Ego Is the Enemy

Ego is the Enemy: The Fight to Master Our Greatest Opponent
Author: Ryan Holiday
Publisher: Portfolio
Published: 6/14/2016
“While the history books are filled with tales of obsessive, visionary geniuses who remade the world in their image with sheer, almost irrational force, I’ve found that history is also made by individuals who fought their egos at every turn, who eschewed the spotlight, and who put their higher goals above their desire for recognition.” – from the Prologue

Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

Everyone is motivated by something. If you are driven to achieve things because you want attention and praise, it's likely you’re being driven by your ego. While there is nothing wrong with being motivated by egocentric goals (goals that primarily benefit you or make you look good to others), it's easy for your ego to get out of hand. When someone’s ego is the correct size, they have enough confidence to take risks, and they can handle failure without losing their cool. But, once someone's ego gets out of proportion, they can end up reaping painful consequences in the long run. Problems with ego management can lead to the inability to achieve meaningful success because of damaged relationships with colleagues, shortsightedness, missed opportunities, and many other problems. Here’s how to shift away from the pitfalls of egoist living, and move into a more success oriented perspective.

Exercise ambition, instead of ego

In opposition to those who are primarily motivated by their ego, there are those motivated by ambition. They desire to be the best in their field, whether other people notice it or not. A historical example of this principle is William Tecumseh Sherman, a general in the military during the Civil War. He cared more about being the best at his role than he cared for prestige and recognition. His leadership abilities were so exceptional, he was asked to run for president. After talking with Lincoln, he realized he wanted to stay in the field of military leadership. He passed up the recognition he could receive as president to continue excelling in what he loved. By comparison, ego driven Ulysses S. Grant ran for president even though he lacked any experience in a similar role. His ego drove him to believe he could successfully tackle an endeavor when he had no experience. This is not to say that those who are ambitious shouldn’t take risks: but rather focus your risk taking in an area that you feel passionate about, not just an area where you think you can get praise and attention.

Recognize there’s always more to learn

Humility is the antidote to egoism. How do you maintain humility? Recognize that there is always more to learn. No matter what field you are in, there is always someone more skilled you can learn from. Retaining this humility will allow you to continue to develop your skill set. Develop the perspective of a student and remain willing to be taught, and keep the awareness that no matter how much you excel at what you do, there will always be someone who’s better.

This attitude has been helpful to guitarist Kirk Hammett, who was offered the position of guitarist in Metallica in the 1980s. He refused, because he knew that once he started playing in a band, he would miss out on the opportunity to grow his skills. He instead became a student of world-renowned guitar legend Joe Satriani. Similarly, Frank Shamrock, a martial arts expert, believes that those who have reached advanced levels in martial arts should retain humility: one way they do this is by training the beginners. Recognizing there is more to learn and developing humility prevents one’s ego from becoming overbearing.

Avoid the pitfalls of ego’s side effect: pride

When Apple’s iPhone was monumentally successful, Steve Jobs didn’t pat himself on the back for a successful achievement and give up. Instead, he continued to produce successful products. Imagine if someone who hadn’t experienced the success Steve Job’s did have an excess of pride, and you’ll start to understand why it can have such a pernicious effect. Pride can cause people to become complacent. In conjunction with causing complacency, it can increase laziness and it can also make people defensive in reaction to criticism or helpful advice. Pride can fuel the ego: creating a toxic blend of ego justification and blindness to the possibility of other successes. Imagine if you were too busy patting yourself on the back to realize that you had more opportunities!

Avoiding pride is difficult, especially when someone has experienced a fair amount of success. One solution is to think of how someone more humble would approach the situation you’re in. Shifting out of pride and ego is a matter of changing your perception. Shift into the mindset of someone who has more humility, and see how your perspective and actions change too.

You don't have to do it all on your own

One big pitfall of egoism is the idea that you (and only you) can do things correctly. Tired of bearing the great burden of responsibility? Here’s a dose of humility: that’s not the case! Learning how to delegate tasks effectively has many benefits. Your team will feel respected and valued because you’ll be trusting them with responsibility. You are giving them the opportunity to grow and develop a skill set. Finally, without so much work to do, you’ll be able to develop new skills yourself.

Still want to run the show? So did John Delorean. He left General Motors to start his own company because he was convinced he would be more successful than they were. He micromanaged every person and every process in his car company, and it was a massive failure. He ended up declaring bankruptcy. Doing it all on your own can have dismal results.

Recognize the people who help you achieve

Teamwork is an important aspect of success: and when ego gets in the way of teamwork, there can be dire consequences. When Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Briant played together, they worked exceptionally well. They won three championships with the Lakers: 2000, 2001, and 2002. Their bout of success was cut short when both of them developed enormous egos, and O’Neal started saying nasty things about Bryant to reporters. In response, Bryant refused to sign with the Lakers until they traded O’Neal for another team. Had they stayed humble, they would have worked together.

Prevent ego from corroding your ability to work with a team by noticing and giving credit to your teammates, whenever you experience success. Not only does this help you keep your ego in check, it also builds a sense of comradery, could attract new coworkers and makes other people feel good.

Recognize that outcomes are out of your control

So you put in your best effort and your idea got rejected, or you applied and interviewed for your dream job… and you didn't get it. How do you cope with the loss? Ego says take it personally, or blame others. There is another way. With humility, you can learn to accept that sometimes, even after engaging our best efforts, we fail. It sucks, but it's also out of our control. Bad results can also show us where we need to put in more work and improve our performance. It's important to remember that while bad outcomes are often out of our control, so are good ones. Good luck should be taken the same way: as a lucky gift, rather than something we earned. When the patriots selected Tom Brady as their quarterback, they had no idea he would be one of the greatest quarterbacks in all of NFL history. Instead of taking credit for finding him, they worked to improve their scouting program, so they could find more players like him in the future.

Good luck or bad luck, learn to keep your ego out of it and instead, see everything that happens as an opportunity for growth.

Everyone is motivated by something. If the primary motivating factor behind everything you do is your ego - you’re in trouble! There are many ways to avoid the common pitfalls associated with ego overdrive: exercising ambition instead of ego, recognizing there’s always more to learn, avoiding pride, remembering you don’t always have to go it alone, and many others!


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