It’s hard to miss the train of articles flowing through the news feeds of some young person retiring after paying off a pile of debt or a gazillion dollars in student loans.
Personal finance has turned into early retirement, world travel and extreme frugality. These things are not always compatible. Putting these goals into hyper-drive can lead to serious levels of stress. And when debt is more stubborn than indicated by the news feeds it can play with the mind.
Life is fast paced as it is. Increasing the pressure in the pressure cooker of life can have negative health consequences. We run faster and deny ourselves more in an attempt to pay down debt and reach financial independence at a young ago. The FIRE community promotes this more than any other group.
None of these things are wrong in and of themselves. Paying off debt is always a good idea and student loans are especially toxic. I understand why people want to unload the burden of debt. A future of 30 years digging out from student loans is not motivating.
Digging in for the long slog messes with the mind. Getting rid of clutter and every discretionary expense is a serious burden in Western societies where affluence is everywhere. The mind wanders to the horizon looking for a way out. World travel is very appealing and certainly beats the daily grind required to achieve lofty goals set by personal finance bloggers.
The worst part about this is “others” setting your goals. Mr. Money Mustache (MMM) retired at 30 and the bar is now set at that level.* I remind you that was his goal and he started early enough to accomplish it. Don’t be Pete (Mr. MMM)! Don’t be any blogger or personality! Be you.
Keeping your thoughts straight and your goals reasonable is hard. And once again my favorite author, Ryan Holiday, has delivered an important package to accomplish your goals while retaining sanity.
Stillness is the Key
Holiday’s latest book hit the bookstore shelves October 1st. By October 2nd I had devoured the entire text.
Stillness is the Key (affiliate link) is Holiday’s finest work to-date. For some reason the guy keeps getting better and better.
Ryan Holiday is about as far outside the FIRE and personal finance communities as you can get, yet he delivers a message that sounds mighty familiar to the crowd this blog runs in.
This post is a review of Holiday’s latest; it is also a message on how to live a better life.
Life is filled with stress. Since I’m one of the few in the FIRE and PF communities taking consulting sessions I get to hear a lot of stories first hand. People have real challenges and they hurt, deep inside. They want so badly to unyoke themselves from student loans and debt. So badly want to reach financial independence so they can pursue their dreams. The ones feeling wanderlust to travel the world are the minority. So many want to start a business or explore their creativity. They have beautiful minds.
Ryan Holiday has always been a fan of slowing down and experiencing life. It is a lesson this author struggles to learn (or at least heed). In Stillness Holiday gives us 34 stories to motivate us to stillness, that peaceful calm where we are content.
The stories resonate. Readers of this blog and others in the FIRE and PF genres are familiar with advice on “Enough”, “Beware Desire”, “Get Rid of Your Stuff”. We are attracted to minimalism. Stuff is the beginning of suffering because we know:
We don’t own stuff; stuff owns us.
Where this blog has stopped short Holiday has pushed forward. Learning to “Say No” is a good first step and one this accountant struggles with. Our lusts are not always stuff. But you can’t help anyone else unless you first take care of yourself. That is why airlines warn you to put on your mask before helping your child in the event of an emergency. It works that way in all areas of life.
Highlights From the Book
I hope a few highlights will whet your appetite for this incredible book. Once you are done with this post I hope you run to your library to check out a copy or pick up your own copy from the bookstore or Amazon.
The whole point of this book is to get you to slow down and enjoy life. Stillness is the Key has three sections: Mind, Spirit, Body. For a full, satisfying life you need to attend to all three.
In these pages you will see how Churchill kept his poise while fighting against bad odds in World War II. We pay a visit to Tiger Woods as he hones his craft to be the best his sport ever saw, followed by a humiliating and public collapse; as Tiger Woods works to bring his life back with the cameras always rolling.
We also visit President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the whole world was at stake. Is there something we can learn from a leader during this time of ultimate challenge and risk? It is doubtful anyone reading this will ever make a decision of such importance. Yet Kennedy found a place of quietness, solitude and stillness during the crisis. It may have saved the world. We can learn from that.
Ryan Holiday is cautious with his time. He practices what he preaches. It shows. His work is not rushed. The writing tight and concise. He feels no need to puff up the size of the book. Tell and show what needs telling and showing and move on.
Are you tired? I know I am. Often. Ryan Holiday suggests we get some sleep. The advice sounds so simple, yet so many don’t listen. Holiday shares the fall of American Apparel. He had a front row seat in the demise of this once popular brand. It was American made clothing that actually sold! But for a variety of reasons the company failed. I’ll allow Holiday to explain how lack of sleep destroyed this once great company, along with all those jobs:
When Dov Charney founded American Apparel, he had the notion that he would be a completely accessible boss. As the company grew from a dorm room operation to a global retailer and one of the largest garment manufacturers in the world, he stuck to that. In fact, his ego swelled at the idea of being at the center of every part of the business.
