My highlights and notes from Ego Is The Enemy by Ryan Holiday.
I really enjoyed this book. It’s one of the few that I imagine I will re-read in the future.
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. One of the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous defined ego as “a conscious separation from.” From what? Everything.
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. 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.
But it is a short-term fix with a long-term consequence.
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.
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.”
We seem to think that silence is a sign of weakness. That being ignored is tantamount to death (and for the ego, this is true). So we talk, talk, talk as though our life depends on it.
In actuality, silence is strength—particularly early on in any journey. As the philosopher (and as it happens, a hater of newspapers and their chatter) Kierkegaard warned, “Mere gossip anticipates real talk, and to express what is still in thought weakens action by forestalling it.”
Silence is the respite of the confident and the strong.
“Never give reasons for what you think or do until you must.”
—William Tecumseh Sherman
“A man’s best treasure is a thrifty tongue.”
The only relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other.
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 worthy of promotion (they call it failing upward in such bureaucracies). Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.
The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the antidote.
The mixed martial arts pioneer and multi-title champion Frank Shamrock has a system he trains fighters in that he calls plus, minus, and equal. Each fighter, to become great, he said, needs to have someone better that they can learn from, someone lesser who they can teach, and someone equal that they can challenge themselves against.
“It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows,” Epictetus says. You can’t learn if you think you already know. 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.
How can someone be busy and not accomplish anything? Well, that’s the passion paradox.
If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then passion is a form of mental retardation—deliberately blunting our most critical cognitive functions. The waste is often appalling in retrospect; the best years of our life burned out like a pair of spinning tires against the asphalt.
What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism. Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective.
“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.”
The Work, Work, Work chapter is a good one to reread now and then as a reminder that ideas are nothing without the work.
“You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do,” was how Henry Ford put it.
As a young man, Bill Clinton began a collection of note cards upon which he would write names and phone numbers of friends and acquaintances who might be of service when he eventually entered politics. Each night, before he ever had a reason to, he would flip through the box, make phone calls, write letters, or add notations about their interactions. Over the years, this collection grew—to ten thousand cards (before it was eventually digitized). It’s what put him in the Oval Office and continues to return dividends.
The internal debate about confidence calls to mind a well-known concept from the radio pioneer Ira Glass, which could be called the Taste/Talent Gap.
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.
“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, and to get things we don’t want.
Let’s be clear: competitiveness is an important force in life. It s what drives the market and is behind some ofmankind’s most impressive accomplishments. On 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.
Only you know the race you’re running.
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.)
Maybe your priority actually is money. Or maybe it’s family. Maybe it’s influence or change. Maybe it’s building an organization that lasts, or serves a purpose. All of these are perfectly fine motivations. But you do need to know.
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. Only then is it easy to ignore “successful” people, because most of the time they aren’t—at least relative to you, and often even to themselves. Only then can you develop that quiet confidence Seneca talked about.
Finally, Franklin wrote him a letter (one that we’ve probably all deserved to get at one point or another): “If you do not cure yourself of this temper,” Franklin advised, “it will end in insanity, of which it is the symptomatic forerunner.” Probably because he was in such command of his own temper, Franklin decided that writing the letter was cathartic enough. He never sent it.
A smart man or woman must regularly remind themselves of the limits of their power and reach.
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. It delivers tirades and pronouncements that exhaust the people who work for and with us, who have no choice other than to go along. It overstates our abilities to ourselves, it renders generous judgment of our prospects, and it creates ridiculous expectations.
“He who indulges empty fears earns himself real fears.”
In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower returned from his inaugural parade and entered the White House for the first time as president late in the evening. As he walked into the Executive Mansion, his chief usher handed Elsenhower two letters marked “Confidential and Secret” that had been sent to him earlier in the day. Elsenhower’s reaction was swift: “Never bring me a sealed envelope,” he said firmly. “That’s what I have a staff for.”
How snobbish, right? Had the office really gone to his head already?
Not at all. Eisenhower recognized the seemingly insignificant event for what it was: a symptom of a disorganized, dysfunctional organization. Not everything needed to run through him. Who was to say that the envelope was even important? Why hadn’t anyone screened it?
As president, his first priority in office was organizing the executive branch into a smooth, functioning, and order-driven unit, just like his military units had been-not because he didn’t want to work himself, but because everyone had a job and he trusted and empowered them to do it. As his chief of staff later put it, “The president does the most important things. I do the next most important things.”
The public image of Elsenhower is of the man playing golf. In reality, he was not someone who ever slacked off, but the leisure time he did have was available because he ran a tight ship. He knew that urgent and important were not synonyms. His job was to set the priorities, to think big picture, and then trust the people beneath him to do the jobs they were hired for.
As you become successful in your own field, your responsibilities may begin to change. Days become less and less about doing and more and more about making decisions. Such is the nature of leadership. This transition requires reevaluating and updating your identity.
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?
Creativity is a matter of receptiveness and recognition.
