Savages

August 10, 2012 — 46 Comments

I think savagery is underrated. We talk so much about personal development and refinement that what gets lost is that other part of ourselves, the darker, animalistic part. “Inspiration” is so much cleaner and less objectionable that it’s all we want to focus on. I’ve never been one for convention, so I’ll say what needs to be said here. Being savage is a good thing.

Let me be clear, what I’m not talking about are the kind of evil people who inflict harm on others. Or rely on physical intimidation for their success. There is little excuse for that in today’s world. What I’m talking about is a kind of self-directed savagery in a contained setting. When William Hazlitt was talking about the “wild beast resuming its sway within us” he was condemning the mob/tribe mentality, but I think it can also be a positive motivational factor.

I think about savagery when I go out and run–after hours of work, weeks of it in a row–every single day in the Louisiana heat. I enjoy sweating so hard it stings my eyes. I smile if I catch myself teetering a little bit towards the end. I’m not running for exercise, I’m running because there is a part of me that is a little bit savage. And I give it free reign and I benefit from it. There is savagery in juijitsu, which I do 4-5 days a week when I’m not traveling. There’s something savage about getting destroyed round after round and the fact that I keep coming back for more. I suppose I could get better faster by reading and studying but I think it’s better to do it this way. I go to get my ass kicked for a reason, and it doesn’t bother me that I do. I relish it a little bit. And mostly I learn from it.

In 19th century dog fighting, bull dogs weren’t the strongest or most aggressive dogs, but the fat and extra skin around their neck made it harder for other dogs to tear their throat out. Dogs could clamp down on it, but they couldn’t kill. That’s fucking savage. There’s a lesson there.

You don’t have to be the best, you just have to be harder to destroy. You have to be relentless. Indefatigable. Sometimes, to get in the right position, you have to be able to absorb a lot of blows. You’ve got to know you’re taking hits for a reason, and have the tolerance and endurance to bear it. If you can actually enjoy and seek out that process? Well, then you’re a fucking savage. And you’re going to be very successful.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

46 responses to Savages

  1. I think you might be missing the word “not” in the 1st sentence of the 2nd paragraph?

  2. There is absolutely something to be said about being relentless towards a goal. People with great ideas sometimes fail simply because they cannot push themselves to that extreme level of passion and savagery for their dream. Simply being “inspired” to do something won’t get you there. Relentless drive will.

  3. Refreshing… I can agree with this..

  4. Savage post….you delivered great content based around a single word – love it. Makes it easier to apply in life.

    At 23, I’m finding that part of becoming and being a man is having to fight. Being “savage.” To get “bloodied” up in the arena you’re in, but to stay bloody minded throughout. Not to be too much of a bitch to enter it, and not becoming a bitch during your stay. Seems like lots of people are coddled during their lives (especially when young) and as a result they lose a lot of this savage instinct. We’re given a very comfortable system to follow along with directions (think compulsory education as well as the new standard of the Bachelors degree and a 20-30 year desk jockey career).

    “To get in the right position, you have to be able to absorb a lot of blows” …great stuff. Makes me think of Rocky Balboa getting whipped around before winning the fight.

    Cheers,

    Matt C

  5. I love this. As an aside I think you might be missing an important word in the second paragraph.

  6. This post reminds me of a book I read a couple of years ago called ‘A Long Way Gone’, which is the memoirs of a former child soldier in Sierra Leone. At age 12 his family was killed and he was forced into fighting for the government army. He was brainwashed, took huge amounts of drugs and by the time he was 16 had killed dozens of people.

    It’s a fucking brutal read, and it made me realise: this could have been me. I was lucky enough to born into a middle-class family in a first-world country, but if I’d been born in Sierra Leone in the 80s, who’s to say I wouldn’t have ended up gunning people down with an AK-47 at age 13? It was just blind luck of the draw that I was raised with wealth and education when others have been raised in poverty and violence.

    I think there’s this dark side to human nature that doesn’t get talked about too often. Given the right (wrong?) circumstances and upbringing, people have a deep, scary capacity – savagery – to harm each other. You only need to watch the news or read a history book to see dozens of examples of this. I think it’s a byproduct of evolution, from when we were organised into tribes and defending your family from other tribes (through violence) was just as important as raising a family in the first place.

    This post has got me thinking, in this so-called civilised world we try and suppress this part of our nature or deny it, but it’ll always still be there, dormant. I guess it’s possible to harness it for good, to direct that savage energy into something productive rather than letting it build up unchecked and pretending it’s not there or that we’re somehow above it. I don’t know exactly how I can apply that myself but it’s something to think about.

