On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, writer, marketer and self-proclaimed media manipulator Ryan Holiday talks about his new book, “Perennial Seller,” which explores “the art of making and marketing work that lasts.” He argues that creators over-value how their work launches, and don’t pay enough attention to how their decisions — from start to finish — affect its staying power. He also explains why the ancient Roman philosophy of stoicism is still resonating today.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at the link above, or listen to it in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Media on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka, that’s me. I’m here with Ryan Holiday, who sells lots of stuff. He’s a professional marketer, among other things. Today he’s here to talk about, well, to talk about a bunch of stuff. But you’ve got a new book out here, right Ryan? “Perennial seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts.”
Ryan Holiday: Yes.
Done. How do you do it?
What I’m fascinated by, in publishing obviously the trend is always bestsellers. But the vast majority — especially in the non-fiction space — of books hit a list for a week and then they sell no copies in week two, three, four. The vast majority of the income for the publishing industry, which is a $70 billion dollar a year industry, comes from books that are two years old. Yes, the reason they can have an office in Manhattan is because “The Great Gatsby” sells.
Right, that’s sort of the tale of the catalog. It works the same way in music.
Actually, 2015 was the first year that catalog outsold all new releases.
So your premise is, I’m going to help you figure out how to make and then sell something that will sell in perpetuity, or at least for a long time, and make you a lot of money.
My premise is that these are the underexplored assets in publishing in general. It’s what I try to write as an author myself.
You trying to write “The Great Gatsby”?
No, I try to write books that are going to make it to the backlist. Because most books don’t even make it to Week Two.
So I’ve tried to write books that last. And then when I’ve worked with clients — I’ve worked with all sorts of authors — I’m trying to push them towards lasting, period. And the problem is, even though the vast majority of the income in the publishing industry comes from these titles, 90 percent of the energy or 95 percent of the energy is towards the front list. Towards celebrity memoirs, new diet books, whatever. So it’s a complete blind spots for authors and the publishing industry. And really any creative industry too.
Boy, we can go a lot of ways with this, but just so I’m clear, it seems to me the way you become a perennial seller is that you start off at some point as a bestseller, right? There aren’t a lot of books that didn’t sell well at first but then sold for a long time afterwards.
I would say that that’s not completely true. I mean, “Star Wars” gets beaten at the box office by “Smokey and the Bandit.”
But “Star Wars” was also a giant movie when it came out. There were lines out the door.
It was big, but people think that being No. 1 when you come out is in some ways ...
So we can debate in some ways whether “Star Wars” was enormous or just gigantic, but it was a huge hit when it came out. It changed the movie industry. It wasn’t an indie film that came in through the side door and we’re still watching it 20 years later. Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” was a hit at the beginning as well, right?
Right. It wasn’t “Shawshank Redemption,” but I think people think that your launch is what determines whether you last. But really it’s what you accomplish in your launch and what you’ve created that’s going to determine whether that launch is a platform or a spread, gives you the ability to spread or not, if that makes sense.
Okay. But it’s have a hit and then have a hit that lasts.
No, I actually don’t think that’s true. Because first off, look, literally there’s an argument ... I think Somerset Maugham says, “Nothing that is remembered by history was completely forgotten in its own time.” Right, so I think there is an element of that. Ideally as a marketer you want to launch as a hit and then remain a hit. But I think the problem is, most people ... Fidget spinners are a hit, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be a hit in two years or 20 years.
Or next month.
Right. Or tomorrow.
Yeah, depending on when you hear this. Depending on when you will hear this, fidget spinners may already be gone. Because it was a June 2017 thing.
So I think a launch is really important. Like in the publishing industry, the metric used is the first 10,000 copies. If you can get to 10,000 copies you can probably drive positive word of mouth from there. Ideally you want to get to 10,000 copies in Week One or in Year One. But what matters is, do you have the gas to get there period?
