Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
It’s a type of storytelling in which eventually your talent becomes your identity and your accomplishments become your worth.
To go from wanting to be like someone your whole life to realizing you never want to be like him is a kind of whiplash that you can’t prepare for.
The orator Demosthenes once said that virtue begins with understanding and is fulfilled by courage.
Think less of yourself. I hope you will be less invested in the story you tell about your own specialness, and as a result, you will be liberated to accomplish the world-changing work you’ve set out to achieve.
The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centred ambition.
“Sick man ignorant of the cause of his malady.”
The performance artist Marina Abramović puts it directly: “If you start believing in your greatness, it is the death of your creativity.”
Besides the changes in technology, we’re told to believe in our uniqueness above all else. We’re told to think big, live big, to be memorable and “dare greatly.” We think that success requires a bold vision or some sweeping plan—after all, that’s what the founders of this company or that championship team supposedly had. (But did they? Did they really?) We see risk-taking swagger and successful people in the media, and eager for our own successes, try to reverse engineer the right attitude, the right pose.
We assume the symptoms of success are the same as success itself—and in our naiveté, confuse the by-product with the cause.
Humble in our aspirations. Gracious in our success. Resilient in our failures.
Ego is stolen. Confidence is earned. Ego is self-anointed; its swagger is artifice.
We build ourselves up with fantastical stories, we pretend we have it all figured out, we let our star burn bright and hot only to fizzle out, and we have no idea why. These are symptoms of ego, for which humility and reality are the cure.
He is a bold surgeon, they say, whose hand does not tremble when he performs an operation upon his own person; and he is often equally bold who does not hesitate to pull off the mysterious veil of self-delusion, which covers from his view the deformities of his own conduct. —ADAM SMITH
“Abhor flatterers as you would deceivers; for both, if trusted, injure those who trust them.”
“Be affable in your relations with those who approach you, and never haughty; for the pride of the arrogant even slaves can hardly endure”
“Be slow in deliberation but be prompt to carry out your resolves” and that the “best thing which we have in ourselves is good judgment.”
Kierkegaard warned, “Mere gossip anticipates real talk, and to express what is still in thought weakens action by forestalling it.”
Sherman had a good rule he tried to observe. “Never give reasons for you what think or do until you must. Maybe, after a while, a better reason will pop into your head.”
The poet Hesiod had this in mind when he said, “A man’s best treasure is a thrifty tongue.”
The only relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other.
There’s a quip from the historian Will Durant, that a nation is born stoic and dies epicurean.
“A man is worked upon by what he works on,” Frederick Douglass
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.
Each fighter, to become great, needs to have someone better that they can learn from, someone lesser who they can teach, and someone equal that they can challenge themselves against.
“It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows,” Epictetus
“When student is ready, the teacher appears.”
Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective.
“Great passions are maladies without hope,” as Goethe once said.
Great men have almost always shown themselves as ready to obey as they afterwards proved able to command. —LORD MAHON
Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself.
He learned how to be a rising star without threatening or alienating anyone.
Let the others take their credit on credit, while you defer and earn interest on the principal.
The person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas shapes the painting.
Are there not goals so important that we’d put up with anything to achieve them?
They do this because they’re convinced that their every move is being watched with rapt attention by the rest of the world.
A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you. —C. S. LEWIS
“Even the tallest mountains have animals that, when they stand on it, are higher than the mountain.”
“The first product of self-knowledge is humility,” Flannery O’Connor once said.
The question to ask, when you feel pride, then, is this: What am I missing right now that a more humble person might see? What am I avoiding, or running from, with my bluster, franticness, and embellishments? It is far better to ask and answer these questions now, with the stakes still low, than it will be later.
Privately thinking you’re better than others is still pride.
“That on which you so pride yourself will be your ruin” Montaigne had inscribed on the beam of his ceiling.
The best plan is only good intentions unless it degenerates into work. —PETER DRUCKER
As the philosopher and writer Paul Valéry explained in 1938, “A poet’s function . . . is not to experience the poetic state: that is a private affair. His function is to create it in others.” That is, his job is to produce work.
“You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do,” was how Henry Ford put it.
