Death doesn’t exactly make for uplifting bumper stickers or catchy memes. Much less does it lend itself to a subject like creativity. Especially if you’re looking to write a bestseller.
So it’s more than a little unusual that death runs like an undercurrent not only through Ryan Holiday’s most recent book, Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts, but through his larger body as well. (As proof, you can buy a “memento” of your demise on his website, The Daily Stoic.)
Yet somehow, sell is precisely what Holiday does.
Over the last five years, his books have moved over 500,000 copies, in more than 15 languages, and “sales are accelerating.” What’s more, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. His creative agency, Brass Check, advises clients like Google, James Altucher, Neil Strauss, and Tony Robbins
So, why this morbid fascination?
Because death — killing three things in and about ourselves — lies at the core of long-term creativity and success.
1. Kill your excuses
Unlikely as it sounds, Holiday’s roadmap to perennial selling begins with a third century BC philosophy known as “Stoicism.” As Holiday told me:
“The essence of Stoicism begins with making the distinction between what we control and what we don’t control. This seemingly small thing is actually an enormous form of power and direction,” he said. “The Stoic doesn’t look out at the world and try to change it; they try to change themselves — to orient themselves to be the best person they can in that world.”
Far from the stone-faced killjoy it’s often presented as, Stoicism has a long and illustrious history in entrepreneurship. From the ancient Roman conqueror Marcus Aurelius, to statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin, right through to Shay Carl whose Maker Studios was acquired by Disney for half a billion dollars.
In true Stoic fashion, when Tim Ferriss asked Carl in Tools of Titans what phrase he’d immortalize on a billboard, Carl responded: “YOU ARE GOING TO DIE!”
For Holiday, Stoicism means taking responsibility for life, rather than letting life dictate the terms:
“When I was at American Apparel, it was often chaos. As a marketer, what that creates in you is a sense that the job is in the response. As in, ‘Ok, this happened and what are we going to do with this? What can we do with this tiny bit of space and tight deadline? How can we turn our small budget to an advantage?’” he said. “On a personal level, ‘If this person is going to be up in my business, trying to attack me, what can I learn from the situation? What skill can I use this as an opportunity to practice?’”
“It’s always a question of: What are you going to do about it?” he added.
Abdicating our responsibility is tempting. More so when the challenges of life are genuinely unfair.
However, to adopt a fixed or victim mindset robs us of the very power we need to face those challenges. Great art has always used pain and injustice as fuel, not just in the creative process … but to thrive.