Book summary: Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
– think big, but act small (be humble)
– never stop learning
– do great work, and let other people take credit for it
In a nutshell
Ego Is the Enemy is a potent reflection on how ego dismantles us in all phases of accomplishment—aspiration, success, and failure—and provides strategies to help you avoid falling into the trap.
This book is a series of moral stories to encourage our better impulses. By practicing it, you’ll think less of yourself and be more liberated to accomplish the world changing work that you set out to achieve.
What is ego, and why is it such a bad thing?
Ego comes with the territory for people with drive and ambition. A casual definition of ego is an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Ego is the enemy because it inhibits us from real creative insight, gets in the way of what we have and what we want, destroys relationships, and repels opportunities and advantages.
Ego is the enemy of success because it puts self-awareness aside in favor of over-inflated confidence. It has propelled many people to success, but far more to rapid failure. Ego is the enemy of building, maintaining, and recovering—the three parts of this book.
Despite popular belief, no one becomes successful by being delusional or self-absorbed. Ego is stolen confidence, not the mark of a visionary or a real leader.
Talent is only a starting point. What really matters is what you make of it. So many opportunities just fall into our laps, or were given to us. It’s important not to let these go to our head. The ability to evaluate one’s own ability is incredibly underrated. Improvement is impossible without it, and ego makes it even more difficult. Detach from your own work to help you evaluate it.
Humility, diligence, and self-awareness are rare. Confidence and hubris are not. Although we think big, we must act and live small to get what we want. Focus on action and education instead of chasing status.
Part 1: Building Success (Aspiration)
To be or to do
When you’re not wasting time thinking of who you want to be, you can start thinking about what you want to do. Silence is strength. Talking and doing fight for the same resources. Instead of talking about doing something, take action and work hard at it.
Become a student
Becoming a student is the ultimate way to keep your ego in check. To become great, you have to know what came before, what is going on now, and where your field is headed. Never stop learning. A student is like a sponge, always absorbing and filtering new pieces of information. They are self critical and self-motivated. You can’t learn if you think you already know. The art of taking an acting on feedback is so important in life. Ego makes us hard-headed and hostile toward feedback.
Don’t be passionate
Passion blinds us from the progress that were actually making, and encourages to try the same thing over and over in hopes of accomplishing our goals. Purpose is passion with boundaries. Passion is form over function. Purpose is all function, and replaces the emphasis on “I” with something bigger.
The canvas strategy
Clear the path for people above you, and you will eventually create a path for yourself. Create a canvas for other people to paint on. Don’t be above the job that you need to do. Play the long game—do great work and let other people take credit for it. Greatness comes from the grunt work. Along the way, you will create valuable relationships, build up deposits in the favor bank, and develop a reputation of being indispensable. Produce more than everyone else, and give the results away.
Quietly and humbly endure humiliation and hardship you will inevitably encounter on your journey. Use it as fuel to motivate you and work harder.
Get out of your own head
Live clearly and presently, and in the presence of the tangible and real. Don’t let pride cloud your judgement. We need to cultivate our sense of awareness against pride and self-obsession, not just our ability to deal with criticism. Pride dulls our good senses and tunes up bad ones.
Our ego wants our time spent planning and thinking about what we are going to do to be enough–the things that get attention and glory rather than real results.
Part 2: Maintaining Success
Never stop learning
In every situation in life, there is an opportunity to learn. It’s important for us not to let our ego get in the way of our learning. So many times we are too afraid to look stupid by asking for help, until it is too late. That’s when the silent toll is taken. So many times we stay in our own comfort zone, for fear of looking stupid, and fail to learn or ask questions. When we finally realize it, it is often too late to change course. Prevent this problem by reading books on subjects you know nothing about, change your surroundings and the people you spend time with.
Don’t tell your self a narrative about a past success or failure. Look at the facts instead. Such a narrative can go to your head and harm your performance going forward. Don’t set out to try and change the world. Really big things are often started by doing really small things. Scale your ambitions as you go.
Say no more often
When we say yes to things because of ego, vanity, or fear of missing out, we prevent the very happiness we are seeking by saying yes in the first place. A sense of competition is important, but it is equally important to know who you are competing with and why. Each of us has a unique potential and purpose. Accomplish the most that you’re capable of in whatever you choose.
