Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy helped me to better understand and recognize moments when I was allowing my ego to drive my behaviors and decision making. So much of our desires and motivations we hide from ourselves in an attempt to make ourselves feel better about who we are and what we do. We pursue things that give us rewards and social recognition, but we tell ourselves that is not why we are doing such things. One area where this is obvious is in our social media habits.
Regarding social media and ego, Holiday writes,
“Blank spaces, begging to be filled in with thoughts, with photos, with stories. With what we’re going to do, with what things should or could be like, what we hope will happen. Technology, asking you, prodding you, soliciting talk.
Almost Universally, the kind of performance we give on social media is positive. It’s more “let me tell you how well things are going. Look how great I am.” Its rarely the truth: “I’m scared. I’m struggling. I don’t know.”
We tell ourselves that we use social media to keep up with friends and family. To know what loved ones and close acquaintances are up to. And we post to let them know what is going on in our lives and to share fun and interesting details about what we are up to.
But what Holiday has recognized and addresses in the passage above (something we all have seen and know in our hearts), is that we are really just posting on social media to look good and to get rewards from people liking our posts and telling us that we are doing something impressive or good. People often refer to Facebook as Bragbook and are good at catching other people behaving in an attention seeking way on social media, but are not always good at recognizing this in themselves. It is helpful to recognize exactly how we are using social media and to try to adjust our behavior in a more honest way. Rather than asking ourselves what will get the most positive social recognition we can at least ask if what we are posting is truly for us and to keep our friends in the loop with something we want people to know about, or if we are simply trying to seek sympathy, congratulations, or to incite envy in other people. Everything we post is a signal of one sort or another, and everything we do on social media is to some degree a performance. We have the choice of making that performance an ego boosting yet hollow ostentatious display, or a more honest and real snapshot of our lives.
The key to learning, growing, and becoming successful is iterative action. We will never achieve our dreams by going out and taking one massive step to reach our goals instantaneously. Success, and the pathway to success, is defined by the everyday actions we take that build into habits and bend our path toward the outcomes we want. This advice comes from Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy.
Our ego, Holiday explains, wants us to be successful right now and wants us to swiftly achieve success so that we can brag and show off to others. We want to demonstrate how easy it is for us to be great and we want other to see that we didn’t even break a sweat in the process. Maybe, like a typical movie, we want to put in a short hard work stretch with some inspirational music attached, but we only want that hard work phase to last for a minute or two and include awesome power-shots of us doing those rope swinging arm exercises at the gym while our favorite high tempo song blasts in the background. This is what our ego sees and imagines for our path to success.
Reaching for success without ego looks differently. It involves self-awareness and a commitment to the daily grind, even when those around us can’t see how hard we are working. Holiday describes it this way early in his book, “We will learn that though we think big we must act and live small in order to accomplish what wee 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.”
We can still have great visions, but we must understand that great accomplishments and success do not come in the form of a lottery. Our goals won’t be achieved in a single windfall. Instead, we reach our goals slowly by preparing ourselves to be the type of people who can become successful through hard work, focus, good habits, and meaningful actions. The grind and the daily small steps can be exhausting, unrewarding individually, and so small that no one recognizes them, but they build a life of purpose and give us something to look back on at the end of the day and feel proud of. Through all these steps and the changes they make to our lives and who we are, we will reach success and feel fulfilled with what we achieve.
In his book The Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday writes the following, “You must practice seeing yourself with a little distance, cultivating the ability to get out of your own head. Detachment is a sort of natural ego antidote. It’s easy to be emotionally invested and infatuated with your own work. Any and every narcissist can do that. What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.”
In this quote, Holiday is encouraging us to focus on our work and goals in a way that is not flashy and that does not seek praise. He is encouraging us to practice the skill of doing good and meaningful work, even if we are not immediately recognized for what we do. Often, the important work that must be done isn’t sexy and isn’t visible to the people we want to impress. We won’t always be immediately rewarded with a trophy or a bonus for the work that needs to be done, but if we are the one to put in the extra effort and effectively and efficiently do a good job, we can find our way to success.
The flip side, and what Holiday is urging us to avoid, is doing work only when people are watching. He encourages us to recognize and work against the expectation that we will be noticed and recognized for our work, because the public recognition is not the most important piece of what we do. If we only put forward hard work and extra effort when we know our effort will be visible and publicly rewarded, then our effort in is not actually about the work, but instead about the praise and status that comes looking impressive. We may like the praise and incentives do matter for human beings, but if we are trying to approach the world rationally and make a difference, then we should recognize that this approach to life and work likely won’t guide us toward making the biggest impact possible.
