Book Notes: Ego is the Enemy

Ego is the Enemy, by Ryan Holiday

[Disclaimer:  This is not meant to be a book summary or book review. This is just stuff in the book that I found personally valuable or interesting at the time of reading. Most of these “notes” are actually highlights, i.e. directly copied lines from the book, but some notes are personal adaptations or added personal insights.]

– The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition. That’s the definition this book will use.

EGO is that petulant child inside every person, the one that chooses getting his or her way over anything or anyone else. The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility— that’s ego. It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.

– We can’t recognize opportunities— or create them— if instead of seeing what is in front of us, we live inside our own fantasy. Without an accurate accounting of our own abilities compared to others, what we have is not confidence but delusion.

– “If you start believing in your greatness, it’s the death of your creativity.” – Marina Abramovic

– 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.

– We can seek to rationalize the worst behavior by pointing to outliers. But no one is truly successful because they are delusional, self-absorbed, or disconnected.

– 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.

– Silence. The ability to deliberately keep yourself out of the conversation and subsist without its validation. Silence is the respite of the confident and the strong.

-The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the antidote.

– The temptation is to think: I’ve made it. I’ve arrived.

– [Personal note] A humbling FACT: If you start thinking you’re ‘exceptional’ at something, stop – you are almost certainly not. Even if you’re genuinely great at something, let alone exceptional, you’re probably only great in a relative sense, as in compared to the relatively few people who you affiliate with or who you’re aware of in your immediate world. If you really zoom out and look around the world, there are almost certainly others who are much better than you or more knowledgeable or more competent or more profitable than you at whatever it is you do. Numerous people have done everything you’ve done and much more. They’ve mastered and remastered the fundamentals, and they’ve explored technicalities that you’re not even aware of. They made more money and they’ve saved more money. Or, perhaps even more humbling, even if you don’t readily find people better than you, just know that there are certainly many people that would be better than you if only they applied even a fraction of the effort you’ve applied. Relatedly, and perhaps most humbling, you most certainly won’t be the best forever. There’s ALWAYS something to be humble about, and there’s always room for growth, and always a need for maintenance.

– We not only need to take harsh feedback, but actively solicit it, and actively seek out our negatives precisely when our friends and family and brain are telling us that we’re doing great. The ego avoids such feedback at all costs, however.

– There is no excuse for not getting your education, and because the information we have before us is so vast, there is no excuse for ever ending that process either.

– Ego makes us so hardheaded and hostile to feedback that it drives benefactors away or keeps them beyond our reach. As the old proverb says, “When student is ready, the teacher appears.”

Let go of passion in the form of burning, unquenchable desire to start or to achieve some vague, ambitious, and distant goal. This seemingly innocuous motivation is so far from the right track it hurts.

– [Personal note]: I think passion is something to be developed rather than prefabricated or ‘found’. I think we can only have a “sense” of passion in the forest but we can’t actually become genuinely passionate about it until we’ve experienced the trees.

– Opportunities are not usually deep, virgin pools that require courage and boldness to dive into, but instead are obscured, dusted over, blocked by various forms of resistance. What is really called for in these circumstances is clarity, deliberateness, and methodological determination.

– Passion typically masks a weakness. Its breathlessness and impetuousness and franticness are poor substitutes for discipline, for mastery, for strength and purpose and perseverance. You need to be able to spot this in others and in yourself, because while the origins of passion may be earnest and good, its effects are often comical and then monstrous.

What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism. Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective.

– Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself.

– Obeisance is the way forward. [Respect and honor the process. Don’t beg the outcome. Obey the proven tenets. Don’t forge precedents.]

– Those who have subdued their ego understand that it doesn’t degrade you when others treat you poorly; it degrades them.

– The idea that a task is relatively straightforward, that you just needed to get started, feels increasingly trivial as the ego keeps thinking so much about doing it easily and perfectly.

– We stay stuck inside our heads instead of participating in the world around us. That’s ego, baby. What successful people do is curb such flights of fancy. They ignore the temptations that might make them feel important or skew their perspective.

– [Personal note]: Being in your own head, constantly thinking in lieu of doing, crafting thorough analyses and personal judgments instead of attending outward and taking action, is ego. This ‘constantly thinking in lieu of doing’ is the enemy.

– To be both a craftsman and an artist. To cultivate a product of labor and industry instead of just a product of the mind: It’s here where abstraction meets the road and the real, where we trade thinking and talking for working. “You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do,” was how Henry Ford put it.

