regard the opposite of noise as the highest good and the key to a happy life.

“You may be sure that you are at peace with yourself,” Seneca wrote, “when no noise reaches you, when no word shakes you out of yourself, whether it be flattery or a threat, or merely an empty sound buzzing.”

In other words, stillness:

“To be steady while the world spins around you. To act without frenzy. To hear only what needs to be heard. To possess quietude – exterior and interior – on command.”

If you’ve given your best to something, knowing you’ve left absolutely nothing in reserve – that’s stillness.

If you’ve poured all of your training into a single, decisive moment of performance – that’s stillness.

If you’ve walked out alone on a quiet street at night as the snow fell, content of being alive – that, too, is stillness.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke articulated stillness as being “full, complete” where “all the random and approximate were muted.”

Let’s explore the three domains of stillness.

“To be steady while the world spins around you. To act without frenzy. To hear only what needs to be heard. To possess quietude - exterior and interior - on command.”Click To Tweet


We all face crisis. A business on the brink of collapse. An acrimonious divorce. A decision about the future of our career. A moment where the whole game depends on us.

In these situations we must:

  • Be fully present.
  • Empty our mind of preconceptions.
  • Take our time.
  • Sit quietly and reflect.
  • Reject distraction.
  • Weigh advice against the counsel of our convictions.
  • Deliberate without being paralysed.

Become Present

Being present demands all of us. It may be the hardest thing in the world.

As we struggle with a crisis, our mind repeats on a loop just how unfair this is, how insane it is that it keeps happening and how it can’t go on.

Don’t reject a difficult or boring moment because it is not exactly what you want. Don’t waste a beautiful moment because you are insecure or shy.

“This moment we are experiencing right now is a gift (that’s why we call it the present).”

Limit Your Inputs

Each of us has access to more information than we could ever reasonably use. We tell ourselves that it’s part of our job, that we have to be “on top of things,” and so we give up precious time to news, reports, meetings, and other forms of feedback.

To think clearly, it is essential to figure out how to filter out the inconsequential from the essential.

The important stuff will still be important by the time you get to it.

Empty The Mind

We’ve all experienced that: “Don’t mess up. Don’t mess up. Don’t forget.”

And what happens? We do exactly what we were trying not to do!

Whatever you face, don’t make it harder by overthinking, by needless doubts, or by second-guessing.

Be the librarian who says “Shhh!” to the rowdy kids, or tells the jerk on his phone to please take it outside.

Keep your mind clean and clear. Slow Down, Think Deeply. First impressions are misleading.

“The world is like muddy water. To see through it, we have to let things settle.”

So much of the distress we feel comes from reacting instinctively instead of acting with conscientious deliberation.

If we slow down, being patient and still, the truth will be revealed to us.

Start Journaling

Instead of carrying that baggage around in your head or heart, put it down on paper.

Instead of letting racing thoughts run unchecked or leaving half-baked assumptions unquestioned, force yourself to write and examine them.

Putting your own thinking down on paper lets you see it from a distance.

It gives you objectivity that is so often missing when anxiety and fears and frustrations flood your mind.

Cultivate Silence

If we want to think better, we need to seize the moments of quiet.

If we want more revelations – more insights, breakthroughs, or ideas – we have to create more room for them.

Limit your inputs and turn down the volume, so that you can access a deeper awareness of what’s going on around you.

By shutting up, we can finally hear what the world has been trying to tell us. Or what we’ve been trying to tell ourselves.

Seek Wisdom

Each school of thought agrees: we need to ask questions, study and reflect, be intellectually humble, experience failure and mistakes.

Wisdom is a sense of the big picture, the accumulation of experience and the ability to rise above the biases, the traps that catch lazier thinkers.

Find people you admire and ask how they got where they are. Seek book recommendations. Put yourself in tough situations. Accept challenges.

Find Confidence, Avoid Ego

Ego is unsettled by doubts, afflicted by hubris, exposed by its own boasting and posturing.

Confidence is the freedom to set your own standards and release yourself from the need to prove yourself.

A confident person doesn’t fear disagreement and doesn’t see swapping an incorrect opinion for a correct one as an admission of inferiority.

Let Go

The desire to be in control and to dictate the schedule and the process of everything we’re a part of holds us back from really mastering the subject we pursue.

Looseness will give you more control than gripping tightly to a method or a specific outcome.

Entrepreneurs don’t walk the streets deliberately looking for opportunities – they open themselves up to noticing the little things around them.


“On the surface of the ocean there is stillness,” the monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said of the human condition, “but underneath there are currents.”

