How do we do something great? What do we need to do in order to achieve a high level success that everyone agrees to be truly outstanding? I don’t necessarily ask myself these direct questions, but every day of my life I feel as though I am asking and trying to answer these questions. When it comes to being great, Ryan Holiday has an idea of where greatness gets it start in his book Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes, “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.”
As I write this, the NCAA Championship is getting right down to the wire. The final four games were just played, and tomorrow is the national championship game. One of the coaches is in only his third season as the head coach of one of the teams, and he seems to have appeared out of nowhere to become incredibly successful. These flashes of greatness and sudden success are what I feel we are all looking for. We want to have success drop into our laps and we want to jump into something and be instantly great and successful. But the sudden success of the Texas Tech coach, Chris Beard, isn’t really sudden success. Coach Beard has been working for years to become a better coach and to be able to lead a team to a potential national championship. His success to the outside world seems to be very sudden, but the reality is that years of work and anonymity went into his build to greatness and his sudden success in college basketball.
The lesson from Holiday is that sudden successes are rarely sudden successes. We look around and see someone achieve something great and often feel envious of how easily they accomplished something, but our view from the outside misses the grunt work that went into their success. The seed of greatness is planted in the habits and effort we put into every day. The work we do that forces us to focus on the tedious, the effort we spend to think about how we could constantly improve, and the small actions we take that help us learn something each day are what eventually build to greatness. To achieve sudden success, we must prepare ourselves over years of hard work so that we can perform at our best and be ready for the opportunity to fully apply ourselves.
I recently changed jobs, and a piece of advice that I revisited from Ryan Holiday in his book The Ego is the Enemy has come back to me at a perfect time. Holiday writes, “When someone gets his first job or joins a new organization, he’s often given this advice: Make other people look good and you will do well.”
Our tendency as successful young graduates, something Holiday addresses directly, is to want to prove ourselves. To prove that we were worthy of being hired over all the other candidates. To show that we are awesome and can handle the spotlight and the opportunity given to us. Our urge is to take on the biggest project, the most important client, and to do something truly impressive to show that we are great. The problem for us young people, is that we really don’t have much experience and what we learned in the classroom may not be directly applicable or up to date by the time we get into the swing of a job.
Holiday suggests that instead of being so focused on proving ourselves and trying to make a big impact by doing something visible and possibly beyond our ability, we should instead look to serve those who have already been in successful in their roles at our new organization. He writes, “It’s not about making someone look good. It’s about providing the support so that others can be good. … Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself.” The benefit to this strategy, according to Holiday, is that it puts you in a place and mindset where you are more focused on learning and growth than on individual achievement.
When you try to prove yourself early on, you risk doing too much, insulting others who can assist you on your journey, and failing to learn from the mistakes of others. When we make egotistical power grabs others will notice. If we allow our ambition to run faster than our skills and experience, we risk putting ourselves in places where we need assistance and need the buy in from those around us, and if we do this early in our career before we have developed relationships and proven that we are deserving of help and assistance, we may find ourselves isolated. Helping others shows us where opportunities and trends lie, and it also builds allies for the future when we hit our own rough patches. Working to assist others early on doesn’t mean that we won’t have opportunities to do great and meaningful work, but rather that the work and effort we put in will align with the goals and objectives of others, helping the organization as a whole be more productive and effective, ultimately creating bigger wins and more success for us and others. We can still step up to take on big projects, but by making it about someone else and helping someone else succeed as opposed to making ourselves look worthy and impressive, we are likely to have more support and to have more guidance to make our success more likely.
“The art of taking feedback is such a crucial skill in life,” Ryan holiday writes in his book Ego is the Enemy. If we are honest with ourselves, which is hard and uncomfortable, we see that we are not quite as great as we like to believe and we don’t exist in the center of an important world as we also like to believe. Critical feedback, not just flattery but true critiques of our work, effort, and actions is important if we actually want to be effective and make a positive impact on the planet.