When I was a child, one of the chores I always hated was vacuuming. When I would actually do what my parents had told me and vacuum, I intentionally leave the vacuum out because I knew that my mother would then have to acknowledge that I had vacuumed. I would be sure to get a “thank you for vacuuming, now can you please put the vacuum away?” but if I did my work completely and put the machine back in the closet when I finished, I risked getting no notice from my mother for having completed my chore. This is the childish mindset that Holiday is encouraging us to get away from when it comes to doing important work in our life. We should strive to be successful in life because it will mean that we are making a difference in the world or can obtain further resources to allow us to do more through charity and meaningful good deeds. What we should avoid is working hard to try to improve our status and to have more ego inflating fun trips and toys to try to set us apart from others. Focusing on the first goal will ultimately take us further and lead to better quality work and engagement with the world than the second ego inflating goal. Only performing and doing our best work when we can be praised for it will lead us to situations where we fail to cultivate habits of hard work and focus, and will drive us to positions where we are not working for ourselves and for the good of humanity, but for our ego and to make showy purchases to impress other people that we likely don’t even care much about.
Self-awareness is something I have been trying to practice for several years and recently I have been thinking about it a little differently as I have recognized just how hard it is to be aware of ones actions, desires, and honest thoughts. Our lives are so busy that it is hard to look objectively at who we are and where were are. It is hard to honestly ask yourself what you are doing and working toward, what is really motivating you, and what you are afraid of. But this is a key skill to learn and something that is worth constantly thinking about.
In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday returns to the idea of self-awareness as a tool to help overcome arrogance. We become overconfident in ourselves and our abilities when we lack self-awareness and do not talk honestly about our strengths and the areas that we still need to develop. It is easy and more comforting to think of ourselves as being incredibly awesome and possessing great skills and work ethic that everyone else should recognize. I frequently find myself wanting to fall into this type of thinking and often tell myself I am the best even thought I truly have not been active enough in my life to develop skills and practice some of the work that is necessary to succeed in the areas where I want my life to move. But I know, if I truly want to grow and make a valuable impact in the world, then I will need to stop telling myself how awesome I am, and instead take steps to engage with the world and apply my skills to develop new talents. Without self-awareness, the application of talents and the development of new skills is not truly possible.
In his book, Holiday writes, “One might say that the ability to evaluate one’s own ability is the most important skill of all. Without it, improvement is impossible.” If we don’t practice self-awareness and make a habit of evaluating our skills and abilities without embellishment, we risk putting ourselves in places where we cannot be successful and we are less likely to pull in the people we need to help us learn, grow, and reach our goals collectively. This might not be a big deal when we are just trying to run a 5k race or crush that new personal record in the weight room, but if we are trying to help our company make smart business decisions, land a big sale, or complete a report that is going to shed insight into the operating inefficiencies of an agency, we must pull in the right people and put our ego aside as we honestly evaluate our strengths and recognize the areas where we still need to grow or the areas where we can learn from those who have skills we would like to emulate. Overconfidence will doom our work and harm the larger organizations in which we operate, whereas self-awareness will help us be more effective and make a larger impact on the world with the help of those around us.
Ryan Holiday encourages his readers to be confident in who they are, but to build their confidence through real work and effort and to base their belief in themselves on real achievement. His book Ego is the Enemy is a look at how our egos can ruin our lives and put us in situations where we cannot be successful unless we are honest with ourselves about our abilities. He quotes a biographer of a little known Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman, to help us see what honest and sincere self-confidence looks like. The full passage that he quotes is:
“Among men who rise to fame and leadership two types are recognizable – those who are born with a belief in themselves and those in whom it is a slow growth dependent on actual achievement. To the men of the last type their own success is a constant surprise, and its fruits the more delicious, yet to be tested cautiously with a haunting sense of doubt whether it is not all a dream. In that doubt lies true modesty, not the shame of insincere self-deprecation but the modest of “moderation,” in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose.”