Tiger Woods was mentally tough, cold-blooded, and talented. But that stillness existed only on the golf course; everywhere else he was at the mercy of his passions and urges.

Those who seek stillness must come to:

  • Develop a strong moral compass.
  • Steer clear of envy and jealousy and harmful desires.
  • Come to terms with the painful wounds of their childhood.
  • Practice gratitude and appreciation for the world around them.
  • Cultivate relationships and love in their lives.
  • Place belief in the hands of something larger than themselves.
  • Understand that there will never be “enough”.

Choose Virtue

Virtue is moral and civic excellence in the course of daily life.

It’s a sense of pure rightness that emerges from our souls and is made real through the actions we take.

From virtue comes good decisions and happiness and peace. It emanates from the soul and directs the mind and the body.

What’s important to me? What would I rather die for than betray? These questions lead us to virtue.

Heal The Inner Child

Many of us carry wounds from our childhood. It’s dangerous business, though, creating a monster to protect your wounded inner child.

It will take patience and empathy and real self-love to heal the wounds in your life. Take the time to think about the pain you carry from your early experiences. Your inner child needs a hug from you.

They need you to say:

“Hey, buddy. It’s okay. I know you’re hurt, but I am going to take care of you.”

Beware Desire

Lust is a destroyer of peace in our lives. A person enslaved to their urges is not free.

Only those of us who take the time to explore, question, extrapolate the consequences of our desires have an opportunity to overcome them and to stop regrets before they start.

Only they know that real pleasure lies in having a soul that’s true and stable, happy and secure.


No one achieves excellence or enlightenment without a desire to get better. Yet, the desire – or the need – for more is often at odds with happiness.

The mentality that gets an athlete to the top so often prevents them from enjoying the thing they worked so hard for.

The creep of more, more, more is like a hydra; satisfy one, and two more grow in its place.

Bathe In Beauty

Not that all beauty is so immediately beautiful. We’re not always on the farm or at the beach or gazing out over sweeping canyon views.

Which is why you must cultivate the poet’s eye – the ability to see beauty everywhere, even in the banal or the terrible.

Marvel at the fact that anything in life exists – that you exist!

Accept A Higher Power

The common language for accepting a higher power is about “letting Him or Her or It into your heart.” That’s it.

This is about rejecting the tyranny of our intellect, of our immediate observational experience, and accepting something bigger, something beyond ourselves.

Just know that this step is open to you. It’s waiting. And it will help restore you to sanity when you’re ready.

Enter Relationships

Anyone can be rich or famous. Only you can be Dad or Mom or Daughter or Son or Soul Mate to the people in your life.

Relationships take time. They expose and distract us, cause pain, and cost money. A good relationship requires us to be virtuous, faithful, present, empathetic, generous, open, and willing to be a part of a larger whole.

No one would say that’s easy. But rising to this challenge transforms us.

Stillness is best not sought alone. And, like success, it is best when shared.

Conquer Your Anger

Leaders, artists, generals, and athletes who are driven primarily by anger not only tend to fail over a long enough timeline, but they tend to be miserable even if they don’t.

Our stillness depends on our ability to slow down and choose not to be angry, to run on different fuel. Fuel that doesn’t hurt other people, our cause, or our chance at peace.

The leaders we truly respect have been fueled by love. Country. Compassion. Destiny. Reconciliation. Mastery. Idealism. Family.

All Is One

Whether it comes from the perspective of space, a religious epiphany, or the silence of meditation, the understanding that we are all connected – that we are all one – is a transformative experience.

Everyone is necessary. Even the people you don’t like.

No one is alone, in suffering or in joy. Down the street, across the ocean, in another language, someone else is experiencing nearly the exact same thing.

Still, too often we forget it, and we forget ourselves in the process.


“Sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?”

Immediately, Churchill replied, “Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.”

To turn our bodies into allies, we need to:

  • Rise above our physical limitations.
  • Find hobbies that rest and replenish us.
  • Develop a reliable, disciplined routine.
  • Spend time getting active outdoors.
  • Seek out solitude and perspective.
  • Learn to sit – to do nothing when called for.
  • Get enough sleep and rein in our workaholism.
  • Commit to causes bigger than ourselves.

Say No

Each of us needs to get better at saying no. As in:

  • “No, sorry, I’m not available.”
  • “No, I’m going to wait and see.”
  • “No, I don’t like that idea.”
  • “No, I don’t need that – I’m going to make the most of what I have.”

You’re often being asked to give a piece of your life, usually in exchange for something you don’t even want.

Remember, it’s your life & time that you can never get back.

“When we know what to say no to, we can say yes to the things that matter.”

