Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
The orator Demosthenes once said that virtue begins with understanding and is fulfilled by courage. We must begin by seeing ourselves and the world in a new way for the first time. Then we must fight to be different and fight to stay different—that’s the hard part.
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. —RICHARD FEYNMAN
The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition.
If ego is the voice that tells us we’re better than we really are, we can say ego inhibits true success by preventing a direct and honest connection to the world around us.
The performance artist Marina Abramović puts it directly: “If you start believing in your greatness, it is the death of your creativity.”
Just one thing keeps ego around—comfort.
In short, it will help us be: Humble in our aspirations Gracious in our success Resilient in our failures
When we remove ego, we’re left with what is real. What replaces ego is humility, yes—but rock-hard humility and confidence. Whereas ego is artificial, this type of confidence can hold weight. Ego is stolen. Confidence is earned. Ego is self-anointed, its swagger is artifice. One is girding yourself, the other gaslighting. It’s the difference between potent and poisonous.
ASPIRE Here, we are setting out to do something. We have a goal, a calling, a new beginning. Every great journey begins here—yet far too many of us never reach our intended destination. Ego more often than not is the culprit. 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.
One must ask: if your belief in yourself is not dependent on actual achievement, then what is it dependent on? The answer, too often when we are just setting out, is nothing. Ego. And this is why we so often see precipitous rises followed by calamitous falls.
Our cultural values almost try to make us dependent on validation, entitled, and ruled by our emotions. For a generation, parents and teachers have focused on building up everyone’s self-esteem.
One might say that the ability to evaluate one’s own ability is the most important skill of all. Without it, improvement is impossible.
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. It’s easy to be emotionally invested and infatuated with your own work. Any and every narcissist can do that. What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.
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.
Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know. —LAO TZU
There’s a weak side to each of us, that—like a trade union—isn’t exactly malicious but at the end of the day still wants to get as much public credit and attention as it can for doing the least. That side we call ego.
In fact, many valuable endeavors we undertake are painfully difficult, whether it’s coding a new startup or mastering a craft. But talking, talking is always easy.
In actuality, silence is strength—particularly early on in any journey.
what is scarce and rare? Silence. The ability to deliberately keep yourself out of the conversation and subsist without its validation. Silence is the respite of the confident and the strong.
“Never give reasons for what you think or do until you must. Maybe, after a while, a better reason will pop into your head.”
the greatest work and art comes from wrestling with the void, facing it instead of scrambling to make it go away. The question is, when faced with your particular challenge—whether it is researching in a new field, starting a business, producing a film, securing a mentor, advancing an important cause—do you seek the respite of talk or do you face the struggle head-on?
The only relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other.
“To be or to do? Which way will you go?”
Whatever we seek to do in life, reality soon intrudes on our youthful idealism. This reality comes in many names and forms: incentives, commitments, recognition, and politics. In every case, they can quickly redirect us from doing to being. From earning to pretending. Ego aids in that deception every step of the way. It’s why Boyd wanted young people to see that if we are not careful, we can very easily find ourselves corrupted by the very occupation we wish to serve.
Appearances are deceiving. Having authority is not the same as being an authority. Having the
Think about this the next time you face that choice: Do I need this? Or is it really about ego? Are you ready to make the right decision? Or do the prizes still glitter off in the distance? To be or to do—life is a constant roll call.
BECOME A STUDENT Let No Man’s Ghost Come Back to Say My Training Let Me Down. —SIGN IN THE NEW YORK FIRE DEPARTMENT TRAINING ACADEMY
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. There is a sort of ego ceiling imposed—one knows that he is not better than the “master” he apprentices under. Not even close. You defer to them, you subsume yourself. You cannot fake or bullshit them. An education can’t be “hacked”; there are no shortcuts besides hacking it every single day. If you don’t, they drop you.
The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the antidote.
The purpose of Shamrock’s formula is simple: to get real and continuous feedback about what they know and what they don’t know from every angle. It purges out the ego that puffs us up, the fear that makes us doubt ourselves, and any laziness that might make us want to coast. As Shamrock observed, “False ideas about yourself destroy you. For me, I always stay a student. That’s what martial arts are about, and you have to use that humility as a tool. You put yourself beneath someone you trust.”
