If you ever feel like you get in your own way, then you’d enjoy Ryan Holiday’s latest book, Ego is the Enemy: The Fight to Master Our Greatest Opponent.
In signature style, Holiday weaves in anecdotal evidence from great figures from history, who seemed to have mastered the petty wants of their smaller selves.
These people all demonstrated how having a sense of reality and awareness is what creates greatness – rather than ruthless ambition!
Included below are my favorite lessons from the book.
But first, you’d be forgiven for asking…
…what is ego again?
For ages, I thought having an ego meant being egotistical.
Now I know that having an ego can look like shyness, confidence, and everything in between. Because having an ego is having a personality. They’re the same thing.
Being narcisstically at the service of the ego is different – it tends to look more extreme. But we can get to that in a moment.
As I have written about before, our egos aren’t bad of themselves. The value lies in examining our agendas.
Our goal is to start to recognise the so called ‘false self’ that we have been crafting since our early moments of awareness. Then putting our strengths in service of our highest values.
there is ego and there is ego agendas
Ego is the Enemy discusses some essential practices for taming our ego’s agendas. The advice applies to us all. That is because our egos agendas are all the same! How can that be?
how the ego gets formed
The reason is obvious when you consider how and why the false self gets constructed. We develop our egos when our young, barely formed minds perceive a threat to survival (survival being love and acceptance from our caretakers).
By necessity, that means our egos will lead us to swing between inferiority and superiority, from being a victim to being dominant and controlling. We are led to compare and compete with eachother.
‘Man is pushed by drives’, great psychiatrist Viktor Frankl observed. ‘But he is pulled by values’.
So you could say that our drives – e.g. to be successful, or rich, or whatever – are derived from the ego. Our values, however, come from something more essential to our natures.
who are we without our egos/personalities?
Although this is a subject for another post, needless to say, there is something unchanging underneath our false self constructs. We are more than our beliefs, opinions, stories and interpretations.
In learning to temper our egos, we come to know that part of ourselves better.
how to tell if you are very entrenched in your ego
It is easy to tell if you are at the mercy of your ego agendas. You feel all the different shades of bad. Notably:
- anxious; and
In these states, we are ‘delusional, self absorbed and disconnected’, says Ryan. These are all ego’s footprints and hallmarks.
So without further ado, some lessons from Ego is the Enemy about how we can learn to tame this shrew we all have.
a few lessons from Ego is the Enemy
1. aspire to be better
‘Being action and education focused, and forging 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.’
This one is obvious, but first we have to want to master ourselves in this way. Without making the decision, we will naturally be driven by our ego agendas.
This is actually the hardest thing. Because it is much less instantly satisfying to pursue humility, diligence and self awareness, over power, outward strength and prowess.
It is the quintessential marshmallow experiment. Can we delay gratification?
2. learn to keep yourself ‘out of the conversation’
‘Silence is the respite of the confident and strong. Talk depletes us. Talking and doing fight for the same resources.’
This lesson is about learning to subsist without external validation.
Again, this is really hard. I feel like this is one of my key lessons of the past year, as I have devoted myself more to my work, and less to seeking pleasure and approval from other people. It has felt very sobering and under-stimulating at times, compared to my pastimes before.
What happens when we start ‘talking less’?
For me, internal rearrangements of furniture that – although uncomfortable in the moment – lead to greater long term gratification.
‘Plug that hole’ advises Ryan. ‘The one, right in the middle of your face – that can drain you of your vital life force. Watch what happens. Watch how much better you get.’
3. learn to love being the student
‘To become what we ultimately hope to become often takes long periods of obscurity, of sitting and wrestling with some topic or paradox’.
Seeking out the negative in ourselves and our efforts at the same time that our brain is telling us we are doing great is another key exercise in ego temperance.
And part of being a student is stopping being so defensive. ‘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’.
4. be like Eleanor Roosevelt; be above passion
Passion is overrated.
I know for me that when I am writing about a topic I feel especially passionate about, it is when I produce some of my most worst work!
Apparently this is a lesson that Eleanor Roosevelt knew well. ‘Roosevelt was above passion. She had purpose. She had direction. She wasn’t driven by passion, but by reason.’forget your passions. They'll probably blind you to your own level of competence and skill Click To Tweet
Our passions blind us. ‘Those who are passionate are often unprepared and incapable of grasping the objections and real concerns of those around them‘. Ryan (fantastically) calls this the ‘drunkenness of passion’.
Also, ‘passion typically masks a weakness…while the origins of passion may be earnest and good, its effects are comical and then monstrous.’
In place of passion, we want to pursue purpose. According to Ryan, ‘purpose is passion, but with boundaries.’
‘Purpose deemphasises the I. Purpose is about pursuing something outside of yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself. Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function.’
Leave passion for the amateurs, Ryan suggests.
5. avoid ‘feasting on your own thoughts’
I have written about the perils of overthinking before. This is more of a problem for some personality types.
Ryan quotes Alan Watts to illustrate the drawbacks of this: ‘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.‘ Living inside of our heads is synonymous with ego.
6. work your ass off
‘The distinction between a professional and a dilettante occurs right there – when you accept that having an idea is not enough; that you must work until you are able to recreate your experience effectively in words on the page.’
Ryan says whilst the idea of hard work for success is not as sexy as having raw talent lead the way, it should be an encouraging one. Because it means success is within reach for all of us, ‘provided we have the constitution and humbleness to be patient and the fortitude to put in the work.’
And here is probably one of the best lines from the book (for me):
‘Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this. I am passing the marshmallow test.’
7. figure out what’s important to you
‘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.’
Why do you do what you do? That is the question we all 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.’Opt out of stupid races that don't matter. That's independence Click To Tweet
‘Find out why you’re after what you’re after. Ignore those who mess with your pace. Let them covet what you have, not the other way around. Because that’s independence.’
8. tie wellbeing to your own actions
In one of my favorite chapters, ‘the effort is enough’, Ryan discusses how we manage the task of not being attached to the results of the work we do.
‘In life, there will be times when we do everything right, perhaps even perfectly. Yet the results will somehow be negative: failure, disrespect, jealousy, or even a resounding yawn from the world. Depending on what motivates us, this response can be crushing.’Sanity = linking your wellbeing to what is within your power to change Click To Tweet
Anyone that is creative is faced with this exact challenge. I think that investing time and energy even when an outcome isn’t guaranteed is an exercise in ego transcendence of itself.
‘Ambition – Marcus Aurelius reminded himself – means tying your wellbeing to what other people say or do…sanity means tying it to your own actions.’
Do your work. Do it well. Then ‘let go and let God’.’
I’d highly recommend Ego is the Enemy to everyone. It contains a lot of useful, thought provoking stuff.
The process of self-refinement can be its own reward. I’ll leave you with this from the Epilogue of the book:
‘Working to refine our habitual thoughts, working to clamp down on destructive impulses, these are not simply the moral requirements of any decent person.
They will make us more successful; they will help to navigate the treacherous waters that ambition will require us to travel.’