Ryan Holiday is a strategist and writer. He left college at 19 but has been successful in marketing and as an author, including The Obstacle is the Way, which has a cult following among NFL coaches, athletes, political leaders and others. In Ego is the Enemy, he tells his own story as, “Success. Failure. And back and back again.” He discusses ego not in a Freudian way, but in a casual way: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. It can help us push forward, but it can also bring us down, keep us from seeing reality.
I gained insight from this short but meaningful book. An overarching theme is to keep your sights on what you hope to accomplish, not necessarily on how YOU will be viewed because of what you have done. Sometimes it feels like the two are inseparable, but, as he points out, often we lose track of the goal and get caught up in the success, the money, the title, trying to look like the smartest and most important person in the room … ‘the undisciplined pursuit of more.’
Remarkably, a full year has passed since I closed my medical office. As I am exploring my ‘next step’ several issues he raises hit home with me. I now have the freedom to address health issues with the broader population. How far out of my comfort zone am I willing to go to accomplish this? How does closing my practice of internal medicine impact how I see myself and how others see me? Is it important to me to introduce myself to new acquaintances as a physician? Where is my ego in this journey as I pivot to a new role? Am I brave enough to ask for feedback from people who will offer tough, honest opinions about a new project?
Brief stories, some about famous people and others about those who accomplished great things more quietly are peppered throughout the book. One is the story of how Jackie Robinson controlled his ego, put his more vigorous protests against segregation on hold, and sustained ugly taunts from the stands. He focused on achieving a bigger goal than his own success – and didn’t get in his own way. Afterwards, he was able to talk about how difficult that was.
To do the book justice, I’ll share some direct quotes:
- “Too often, convinced of our own intelligence, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to reconsider what we know)… (E)go sings a soothing, validating song.”
- “It’s during your moment at the top that you can afford ego the least … If anything, your ability to listen, to hear feedback, to improve and grow matter more now than ever before.”
- “There’s a real danger in believing it when people use the word ‘genius’ [or other such titles]… when really [accomplishments are] rooted in work, creativity, persistence, and luck… We must shun the false crown and continue working on what got us here.”
- “The farther you travel down that path of accomplishment, whatever it may be, the more often you meet other successful people who make you feel insignificant … your ego and their accomplishments make you feel like nothing – just as others make them feel the same way.” [Note: competition can spark accomplishments, but you have to have a clear sense of your own goal. The people around you are in different races, how many will you chase?]
- “Achieving success involved ignoring the doubts and reservations of the people around us. It meant rejecting rejection. It required taking certain risks. We could have given up at any time, but we’re here precisely because we didn’t… now you’re addicted to control.”
- “A smart man or woman must regularly remind themselves of the limits of their power and reach.”
- “Courage, for instance, lies between cowardice on one end and recklessness on the other.”
- “As they say, this moment is not your life. But it is a moment in your life. How will you use it?”[He noted what Francis Scott Key, Ian Fleming, Walt Disney and Malcolm X each accomplished while in forced confinement.]
- “Ego can’t see both sides of the issue … ‘Vain men never hear anything but praise’.”
- “Warren Buffett … 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… Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.”
- “Because it’s not about what you can get away with, it’s about what you should or shouldn’t do… A person who judges himself based on his own standards doesn’t crave the spotlight the same way as someone who lets applause dictate success.”
- “Take inventory for a second. What do you dislike? Whose name fills you with revulsion and rage? Now ask: Have these strong feelings really helped you accomplish anything? … 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. Does this get us any closer to where we want to be? No. It just keeps us where we are – or worse, arrests our development entirely.”
There are many influences in our lives. Ego is certainly one of them, and it’s not going away. But my goal is to recognize its’ presence and use it to accomplish goals, not to draw me away from them. This includes continuing to be open to new experiences, having the courage to learn from others and striving to be the best person I can be. Title, pay, ‘likes’ on social media, etc so often become the main draws in our society. But what about the end goal? That needs to be front and center.