(Book) Ego is the enemy – Ryan Holiday

Kurt.nzBooks read, Business, career, finance, Personal development


Ego has stopped many people (including myself) from learning, improving and doing really great work. This book is a clear example and reminder of the constant battle we face. Ego is the enemy of ambition, success and resilience.

It’s especially relevant in the age of social media, likes and follows. A must read for anyone, regardless of your aspirations in life. This is one book I will be reading again.

My thoughts and key takeaways:

  • Ego is an unhealthy belief in our own importance.
  • Stay grounded and do not fool yourself about your own ability.
  • Silence is strength, talking takes away from doing the actual work.
  • To be or to do. To receive praise or do work that is important.
  • Substitute passion with purpose. What steps must you take now? Discipline trumps passion, which can disappear.
  • Remain a student. Have someone to learn from, someone to compare to and someone to teach.
  • Restrain yourself, don’t let criticism rattle you.
  • People don’t think about you as much as you think they do.
  • Live in the present, don’t let your imagination run wild.
  • Don’t be proud, it doesn’t allow you to think clearly.
  • A plan is only an intention until it turns into work. Do the work.
  • Too often we stay in our comfort zone to ensure we never feel stupid. Then we block learning.
  • The way to do really big things is to start small.
  • Know who you’re competing with and why. What’s important to you
  • Play for the name of the team on the front of the shirt, and people will remember the name on the back.
  • Meditate on the immensity. Think about what came before you and how big the universe is.
  • Alive or dead time? Wasting or learning?
  • The effort and doing the right thing is enough. Don’t base it on results or rewards.
  • When things go bad, will you make it worse? Or will you cut your losses and emerge with integrity to fight another day?
  • When someone slights you, respond with love.
  • Don’t give hate fuel. Just because other people are angry doesn’t mean you should be.

Ego is the enemy – Ryan Holiday (highlights):

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
-Richard Feynman

The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance.

How are we supposed to reach, motivate, or lead other people if we can’t relate to their needs – because we’ve lost touch with our own?

Just one thing keeps ego around – comfort. Pursuing great work – whether it is in sports or an art or business – is often terrifying. Ego soothes that fear.

Be humble in our aspirations, be gracious in our success, be resilient in our failures.

Ego in aspiration

“No adornment so becomes you as modesty, justice, and self-control.”

“Be slow in deliberation, but be prompt to carry our your resolves.”

One must ask: if your belief in yourself is not dependant on actual achievement, then what is it dependant on? The answer, too often when we are just setting out, is nothing. Ego.

Sherman was a man who came from nothing and accomplished great things, without ever feeling that he was some way entitled to the honours he received.

One might say that the ability to evaluate one’s own ability is the most important skill of all. Without it, improvement is impossible.

For your work to have truth in it, it must come from truth. If you want to be more than a flash in the pan, you must be prepared to focus on the long term.

We will learn that though we think big, we must act and live small in order to accomplish what we seek. Because we will be action and education focused, and forgo validation and status, our ambition will not be grandiose but iterative – one foot in front of the other, learning and growing and putting in the time.

In actuality, silence is strength – particularly early on in any journey. As the philosopher (and as it happens, a hater of newspapers and their chatter) Kierkegaard warned, “Mere gossip anticipates real talk, and to express what is still in thought weakens action by forestalling it.”

Silence is the respite of the confident and the strong.

“A man’s best treasure is a thrifty tongue.”

On talking at length about things yet to be done: After spending so much time thinking, explaining, and talking about a task, we start to feel that we’ve gotten closer to achieving it.

The question is, when faced with your particular challenge – whether it is researching in a new field, starting a business, producing a film, securing a mentor, advancing an important cause – do you seek the respite of talk or do you face the struggle head-on?

“To be or to do? Which way will you go?”
-John Boyd

How do we prevent derailment? Well, often we fall in love with an image of what success looks like.

Appearances are deceiving. Having authority is not the same as being in authority. Having the right and being right are not the same either. Being promoted doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing good work and it doesn’t mean you are worthy of promotion (they call it falling upwards in such bureaucracies). Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.

“A man is worked upon by what he works on.”
-Frederick Douglas

In this course it is not “Who do I want to be in life?” but “What is it that I want to accomplish in life?” Setting aside selfish interest, it asks: What calling does it serve? What principals govern my choices? Do I want to be like everyone else or do I want to do something different?

Think about this the next time you face that choice: Do I need this? Or is it really about ego? Are you ready to make the right decision? Or do the prizes still glitter off in the distance? To be or to do – life is a constant roll call.

The power of being a student is not just that it is an extended period of instruction, it also places the ego and ambition in someone else’s hands. There is a sort of ego ceiling imposed – one knows that he is not better than the “master” he apprentices under.

We don’t like thinking that someone is better than us. Or that we have a lot left to learn. We want to be done. We want to be ready. We’re busy and overburdened.

The pretence of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the antidote.

