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Ego is the Enemy

Ben February 28, 2022 251


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I have completed the book, Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday, for the second time.  I’m primarily an audiobook consumer, but I had to take the second read of this one in hardback.  There were too many instances in which I was compelled to re-read, take notes, and highlight for the audio edition on this one.

In the second book in this series, the author looks at ego.  As he puts it, not in the Freudian sense, but ego is defined as “an unhealthy belief in our own importance.  Arrogance.  Self-centered ambition”.  The book is divided into three parts representing the three stages of life in which we will battle ego every day: aspiration, success, and failure.

In the first part, Aspire, four of his main points stuck out to me.  First, we talk too much.  In the book he uses the story of an author talking, blogging, tweeting, and marketing for a book she hadn’t yet written.  This is such a relatable story, as I think we all have had moments when the potential success of the thing we’ve yet to do blinds us into thinking we’ve already achieved success, even though the thing hasn’t been done yet.

“Let the others slap each other on the back while you’re back in the lab or the gym or pounding the pavement.  Plug that hole—that 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.”

He goes on to talk about the importance of becoming a student.  The author uses Kirk Hammett as the example for this chapter, the lead guitarist for the band Metallica.  Hammett, a gifted and sought-after guitarist at the time already, elected to pursue guitar lessons shortly after getting the gig with Metallica.  He didn’t believe that the hard work was over now that he’d ‘made it’, but believed that the hard work began at that moment.  He was humble enough to know that he didn’t know it all, and could always be better.

“Let No Man’s Ghost Come Back to Say My Training Let Me Down.
—SIGN IN THE NEW YORK FIRE DEPARTMENT TRAINING ACADEMY”

The next point that has been impactful in my life since the first read is that passion is often confused with purpose.  Plenty of people have touted the strength of chasing a passion, or the benefits of being passionate about a project.  The author makes a short, bold statement: “Don’t be passionate”.  I don’t believe he’s advocating for an absence of emotion or drive, but more to the point that one should let purpose, truth, and hard work be the primary elements that drive a given goal.  For me, this was particularly poignant, as I can recall many times where I have been passionate about a decision or project, and in the end, I was dead wrong.  I’d bet on the wrong horse.  You can be passionate and wrong – a concept that was a hard pill to swallow but adds tremendous humility to the approach one takes in the future.

“Passion is seen in those who can tell you in great detail who they intend to become and what their success will be like—they might even be able to tell you specifically when they intend to achieve it or describe to you legitimate and sincere worries they have about the burdens of such accomplishments.  They can tell you all the things they’re going to do, or have even begun, but they cannot show you their progress.  Because there rarely is any.”

Rounding out the Aspire part for me, he talks about work.  Just do the work.  Don’t talk about the work you’re going to do.  Don’t fantasize or start making room in the trophy case for the project you haven’t started yet.  Just do the work.  It may be simple, but it is really what this section is all about.

“At the end, this isn’t about deferring pride because you don’t deserve it yet.  It isn’t “Don’t boast about what hasn’t happened yet.” It is more directly “Don’t boast.” There’s nothing in it for you.”

In section two, the author talks about success.  One of the stories told is about Bill Walsh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers.  Joining the team in 1979, he took the team to a Super Bowl victory just three years later, the quickest turnaround in NFL history.  A success story like that is often accompanied by bravado, boasting, and “I knew it”, but this one is different.  Walsh had employed a “standard of performance” that was his focus, even above winning games.  This standard was focused on the details of how the players and staff interacted with one another, how the game was unfolded, how practice was conducted, dress code, and standards of personal conduct.  This recipe is what made the team better, and is what Coach Walsh knew would lead them to a Super Bowl victory.  The excellence-focused mindset the coach instilled in his team was all they needed.  “The score takes care of itself”.

In stark contrast to the humble, hard-work-driven success of the 49ers is a story about the Persian Emperor Xerxes.  The author tells of his delusional, egomaniacal actions such as ordering lashes be given to a river because it dares stand in his way, or writing a strongly worded letter to a mountain warning it to not cause trouble during the building of a canal or he would topple it into the sea.  Imagine being so focused on yourself and the idea that you are so important that you would chastise inanimate objects simply for existing.

“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.”

In the final section of the book, the author covers the toughest blow to the ego – Failure.

“Here we are experiencing the trials endemic to any journey.  Perhaps we’ve failed, perhaps our goal turned out to be harder to achieve than anticipated.  No one is permanently successful, and not everyone finds success on the first attempt.  We all deal with setbacks along the way.  Ego not only leaves us unprepared for these circumstances, it often contributed to their occurrence in the first place.”

Fairness is a concept that until you figure it out, it’s always painful.  The author discusses Alive-time versus Dead-time.  He uses the story of a young Malcolm X sentenced to ten years for crimes early in life.  Luckily for him, Malcolm chose to spend his time in prison as Alive-time where he took the negative experience and converted it into an opportunity.  He learned to read, then studied religion and other influential documents that helped shape who he eventually became.  He could have chosen to lean into the “that’s not fair” mentality, do nothing productive with his time, and ultimately end up no better on the other end.  That is Dead-time.

“Aspiration leads to success (and adversity).  Success creates its own adversity (and, hopefully, new ambitions).  And adversity leads to aspiration and more success.  It’s an endless loop.”

Near the end of the third section, Holiday makes a very astute point – Maintain your own scorecard.  In this, he is encouraging the reader to not worry about the success or failure points others may put on the board for us, it is only against our own standards that we should measure.  To make this point, he recalls the story of the New England Patriots drafting Tom Brady at the 199th pick in the 6th round, and what divine luck they had that some other team didn’t select him first given his years of success with the franchise.  Conversely, the Patriots Director of Personnel kept a photo of Dave Stachelski, an earlier draft pick that never made it through training camp, on his desk to serve as a daily reminder that you’re never as good as you think.  Toeing the line between these dichotomies helped the team humbly recognize success but never let it go to their head, and always kept them focused on getting better.

“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. People can be assholes and win. Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.”

I have found incredible value in the lessons captured in Ego is the Enemy.  I appreciate that the author followed his own advice and didn’t fill the book with stories about himself and his trials, but used classic literature, public figures, and relatable stories to illustrate the lessons.  I encourage you to pick up a copy and read it, and wish you nothing but success and failure on your road to keeping at bay the ego inside.

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