When we believe in ourselves despite having no reason to believe that we can accomplish what we desire, we risk pursuing a goal without being honest about ourselves, our position, our advantages, and our limitations. We put ourselves in a position where we believe we understand more than we truly do and where we believe that we know more about the world than we do. This may help us bulldoze our way to success, but it may also cause us to be brash around colleagues and friends who may be better suited than us for achieving goals to make a true difference in the world. Ultimately, this form of ego reduction requires that we also shift the traditional view of success. If our success is not tied to our own income and to being better than other people, then we can see success as helping improve some aspect of the world, and we can then improve the way we learn from others and achieve success by helping others make a difference. Modesty and a healthy appreciation for ones abilities can aid us in our growth by allowing us to be comfortable in a position where we make a big difference, even if we are not in the spotlight. While keeping us grounded on our true abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, humility helps us grow and learn and so that we can develop the skills necessary to accomplish things that matter most.
William Tecumseh Sherman was a brilliant general for the Union Army during the American Civil war. If you have never heard of him, its likely because he made an effort not to be the center of attention or be famous. Grant is the famous Civil War general that we all remember and know at the very least from the 50 dollar bill, but General Sherman was an important figure and someone who was well respected at the end of the war. In Ryan Holiday’s book, The Ego is the Enemy, the two generals are compared as an example of how ego can drive the decisions we make.
Holiday contrasts both Sherman and Grant who were well regarded after the war and who both had opportunities to channel their success into personal gain, impressive higher offices, and ego building fame. That rout was chosen by Grant, but not by Sherman. Holiday explains that in the end, Grant faced debt, declining popularity later in his life, and challenges as the fame and praise fell away. Sherman, on the other hand, preferred to stay out of the spotlight and chose to put his country before himself. In a letter to Grant quoted in Holiday’s book Sherman wrote, “Be natural and yourself and this glittering flattery will be as the passing breeze of the sea on a warm summer day.”
Holiday describes Sherman as someone focused on doing their job well, not focused on doing their job in a way that intended to gain fame and popularity. Rather than trying to impress other people, Sherman looked for opportunities to perform at his best and allow the results to speak for themselves. During the civil war this meant saving the lives of thousands of soldiers by choosing paths that would not lead to great ego boosting battle opportunities and would instead lead to more strategic victories to help the Union Army. His story is helpful for us because we often spend time seeking out the visible opportunities that will make us look the best rather than the meaningful opportunities that will help us grow, develop skills, and do great work outside of the spotlight. Living in the spotlight can be nice, but it creates a lot of pressure and can put us in situations that are not the best for where we are at mentally, skillfully, and in terms of preparedness. Ultimately, focusing on doing our job well and helping make a difference in the world is what will bring us fulfillment whereas chasing popularity will bring us stress and en ever moving finish line.
In Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday includes a quote from a teacher in Athens named Isocrates around 374 B.C. who wrote a letter to a young man who had recently lost his father. Holiday includes several lines and pieces of advice from Isocrates, and one that stood out to me when reading Holiday’s book is the following, “Be slow in deliberation, but be prompt to carry out your resolves.”
Yesterday evening I attended a community group with my wife, and the ice breaker to start off was, “what is something you don’t often approach with an eternal perspective that you should.” I chose a light answer of traffic and other drivers who annoy us while driving, but others said things like career choices, money decisions, and other important decisions that can weigh us down and make our lives stressful. The quote from Isocrates reminds me of the ice breaker from last night in the sense that we should be more thoughtful yet deliberate in our actions. Thinking with an eternal perspective means to think about the meaning and value of a choice or decision today relative to the entire arc of humanity. It requires introspection, being honest about your choices, and trying to think not just about yourself but about those around you who will also be impacted by your decision. This is exactly what Isocrates was encouraging for the young man in his letter.
The advice from Isocrates contained another element beyond careful and honest consideration of our choices. To be prompt in carrying out our resolves requires that we be firm in the decisions we make and deliberate in our actions to realize our decisions. I have seen in myself a thousand instances where I have made a decision to follow a course of action, only to be slow in starting on the path I decided would travel. Inevitably, the longer I delay action and the slower I am to take the steps that I decided I would take, the more likely it is that my decision is forgotten and that I do nothing. Whether it is cleaning my garage, starting a new club to read academic journal articles, or double checking our finances to set up a surprise date night with my wife, I am often slow to do what I told myself I wanted to do, and frequently I don’t carry out the great plans in my head. The advice from Isocrates is very practical for our daily lives. Slow down our judgement and reactionary tendencies, but once a decision has been made, put full and deliberate efforts forward to bring those decisions to life.