Today we will look at one of my new favorite books on psychology and self-help, Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday. This blog post will cover the main lessons in the book and clearly display all its practical advice. So take out your notebook and let’s get to it!
Ego is the Enemy explores the negative aspects of the ego and its effects on several historical and contemporary figures. But what’s the ego? There are a lot of definitions around, but this is the one used by the author in the book:
“An unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition.” — Ryan Holiday
As you can see, the ego ALWAYS is something negative. We all have it and it is our responsibility to keep it in check.
The book is divided into three parts which characterize the three possible phases of our lives where the ego can spiral out of control and nudge us out of our path.
- Aspire, wanting to accomplish bigger and better goals.
- Success, achieving our goals and receiving public praise.
- Failure, falling from grace and dealing with internal resistance.
For each of these parts, Ryan Holiday extracts valuable lessons that we can apply when we find ourselves in these phases of our lives. He covers how to think about goals, the right approach to relationships with others and ourselves, how to stay humble, how to deal with failure and more.
“The ability to evaluate one’s own ability is the most important skill of all. Without it, improvement is impossible. And certainly ego makes it difficult every step of the way.” — Ryan Holiday
If you are reading this, it means that you want more. You aspire to achieve all these amazing things and destroy everything in your way. But do you know who is the biggest obstacle? Yourself. More specifically your ego. The climb towards success creates dangerous openings from where the ego can burst through. In the attempt to go forward, you unknowingly go backwards.
We start talking about our future achievements to make us feel important and productive but we forget to put in the work. We get in our heads and become impulsive and reactive instead of practicing patience and being present and practical. We want to be the one in charge and do everything instead of helping and trust others.
Therefore, it is imperative that we know how to avoid and identify them in ourselves and in others. Here are the main points made by the author about the ego and aspiration:
- Too much talking, not enough work. The ego wants to project the idea that we are busy doing important work without actually doing it. It feels like work but it’s just us feeding our ego.
- Do it for the right reasons. The ego is simple minded. It wants only the perks that come from being famous or rich without wanting to take the necessary steps to reach that goal. Having a goal bigger than us counteracts that.
- Keep learning. In every situation we can learn something. The ego loves to believe that we have everything figured out but it is not true. Seeking to learn and receiving feedback is a must to keep the ego in check.
- Be practical, not passionate. Being passionate can lead us to do stupid things. Be calm and calculate your next steps with a clear and objective mind.
- Help others. Just like learning, helping others keeps us humble. Having a mindset of abundance will allow you to strive and forge relationships without having to fight your ego.
- Restrain yourself. Don’t reply to the haters. They will want to suck you into their negativity and make you act like them. Don’t allow your ego to get offended. Endure the pain.
- Live in the present. With ambition comes doubt. We begin telling ourselves that we don’t have what it takes, that we will fail. But that’s the ego spitting its venom. Getting out of our head will help us remaining focused in the work and able to learn from its lessons.
- Don’t get fancy. Ego turns minor accomplishments into major events. This artificial inflation is simply a delusion. It turns you into a fraud. Stay humble through your work.
- Work! While aspiring, the most important thing you can do to fight your ego is to focus on creating value. Sit down and put in the hours. Invest in yourself by thinking long term.
“ Success is intoxicating, yet to sustain it requires sobriety.” — Ryan Holiday
As you can already guess, success can be the greatest catalyst for the ego.
Countless are the successful people who worked extremely hard to reach a position of power and influence to later destroy their lives because of their egoistic addiction. It is the reason for many failed businesses, relationships and careers.
Success is a double edged sword and we must put in place a mindset and tactics to help us wield this dangerous weapon. Remember: the ego only wants the short term pleasure associated with success. It’s greedy, selfish and short minded. Let’s see how to avoid this behavior.
- Keep learning and improving. With success comes the pressure to pretend we know more than we do. This prevents us from learning and gathering new information, eventually causing our own downfall.
