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The Domain of the MindThe entire world changed in the few short hours between when John F Kennedy went to bed on October and when he woke up the following morningBecause while the president slept, the CIA identified the ongoing construction of medium and long range Soviet ballistic nuclear missile sites on the island of Cuba, just ninety miles from American shores As Kennedy would tell a stunned American public days later, Each of these missiles is capable of striking Washington, DC the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States, in Central America, or in the Caribbean As Kennedy received his first briefing on what we now know as the Cuban Missile Crisis or simply as the Thirteen Days the president could consider only the appalling stakes As many as seventy million people were expected to die in the first strikes between the United States and Russia But that was just a guess no one actually knew how terrible nuclear war would beWhat Kennedy knew for certain was that he faced an unprecedented escalation of the long brewing Cold War between the United States and the USSR And whatever factors had contributed to its creation, no matter how inevitable war must have appeared, it fell on him, at the very least, to just not make things worse Because it might mean the end of life on planet EarthKennedy was a young president born into immense privilege, raised by an aggressive father who hated to lose, in a family whose motto, they joked, was Don t Get Mad, Get Even With almost no executive leadership experience under his belt, it s not a surprise, then, that the first year and half of Kennedy s administration had not gone wellIn April , Kennedy had tried and failed embarrassingly so to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs Just a few months later, he was diplomatically dominated by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in a series of meetings in Vienna Kennedy would call it the roughest thing in my life Sensing his adversary s political weakness, and likely aware of the chronic physical frailty he endured from Addison s disease and back injuries suffered during World War II, Khrushchev repeatedly lied to Kennedy about any weapons being placed in Cuba, insisting that they would be for defensive purposes onlyWhich is to say that Kennedy faced, as every leader will at some point in their tenure, a difficult crisis amid complicating personal and political circumstances There were many questions Why would Khrushchev do this What was his endgame What was the man possibly trying to accomplish Was there a way to solve it What did Kennedy s advisors think What were Kennedy s options Was he up to this task Did he have what it took The fate of millions depended on his answersThe advice from Kennedy s advisors was immediate and emphatic The missile sites must be destroyed with the full might of the country s military arsenal Every second wasted risked the safety and the reputation of the United States After the surprise attack on the missiles, a full scale invasion of Cuba by American troops would need to follow This, they said, was not onlythan justified by the actions of the USSR and Cuba, but it was Kennedy s only optionTheir logic was both primal and satisfying Aggression must be met with aggression Tit replied to with tatThe only problem was that if their logic turned out to be wrong, no one would be around to account for their mistake Because everyone would be deadUnlike in the early days of his presidency, when Kennedy allowed the CIA to pressure him into supporting the Bay of Pigs fiasco, this time he surprised everyone by pushing back He had recently read Barbara Tuchman s The Guns of August, a book about the beginning of World War I, which imprinted on his mind the image of overconfident world leaders rushing their way into a conflict that, once started, they couldn t stop Kennedy wanted everyone to slow down so that they could really think about the problem in front of themThis is, in fact, the first obligation of a leader and a decision maker Our job is not to go with our gut or fixate on the first impression we form about an issue No, we need to be strong enough to resist thinking that is too neat, too plausible, and therefore almost always wrong Because if the leader can t take the time to develop a clear sense of the bigger picture, who will If the leader isn t thinking through all the way to the end, who is We can see in Kennedy s handwritten notes taken during the crisis, a sort of meditative process by which he tried to do precisely this On numerous pages, he writes Missile Missile Missile, or Veto Veto Veto Veto, or Leaders Leaders Leaders On one page, showing his desire to not act alone or selfishly Consensus Consensus Consensus Consensus Consensus Consensus On a yellow legal pad during one meeting, Kennedy drew two sailboats, calming himself with thoughts of the ocean he loved so much Finally, on White House stationery, as if to clarify to himself the only thing that mattered, he wrote one short sentence We are demanding withdrawal of the missiles Perhaps it was there, as Kennedy sat with his advisors and doodled, that he remembered a passage from another book he d read, by the strategist B H Liddell Hart, on nuclear strategy In Kennedy s review of Hart s book for theSaturday Review of Literature a few years before, he quoted this passageKeep strong, if possible In any case, keep cool Have unlimited patience Never corner an opponent, and always assist him to save face Put yourself in his shoes so as to see things through his eyes Avoid self righteousness like the devil nothing is so self blindingIt became