This “ego” Holiday speaks of we are all subject to. It is the reason we have a difficult time saying”no”. (I’m notorious at saying no, but getting better. Holiday has been a powerful guide in helping me limit demands on my time so I can focus on the important stuff.) We think we are so all-mighty important. And yes, there is a chapter on dealing with your ego.
The issues at American Apparel got worse as the company grew. Charney was under tremendous time constraints due to his always open-door policy. Ryan Holiday advised Dov Charney at the time to no avail. Again we listen to Holiday:
It was this extreme, cumulative sleep deprivation that was the root of so much of the company’s catastrophic failure. How could it not be? Research has shown that as we approach twenty or so hours without sleep, we are as cognitively impaired as a drunk person. Our brains respond more slowly and our judgement is significantly impaired.
There are too many topics from the book to cover in a short blog post. An important one I heard before I want do want to share.
Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has what he calls a “think week”. A few times a year he removes himself from all the distractions of life to read and think. Gates has this place in the woods where he brings a load of books and his thoughts.
Gates spends almost all of think week deep in thought and reading material applicable to the challenge he is working on. This is not a vacation. This is hard work digging through the issues of a problem. He only takes time off for a walk and sometimes to play bridge for a short while.
At the end of his “think week” Gates is recharged and energized. The quiet time, while technically work, recharges his batteries. He now has a well thought out plan to deal with the problem he retired to his cabin in the woods to solve.
Neither you nor I need to rise to the level of Bill Gates to find value in a think week. I find myself over scheduling (something Ryan Holiday warns against often in his writings); struggle with saying no. When life is packed so full there is no time to think problems through. If Dov Charney could have learned to turn off sometimes American Apparel might still be a brand we talk about.
I’ve committed to my own think week. As Gates, I will stowaway to a place of quiet and solitude to immerse myself in deep thought. Twice a year is a good number of think weeks. If you notice I stop posting on social media and a blog post is suddenly missed or late you will know what happened.
Gates has enough money to have the kind of “think week” he wants. You and I are more economically challenged. I suggest a quiet hotel in some out of the way small town as a good possibility. On the way to a conference this past spring I took four extra days to sit in a hotel in southern Indiana. I read and thought. Each day I took a walk to clear the mind. It was refreshing.
Think week needs to be alone time. That may not be possible for you. Money might be tight. A hotel or cottage might not be in the budget. Is their a spare bedroom in your home or apartment? Basement? Attic? Maybe you need a friend with a spare room to let you bow out of life for a week to refocus your efforts. Be creative. This is important.
This is my final chance to make the sale. I have to do it because it is so important. Because you will benefit so much from this information.
Here is a quick rundown of a few more topics covered:
Find stillness (quiet, solitude, rest) by being present. Live in the moment. Slow down enough to know what the moment is, experience it.
Limit your inputs! Radio, TV, and social media in moderate doses only. We hear this all the time on personal finance blogs. We hear it so often because it is important. Learn to tune out the noise.
Slow down, think deeply, empty your mind. Cultivate silence. Learn to enjoy solitude. In the quietness we discover who we really are.
Seek wisdom. Start a journal. Avoid ego. And most of all, let go. Let go of all the things hurting you or holding you back. These roadblocks become apparent in the stillness.
Choose a virtuous life. Beware desire as this is the path to pain and suffering. Bathe in beauty. Experience the gift of life and all the wondrous things around you. You can travel the world sitting still in one spot.
Conquer your anger, hate and thoughts of revenge. Accept a higher power. Cultivate relationships that are nurturing.
Take a walk every day. You will enjoy this chapter. It is so important to step away and collect your thoughts daily. A casual walk does magic.
Build a routine. Seek solitude. Find a hobby. Routine provides framework to your life. Once again we use the word solitude. It is an important word to remember. A hobby allows your mind to expand and think while you create. What a wonderful gift!
Finally, act bravely. In the stillness you will find courage; in the stillness you will find meaning.
I highly recommend reading Stillness is the Key. It is well worth the investment of your time and money. It is a book you will return to often for guidance.
Now close your eyes and feel the silence, the stillness, the solitude, the freedom from stress.
* About 20% of my consulting sessions come from people following the FIRE community and feeling like a failure because they are approaching 40 and haven’t retired yet. Even had a few struggling emotionally in their late 20s as they realize they will not be retired or financially independent by their 30th birthday.
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