“The ego avoids such feedback at all costs, however,” Continues Holiday. “Who wants to remand themselves to remedial training? It thinks it already knows how and who we are — That is, it thinks we are spectacular, perfect, genius, truly innovative. It dislikes reality and prefers its own assessment.”
Hearing feedback and truly accepting feedback are two different things. Many of us, I know me in particular, will hear positive feedback and flattery and feel great about ourselves. We will walk around with our head held up and begin to see the world in terms of all things we deserve and have earned. Negative feedback (again if you are anything like me) puts us on the defensive. Our brain starts to work double time to disprove the negative feedback. Our excuse generator kicks into gear and the negative feedback we received is discredited by a host of factors that are outside of our control and contributed to the the negative outcome, performance, situation, or behavior. In this typical model of taking (or not taking) feedback, we adjust the world to be what we want it to be. We take credit for the good things that happen around us while discounting our contributions to the negative. We enjoy the positive feedback and praise of others while deflecting the negative feedback and criticism about ourselves.
If our goal is simply to enjoy life and reduce friction for ourselves as we move through the years this this strategy is fine. Life is a challenge and living in a comfortable reality (or at least desiring such an existence) is fine. If however, we want to contribute to the world in a meaningful way, we need to live outside the comfortable false existence that our brains seem to crave. If we want to participate in politics, if we want to create a company, if we want to be civically focused in our community, we have to see the world clearly, and that means that we have to see our place in the world clearly. Getting beyond our ego and accepting critical feedback is a key piece of seeing the world clearly and understanding the world as it is and not as our brain wants it to be. We will not grow if we only receive positive feedback, and studies of children praised for good performance show that kids are less daring and less likely to work hard and perform well when praised for a good performance. Receiving feedback about working hard and being able to learn from areas where the outcome was not as great as it could be is what helps us develop and grow. Being comfortable with criticism and being able to accept that we have shortcomings is crucial for being engaged in the world and taking steps to improve the world we live in.
Its is not obvious, but our ego prevents us from learning. Our ego is that piece of our brain that thinks we are amazing. It is what drove Kanye West to hang a giant picture of himself in his house so that it is the first thing you see when you walk in. It is the piece of me that put a 1st place plaque in my office at work. And it is the part of our brain that posts “proud mom” photos on Facebook or sticks student of the month stickers on our bumper. Our ego tells us we are amazing, good at everything, and already know it all.
This is where the ego clashes with real learning. When we look back at our high school and early college years we all seem to recognize the same thing, that we thought we knew everything when we were younger. As we age and go through new life experiences, we constantly see that we have a lot to learn. Some of my favorite thinkers have often remarked in books or in podcasts that as they have gotten older, as they have studied a subject more thoroughly, and as they have paid more attention to the world around them, they realize how little they actually do know. When we push aside our ego and look at ourselves truthfully we can see that we really don’t know that much.
Ryan Holiday writes about this in his book Ego is the Enemy. Starting with a quote from Epictetus he writes, “It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows,” highlighting the importance of being honest about ones knowledge or lack of knowledge. Holiday continues, “You can’t learn if you think you already know. You will not find the answers if you’re too conceited and self-assured to ask the questions. You cannot get better if you’re convinced you are the best.”
Holiday shows that our ego directly interferes with learning and growing. When we are at least slightly humble and can admit that we don’t know everything, we open ourselves up to learning something new about the world. When we admit that we are not the best in the world (or the best we possibly could be) at something, we can begin to see areas where we can improve. Our ego, the piece of us that wants to brag to the world, does not want to admit that there is something we don’t know, that we don’t understand, or that we don’t have everything perfected and we still have areas where we need to get better. The ego makes excuses about all of these things and contorts reality to fit the image that we want to project to the world and see all about us.