So I started reading the book yesterday. I haven’t finished it and — complete transparency here — it’s hard to read on the pdf version of Netgalley. It’s a lousy way to distribute books.
Netgalley is maybe the worst software for previewing books to the most important audience, which would be journalists.
If I didn’t really really want to get to that book, I would have given up about four login tries into it. It’s pretty miserable. Someone wants to disrupt the galley business, they should get into it.
Yes. Well, actually one of the things I talk about in the book that I think is really important is most people, most creators of all kinds are so scared about privacy or piracy that they put in place ridiculous things like that that prevent you from reaching the kinds of people or the kinds of gatekeepers that you need to sell things.
Yeah, it’s slightly better than the thing I did last year where I had to go into a publisher’s office and read, skim a book for two hours in a glass-walled office so I wouldn’t make off with the book.
Was it a very important book?
Yeah, it was James Ander Miller’s CAA book, which was great, but it really would have benefited from me reading it instead of skimming it for a couple hours. So anyway, the portion of the book that I’ve read concerns how to make something great.
So just so I understand, if I was to read the entire book, how much would it have spent talking about making something versus marketing something.
I think there are two consecutive marathons, is the way that I think about it. So most people, most creators, especially writers that I deal with, they think that writing is the thing for me. Right? I go off in my cave, I come back with my brilliant work of staggering genius.
And I hand it over to a marketer.
Yes. And actually there are a number of decisions that you’re going to make in the creative process that are going to more or less determine ... Are going to have either very larger marketing implications or are going to determine your ability to sell in the short term or in the long term. Right? So, who is this for, how are you titling, how are you positioning it, what are you making? I tell this story in the book, Adele does the demos for “25” and she hands them to Rick Rubin and he says, she thinks she’s ready and she’s not. And that the reason the album is called “25,” when it comes out when she’s 27, is because she spends another two years rewriting and remaking all those songs.
So these are part, that’s the first marathon. And then the second marathon is, now it’s coming out, how do you make this thing either a hit in the short term or set it up to be a hit in the long term?
So this is something that’s always confusing to me when I’m reading stuff like yours where you say you should do this and here’s an example of what happened to Adele. Adele’s enormously talented.
So there’s things that she did and didn’t do that would be useful for people to think about. But if you don’t have Adele’s talent, it’s probably not going to help you that much. Or is there a version where you can take a very meager amount of talent and through sheer willpower create a thing that is successful?
Obviously depends on the lesson that you’re taking from it that the story is being setup to tell. But I think in this case, the lesson is universal in that, the lesson is you have to attach yourself to someone ... You take “To Kill A Mockingbird,” it comes in and she spends another year rewriting it. And we see the difference in “Go Set a Watchman” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Obviously Harper Lee is an extraordinary talent and it’s an extraordinary subject, but I don’t think anyone’s hurt by submitting their work to a talented master or editor of that field and then doing the hard work to getting to where it needs to go to be the best that you’re capable of making.
So earlier this year I talked to Derek Thompson, the Atlantic writer, he has a book called “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity.” He’s a smart guy. As I recall his main point, we sort of went back and forth, if he had one main point it’s that making something great is one thing. But distribution is king.
There are many many great works and many other things that would be hits but no one gets to hear them, see them, read them. So without distribution, without getting it in front of people, it kind of doesn’t matter.
Do you sync up with that point in the book? No.
So I think one of the most insidious myths in any artistic or entrepreneurial field, and Peter Thiel has talked about it, the idea that if you build it they will come, that’s all you need. It doesn’t work that way, whether you have to get them to come through salespeople, you have to get them to come through marketing or you have to have an existing platform that you’re launching from. I do think that’s essential.
Music is different in the sense that, particularly being a singles-driven business now, it’s how are you hearing these songs on the radio, or whatever. With products or books or even movies, the word-of-mouth element is much stronger. And so with a song, to make money on a song, you have to sell millions of copies. With a book, if you sell 20,000 or 30,000 copies you’re starting to be in hit territory.
