A Clear Picture of Success

In 2017 I wrote a piece about an idea from Colin Wright in his book Come Back Frayed. In our lives, the primary yardstick we use to measure our success, Wright explains, is often a monetary yardstick. We look at our bank account, the funding levels of the organization we are a part of, and how much we make each pay check and determine whether our lives have value and are meaningful based on how much we make. Colin Wright was one of the first authors who helped me be aware of how frequently I judged myself and others based on income, or cues related to income (how fancy is someone’s car, what shoes does someone have, do they live in a wealthy neighborhood?).

 

Wealth and income, however, are both impacted by a number of forces beyond the control of a single individual and both people who we hold in high esteem and people who are self centered and morally questionable can become fantastically wealthy through either hard work or dumb luck. Therefore, judging someone based on wealth and income is an incomplete measure of another person. Wright was one of the first people to express this in a way that really connected with me, and I found the idea again in the writing of Ryan Holiday and Marcus Aurelius. In a long quote from Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy, he writes,

 

“You will be unappreciated. You will be sabotaged. You will experience surprising failures. Your expectations will not be met. You will lose. You will fail.
    How do you carry on then? How do you take pride in yourself and your work? John Wooden’s advice to his players says it: 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.” “Ambition,” Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, “means tying your well-being to what other people say or do … Sanity means tying it to your own actions.””

 

We cannot expect that in our lives everything will go well and we will live up to the external yardsticks we use to define success. If we expect a certain number of followers, likes, or shares then we are deciding the value of something based on the perceptions of other people and whether something randomly becomes a hit. If we decide that we are only successful if we have enough money to buy a new Tesla, we are putting ourselves in a position where we may compromise on being a good human being in order to obtain enough money to purchase something that we think will tell people that we are valuable and successful. We give control of ourselves to other people when we live this way. Our happiness is not our own, but a yo-yo string controlled by the opinions of our social, work, and family networks.

 

Changing our definition of success to measures internal to who we are is more healthy and reasonable. Pursuing a craft, hobby, or passion for self-fulfillment is different from pursuing a goal for reasons of obtaining greater wealth, respect, and admiration from others. Those things may come from living well, but when they are a result of good work and arrive obliquely through our efforts to do our best at what is in front of us, they will be more rewarding and less tied to our definition of who we are. This can give us the opportunity to live on our own terms, content with the person and lifestyle we pursue.

The Ego and Fairness

I am constantly interested in discussions, arguments, and complaints about fairness. Dictionary.com defines fair as “free from bias, dishonesty, and injustice” but I think we all know “fair” to be more complex than that definition suggests. What I suspect we often mean when we say fair is equitable, which is a far more complex understanding of the world, events, people, and our interactions with all three. Another quick Google search gives us a definition of equitable as fair and impartial (not much help here), but Deborah Stone in her book Policy Paradox identifies nine different dimensions of equity. Things can be equitable by membership, so  that something is equal among a group, but not necessarily equal between groups. Things can be equitable by rank, where different segments within a group receive different treatment, but within a given segment everyone receives something equally. And things can also be equitable based on how they are distributed, with people all having equal chances of obtaining something or with people having equal opportunities to try to obtain something.

 

What got me thinking again about fairness and equity is a quote from Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy. He writes “Ego loves this notion, the idea that something is “fair” or not. Psychologists call it narcissistic injury when we take personally totally indifferent and objective events. We do that when our sense of self is fragile and dependent on life going our way all the time. Whether what you’re going through is your fault or your problem doesn’t matter, because it’s yours to deal with right now.” What I take away from this quote is the idea that (1) we spend a lot of our time and energy trying to figure out if we deserve something or not, (2) we feel personally injured or attacked when something we deem to be unfair happens to us, and (3) we often don’t have much control over whether we receive what we deserve or not.

 

I started with a definition of fairness because I think it is important to get to the root of what we mean when we say something is not fair. We want our life outcomes and the things that happen to us to be commensurate (corresponding in size or degree) with the kind of valuable person we see ourselves to be. We want good things to happen to us and other good people, and we want bad things to happen to bad people as if our lives are constantly judged and adjusted by an independent arbiter weighing our live on a balance.

 

However, I introduced Stone’s perspectives on equity to show that fairness is not a simple black and white consideration. Sometimes, equity depends on your position relative to society and the events within society that impact you. Would it be fair for everyone in your office to get an equal sized slice of cake on your birthday? Should you get the biggest slice because its your birthday? Should your boss get the biggest slice because they are the big kahuna and after all, if they had not hired you then you would not be there celebrating your birthday with everyone? Or should Cheryl get a bigger slice of cake since she was technically the company’s founder years ago, even though now she mostly sits in her office half asleep not really doing much? There are a lot of dimensions of equity and fairness that are hard to sort through, especially when our own self-interest is involved.