If we can push past this ego urge and think about the world in a more well-rounded way, we can actually start taking steps to improve ourselves. If we approach the world without a need to validate our ego, we can adopt more perspectives and possibilities that allow us to learn from others and practice things that will allow us to grow in important areas.
Ryan Holiday shares stories from leaders and masters of their craft in his book Ego is the Enemy, and the lessons he shares show us how some people have been able to put their ego aside to become truly great at what they do. One of the people Holiday uses as an example is Kirk Hammett who became the lead guitarist for Metallica when it was still an underground metal group. Hammett had a great opportunity with the band early on, and recognized that there were many areas where he needed to improve if he wanted to help the band truly reach the next level. Despite being successful and in a lead position on an up-and-coming band, Hammett reached out to another man, Joe Satriani, for lessons starting with the most basic fundamentals. The lesson that Holiday shares is a lesson in self-humility. Even when things are going our way and we are in the positions we want to be in, we can still learn a lot from those around us and from those who have also been working in the same or similar areas where we have begun to find success. In order to truly learn from those around us, we have to be open to the idea that other people can teach us something important, and we have to put aside our pride in the accomplishments we have already achieved. We have to accept that we don’t know all there is to know and that someone else (potentially someone who has not had the same level of success as us) can still show us something new.
Holiday writes, “We don’t like thinking that someone is better than us. Or that we have a lot left to learn. We want to be done. We want to be ready. We’re busy and overburdened. For this reason, updating your appraisal of your talents in a downward direction is one of the most difficult things to do in life–but it is almost always a component of mastery.”
It is always tempting to tell ourselves that we are much more smart, talented, and hard working than everyone else. It is reassuring to say to ourselves that we deserve what we have received (or that we don’t deserve to be passed over for an opportunity) and that we are going to have even more opportunities for greatness and success simply because we are awesome. What is harder to do, and what Holiday shows us is critical to truly be a master at what we do, is to seek out other leaders and other skillful individuals to learn from them. Looking around and seeing that other people are just as skilled, smart, and competent as us often feels threatening, as if they will be recognized for their greatness and we will be left behind, discarded as a fraud. Its tempting to ignore others, or to tell ourselves stories about why we somehow are more deserving or just better than the rest.
True greatness, however, looks at our competitors, colleagues, and other people in our space with respect. From this vantage point, there is something we can learn from others as we press forward. If we step back and take a more objective view of ourselves relative to the world, we can see that we are not always as amazing as we would like to be, and that is OK. We can reach out and learn lessons from those who we may otherwise denigrate and we can begin to prepare ourselves for our next opportunity rather than over-inflate our pride only to be terrified when the next challenge rolls around.
Goal setting and prioritization is an incredibly challenging and difficult process. It is hard to know what one really wants to do and what truly motivates someone. We hold a lot of competing values in our head when we try to set our goals, and often we get tripped up and set goals for ourselves that we don’t really want to pursue, but that we think we should. We want to impress other people, live up to the expectations we think our parents have for us, and do something we think we will enjoy and be well compensated for. Often, these things don’t all align, and often goal setting in this way doesn’t actually make us happy or put us on a path toward something we can truly be motivated to pursue.
In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday helps us think through a framework for setting goals. The first step is to be aware of the factors in your decision that are purely ego enhancing. Those things that we do to impress others or to raise our own social status without necessarily doing something meaningful or something that truly interests us. After we can recognize what we do for ego purposes, we can ask ourselves new questions about our goals. Holiday writes, “In this course, its not ‘Who do I want to be in life?’ but ‘What is it that I want to accomplish in life?’ Setting aside selfish interests, it asks: What calling does it serve? What principles govern my choices? Do I want to be like everyone else or do I want to do something different?”
