Intro. [Recording date: October 6, 2022.]
Russ Roberts: Today is October 6th, 2022, and my guest is author Ryan Holiday.
This is Ryan's fourth appearance on EconTalk. He was last here in October talking about his book, Stillness Is the Key. Our topic for today is his latest book, Discipline Is Destiny: The Power of Self-Control. Ryan, welcome back to EconTalk.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah. I guess this would have been October 2019, right? A couple things have happened between then and now.
Russ Roberts: A little bit, yeah.
Russ Roberts: Let's start by--this book is part of a series.
Russ Roberts: Tell us about that series.
Ryan Holiday: Well, I'm doing a series now on the Cardinal Virtues, the--I guess, it's not even a coincidence--but one of the quirks of history is that Stoicism and Christianity have the same cardinal virtues: Courage, Self-discipline or temperance, Justice, and Wisdom.
And so, I am in the midst of a four-book series. I did Courage first. This is the book on Self-discipline. And, now I am knee-deep on the book about Justice. And then Wisdom: I'm intimidated enough about that I have not yet begun to think about, but that looms there in the future.
Russ Roberts: I just want to mention--we'll come back and talk about it later, maybe--but, you're a back-to-back, -to-back, -to-back kind of guy. I would recommend a break before we tackle the wisdom book, but I'm happy to hear that Book Three is in process.
Ryan Holiday: You know, there was actually sort of a debate both on Discipline and on Justice about whether the disciplined thing was to push forward or to pull back. On Discipline, there was sort of a dark night-of-the soul moment where I thought I wasn't going to be able to do it and I was going to push it. And, then as I was starting Justice, I was like, you know what, I'm definitely going to do it. But, both times, I ended up having a breakthrough and then getting really excited about it and liking it.
But, I think when I was younger, the idea of deliberately waiting on something was inconceivable to me. And, I do think I've gotten at least to the place where I could entertain the idea.
Russ Roberts: Well, I think you have a precept in this book called 'Wait for the sweet fruit,' I guess. But, some of us have the characteristic that all fruits seem sweet to us--or sweet enough. All ideas are ripe, right?
Ryan Holiday: Yeah. And for people who don't know: the sweet fruit is patience. Or patience, they say, is bitter, but the fruit is sweet. Patience is hard, but what you get on the other side of patience is wonderful.
And, I think that's probably generally true for the concept of restraint, as well, which is: it feels hard as you're resisting doing something or holding back from doing something. But, usually, what comes on the other side of that waiting or dialing in the exact right opportunity--usually, the rewards for that are worth it. It's just hard. It's hard in the moment when you are forgoing something.
Russ Roberts: May I ask how old you are, Ryan?
Ryan Holiday: I turned 35 this year.
Russ Roberts: You look 21, or 18. Those watching on YouTube will agree with me. But, I want to--before we get to the book, I'm curious whether you feel that in the writing of this book, you gained any discipline and whether in the arc of your life so far, whether you feel you've gotten better at discipline.
Ryan Holiday: That's a good question. I would say that of the cardinal virtues, discipline is the one that I feel most comfortable talking about as opposed to feeling like it's the--when you're writing about courage, obviously, it's a sensitive topic because the courage of the sort of greats of history is so profound--transcendent in some cases--that it feels almost insulting to even talk about it as if you could instruct. So, this is the book that I felt most comfortable writing because I feel like I am a disciplined person. I feel like discipline is a strength of mine.
But, I definitely feel like I grew from the book, even just what we're talking about--the idea that discipline isn't always doing. Sometimes discipline is not doing.
I think the journey that I've tried to be on, and I feel like I've gotten better with each project--this one being a big step in that direction--is: How do you do something at a high level, be disciplined about it without it coming at the expense of discipline in other areas of your life or even just your ability to be present and show up for other elements of your life?
I think, it's much simpler to say, 'Hey, I'm going to dedicate myself fully to this thing and be very disciplined about it, but my family would suffer, or my health would suffer, or my reading would. So, I feel like trying to integrate as being on this track of doing books very consistently, year in and year out, I've had the excuse of, 'Sorry, I can't,' or, 'Hey, I apologize for my lack of temper,' or, 'Sorry, my lack of patience,' or my temper, or whatever. It becomes harder to justify when you're always doing the thing.
You don't get the excuse of, 'Hey, I'm on a book deadline,' or 'I'm in the middle of writing a book,' when you're always doing that thing. It's like, if you're an actor and you're like, 'Sorry, I'm grouchy, I'm on this crazy diet for this role that I'm doing.' You can use that excuse occasionally. But, if you are always doing that, people go, 'Look, you got to figure out how to integrate this into your life.'
Russ Roberts: So, do you think you've gotten better at that? Not just writing the book: I mean just in general.
Ryan Holiday: I would say much better.
Actually, as I was finishing up Discipline, my oldest was sitting at the kitchen table and he was doing some art project or something and I was sitting on the couch. I guess he would have expected me not to be sitting on the couch, but to be at the office. And, he said, 'Dad, I'm sorry you've lost your job writing books.' And, I was like, 'Wait, what are you talking about?' And, I realized, like, in his mind, things were normal enough that something had obviously changed at work.
And, obviously, that was very sweet, but also a retroactive indictment of how things had been in the past.
So, I think I have gotten better at it. I guess I'm trying to just normalize it. And by that, I don't mean make my life crazy so the abnormal work that I do seems normal. But, to try to get to a place where: Hey, I show up at the office and I do a few hours of my thing; and then I'm not in this, sort of, adrenalized frenzy or sprint that can sometimes be the creative process, but it's just a part of life. And I feel like I've gotten closer to that, although not perfect at it.
Russ Roberts: At one point in your book, you say that discipline is contagious. And, I think--I'm very sympathetic to that idea. I had not thought about it. But, if you had asked me where did I get my disease from, of, to the extent I'm disciplined? Or, I would say more achievement-oriented--or something mixed in there, some kind of mix in there--I'd have to think about it. Obviously--I got some of it from my father. I got some of it from my best teachers. And certainly, there are other people in my life who have inspired me who are not in my field. But, I'm curious if you can point to one or two people that you think of as, who gave you this discipline, who inspired you?
