Distilled: Ego Is The Enemy

Ego Is The Enemy

Author: Ryan Holiday

What we don’t protect ourselves against are people and things that make us feel good; or rather, too good. We must prepare for pride and kill it early, or it will kill what we aspire to. We must be on guard against that wild self-confidence and self-obsession.

Review & Thoughts

I went into this book skeptical that I had enough of an ego problem to warrant reading an entire book on the subject. However, it didn’t take long before I found myself stopping and uncomfortably reflecting on my egotistical shortcomings. There’s so much good content in here that I emptied an entire highlighter on just the first half of the book.

This is going to be the type of book I return to at future stages of my life. Without having experienced significant success, I have certainly made a mental note to review that section as soon as it happens. It’s going to hit different people in so many different ways. There’s truly something for everyone in here, and I can’t imagine a person who wouldn’t experience an “a-ha” moment at some point while reading. That is, of course, unless that person has a huge ego.

What resonated with me the most, given the current stage of my life, is the lessons relating to talk. That is, self-talk or public talk. This jumped out at me right away as something I’m guilty of. I’ve been aware for a long time that I talk far too much about my aspirations, but until now I never considered that this talk could actually be preventing me from achieving them. Now, it makes perfect sense. I’ve been talking and talking and talking about how successful I want to be and how many different things I’m pursuing and how interesting and awesome and cool I am, yet I have very little to show for it. I’ve been taking credit for simply talking and thinking about these things. I’ve tricked myself into feeling as though I’ve been making a lot of progress, when in reality, I’m not much better off or closer to my goals than I was a year ago.

That shocking realization had a weird effect on me. I feel disappointed in myself for not becoming aware of it sooner, however I feel very relieved as well. Things have become much clearer for me now, and I feel as though a huge burden has been lifted from me. All this time I’ve wondered why I felt so uncomfortable and stressed when talking about “what I do”, but now it makes perfect sense. I’ve simply been a dilettante who does more talking than working, and suppressed the injury to my ego that was coming from my inability to reconcile my lavish talk with the actual facts.

Just in the last few days, after quitting all the “talk”, my energy for real, tangible work has increased quite a bit. I feel at ease being free from the pressure to explain myself, to impress, and to amaze. I reserve all of my energy for the “doing”, and if it someday leads somewhere, I will not need to struggle to prove myself. I’m done with the performance. There will be no more long-winded and defensive explanations when asked, “What do you do?” I will respond simply, modestly, and honestly: “I’m trying some new things and hoping for the best.”

This realization was one of several that occurred while I read this book, and I’ve been catching myself frequently acting in egotistical ways that I never noticed before. Truthfully, other people probably do not notice most of it either because of how common and rampant ego is in our society, but it is not their standards I am concerned with. It’s my way of “Maintaining My Own Scorecard”, by deciding that my standards for how I will act are high, and I will do my best to live up to them even if nobody notices.

Rating: 9/10


Excerpts & Notes

Introduction

Replacing the rational and aware parts of our psyche with bluster and self-absorption, ego tells us what we want to hear, when we want to hear it.

We assume the symptoms of success are the same as success itself; and in our naiveté, confuse the by-product with the cause.

Part I: Aspire

For a generation, parents and teachers have focused on building up everyone’s self-esteem. From there, the themes of our gurus and public figures have been almost exclusively aimed at inspiring, encouraging, and assuring us that we can do whatever we set our minds to.

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

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.

Talk, Talk, Talk

It’s a temptation that exists for everyone; for talk and hype to replace action.

Talk depletes us. Talking and doing fight for the same resources. Research shows that while goal visualization is important, after a certain point our mind begins to confuse it with actual progress.

After spending so much time thinking, explaining, and talking about a task, we start to feel that we’ve gotten closer to achieving it.

Success requires a full 100 percent of our effort, and talk flitters part of that effort away before we can use it.

Plug that hole (that one, right in the middle of your face) that can drain you of your vital life force. Watch what happens. Watch how much better you get.

To Be Or To Do?

Appearances are deceiving. Having authority is not the same as being an 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 worth of promotion (they call it failing upward in such bureaucracies). Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.

It is not “Who do I want to be in life?” but “What is it that I want to accomplish in life?”

Become a Student

You will not find the answers if you’re too conceited and self-assured to ask the questions. You cannot get better if you’re convinced you are the best.

Ego rushes to the end, rationalizes that patience is for losers (wrongly seeing it as a weakness), and assumes that we’re good enough to give our talents a go in the world.

There is no excuse for not getting your education, and because the information we have before us is so vast, there is no excuse for ever ending that process either.

Don’t Be Passionate

Because we only seem to hear about the passion of successful people, we forget that failures shared the same trait.

Passion typically masks a weakness. Its breathlessness and impetuousness and franticness are poor substitutes for discipline, for mastery, for strength and purpose and perseverance. You need to be able to spot this in others and in yourself, because while the origins of passion may be earnest and good, its effects are comical and then monstrous.