– You can lie to yourself, saying that you put in the time, or pretend that you’re working, but eventually someone will show up. You’ll be tested. And quite possibly, found out.

Don’t bank on “Fake it to make it.” Instead, “Make it so you don’t have to fake it” — that’s the key.

– Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this. I am passing the marshmallow test. I am earning what my ambition burns for. I am making an investment in myself instead of in my ego…

Give yourself a little credit for this choice, but not so much, because you’ve got to get back to the task at hand: practicing, working, improving.

Because no one ever said, reflecting on the whole of someone’s life, “Man, that monstrous ego sure was worth it.”

– Cover up hard truths with sheer force of personality and drive and passion. Or, we can face our shortcomings honestly and put the time in. We can let this humble us, see clearly where we are talented and where we need to improve, and then put in the work to bridge that gap. And we can set upon positive habits that will last a lifetime.

We must understand that we are a small part of an interconnected universe. On top of all this, we have to build an organization and a system around what we do— one that is about the work and not about us.

– Can you handle success? Or will it be the worst thing that ever happened to you?

– Whether you built your empire from nothing or inherited it, whether your wealth is financial or merely a cultivated talent, entropy is seeking to destroy it as you read this. ([Social] Entropy: “the doctrine of inevitable social decline or degeneration”)

– As we first succeed, we will find ourselves in new situations, facing new problems. The freshly promoted soldier must learn the art of politics. The salesman, how to manage. The founder, how to delegate. The writer, how to edit others. The comedian, how to act. The chef turned restaurateur, how to run the other side of the house.

– “As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” – physicist John Wheeler

It takes a special kind of humility to grasp that you know less, even as you know and grasp more and more. It’s remembering Socrates’ wisdom lay in the fact that he knew that he knew next to nothing.

– That’s the worry and the risk— thinking that we’re set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process.

– “Do you know how you can tell when someone is truly humble? I believe there’s one simple test: because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve. They don’t assume, ‘I know the way.” – Wynton Marsalis

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.

Once you win, everyone is gunning for you. It’s during your moment at the top that you can afford ego the least— because the stakes are so much higher, the margins for error are so much smaller. If anything, your ability to listen, to hear feedback, to improve and grow matter more now than ever before.

– When we achieve our own success, we must resist the desire to pretend that everything unfolded exactly as we’d planned.

Instead of pretending that we are living some great story, we must remain focused on the execution— and on executing with excellence. We must shun the false crown and continue working on what got us here. Because that’s the only thing that will keep us here.

– All of our egos 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.

– 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. It doesn’t matter how well you’re doing; your ego and their accomplishments make you feel like nothing.

– Ego says that sure, even though you’re just starting to get the hang of one thing, why not jump right in the middle of another? Eventually, you say yes to too much, to something too far beyond the pale.

One cannot be an opera singer and a teen pop idol at the same time. Life requires those trade-offs, but ego can’t allow it.

– The more you have and do, the harder maintaining fidelity to your purpose will be, but the more critically you will need to.

Find out why you’re after what you’re after.

One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. – Bertrand Russell

– The demands and dream you had for a better life? The ambition that fueled your effort? These begin as earnest drives but left unchecked become hubris and entitlement. The same goes for the instinct to take charge; now you’re addicted to control. Driven to prove the doubters wrong? Welcome to the seeds of paranoia.

“If you do not cure yourself of this temper,” [Ben] 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.

– “He who indulges empty fears earns himself real fears,” wrote Seneca, who as a political adviser witnessed destructive paranoia at the highest levels.

– Eisenhower 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.

Micromanagers are egotists who can’t manage others and they quickly get overloaded. So do the charismatic visionaries who lose interest when it’s time to execute. Worse yet are those who surround themselves with yes-men or sycophants who clean up their messes and create a bubble in which they can’t even see how disconnected from reality they are.

Responsibility requires a readjustment and then increased clarity and purpose.

– Let’s make one thing clear: we never earn the right to be greedy or to pursue our interests at the expense of everyone else. To think otherwise is not only egotistical, it’s counterproductive.

– Sobriety is the counterweight that must balance out success. Especially if things keep getting better and better.

– Here you are at the pinnacle. What have you found? Just how tough and tricky it is to manage. You thought it would get easier when you arrived; instead, it’s even harder— a different animal entirely. What you found is that you must manage yourself in order to maintain your success.