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, my father definitely worked very hard. My father had worked multiple jobs. He was a police detective and then he also sold real estate on the side. And, then he was an investor. My dad was always sort of doing multiple things. And so, I think the ability to manage a portfolio of activities or pursuits, I think, I learned by osmosis through my dad.
But, when I left college, I was a research assistant for Robert Greene, who, I think, is one of the great non-fiction authors of our time. And, Robert is one of those people that is very monk-like in their discipline. First off, he basically only does that. He's just a writer, and I mean that in the complimentary sense. He is an artist who is committed to the discipline of what he does and has very strong boundaries about the work--won't answer the phone at certain times; you can't drop in and just say hello. He's sort of monk-like in his commitment to these books. And, he's one of those authors that will work several years on a single book. So, he and I are different in that sense.
But, I think that was meeting someone who--one of the most important things that can happen, I think, as you're starting down a career path is to meet someone who is a pro at that thing. Obviously, anyone who is getting paid is a professional. But, when you meet someone who is just fully committed and ritualized and organized about what they do--they treat it like a discipline--I think that's just a very powerful, transformative thing. Because you realize: Oh, there's the wavelength that people who are just getting by are on. And then there's the pursuit of mastery in that profession. And which one of those are you going to be?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. When I was talking earlier, I made it sound like we're talking about a workaholic situation, which I think both of us have a little bit of, for sure. But, it's really, it's a subtler thing that we're talking about, which is: I think it's having great expectations for oneself, that you don't take life casually. That comes at a very fierce price, I think. I don't know if you agree with that. Your book is--I hope you don't take this as an insult, it's a compliment for me--I saw your book as a pep talk, and I'll have more to say about that.
But, pep talks are generally about devotion, is the way I would say it. And, that's what you're talking about being a pro--somebody who's devoted to mastery. And, I have some degree of that disease or blessing, whatever you want to call it. It's not clear which it is. Sometimes it's one, sometimes it's the other, I guess. But, I want to make clear: it's not just that you feel like you have to work a lot. It has to do with what your expectations are for yourself. And, to me, the whole idea of discipline and self-control is that you don't take the craft of forming yourself casually.
Ryan Holiday: I think that's right. Especially--it's like, you can be a workaholic because it's coming from a place of insecurity. You could be a workaholic because you're running from something. You could be a workaholic because all you want is money. Right? So, I think what we're talking about here is when you have decided that you have some sort of calling, and there's a purpose to what you're doing, and you don't take it lightly.
And, maybe if you're thinking about it in sports, there's obviously people who are naturally talented, who like fame, who like the rush of the crowd, who are--or they're very good and this is why they're at an elite level. And, then there's your Tom Bradys, who have decided that there is something beautiful or artistic about the game and they want to reach that transcendent level.
In that respect, you also need the ability to be disciplined about your discipline. Right? Like, to not take your commitment to that thing too far at the expense of everything else. But, I think it does start with some sort of idea that this is not just a job, this is a means of--well, this is a thing from which meaning can be derived and there is some sort of purpose to what you're doing beyond the compensation or the external rewards.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk about practice. You have a section on practice. And, when I interviewed Tyler Cowen about his book Talent, he suggested as an interview question--which I found surprising and still do somewhat--you should ask people: what do they practice? What do they try to get better at? And, I understand that for a musician. I understand it for an athlete. I sometimes understand if we're a teacher: Doug Lemov here has argued that practice is crucial to being a great teacher. There are many crafts in which practice is useful. Do you practice? Is there a practice in your life?
Ryan Holiday: I do. And, you know, it's actually funny: in the practice chapter, I had a whole section that was written about Tyler and this question that he asks. I ended up moving it to the wisdom book. But, he says, 'How do you practice?'
Russ Roberts: That's the book you haven't started yet?
Russ Roberts: Yeah, yeah. Go ahead.
Ryan Holiday: this actually does relate to my practice, now that I think about it.
So, he talks about, like--his question is: How do you practice your scales? Right? A musician goes through the scales: you go over and over and over again and it gets imbued into your muscle memory. And also, inspiration, connection, ideas come from this repetitive practice of the thing. Writing is unusual in that the practice--writing is strange to find one's practice. And, I ultimately made the decision, as I was saying, to think that that question of what is your practice to me is the domain of wisdom. The actual act of doing it would be the self-discipline.
So, it's hard to, I think, sometimes distinguish between where one virtue begins and the other ends. For me, the building block of what I do, and I think the form of practice, is I read and then I break down the books that I've read onto note cards. I use physical four by six note cards. So, that--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, we've talked about this on EconTalk, I think, in a past episode. I think we have.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah. So, like, these--this section here, these are books that I've read who I have not gone through and done the note cards on. So, I'm a little behind in my practice. But, to me, like, I know that I am getting better at what I'm doing: I'm practicing the discipline when I am actively reading and going through the note cards.
So, like, right now, I'm in the middle of writing this book. So, that is doing the act, but the building blocks of that--like, a stack of note cards is a lagging indicator as to whether I have been doing the practice.
And, if I get too caught up with speaking or podcasts or writing, six months from now I'll see the consequences of not having done the active practice.
The other part for me that's been--it wasn't intentional, but it's been very, very helpful, is I started this daily email in 2016 called The Daily Stoic, where I send out one email about Stoic Philosophy every day.
And so, I don't do that every day in the sense that I wake up and write today's email because that wouldn't--part of discipline is about setting up systems that allow you to effectively do what you do. If I had to wake up every day and do it in real-time, that would be, I think, immensely inefficient.
But, I have to produce enough raw material on a regular basis to fill this daily email. So, having this thing that I have to ship every single day keeps me in shape in the way that I think is similar to the function of practice.
Russ Roberts: So, I want to challenge you. It's not going to be pleasant. Maybe. We'll see. I think you are--the thing you just described--there's two kinds of practice. There's two uses of that word in English language--probably more than two. But, the two I want to focus on. One is to work at a craft in a repetitive way in seeking improvement. The other is to have a regular, disciplined activity that you commit to. You certainly have the second, and that's the reading of the books and the taking of the notes.
