"Ego is the enemy", by Ryan Holiday

 

This is Ryan Holiday’s “Ego is the enemy” in bullet-point form.

These are the ideas I found interesting from the book, without the excellent stories used to back them. For those, you’ll have to buy the book. I changed some of the excerpts from 2nd person to 1st person, so they resonate more. I kept the same table of contents as in the book, except I changed some of the chapter titles.

It’s in everyone’s head.
And they trust him,
Because they think they are him.

It’s beautiful man…
You have to admire the opponent’s elegance.

(Revolver, 2005)

Intro

  • A prescription: humility.
  • Return to the humility and work-ethic it took me to get here.
  • I might not ever be straight, but I can strive for straighter.
  • Think less of myself.
    • Be less invested in the story I tell myself (or others) about my own specialness.
    • Then, be liberated to do what I want to do.
  • Definition (Ego):
    • An excessive focus on glorious outcomes instead of the sweat-ridden work.
    • Being dangerously focused on myself:
      • How do I look?
      • How much money will I make?
      • How high do I stack up in the “intellectual hierarchy?”
    • An unhealthy belief in my own importance.
    • Arrogance.
    • Self-centered ambition.
    • Need to be “better than”, “more than”, “recognized for,” beyond any reasonable utility.
    • Sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.
    • “I am God’s gift to humanity.”

Be humble in your aspirations, gracious in your success and resilient in your failures.

Aspire

Too much talk

  • My weak, egotistical side says “I want to get as much public credit and attention as I can for doing the least possible.”
  • I seem to think being silent is a sign of weakness.
    • That being ignored is tantamount to death (and for the ego this is true).
  • Talk depletes us.
    • Talking and doing fight for the same resources.
    • The only relation between work and chatter is that one kills the other.
  • Goal visualisation is important, but our mind can start to confuse it with actual progress.
  • That feeling that others out there, in public, enjoying the limelight, are somehow getting the better end of the deal.
    • They are not.
    • They’re too busy working to do anything else.

“To do” rather than “to be”

  • Impressing people is utterly different from being impressive.
  • “A man is worked upon by what he works on” said Frederik Douglass, who was a slave and saw the effect slavery had even on the slave owners themselves.
    • e.g., What you choose to do for money works on you.
  • “To be” “to do”.
    • “To do” means your purpose has to be something larger than you (i.e., larger than just “to be”).
      • This could mean to accomplish something, or to prove something to yourself.
  • If you go with “to do”, things are suddenly simpler, but harder.
    • Simpler, because you can easily decide.
      • You know what you need to do, what is important to you.
      • The rest are distractions.
      • Or maybe they’re for recognition (i.e., “to be” rather than “to do”).
      • You do not need to compromise, since you’re always doing what you want and need to be doing.
    • Harder, because you must harshly and strictly judge opportunities.
      • Do they help you do what you set out to do?
      • Are you being selfish (i.e., operating in “to be” mode) or selfless (in “to do” mode)?

Become a student

  • The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice.
    • It prevents us from getting any better.
  • Have a mentor, someone who is clearly better than you, to learn from.
    • Keeps your ego in check.
  • Have an equal, to occasionally test yourself against.
  • Have someone lesser, to teach.

Don’t be passionate

  • Definition (Bad passion):
    • Unbridled enthusiasm.
    • Burning, unquenchable desire to start or to achieve some vague, ambitious and distant goal.
    • Seemingly innocuous motivation.
    • Can tell you in great detail who they intend to become and what their success will be like.
  • We only hear of the passion of successful people.
  • We forget that failures share the same trait.
  • Maybe passion is necessary but not sufficient.
  • Instead, purpose: passion with boundaries.
    • It de-emphasizes the “I.”
    • It’s pursuing something outside of yourself.

The canvas strategy

  • Say little, do much.
  • Be lesser, do more.
  • The canvas strategy: Help yourself by helping others.
  • Working for others keeps your ego in check.

Restrain yourself

  • Put aside your ego and your basic sense of fairness and rights as a human being.
  • It doesn’t degrade you when others treat you poorly. It degrades them.
  • You’re not able to change the system until after you’ve made it.

Get out of your own head

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.

