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Philosophy

Ego is the Enemy

Ryan Holiday
10
-min read
3/5
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A practical guide to confronting and overcoming your ego.

Ego: An unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition. The need to be better than, more than, recognised for, far past any reasonable utility.

Aspire

Every great journey begins here—yet far too many of us never reach our intended destination.

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.

For a generation, parents and teachers have focused on building up everyone’s self-esteem. In reality, this makes us weak.

Arrogance and self-absorption inhibit growth. So does fantasy and “vision.”

In this phase, you must practice seeing yourself with a little distance, cultivating the ability to get out of your own head. Detachment is a sort of natural ego antidote.

To Be or To Do?

Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.

If your purpose is something larger than you—to accomplish something, to prove something to yourself—then suddenly everything becomes both easier and more difficult. Easier in the sense that you know now what it is you need to do and what is important to you. The other “choices” wash away, as they aren’t really choices at all. They’re distractions. It’s about the doing, not the recognition.

Become a Student

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.

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

A true student is like a sponge. Absorbing what goes on around him, filtering it, latching on to what he can hold. A student is self-critical and self-motivated, always trying to improve his understanding so that he can move on to the next topic, the next challenge. 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.

Don't be Passionate

Passion is about. (I am so passionate about ______.) Purpose is to and for. (I must do ______. I was put here to accomplish ______. I am willing to endure ______ for the sake of this.) Actually, purpose deemphasizes the I. Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself.

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

Make it about what you feel you must do and say, not what you care about and wish to be.

The Canvas Strategy

The better wording for the advice is this: Find canvases for other people to paint on. Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself.

It’s about seeing what goes on from the inside, and looking for opportunities for someone other than yourself.

Greatness comes from humble beginnings; it comes from grunt work.

Find inefficiencies and waste and redundancies. Identify leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas.

Restrain Yourself

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 will be tough to keep our self-control.

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

Your ego screams for you to indulge it. Instead, you must do nothing. Take it. Eat it until you’re sick. Endure it. Quietly brush it off and work harder. Play the game.

Pride

Pride and ego say: I am important because I think I should be.

Receive feedback, maintain hunger, and chart a proper course in life. Pride dulls these senses. Or in other cases, it tunes up other negative parts of ourselves: sensitivity, a persecution complex, the ability to make everything about us.

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

Is it ten thousand hours or twenty thousand hours to mastery? The answer is that it doesn’t matter. There is no end zone. Not a terribly sexy idea. But it should be an encouraging one as it means it’s all within reach (see my notes on Finite and Infinite Games).

Make it so you don’t have to fake it—that’s they key.

Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this.

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.

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

The Taste/Talent Gap (Ira Glass)

All of us who do creative work . . . we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good . . . It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste—the thing that got you into the game—your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.

Success

Now we face new temptations and problems. We stop learning, we stop listening, and we lose our grasp on what matters.

Success arrives, like it does for a team that has just won a championship, ego begins to toy with our minds and weaken the will that made us win in the first place.

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.

Make it about the work and the principles behind it—not about a glorious vision that makes a good headline.

Labels put you at odds not just with reality, but with the real strategy that made you successful in the first place.

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.

What's Important?

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.

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 doesn’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.

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

Be what you are, and be as good as possible at it, without succumbing to all the things that draw you away from it. Accomplish the most that you’re capable of in what you choose.

Entitlement, Control and Paranoia

With success, particularly power, come some of the greatest and most dangerous delusions: entitlement, control, and paranoia.

Entitlement assumes: This is mine. I’ve earned it. At the same time, entitlement nickels and dimes other people because it can’t conceive of valuing another person’s time as highly as its own.

Control says: It all must be done my way—even little things, even inconsequential things. It can become paralysing perfectionism, or a million pointless battles fought merely for the sake of exerting its say.

Paranoia thinks: I can’t trust anyone. I’m in this totally by myself and for myself.

The Disease of Me

The disease of me: thinking that we’re better, that we’re special, that our problems and experiences are so incredibly different from everyone else’s that no one could possibly understand.

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.

Managing your image is still important.  Early in your career, you’ll notice that you jump on every opportunity to do so. As you become more accomplished, you’ll realise that so much of it is a distraction from your work.

Meditate on The Immensity

Keep the Stoic concept of Sympatheia, a connectedness with the cosmos/nature/the world, front of mind (see Daily Stoic article).

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

Failure

No one is permanently successful, and not everyone finds success on the first attempt. We all deal with setbacks along the way.

Alive Time or Dead Time (Robert Greene)

  • Dead Time — when people are passive and waiting
  • Alive Time — when people are learning, acting and utilising 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?

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.

If ego holds sway, we’ll accept nothing less than full appreciation. A dangerous attitude because when someone works on a project at a certain point it is judged, received, and acted on by other people. It stops being something he controls and it depends on them.

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.
“Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do . . . Sanity means tying it to your own actions.” — Marcus Aurelius

Don't let externals determine whether something was worth it or not. It’s on us. 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.

Draw the Line

The problem is that when we get our identity tied up in our work, we worry that any kind of failure will then say something bad about us as a person. It’s a fear of taking responsibility, of admitting that we might have messed up.

It’s the sunk cost fallacy. And so we throw good money and good life after bad and end up making everything so much worse.

When we lose, we have a choice: Are we going to make this a lose-lose situation for ourselves and everyone involved? Or will it be a lose . . . and then win?

Maintain Your Own Scorecard

Ego can’t see both sides of the issue. It can’t get better because it only sees the validation. “Vain men never hear anything but praise.”

When you take ego out of the equation, other people’s opinions and external markers won’t matter as much. That’s more difficult, but ultimately a formula for resilience.

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.

Always Love

Attempting to destroy something out of hate or ego often ensures that it will be preserved and disseminated forever (see the Streisand effect).

Take inventory for a second. What do you dislike? Whose name fills you with revulsion and rage? Now ask: Have these strong feelings really helped you accomplish anything?

Love is right there. Egoless, open, positive, vulnerable, peaceful, and productive.

“See much, study much, suffer much, that is the path to wisdom.” — Celtic saying

Ego is the Enemy

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

Damaging delusion: this notion that our lives are “grand monuments” set to last for all time really is.

Perfecting the personal regularly leads to success as a professional, but rarely the other way around. Working to refine our habitual thoughts and working to clamp down on destructive impulses will make us more successful and help us navigate the treacherous waters that ambition will require us to travel.