I don't know if there's anybody--here's the complimentary part--I don't know if there's anybody as good at this as you are. Your books are full of phenomenal stories. The quotations are spectacular. You have an ability to pull those together in a book form. I'm sure that people do it, maybe nearly as good as you, maybe as good. I don't know them. So, I would just say--
Ryan Holiday: Well, thank you--
Russ Roberts: in effect[?] you're in a class by yourself in the modern non-fiction space in doing that. There are people who pull on stories. I did that in my recent book. I have a few things I've read and I've put them in the book. You have--this book, I'm sure, could have been three times as long, and you could have had even more--most of these people were not particularly obscure. There are a couple of obscure ones; we're going to get to them. But, you could have had more obscure stories about people we don't know, they're amazing.
You have an extraordinary reach, and it comes from your incredible discipline as a reader, doing what you're talking about. That's an incredible practice. But, I'm not sure that you practice at becoming a better writer. For example, and this is the hard part, I'm going to beat you up a little bit here. But, that's because I like you, Ryan.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah, I'm very curious.
Russ Roberts: I think you can take it. I did an interview with Penny Lane, the documentarian on Kenny G. Kenny G is--he's not my cup of tea, but he's beloved and he--
Ryan Holiday: He's a master.
Russ Roberts: He's a master. He's mastered very particular craft and he does it--I was going to say he does it effortlessly. That's not true--
Russ Roberts: at all. He practices relentlessly to make it look effortless. Your books have a similar effortlessness about them. It looks like you just sat down and in a week or two, you just spooled this out because it's--your writing is extremely accessible, which I view as a huge plus. Not everybody does; but it's a fantastic skill.
Could you do better? And, I say that because your next two books--it's a series, so I'm going to forgive you for this--the next two books will be like this, but about different things, I assume. They will have similar inspiring stories, phenomenal quotations, great life lessons--and we'll talk in a minute about why I think those are so important. But, maybe you could do it in a more poetic way. I mean, could you get better at it? And, should you?
And, one answer be, of course not. Kenny G would never--I mean, I challenge Kenny G like he's listening, that he could get out of his comfort zone. You're in an incredible comfort zone. It's not totally comfortable because it is an enormous amount of work. I understand that. But, have you thought about doing something different?
Ryan Holiday: Yeah. I mean--that is, the question is, like: how can one get better at a craft like writing?
Obviously, as you said, you can do what you do over and over and over again and it becomes more intuitive and natural and hopefully, effortless. And, I do think--like, if you look at The Obstacle Is the Way, which is in a similar format to Discipline Is Destiny, as is Ego Is the Enemy, Stillness Is the Key, and Courage Is Calling. So that's like five books in this style. Is the fifth one better than the first one? I would say, absolutely. I would say that the practice does get better the more you do it.
But, how does one get better overall at writing? How would one even judge if one's getting overall better at writing? I feel like I have a practice where I do this where--so, one, I don't do it as much anymore. But, for many years I also ghost-wrote projects. I would take on projects for other writers. And, I felt like--obviously, in Discipline Is Destiny, I talk about: what's the main thing? You need to be committed to the main thing.
I justified these projects in two ways. One, they were economically rewarding, and so that gave me more creative freedom and security to pursue my own projects. But, two, I felt like they were giving me reps or stage time, but practicing differently.
One of the interesting lines in Meditations, Marcus Aurelius talks about using the reins of his horse with his non-dominant hand. He says, 'You get better from the practice of doing it differently.' And so, I would argue that part of the reason that book one through book five, there is an evolution there, it's not just that I did that same thing five times, but I also was working on extracurricular activities that made me a better writer.
And, so I think there was that. And, then I feel like I've--and I'm not trying to just explain away your criticism--but I did this book Conspiracy, which I think was very different compared to my other books.
Russ Roberts: I love that book.
Russ Roberts: I think we talked about it. It is a spectacularly different book, and you did it, on the surface, effortlessly. It's a phenomenal book.
Ryan Holiday: Well, thank you.
Russ Roberts: . You can't put it down, can't put it down.
Ryan Holiday: And, I was actually just talking to my agent this morning, and he was basically, like, 'The publisher will fall over themselves to purchase another book in the vein of the books that you just did.' And, my thinking was, I'm not sure I want to do that. I was thinking about what haven't I done and might I try to do something very different to get better at the thing.
So, I'd like to think I am challenging myself in the way that you're talking about. But, I would say that it's hard because when you're really good at something, it's easy to just continue doing that thing and you get less--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, improving it marginally. But, 'marginally,' it sounds like an insult. It's not. Getting better at something that's phenomenal is hard and and important. You have a big fan base; you have a lot of people who like this kind of book, and that's--again, going back to Kenny G. Kenny G shows up and does Miles Davis. His fans are going to boo him and walk out angry. Right? And, I'm not asking you to do Miles Davis. I, personally, given your talent and given how much I like the Conspiracy book, which we talked about on EconTalk in 2018--and I'm not hurt that you don't remember because I'm sure you talked to a lot of people about that book, which is a great book. I'd love to see you try something different; it--just because you're so talented. But, anyway, enough.
Ryan Holiday: No, no. I totally take the point. And, I think about that. It's like the reward for getting good at something should not be the closing of other avenues. And, have you had David Epstein on, his book Range?
Russ Roberts: Oh yeah, sure.
Ryan Holiday: Yeah. I think--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, great book.
Ryan Holiday: Totally a great book. And, I think specialization makes sense. Right? The most basic law of economics is the law of comparative advantage. But, I think range is also important; and it's, I think, fulfilling, too. Let's say, you specialize and specialize, but that specialization is leading to a kind of premature burnout, then the specialization is actually the enemy of mastery in that sense.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And, I worry about that with you--
Ryan Holiday: Well, thanks--
Russ Roberts: because you look 23. But that's okay.
Russ Roberts: So, let's talk about the book a little bit. I want to start in a strange place. Queen Elizabeth doesn't get a lot of air time on EconTalk, but her moment has come. You wrote this book when she was still alive, I am pretty sure.