Each fighter, to become great, he said, needs to have someone better they can learn from, someone lesser who they can teach, and someone equal that they can challenge themselves against.

A real student is also his own teacher and his own critic. There is no room for ego there.

The art of taking feedback is such a crucial skill in life, particularly harsh and critical feedback. We not only need to take this harsh feedback, but actively solicit it, labour to seek out the negative precisely when our friends and family and brain are telling us that we’re doing great.

Passion typically masks a weakness. Its breathlessness and impetuousness and franticness are poor substitutes for discipline, for mastery, for strength and purpose and perseverance.

What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism. Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective.

Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function.

“Great men have almost always shown themselves as ready to obey as they afterwards proved able to command.”
-Lord Mahon

Find canvases for other people to paint on. Be an anteambulo. Clear the path for people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself.

When you are just starting out, we can be sure of a few fundamental realities: 1/ You’re not nearly as good or as important as you think you are; 2) You have an attitude that needs to be readjusted; 3) Most of what you think you know or most of what you learned in books or in school is out of date or wrong.

Attach yourself to people and organisations who are already successful and subsume your identity into theirs and move both forward simultaneously. It’s certainly more glamorous to pursue your own glory – though hardly as effective. Obeisance is the way forward.

Greatness comes from humble beginnings; it comes from grunt work. It means you’re the least important person in the room – until you change that with results.

Be lesser, do more. Imagine if for every person you meet you thought of some way to help them, something you could do for them. And you looked at it in a way that entirely benefited them and not you. The cumulative effect this would have over time would be profound: You’d learn a great deal by solving diverse problems. You’d develop a reputation for being indispensable. You’d have countless new relationships. You’d have an enormous bank of favours to call upon down the road.

The canvas strategy:

  • Coming up with ideas to hand over to your boss.
  • Find people, thinkers, up-and-comers to introduce them to each other. Cross wires to create new sparks.
  • Find what nobody else wants to do and do it.
  • Find inefficiencies and waste and redundancies. Identify leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas.
  • Produce more than everyone else and give your ideas away.

Because if you pick up this mantle once, you’ll see what most people’s egos prevent them from appreciating: the person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas shapes the painting.

“I have observed that those who have accomplished the greatest results are those who “keep under the body”; are those who never grow excited or lose self-control, but are always calm, self-possessed, patient, and polite.”
-Booker T. Washington

Our own path, whatever we aspire to, will in some ways be defined by the amount of nonsense we are willing to deal with.

It doesn’t matter how talented you are, how great your connections are, how much money you have. When you want to do something – something big and important and meaningful – you will be subjected to treatment ranging from indifference to outright sabotage. Count on it.

Those who have subdued your ego understand that it doesn’t degrade you when others treat you poorly; it degrades them.

Criticism and slights. Endure it. Quietly brush it off and work harder. Play the game. Ignore the noise; for the love of God, do not let it distract you. Restraint is a difficult skill but a critical one.

It is natural for any young ambitious person (or simply someone whose ambition is young) to get excited and swept up by their thoughts and feelings. Especially in a world that tells us to keep and promote a “personal brand.” We’re required to tell stories in order to sell our work and our talents, and after enough time, forget where the line is that separates our fiction from reality.

As the psychologist David Elkind has famously researched, adolescence is marked by a phenomenon known as the “imaginary audience.”

Living clearly and presently takes courage. Don’t live in the haze of the abstract, live with the tangible and real, even if – especially if – it’s uncomfortable. Be part of what’s going on around you. Feast on it, adjust for it. There’s no one to perform for. There is just work to be done and lessons to be learned, in all that is around us.

Pride blunts the very instrument we need to own in order to succeed: our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride. Or in other cases, it tunes up other negative parts of ourselves: sensitivity, a persecution complex, the ability to make everything about us.

“The best plan is only good intentions unless it degenerates into work.”
-Peter Drucker

The distinction between a professional and a dilettante occurs right there – when you accept that having an idea is not enough; that you must work until you are able to recreate your experience effectively in words on the page.

“You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.”
-Henry Ford

Where we decide to put our energy decides what we’ll ultimately accomplish.

Make it so you don’t have to fake it – that’s the key.

Ego in success

“Man is pushed by drives,” Viktor Frankl observed. “But he is pulled by values.” Ruled by or ruling? Which are you?

The physicist John Wheeler, who helped develop the hydrogen bomb, once observed that “as our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.”

Do you know how you can tell when someone is truly humble? I believe there’s one simple test: because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve. They don’t assume, ‘I know the way.’

Too often, convinced of our own intelligence, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to learn or reconsider what we know).

The solution is as straightforward as it is initially uncomfortable. Pick up a book on a topic you know next to nothing about. Put yourself in rooms where you’re the least knowledgeable person.

Writing our own narrative leads to arrogance.

“The way to do really big things seems to be to start with deceptively small things.”
-Paul Graham

That’s how is seems to go: we’re never happy with what we have, we want what others have too. We want to have more than everyone else. We start out knowing what is important to us, but once we’ve achieved it, we lost sight of priorities. Ego sways us and can ruin us.