Kennedy s motto during the Missile Crisis I think we ought to think of why the Russians did this, he told his advisors What is the advantage they are trying to get he asked, with real interest Must be some major reason for the Soviets to set this up As Arthur Schlesinger Jr Kennedy s advisor and biographer, wrote, With his capacity to understand the problems of others, the President could see how threatening the world might have looked to the Kremlin This understanding would help him respond properly to this unexpected and dangerous provocation and give him insight into how the Soviets would react to that responseIt became clear to Kennedy that Khrushchev put the missiles in Cuba because he believed Kennedy was weak But that didn t mean the Russians believed their own position was particularly strong Only a desperate nation would take such a risk, Kennedy realized Armed with this insight, which came through long discussions with his team designated as ExComm he began to formulate an action planClearly, a military strike was the most irrevocable of all the options nor, according to his advisors, was it likely to bepercent effective What would happen after that, Kennedy wondered How many soldiers would die in an invasion How would the world respond to a larger country invading a smaller one, even if it was to deter a nuclear threat What would the Russians do to save face or protect their soldiers on the island These questions pointed Kennedy toward a blockade of Cuba Nearly half of his advisors opposed this less aggressive move, but he favored it precisely because it preserved his optionsIt also embodied the wisdom of one of Kennedy s favorite expressions A blockade used time as a tool It gave both sides a chance to examine the stakes of the crisis and offered Khrushchev the opportunity to reevaluate his impression of Kennedy s supposed weaknessSome would later attack Kennedy for this choice, too Why challenge Russia at all Why were the missiles such a big deal Didn t the United States have plenty of their own pointed at the Soviets Kennedy was not unsympathetic to this argument, but as he explained to the American public in an address on October , it wasn t possible to simply back downThe s taught us a clear lesson Aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war This nation is opposed to war We are also true to our word Our unswerving objective, therefore, must be to prevent the use of these missiles against this or any other country, and to secure their withdrawal or elimination from the Western Hemisphere We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be facedWhat s most remarkable about this conclusion is how calmly Kennedy came to it Despite the enormous stress of the situation, we can hear in tapes and see in transcripts and photos taken at the time just how collaborative and open everyone was No fighting, no raised voices No finger pointing and when things did get tense, Kennedy laughed it off Kennedy didn t let his own ego dominate the discussions, nor did he allow anyone else s to When he sensed that his presence was stifling his advisors ability to speak honestly, he left the room so they could debate and brainstorm freely Reaching across party lines and past rivalries, he consulted openly with the three still living ex presidents and invited the previous secretary of state, Dean Acheson, into the top secret meetings as an equalIn the tensest moments, Kennedy sought solitude in the White House Rose Garden afterward, he would thank the gardener for her important contributions during the crisis He would go for long swims, both to clear his mind and to think He sat in his specially made rocking chair in the Oval Office, bathed in the light of those enormous windows, easing the pain in his back so that it might not add to the fog of cold war that had descended so thickly over Washington and MoscowThere is a picture of Kennedy with his back to the room, hunched over, leaning both fists on the big desk he had been chosen by millions of voters to occupy This is a man with the fate of the world on his shoulders He has been provoked by a nuclear superpower in a surprise act of bad faith Critics are questioning his courage There are political considerations, personal considerations, there arefactors than any one person should be able to weigh at one timeYet he lets none of this rush him None of it will cloud his judgment or deter him from doing the right thing He is the stillest guy in the roomKennedy would need to stay that way, because simply deciding on the blockade was only the first step Next came announcing and enforcing this five hundred mile no go zone around Cuba which he brilliantly called a quarantine to underplay theaggressive implications of a blockade There would bebelligerent accusations from the Russians and confrontations at the UN Congressional leaders voiced their doubts One hundred thousand troops still had to be readied in Florida as a contingencyThen there would be the actual provocations A Russian tanker ship approached the quarantine line Russian submarines surfaced An American Uspy plane was shot down over Cuba, and the pilot killedThe two biggest and most powerful countries in the world were eyeball to eyeball It was actually scarier anddire than anyone knew some of the Soviet missiles, which had been previously thought to be only partly assembled, were armed and ready Even if this wasn t known, the awful danger could be feltWould Kennedy s emotions get the best of him Would he blink Would he break No He wouldn t It isn t the first step that concerns me, he said to his advisors as much as to himself, but both sides escalating to the fourth and fifth step and