Who should read this: Everyone. Particularly if you’ve achieved some success recently, this little book will bring you down to earth.
Ryan Holiday is a prolific writer, apprentice of Robert Greene (who wrote 48 Laws of Power), and was at one point head of marketing for American Apparel before they went bust.
He’s certainly “been there, done that” when it comes to dealing with big egos, working in cut-throat industries (fashion, media), and has had to deal with his own fame/success. Rather than continue on the road of inflated ego and self-imposed destruction, he chose the path of greater self-reflection and adhering to a new set of sound values.
Ego is the Enemy is packed full of historical anecdotes, Stoic philosophy and life lessons that make it a refreshingly humble read. In fact, I felt that there was a new story that I hadn’t heard of on almost every page (Ryan reads a lot and talks frequently about his use of a commonplace book, a compilation of notes of books he’s read over the years). Each story is followed by a connection to the modern day and how we can apply the story to our own lives.
What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness
A key lesson is that it’s common to be self-destructive and successful in a greedy way, but it’s much harder to be self-aware of our own actions and the impact it has on those around us. The main culprit, of course, is our ego. Our desire to win, our desire for fame, status, and power.
From Persian King Xerxes to Steve Jobs, there are plenty of examples that illustrate the dangers of ego run amuck; in some cases the protagonists emerge victorious after realizing their wrongdoings, in other situations they dig their own grave.
Big takeaways from the book:
Fostering a mindset for continuous learning
A true student is like a sponge. Absorbing what goes on around him, filtering it, latching on to what he can hold. A student is self-critical and self-motivated, always trying to improve his understanding so that he can move on to the next topic, the next challenge. A real student is also his own teacher and his own critic. There is no room for ego there.
The dangers of pursuing something with “passion”
Here’s what those same people haven’t told you: your passion may be the very thing holding you back from power or influence or accomplishment. Because just as often, we fail with—no, because of—passion.
As a genteel, accomplished, and patient woman born while the embers of the quiet Victorian virtues were still warm, Roosevelt was above passion. She had purpose. She had direction. She wasn’t driven by passion, but by reason.
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 comical and then monstrous.
On the benefits of doing more and talking less:
There is an old saying, “Say little, do much.” What we really ought to do is update and apply a version of that to our early approach. Be lesser, do more. Imagine if for every person you met, you thought of some way to help them, something you could do for them? And you looked at it in a way that entirely benefited them and not you. The cumulative effect this would have over time would be profound: You’d learn a great deal by solving diverse problems.
Be cautious of imaginary narratives
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has talked about this temptation. He reminds himself that there was “no aha moment” for his billion-dollar behemoth, no matter what he might read in his own press clippings. The founding of a company, making money in the market, or the formation of an idea is messy. Reducing it to a narrative retroactively creates a clarity that never was and never will be there.
Dead time vs alive time
According to Greene, there are two types of time in our lives: dead time, when people are passive and waiting, and alive time, when people are learning and acting and utilizing every second. Every moment of failure, every moment or situation that we did not deliberately choose or control, presents this choice: Alive time. Dead time. Which will it be?
Training our minds and taming our egos = sweeping the floor, day in, day out
Daniele Bolelli once gave me a helpful metaphor. He explained that training was like sweeping the floor. Just because we’ve done it once, doesn’t mean the floor is clean forever. Every day the dust comes back. Every day we must sweep. The same is true for ego. You would be stunned at what kind of damage dust and dirt can do over time. And how quickly it accumulates and becomes utterly unmanageable.