This was one book that I didn’t expect to like that much or learn too much from, but it very quickly became one of my favorites and absolutely at the top of my list. Of course, once I started reading it I realized just how entrenched and invisible my ego was…to the point that it was telling me that I didn’t need to read a book about ego by one of my favorite authors. But I pressed on and have not been the same since. Each chapter opens up another vein of advice, examples, and personal revelations, and he even begins and ends the book with his own journey into confronting his ego and the fact that it exists. Just the experience of realizing the persistence of your own ego is a lesson in itself. It is most effective when it is allowed to roam in the background, invisibly pulling the strings in just about every aspect of your life.
One of my favorite parables is the parable of the empty boat: A man is sitting in his boat on a river, enjoying the clear weather and the running water. He turns and sees another boat careening down the river directly towards him. He yells to watch out, that they’ll hit him and capsize both boats and continues yelling obscenities, getting angrier and angrier. The boat finally meets his and both capsize. The man is drenched, swimming for his life, and finally makes it to shore. He stomps towards the boat that hit his, ready to fling his fists at the idiot whose negligence caused the crash. He reaches the boat and stops when he realizes that it was empty all along.
This story reveals to us how entrenched the idea is that the world is out to get us. If anything happens to us we rage, mad at the person or force that caused us pain. But it was gravity, running water, nothing intentional, just the circumstances, and it could have happened to anybody. Whenever I feel that somebody has slighted me I remind myself of this story. The boat had no intention of causing any pain and we can hurt ourselves even more by insisting on this interpretation.
And with that, here are my 10 lessons and favorite quotes from Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday:
- Ego tells us what we want to hear. It is fragile and protective. It is your worst enemy in just about any situation as it can simultaneously stop and reverse your growth, cloud your perceptions, and, well, inflate your ego. I thought myself pretty ego-less before reading this book, but the ego is a sneaky thing.
- Some of the greatest stories and people we can learn from are not the famous stories, and this book is filled with them. Many of the people who made a real difference in the world are left in the background. An important part of doing good work is doing the work, over and over, without talking about it or seeking recognition.
- Become a student in everything and never let it stop, even after success. The ego wants to tell us that we’re done learning early, and then again and again at every juncture of life. But we should instead do the opposite and seek out opportunities to learn more than we think we need to. Learning puts your ego in the hands of somebody else by forcing you to confront the fact that they know more than you. And as you continue learning you continue to understand more and more just how much you don’t know that you don’t know.
- Rise above passion. Passion is fleeting. You must have purpose, direction, and reason. These last, these are strong through tough times, and they are bigger than yourself. When you hit a snag they accept that the issue is within you, while passion finds a flaw in the object and just redirects to a new passion without accepting difficulty. Passion is focused on the ego, but purpose removes yourself from the equation. We also feel a passionate need to go quickly and get things done and make a difference early, but this is need for speed is an internal focus on what the “I” can achieve and comparing it to what others have done.
- Follow the Canvas Strategy: Instead of focusing on how you can achieve success, focus on helping others achieve success. It is less glorious, but do your job as well as you can without desperately seeking recognition at every moment. Everybody starts out doing crap work for somebody else and believes they deserve more recognition and responsibility precisely at the time and age when our egos are running wild. Eventually you will become busy, and others will start clearing the path for you while you are clearing the path for others.
- Beware the Disease of Me. Success and pride cause the ego to tell stories. Stories form untrue narratives about ourselves and lead us to believe that we can do no wrong, that we’ve learned all that we can, and that we are better than others. We become too confident in our vision and are blind to the possibilities outside of it. We confuse what caused our achievements with what our achievements say about us. We never needed recognition or awards before, but now suddenly they are all that matters.
- Connect with what is important to you. Our ego turns to others and compares, longing for the next thing, both not appreciating what we have and grasping for that which we don’t actually want. Decide on what’s actually important for you to achieve, have, and experience, and then forsake the rest.
- Attach yourself not to outcomes, but to standards, and then hold those standards high and mighty. The ego cares only about the outcome, the appearance, the hurt or humiliation or defeat. Katherine Graham (Washington Post) and Bill Walsh (49ers coach) both took actions that appeared to be failures but were actually important steps into a fundamental shift towards a better future. You must evaluate on your own standards, not on what others see or think, or what the immediate results may be. Ego only sees absolute success or failure, not what is actually there.
- Embrace Fight Club moments. These are the moments where you realize how wrong or weak or distracted or complacent you’ve been. They force your ego to confront itself, and they are difficult. Embrace these incredible opportunities to see the truth and make real change.
- Anger is a construct of the ego. How dare they treat me this way. It is an obsession with the past and an obsession that something is out of your control or against you. Hate only hurts yourself and puts the responsibility on others in the belief that you can do no wrong. Love instead.
- “When we remove ego, we’re left with what is real”
- “Ego is stolen. Confidence is earned.”
- “What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.”
- We will learn that 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.”
- “Ego is the enemy – giving us wicked feedback, disconnected from reality. It’s defensive, precisely when we cannot afford to be defensive. It blocks us from improving by telling us that we don’t need to improve.”
- “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.”
- “Greatness comes from humble beginnings; it comes from grunt work. It means you’re the least important person in the room – until you change that with results.”
- “The person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas shapes the painting.”
- “Work is finding yourself alone at the track when the weather kept everyone else indoors. Works is pushing through the pain and crappy first drafts and prototypes. It is ignoring whatever plaudits others are getting, and more importantly, ignoring whatever plaudits you may be getting. Because there is work to be done. Work doesn’t want to be good. It is made so, despite the headwind.”
- “You know a workman by the chips they leave…To judge your progress properly, just take a look at the floor.”
- “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.”
- Paraphrased from Tony Adams: “Play for the name on the front of the jersey and they’ll remember the name on the back.”
- James Basford: “It requires a strong constitution to withstand repeated attacks of prosperity.”
- “A person who judges himself based on his own standards doesn’t crave the spotlight the same way as someone who lets applause dictate success.”
- “Attach yourself to people and organizations who are already successful and subsume your identity into theirs and move both forward simultaneously.”