The Key to Lasting Success? Letting Go.

By Ryan Holiday

March 9, 2020

Work done for a reward is much lower than work done in the Yoga of wisdom. Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward. Work not for the reward; but never cease to do thy work. —The Bhagavad Gita

The great archery master Awa Kenzo did not focus on teaching technical mastery of the bow. He spent almost no time instructing his students on how to deliberately aim and shoot, telling them to simply draw a shot back until it “fell from you like ripe fruit.”

He preferred instead to teach his students an important mental skill: detachment. “What stands in your way,” Kenzo once told his student Eugen Herrigel, “is that you have too much willful will.” It was this willful will—the desire to be in control and to dictate the schedule and the process of everything we’re a part of—that held Herrigel back from learning, from really mastering the art he pursued.

Stillness Is the Key

What Kenzo wanted students to do was to put the thought of hitting the target out of their minds. He wanted them to detach even from the idea of an outcome. “The hits on the target,” he would say, “are only the outward proof and confirmation of your purposelessness at its highest, of your egolessness, your self-abandonment, or whatever you like to call this state.”

That state is stillness.

But detachment and purposelessness don’t exactly sound like productive attitudes, do they? That was exactly the kind of vexing predicament Kenzo wanted to put his students in. Most of his pupils, like us, wanted to be told what to do and shown how to do it. We’re supposed to care, a lot. Willful will should be a strength. That’s what’s worked for us since we were kids who wanted to excel in school. How can you improve without it? How can this be the way to hitting a bull’s-eye?

Well, let’s back up.

Have you ever noticed that the more we want something, the more insistent we are on a certain outcome, the more difficult it can be to achieve it? Sports like golf and archery are the perfect examples of this. When you try to hit the ball really hard, you end up snap-hooking it. If you look up to follow the ball, you jerk the club and slice it into the woods. The energy you’re spending aiming the arrow—particularly early on—is energy not spent developing your form. If you’re too conscious of the technical components of shooting, you won’t be relaxed or smooth enough. As marksmen say these days, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”

Stillness, then, is actually a way to superior performance. Looseness will give you more control than gripping tightly—to a method or a specific outcome.

Obviously an archery master like Kenzo realized that by the early twentieth century the skills he was teaching were no longer matters of life and death. Nobody needed to know how to shoot an arrow for survival. But other skills required to master archery remained essential: focus, patience, breathing, persistence, clarity. And most of all, the ability to let go.

What we need in life, in the arts, in sports, is to loosen up, to become flexible, to get to a place where there is nothing in our way—including our own obsession with certain outcomes. An actor doesn’t become his character by thinking about it; he has to let go, dispense with technique and sink into the role. Entrepreneurs don’t walk the streets deliberately looking for opportunities—they have to open themselves up to noticing the little things around them. The same goes for comedians or even parents trying to raise a good kid.

“Everyone tries to shoot naturally,” Kenzo wrote, “but nearly all practitioners have some kind of strategy, some kind of shallow, artificial, calculating technical trick that they rely on when they shoot. Technical tricks ultimately lead nowhere.”

Mastering our mental domain—as paradoxical as it might seem—requires us to step back from the rigidity of the word “mastery.” We’ll get the stillness we need if we focus on the individual steps, if we embrace the process, and give up chasing. We’ll think better if we aren’t thinking so hard.

Most students, whether it’s in archery or yoga or chemistry, go into a subject with a strong intention. They are outcome-focused. They want to get the best grade or the highest score. They bring their previous “expertise” with them. They want to skip the unnecessary steps and get right to the sexy stuff. As a result, they are difficult to teach and easily discouraged when the journey proves harder than expected. They are not present. They are not open to experience and cannot learn.

In Kenzo’s school, it was only when a student had fully surrendered, when they had detached themselves from even the idea of aiming, having spent months firing arrows into a hay bale just a few feet in front of them, that he would finally announce, “Our new exercise is shooting at a target.” And even then, when they would hit the target, Kenzo wouldn’t shower the archer with praise.

On the contrary, after a bull’s-eye, Kenzo would urge them to “go on practicing as if nothing happened.” He’d say the same after a bad shot. When the students asked for extra instruction, he’d reply, “Don’t ask, practice!”

He wanted them to get lost in the process. He wanted them to give up their notions of what archery was supposed to look like. He was demanding that they be present and empty and open—so they could learn.

In Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism, the lotus flower is a powerful symbol. Although it rises out of the mud of a pond or a river, it doesn’t reach up towering into the sky—it floats freely, serenely on top of the water. It was said that wherever Buddha walked, lotus flowers appeared to mark his footprints. In a way, the lotus also embodies the principle of letting go. It’s beautiful and pure, but also attainable and lowly. It is simultaneously attached and detached.

This is the balance we want to strike. If we aim for the trophy in life—be it recognition or wealth or power—we’ll miss the target. If we aim too intensely for the target—as Kenzo warned his students—we will neglect the process and the art required to hit it. What we should be doing is practicing. What we should be doing is pushing away that willful will.

The closer we get to mastery, the less we care about specific results. The more collaborative and creative we are able to be, the less we will tolerate ego or insecurity. The more at peace we are, the more productive we can be.

Only through stillness are the vexing problems solved. Only through reducing our aims are the most difficult targets within our reach.

Excerpted from “Stillness Is the Key” by Ryan Holiday in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Ryan Holiday, 2019.

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