The Cult Of No Personality

Ryan Holiday, Cult of No Personality
Ryan Holiday – Image from

Add To Life: Ryan Holiday

Ryan Holiday is all about the dissolution of ego: this makes it super hard to have an intellectual crush on him. I feel that he would see my love heart eyes and think, “What a misdirection of energy. Feel the absence and use it to create something beautiful.” Or, “Why are you trying to star in your own story?”

The Cult of Personality

There’s a term called ’the cult of personality’ which essentially refers to the public figures who feel untouchable, like you’d have to fight entire countries’ worth of proletariat (including yourself) to stand near them – and that they would get off on that.

The first figures awarded cults of personality status were dictators: Stalin, Mussolini, Castro. In entertainment, think Elvis, the Beatles. You could call the cult of personality a social fact – and now it’s a fact that many people want a cult of their own.

Donald Trump, the Clintons, Taylor Swift. They’re the ones with the most media coverage, self directed or otherwise. “Whoever controls the media controls the masses,” is a quote attributed to Jim Morrison. The news used to be a lot more easily controlled. Newspapers reported on what happened the day before; there were no dedicated current affairs’ television channels; PR and journalism were separate professions. The cults of personality were arguably fewer; the personalities had public images they’d carefully cultivated that they could grant restricted access to. The Beatles would play in your city and sometimes pop up in your newspaper or on television. They would wax and wane.

The Beatles arrive in Melbourne
The Beatles arrive in Melbourne. Image from

Then, the internet. Facebook. The selfie.

Now the social networks are publishing houses themselves, and the publishers with the biggest audiences are personalities.

The Death of Mystery

Internet forum Reddit likes to jest about what would have happened if historical figures had Twitter. It guesses that Thomas Edison would have microblogged, “Just invented the lightbulb. Suck it @NikTesla”. It’s certainly true that social media lessens the mystique of some personalities: take Elon Musk, who is changing the world, while tweeting things like, “Sunday morning: to bake or not to bake cookies — that is not even a question. Definitely bake.” But for others, it’s all about the enhanced mystique and carefully controlled images. The cult of personality has been democratised: Kim Kardashian has one, and so does the prettiest girl in your high school.

We collect followers and not friends.

There are strong messages, literally everywhere, that the winner is the one with the fittest body, the biggest salary, the best adventure holidays, the most social media followers. They’re the earliest adopter, with the cleanest lifestyle and the most photogenic squad.

It’s never been clear what we’re competing for, unless the prize is the fittest body, the biggest salary, the best adventure holidays, the most social media followers.

Cults of personality point toward contemporary ideals. They help direct public discourse and literally shape the language of the mass media. A girl squad would not have been a thing if not first used as a marketing tool by Taylor Swift. A #girlboss would have another name if given one by Sophia Amoruso.

Celebrity selfie - image from
Celebrity selfie – image from

It’s easy to feel like the fit body, and the big salary should be the goal. That’s the only message we’re given, unless we seek out alternatives.

An alternative message worth seeking out is that belonging to Ryan Holiday.

There’s An Alternative To That

Ryan Holiday is a guy who has arguably switched from evil back to good. At 19, he dropped out of college and worked with Robert Greene, a writer whose work is created to teach people how to persuade and influence others, that Greene himself has described as ‘bloodthirsty’. I haven’t read Robert Greene, so I can’t speak to that.

Ryan Holiday worked with Tucker Max, who made his name by writing bro-fantasy columns on his website, with names like “The Midget Story”, and a turn of phrase that’s genuinely offensive to modern minded women. Max has since pivoted to being an entrepreneur/start-up commentator and angel investor. His earlier readers find his Facebook page and comment from time to time on him being a sell out. It’s possible he just grew up: his stories remain on his website.