 

When we begin to complain that something is not fair, we should take a minute to step back and think about the various dimensions of equity and try to understand what aspects of equality are in play. Rather than focusing on whether we think we have been harmed, we should try to better understand the system within which we operate. Going further, we should recognize that we have little to no control over many of the things that happen in our lives. We cannot control a cancer diagnosis (for the most part), we cannot control whether a texting teen rear ends our car, and we don’t always have as much control over our income as we would like to believe. Sitting and constantly questioning why something happened to us, complaining that things are not fair, and arguing that something more fair should have occurred is useless. Often, there are different aspects of equity at play (if a social decision has lead to the outcome we don’t like) or we are trying to ascribe meaning to a random event over which we had little influence or ability to shape and avoid. We can think of what happened to us rationally, and then move on without having to critique the abstract universal balancer that we would like to have watching over our lives and adjusting our scales accordingly.

 

Remaining focused on whether something is fair and complaining that it is not fair will hold back us and our society. To move forward we must accept that fairness and equity are more complex than they feel in the moment, and we must accept that we have less control in our lives than we often believe. We can do our best with the hand we are dealt, and if we do not think that something is equitable, we can examine the ideas laid out by Stone to advocate for a different dimension of equity. Or if we don’t have any control over the event we can bear our situation nobly and move forward without feeling personally injured.

A Failure to Connect During Bad Times

Adam Smith lived from 1723 to 1790 and is best known for his economic principles and writing. A quote from him, on the nature of humanity, is included in Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy to open a chapter that immediately follows a page with some simple art and the words, “To whatever failure and challenges you will face, ego is the enemy…” The quote from Smith is, “It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty. Nothing is so mortifying as to be obliged to expose our distress to the view of the public, and to feel, that though our situation is open to the eyes of all mankind, no mortal conceives for us the half of what we suffer.”

 

A funny thing about humanity is that we seem to think that everyone else is happy all the time and doesn’t face the same challenges, obstacles, depression, anxiety, or general discomforts that we face. We try hard to present a happy and fun life to the outside world, but often we are dealing with our own challenges and fears that we hide away. We face the world on our own in times of stress but go out of our way to broadcast our achievements during times of joy. In his quote from over 200 years ago, Smith recognizes our urge to show off the positive and hide the negative in our lives, and he goes beyond that to show how we assume that other people could not even understand our suffering.

 

This aspect of humanity was with us over 200 years ago when Smith wrote his quote, and today with social media always at our fingertips, it has become dangerously supercharged. It is easier than ever to curate the perfect online life that we show to everyone we know, and this pushes us to become even more isolated when things don’t go right. The feeling that many of us have is that we can only be loved if we have the perfect job, the perfect work/life balance, root for the right sports team, drink the right coffee from the right place, put together the cutest planters, cook the most unique dinners, and brush our teeth with the right toothbrushes. Anything short of the perfectly curated life feels like it needs to be hidden from the rest of the world and deepens isolation.

 

We are afraid to open up to other people about the areas where we fall short of the perfect life. We receive so many likes for our “proud dad” social media brags, our new home photos, and for our tropical vacation pictures that it feels as though we can only connect with people if we have those things to share. Somewhere along the line we forget that other people also experience negatives and we fail to connect with them to discuss what we are challenged by and what we would like to do to change our situation. Because we don’t open up with others about our struggles we are all forced to go it alone, assuming that no one would understand our pain, and feeling worse about not being perfect. This was true during Adam Smith’s lifetime and it is heightened in our technologically connected world today.

 

Holiday would argue that we behave this way because our egos cannot let us be seen as vulnerable, scared, weak, or unsure about ourselves and the world. We feel pressured to always be on top of things and to always be ready to take the world on. We go out of our way to show how well we are doing to boost our ego, and that is what ultimately drives us into further isolation when we don’t feel good about our lives. This sense of being overwhelmed will only grow if we cannot open up about it and be honest about where we are with the people around us. What we will ultimately find if we do go against our natural ego urges is that more people face the challenges we face than we expect, and there is more love in opening up than in hiding away and only presenting the good moments of our lives. The ego wants us to take a path that furthers isolation whereas putting the ego aside will actually help us progress and improve our lives.

A Creative Skill

When I sat down to read Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy, I expected to hear about the importance of compassion and humility and to read anecdotes about why we should try to avoid self-aggrandizement, but I didn’t expect to get a quick lesson in creativity. Holiday includes a short section in which he describes leaders taking a moment of solitude, away from the societies, groups, and lives that they lead to and connects the creativity these temporary retreats generate back to our egos. What we get when we set off into a quite place away from society, Holiday suggests, is a chance to calm the ego and step away from the need for praise.

