Ego Is the Enemy – by Ryan Holiday
Date read: 1/5/17. Recommendation: 10/10.
My favorite Ryan Holiday book. If you haven't read any of his work yet, start here. It's a great look into how–in an effort to nurse our ego–we often act in opposition to our best interests. He discusses how to leverage ideas from Stoic philosophy, the pitfalls of self-narrative, and the importance of being a lifelong learner. Numerous life lessons and productive mental models packed into a quick read. Along with Tribe by Sebastian Junger, this is the book I've gifted the most in the past year.
See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.
"Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty and sadness and remains far behind yours. Were it otherwise, he would never have been able to find those words." -Rainer Maria Rilke
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool." -Richard Feynman
Just one thing keeps ego around - comfort. Pursuing great work - whether it is in sports or art or business - is often terrifying. Ego soothes that fear. It's a salve to that insecurity. 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.
Ego is stolen. Confidence is earned.
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.
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.
Be action and education focused, and forgo validation and status.
Almost universally, the kind of performance we give on social media is positive. It's more "Let me tell you how well things are going. Look how great I am." It's rarely the truth: "I'm scared. I'm struggling. I don't know."
So 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 strong.
Doing great work is a struggle.
Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.
"It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows." -Epictetus
The art of taking feedback is such a crucial skill in life, particularly harsh and critical feedback...The ego avoids such feedback at all costs.
On Eleanor Roosevelt: She had purpose. She had direction. She wasn't driven by passion, but by reason.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Used one word to describe the style of his famous coach [John Wooden]: "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."
Neither of them [Wooden or Roosevelt] were driven by excitement, nor were they bodies in constant motion. Instead, it took them years to become the person they became known as. It was a process of accumulation.
Passion typically masks a weakness. It's breathlessness and impetuousness and franticness are poor substitutes for discipline, for mastery, for strength and purpose and perseverance.
Passion is seen in those who can tell you in great detail who they intend to become and what their success will be...but they cannot show you their progress. Because their rarely is any.
How can someone be busy and not accomplish anything? Well, that's the passion paradox.
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 you think you know or most of what you learned in books or in school is out of date or wrong.
Attach yourself to people and organizations who are already successful.
"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
It doesn't degrade you when others treat you poorly; it degrades them.
It is a timeless fact of life that the up-and-coming must endure the abuses of the entrenched.
The question to ask, when you feel pride, then, is this: What am I missing right now that a more humble person might see? What am I avoiding, or running from, with my bluster, franticness, and embellishments?
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."
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. Learn from everyone and everything.
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.
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 thought this could happen.
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.
A great destiny, Seneca reminds us, is great slavery.
"To know what you like is the beginning of wisdom and of old age." -Robert Louis Stevenson
All of us waste precious life doing things we don't like, to prove ourselves to people we don't respect, to get things we don't want.
You need to know what you don't want and what your choices preclude. Because strategies are often mutually exclusive. One cannot be an opera singer and a teen pop idol at the same time. Life requires those trade-offs, but ego can't allow it.
So why do you do what you do? That's the question you need to answer. Stare at it until you can. Only then will you understand what matters and what doesn't. Only then can you say no, can you opt out of stupid races that don't matter, or even exist.
Sympatheia - a connectedness to 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." *cosmic sympathy
That's what we're after here. That's the transcendental experience that makes our petty ego impossible.
Courage, for instance, lies between cowardice one one end and recklessness on the other. Generosity, which we all admire, must stop short of either profligacy and parsimony in order to be of any use. Where the line - this golden mean - is can be difficult to tell, but without finding it, we risk dangerous extremes.
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.
Robert Greene: There are two types of time in our lives: dead time, when people are passive and waiting, and alive time, when people are learning and acting and utilizing 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.
You will be unappreciated. You will be sabotaged. You will experience surprising failures. Your expectations will not be met. You will lose. You will fail. How do you carry on then?
"Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do...Sanity means tying it to your own actions." -Marcus Aurelius
Your potential, the absolute best you're capable of - that's the metric to measure yourself against. Your standards are. Winning is not enough. People can get lucky and win. People can be assholes and win. Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.
Attempting to destroy something out of hate or ego often ensures that it will be preserved and disseminated forever.