– We know what decisions we must make to avoid that ignominious, even pathetic end: protecting our sobriety, eschewing greed and paranoia, staying humble, retaining our sense of purpose, connecting to the larger world around us.

– Even if we manage ourselves well, prosperity holds no guarantees. The world conspires against us in many ways, and the laws of nature say that everything regresses toward the mean.

– Instead of letting power make us delusional and instead of taking what we have for granted, we’d be better to spend our time preparing for the shifts of fate that inevitably occur in life:  diversity, difficulty, failure.

– Just because you did something once, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it successfully forever. Reversals and regressions are as much a part of the cycle of life as anything else.

The way through, the way to rise again, requires a reorientation and increased self-awareness. We don’t need pity— our own or anyone else’s— we need purpose, poise, and patience.

– Ego loves this notion, the idea that something is “fair” or not. Psychologists call it narcissistic injury when we take personally totally indifferent and objective events. We do that when our sense of self is fragile and dependent on life going our way all the time.

– As Goethe once observed, the great failing is “to see yourself as more than you are and to value yourself at less than your true worth.”

-What matters is that we can respond to what life throws at us. And how we make it through.

– Lacking the ability to examine ourselves, our egos reinvest our energy into exactly the patterns of behavior that caused our problems to begin with.

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. The ignorant ego is oblivious to this.

– The less attached we are to outcomes the better. When fulfilling our own standards is what fills us with pride and self-respect. When the effort— not the results, good or bad— is enough.

– 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. Doing the work is enough.

– The Reverend William A. Sutton observed some 120 years ago that “we cannot be humble except by enduring humiliations.”

– In 12-step groups, almost all the steps are about suppressing the ego and clearing out the entitlements and baggage and wreckage that has been accumulated— so that you might see what’s left when all of that is stripped away and the real you is left.

– Change begins by hearing the criticism and the words of the people around you. Even if those words are mean spirited, angry, or hurtful. It means weighing them, discarding the ones that don’t matter, and reflecting on the ones that do.

“It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character.” – Marcus Aurelius

– Let’s say the walls feel like they’re closing in. It might feel as if you’ve been betrayed or your life’s work is being stolen. These are not rational, good emotions that will lead to rational, good actions. Ego asks: Why is this happening to me? How do I save this and prove to everyone I’m as great as they think?

– Only ego thinks embarrassment or failure are more than what they are. History is full of people who suffered abject humiliations yet recovered to have long and impressive careers.

– When success begins to slip from your fingers— for whatever reason— the response isn’t to grip and claw so hard that you shatter it to pieces. It’s to understand that you must work yourself back to the aspirational phase. You must get back to first principles and best practices.

– The only real failure is abandoning your principles. Killing what you love because you can’t bear to part from it is selfish and stupid. If your reputation can’t absorb a few blows, it wasn’t worth anything in the first place.

You’re not as good as you think. You don’t have it all figured out. Stay focused. Do better.

Your potential, the absolute best you’re capable of— that’s the metric to measure yourself against.

The “indifferent spectator” is a sort of guide with which we can judge our behavior, as opposed to the groundless applause that society so often gives out.

– “And why should we feel anger at the world? As if the world would notice!” – Euripedes

The paradox of hate and bitterness: It accomplishes almost exactly the opposite of what we hope it does. … Attempting to destroy something out of hate or ego often ensures that it will be preserved and disseminated forever.

– If we’re not careful, we can end up wasting an incredible amount of time trying to keep the world from displeasing or disrespecting us.

– Where has hatred and rage ever really gotten anyone? Especially because almost universally, the traits or behaviors that have pissed us off in other people— their dishonesty, their selfishness, their laziness— are hardly going to work out well for them in the end. Their ego and shortsightedness contains its own punishment.

– Whatever is next for us, we can be sure of one thing we’ll want to avoid. Ego. It makes all the steps hard, but failure is the one it will make permanent. Unless we learn, right here and right now, from our mistakes.

– All great men and women went through difficulties to get to where they are, all of them made mistakes. They found within those experiences some benefit— even if it was simply the realization that they were not infallible and that things would not always go their way.

It is no easy task to go head-to-head with one’s ego. To accept first that ego may be there. Then to subject it to scrutiny and criticism. Most of us can’t handle uncomfortable self-examination. But it is imperative.

– Every day for the rest of your life you will find yourself at one of three phases: aspiration, success, failure. You will battle the ego in each of them. What is left? Your choices.