33 Things I Stole From People Smarter Than Me
I can tell you two things with confidence. One, I’m living the life I want to live. And two, I’m able to do so in part by ruthlessly stealing secrets from people who are smarter than me.
Throughout my career, I’ve had the fortune of meeting bestselling authors, successful entrepreneurs, investors, executives, and creative people. They’ve offered me some of their best advice, which I’ve eagerly taken. So here, to mark my 33rd birthday, I’ve made a list of 33 of my favorite pieces of wisdom — things I try to live by, things I tried to revisit and think about this year. If you like them, steal them for your own life, too.
There’s No Such Thing as ‘Quality’ Time
When you’re too busy aiming for it, you miss the moments in front of you
- The legendary basketball coach George Raveling has said he sees reading as a moral imperative. “People died,” he said, speaking of slaves, soldiers, and civil rights activists, “so I could have the ability to read.” If you’re not reading, if books aren’t playing a major role in your life, you are betraying the legacy that they left for the generations after them.
- Another one on reading: In his autobiography, General James Mattis points out that if you haven’t read widely, you are “functionally illiterate.” As Mark Twain said, if you don’t read, you’re not any better than people who can’t read. This is true for specific topics, too. I am functionally illiterate about many things, and that needs to be fixed.
- The clinical psychologist and author Sue Johnson talks about how when couples (or people in general) fight, they’re not really fighting. Instead, they’re doing a dance, usually one that’s about attachment. The dance — you go this way, I go that way, you reach out, I pull away, I reach out, you pull away — is the problem. Not the couple, not either of the individuals.
- The past year has revealed some things about a lot of folks that I know well — or at least I thought I did. But as I feel myself rushing to judgment, I think of the beautiful line from F. Scott Fitzgerald at the beginning of The Great Gatsby: “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
- I’ve heard this wisdom from many different writers over the years, but as time passes, the truth of it becomes more and more clear: When someone tells you something is wrong, they’re almost always right. When someone tells you how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong. This applies to both writing and life.
- A French journalist who was writing a piece about my book Trust Me, I’m Lying once told me that love is best spelled T-I-M-E. I don’t think I’ve heard anything truer or more important in my role as a husband or father.
- Jerry Seinfeld’s concept of quality time versus garbage time (ordinary moments can be gifts if we choose to see them that way) has been almost as essential to me as author Robert Greene’s concept of alive time versus dead time (you can either sit around and wait for things to happen to you or make every second count). My life would be much worse without these two ideas.
- A few years ago, I was exploring a book project with Lance Armstrong, and he showed me some of the texts people had sent him when his world came crashing down during his doping allegations. “Some people lean in when their friends take heat,” he said. “Some people lean away.” I decided I wanted to be a lean-in type, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with everything that was said and done. It’s possible to be there for a friend even while letting them know you think they’re in the wrong.
- Years ago, in a high school English class, I shared something with my discussion group. Later, people used what I had said in their essays and presentations and got credit for it. I brought this up to the teacher, telling her that people were using my ideas. She looked at me and said, “Ryan, that’s their job.” I’m very glad she said that and that I heard it at a young age.
- Another thing about being a writer: I once read a letter in which the author Cheryl Strayed kindly pointed out to a young writer the distinction between writing and publishing. Her implication was that we focus too much on the latter and not enough on the former. It’s true for most things. Amateurs focus on outcomes more than process. The more professional you become, the less you care about results — you still get results, but that’s because you know you can rely on the systems and the process.
- Speaking of which, an essential piece of advice I have gotten from the author Steven Pressfield: There are professional habits and amateur ones. Which are you practicing? Is this a pro or an amateur move? Ask yourself that. Constantly.
- PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel said, “Competition is for losers.” I loved this the second I heard it. When people compete, somebody loses. So go where you’re the only one. Do what only you can do. Run a race with yourself.
- The headline of this piece by the journalist Kayla Chadwick is one of the best of the century, in my opinion: “I Don’t Know How to Explain to You That You Should Care About Other People.” It sums up our times, and it reminds me it’s futile trying to convince those who can’t look beyond themselves.
- Tim Ferriss always seems to ask the best questions: What would this look like if it were easy? How will you know if you don’t experiment? What would less be like? The one that hit me the hardest, when I was maybe 25, was, “What do you do with your money?” My answer at the time was “Nothing, really.” Okay, so why try so hard to earn lots more of it?
- It was from Ernest Hemingway, Tobias Wolff, and John Fante that I learned about typing up passages by your favorite authors so that you can feel great writing go through your fingers. It helps you seed the style into your subconscious. It’s a practice I’ve followed for about 15 years now.
- This scene from Tombstone still stays with me (and it also sums up our times):
Wyatt Earp: What makes a man like Ringo, Doc? What makes him do the things he does?
Doc Holliday: A man like Ringo has got a great big hole, right in the middle of himself. And he can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it.
Wyatt Earp: What does he want?
Doc Holliday: Revenge.
Wyatt Earp: For what?
Doc Holliday: Bein’ born.
Production and peace are two totally separate pursuits. The former will not create the later.