we don t go to the sixth because there is no one around to do so We must remind ourselves we are embarking on a very hazardous course The space Kennedy gave Khrushchev to breathe and think paid off just in time On October , eleven days into the crisis, the Soviet premier wrote Kennedy a letter saying that he now saw that the two of them were pulling on a rope with a knot in the middle a knot of war The harder each pulled, the less likely it would be that they could ever untie it, and eventually there would be no choice but to cut the rope with a sword And then Khrushchev provided an evenvivid analogy, one as true in geopolitics as it is in everyday life If people do not display statesmanlike wisdom, he said, they will eventually reach the point where they will clash, like blind moles, and then mutual annihilation will commence Suddenly, the crisis was over as quickly as it began The Russians, realizing that their position was untenable and that their test of US resolve had failed, made signs that they would negotiate that they would remove the missiles The ships stopped dead in the water Kennedy was ready too He pledged that the United States would not invade Cuba, giving the Russians and their allies a win In secret, he also let the Russians know that he was willing to remove American missiles in Turkey, but would do so in several months time so as not to give the impression that he could be pressured into abandoning an allyWith clear thinking, wisdom, patience, and a keen eye for the root of a complex, provocative conflict, Kennedy had saved the world from a nuclear holocaustWe might say that Kennedy, if only for this brief period of a little less than two weeks, managed to achieve that stage of clarity spoken about in the ancient Chinese text The Daodejing As he stared down nuclear annihilation, he was Careful as someone crossing an iced over streamAlert as a warrior in enemy territoryCourteous as a guestFluid as melting iceShapable as a block of woodReceptive as a valleyClear as a glass of waterThe Daoists would say that he had stilled the muddied water in his mind until he could see through it Or to borrow the image from the emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher who himself had stared down countless crises and challenges, Kennedy had been like the rock that the waves keep crashing over It stands, unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it Each of us will, in our own lives, face crisis The stakes may be lower, but to us they will matter A business on the brink of collapse An acrimonious divorce A decision about the future of our career A moment where the whole game depends on us These situations will call upon all our mental resources An emotional, reactive response an unthinking, half baked response will not cut it Not if we want to get it right Not if we want to perform at our bestIn this age of manufactured outrage and constant distraction, the ability to choose a focused inner stillness is arguablyimportant than ever before Ryan Holidays book revives ancient wisdom that calls for a quiet life in a noisy and restless worldMark Manson,bestselling author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F ck The next Malcolm Gladwell Ryan Holiday s just brilliant Lance ArmstrongWhether you are an athlete, aninvestor, a writer or an entrepreneur, thislittlebutwiseand soulfulbookwillopenthedoor to a healthier,less anxious and productivelife and career Arianna HuffingtonSome authors give advice Ryan Holiday distills wisdom This book is a must read for anyone feeling overwhelmed by the frenetic demands of modern life Cal Newport, New York Times bestselling author of Digital MinimalismDont be fooled Within the pages of this unassuming little book lie a life changing idea that in order to move forward, we must learn to be still Ryan Holiday has done it againSophia Amoruso, Co Founder CEO,GirlbossThis short and entertaining book provides useful tools and captivating examples on how to keep a healthy, clutter free and productive mindManu Ginobili, four time NBA champion and Olympic Gold Medalist Ryan Holiday is among the most psychologically wise writers I know I m a fan of all of his work, including this new gem, Stillness is the Key If you struggleas I doto find your center in the increasingly noisy and frenetic world we live in, then this book is for you Angela Duckworth, bestselling author of GritIn the world today the dangers are manymost notably, the endless distractions and petty battles that make us act without purpose or direction In this book, through his masterful synthesis of Eastern and Western philosophy, Ryan Holiday teaches us all how to maintain our focus and presence of mind amid the sometimes overwhelming conflicts and troubles of st century life Robert GreeneRyan Holiday is one of the brilliant writers and minds of our time In Stillness is the Key he gives us the blueprint to clear our minds, recharge our souls and reclaim our power Jon Gordon, author of The Energy BusHighly recommended Great readCJ McCollum, Portland Trailblazers Ryan Holiday is a national treasure and a master in the field of self mastery In his most compelling book yet, he has mined both the classical literature of the ancient world and cultural touchstones from Mister Rogers to Tiger Woods, and brought his learnings to us in terms that the frantic, distracted, over caffeinated modern mind can understand and put to use Highly recommended Steven Pressfield, bestselling author of The War of Art and The Artist s JourneyA timely, vividly realized reminder to slow down and harness the restorative wonders of serenityKirkus Reviews

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