20-Nov, 16:49

22:27, December 06 181 0

2016-12-06 22:27:18
Ryan Holiday Sells Stoicism as a Life Hack, Without Apology

In an underground gymnasium in New York City in October, the author Ryan Holiday spoke to nearly 350 people about the transformative power of pessimism and self-doubt.

It was hardly the sort of inspirational message one would expect from a charismatic public-relations strategist turned self-help sage, who is now a sought-after guru to N.F.L. coaches, Olympians, hip-hop stars and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Yet it seemed to resonate with the quiet, reflective crowd at Stoicon, an annual conference for academics and practitioners of Stoicism, the ancient Greek and Roman philosophy that counsels self-effacement and detachment from the vicissitudes of success and failure.

During his talk, Mr. Holiday was self-deprecating — “I will start with the question many of you are probably asking, which is, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’” — and casually profane, drawing a few titters from the crowd when he urged them to question their sense of self-importance. “You might think that you’re hot,” he said, adding a noun that is better left unprinted. “The reality, and the Stoics say it over and over, is that’s not the case.”

When an audience member asked Mr. Holiday if Stoicism “is becoming too trendy,” he answered by defending his part in popularizing it as a self-help strategy.

“We’ve only captured a very small fraction of the potential market,” he said, sounding more entrepreneurial than philosophic. “Stoicism is a philosophy designed for the masses, and if it has to be simplified a bit to reach the masses, so be it.”

If Stoicism is becoming trendy, you can credit, or blame, Mr. Holiday. Through his popular books, lectures and viral articles, he translates Stoicism, which had counted emperors and statesmen among its adherents during antiquity, into pithy catchphrases and digestible anecdotes for ambitious, 21st-century life hackers. He boils down the philosophy’s central tenets to inspirational tales from successful people’s lives (Steve Jobs? Bill Bradley? Model stoics!) and recasts its ancient maxims about the pitfalls of pride into breathless clickbait (“25 Ways to Kill the Toxic Ego That Will Ruin Your Life”). On Twitter, he blasts out uplifting quotations from ancient philosophers like Cleanthes, Diogenes of Sinope, Plato and Zeno to his more than 80,000 followers.

His 2014 book, “The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph,” which draws on the teachings of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics, sold more than 230,000 copies in the United States and has been translated into 19 languages. It has drawn high-profile acolytes, including professional athletes, federal judges, Hollywood celebrities and venture capitalists. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a fan. So is LL Cool J, who sent Mr. Holiday a message on Twitter after reading “Obstacle.”

Mr. Holiday, 29, is an unlikely poster boy for Stoicism. He is a college dropout and a former public-relations strategist for American Apparel, where he did damage control during the company’s ouster of its controversial founder, Dov Charney. He runs his own marketing firm, Brass Check, and has written boastfully of the depraved publicity tactics he deployed on behalf of his clients, including forging and leaking documents, creating fake Twitter accounts and buying web traffic for blog posts he generated. He hatched a viral publicity stunt for the unabashedly lecherous author Tucker Max (“I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell”), which involved vandalizing billboards for a movie based on the book and emailing photos of the defaced ads to blogs in an attempt to stir up a feminist boycott of the movie on college campuses.

Now, he is harnessing his considerable marketing prowess to sell Stoicism. He is like a snake-oil salesman who swears he has abandoned snake oil, but not the highly effective sales tactics.

“If you’re shameless enough, you can sell anything,” he said of his marketing abilities.

Some modern-day followers of Stoicism say Mr. Holiday’s hipster-hustler persona is at odds with the philosophy’s core principles. “There was some skepticism about the personal trajectory of the author, since some of the things in his first book don’t seem to be aligned with the ideals of Stoicism,” said Gabriele Galluzzo, a professor of ancient philosophy at the University of Exeter in Britain, who attended Stoicon.

But Mr. Holiday maintains that his being a good salesman doesn’t clash with his identity as a Stoic.

A California native, he lives on a 40-acre ranch with his wife and newborn son in Bastrop County, Tex. Their modest two-story house has a walk-in gun closet, where Mr. Holiday stows a .22 hunting rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a bow and arrow. He keeps a .243 next to the bed, to chase off coyotes and foxes. He shot a jack rabbit from his front porch, and skinned and ate it, and has taken up hog hunting. They have a small herd of 10 cattle, three goats, two donkeys, and chickens, ducks, geese and a guinea hen. “We don’t know that much about raising cows,” he said. “We’re learning.”

Mr. Holiday discovered Stoicism by reading Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations” when he was a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of California, Riverside. He read it four times in a row and taped passages to his dorm room wall, over his bed.

That summer, Mr. Holiday got an internship at a Hollywood talent agency, the Collective. They offered him a job, with a starting salary of $30,000, and he dropped out of college and moved to Los Angeles. “I was the kid who was going places,” he said.