Yeah, when you see something that’s a New York Times bestseller, it’s sold several thousand copies, not millions.
Yes. In the music industry, gold is 500,000. In the book industry it’s 100,000 or less, probably. So it’s a smaller audience that tends to spread things easier. So I think distribution is essential. I think everyone thinks that creating something is going to give them a platform. Ideally you have something that you launch from a platform.
And so I got to the part of your book where you said in marketing it’s important that you take ownership. You can’t just hand this to someone, you’ve got to own this. But you also have a marketing business. So presumably at some point you say bring in a pro to help you do this stuff.
I’m saying what I try to do in my own career, even if it deprives me of clients in my marketing business, I’d rather be honest than try to sell someone on something. But where I made my bones as a marketer was as the director of marketing at American Apparel where we outsourced nothing. We did all of it in-house. The reason that became a company whose reputation and size was outsized compared to its actual business was because we weren’t outsourcing it to someone who didn’t actually care about any of the things.
You also had an extraordinary and eclectic, controversial founder. And there’s a double side to that story, we can talk about that later.
But again, if you say American Apparel was successful because it had really great marketing, you’re sort of underselling the point that it had a very successful product and then a very particular person at the head of that company.
Sure, yeah, I think it’s a confluence of all these factors, certainly. But my point is, the reason it was brilliant at marketing — I’m not giving myself credit — the reason it was brilliant at marketing is that the same brilliant people making the stuff were also responsible for marketing it. And they didn’t see these as one being an inferior task to the other.
If I put a gun to your head today and you can make something awesome or do an awesome job of marketing it, which one are you going to pick?
I’m going to pick make something awesome, because over the long term I think you’re more likely than not to find a market.
You think it will win out. It will find something somewhere.
I tend to think that yes, once it bends towards truth, it bends toward a meritocracy. But what’s that line? “The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.” I don’t want to die penniless like Melville, so that’s where the marketing side of things comes in.
And you do say in the book, you say, look, if you want to make money quickly there’s lots of other things you can do than making a timeless perennial seller.
Totally. The best way to make money in publishing is to have some bombshell book or be some celebrity.
Be attached to the O.J. Simpson trial. They sold a million of those books. I’m sorry, millions of dollars were spent acquiring those books. No one read any of them.
Yes, the vast majority of books never earn out their advance. And this is true for probably the record industry, and most VC companies never see a return. So that’s the short term. But my thinking is, one, you want to look yourself in the mirror in the morning and two, you want to make things that are meaningful and important. I’ve done six books, five have earned out their advances, several times over. And the last one is on the cusp of earning out.
Where have you made most of your ... you’re like 12-years-old.
You’re 30. Where have you made most of your money so far? From the books you’ve sold or from the marketing services you provided?
It’s probably 50/50. But I could stop working on the marketing and the income would stop. I could die tomorrow and my son would get royalties from my books.
What’s the biggest mistake you think people whose job it is to sell something to me, to promote something to me, make? What’s the number one thing they do wrong?
To you as a journalist or to you as a human being?
Forget the ethics of what they’re doing. We’ll come back to that. What’s the thing they do that is least effective? But they do most often?
I think the biggest problem is that it is a separate thing from the making so it’s like I get a crappy product and it’s too late for me to do anything so I just have to basically trick someone into caring ... Or I have to come up, I have to bolt on an interesting pitch afterwards. That’s why I think ... we were talking about American Apparel and the doing it in-house. If you can make them cohesive and collaborative, you can go hey, people are really interested in this. Let’s make something.
And if I’ve been toiling in my cave or I’ve got my store and things are going well and there’s a thing I’ve made that’s of value and I think is good, and it’s time to actually get it out there, I want to bring in someone like you. How do I figure out who’s good at it, who’s full of shit?
In the marketing space?
