If You Want to Be Smart, You Must Do This

Ryan Holiday
6 min readDec 7, 2022

There are lots of smart people.

There are not a lot of people who can do this smart thing.

The poet John Keats called it “negative capability” — the mental fortitude to be able to entertain multiple contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. Or as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless, yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

The world is complicated, ambiguous, paradoxical, and contradictory. To make sense of it, to survive it, one must be able to balance conflicting ideas. To try to force everything into a simple box, or adhere to a simple theory? It just won’t work.

People will sometimes email me, “Ryan, Marcus Aurelius contradicts himself. Sometimes he says to zoom in and other times he says to zoom out.” Or they’ll point out that Seneca’s writings tell us to be aware of the dangers of the future and also never avoid anxiety and worry.” Or that they are confused because Law 3 in Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power is “conceal your intentions” but Law 6 is “court attention at all cost.”

I’ve even gotten this about Discipline is Destiny which of course talks about being strict with yourself…and also not so strict with yourself. Is that a contradiction?

The answer is yes.

The famous lines from Walt Whitman are,

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Yes, Marcus Aurelius contradicts himself. Yes, the Stoics contradict themselves. Yes, Robert Greene’s laws of power contradict each other. Yes, I contradict myself.

Because the world contradicts itself. Because different situations call for different things. Because everything in life depends on context.

Look, even the premise that only a genius can manage negative capability is itself a little contradictory. Because you know who has no problem holding a bunch of conflicting ideas at the same time? Really dumb people!

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Ryan Holiday

Bestselling author of ‘Conspiracy,’ ‘Ego is the Enemy’ & ‘The Obstacle Is The Way’ http://amzn.to/24qKRWR