Russ Roberts: And, after the book is out, she has passed away. And, I have mentioned her occasionally because I'm not a student of the royal family. I've never been into the royal family. I find it somewhat uninteresting, until I saw The Crown. I thought The Crown was quite interesting the first couple of seasons, less so as it progressed. But, if you had asked me before The Crown, and if you had asked me before your chapter on Queen Elizabeth, I would say she was a cipher.
A 'cipher' is a word that doesn't get used much these days. It just means she's a functionary, she's not so impressive, her mark on the world is small. She is, of course, mainly ceremonial.
And, I've since--after she's passed away, after watching The Crown, after reading your chapter on her--I've gained a larger respect for her. And so, I want you to talk a little bit--not at too much length--but a little bit about what was special about her. Because--again, I think a lot of people, and many of them probably listen to EconTalk, would say, who cares about--I mean, why would you pay any attention to her?
Ryan Holiday: It's weird to have to put this aside, but put aside the legitimacy or the necessity of the monarchy--right?--because it's a separate question. She doesn't choose whether to be born into this. She doesn't choose whether that should be the system of government of the country she's born into. She is born into a role. Right? She is chosen for a role; and then she chooses to fulfill that role over the next 70-odd years. And that, in and of itself, is impressive.
I opened the book, I tell the story of Lou Gehrig. You compare Lou Gehrig's streak to Queen Elizabeth II's streak, and they're not even in the same ballpark. Literally or figuratively. I mean, there are no off days to that job.
One of my favorite achievements that I was reading about of hers is that she fell asleep in public or on the job one time in 70 years. And, she was in her 80s, and it was a lecture about magnets.
Even from a physical perspective, the people who have--like, her security or the people who will travel with her on one trip when she was alive--again, would remark at just the sheer physical toll of the role, which she--to talk about effortlessness--she, as a little old lady, made you think, could it possibly be hard?
And, then you go: 'Wait, she just met 10,000 people in four hours.' Like, that would be physically grueling. In the sun.
So, I guess what I came to think about her--and I feel like as I've gotten better at what I've done, and gotten older, my empathy/respect for professions that I maybe previously would not have had really any admiration for--clearly, there's a lot of people throughout human history have been born into some sort of royal family. Not millions; but this is a longstanding system of governance of which those families tend to have--there's lots of people who have had this role, and very few of them have, at the end of their life, left with any sort of admiration or respect. Just like they say, the hardest thing to do is to leave politics with clean hands.
To be a royal and to prove yourself worthy--even remotely worthy of the unearned privileges that you got at birth--is an extreme accomplishment that we should respect, even if we disagree with whether people should get those privileges.
Russ Roberts: I want to say two things about her that came to me while reading your book that I really found interesting. You wrote, "She always knows more than she says." And, I thought of the line from the Talmud: Say little, do much. It's good advice, and it's a powerful mantra.
The other thing I thought was fascinating I hadn't thought of until I read your book, was that she was remarkably uninterested in celebrity. Now, you could say, 'Well, oh, no kidding. It was easy for her.'
But, as you point out, and certainly, when you think of her contemporaries, some many years younger than her but who were on the world stage, they spent a lot more time promoting themselves, even though they were very famous. They loved and yearned for publicity. And, I think you said she never gave an interview, is that correct?
Ryan Holiday: She's never given on-the-record interview.
Russ Roberts: It's like--so, that's not the road to fame and fortune. But somehow, I love the paradox of this. For somebody who spent no time promoting herself, she was unbelievably well known. Granted, had an advantage: Queen of England. It's a good starting place.
But, the outpouring of love for her at her passing, partly because of what you just said--that she managed to leave the job, leave this earth with what appeared to be somewhat clean hands for somebody who--which is not a very powerful person in a certain dimension--another dimension, unbelievably powerful and in the limelight all the time, pretty gaff-free. I mean, it's an unbelievable thing.
And, you could argue, well, because she never said anything controversial. I mean, it's easy to criticize her. There's plenty of things you can say in the negative. But, I think it's just remarkable that her strategy--and I don't think it was probably wasn't conscious or even intended--turned out to be that by not promoting herself, she really gained a lot of public relations success.
Ryan Holiday: Well, I think she embodies one of the interesting elements of discipline at the high level, which is: the rigidity actually becomes flexibility or the strength is not in the rigidity, but in the adaptability.
So, if you look at what the monarchy was in the 1950s to what it is today, it's both totally familiar and totally unrecognizable. And, she had a motto--and it comes from some Italian novelist whose name I'm forgetting--but it was: If things are going to stay the same, things are going to have to change.
And so, she had this sense of, 'Well, the institution, as a whole, needs to remain or should remain. My job is to protect and prolong it, but I have to be flexible and adjust because the world is always changing.' She's almost kind of an embodiment of the Ship of Theseus. Everything is changed, but it's also somehow the same thing.
And, to me, there's a lesson in that for all of us. If you want to be great at what you do--like, I am a writer, it's a profession that has existed for thousands of years. It's not the oldest profession, but it's close to the oldest profession. And yet, what I do is laughably different than a writer 40 years ago or a writer 100 years ago. Just as the world that I existed in when my first book came out a little more than 10 years ago and then hopefully, if I'm still doing this decades from now, you have to have this ability to respect the discipline, but also be willing to change everything inside the discipline to be able to continue doing it.
Russ Roberts: The other quote I like from her is, "Better not."
Ryan Holiday: Yes, yes: Not a good idea, let's not do that. And, that goes to--
Russ Roberts: Explain that.
Ryan Holiday: Well, she gets asked to do a lot of things. Right? And people have a million suggestions for her, and there are a million changes that people do demand of her. And, they have this motto of 'Better not,' which, to me, is the wonderfully polite British version of just 'No, not going to do it, hard pass.'
And so, she has this sense of what to do and what not to do. And, that's actually what I opened the book with. There's a quote from Epictetus. He's asked to describe at its core what stoicism is, what the philosophical life, what a virtuous life demands.
And, he says, 'It's two words: Persist and resist.' It's this paradox of not doing things, and also doing other things, and knowing what those are. I mean, obviously, now we're in back into the discipline of wisdom. But, that strength to do and to not do is the paradoxical nature of discipline.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I disagree a little bit. I don't think I probably really disagree with you. But, at one point, you talk about the power of saying no. And, in my book, well, problem, I talk about the virtue of saying yes.
