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Ego is the Enemy builds upon ancient theories of Stoic philosophy. In doing so, it argues our most profound problems do not stem from our external environment but from our attitude towards life. Ryan Holiday takes this point further by arguing that challenging our ego is more important now than it has ever been. Social media and our culture fan the flames of our egos, reaffirming the idea that if we have a dream, our success is guaranteed. Therefore, Holiday argues our ego ultimately prevents us from being the best we can be: rational and free from bias. Ryan Holiday outlines the best approaches to challenging our ego to better ourselves, coupled with examples that provide a clear context.
Ryan Holiday’s Perspective
Ryan Holiday is an American marketer and author. Ryan dropped out of college at the age of 19 to apprentice under Robert Greene, the author of The 48 Laws of Power. Subsequently, Ryan became the marketing director for American apparel and found his own creative agency called Brass Check. Brass Check has been an advisor to companies, like Google, and authors, like Neil Strauss, Tony Robbins, and Tim Ferriss. In addition to this, Ryan is a media columnist and editor-at-large for the New York Observer. Ryan is the author of 10 books. Stillness is the Key has now sold over two million copies.
Ego Is Recognition Without Work
Ryan Holiday describes the ego as a desire to receive recognition without doing the work required for this recognition. Recognition is generally related to success. However, some people attempt to obtain this recognition before they have achieved success.
Ryan Holiday offers an example of an egoist. Ulysses S. Grant is a former US president. Before his presidency, he was a well-known general who had obtained significant success. However, Grant had no experience in the political sphere. Therefore, he generalized his army success to the political sphere. This encouraged a desire to win the highest political office. This generalization of success shows that Grant was an egoist. Comparatively, William Sherman was successful but not an egoist. His ambition had a solid foundation of genuine achievements. Sherman was also a general serving in the military and fought alongside Grant. Sherman was also successful, but he was not an egoist. Hence, as the end of Abraham Lincoln’s second term drew near, Grant was determined to push himself into politics. Comparatively, Sherman decided to keep working hard in the field he was successful in. This was military leadership.
There’s Always More to Learn
Our ego is fed by the belief that we know everything. The reality is that there’s always more to learn. Therefore, you can prevent your ego from taking over by reminding yourself of this fact. There’s always somebody better than you. Ryan Holiday offers the example of Kirk Hammett. Hammett was a talented guitarist in the 80s, and in 1980 he was asked by Metallica to join their band. This was a fantastic opportunity, as he could have become a member of one of the most famous rock bands of all time. However, Hammett knew he had more to learn. He rejected their offer and became a student of a guitar genius, Joe Satriani. This period of growth helped Hammett become a significantly better musician. Three years later, he took up Metallica’s offer and obtained the recognition he deserved for his hard work. He now consistently places among the best guitarists of all time.
Teaching other people is another way of keeping your ego in check. For example, martial-arts expert, Frank Shamrock, believes that training beginners is crucial for maintaining a humble mindset. Training beginners helps you appreciate the full spectrum of skill levels and reminds you of your hard work to reach your current skill level.
Aspiration Without Action Is Nothing
Ryan Holiday recommends you stop talking and start doing. You need to stop telling people that you are going to do something good. This expression of your aspiration is purely used to obtain admiration and feed your ego. Those who are successful throughout history are those who delay gratification. These individuals receive gratification when they have done something right.
Before starting a task, you should always ask yourself: Am I doing this to be somebody or do something? If you are only doing something to be somebody, then you are merely feeding your ego. You are behaving in a way that will provide you with affirmation. The alternative is to want to do something for the action itself. More often than not, this type of action will be making a difference in the world.
Success Relies on Keeping Your Ego in Check
Success can lead to your ego taking over. However, your future success is also dependent on your ability to keep your ego in check. It is easy to start believing you are the greatest when you achieve a degree of success. Subsequently, you may stop challenging your ego. However, countless examples of highly successful leaders faltered as their ego got the best of them. This faltering is associated with believing you no longer have to do the fundamentals of success. Therefore, to prevent this from happening, try to reconnect with the world. Take a walk in nature or gaze into the night sky. Experience the infinite so you can better connect with the world. Each time you feel detached from the fundamentals, attempt to reconnect with the basics of life again.
Failure Is Part of Life
Nobody is successful forever. There are two constants in life: change and transformation. You can let your ego get the better of you and allow failure to break you. Or, you can utilize failure as a learning opportunity and a springboard towards obtaining tremendous success in the future. Ryan Holiday breaks failure down into alive time and dead time. Dead time is characterized by feeling sorry for yourself and blaming others and the surrounding environment. During dead time, some even claim that they are hopeless. This period, as Robert Green points out, is characterized by passivity. Alternatively, alive time involves utilizing this period of failure to learn something, grow further, and become a better person. It is characterized by action and learning.