- Steve Kamb, the founder of NerdFitness.com, told me that the best and most polite excuse is just to say you have a rule. “I have a rule that I don’t decide on the phone.” “I have a rule that I don’t accept gifts.” “I have a rule that I don’t speak for free anymore.” “I have a rule that I am home for bath time with the kids every night.” People respect rules, and they accept that it’s not you rejecting the offer, request, demand, or opportunity, but the rule allows you no choice.
- I forget who this was from, but it has stuck with me: Go to what will teach you the most, not what will pay the most. It’s about choosing opportunities that you’ll learn the most from. That’s the rubric. That’s how you get better. People sometimes try to sweeten speaking offers by mentioning how glamorous the location is or how much fun it will be. I’d be more impressed if they told me I was going to have a conversation that was going to blow my mind.
- I’ve been in too many locker rooms not to notice that teams put up their values on the wall. Every hallway and doorway is decorated with a motivational quote. At first, it seemed silly to me. Then I realized: It’s one thing to hear something, but it’s another to live up to it each day. Thus, the challenge coins I carry in my pocket, the statues I have on my desk, the art I have on my wall. You have to put your precepts up for display. You have to make them inescapable or else the idea will escape you when it counts.
- Amelia Earhart said, “Always think with your stick forward.” You have to keep moving. You can’t slow down.
- I was at a gathering at the writer Neil Strauss’s house when he had everyone break down what an hour of their time was worth. The formula was simple: How much you make a year, divided by how many hours you realistically work. “Basically,” he said, “don’t do anything you can pay someone to do for you more cheaply.” This was hard for me to accept — still is — but coming to terms with it in my own way has made my life much, much better. There’s certainly privilege baked into this, and I’m lucky that I have the financial ability to follow it.
- Heraclitus said, “No man steps in the same river twice.” The second time around, both man and river are different than they were before. This is why I’m a fan of rereading books (and watching movies, walking on my old college campus, and so many of the things we do once and assume we’ve “got”). The books are the same, but we change between reads. The world changes, too.
- “Well begun is half done” is a proverb I try to live by. It has been a long journey, but slowly and steadily optimizing my morning has made more impact on my life than anything else. I stole most of my strategies from people like the writer Julia Cameron (creator of the “morning pages” daily writing exercise), the author Shane Parrish (an evangelist for waking up early), the folks at the habit-building app Spar (which has helped me stick to not checking my phone in the a.m.), and Ferriss (whose advice to “make before you manage” helps me prioritize).
- “Your last book won’t write your next one.” I don’t remember who said it, but it’s true for writing and for all professions. You are constantly starting at zero. Every sale is a new sale. Every season is a new season. Every fight is a new fight. If you think your past success guarantees you anything, you’re in for a rude awakening. In fact, someone has already started to beat you.
- From the journalist David French: “Human beings need forgiveness like we need oxygen — a nation devoid of grace will make its people miserable.”
- American Apparel founder Dov Charney told me something once that I think about a lot. He said, “Run rates always start at zero.” The point there was: Don’t be discouraged at the outset. It takes time to build up from nothing.
- In a blog post by the author and speaker Chris Yeh, I read this passage that comes from a speech by former Coca-Cola CEO Brian Dyson: “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them — work, family, health, friends, and spirit… and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls — family, health, friends, and spirit — are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same.”
- “There is no party line.” That’s what Allan Ginsberg’s psychiatrist told him when he asked for the professional opinion on quitting his job to write poetry. This is good advice for life. There is no party line on what you should or shouldn’t do.
- Entrepreneur and author James Altucher once pointed out that you don’t have to make your money grow. You can just have it. It can just sit there. You can spend it. Whatever. You don’t have to whip yourself for not investing and carefully managing every penny. The reward for success should not be constantly stressing that you’re not doing enough to “capitalize” on that success.
- At the same time, I love the radio host’s Charlamagne Tha God’s alter ego “Frugal Vandross.” The less expensive stuff you have, the less there is to worry about.
- I’ve talked before how I got my notecard system from the author Robert Greene. Only later did I realize — to steal a concept from the economist Tyler Cowen — that doing notecards is an effective way to “do scales.” Meaning: How do you practice whatever it is that you do? What’s your version of playing scales or running through drills? For me, it’s the notecards. That’s how I get better at my job.
- The personal finance advisor Ramit Sethi talks about how you can just… not reply to things. It felt rude at first, but then I realized it was ruder to ignore the people I care about to respond to things I didn’t ask for in the first place. Selective ignoring is the key to productivity, I’m afraid.
- Once, before we had kids, I was in the pool with my wife and couldn’t stop suggesting activities: “Do you want to do laps?” I said. “Should we fill up the rafts?” “Here, help me dump out the filter.” Eventually, she replied: “You know, you can just be in the pool.” That thought had not occurred to me. Still, it rarely does. So I have to be intentional about it. I’m looking forward to adding to this list during my next trip around the sun. More than any individual item on this list, the most important thing I’ve learned so far is to always keep learning. As the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius once wrote, “You could be good today. But instead, you choose tomorrow.” That quote haunts me as much as it inspires me. And it does a lot of each. It’s worth stealing if you haven’t already.