But ego makes us so hardheaded and hostile to feedback that it drives them away or puts them beyond our reach. It’s why the old proverb says, “When student is ready, the teacher appears.”
Here’s what those same people haven’t told you: your passion may be the very thing holding you back from power or influence or accomplishment. Because just as often, we fail with—no, because of—passion.
That all of these talented, smart individuals were fervent believers in what they sought to do is without dispute. It’s also clear that they were also unprepared and incapable of grasping the objections and real concerns of everyone else around them. The same is true for countless entrepreneurs, authors, chefs, business owners, politicians, and designers that you’ve never heard of—and never will hear of, because they sunk their own ships before they’d hardly left the harbor. Like every other dilettante, they had passion and lacked something else.
Alcindor Jr., who won three national championships with John Wooden at UCLA, used one word to describe the style of his famous coach: “dispassionate.” As in not passionate. Wooden wasn’t about rah-rah speeches or inspiration. He saw those extra emotions as a burden. Instead, his philosophy was about being in control and doing your job and never being “passion’s slave.”
In our endeavors, we will face complex problems, often in situations we’ve never faced before. Opportunities are not usually deep, virgin pools that require courage and boldness to dive into, but instead are obscured, dusted over, blocked by various forms of resistance. What is really called for in these circumstances is clarity, deliberateness, and methodological determination.
But too often, we proceed like this . . . A flash of inspiration: I want to do the best and biggest ______ ever. Be the youngest ______. The only one to ______. The “firstest with the mostest.” The advice: Okay, well, here’s what you’ll need to do step-by-step to accomplish it. The reality: We hear what we want to hear. We do what we feel like doing, and despite being incredibly busy and working very hard, we accomplish very little. Or worse, find ourselves in a mess we never anticipated.
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.
How can someone be busy and not accomplish anything? Well, that’s the passion paradox.
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.
The critical work that you want to do will require your deliberation and consideration. Not passion. Not naïveté.
There’s one fabulous way to work all that out of your system: attach yourself to people and organizations who are already successful and subsume your identity into theirs and move both forward simultaneously.
Because if you pick up this mantle once, you’ll see what most people’s egos prevent them from appreciating: the person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas shapes the painting.
RESTRAIN YOURSELF I have observed that those who have accomplished the greatest results are those who “keep under the body”; are those who never grow excited or lose self-control, but are always calm, self-possessed, patient, and polite. —BOOKER T. WASHINGTON
GET OUT OF YOUR OWN HEAD A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts, so he loses touch with reality and lives in a world of illusions. —ALAN WATTS
By itself that’s insufferable, but it meant another thing: his personality made it impossible to do what he needed to do most—win battles. A historian who fought under McClellan at Antietam later summed it up: “His egotism is simply colossal—there is no other word for it.”
“If you are not careful,” she warns young writers, “station KFKD (K-Fucked) will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo.”
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.
What successful people do is curb such flights of fancy. They ignore the temptations that might make them feel important or skew their perspective.
Living clearly and presently takes courage. Don’t live in the haze of the abstract, live with the tangible and real, even if—especially 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 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
Pride blunts the very instrument we need to own in order to succeed: our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride.
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 best plan is only good intentions unless it degenerates into work. —PETER DRUCKER
One day, Degas complained to his friend, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, about his trouble writing. “I can’t manage to say what I want, and yet I’m full of ideas.” Mallarmé’s response cuts to the bone. “It’s not with ideas, my dear Degas, that one makes verse. It’s with words.” Or rather, with work. The distinction between a professional and a dilettante occurs right there—when you accept that having an idea is not enough; that you must work until you are able to recreate your experience effectively in words on the page.
So: Do we sit down, alone, and struggle with our work? Work that may or may not go anywhere, that may be discouraging or painful? Do we love work, making a living to do work, not the other way around? Do we love practice, the way great athletes do? Or do we chase short-term attention and validation—whether that’s indulging in the endless search for ideas or simply the distraction of talk and chatter? Fac, si facis. (Do it if you’re going to do it.) There is another apt Latin expression: Materiam superabat opus. (The workmanship was better than the material.)