Russ Roberts: And, of course, it's a balance. You can't say yes to everything. You don't want to say no to everything because you're going to miss out on some extraordinary things you can anticipate.
So, as I've gotten older, I've actually gotten better at saying yes. It's sort of a U-shaped thing. Or [?]--whatever it is, inverted U--when I was younger I said yes way too much. Couldn't say no to anybody because you feel like, oh my--you're insecure and you're vulnerable, and so you say yes a lot. Then you realize, 'Oh my gosh, huge opportunity cost here, I got to say no more.'
And so, you start saying no, and then it feels really virtuous. You turn down somebody and you feel really good about it. You're staying focused on what you need to do. And, then you realize, if you're not careful, you say no too often, so anyway.
Ryan Holiday: No, no. I think about that a lot. My instinct tends to be to say yes, so I have to cultivate a discipline of saying no.
But, I just got this new thing. It's at a frame store being framed. But, I've fallen in love with Harry Truman, who I'm writing a lot about in the next book. And, I found this letter--I guess the Presidents just produced so much paperwork, you can buy this stuff relatively cheaply. It was like $500. But, it's a letter--it's a series of memos. It's all of the memos, but it culminates in this little piece of paper, like an interoffice memo at the White House, where right after Truman has been elected, or I think reelected. Actually, no--this is right after he becomes President.
And so, his secretary is writing this interoffice memo and it says, like, 'Should we say--is the policy that we should start saying no because the President has too many commitments?' And, the memo makes its way to Truman's desk and he underlines, We must start saying no because the President is too busy. He underlines it, signs it, and writes: 'The correct policy is elucidated in this memo.' And, I've got this framed and it's going to go right next to my desk.
The point is to say yes to the things that are important--your family, the work you're trying to do, the people you want to connect with, relationships, etc. You have to say no to most things. And, even the serendipitous, fun, crazy experiences that, like--let's say, your decision to move across the country or to move across the globe to have this new job--that's a big yes. But, you wouldn't have been in a position to say that yes if you hadn't been disciplined over the course of your career. But also, imagine if you'd taken on so many other big commitments that it was impossible for you to extricate yourself from them to be able to be in a position to be like: Yes, I want to change my life to do this big thing.
Russ Roberts: It's a great way of saying it, Ryan. You've got to say no to allow you to say yes eventually.
But, I'm confused about Harry Truman. So, what was his verdict on the memo?
Ryan Holiday: The point was the secretary was, sort of hypothetically, 'Should we start saying no to more things?' And, he underlines it and is, like, 'Yes, we must say no.'
To me, it's this cool document that even the President of the United States is having to put in place policies to create--I don't know, just that the President signed this thing to remind his secretary that you have to say no. It's just so wonderful to me.
Russ Roberts: That's [?]. I'm a little worried about your next book, but--
Russ Roberts: Because you told me you're falling in love with Harry Truman. In this book, we've got Lou Gehrig, Toni Morrison, George Washington, Antoninus. Harry Truman--I don't know.
Ryan Holiday: Are you not a Truman fan?
Russ Roberts: I'm not a big Truman fan. I enjoyed the McCullough biography, and I'm glad he helped create the state of Israel. So, I'm grateful for that. But, he's not associated with--when you said love--most people don't see him as a charismatic figure.
Ryan Holiday: Interesting.
Russ Roberts: Maybe he's underappreciated. I don't--
Ryan Holiday: Well, so I do have--I'm just telling--so, basically, I'm giving away the plot of the book, but I'm so excited about it, I love talking about it.
So, the--I'm splitting justice up into three domains. The first of which is personal justice--having, like a--being person of honor, having a code of ethics, being honest, being straightforward. And Truman, I find to be this fascinating figure in that basically an average person is thrust into the White House--
Russ Roberts: Feels that way--
Ryan Holiday: And, he does a good job because he was a fundamentally decent human being. He wasn't this brilliant visionary and classically trained--he was a self-taught Christian man of honor; and then, thrust into power, manages to do a pretty good job because he has that baseline. But, in the--
Russ Roberts: Fair enough, fair enough. I like that--
Ryan Holiday: in the second part of the book, I'm talking about how does one bring justice into the world. And, one of the chapters I was most excited to write, I talk about the proximity to power. One must have a proximity to power to bring good into the world. You can't be this sort of theoretical outsider.
And, I tell the story of Eddie Jacobson, who Truman meets as a young man in Missouri. He probably never met a Jewish person. And, then you flash forward 50-odd years, maybe more, and Eddie Jacobson is the only person who can get a meeting with Truman. Because Truman has decided he doesn't want to hear about Israel anymore.
And, Eddie Jacobson walks into the Oval Office; and he's told by the secretary on the way in--to go to our point about controlling [?] access--he says, 'Whatever you do, do not mention Israel to Truman.' And, he says, 'But, that's the only reason I'm here.' And, he starts to talk to him about it and Truman shuts him down. And, Eddie Jacobson looks at him and he says, 'I have known you my entire life. This isn't like you. My hero would like to meet with you to talk about Israel. I need you to do this for me as a friend.' And, without that personal proximity to power, that lifelong relationship, Israel might not exist as a country.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; no, that's true. Yeah, that's true. That's a great example. Fair enough. Okay, I take back what I said. Going to be a great book and I'll read it.
Russ Roberts: And, then maybe you'll come back to EconTalk for it.
Ryan Holiday: I would love that.
Russ Roberts: I want to raise a question I don't think you address in the book about Discipline, which is whether there might be a fixed amount of it. So, you would think that a Jewish person who takes Jewish law seriously and has to forego a bunch of things--pork, shrimp, lobster, Saturday football games, and so on--would be unbelievably disciplined because they've got all this practice at foregoing things. So, there should be no overweight religious Jews. But, I am one--slightly; I'd like to think slightly. And there might even be people more overweight than I am. How is this possible?