I would look at not just ... Everyone’s like, here are the things that I’ve worked on, and half those things probably would have been successful anyway or ... I’m looking for marketers who have taken something from nothing to something, rather than “I worked for GE and GE was already a multi-billion dollar company and I just collected a retainer.” Have you taken something from nothing to something? To me that’s the sign of a marketer who has the whole toolkit.
You worked with James Altucher, another Recode Media guest.
I did, yes.
Again, he seems like someone who’s got that crazy combination of intellect fueled by whatever weird insecurity and whatever crazy motivation he has to go out and ... He also seems pretty naturally skilled at presenting himself. He seems like someone who doesn’t need your help. What did you do for him?
So with James’s book, James had done I think 11 books before we met. And not a single one had sold more than a few thousand copies. That was a soup-to-nuts project. He sat down and was thinking, should I traditionally publish or self publish? And I want to call my book, I think the working title was “The Pick Yourself Economy.” And that book became “Choose Yourself.” My company — and with James — edited the book, we published the book with him and then did all the marketing for it. So literally all of it ...
For that book. And have you worked on his other stuff? His newsletters and-
Yeah, I saw James yesterday. I helped, I was a consultant on the launch of his podcast, which has now done millions and millions of downloads.
He’s a good client.
So you’ve also written a book called, “Trust Me, I’m Lying. Confessions of a Media Manipulator.” I want to talk to you about that. I also want to talk to you about Romans and why they’re relevant, at least in some portions of this country today. We’ll do all of that in a minute after we hear from this excellent sponsor.
I’m back here with Ryan Holiday who is a master marketer, author, stoic — we can explain what that means. I want to talk about the earlier part of your career. We mentioned it a little bit when you worked for American Apparel, you had a successful run there, or semi-successful run, successful, right?
Successful for me.
Successful run. And then you started writing about your work as a marketer and it changed, achieved a lot of notoriety, in part for this book called “Trust me, I’m Lying. Confessions of a Media Manipulator,” in which you then told people about a bunch of things you did at American Apparel that basically — what’s the right word for this? — hoaxed people?
You told people things that weren’t true?
A number of publicity stunts and crazy, you could call it gray-hat or black-hat marketing.
This is for American Apparel and then later for yourself, you passed yourself off as an expert and got the New York Times and ABC and MSNBC to believe you in a lot of places that would get you disbarred, if you could be disbarred from the media.
You can’t, because no one can do it. Look, I’m here doing it right now. So you sort of disavowed some of that now, right?
Look, I worked for a number of really controversial clients and did what is required there or how that works. And then I was writing a book about media manipulation.
You can work for a controversial client and not do things that are unethical.
Sure. My point is I did controversial, provocative, inflammatory marketing for these clients. And then I was writing a book about, not just what I did but how that system works. Because I like writing and that’s what I’m interested in. And then as part of that I was thinking I want to really show people how this works. So I used “Help a Reporter Out,” which I think is probably the most embarrassing open secret in media, and pretended to be an expert.
Explain what “Help ...” Does that exist?
Oh yeah. Someone else just did the exact same thing that I had done. This comedian who was pretending to be a millennial but he was 50 years old. I don’t know if you read about this. But anyways, it’s not like I gained, I wasn’t pretending to be a fake source so I could boost my resume. I’m pretending to be a source to illustrate the absurdity of the system, which I then revealed in an article. So it’s weird how things can get twisted then a narrative can be created. The point was to ... it’s like in the way that a hacker might hack into something and then show how they hacked through a back door. That’s what I was doing in that specific instance.
It is interesting because there are people who do media hoaxes and there’s a certain part of the media intelligence that loves them.
The Yes Men.
Whoever it is, Nathan. Nathan so and so, where they manipulate the media and they get NBC news to run video of a fake video they made of a doctor or something. Everyone goes, “That’s amazing.” Pig rescuing a duck or duck rescuing a pig. I think Ryan Williams ran it. They don’t have the same love for you.