- Don’t tell yourself a story. The path towards success is full of obstacles and failures. But once we get to the destination, the ego only wants to share with others all the victories making it sound like we had everything planned all along.
- Remember what’s important. In the aspiring phase of our lives, we start with a direction and purpose but during the climb it’s easy to get sidetracked and forget what’s important. Check yourself before you wreck yourself.
- Trust and value others. Success can breed entitlement, paranoia and distrust. Don’t fear depending on others. Detach yourself from your work and let others help you
- Manage yourself first. Know yourself, learn your inner workings and most important, learn your weaknesses and accept them. Learn how to manage yourself and you will succeed at managing others. Delegate.
- Beware the disease of me. Don’t fall in love with yourself and your success. The ego feeds off boasting and vanity. Stay focused on what got you where you are: work.
- Remember how insignificant you are. If we look at the night sky and see all the stars and thinking about our impact in this infinite plane of existence, it is hard to feel nothing but gratitude. Ego can’t live in that state of mind.
- Stay sober. Success can act like a drug. It makes people act differently and against their own principles.
“The future bears down upon each one of us with all the hazards of the unknown” — Plutarch
So far we saw how much the ego influences your actions and hurts our progress. Unfortunately, failure happens to everyone, regardless of our ego. It’s an inevitable aspect of our lives, therefore we must know how to deal with it. Failure is already hard to deal with by itself but our ego will hyperbolize the situation, making it even harder to bounce back from it.
The following advice will make you understand how important it is to maintain your sobriety during turmoil, guaranteeing a safe and quick recovery to aspiration and success.
- Keep the fire going. The ego assumes defeat easily. In failure, quitting and becoming stale is an attractive option. Keep active. Keep learning and improving. Never give up.
- Your work is enough. Sometimes we work and work and seem to get nowhere. The ego likes to be acknowledged but bad news: life is not fair. Therefore we must internalize that doing the work is enough. No need for public recognition. It will eventually come by itself.
- Draw the line. In failure we tend to forget to act according to our principles. As a result, we might extend pass out internal limits and act impulsively. Fall back to your principles when things go wrong.
- Follow your own standards. Don’t hold yourself to other people’s expectation and standards. That mindset will not allow you to grow and improve. Create your own version of success and hold yourself against that.
- Always love. In defeat, sentiments of hatred and revenge can dominate your internal conversation. Don’t get sucked into it. It’s just not practical. Practice love towards others who don’t deserve it and specially with yourself. Do not indulge in gossip, it will only set you back even more. Focus on productive ways to move forwards.
The Bottom Line
The lessons in this book are eternal and for everyone. The ego is part of us and we have to manage it. Life is full of these ups and downs and our ego is always sitting in the dark, waiting to strike.
While reading the book and writing this review, I noticed certain points in common between the stages of aspiration, success and failure and the ego. Regardless of these stage, I believe that if we cultivate certain principles we can always keep the ego in check. If I would have to further summarize the lessons in this book, I would simply stick to the following:
- Never stop learning. Seek to learn about yourself, your craft and others.
- Don’t get fancy. Don’t fall in love with yourself. You are not that special.
- Have a goal bigger than yourself. Set your standards and be selfless with your goals.
- Focus on the work. Doing the work is enough. It keeps us in the moment, honing our skills and away from impracticality.
As all the books I summarize, I definitely recommend you read the source material. Your understanding of these concepts and lessons will be much deeper and personal.
This the type of book you will want to go back and forward and reread from time to time. Therefore I recommend you grab the hardcover version of “Ego is the Enemy” by Ryan Holiday.
I am a sucker for self help books who extracts their lessons and advice from history and philosophy. If you enjoyed “Ego is the Enemy” you will definitely enjoy “Mastery” by Robert Greene, one of the mentors of Ryan Holiday.
If you want to read more from Ryan, the natural progression is to read “The Obstacle if the Way”, a stoic view on adversity and how to keep pushing towards greater things.