As Ryan Holiday puts it,
“[Ego is] an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centred ambition… the need to be better than, more than, recognised for — that’s ego.”
If you have ambition, you probably have an ego. It comes with the territory.
And if you have an ego, it’s probably going to screw you over at some point if you don’t learn to control it.
Unchecked, it’s turned many great thinkers into self-inflated egotists; many humble entrepreneurs into conceited sociopaths (I’m looking at you, Mr. Trump); many great leaders into power-hungry warlords.
What fuels our success in the beginning can also make us vulnerable to the darker side of our psyche, without us even realising.
Let me explain.
From Humility to Arrogance
The beginning of our journey towards success is often a humble one.
We embark as a student. We learn; we ask questions; we look to those more experienced than us for advice simply because we know very little at this point in our career.
We haven’t yet tasted our own greatness, our career still an embryo of the being it is to become.
But then we land our first book deal. We sign our first few contracts with new clients. We make our first big sale.
It was easy to be humble before we’d achieved anything worthwile. But now? Now we have a real, tangible achievement to brag about — to make us feel important.
Our short-term accomplishments inflate our own sense of self-importance. With little experience in our craft, we convince ourselves of our own greatness and competence before our learning the ropes.
I’m a freelance writer — I create content for a load of big-name publications online. At sixteen, after landing my first client as a rookie freelancer, that’s what I told people when they asked what I was doing for money outside of school.
I told everyone — my friends, family. And I made that shitty, content-mill gig sound like I’d just been given a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, courtesy of the queen.
Without realising, my ego had swept me up into a storm of self-gratification. I felt like I was doing well, and I wanted the world to know it.
A few small achievements had me convinced that I’d just embarked on a one-way train to Success Town. This is the start. It’s all up from here.
I put down my creative writing textbooks. I stopped reading. I gave up my 500-words-a-day habit. And I started applying for a tonne of high-end, professional freelance writing jobs. I’d landed one client, so I could easily land more. No need to learn anything new about writing.
As a beginner, I had a lot of studying to do, a lot of experience to gain. But my ego didn’t care. Apply for those better jobs, man. You deserve them! You don’t need any more tuition. You’re already earning money, it’s time to claim the big gigs now!
And, alas, I didn’t land a single one of those gigs I applied for.
In the words of Serbian perforamance artist Marina Abramović,
“If you start believing in your greatness, it is the death of your creativity.”
Without hard work and education, you’ll never be the greatest. Don’t let your ego convince you otherwise.
The story of my ego-driven first steps isn’t a solitary tale.
Newbie freelancers, experienced managers and business tycoons all have to battle with their egos to keep on track.
When we begin to achieve great things, we want people to know. We want that status — that gratification. It feeds our ego, and as long as we keep feeding it, we prioritise fame, wealth and power over real, genuine progress.
The Solution? Always Stay a Student
The apprentice is often humble.
He has plenty of superiors. He is the least knowledgable in his field. So he learns. He asks questions. He listens to feedback and uses it to improve.
Imagine how successful such a craftsman would become if he continued learning like this throughout his entire career, always striving to educate himself further?
Instead of allowing his ego to take over the controls, driving him towards social status instead of progress, he always learns and improves, aware that there is always more to know.
When we preserve this student mindset throughout our journey to success, our ego is kept in check. We remain humble, eager to hone our skills and learn new things.
And not only is our ego controlled, but having a student mindset allows us to become infinitely more knowledgable in our field.
Those high-paid gigs I was chasing? Well, once I started studying again, I got them.
You see, all that separates you from those more successful than you is knowledge and experience. If you want to succeed more, you just have to learn more and work harder.
Learn from everyone and everything. Your boss. Your ex-boyfriend. The cashier at your local convenience store. Your superiors. Your inferiors. Children’s authors. The guy that’s beating you at table tennis. Philosophers. Psychologist.
Everybody knows something that you don’t. When you lear from every person you meet, you become unstoppable.
Why is it that great men fall? Because they stop learning.
Why is it that leading businesses are driven out by modern-day startups? Because they stop learning.
As Ryan Holiday puts it,
“Success is intoxicating, yet to sustain it requires sobriety.”
If you want to become truly successful, don’t let ego convince you that you already are.
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