(Alan Watts)

  • Petrified of growing up.
  • Desperately wanting to get away.
  • Addicted to watching movies, preferring an idealized version of life on the screen.
  • Self-obsessed and immature, the world is too much to bear for you, driving you away from human contact.
  • Thinking/fantasizing about doing something (and enjoying the imaginary aftermath) versus actually doing it.
  • This could be the attitude I’ve (involuntarily) cultivated for the past 10 years.
  • If you are not careful, station KFKD (K fucked) will play in your head 24 hours per day:
    • Out of the right speaker:
      • Endless stream of self-aggrandizement,
      • Recitation of one’s specialness,
      • How much more open and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is.
    • Out of the left speaker:
      • Rap songs of self-loathing,
      • List of all things one doesn’t do well,
      • All the mistakes made today and over one’s lifetime,
      • The doubt,
      • The assertions…
        • That everything that one touches turns to shit,
        • That one doesn’t do relationships well,
        • That one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love,
        • That one had no talent or insight.
  • Refuse to keep a diary because it might turn your quiet, reflective time into a sort of performance and self-deception for the sake of your (future) readers.
  • Engage with the world! (Do not fantasize too much about it.)

We flip up our jacket collar and consider briefly how cool we must look.
We’re fearless warriors on our way to the top.
It’s the opening credits montage.
It’s a scene in a novel.
It feels good […] and so we stay stuck inside our heads instead of participating in the world around us.

(Ryan Holiday)

The danger of early pride

Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.

(Cyril Connolly)

Are you going to be a fool?
Are you going to let this money puff you up?
Keep your eyes open.
Don’t lose your balance.

(John D. Rockefeller)

  • Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
  • What things make me feel too good?
  • Don’t boast. There’s nothing in it for you.
    • …except inflating your own ego and later paying for it.

What we cultivate less is how to protect ourselves against the validation and gratification that will quickly come our way if we show promise.
What we don’t protect ourselves against are people and things that make us feel good – or rather, too good.

(Ryan Holiday)

Work, work, work

  • Ignore whatever plaudits others are getting.
  • Ignore whatever plaudits you are getting.
  • Work.

Success

  • Ego weakens the mind that helped you succeed in the first place.

Success is intoxicating.
To sustain it requires sobriety.

(Ryan Holiday)

Don’t tell yourself a story

If the players take care of the details, the score takes care of itself.

(Bill Walsh)

  • Standards of performance (SoPs).
    • Not about control,
    • But about instilling excellence.
    • Seemingly trivial details:
      • Do not sit down on the practice field,
      • Do not browse the web for fun at work,
      • Maximum effort and commitment,
      • 8 hours of work per day minimum,
      • Office and room must be clean.

We want so desperately to believe that those who have great empires set out to build one.
Why?
So we can indulge in the pleasurable planning of ours.

(Ryan Holiday)

  • Don’t be thinking what your achievements say about you, or your failures.
    • Or else, you’ll begin to slack off,
    • And to forget the SoPs that got you there.

Keep your identity small: the more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.

(Paul Graham)

Make it about the work and the principles behind it.
Not about a grand vision that makes a good headline.

(Ryan Holiday)

  • Don’t confuse titles and praise with the real work that got you there.
  • Don’t be thinking that success is now natural because your first big success kind of was.
  • Not everything is possible.
    • Just try doing something and you’ll see.
  • Maybe the lesson you should have extracted here is that whether you succeed (or fail), this does not mean you are special (or worthless).
  • Success is rooted in work.
    • And luck or grace.
    • And God only knows what else.
  • Don’t build a narrative around who you were/are/will be.
  • Focus on the execution.
    • Execution is sacred,
    • And primal.

What’s important to you?

  • You accomplished so much (more than you ever expected to).
    • But it’s not enough for you.
  • You want more, but you can’t decide what’s important for you.
  • You’re never happy with what you have.
    • You want what others have too.
  • Ultimately, at the end of the day, you want more than everyone else.
    • Maybe then you’ll feel satisfied.
    • But most likely, not.
    • What a chore.
    • How tiring.
  • You started knowing what’s important to you:
    • Outdoing your previous self,
    • Contribution to others.
  • Once you achieved it though, you lost sight of your priorities.

An honest man who just couldn’t help himself, who couldn’t manage to focus, and ended up far outside the bounds of his ample genius.

(Ryan Holiday)

  • Fear of missing out (FOMO).
  • We just can’t say “no.”
    • Out of vague attraction, greed or vanity.

All of us 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.