Ego can still cause all of these questions to be derailed and miss the mark, but each question encourages us to think about what we do for ego purposes, and whether we want to pursue the ego or whether we want to do something important that other people are not pursuing. In a recent interview on the Tim Ferris Show, author Jim Collins recommended an approach to making these types of decisions. Building on his “Hedgehog Principle” for businesses in his book Good to Great, Collins suggested that we find something we are coded to do, something we do exceptionally well, something we can be world (or local/community) leading in doing, and something that truly motivates us. Pursuing that will help us do meaningful work. Following his instructions and keeping Holiday’s warning about the ego in mind will ensure we focus on rewarding goals that help bring substantial positivity to the world.
We can follow everyone else and try to increase our status and have a standard career focused on ourselves, or we can step out and try to be intentional about our choices and actions. Collins compared this approach to creating artwork on a blank canvass compared to following a paint-by-numbers board. We can live a meaningful life following everyone else and taking the paint-by-numbers approach, but to truly do something different and have the biggest possible impact on the world, we need to be self-aware, avoid ego boosting decision-making, and try to paint our lives on a new canvass.
At some point in human history, we were living in small tribes of maybe 50 to 250 people and we were evolving ever more complex brains because our small political groups put pressure on our ancestors to be socially skilled in order to pass on their genes. In a small social tribe, actions and motivations mattered. There was a pressure to do good and impressive things and to appear to be doing those things for noble rather than vain reasons, but it was also not enough to just do good, you had to be noticed by your tribe. You had to make sure your status improved, that people saw you doing positive and noteworthy things so that you could progress up the social hierarchy of the tribe and be permitted to pass your genes along. The traits that flowed from these evolutionary social group pressures are still with us, but the need to seen doing physically and socially impressive things in order to pass our genes to the next generation (and potentially even just to survive on a daily basis with the help of some friends/allies) is mostly gone. This leaves us in an awkward place where our brains still want to impress people and climb up a social ladder (remember that our ancestors social ladder was only about 50 to 250 people tall) in a world where we can connect with millions of people and where competition for security, shelter, food, and a partner just isn’t as life threateningly dramatic as it was one hundred thousands years ago.
Pushing back against some of these natural feeling and evolutionary favored behaviors can actually lead to a more fulfilling and meaningful life. This is at the center of the idea in Ryan Holiday’s book, The Ego is the Enemy. Holiday encourages us to avoid acting in the interest of our ego, which is to say he encourages us not to act out of our own self-interest with the intent to be seen and with the intent to deliberately rise up the social hierarchy. We can certainly do that and we will have lots of opportunities in our live to chose that path, but Holiday argues that to live a more fulfilling and complete life today, we should look to do great work as opposed to simply being impressive to other people. Regarding a fulfilling life Holiday writes, “It’s about the doing, not the recognition.”
This quote has stayed with me and helped me think about why I do some of the things I do and how I chose to do those things. I could go work out in the gym and make sure I take up as much space as possible and exercise as extravagantly as possible so that everyone sees how physically impressive I am. Or, I could find a spot that doesn’t interfere with other people and doesn’t necessarily put me in the center of attention and I could focus on making sure I really do the exercises that matter to keep me fit, healthy, and injury free. I might get stronger with both strategies, but the first strategy is really about my ego and about being seen, where the second approach is actually about health and physical development. I believe much of life is like this.
We can make excuses for doing the flashy things that help us rise through the social ladder and we can lie to ourselves and others about our motives for doing those things (our brains literally evolved in small groups to do this). However, with several billion people on the planet, we hit a point where this strategy is counter productive if we actually want to be fulfilled and content with our lives and actions. We no longer live in the small tribes we evolved for, and we have more options to make an impact for the people in our lives and societies in which we live. We no longer need to set out to make sure we are seen and recognized for doing great work to build allies for survival. We will likely receive all the recognition we need from the people who matter most in our lives if we set out to do good without setting out to build a reputation. Part of us may still want that recognition and be happy when we receive it obliquely (maybe even more happy to receive it this way) which is fine. The point is that we can be more content and fulfilled when we take this oblique path to success and recognition and build habits and work that are about doing and not about being applauded.