Take A Walk

“Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

These are the words of the first existentialist philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard.

A good walk is an embodiment of the concepts of presence, of detachment, of emptying the mind, of noticing and appreciating the beauty of the world around you.

Build A Routine

Most people wake up to face the day as an endless barrage of bewildering and overwhelming choices, one right after another. This is exhausting.

When we automate and routinise the trivial parts of life, we free up resources to do important and meaningful exploration.

We buy room for peace and stillness, and thus make good work and good thoughts accessible and inevitable.

Get Rid Of Your Stuff

“Mental and spiritual independence matter little if the things we own in the physical world end up owning us.”

We don’t need to get rid of all our possessions, but we should constantly question what we own, why we own it, and whether we could do without.

The more we own, the more we oversee, the less room we have to move and, ironically, the less still we become.

Give away what you don’t need.

Seek Solitude

It’s difficult to understand yourself if you are never by yourself. Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting.

We need solitude to refocus on prospective decision-making, rather than just reacting to problems as they arise.

Grab these moments. Schedule them. Cultivate them.

Be A Human Being

In Japan they have a word, karōshi, which translates to death from overwork.

Do you want to be a workhorse that draws its load until it collapses and dies? Is that what you were put on this planet for?

We’re not going to be able to do that if we have stretched ourselves to the breaking point.

Our body is a gift. Don’t work it to death. Don’t burn it out.

Go To Sleep

The philosopher and writer Arthur Schopenhauer used to say that “sleep is the source of all health and energy.”

We have only so much energy for our work, for our relationships, for ourselves. A smart person understands this and guards it carefully.

The greats protect their sleep, because it’s where the best state of mind comes from. They say no to things. They turn in when they hit their limits. They don’t let the creep of sleep deprivation undermine their judgment.

They are aware that everyone functions better when well-rested.

Find A Hobby

Josef Pieper wrote that “the ability to be ‘at leisure’ is one of the basic powers of the human soul.”

You can’t do leisure for pay, you can’t do it to impress people, no one is making us do it. You have to do it for you – assembling a puzzle, struggling with a guitar lesson, ladling soup in a homeless shelter.

There is nourishment in pursuits that have no purpose – that is their purpose.

Beware Escapism

Too often, the miserable think that an escape – literal or chemical – is a positive good. You can’t escape, with your body, problems that exist in your mind and soul. You can’t run away from your choices; you can only fix them with better choices.

What you seek will come only if you sit and do the work, if you probe yourself with real self-awareness and patience.

The next time we feel the urge to flee, travel inside your heart and your mind, and let the body stay put.

Build a life that you don’t need to escape from.

Act Bravely

“To see people who will notice a need in the world and do something about it… Those are my heroes.” – FRED ROGERS

Action is what matters.

  • Pick up the phone and tell someone what they mean to you.
  • Share your wealth.
  • Pick up the trash you see on the ground.
  • Step in when someone is being bullied – even if you might get hurt.
  • Tell the truth.
  • Maintain your vows, keep your word.
  • Stretch out a hand to someone who has fallen.
  • Do the hard good deeds.


Key takeaways

  • Stillness means to be steady while the world spins around you.
  • The three domains of stillness are the mind, the soul, and the body.
  • Mental stillness means to be fully present, to empty our mind, to sit quietly and reflect, and to reject distraction.
  • Stillness of the soul means to develop a strong moral compass, to avoid harmful desires, to practice gratitude, to cultivate relationships, and to understand when you’ve got enough.
  • To be still with your body, learn to say no, find hobbies, develop a disciplined routine, seek out solitude and perspective, get enough sleep, and commit to causes bigger than yourself.

Further reading

Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg. It combines the inspiring stories of top performers across a range of capabilities with the latest scientific insights into the predominant factors that drive performance in all domains.

Deep Work by Cal Newport. It is an indispensable guide to anyone seeking focused success in a distracted world, in a mix of cultural criticism and actionable advice.

Guidelines is my eBook that summarises the main lessons from 33 of the best-selling self-help books in one place. It is the ultimate book summary; Available as a 80-page ebook and 115-minute audio book. Guidelines lists 31 rules (or guidelines) that you should follow to improve your productivity, become a better leader, do better in business, improve your health, succeed in life and become a happier person.

Action steps

  1. Start journaling day (planning) & night (reflecting).
  2. Find leisure activities that nourish your soul and challenge your body.
  3. Sign up for Ryan Holiday’s daily newsletter at
  4. Download the complete book on Amazon.

This summary is not intended as a replacement for the original book and all quotes are credited to the above-mentioned author and publisher.