To think of a number is to live in a conditional future.
There is another apt Latin expression: Materiam superabat opus. (The workmanship was better than the material.)
“Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes.”
Make it so you don’t have to fake it—that’s the key.
You know a workman by the chips they leave.
’Tis a common proof, that lowliness is young ambition’s ladder. —SHAKESPEARE
In the early stages, ego can be temporarily adaptive. Craziness can pass for audaciousness. Delusions can pass for confidence, ignorance for courage. But it’s just kicking the costs down the road.
Of course, what is truly ambitious is to face life and proceed with quiet confidence in spite of the distractions.
For ego is a wicked sister of success.
Sometimes an idea is so powerful, or timing is so perfect (or one is born into wealth or power) that it can temporarily support or even compensate for a massive ego.
After we give ourselves proper credit, ego wants us to think, I’m special. I’m better. The rules don’t apply to me.
Every man I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of him. —RALPH WALDO EMERSON
Myth becomes myth not in the living but in the retelling. —DAVID MARANISS
Writing our own narrative leads to arrogance.
It’s during your moment at the top that you can afford ego the least—because the stakes are so much higher, the margins for error are so much smaller.
The founding of a company, making money in the market, or the formation of an idea is messy. Reducing it to a narrative retroactively creates a clarity that never was and never will be there.
Investor Paul Graham working in the same city as Walsh a few decades later, explicitly warns start-ups against having bold, sweeping visions early on.
The same goes for any label that comes along with a career: are we suddenly a “filmmaker,” “writer,” “investor,” “entrepreneur,” or “executive” because we’ve accomplished one thing?
The same goes for us, whatever we do. Instead of pretending that we are living some great story, we must remain focused on the execution—and on executing with excellence. We must shun the false crown and continue working on what got us here.
To know what you like is the beginning of wisdom and of old age. —ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
We think “yes” will let us accomplish more, when in reality it prevents exactly what we seek.
All of us waste precious life doing things we don’t like, to prove ourselves to people we don’t respect, and to get things we don’t want.
If you don’t know how much you need, the default easily becomes: more.
“He despises the nation whose applause he seeks.”
He was a genius. Sadly, that’s rarely enough.
Confidence, on the other hand, is able to wait and focus on the task at hand regardless of external recognition.
Soccer coach Tony Adams expresses it well. Play for the name on the front of the jersey, he says, and they’ll remember the name on the back.
The crowd roots for the underdog, and roots against the winners.
As the financial philosopher and economist George Goodman once observed, it is as if “we are at a wonderful ball where the champagne sparkles in every glass and soft laughter falls upon the summer air. We know at some moment the black horsemen will come shattering through the terrace doors wreaking vengeance and scattering the survivors. Those who leave early are saved, but the ball is so splendid no one wants to leave while there is still time. So, everybody keeps asking—what time is it? But none of the clocks have hands.”
When we face difficulty, particularly public difficulty (doubters, scandals, losses), our friend the ego will show its true colours. Absorbing the negative feedback, ego says: I knew you couldn’t do it. Why did you ever try? It claims: This isn’t worth it. This isn’t fair. This is somebody else’s problem. Why don’t you come up with a good excuse and wash your hands of this? It tells us we shouldn’t have to put up with this. It tells us that we’re not the problem.
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.”
In the end, the only way you can appreciate your progress is to stand on the edge of the hole you dug for yourself, look down inside it, and smile fondly at the bloody claw prints that marked your journey up the walls.
“He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a living man,” Seneca once said.
And why should we feel anger at the world? As if the world would notice! —EURIPIDES
Attempting to destroy something out of hate or ego often ensures that it will be preserved and disseminated forever.
As Benjamin Franklin observed, those who “drink to the bottom of the cup must expect to meet with some of the dregs.”
As Harold Genene put it, “People learn from their failures. Seldom do they learn anything from success.”
Celtic saying tells us, “See much, study much, suffer much, that is the path to wisdom.”
My friend the philosopher and martial artist Daniele Bolelli once gave me a helpful metaphor. He explained that training was like sweeping the floor. Just because we’ve done it once, doesn’t mean the floor is clean forever. Every day the dust comes back. Every day we must sweep.