 

Holiday writes the following about what happens when we get away from society and our daily lives, “By removing the ego – even temporarily – we can access what’s left standing in relief. By widening our perspective, more comes into view.”

 

The ego, he says, narrows our views and focus. It zooms our attention in on ourselves, ignores the outside world, cuts out the things we are not very familiar with, shortens our the timescales we think through, and ultimately makes us less creative. When everything is about us, we operate with only one true perspective shaping our lives. We will constantly ask the world what has the greatest return for me in this very moment and what will get me the most attention right now?

 

Holiday continues, “Creativity is a matter of receptiveness and recognition. This cannot happen if you’re convinced the world revolves around you.” One of the things I wrote about earlier is the way that living for our ego makes us see the world through a modified lens where everything is about us. We don’t see reality clearly and instead create a story all about what we have, what we can gain, what we think others are stealing from us, and what we might lose or miss out on if we don’t spend every moment maximizing for ourselves. This creates a trap where we fail to see the flaws in our plans and fail to see trends that don’t align with what we want to see. Being humble on the other hand and accepting that we need help seeing beyond ourselves, will open our perspective and allow other people to give us information that will expand our perspective. Thinking creatively is difficult when you think you already have all the answers and already see things as creatively as possible. The ego doesn’t see a need to expand its already awesome point of view and likely actively hides perspectives that are critical of what we do and produce. If, on the other hand, we can push the ego aside and move forward in a way that is not all about us, we can see new opportunities, new connections, and new possibilities that we previously would have missed.

The Destructive Ego – Lessons from Jefferson Davis and Napoleon

In his book Ego is the Enemy, author and super reader Ryan Holiday gives us lots of examples of the ways in which our ego can lead us astray and tear down the things we are trying to accomplish. Holiday explains that part of why the ego is dangerous is because it damages our relationships with others and doesn’t allow us to set aside trivial matters to focus on the important things in our lives. It dials in on perceived slights, seeks recognition and attention, cannot handle even the slightest criticism, and ultimately pulls us down while we try to vault to new heights.

 

As an example, while Jefferson Davis was the Secretary of War for the United States, he was engaged in correspondence with General Winfield Scott. In his book, Holiday explains that Davis, “Belligerently pestered Scott repeatedly about some trivial matter. Scott ignored it until, finally forced to address it, he wrote that he pitied Davis.” In a letter addressed to Davis Scott wrote, “Compassion is always due to an enraged imbecile who lays about him in blows which hurt only himself.” Davis was a successful politician, but he continued to attack the General in an attempt to gain leverage over him or to at least call him out on a flaw or issue. In a battle of ego, he tried to magnify the flaws of another by attacking him, and ultimately just made himself look worse. The ego likes to draw energy from outrage, to draw a line in the sand and yell that the ego is on the correct side and the offending parties are on the wrong side. The ego wants to be right and it wants to angrily shout down those who are wrong. The problem with allowing our ego to run free in this way is that it reveals how impulsive, insecure, and weak our ego truly is.

 

Holiday continues with another example of the ego ruining goals and objectives by writing the following about Napoleon, “A critic of Napoleon nailed it when remarking: “He despises the nation whose applause he seeks.” He couldn’t help but see French people as pieces to be manipulated, people he had to be better than, people who, unless they were totally, unconditionally supportive of him, were against him.” The ego wants everyone’s adulation, but it is constantly putting other people down so that it can feel superior to the rest of society. When the ego takes control of the steering wheel, we mock other people but at the same time everything we do is some type of performance or show with those same people in mind.

 

What we can take away from Davis and Napoleon is the danger that flows from our ego. When we put a great deal of importance on our own self-image and live in a way that is meant to show off and inflate who we are, we risk alienating others and alienating ourselves. The ego will pester others and put them down, but at the same time the ego will only feel validated when it receives praise from those who we put down. Its destruction of meaningful connections and relationships with others is what ultimately dooms our goals and aspirations.

Why Do You Do What You Do?

A book that is on my reading list for the future is called Start With Why by Simon Sinek, you can find a great Ted Talk from him with the same title to get the idea of the book. People, businesses, and groups all need to figure out why they do what they do if they want to truly build something that lasts. Jumping into something, doing some type of work, and having goals doesn’t really matter too much if you don’t have a good understanding of why you are doing something in the first place. If you have not figured out the motivation piece, the basic core element of the why, then it will be hard to sustain motivation and hard to make sure you are always moving in the right direction.