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.

Follow the Canvas Strategy

The angry unappreciated genius is forced to do stuff she doesn’t like, for people she doesn’t respect, as she makes her way in the world. “How dare they force me to grovel like this! The injustice! The waste!”

Clear the path for the 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 your think you know or most of what you learned in books or in school is out of date or wrong.

Restrain Yourself

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 their ego understand that it doesn’t degrade you when others treat you poorly; it degrades them.

Get Out of Your Own Head

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.”

Even as adults, we’re susceptible to this fantasy during a harmless walk down the street. We plug in some headphones and all of a sudden there’s a soundtrack. We flip up our jacket collar and consider briefly how cool we must look. We replay the successful meeting we’re heading toward in our head. The crowds part as we pass. We’re fearless warriors, on our way to the top. It’s the opening credits montage. It’s a scene in a novel. It feels good, so much better than those feelings of doubt and fear and normalness, and so we stay stuck inside our heads instead of participating in the world around us. That’s ego, baby.

The more creative we are, the easier it is to lose the thread that guides us.

Living clearly and presently takes courage. Don’t live in the haze of the abstract, live with the tangible and real, even 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.

The Danger of Early Pride

Pride takes a minor accomplishment and makes it feel like a major one. It smiles at our cleverness and genius, as though what we’ve exhibited was merely a hint of what ought to come.

John D. Rockefeller, as a young man, practiced a nightly conversation with himself. “Because you have got a start,” he’d say aloud or write in his diary, “you think you are quite a merchant. Look out or you will lose your head; go steady.”

What we don’t protect ourselves against are people and things that make us feel good; or rather, too good. We must prepare for pride and kill it early, or it will kill what we aspire to. We must be on guard against that wild self-confidence and self-obsession.

It’s worth saying: just because you are quiet doesn’t mean that you are without pride. Privately thinking you’re better than others is still pride. It’s still dangerous.

At the end, this isn’t about deferring pride because you don’t deserve it yet. It isn’t “Don’t boast about what hasn’t happened yet.” It is more directly “Don’t boast.” There’s nothing in it for you.

Work, Work, Work

The distinction between a professional and a dilettante occurs right there: when you accept that having an idea is not enough.

To be both a craftsman and an artist. To cultivate a product of labor and industry instead of just a product of the mind. It’s here where abstraction meets the road and the real, where we trade thinking and talking for working.

Is it ten thousand hours or twenty thousand hours to mastery? The answer is that it doesn’t matter. There is no end zone. To think of a number is to live in a conditional future.

Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time it wants to do the fun stuff; the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory.

Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this. I am passing the marshmallow test. I am earning what my ambition burns for. I am making an investment in myself instead of in my ego. Give yourself a little credit for this choice, but not so much, because you’ve got to get back to the task at hand: practicing, working, improving.

For Everything That Comes Next, Ego Is the Enemy

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. Let others grasp at crutches. It will be a lonely fight to be real, to say “I’m not going to take the edge off.” To say, “I am going to be myself, the best version of that self. I am in this for the long game, no matter how brutal it might be,” To do, not be.

Part II: Success

Always Stay a Student

No matter what you’ve done up to this point, you better still be a student. If you’re not still learning, you’re already dying.

It is not enough only to be a student at the beginning. It is a position that one has to assume for life.

Pick up a book on a topic you know next to nothing about. Put yourself in rooms where you’re the least knowledgeable person. That uncomfortable feeling, that defensiveness that you feel when your most deeply held assumptions are challenged; what about subjecting yourself to it deliberately? Change your mind. Change your surroundings.

Don’t Tell Yourself a Story

Narrative is when you look back at an improbable or unlikely path to your success and say: I knew it all along. Instead of: I hoped. I worked. I got some good breaks. Or even: I though this could happen. Of course you didn’t really know all along; or if you did, it was more faith than knowledge. But who wants to remember all the times you doubted yourself?

Here’s the other part: once you win, everyone is gunning for you. 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.

Facts are better than stories and image.

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.

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 on thing? These labels put you at odds not just with reality, but with the real strategy that made you successful in the first place. From that place, we might think that success in the future is just the natural next part of the story; when really it’s rooted in work, creativity, persistence, and luck.

What’s Important to You?

That’s how it 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 lose sight of our priorities. Ego sways us, and can ruin us.

All of us regularly say yes unthinkingly, or out of vague attraction, or out of greed or vanity. Because we can’t say no; because we might miss out on something if we did. We think “yes” will let us accomplish more, when in reality it prevents exactly what we seek., All of us waster 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.

The farther you travel down that path of accomplishment, whatever it may be, the more often you meet other successful people who make you feel insignificant. It edoesn’t matter how well you’re doing; your ego and their accomplishments make you feel like nothing, just as others make them feel the same way. It’s a cycle that goes on ad infinitum… while our brief time here on earth (or the small window of opportunity we have here) does not.

It’s not about beating the other guy. It’s not about having more than the others. It’s about being what you are, and being as good as possible at it, without succumbing to all the things that draw you away from it.