And, it's always intrigued me; and I've always wondered whether there's just a limited amount--more or less fixed, but it may be a little elastic--of discipline a person can have. So, if you acquire it in one area of your life, you have to take up smoking, say, or some imperfection, some--I would call it an indulgence. That, the life--the strictures that you write about in the book--the relentless self-control is so hard for some people that it breaks out in weird--I mean, an obvious example would be Tiger Woods. This is a G-rated podcast: we're not going to go into the details. But, is there anybody more disciplined in his craft? Tom Brady is in this, you could argue. There's a handful of people in the world who have devoted as much time and focus to what you call the main thing. He had a little trouble elsewhere. He had trouble with self-control. Is it possible that that straightjacket of expectations he had placed on himself made it easier for him to stray and be undisciplined elsewhere?
Ryan Holiday: Well, there has been some scientific research on this, and I think it's both unclear and then I think it's from a replication standpoint, they've struggled. But, they would do some experiments where they would, like, give someone a tough math problem--an impossible math problem--and see how long it would take them to give up on the math problem. And then--let's say, the average person does it and quits after 10 minutes. They would say: Well, how long does an average person last when they are asked not to eat cookies that are placed on the table in front of them? And they tended--I think they tended to find that, actually, there was a finite amount of self-control in a person.
So, I think that matches the common sense or the gut instinct, which is that: Yeah, we have a finite amount of discipline; and, yeah, the Tiger Woods example as being a good one. The other one being, like: Hey, you're on a diet, but that energy wants to go to some other destructive habit. Or, somebody quits drugs and then they pick up smoking, that there's sort of like an avenue that the indulgence has to go through. I think that also kind of vibes with some common sense.
And, yet also, I think any person who has decided to be disciplined in one avenue of their life finds that it creates momentum or that there's sort of a muscle that comes with it. Right? So, if your whole life is chaotic, I think it makes it harder to be disciplined than if you've made some decisions that create order. Right? Cleaning up your desk, to me, makes it easier to be disciplined about the work that you're doing at said desk.
Russ Roberts: Oh, that's ridiculous. Heh, heh--
Russ Roberts: Said the man whose desk looks--actually, right now, it's quite clean, but it's an illusion.
Ryan Holiday: There's a--I think it's Flaubert--there's a quote I have in the book that I liked where he's basically saying that you want order in your life so you can have disorder in your creative life. Or you can--and I think that strikes me as true, too.
I guess where I come down on this is if I was talking to someone who is like, 'I have no discipline. I need more discipline in my life,' I would probably have them start small, and the idea that you could build on that discipline or you could build a life of discipline around these foundational habits. I think it's hard.
But, the Jewish question is interesting because I've always been fond of that observation that: the Jews have kept the Sabbath and the Sabbath has kept the Jews. I like the idea that even though you're--being mastered by a habit or a practice or a rule also creates a kind of self-mastery. I think there's something in that that's also true.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; no--actually, I think that's right. I think it's wrong that there's literally a fixed amount, but I think people differ dramatically in their ability to self-control. I think--we've had guests on the program, Katy Milkman, talking about how to change, how to acquire habits. I think most of us are really bad at it.
And, if anything, and I'm not convinced that many of those techniques work, but I will say that I'm more prone to adopt your insight that a mentor--a disciplined mentor or a disciplined friend--as long as you cannot go crazy because they're so good at it and you're a sluggard--a disciplined friend can inspire you and maybe do more for you than mind games that you might play with yourself, and so on.
Russ Roberts: I'm going to skip to Archie Moore.
Russ Roberts: This is not the most obscure person in the book, but it's one of the more obscure people. I am roughly twice your age, and I know who Archie Moore is, and I know who Floyd Patterson is. Most people listening will have no idea who we're talking about. They are two boxers from probably the mid-1950s, late 1950s, or then early 1960s for Floyd Patterson.
But, you have a letter--you quote a letter--that Archie Moore wrote to Floyd Patterson that is extraordinary, really almost unparalleled that I can think of, in the context of how that letter came to be written. And, I'd like you to explain what that letter was about. And, I'm curious why you came across that and you put that in your book, because it's pretty obscure.
Ryan Holiday: Well, I was reading a lot about Muhammad Ali, who I thought might be a character in the book, and ended up reading about Floyd Patterson, and walked away being much more a fan of Floyd Patterson than Muhammad Ali. And so, I read Floyd Patterson's memoir from the 1950s. It's called Victory over Myself, which if--when you're writing a book about self-discipline and you see that title, you're like, 'Oh, wow.' So I got very excited.
But, Patterson talks about when he loses the heavyweight title, he's--he loses it.
And, for basically all of boxing history up until that point--actually, for all of boxing history, and then there's only been maybe three exceptions since--when the heavyweight champion would lose the belt, that was it. They never regained it.
And so, he has this sort of humiliating defeat. He was a little over-confident: He wasn't ready, he loses it. And, he basically throws himself a pity party. He can't get out of bed. He can't look his children in the eye.
And, he gets this surprise letter from Archie Moore, who he himself had beaten quite dramatically, not long before.
And, Archie Moore basically says, 'Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You're great. And I think that you can be the first one in history to come back from this and win.'
And, it's a remarkable letter, I think. And, again, I was going to write about this more in the Discipline book. I'm going to talk about it more in the Justice book. But, I love: One, when somebody does something for someone that they'd owe nothing to. I think that's such a beautiful expression of human greatness. But, when somebody who has been beaten has love or compassion for the person who beat them, that's beautiful. Just as when someone has beaten someone else, what kind of mercy and compassion and love do they have for that person? When there's the power dynamic, and one still does this human, decent, kind, generous thing?
And so, when you watch someone who could have been resentful, could have been angry, could have been rooting for the failure of the person who had caused failure in their own life, to write this letter--I mean, it's just--it's a remarkable act of both justice and generosity.
But also, self-control. Because, he would have had all sorts of competitive feelings for this person, and here he is putting those aside and writing instead a note of great grace and encouragement.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I've spoken on the program before about how athletes in the arena have a certain camaraderie that we can appreciate, because they know what it's like to be tested and to fail--or to be tested and succeed.