A year later, he went to work for American Apparel, where he handled public relations as the company faced sexual harassment allegations against Mr. Charney. He grew disillusioned with his work as a hype man and decided to write a self-indicting exposé.

“I was disgusted with how it all worked,” he said. “The idea of the book was, I’m going to put all these things in a giant pile and light them on fire.”

Mr. Holiday got a $250,000 advance for a book from his publisher, Portfolio — far less that the rumored $500,000 sum reported by gossip blogs after Mr. Holiday had helped plant that nugget himself. When “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator,” was published in 2012, Mr. Holiday was called a “scumbag” in Amazon reviews. The Financial Times called Mr. Holiday’s revelations “disturbing” and “chilling.” Business Insider published a list of his most galling acts, with the headline, “The 10 Biggest Lies Told by American Apparel’s Top P.R. Man.”

Some of Mr. Holiday’s controversial clients heaped praise on the book. (“Behind my reputation as marketing genius there is Ryan Holiday,” Mr. Charney gushed in a blurb.) Mr. Holiday seemed to revel in his role as the villain. On the cover, a comic-book-style rendering of Mr. Holiday glares down condescendingly, a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Two years later, he published “The Obstacle Is the Way,” and was embraced as a cleareyed sage offering ancient solutions for first-world problems like status anxiety and work addiction. Mr. Holiday, a self-styled media con man, started selling a repackaged 2,300-year-old philosophy.

After “Obstacle” became an unexpected hit, Mr. Holiday delivered more books, including “Ego Iis the Enemy,” about the treacherous nature of ego, and “The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance and the Art of Living,” a compilation of inspirational quotes from famous Stoics.

It’s hard to fathom that the same person who wrote “Trust Me, I’m Lying,” a bombastic treatise on the art of self-promotion through media manipulation, went on to write a meditation on the perils of self-absorption and pride. But Mr. Holiday doesn’t have any trouble reconciling the Jekyll and Hyde-like phases of his career. Marketing is what he does, he said; Stoicism is who he is.

Still, there’s an obvious convergence of the two. Some of his biggest boosters — including the best-selling authors James Altucher, Marc Ecko, Tim Ferriss and Robert Greene, who are all enthusiastic boosters for his books on Stoicism — are also his clients at Brass Check.

In the past few months, he has given talks to the Texas Rangers baseball team, a Seattle accounting firm, a telecommunications company in Austin and at HSBC Bank in London and Google’s offices in London, New York and Mountain View, Calif. The military has invited him to speak to elite fighters with the United States Special Operations Command.

He is revered in some circles of professional sports. At the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this summer, his books were read by athletes on the United States women’s soccer and volleyball teams and the men’s wrestling and gymnastics teams. “I didn’t realize I was a Stoic until I read it,” said Christopher Sommer, a former United States national team gymnastics coach.

Mr. Holiday’s message about the need for resilience and humility has caught on with N.F.L. players and coaches, including those of the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, which both invited Mr. Holiday to visit their teams’ headquarters.

Mr. Holiday’s efforts to rebrand Stoicism as a self-help system for overachievers doesn’t sit well with some philosophers and academics. At Stoicon, a few attendees were irked by Mr. Holiday’s prominent role at the convention (Stoics are philosophically opposed to complaining, so their objections were mild).

“Some of them looked at Ryan as a keynote speaker and said, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not Stoicism,’” said Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor at the City College of New York, who organized Stoicon’s New York meeting.

During a question-and-answer session, one audience member faulted Mr. Holiday for holding up flawed historical figures like John D. Rockefeller, a rapacious capitalist, as a model of Stoicism. Another questioned whether Mr. Holiday’s pursuit of success as a marketer and author was consistent with the Stoic emphasis on detachment from material gain.

Mr. Holiday admits that it can be hard at times to reconcile his stature with Stoic principles, particularly now that he’s a sought-after motivational speaker with a growing following among sports stars and celebrities.

“It has the effect of making you think you’re more important than you are,” he said. “It’s a good recipe for being full of it.”

Living in rural Texas, with his cows, goats and donkeys, helps keep his ego in check, he said. “My neighbors don’t care that I’m an author,” he said. “It’s inherently ego-inhibiting.”

Ranch life is a pretty good training ground for a Stoic, it turns out. Nature is unpredictable. His donkey Buddy was attacked by a mountain lion, and his chickens have been disappearing at night. He suspected coyotes at first, but a more likely culprit emerged as Mr. Holiday gave a walking tour of his ranch one swampy afternoon. A neighbor’s dog followed him home from the cow pasture and snapped up one of his chickens, running in ecstatic circles and shaking the bird.

Mr. Holiday yelled and lunged at the dog, which dropped the chicken and ran off. The chicken puffed up her feathers and strutted away. Both the chicken and Mr. Holiday seemed unruffled.