I’m not sure where I stole the idea from, but I am a big proponent of printing out good advice and putting it right in front of your desk, or wherever you work everyday. So you cannot run from the advice, so you see it enough times that it becomes imprinted in your mind.
The first quote I ever did this for was an admonishment from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I was 19 years old and it was exactly what I needed to be told.
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work–as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for–the things which I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
–But it’s nicer here…
So you were born to feel ‘nice?’ Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
–But we have to sleep sometime…
Agreed. But nature set a limit on that–as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota. You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash and eat.
At the time, it was how I reminded myself to get off my butt, to stop being lazy, and to work hard. I’m sure if you recall back to your college days you can relate–not wanting to get up for class, the first time in your life no one could tell you what to do. It was so much nicer to blow everything off.
This advice helped me. I had that exact conversation with myself many mornings–and that was possible because I’d memorized the script.
But one day a few years later, I realized: This is not my problem anymore. This is not what I need to be reminded about. And that’s when the rotation began.
I remember which came next. It was something Robert Greene said to me over lunch. I was working full time at American Apparel but planning my next move, saving my money and thinking about writing a book. He told me, “Ryan, while people wait for the right moment, there are two types of time: Dead time—where they are passive and biding and Alive time—where they are learning and acting and getting the most out of every second. Which will this be for you?”
That went right up on the wall: “Alive Time vs Dead Time”
When I caught myself sitting on my hands or goofing off as I waited, that jolted me back into line. When I got distracted with silly politics or wanderlust, I came back to it. It helped me make the most of my time as I was preparing for my next move. Even now I think of it when I get complacent. But eventually, I internalized it and could move on.
Today, I have three quotes printed and framed above my desk.
One of these dates back to New Orleans, another to my time in New York and now one came from my time in Austin.
One reminds me about how to live, one reminds me what to think about as a businessman and entrepreneur, the other reminds me what to think as a writer. At different times they have meant different things to me, but they are reminders I need always.
“Some lack the fickleness to live as they wish and just live as they have begun.” – Seneca
The line from Seneca is in line with my theory about dropping out. It’s from his excellent essay On The Shortness of Life. The point is, sometimes you have to quit. Just because you started something, just because you’re good at something, doesn’t mean you must continue. Sometimes you have to make hard right turns. Fickleness is a good thing. It means you’re being picky with your time. Life is too short to be anything but.
“A sustained interest, a constant variety, a consummate blend of humor and pathos, of narrative and argument, of description and declamation; while every part is subordinated to the purpose of the whole, and combines, despite its intricacy of deal, to form a dramatic and coherent unit.” – H. Grose Hodge.
The line is a quote about one of Cicero’s great speeches from his translator the Loeb/Harvard series. Cicero’s defense of Cluentius (accused of parricide) checks about every box that a writer or a speaker must check and Hodge’s description provides a pithy summary of the duties of a writer. I printed this quote out when I was struggling with my first book and trying to figure out the tone and voice I needed to be successful. I still think of it often because it reminds me, as a writer, how to regard my audience, how to think about my style and my approach. This stays on the wall because I’m not sure I’ll ever really master it.
In today’s global economy here is what is scarce:
1. Quality land and natural resources
2. Intellectual property, or good ideas about what should be produced.
3. Quality labor with unique skills
Here is what is not scarce these days:
1. Unskilled labor, as more countries join the global economy
2. Money in the bank or held in government securities, which you can think of as simple capital, not attached to any special ownership rights (we know there is a lot of it because it has been earning zero or negative real rates of return).”
-Tyler Cowen, Average Is Over
The line from Tyler Cowen is a new one, but it makes me both optimistic and on guard for the future. It comes from one of my favorite books of 2013. I know that I am primed and poised to obtain some of the scarce resources Cowen discusses. Others? I’m not so sure. So I need to see this to remind me to get working.
These quotes are a little peculiar, I know. They have saved me countless troubles, helped me with untold opportunities.
I’m sure as time goes by, these quotes will change. The one about writing is already showing signs of wear—literally and figuratively. I hope to one day earn the opportunity to upgrade to different advice. Something that pushes me to apply myself in different ways and improve my craft. Thankfully, I have a book of quotes to choose from.
But so far nothing has struck me. Choosing the right quote for your desk is very much an inspired-moment-stars-aligned-epiphany kind of thing. You’re reading a book or talking with someone and BAM it hits you… that’s exactly what I needed to hear, you think. Or, I believe that thing to be true in my very soul. And so you take the step to memorize it.
What quotes make sense for you? No one can say. But choose wisely–not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. And maybe it doesn’t need to be on your desk. Perhaps your nightstand, your bathroom mirror or tattooed on your body.
The point is: find the advice you need and put it where you will see it. Then listen to it.
Ryan’s latest book, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph was released by Penguin on May 1st. He is also the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying and Growth Hacker Marketing. He is currently an editor at large for the New York Observer and contributes to Thought Catalog from his home in Austin, Texas.
[Ed Note: Ryan Holiday is a media strategist and prominent writer on strategy and business. After dropping out of college at nineteen to apprentice under Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, he went on to advise many bestselling authors and multi-platinum musicians. He is the director of marketing at American Apparel, where his campaigns have been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube, and Google and written about in AdAge, the New York Times, and Fast Company.]