The 9 Tips for Challenging Your Ego
Tip No. 1: +, – and =
Holiday argues that to frequently challenge your ego, you need to surround yourself with a wide variety of people. You need people who are +s. +s are those who are better than you at the tasks you are most interested in. These people are integral to challenging the idea that you have ‘made it’ or are the best you can be. They will help teach you and help you grow.
Additionally, you also need -s. -s are people who are less skilled than you in the tasks you are interested in. This will help foster humility. You can help teach these people and provide support rather than purely focusing on personal success.
Finally, you need =s, who are your equal in a particular task. These people will help you grow as they will challenge you and push you to provide your best effort. Effort is the most important thing in life. Not the success or failures associated with your efforts.
Tip No. 2: Don’t Be Passionate, Be Purposeful
Holiday uses the example of John Wood, basketball coach for the all-time leading scorer in NBA history: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar described his highly successful coach as actively dispassionate. This characteristic is opposed to the frequently revered stereotype of coaches being overly passionate individuals. Instead, John Wood argued that passion and emotions get in the way of the job at hand. We must simply do our job to the best of our ability and not be a slave to passion. Passion distracts us from all the work that needs to be done to acquire the successes associated with passionate, inspirational ideas or speeches.
Based on this premise, Holiday argues that we must challenge the idea of passion and instead focus on purpose. Purpose removes the ego from our aspirations, as it focuses on something bigger than ourselves. It pushes you to ask more questions on how you can reach an end goal. This is rather than dreaming about the success of the end goal. Make your life about what you must do and say instead of what you care about and what you wish to be.
Tip No. 3: Try to Become a Student and Stay a Student
Being a student in life is fundamental to challenging your ego. It means you are actively accepting that another individual knows more about or is more skilled in a specific domain than you. Through this process of always seeking out opportunities to be a student, you are challenging the idea you are all-knowing in any domain. This will help you learn more and ground yourself in your current understanding and the actions required to reach the next goal.
Tip No. 4: Get Out of Your Own Mind
Plato historically argued that we, as humans, feast on our own thoughts. We fester with thoughts of who we are going to be and what we are going to do when we are successful. These thoughts distract us from the tasks at hand, which are the actions required to make this success a reality. Do not live in a passionate fiction, but an actionable reality.
Tip No. 5: Swallow Your Pride
Pride is one of the most dangerous features of our ego. Pride helps make minor failures seem monumental and small successes huge accomplishments. The issue with the exaggeration associated with pride is that it does not help us strive towards greater success. In our eyes, we have already achieved success, irrespective of reality. All the positive attributes required for success are dulled by pride: our ability to form relationships, learn, and adapt. A humble person is always improving; a prideful person is not.
Tip No. 6: Find the Perfect Balance
Aristotle described virtue and excellence as points on a spectrum. The center of this spectrum is optimum. Holiday builds on this point by arguing that we, as individuals, need to find the perfect balance. Moving towards the extremes will only provide risks. Holiday also points out that moving towards the extremes can be easy. It is easy to be complacent, and it is easy to merely focus on ourselves and not the bigger picture. We need to find the perfect balance. This perfect balance involves efficiently improving ourselves and the world.
Tip No. 7: Detach yourself from the outcome
For this tip, Holiday uses the example of John Kennedy Toole. An author whose book was universally rejected, Toole subsequently committed suicide. Following his death, his mother continued to publicize his book. Toole’s book, posthumously, won the Pulitzer Prize. This is an example of how we must detach ourselves from the outcome of our efforts. As stated earlier, all we have the right to is our efforts, not the fruits of our efforts.
Tip No. 8: Katabasis – We Need to Fall to Learn
In Ego is the Enemy, Holiday utilizes the Greek word katabasis. Katabasis directly translates as ‘going down.’ Katabasis relates to the frequent instances of characters falling and reaching distinct lows within Greek mythology. These distinct lows are then followed by the characters emerging with heightened awareness, motivation, and knowledge. Katabasis forces you to face your reality and grow as an individual. So, try to use your low points as a time to learn.
Tip No. 9: Maintain Your Own Scorecard
Focus on your own internal barometer. This internal barometer is your own measure of success. Put your utmost effort into becoming the best person you can be, rather than attempting to meet the expectations of the outside world. A person who focuses on this internal motivation won’t crave the spotlight as much as somebody who lets the spotlight dictate their own success.
Most of Our Success Is Not Our Own
One common error is the belief that success is solely attributable to ourselves. More often than not, our success is equally attributable to other people. Understanding and accepting the importance of others will keep your ego in check. Ryan Holiday offers the example of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant to explain this point. Both were world-class players for the LA Lakers. They won three consecutive NBA championships, but they let their individual success go to their heads. They both started complaining about the other player in the media. Subsequently, Bryant refused to re-sign for the Lakers unless O’Neal was traded to another team. The Lakers agreed to trade O’Neal, but the result was that they didn’t win another championship for seven years. Ryan Holiday believes that showing humility will always have a positive outcome.
We rate this book 4.4/5.
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