This is true with money: If you don’t know how much you need, the default easily becomes: more. And so, without thinking, critical energy is diverted from a person’s calling and toward filling a bank account.

We all occasionally find ourselves in the middle of some project or obligation and can’t understand why we’re there. It will take courage and faith to stop yourself.

Find out why you’re after what you’re after. Ignore those who mess with your pace. Let them covet what you have, not the other way around. Because that’s independence.

Entitlement, Control, and Paranoia

Paranoia thinks, I can’t trust anyone. I’m in this totally by myself and for myself. It says, I’m surrounded by fools. It says, focusing on my work, my obligations, myself is not enough. I also have to be orchestrating various machinations begin the scenes; to get them before they get me; to get them back for the slights I perceive.

Managing Yourself

Responsibility requires a readjustment and then increased clarity and purpose. First, setting the top-level goals and priorities of the organization and your life. Then enforcing and observing them. To produce results and only results.

Beware the Disease of Me

Lefty’s make one thing clear: we never earn the right to be greedy or to pursue our interests at the expense of everyone else. To think otherwise is not only egotistical, it’s counterproductive.

Who has time to look at a picture of himself? What’s the point?

Meditate on the Immensity

Creativity is a matter of receptiveness and recognition. This cannot happen if you’re convinced the world revolves around you.

As our power or talents grow, we like to think that makes us special; that we live in blessed, unprecedented time. This is compounded by the fact that so many of the photos we see from even fifty years ago are still in black and white, and we seem to assume that the world was in black and white. Obviously, it wasn’t; their sky was the same color as ours (in some places brighter than ours), they bled the same way we did, and their cheeks got flushed just like ours do. We are just like them, and always will be.

Maintain Your Sobriety

Most successful people are people you’ve never heard of. They want it that way. It keeps them sober. It helps them do their jobs.

Part III: Failure

If success is ego intoxication, then failure can be a devastating ego blow, turning slips into falls and little troubles into great unravelings. If ego is often just a nasty side effect of great success, it can be fatal during failure.

Ego loves this notion, the idea that something is “fair” or not. Psychologists call it narcissistic injury when we take personally totally indifferent and objective events. We do that when our sense of self is fragile and dependent on life going our way all the time. Whether what you’re going through is your fault or your problem doesn’t matter, because it’s yours to deal with right now.

Humble and strong people don’t have the same trouble with these troubles that egotists do. There are fewer complaints and far less self-immolation. Instead, there’s stoic, cheerful resilience. Pity isn’t necessary. Their identity isn’t threatened. They can get by without constant validation.

Alive Time or Dead Time?

In life, we all get stuck with dead time. Its occurrence isn’t in our control. Its use, on the other hand, is.

The Effort is Enough

In life, there will be times when we do everything right, perhaps even perfectly. Yet the results will somehow be negative: failure, disrespect, jealousy, or even a resounding yawn from the world.

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.

With ego, this is not nearly sufficient. No, we need to be recognized. We need to be compensated. Especially problematic is the fact that, often, we get that. We are praised, we are paid, and we start to assume that the two things always go together. The “expectation hangover” inevitably ensues.

Do your work. Do it well. Then “let go and let God.” That’s all there needs to be. Recognition and rewards, those are just extra. Rejection, that’s on them, not on us.

Draw the Line

If your reputation can’t absorb a few blows, it wasn’t worth anything in the first place.

Maintain Your Own Scorecard

This is characteristic of how great people think. It’s not that they find failure in every success. They just hold themselves to a standard that exceeds what society might consider to be objective success. Because of that, they don’t much care what other people think; they care whether they meet their own standards. And these standards are much, much higher than everyone else’s.

Always Love

Thus, the paradox of hate and bitterness. It accomplishes almost exactly the opposite of what we hope it does.

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

In failure or adversity, it’s so easy to hate. Hate defers blame. It makes someone else responsible. It’s a distraction too; we don’t do much else when we’re busy getting revenge or investigation the wrongs that have supposedly been done to us.

Epilogue

It is no easy task to go head-to-head with one’s ego. To accept first that ego may be there. Then to subject it to scrutiny and criticism. Most of us can’t hand uncomfortable self-examination.

Working to refine our habitual thoughts, working to clamp down on destructive impulses, these are not simply the moral requirements of any decent person. They will make us more successful; they will help us navigate the treacherous waters that ambition will require us to travel. And they are also their own reward.


Enjoy this edition of Distilled?

Pick up Ego Is The Enemy on Amazon here.

Distilled is an edition of the Side Effects blog that I publish whenever I finish a new book. My reviews are an account of my personal, subjective experience of the book. I do my best to describe the impact it had on me, and any lessons I’ve taken away from it. The included excerpts are sections that I highlighted while reading, and represent what I feel to be the most poignant pieces of information. By publishing these reports here publicly, it is my hope that others will be able to receive the best of the knowledge and lessons from my literary journey.