Ryan Holiday became the Director of Marketing for American Apparel, the brand that’s super famous for using sexualised images of porn stars to sell clothes to teenagers. He was 21 when he took up the American Apparel role – a role that would be the pinnacle of an entire career for many. At 24 he dropped out and started writing a book – Trust Me, I’m Lying, where he ‘came clean’ on all the methods he used to get press for his former clients (which he described as ‘beating the pros at their own game’ on behalf of brands, artists and entrepreneurs.) He then wrote on Growth Hacking, before launching the book that launches careers – The Obstacle Is the Way.

His follow up book, The Ego Is The Enemy, is the first book in a long time that has made me exhale. It’s an exploration of Stoic virtues and how applying them lets you lead an uncommon life.

Ryan Holiday’s arms. Image from

Now, Exhale

Right now, the shiniest gadget wins. The newest colour variation. The most limited edition.

So when Ryan Holiday champions Stoicism as that which underpins his work, and Stoicism is a belief system that dates back to the Roman Empire, it’s quite the flashback Friday.

He put it this way, on his blog:

Stoicism is not a religion. It is not the law. It doesn’t even have tenants. It is a series of observations and principles that smart people suggest you put into action–as they will reduce your suffering and increase your contentment. You can’t fail at them, you can only forget or not do them. And if that bothers you, wake up tomorrow and get back on track

The dissolution of the ego, then, reduces suffering. It keeps you humble, focused on the job at hand. It means you run your own race, unconcerned about what your competitors may be doing. It means you don’t really view others as competition, just peers. It means you can focus on doing work that matters. You can share things because they’re beautiful or evocative; not because they’ll net you likes. It means you don’t have to keep striving for higher positions or more power. You don’t have to be the fittest; the earliest; the richest. You don’t have to be Taylor Swift – you can just be you.

The Obstacle Is The Way is another Holiday book. It, too, is about facing the present with humility, and letting each situation strengthen you. It became a must-read for professional coaches who credited it with professional success.

The Fight Mediocrity YouTube Channel summarises the book:

Stoicism has a lot of celebrity followers: Tim Ferriss is one; Bill Clinton is said to be another. It’s a rejection of groupthink and a return to turning inward: listening to yourself, going your own way, keeping your head down and on track. Acting with deliberation, instead of reacting with emotion.

Okay, sure. But, what’s the point? What’s the point of turning inward, of not using others as a yardstick of whether you’re achieving?

That’s when it becomes about what you’re doing instead of who you are, or how you look.

What Ryan Holiday does differently is that he shares ideas rather than his personality. He has a monthly email newsletter that he sends which shares book recommendations with 40,000+ subscribers. He admits on the Tim Ferriss podcast to ‘not being a millionaire’. He’s open and self-reflective. The man who grew American Apparel’s online revenue from 40 million to 60 million knows a thing or two about marketing – yet his Instagram and Facebook accounts both number less than 20,000 followers. He’s building his body of work – not his vanity metrics.

I’m not sure how you get from American Apparel to most genuine guy on the internet, but it’s apparently happened.

Body of Work

Ryan Holiday’s next book is called The Daily Stoic, and is ostensibly a series of daily meditations about Stoicism. His website,, sends regular emails with Stoic meditations that discuss modern applications of Stoicism. The @dailystoic Instagram account is a refreshing alternative to quote accounts: instead of quoting Carrie Bradshaw like the rest of Instagram does, it instead offers Stoicism quotes from people like Seneca, who said, “If you want to escape the burdens that oppress you, you should not be somewhere else, but someone else.”

So what type of celebrity do you become if you don’t become an internet celebrity? How do you become a personality? With a cult?

Says Ryan Holiday, on Twitter: “Most successful people are people you’ve never heard of. They want it that way.”

When you find yourself not living the life you’d planned for yourself, having become sidetracked or maybe a bit confused, it becomes okay, because you realise you’re only accountable to you. Really. Not your Instagram followers. And if you forget, you can wake up tomorrow and get back on track.

The Ego Is The Enemy (affiliate link):

The Obstacle Is The Way (affiliate link):

The Daily Stoic:

The Daily Stoic Instagram – a collection of Stoicism quotes and more:

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