Ask yourself why you do what you do. Life requires trade-offs. Train yourself to opt out of races that don’t matter.
Certainty, control, and paranoia
Don’t fall prey to the assumption that everything is within your control and the outcome is certain. Stop trying to change things that are outside of your control. Get your perceptions under control. Lose your sense of entitlement. Seneca once said, “he who indulges empty fears earns himself real fears.”
Urgent and important are not synonyms. Set priorities, I think big picture, and let the people below you do their jobs. Accept that other people maybe more qualified for the job then you. Don’t let your ego get in the way of the ingredients for a successful project or company come together. Learn how to manage your self and your emotions first, then learn how to manage an organization before your industry eat you alive.
Avoid the obsession with “me”
Early in our careers, it’s easy to put our egos aside—the innocent climb. But as we gain success, it’s natural to start chasing accolades. The desire to make it to the top does not make you a bad person. However, there is a balance. Time spent managing your image is important, but ultimately it is a distraction towards achieving your goals. Don’t worry about getting credit for your accomplishments.
When we put our relationship with the universe into perspective, it causes us to ask important questions: Who am I? What is my purpose here? Material success in perpetual busyness takes us away from these questions. Ego tells us that meaning comes from activity. In reality, meaning comes from being a part of something bigger than ourselves. For example, spend more time in nature to make yourself feel small.
Find the middle ground
Aristotle’s golden mean suggests that if you fail to find a reasonable balance between two extremes, we put ourselves at risk of failure. It’s easy to be endlessly ambitious, and it’s easy to be complacent. We have to be careful to avoid what Jim’s Collins calls the undisciplined pursuit of more. Stay humble, retain your sense of purpose, protect your sobriety, and nurture your connection to the world around us. We need to accept that win streaks and successes tend to revert back to the mean, so we shouldn’t let them go to our heads.
Part 3: Failure
Ego loves the notion of whether or not something is fair. Well, life isn’t fair. Things won’t go our way all the time, and that’s okay. Ego adds self-injury to every other failure you might experience. See through your failures. Don’t think of yourself highly, but don’t underestimate your value.
We are all subject to the rules of gravity and averages. It may come in the form of being overlooked for a promotion, not getting into your first choice of university, or losing a valued relationship. Everyone faces challenges at some point. The only way out is through. How you respond to what life throws at you is what matters.
According to Robert Greene, there are two types of time: alive time and dead time. Alive time is the time spent growing and learning. Dead time is wasted being passive and nonproductive. Use your time to work on great things, rather than giving in to mediocrity and not accomplishing anything of real importance.
Focus only on the job in front of you and doing the right thing. Don’t waste your time worrying about whether or not the right thing will happen to you. Doing good work is enough. Stop caring about the outcome. Change how you define success. It should come from a peace of mind you gain from the knowledge that you did your absolute best.
Try to see the bigger picture
Our egos make us fall into the sunk cost fallacy. Have the courage to stop what you’re doing if it’s not working. At any given time, we might be aspiring, succeeding, or failing. This is transient. Whatever phase we are in is not a statement of your value as a human being. If you’re failing, you have to work your way back to first principles in order to right the ship. The only real failure is to abandon your principles.
Humility allows you to have your own barometer of success. If you rely on external definitions of what constitutes success and failure, you won’t live up to your true potential and will probably never be great. Vein men never hear anything but praise. You can get lucky and still win, but you can’t become the best version of yourself through luck alone.
Show love (no matter what)
If somebody does wrong to you, hating them in return will only make you feel worse. Hate is a cancer that gnaws away at your life. It’s easy to be hateful. It’s really hard to love in a tough situation. Try it though.
Aspiration leads to success, and adversity. Success creates its own adversity. Adversity leads to aspiration, and more success. It’s a constantly repeating cycle. Ego will always lead us toward failure. Aspire to success without ego.
Mastering our egos is incredibly difficult, because it requires rigorous self-examination. It is admirable and good to want to be better off financially, better business people, better athletes, and do great things. However, it is even more admirable to want to be happier, more humble, and better people in general. It’s important to note that perfecting our personal side can make us better business people, but rarely the reverse is true.