(Ryan Holiday)

  • You keep going down this road of success and you’ll keep meeting others more successful than you.
    • How will you react?
    • Will you feel insignificant?
  • A prescription:
    • Choose a competition,
    • Set standards of performance,
    • Work hard to get closer and closer to your potential,
    • The results will come as a byproduct.
      • Or not regroup!
    • Please don’t choose “I want to be better than, have more than, everyone, everywhere.”
  • Do not look at other people and make their approval your goal, ignoring your true potential and purpose.
  • Definition (Euthymia): A sense of your own path and how to stay on it without getting distracted by all the others that intersect it.
  • Think about what’s important to you and ignore the rest.
    • Why do you do what you do?
    • What are you after?

Beware of the disease of me

  • Who has time to look at a picture of himself? What’s the point?

Meditate on the immensity

When we lack a connection to anything larger or bigger than us, it’s like a piece of our soul is gone.
We just can’t forget which is bigger and which has been here longer.
It’s hard to be self-absorbed and convinced of your own greatness inside the solitude and quiet of a sensory deprivation tank.
It’s hard to be anything but humble walking alone along a beach late at night with an endless black ocean crashing loudly against the ground next to you.

(Ryan Holiday)

  • This is why you like nature: it reminds you of your place and how privileged you are to have it.
    • e.g., sitting in the grass at midnight starring at the Milky Way.
  • Meditation helps repeal the ego.

Failure

Ego adds self-injury to every injury you experience.
A fragile sense of self is constantly under threat.

(Ryan Holiday)

  • When things get difficult, ego betrays you and gets in the way.

[The great failing is] to see yourself as more than you are and to value yourself at less than your true worth.

(Goethe)

  • Be humble and be strong.

The effort is enough

  • Do the right thing (e.g., work) and worry not about what comes to pass.
  • You might face abject failure or pure indifference.
  • That’s what happens when a project leaves your hand and goes in the hands of other people.
  • How foolish to expect them to see things as you do.
  • How foolish to feel insulted or applauded by their reaction.
  • Doing good work is sufficient.
  • The effort is enough.

How do you take pride in yourself and your work?
Change the definition of success.
Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.

(Ryan Holiday)

  • Like Richard Feynman said, “doing the work is the prize.”

How arbitrary (many of) the breaks in life are…

(Ryan Holiday)

  • The world is indifferent to what you want or need.
  • If you persist in your desires, you are setting yourself up for resentment or worse.
  • Doing the work is enough.

Draw the line

  • When you get your identity tied up in your work, you worry that any failure will say something bad about you as a person.
  • It’s almost like you’re afraid of admitting that you failed as a normal fallible person, not as the idealized grandiose personality your ego painted for you.
  • It’s a sunk cost fallacy: I’ve already invested so much in this grandiosity of mine, am I supposed to stop despite all of the evidence around me that I’m not as great as I paint myself to be?
  • We are fallible.
    • It is said so in the bible,
    • And for good reason.

When a team looks like they’re going to lose a game, the coach doesn’t call them over and lie to them. Instead, he or she reminds them who they are and what they’re capable of, and urges them to go back out there and embody that.

Only ego thinks embarrassment or failure are more than what they are.

(Ryan Holiday)

  • Is this going to be a “lose-lose” situation or a “lose… and then win?”
  • Circle of life: aspire and then succeed or fail.
  • Wisdom: success and failure are transitory and not a statement about your value as a human being.

Maintain your own scorecard

  • Always hold yourself to a higher standard than what others might consider “good.”
  • Care little about what other people think and more about if you met your own standards.
  • In the face of success, be careful:
    • Celebrate and accept congratulations,
    • But keep your head down and focus on getting even better.
  • Measure yourself against your potential: the absolute best you are capable of.
    • First of all, are you even meeting your standards of performance?
    • This way you won’t seek the spotlight or other’s applause as much.
    • Make meeting, exceeding and redifining your standards trump all of that.

Always love

Why should we feel anger at the world?
As if the world would notice?

(Euripedes)

  • Take inventory:
    • What do you dislike?
    • Whose name fills you with revulsion and rage?
  • Now ask:
    • Have these strong feelings really helped you accomplish anything?
    • Where has hatred, anger or rage ever gotten anyone?
  • Obsession with the past is ego embodied:
    • You can’t conceive of accepting that someone could hurt you, deliberately or otherwise,
    • So you hate.

It is the small things.
Everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay.
Simple acts of kindness and love.

(Mithrandir)

For everything that comes next, ego is the enemy…

I don’t like work – no man does – but I like what is in the work – the chance to find yourself.

(Joseph Conrad)

  • Keeping your ego at bay is like keeping your house clean: every day you must sweep the floor or else the dust settles and accumulates.
  • Sweep the damn floor every minute of every day.
  • And then again.