It hits a little less close to home, I think. The fundamental vulnerability of journalism is that it is dependent on sources. And the average person is not aware of just how little vetting goes into the checking of sources, especially in a very fast-paced online-driven media environment. So that was one of the contentions of the book. And the second contention was — and this was another stunt I did for the book — was how dependent the media is on other elements of the media, even though they know there are different standards for different types of media. When the book came out, for instance, I just put out a rumor that the book had sold for a half a million dollars, which it hadn’t.
When you say put out a rumor, you wrote it, right? Or did you tell someone?
We announced that it was a “major deal,” which is a loose term in the publishing industry. And then someone said, “I got an email,” the guy at Gawker said. “We heard that you got a half a million dollars for your celebrity tell-all.”
Here’s the quote: “I would grossly exaggerate the size of my book advance in a press release.” That’s you typing it up.
The press release in the publishing industry is a one sentence thing.
Right, but you say you put out a number?
No, I did not put out a number. I put out “a major deal,” which is, again, a loose term for a range. And then when they asked me if it was for $500,000, I denied it. I said “no comment” and that was enough for Gawker to write, “Ryan Holiday got $500,000 for a Dov Charney tell-all.”
So the line for you is you’re not going to outright lie? You’re going to walk up to the edge and not dissuade someone from writing something that’s not true.
Look, no one’s going to give me credit for not lying worse than I did. But I certainly could have, right? The point to me was to illustrate the absurdity of this system. Look, that story is still up on Gawker, it hasn’t been retracted five years later. So it’s interesting to me that I need to defend myself. I don’t present myself to the general public as a reliable media outlet. To me, that’s the problem. I do find your distinguishing between what I do and other manipulators, I do find that distinction interesting.
One thing that’s different is that you’re in the marketing business today. And presumably you want me to take you seriously, you want the people who are going to read this book to take you seriously. Do you regret doing the stuff five-six years ago? Would you have done it differently, looking back?
Yeah, I was 21 when I started at American Apparel. When I look at the alt-right, let’s say, I relate to what they are doing in the sense that they are focused, very much playing a game and winning a game and thinking much less about the implications and the consequences of that game for themselves, ethically and personally, and for the world around them. I didn’t have to ... I could have made more money not writing a book then writing a book about that topic. I wrote a book and I talked about the things that I did because I saw where it was going. And where it was going was where we are right now.
So do you disavow that stuff now or it is what it is and ...
I get that question a lot. I don’t have an answer in the sense that I think, I like where I am now and I think I’m a different person and I’ve learned a lot. But I also relate to where I was at that time. You know what I mean? I wasn’t thinking about it, is the answer.
So there’s two great quotes here I found. One is from a Times story from last year: “He’s like a snake oil salesman who swears he has abandoned snake oil but not the highly effective sales tactics.” And then here’s one from Craig Silverman, who was at Poynter, now he’s at Buzzfeed, this was from earlier, I think when the book was coming out: “He has a point to make, but he’s like an addict warning of the dangers of drugs, all the while snorting a line and shaking his head at how bad it is.”
Yeah, Craig had another line that I always thought was interesting. He said, “Ryan is showing how the sausage is made, but do you want to hear about it from ...”
“The guy who crapped in the sausage.”
And I thought, uh, yeah, who else? Would you rather not hear about it from that ... Look, I’m not saying that I’m the perfect narrator or source for the book, but what you can’t tell me was that that book wasn’t right and wasn’t very much ahead of its time.
The cleaner version is someone like Craig Silverman or myself or whoever, goes and interviews people like you and writes the book and our hands are clean, theoretically. We expose the dirty secrets behind ... But you’re saying look, the real book is get the criminal to tell you how he broke into the house.
I’ve read all those books. I’ve read Craig’s book “Regret the Error,” it’s very good. But here’s the thing: Those books sold very few copies and they reach very few people who are not outside the media system in some way. My book not only sold quite well to a large group of people who don’t normally read books of media criticism, but it’s now taught in journalism schools because hey, there’s a 23-year-old on the cover or whatever, not an old journalism professor lecturing them about the Cheerios test or whatever.