 

Without truly understanding the why, we give a certain amount of our decision making over to our ego. The “why” behind the actions of the ego is almost always about showing off. The ego wants to impress other people, have more things than others, and feel like it is on top of the world. But chasing the goals and dreams of the ego can put us in dangerous places that don’t align with the life we want to live. In my own life, ego has pushed me to plenty of running injuries, drove me to switch my major in a haze of confusion multiple times during my undergraduate degree, and has urged me to generally try to take on more than I can handle. If I could have put my ego aside, I would have run a little slower and avoided a painful ankle injury, I could have been more comfortable with my undergraduate studies and better embraced my time as a student, and I would even today be better at engaging with things that I find interesting and important even if they are nerdy and won’t bring me lots of friends and attention.

 

In his book Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday encourages us to think deeply about why we do what we do and if we are letting our ego run the show. He writes, “So why do you do what you do? That’s the question you need to answer. Stare at it until you can. Only then will you understand what matters and what doesn’t. Only then can you say no, can you opt out of stupid races that don’t matter, or even exist. Only then is it easy to ignore “successful” people.””  Being able to answer Holiday’s question takes honest self-awareness and reflection. We have to acknowledge the motivations behind our actions, and we have to accept that very often our motivations are not as high minded as we would like everyone to believe. This is also the core idea of the book The Elephant in the Brain by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler. We often act more out of self-interest than we want to admit, and while we can’t turn that off completely, we can at least better understand it and shape the decisions we make in a better direction.

 

Be aware of your motivation and try to pull back on activities and things that you do simply because you want to earn more money to buy a bigger, newer, more shiny, more impressive thing. Acknowledge the ego’s desire to have something that other people don’t have, to impress other people, and to be praised and ask yourself if the sacrifices of time, attention, and health are worth it to obtain other people’s affection. Be aware of the negative externalities to yourself and others that stem from your actions, decisions, and behaviors and ask if yourself if those costs are truly worth what you seek. Over time try to shift your behaviors so that instead of purely serving your ego, they also fulfill a deeper part of who you are and produce more positive externalities than negative externalities. Accept  that you won’t completely turn off your self-interest, but do things that you believe will make a positive impact on the world, and then try to find the glory in doing those things well, even if the world doesn’t pat you on the back for them.

What Race Are You Running?

In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday helps us look at competition in a more meaningful way. It is hard, at least in the United States, to feel as though one can be successful without comparing oneself to everyone else. Our entire society is based around consumption and markets, creating daily competitions and providing us with a million opportunities to purchase shiny new trophies as emblems of our success. The markets we live within have driven human ingenuity forward, given us phones that replace a thousand products in a 2.5 X 5 inch rectangle in our pocket, and have risen the living standards for people across the globe, but our markets have also put us in a place where purchasing power and wealth are the standards we use to measure the value and success of people. This can be very dangerous, especially since competition is not always the best way to unify a society or bring meaning to most individuals. Holiday writes,

 

“Only you know the race you’re running. That is, unless your ego decides the only way you have value is if you’re better than, have more than, everyone everywhere. More urgently, each one of us has a unique potential and purpose; that means that we’re the only ones who can evaluate and set the terms of our lives. Far too often, we look at other people and make their approval the standard we feel compelled to meet, and as a result, squander our very potential and purpose.”

 

The competition of the markets in our lives make it seem like we are all racing against each other all  the time. I feel this when I check the stats for my blog, when I post a run to Strava, and when someone I know pulls up next to me in a brand new car. I often feel that I am doing well or not doing well based on how I look relative to others, which is dangerous because it is something I do not control. I cannot compare my blog to people who are professional bloggers and have the time and energy to put all of their focus into their blog. I cannot compare my running to friends of mine who have the time to do multiple workouts every day with a coach who can help them run really fast. And I do not know if the person in the new car next to me is just borrowing the car from a family member, paid for it outright, or is leasing a new car they really can’t afford. In my examples above, each of us is in a different race, and it is a mistake to think that I am somehow competing against all of them in these areas that really do not matter at the end of the day.

 

A while back I wrote about the pitfalls of using money and wealth as our default measurement for success. Financial success does not always translate into a well rounded and truly successful life. There are many factors that contribute to someone’s wealth, and very often those factors don’t really have anything to do with the hard work, value, or skills of a person. Trying to outrun that person and achieve greater wealth than them might be a mistake, because you are running a different race, and you might be competing in an entirely different sport. Assuming that everyone is just like us, that they have had the same experience as us, the same advantages and obstacles in their lives, and experience the same desires and goals as us is a mistake if we are trying to compete with them to have more things or more of what ever it is we decide makes someone successful. At the end of the day we can use elements of competition to encourage us to make good decisions like eating healthy, writing every day, and working hard to be productive, but we should not do these things simply to be better than everyone else and show our dominance over them.