  7. Truly sickening, but to be expected from someone who finds Stoicism to be profound. Stoicism, after all, is the philosophy of capitalism, the most anti-revolutionary philosophy imaginable. Don’t try to make the world better, but somehow convince yourself that exploitation, aggression, and ‘savagery’ are noble, and contribute to the further dehumanizing of our species.

    You really, really aren’t helping.

  8. I can relate to this when I’m in the gym. You have to train hard and give your 100 percent. Sometimes you release anger and frustration while training and that can look ‘savage’. I love it and it helps channel negative energy in a positive way..

  9. I like this a lot. It’s refreshing to be able to acknowledge certain drives within us without making judgments about them. The word Savagery obviously has negative connotations in English (which Pepper above can’t seem to get beyond), but in your post it represents just biological urges that are neither inherently good or bad. It’s how one handles the urges that matters. With reason, one can harness those drives for something productive. In your case it’s running. Personally, I’m at a major turning point in my life… pretty arduous. I’m compelled to lash out at those who have hurt me – a very carnal urge. Instead I’ve joined a rugby team and begin practice next week.

  10. “The first rule of Fight Club, is you don’t talk about Fight Club”

    I think it’s definitely important for men to find space in their lives for “savagery” and masculine activities in an increasingly emasculated modern world.

    • I believe your comment was well-meaning, but I think you’re missing the point. It’s my understanding that Ryan is referring to mental toughness, not brutish physical strength–or what one can only imagine you mean by “masculine activities.”

      And by referring to the modern world as emasculated, you imply primitiveness and violence are masculine. Along this line of thinking, which gender’s realm does that make social strategy (and marketing)? Or are both attributable to men also, and only that which you do not like is relegated to the province of the females?

    • or even re-talk about ‘it’

  11. Excellent! I’ve long made a similar point, if less eloquently, in explaining my somewhat surprising success in business. “Just keep coming, just be harder to kill” worked so many time it’s hilarious. Most people (and businesses) aren’t tough (or “savage”) . You keep coming at them and they’ll almost always break and run. Even if they are 10 times your size. Even if you are wounded almost to death.

    Short hand for the same idea – the Joe Frazier strategy: be willing to take two punches to deliver one, and then be sure the one is a doozy.

  12. If you’re training BJJ 4 or 5 times a week, you won’t be getting “destroyed round after round” for very long. If you put in that much mat time you WILL get good.
    I’m not sure if I agree with your statement about there being savagery in jiu-jitsu.
    I’ve spent 8 years in the sport and in my experience it’s about flow, balance, sensitivity. I mean, it’s called “the gentle art” for a reason. Look at a guy like Caio Terra. I think that the last word you would use to describe his style is ‘savage’.
    (Based on your spelling, I have assumed that you’re talking about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu)

    • Yeah bjj. But dude at the end of the day bjj is about submissions. That is exerting so much pressure or force on someone that they either give in or choke out or break a bone/joint. That’s savage.

  13. awesome! I practice Jiu-Jitsu as well. When someone asks me why I always say “so I can defend myself”, but I think it’s something deeper which I can’t explain.

  14. Reminds me of Thoreau’s great quote:

    “I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good.”

  15. I can definitely relate to the feeling of savagery when I’m finishing a tough workout or forcing myself to focus on work when I feel like goofing off because I know it takes sacrifice to be the best. So many people in our society today have become soft, and try to rationalize their poor eating and exercise habits, inability to find a job, etc. while refusing to go out and take positive action. I like this post because it emphasizes that you don’t need to baby yourself with another self-help book, you need to harden yourself, strengthen your desire, and gain the confidence to succeed.

    • Grrat comment, Patrick Bateman.

      I believe in taking care of myself, and a balanced diet and rigorous exercise routine.

  16. Ryan,
    You’re right. Savagery is good. Generosity is overrated. Besides, has true generosity ever existed? Never. Humans are animals. Only the fittest survive.
    True altruism is impossible. Even if our human population contained 99.9% altruists, people willing to sacrifice themselves for others, and 0.01% selfish rebels—the unconventional outcasts, the “manipulators,” determined to exploit the generosity of others, would be more likely to survive and have children that inherited his selfish traits. Over generations, the selfish rebels would gain prominence and overrun the entire population.
    A true gift is also impossible. Everything we do derives from a selfish desire to produce a certain feeling. The other side of this theoretical debate proposes that gifts indeed reflect harmony, genuine desire to forge amiable social bonds and connections, and obedience to human limitations. I however know that a pure gift is impossible because society is too excessively cajoled by freedom, pleasure, and change, which entail competition and unattainable fulfillment.
    The goal is to be unconventional and eccentric with your time. Rather than be a good serviceman, brainstorm how far you could deviate without being utterly thrown from the tribe.