Here’s my boss and partner and friend, Kara Swisher with a word from another sponsor.
Thanks, Kara. One of the other things you do when you’re not doing marketing is you talk about stoicism. Am I describing it correctly? Is stoicism a thing?
Stoicism is an ancient philosophy.
Ancient philosophy, which you are now presenting as a sort of modern self-help philosophy.
I wrote a book called “The Obstacle Is the Way,” which took ancient stoic philosophy — which is what I’m personally fascinated by and interested in. I’m a complicated person, I’ll admit. And I illustrated it with modern stories and historical stories to bring it to a wide audience.
So let’s ... Why don’t you explain what stoics were, who they were.
Yeah. Stoicism was most popular in ancient Rome. Marcus Aurelius is probably the most well-known practitioner.
Have you seen “Gladiator”?
The old guy that Joaquin Phoenix kills. Actually a profoundly great man who writes a book called “Meditations.” It’s the most powerful man in the world writing notes to himself, not ever thinking they would be published. It’s the practice of stoic philosophy that he’s doing there. And my definition of stoicism ...
Back then it meant what?
It’s a philosophy of inner discipline, managing one’s emotions, of accepting all of the things that are outside of our control. Epictetus’ stoic philosophy says our chief task in life is to distinguish between what is in our control and what is not in our control. That’s the essence of stoicism.
I gotta say, Wikipedia is not helpful on this.
That’s the point.
You need someone to explain this in English. And then I asked my friend Helen who knows stuff to explain what this stuff meant, she said, “The stoics are one of two major post-Aristotelian philosophical schools. The other is the Epicureans.” And then I kind of dropped off because to me Epicurean is food.
There’s probably two. Epicureanism and stoicism are probably two of the most perverted words in the English language. The epicureans were supposed to be about ... The word now means that you’re obsessed with pleasure. And the stoics mean you have no pleasure or emotion at all. In fact, these were robust practical schools of philosophy that taught people how to live meaningful, helpful lives.
All right, we’ll pause it, but if you actually know about the Roman stoics, you’re probably going to take umbrage with a big part of this conversation. I can’t help fact-check this. So the relevance to the stoics today is what?
The stoics have always been relevant through history. Great artists and leaders and people have read the stoics. General Mattis carries a copy Marcus Aurelius with him wherever he goes. So it’s always been this tool of people who are dealing with stress and responsibility and leadership. So it’s not like I ...
What’s the central tenant of the philosophy that appeals to a Mattis or someone? Because this is now popular in Silicon Valley. Tim Ferris is a fan, Kevin Rose is fan.
I did Kevin’s podcast a couple days ago.
What’s the throughline here that appeals, and it seems like it appeals to men?
There’s a male element. The problem is there’s no real great feminist, female stoics. Although Beatrice Webb, who invented collective bargaining, was obsessed with Marcus Aurelius. There are no great historical stoics just because of the sad reality of history. But the throughline is, I would say, the stoics say basically you don’t control what happens to you. You control how you respond. Or there is no good or bad, there’s just what we tell ourselves, not moral good or bad, there’s no positive/negative. There’s just what we tell ourselves. So it’s a philosophy of radical pragmatism and self agency that is very much aligned with the military or entrepreneurship or the artistic life, I think. Does that make sense?
Military, tech I got, artistic life harder to figure out. But I get the notion that, what comes through to me reading this stuff ... There’s a stoic website, are you involved in that?
That’s your site?
Okay, good. Practicing sort of self-reliance and you can’t control what comes at you but you can control your response. I can see the appeal if you’re in the military, if you’re in politics, if you’re in sports, if you’re in tech and entrepreneurial business, and you would like to imagine succeeding at these things. You say, “Well, my enemies are coming at me or the elements are coming at me and that’s going to happen and I’m going to single-handedly swat them away or deal with it.” Or, “I’m going to turn a disadvantage into an advantage.” I can see the appeal there. Harder to understand how it applies to the arts.