What if different people are running for different reasons? What if there is more than one race going on?

On an individual level it is absolutely critical that you know who you’re competing with and why, that you have a clear sense of the space you’re in.

It’s time to sit down and think about what’s truly important to you and then take steps to forsake the rest. Without this, success will not be pleasurable, or nearly as complete as it could be. Or worse, it won’t last.

“He who indulges empty fears earns himself real fears”, wrote Seneca, who as a political advisor witnessed destructive paranoia at the highest levels.

The sad feedback loop is that the relentless “looking out for number one” can encourage other people to undermine and fight us.

DeLorean couldn’t manage himself, and so he had trouble managing others. And so he managed to fail, both himself and the dream.

As you become successful in your own field, your responsibilities may begin to change. Days become less and less about doing and more and more about making decisions.

Ego needs honours in order to be validated. Confidence, on the other hand, is able to wait and focus on the task at hand regardless of external recognition.

Play for the name on the front of the jersey and they’ll remember the name on the back.

When we lack a connection to anything larger or bigger than us, it’s like a piece of our soul is gone.

It’s hard to be anything but humble walking alone along a beach late at night with an endless black ocean crashing loudly against the ground next to you.

Sobriety is the counterweight that must balance out success. Especially if things keep getting better and better.

To avoid the same ending as Howard Hughes: protect our sobriety, eschew greed and paranoia, stay humble, retain our sense of purpose, connect to the larger world around us.

Ego in failure

As Goethe once observed, the great failing is “to see yourself as more than you are and to value yourself at less than your true worth.”

According to Robert Greene, there are two types of time in our lives: dead time, when people are passive and waiting, and alive time, when people are learning and acting and utilizing every second. Every moment of failure, every moment or situation that we did not deliberately choose or control, presents this choice. Alive time. Dead time. Which will it be?

Dead time is revived when we use it as an opportunity to do what we’ve long needed to do.

That’s what so many of us do when we fail or get ourselves into trouble. Lacking the ability to examine ourselves, we reinvest our energy into exactly the patterns of behaviour that caused our problems to begin with. It comes in many forms. Idly dreaming about the future. Plotting our revenge. Finding refuge in distraction. Refusing to consider that our choices are a reflection of our character. We’d rather do basically anything else.

“What matters to an active man is to do the right thing; whether the right thing comes to pass should not bother him.”

We have only minimal control over the rewards for our work and effort – other people’s validation, recognition, rewards. So what are we going to do? Not be kind, not work hard, not product, because there is a chance it wouldn’t be reciprocated?

It’s far better when doing good work is sufficient. In other words, the less attached we are to outcomes the better. When fulfilling our own standards is what fills us with pride and self-respect. When the effort – not the results, good or bad – is enough.

John Wooden’s advice to his players says it: Change the definition of success. “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

Do your work. Do it well. Then “let go and let God.” That’s all there needs to be.

The world is, after all, indifferent to what we humans “want.” If we persist in wanting, in needing, we are simply setting ourselves up for resentment or worse. Doing the work is enough.

Psychologists often say that threatened egotism is one of the most dangerous forces on earth.

But change begins by hearing the criticism and the words of people around you. Even if those words are mean spirited, angry, or hurtful. It means weighing them, discarding the ones that don’t matter, and reflecting on the ones that do.

Most trouble is temporary…unless you make that not so. Recovery is not grand, it’s one step in front of the other. Unless your cure is more of the disease.

At any given time in the circle of life, we may be aspiring, succeeding, or failing – though right now we’re failing. With wisdom, we understand that these positions are transitory, not statements about your value as a human being.

The only real failure is abandoning your principals.

A person who judges himself based on his own standards doesn’t crave the spotlight the same way as someone who lets applause dictate success.

Attempting to destroy something out of hate or ego often ensures that it will be preserved and disseminated forever.

You know what is a better response to an attack or slight or something you don’t like? Love. That’s right, love.

The questions we must ask ourselves is: Are we going to be miserable just because other people are?

As Harold Geneen put it, “People learn from their failures. Seldom do they learn anything from success.” It’s why the old Celtic saying tells us, “See much, study much, suffer much, that is the path to wisdom.”

Not to aspire or seek out of ego.
To have success without ego.
To push through with strength, not ego.

But for the grace of God go I. But for the grace of God, that could be any of us.

I want to conclude this book with the idea that has underpinned all of what you’ve just read. That it’s admirable to want to be better businessmen, or businesswomen, better athletes, better conquerors. We should want to be better informed, better off financially…We should want, as I’ve said a few times in this book, to do great things. I know that I do. But no less impressive an accomplishment: being better people, being happier people, being balanced people, being content people, being humble and selfless people. Or better yet, all of these traits together. And what is most obvious but most ignored is that perfecting the personal regularly leads to success as a professional, but rarely the other way around.