    • Henry:

      I think you are missing Ryan’s point by a mile. He is not espousing the traditional view of “savagery” as in “brutal,” “barbaric,” or “selfish.” He is referring more to an inner toughness and resiliency. Your comment seems to me to be promoting some sort of social Darwinism, and that’s honestly a little scary to me.

      It seems to me that you might be referencing Richard Dawkin’s book, “The Selfish Gene.” Jeffrey Skilling, of Enron notoriety, mentioned at one point that it was one of his favorite books. He took it to mean that he could fuck over others and hurt them at will, and that was perfectly acceptable because he was just following his biological drive, as in his mind he was just stronger and fitter than those he would hurt. Dawkins himself said that this interpretation of his novel was total bullshit. It’s called The Selfish Gene, meaning it is the gene itself that is selfish, and not a gene that passes on the trait of selfishness. Skilling misinterpreted it and took it to mean the latter, meaning that in his mind he thought selfishness was a valuable trait.

      Unless I am missing something huge, the message of Ryan’s blog from the beginning, has been that we should strive to be kind and good to one another.

      I followed the link to your blog, and read your posts. To me, it seems like you are writing about your specific views, and treating them as if they are absolute maxims for everyone to follow. The tone is very pedagogical. I think you should work on accomplishing and experiencing more before you write so much.

      I am not trying to call you out. I’m replying to your comment because you seem like an intelligent person, but I think you are misunderstanding the message of Ryan’s post here. I’m not saying selfishness is bad and that you should sell all your possessions and go live in a monastery. Far from it. What I’m saying is that you should not be selfish and the expense of others. We should always try to be as loving and helpful to others as we can.

      “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.” Franz Kafka.

    • …Think you went too far out on this one.

  17. There is a new book by the master of theoretical biology, E.O. Wilson – “The Social Conquest of Earth.”

    I highly recommend it. We are caught between our selfish individual instincts and the group “altruistic” behavior that we have been developing over the past couple millions of years in the interest of nest defense. It is an endless struggle, and we can be both savage and altruistic at any moment. He ventures that perhaps that is the only way to reach human like intelligence in the whole universe.

  18. Oh shit. How much do you weigh? We should roll sometime.

  19. Seneca says it best: “A lion with gilded mane, worked over and worn down to submit to grooming, enters the arena quite a different animal from the untrimmed lion with spirit unbroken. Bold in attack, as nature meant him to be, handsome because unkempt-the terror he inspires is the essence of his attraction-he has the edge over that bedizened and spiritless creature.”

  20. Hey Ryan,

    If your ever in the DC, VA area and want to roll let me know.

    Just found your site yesterday. This post is exactly what I have been thinking about the last month or so. I also got the idea from JiuJitsu and know exactly how you feel. It’s hard to talk about this with those who don’t do BJJ or some type of combat sport. It’s hard to explain or talk about what it feels like to push someone or be pushed to your braking point. Then do it all over again. This is what will make me a stronger person in BJJ and in life.

    And to those that argue BJJ is the gentle art and isn’t savage, I would like to remind you that this is a Martial Art. An art that has it’s roots in combat just like all others. And just like all other Martial Arts there is room for skill, balance, grace. But savagery is a mindset that also has its place. No, I am not saying getting rough and hurting people just because, but using the savage within to achieve positive goals.

    At the end of a hard BJJ training session my body is exhausted, but my spirit and mind feel clean and clear. I am stronger and better prepared to deal with life. I am a better friend, son, brother, partner, person.

  21. “You’ve got to know you’re taking hits for a reason, and have the tolerance and endurance to bear it.”

    Knowing the reason makes it easier. Lately I have been taking a lot of hits at work, wondering if I’m any good, if I have a future in my field. I have lost view of “the reason” but the hits keep coming. Still, I have to endure because it’s my livelihood. (This is not “reason” enough. Merely earning a paycheck means moving backward.)

    My point is that sometimes we can’t know the reason, but yet must endure.

  22. Someone mentioned it but didn’t dwell on it further. The first image that popped in my mind after reading this was Tyler Durden letting the owner beat his ass and then spewing the blood all over him afterwards.

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