Oh, it’s probably the Seneca. One of the great stoics is the most famous Roman playwright of his day. There’s a line from Seneca graffitied on a wall in Pompeii. But Emerson is a huge fan of the stoics; Ambrose Bierce, who’s one of my favorite writers, he was obsessed with the stoics. Eugene Delacroix who paints “Liberty Leading the People,” he said stoicism was his religion. There’s a vulnerability to stoicism too, because it’s saying I don’t control that, I’m going to accept it.
You’re accepting that the world’s an unfair place or that people are going to do you ill or that your enemy is lined up against you on the field.
No, no, but if you read "Meditations" it’s a deeply vulnerable book about loss, about pain, about the fact that other people are flawed, that you can’t go expecting perfection. He says you can hold your breath until you’re blue in the face, they’re still going to keep on doing it. It’s not simply a rah, rah [idea]. The stoics talk about the will, the discipline of the will, but it’s not the same as the modern take on willpower. To them, will is about ascent. The stoics talk about the art of acquiescence. Sort of an embracing and loving of even bad things that happen to you. So it’s not simply a strategy for Tom Brady, is my point. It’s also for ... Epictetus is a slave, so it’s for normal, ordinary people dealing with the realities of life as well.
What is the connection between stoicism and dunking yourself in freezing water at 5 am? Kevin Rose was talking about that. Tim Kendall, who’s the president of Pinterest, we just wrote about him. He does this, this is sort of a trendy thing right now. Did the stoics dump themselves in ice water or is this a logical step from that?
So we have no evidence that they took cold showers. I think they would have likely been a proponent of it. What they did talk about is training yourself for difficulties. Seneca is one of the richest men in Rome in his time and he would practice poverty one day a month. The idea was to become ... Their thinking is that anxiety and fear are mostly rooted in unfamiliarity and a desire to control things that are outside your control. If you’re worried about being poor, if you’re worried about losing all of your nice things, can you familiarize yourself with what life is like without those things and go oh yeah, it’s like how it used to be for me. Does that make sense? The cold water would just be a proxy for anti civilization or ... Not soft, modern life.
Is it the idea that I’m going to steel myself so when the shit comes down I can really take it? Or, I’m exceptionally privileged, I drive a Tesla, my life’s pretty good and it’s only going to get better, but I should expose myself to hardship to make myself a well-rounded person.
I think it is the latter. Obviously it’s a philosophy of which all the inventors are dead. So there’s an argument there. I think, again, when I said it’s this word that’s been dealt an injustice by the English language, the word stoic means the former, but in reality it’s the latter.
So the cynic in me — the same cynic that says if a marketing guy is telling you how to do great marketing, or a get-rich guy is telling you how to get rich, you wonder why he’s not doing it himself, is the same sort of thinking there. Maybe instead of dumping yourself in ice water you should write a bigger check to a local charity or spend more time at the soup kitchen. I realize that doesn’t need to be exclusive, but it seems like there would be other ways to expose yourself to the world than creating ... Like when you see the guys doing the Mudder marathons. When you’re going through this extreme sport experience, it seems indulgent.
Yes. And performative.
Right. You’re causing yourself great pain but you don’t need to and you’re just proving it to yourself and you’re not helping anyone.
I think there’s value in proving it to yourself. But I would agree that they’re not mutually exclusive. I would say to your question — and I get — it’s there are so many better ways to make money than to talk to people about an obscure school of ancient philosophy.
Actually seems like a pretty good way because it’s resonant with a lot of people.
But only because they’ve done an extraordinary amount of work and poured my love and passion into this thing.
But you’ve also found a thing that guys in the military, guys in the NFL, talked to the Patriots about this, Seahawks about this, you talked to Google about this. There’s a group of people that are really responsive to it.
