Overcoming Self-Doubt: Stillness is the Key

Pietro della Vecchia - Sisyphus
"Sisyphus" by Pietro della Vecchia (Public domain).

I am a fan of Ryan Holiday's work. I tell my students in my leadership and politics classes, "Be like Ryan". Read, write, think about your future. Develop a philosophy - rules to live by. Establish your purpose - what a colleague calls one's ikigai.

Ryan Holiday reads books. He is well-read. He writes books. He lives on the land. He is doing in his early thirties what I am still not quite able to do in my fifties. But that's not the point. 

As Theodore Roosevelt warned, "comparison is the thief of joy". I know all about my own circumstances, not somebody else's. Better to judge myself by my own principles and standards

I have read many self-improvement books and I take something away from each one I have read. But I am also conscious of the marketing behind such works. I recall accompanying one of my in-laws to an event. It turned out to be Amway. I bought Dale Carnegie's famous book but I was wary of every time a colleague asked me, "I'd like to talk to you about a business opportunity".

I found myself becoming a little wary of Holiday's approach to this book about one third of the way through. I felt it was formulaic and repeating old ground from his earlier works. But I have been following his work from the early days of the simple Reading List email newsletter, so I acknowledged my concerns and pushed on.

I think it is the way the book builds. The end of each paragraph gives a few short sentences of encouragement. I was experiencing the elevation at the end of each chapter much like one does when reading Carnegie. Frowning often while reading, it wasn't until the last few pages that my faith in Holiday was restored.

In "Act Bravely", one of the final chapters, Holiday discusses Albert Camus' The Fall. I am nodding in agreement and I thought, "I know this story, I've read most of Camus". I had to check my blog and there is was, "La Chute".

It struck me again that Holiday is really well-read. My faith restored, I went back and examined what had been going on for me.

To cut a long story short, I suffer from self-doubt in the way of Steven Pressfield. It can be crippling. Writing this right now is part of my preparation to write something else that I wish would just go away. But it won't and I have a job to do.

Holiday discusses the idea of stillness in the context of looking after oneself. I noted that many of the tips and tricks he mentions for maintaining stillness in one's life, I have used since I can remember.

Albert Camus struck me the same way when he discussed suicide. (I am not advocating suicide but I went through the philosophical exercise as the Stoics do without realising it had been done by others. This is a major reason to read according to Harold Bloom and Italo Calvino.) Ryan Holiday introduced me to the Stoics and they had the same view of suicide as a legitimate philosophical option.

Reading Stillness is the Key revealed to me the extent of my self-doubt. Not only about myself and my academic work, but also about the processes I use and how I defend my inner citadel from nonsense, how I do things like writing this blog post as a hobby and how I might prioritise doing so on this long weekend holiday instead of doing other work that is always there and can take up all my time when I let it.

And there it is - Ryan Holiday has done it again. All writing follows a formula, but that doesn't necessarily mean it is formulaic. Indeed, Aristotle's formula was original once! It brings me back to a quote from Jack London's To Build a Fire on my blog post from last Sunday:
The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.
To be formulaic in writing is to lack "the significances". In these, Ryan Holiday lacks nothing.