It’s sad how disconnected from the past and the future most of us really are. We forget that woolly mammoths walked the earth while the pyramids were being built. We don’t realize that Cleopatra lived closer to our time than she did to the construction of those famous pyramids that marked her kingdom. When British workers excavated the land in Trafalgar Square to build Nelson’s Column and its famous stone lions, in the ground they found the bones of actual lions, who’d roamed that exact spot just a few thousand years before. Someone recently calculated that it takes but a chain of six individuals who shook hands with one another across the centuries to connect Barack Obama to George Washington. There’s a video you can watch on YouTube of a man on a CBS game show, “I’ve Got a Secret,” in 1956, in an episode that also happened to feature a famous actress named Lucille Ball. His secret? He was in Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was assassinated. England’s government only recently paid off debts it incurred as far back as 1720 from events like the South Sea Bubble, the Napoleonic wars, the empire’s abolition of slavery, and the Irish potato famine—meaning that in the twenty-first century there was still a direct and daily connection to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
As our power or talents grow, we like to think that makes us special—that we live in blessed, unprecedented times. 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.
Other politicians are bold and charismatic. But as Merkel supposedly said, “You can’t solve . . . tasks with charisma.”
As James Basford remarked, “It requires a strong constitution to withstand repeated attacks of prosperity.”
Endless ambition is easy; anyone can put their foot down hard on the gas. Complacency is easy too; it’s just a matter of taking that foot off the gas. We must avoid what the business strategist Jim Collins terms the “undisciplined pursuit of more,” as well as the complacency that comes with plaudits. To borrow from Aristotle again, what’s difficult is to apply the right amount of pressure, at the right time, in the right way, for the right period of time, in the right car, going in the right direction.
There is a line from Napoleon, who, like Alexander, died miserably. He said, “Men of great ambition have sought happiness . . . and have found fame.” What he means is that behind every goal is the drive to be happy and fulfilled— but when egotism takes hold, we lose track of our goal and end up somewhere we never intended.
Failure and adversity are relative and unique to each of us. Almost without exception, this is what life does: it takes our plans and dashes them to pieces. Sometimes once, sometimes lots of times.
“Almost always your road to victory goes through a place called ‘failure.’”
What matters is that we can respond to what life throws at us.
And how we make it through.
“Vivre sans temps mort. (Live without wasted time.)”
Parisian Political Slogan
According to 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.
Which will it be?
As they say, this moment is not your life. But it is a moment in your life. How will you use it?
There was an unusual encounter between Alexander the Great and the famous Cynic philosopher Diogenes. Allegedly, Alexander approached Diogenes, who was lying down, enjoying the summer air, and stood over him and asked what he, the most powerful man in the world, might be able to do for this notoriously poor man. Diogenes could have asked for anything. What he requested was epic: “Stop blocking my sun.” Even two thousand years later we can feel exactly where in the solar plexus that must have hit Alexander, a man who always wanted to prove how important he was. As the author Robert Louis Stevenson later observed about this meeting, “It is a sore thing to have labored along and scaled arduous hilltops, and when all is done, find humanity indifferent to your achievement.”
How do you carry on then? How do you take pride in yourself and your work? 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.”
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.
“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.”
The Reverend William A. Sutton observed some 120 years ago that “we cannot be humble except by enduring humiliations.” How much better it would be to spare ourselves these experiences, but sometimes it’s the only way the blind can be made to see.
In fact, many significant life changes come from moments in which we are thoroughly demolished, in which everything we thought we knew about the world is rendered false. We might call these “Fight Club moments.” Sometimes they are self-inflicted, sometimes inflicted on us, but whatever the cause they can be catalysts for changes we were petrified to make.
Hemingway had his own rock-bottom realizations as a young man. The understanding he took from them is expressed timelessly in his book A Farewell to Arms. He wrote, “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.”
The world can show you the truth, but no one can force you to accept it.
In the end, the only way you can appreciate your progress is to stand on the edge of the hole you dug for yourself, look down inside it, and smile fondly at the bloody claw prints that marked your journey up the walls.
“It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character.”
“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.
“I never look back, except to find out about mistakes . . . I only see danger in thinking back about things you are proud of.”
Bo Jackson wouldn’t get impressed when he hit a home run or ran for a touchdown because he knew “he hadn’t done it perfect” (In fact, he didn’t ask for the ball after his first hit in major-league baseball for that reason—to him it was “just a ground ball up the middle.”)
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.
For us, the scoreboard can’t be the only scoreboard. Warren Buffett has said the same thing, making a distinction between the inner scorecard and the external one. 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. Peopie can be assholes and win. Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.
My friend the philosopher and martial artist Daniele Bolelli once gave me a helpful metaphor. He explained that training was like sweeping the floor. Just because we’ve done it once, doesn’t mean the floor is clean forever. Every day the dust comes back. Every day we must sweep.
There s a quote from Bismarck that says, in effect, any fool can learn from experience. The trick is to learn from other people’s experience.
Perhaps it is like Plutarch’s reflection that we don’t “so much gain the knowledge of things by the words, as words by the experience [we have] of things.”