I’m just saying, I remember when I sold a marketing book to Penguin and I made x. And then I went to Penguin, I said I’d like my next book to be about philosophy. They said, here’s less than half. That’s the reality of where it was in 2012. Where it is now is very different. So I could have written ... I could have been a marketing guru but I chose to do this because it’s what I care about.
The stoics would say you’re a dichotomy between whipping yourself to toughen yourself up and helping other people. The stoics would very much say that it is the second part that is more important. They would say, Marcus says, “What injures the hive injures the bee.” He’s one of the first Romans to use the concept of cosmopolitanism that we’re part of this larger whole. So that’s very much part of it. I think it’s maybe a little less public and it’s a little less easy to write in a blog post. But it’s how I try to live my life.
Why do you think stoicism is — seems to be — cresting now, at least in a pop culture sense.
Historically it’s always tended, Marcus is in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. George Washington brings stoicism to America during the American Revolution. The U.S. Civil War. It tends to rise in periods of strife and difficulty because that’s when you need these ideas most. I think that’s an element. The world is, feels like, it’s getting more uncertain and difficult than it ever has before. The stoics would say of course, it’s actually better than it’s ever been before. If you look at it historically, all these things get very small very quickly. But that’s the point.
Marcus Aurelius would have loved a Tesla.
Yes. Seneca would like a Tesla. Marcus Aurelius famously sold a bunch of the palace furnishings to pay down the Roman debt. So he was an extraordinary man. But ...
But your point is things seem wobbly and uncertain. This says there’s uncertainty but you can be in charge of your own actions and reactions.
What’s so amazing in “Meditations” is Marcus is looking back at the other emperors and going, “They thought things were bad then. They thought things were falling apart then.” He’s like, this is the timeless rhythm of history. This is always happening and will always happen. Be grateful for the good stuff you do have, don’t obsess or wallow in worry and fear and anxiety about things that are outside of your control. Focus on the parts that are in your control, which is yourself, your own actions, the people around you, etc.
If we think history, say, pendulums and things reacting to different things. So if we go from uncertainty and stoicism, where do things go in 10 or 15 years? What’s the opposite of that? We get to peace and stability and then what, hedonism?
I don’t know exactly. I wouldn’t try to predict where things are going, but I do think we tend to, in bad times, really get serious about stuff like this. And then good times come and then we forget all about them and then we find ourselves in bad times again. That’s the timeless rhythm of history, unfortunately.
Okay. Meantime you want people to buy “Perennial Sellers” so they can learn how to sell things, create things that people will read for decades, regardless of whether they’re good or bad.
I would like to live in a world where people make things that are focused on a slightly larger timeline, because then we would be drowning in less crap. I really like books, for instance, because unlike, say, simply online journalism or viral videos, people pay for them and they last and they keep. I don’t like the idea of entrepreneurs writing these forgettable books and people trying to cash in on trends. I love the fact that I can read a book that was written by an emperor 2000 years ago, and that’s what I would like people to make more of.
Okay. We’ll leave it there. Should we come back in a year or 10 years? When do you want to revisit this?
I do end the book that way. I go, look, I could be totally wrong so let’s check in in a couple years and see if I’ve done it. All I can say is, I won’t have quit on the book in a year or five years.
What’s the next book?
The next book is about Peter Thiel.
I assume you’re not going to say Peter Thiel is a terrible guy? You want to do a controversial [take], you want to stand out from the pack.
I always want to have a unique take on something. And I do have very strong opinions about what happened. But I am much more interested in how it happened then whether it should have happened.
Have you seen the documentary that’s on Netflix now?
I haven’t, but I’ve talked to everyone on all sides of the ...
I have too, except for Peter Thiel because he doesn’t return my calls, but I just had Bryan Knappenberger who made that documentary on Netflix. Go watch it, it’s a good hour and a half. Thanks for coming on, thanks for talking to us.
I do listen.
I heard, that’s great.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.