Russ Roberts: And there was a--the Patriots played the Packers this past week, and the Patriots were big underdogs and they almost won the game. And, after the game, there's a moment where Bill Belichick spoke to Aaron Rodgers. We don't know what they said to each other. It lasted longer, though, than most of those encounters. It went for about, maybe, 20 seconds, 30 seconds. And, I know that Bill Belichick respects Aaron Rodgers, even though he had just delivered a horrible, disappointing loss to the team--that, it was hanging in the balance and went against the Patriots. And yet--I'm sure his respect for Aaron Rodgers is enormous. And, I suspect that's what he was conveying to him or something. Who knows?
But, the--most people in that situation of Archie Moore would find it so painful to even think about Floyd Patterson, let alone write him a letter? Write him a letter that'd be helpful to him, after the pain that he endured after losing to him?
I mean that's just--there are famous examples of this in sports. Bobby Thompson and Ralph Branca were tied together because of a famous home run that Thompson hit off Branca. And, it turned out--we found out years later--and it came out that they cheated. The Giants had stolen signals from and had had an unfair advantage. But they became friends--friends--real, apparently. I think it's probably true.
Anyway, I think it's a fascinating example of that, and it does take a lot for somebody to rise above that.
Russ Roberts: I don't want to miss Antoninus. I don't know how to pronounce his name.
Ryan Holiday: An-ton-aiy'-nus.
Russ Roberts: Antoninus. He is a unappreciated hero that I would suspect most people have not heard of. Give us a thumbnail of why he is someone we should respect.
Ryan Holiday: Well, so I write a lot about Marcus Aurelius in my books. He's obviously this main, Stoic guy. And, people don't realize that Marcus Aurelius wasn't born the Emperor of Rome or wasn't born to a royal family like we were talking about. It's a remarkable quirk of history. Hadrian, the Emperor, doesn't have a male heir. He sees something in this young boy, Marcus Aurelius, but he is too young. He adopts Antoninus Pius, a man in his 50s, the most powerful politician in Rome at that time, on the condition that he, in turn, adopt Marcus Aurelius.
And, Antoninus is basically given this job as a throne warmer. Hadrian probably suspects he'll live for a few years. Instead, he has a remarkable reign of almost two decades where not a single drop of Roman blood is spilt. There's no corruption, there's no scandals. It is a flowering moment at the--he's one of what we call the Five Good Emperors--which is then culminated in an even rarer feat, which is that he actually trained and prepared a successor for the job, Marcus Aurelius, who he has no blood relation to. Does a remarkable job. Marcus Aurelius then takes over.
And, Marcus Aurelius, for all his greatness, is not able to keep that going with his own son, Commodus.
And so, I told the story of Antoninus because one of the elements of self-discipline is that--as we said, because you're not promoting yourself, you're not after external recognition or rewards--that sometimes your true greatness isn't fully appreciated because it's overshadowed. Or--as an example, August and July are named after the Emperor Augustus and Julius Caesar. The Roman Senate offers Antoninus the opportunity to pick a month and name it after himself.
Russ Roberts: And his wife, you wrote.
Ryan Holiday: Yes, and his wife. And so, we would know who he was today had he taken this honor, but was so indifferent to those things that we don't.
Just as talking about Harry Truman. If Harry Truman had called it the Truman Plan, probably it wouldn't have passed. But, if it had passed, we would be talking about him instead of George Marshall today as one of the great moments of the 20th century.
And so, part of discipline is that, by definition, you are forgoing some of the things that mean so much to people that then become the kinds of stories that we hear and tell about. The decision to resist fame makes disciplined people less famous, by definition.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, you open the book with a little parable of Hercules facing a choice. Listeners can go read the book, but I just want to point out, it's very similar to Adam Smith's choice of the attraction of the glittering path versus the virtuous path--the glittering path of fame, wealth, and power, which is very seductive, versus the less glittering, less crowded, less appreciated path of wisdom and virtue. Smith argues for wisdom and virtue. Hercules makes the same choice, and that makes all the difference.
Russ Roberts: And it turns out we've heard of Hercules and we've heard of Adam Smith, but it could have turned out otherwise. And, Antoninus, we could have had Antober and I don't know what is--what was his wife's name? Do you know?
Ryan Holiday: Is it Faustina? I don't remember actually. I don't know his wife's name.
Russ Roberts: Okay, Faustober.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, Faustober. Why did he turn it down?
Ryan Holiday: He just wasn't interested in those things.
Russ Roberts: Amazing.
Russ Roberts: But, I have--
Russ Roberts: No, just one footnote, which is crazy. July--one of the things I loved about your book was learning that July is named after Julius Caesar. I would guess my mom and dad know that, but--
Ryan Holiday: I think if you have a Latin--yes, depending on how much Latin you learn, maybe you pick up on these things or don't.
Russ Roberts: I didn't know that. In a way, it's kind of ironic that Julius Caesar gets this big honor. Now, pffrrr [snorting sound effect--Econlib Ed.], it's forgotten. Most people don't know that July is named after Julius Caesar. We'll do a poll on Twitter for this. It'll be interesting.
Ryan Holiday: Or even think about the fact that, put aside the month, Caesar--not only does the emperor, what it means to be emperor is named after Caesar. Everyone--Caesar--
Russ Roberts: Kaiser--
Ryan Holiday: Yeah. But, 'Kaiser' and 'Czar' exist as terms up until the 20th century.
Russ Roberts: That's true, yeah. It's crazy.
Ryan Holiday: So, the lack of discipline to follow the rules, to respect the system--the desire to make oneself king--the reward is that his name lives on as an example of power and imperial greatness for centuries. Meanwhile, who remembers the name--I guess, Cincinnatus gets the city of Cincinnati named after him, but not much else.
Russ Roberts: Not bad. Not bad. I hear the chili is good there. Sorry, can't help myself.
Russ Roberts: Talk about mottoes. I have a couple. I probably have, I don't know, a--I have a few. I'll just mention a couple that come to my mind when I was reading your book. I like, "Wag more, bark less."
Russ Roberts: I like, "Hold your anger for a day." And, I have a couple more like that. And, occasionally, not often, but occasionally, I remember to think of those and they influenced my behavior. And, I think those kind of--people would call them clichés, or trite, truisms, common sense. I think they're underappreciated. And, you have a bunch in your book that I think that I love. You know, "Wait for the sweet fruit." I'm going to just mention one which we won't explain--readers can find out--"Look at the pottery." I'm going to remember that one.