SUCCESS Here we are at the top of a mountain we worked hard to climb—or at least the summit is in sight. Now we face new temptations and problems. We breathe thinner air in an unforgiving environment. Why is success so ephemeral? Ego shortens it. Whether a collapse is dramatic or a slow erosion, it’s always possible and often unnecessary. We stop learning, we stop listening, and we lose our grasp on what matters. We become victims of ourselves and the competition. Sobriety, open-mindedness, organization, and purpose—these are the great stabilizers. They balance out the ego and pride that comes with achievement
ALWAYS STAY A STUDENT Every man I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of him. —RALPH WALDO EMERSON
With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pretend that we know more than we do. To pretend we already know everything. Scientia infla (knowledge puffs up). That’s the worry and the risk—thinking that we’re set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process.
An amateur is defensive. The professional finds learning (and even, occasionally, being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled, and engage in education as an ongoing and endless process.
Most military cultures—and people in general—seek to impose values and control over what they encounter. What made the Mongols different was their ability to weigh each situation objectively, and if need be, swap out previous practices for new ones. All great businesses start this way, but then something happens.
The great manager and business thinker Peter Drucker says that it’s not enough simply to want to learn. As people progress, they must also understand how they learn and then set up processes to facilitate this continual education.
DON’T TELL YOURSELF A STORY Myth becomes myth not in the living but in the retelling.
Instead, he implemented what he called his “Standard of Performance.” That is: What should be done. When. How. At the most basic level and throughout the organization, Walsh had only one timetable, and it was all about instilling these standards.
Crafting stories out of past events is a very human impulse. It’s also dangerous and untrue. Writing our own narrative leads to arrogance. It turns our life into a story—and turns us into caricatures—while we still have to live it. As the author Tobias Wolff writes in his novel Old School, these explanations and stories get “cobbled together later, more or less sincerely, and after the stories have been repeated they put on the badge of memory and block all other routes of exploration.”
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. Because that’s the only thing that will keep us here.
WHAT’S IMPORTANT TO YOU? To know what you like is the beginning of wisdom and of old age. —ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
Most of us begin with a clear idea of what we want in life. We know what’s important to us. The success we achieve, especially if it comes early or in abundance, puts us in an unusual place. Because now, all of a sudden, we’re in a new place and have trouble keeping our bearings.
an individual level, however, 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.
According to Seneca, the Greek word euthymia is one we should think of often: it is the sense of our own path and how to stay on it without getting distracted by all the others that intersect it. In other words, 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. It’s about going where you set out to go. About accomplishing the most that you’re capable of in what you choose. That’s it. No more and no less. (By the way, euthymia means “tranquillity” in English.)
ENTITLEMENT, CONTROL, AND PARANOIA One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. —BERTRAND RUSSELL
It doesn’t matter if you’re a billionaire, a millionaire, or just a kid who snagged a good job early.
Ego is its own worst enemy. It hurts the ones we love too. Our families and friends suffer for it. So do our customers, fans, and clients. A critic of Napoleon nailed it when remarking: “He despises the nation whose applause he seeks.” He couldn’t help but see the French people as pieces to be manipulated, people he had to be better than, people who, unless they were totally, unconditionally supportive of him, were against him.
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.
MANAGING YOURSELF It is not enough to have great qualities; we should also have the management of them. —LA ROCHEFOUCAULD
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 If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? —HILLEL
Ego needs honors in order to be validated. Confidence, on the other hand, is able to wait and focus on the task at hand regardless of external recognition.
Let’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.
There is a balance. 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.
MEDITATE ON THE IMMENSITY A monk is a man who is separated from all and who is in harmony with all. —EVAGRIUS PONTICUS
In this moment, he was experiencing what the Stoics would call sympatheia—a connectedness with the cosmos. The French philosopher Pierre Hadot has referred to it as the “oceanic feeling.” A sense of belonging to something larger, of realizing that “human things are an infinitesimal point in the immensity.” It is in these moments that we’re not only free but drawn toward important questions: Who am I? What am I doing? What is my role in this world?
Ego blocks us from the beauty and history in the world. It stands in the way.
Creativity is a matter of receptiveness and recognition. This cannot happen if you’re convinced the world revolves around you. By removing the ego—even temporarily—we can access what’s left standing in relief. By widening our perspective, more comes into view.
MAINTAIN YOUR SOBRIETY The height of cultivation runs to simplicity. —BRUCE LEE
This is why the Zen philosopher Zuigan is supposed to have called out to himself everyday: “MASTER—” “YES, SIR?” Then he would add: “BECOME SOBER.” “YES, SIR.” He would conclude by saying: “DO NOT BE DECEIVED BY OTHERS.” “YES SIR, YES SIR.” Today, we might add to that: “DON’T BE DECEIVED BY RECOGNITION YOU HAVE GOTTEN OR THE AMOUNT OF MONEY IN YOUR BANK ACCOUNT.”
FOR WHAT OFTEN COMES NEXT, EGO IS THE ENEMY . . . The evidence is in, and you are the verdict. —ANNE LAMOTT
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.
Bill Walsh says, “Almost always, your road to victory goes through a place called ‘failure.’” In order to taste success again, we’ve got to understand what led to this moment (or these years) of difficulty, what went wrong and why. We must deal with the situation in order to move past it. We’ll need to accept it and to push through it.
ALIVE TIME OR DEAD TIME? Vivre sans temps mort. (Live without wasted time.) —PARISIAN POLITICAL SLOGAN
THE EFFORT IS ENOUGH What matters to an active man is to do the right thing; whether the right thing comes to pass should not bother him. —GOETHE
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.
John Wooden’s advice to his players says it: Change the definition of success. “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” “Ambition,” Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, “means tying your well-being to what other people say or do . . . Sanity means tying it to your own actions.”
FIGHT CLUB MOMENTS If you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way. —EMILE ZOLA
In Greek mythology, characters often experience katabasis—or “a going down.” They’re forced to retreat, they experience a depression, or in some cases literally descend into the underworld. When they emerge, it’s with heightened knowledge and understanding.
A look at history finds that these events seem to be defined by three traits: 1. They almost always came at the hands of some outside force or person. 2. They often involved things we already knew about ourselves, but were too scared to admit. 3. From the ruin came the opportunity for great progress and improvement.
Sometimes because we can’t face what’s been said or what’s been done, we do the unthinkable in response to the unbearable: we escalate. This is ego in its purest and most toxic form.
Face the symptoms. Cure the disease. Ego makes it so hard—it’s easier to delay, to double down, to deliberately avoid seeing the changes we need to make in our lives.
Vince Lombardi said this once: “A team, like men, must be brought to its knees before it can rise again.” So yes, hitting bottom is as brutal as it sounds.
DRAW THE LINE It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. —MARCUS AURELIUS
“He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a living man,” Seneca once said. Alter that: He who will do anything to avoid failure will almost certainly do something worthy of a failure.
MAINTAIN YOUR OWN SCORECARD I never look back, except to find out about mistakes . . . I only see danger in thinking back about things you are proud of. —ELISABETH NOELLE-NEUMANN
Reflecting on what went well or how amazing we are doesn’t get us anywhere, except maybe to where we are right now. But we want to go further, we want more, we want to continue to improve. Ego blocks that, so we subsume it and smash it with continually higher standards. Not that we are endlessly pursuing more, as if we’re racked with greed, but instead, we’re inching our way toward real improvement, with discipline rather than disposition.
ALWAYS LOVE And why should we feel anger at the world? As if the world would notice! —EURIPIDES
“Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life.”
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 investigating the wrongs that have supposedly been done to us.
FOR EVERYTHING THAT COMES NEXT, EGO IS THE ENEMY . . . I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself. —JOSEPH CONRAD
Wisdom or ignorance? Ego is the swing vote. Aspiration leads to success (and adversity). Success creates its own adversity (and, hopefully, new ambitions). And adversity leads to aspiration and more success. It’s an endless loop.
Which is why we have their mantra to guide us, so that we can survive and thrive in every phase of our journey. It is simple (though, as always, never easy). Not to aspire or seek out of ego. To have success without ego. To push through failure with strength, not ego.