Ryan Holiday: "Do the hard thing first."
Russ Roberts: "Do the hard thing first." "Make sure the main thing is the main thing." You have a whole bunch of them. I'm sure you've spent some time on it. Talk about that and how, if at all, they help you or whether you think they're just for fun.
Ryan Holiday: No. I think they're very important. And obviously--we've been talking about sports. If you walk into the locker room of any sports team, of any seriousness, what do you find? These--
Russ Roberts: Slogans--
Ryan Holiday: sort of clichés and slogans and rules, you know, on the walls, repeated inside the organization. Like, there's an earnestness in sports to the sort of repetition or worship of these very simple ideas.
And, there's something, I think, condescending about the way that we dismiss them or laugh at them. You know: 'Just go out there, do your best. It doesn't matter, win or lose. It's how you play the game.' All these things, we sort of laugh at them.
But, in Philosophy, there's actually a big debate inside the early Stoics about the benefit of these precepts. One of the early Stoics thought, 'No, the wise person should just know.' And, another one, Seneca, said, 'No, these reminders are helpful. They give us guidance. They're sort of like chorus lines that we can come back to.' And, I think that's true.
I mean, I have--they are also book titles for me, but they are reminders that I try to live by. I have The Obstacle Is the Way, Stillness Is the Key, and Ego Is the Enemy tattooed on my arms as reminders that I always look at. And, as I was finishing this series, I have the Four Virtues tattooed here.
So, I think there's an immense amount of value. My office has posters and quotes. And, I like to see those things up there as kind of reminders or codifications of what I believe and what I'm aspiring to be like. [More to come, 1:04:02]
Russ Roberts: That's really interesting. In a way, the greatest compressed version of this is the poem, "If--," by Rudyard Kipling. And, speaking of slogans, it's in the Wimbledon locker room about 'victory and defeat--treating these two imposters just the same.' I'm butchering the line.
Ryan Holiday: Triumph and disaster.
Russ Roberts: There it is, thank you. Say it again? How does it go?
Ryan Holiday: 'Triumph and disaster,' and to treat these two imposters all the same. I mean, I think from a parenting perspective, every couple nights, I'll either read that poem to my children or will watch a YouTube video where, like, a really good narrator reads it. And, sometimes they like it, sometimes they don't. But, I do hope it's worming its way through their muscle memory or into their DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid].
Russ Roberts: Michael Caine reads that poem, and I love Michael Caine's voice. But, I think he reads it differently than Kipling wrote it--just for the record. And I think he learned it from his father. And, I remember there's--we'll put a link up to that. It's a little different, and I'm not sure it's an error. I think it's an edit. But, that's for another question.
Ryan Holiday: The most heartbreaking poem, if you have read "If--," the follow-up is his poem, "My Boy Jack." Have you read that?
Russ Roberts: Oh yeah. Yeah, sure.
Ryan Holiday: And, I think about that often. I do this other email I do every day called Daily Dad, and I wrote this poem about how, you know, the tragedy of Kipling is that his poems celebrating imperialism in war and all these things are cashing--
Russ Roberts: Manly virtues--
Ryan Holiday: Yeah. It's cashing--it's writing a check that he pays for with his son's life.
And, it's a reminder to me that as parents, we have this sort of responsibility to think about the consequences of our policies, our beliefs, the people we elect. Our children pay those bills.
And, there's something so--you read the beauty of that first poem, "If--," where he is giving all this advice to his son. And, then at 19- or 20-years-old, his son is cut down in France. Actually, more than cut down. There's not even enough of his son left to bury him. They weren't even sure where he was buried for a very long time because he was essentially vaporized in the trenches. And, there is something immensely moving and tragic about "If--," when you think about it that way.
Russ Roberts: And, he has a short story that is astounding. I have forgotten the name of it. If someone out there knows the story where he tries to imagine--it's a mystical story about reencountering his--not so much his son, but news about his son. It's an amazing story, and I've forgotten it now. And, someone out there knows about it, I appreciate it.
Russ Roberts: Let's close--talk about parenthood. It's a big issue. In my new book, I argue--you could argue that my book is too pro-parenting or too pro-marriage. And, I guess I would justify that saying that our culture has reduced the appeal of those things a great deal. And so, in some sense, my book is a little bit of a corrective. My book is not about marriage and children alone, it's about other things. But, it's--a central part of the book is discussing those two things. And, although I recognize they have many downsides; I talk a lot about the upsides. You suggest in your book, in the end, in your afterword, and that children have shaped you in certain ways. Can you talk about that,--
Russ Roberts: having children?
Ryan Holiday: They certainly challenge your discipline in a lot of ways. Right? But, we were talking about saying no earlier. I think one of the big things that shaped me was realizing that when I was saying yes to the things I say yes to, again, somebody else pays that bill. Right? So, the decision to go out of town, to attend this conference, or to go on this cool trip, or to go to this meeting, that means I'm not picking my son up from school. Or that means I'm tired in the afternoon and I can't do x, y, or z.
And so, I think one of the things that parenting--the decision to become a parent--does is it's a very powerful constraint on your life, I think in a way that's positive. It's sort of a direction or a channel that forces you to think about where all these things are going. You don't have unlimited time. You can't have whatever schedule you want.
I mean, it forces you to become an adult in so many ways. It doesn't force you to become an adult. It should make you an adult if you are taking the obligations and the responsibility of it seriously.
And so, I think it's changed me in a lot of ways, almost all of which are positive. And, when people say, 'Oh, it'll hold me back,' I say, 'Yeah, it probably will,' but it may also hold you back in--it may tie you to planet Earth or to some sort of connection to other people or things.' When I think about, 'Oh, I want to be a digital nomad, I travel around, I don't own anything, I'm a minimalist,' these things that we have come to celebrate in the last decade or so, there is something very lonely and ephemeral and disconnected about all of it. And, it's the opposite of what I think virtue and duty are about.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Ryan Holiday. His book is Discipline Is Destiny. Ryan, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Ryan Holiday: Thank you for having me.