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.

Criticism and Ego

“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.

Compassion and Awareness

I remember reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and highlighting a segment where Aurelius encouraged us not to judge others because we have the same propensity for negativity and mistakes as anyone around us, and often times it is not our will alone that stops us from behaving in the same way as those that we judge. Often we refrain from the activities we judge others for because we are afraid of losing status or reputation. Often it is because we had learned a hard lesson and someone else showed us why we should behave differently, and sometimes we behave differently simply because we have different life circumstances which allow us to avoid the behavior we criticize in others. No matter why we don’t behave the same way as those we judge, it is not because we are somehow superior to the other person, but just responding to different cues.

 

The idea from Aurelius helps me remember that life is hard and everyone (including myself) is under pressure, challenged, and limited by our own circumstances and struggles. Remembering this allows me to give myself and others a break. Aurelius has helped me recognize where I could improve or where I want to maintain positive habits in my own life, while simultaneously remembering how easy it can be to end up in the same place as another person that I would otherwise criticize.

 

This idea came back to me in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness. The author writes about the benefits of meditation and of living a life that is constantly mindful and builds self-awareness into every step of the day. Keeping the mind open and cognizant of ones surroundings and experience helps one get beyond the ego, the stories we tell ourselves about success and happiness, and beyond our constant struggle to signal our virtues and value.

 

Hanh argues that mindfulness and self-awareness ultimately lead to more compassion for the people around us and for ourselves. He writes, “When your mind is liberated your heart floods with compassion: compassion for yourself, for having undergone countless sufferings because you were not yet able to relieve yourself of false views, hatred, ignorance, anger; and compassion for others because they do not yet see and so are still imprisoned by false views, hatred, and ignorance and continue to create suffering for themselves and for others.” Self-awareness and a more objective view and understanding of the world helps our minds to be more free and open to the experiences of the world. This allows us to step back and be more content with who we are and with the lives we live, ultimately allowing us to have more compassion for the people around us. When we better know and understand ourselves, we gain more insight into the lives and struggles of others and we can better appreciate and respect their humanity and the obstacles that we all face.

Societal Expectations and Outcomes

It seems to me that a great deal of human outcomes are shaped by society in ways that are not always clear or obvious. Beyond arguments of nature versus nurture, our daily actions seem to be limited, encouraged, prevented, or otherwise influenced by our society and culture. What society tells us is desirable and acceptable makes a diffence in what we want and what we can do, and at the same time social stigmas and taboos keep us from behaving in certain ways. This is important to think about when we look at racial minorities in this country, the way that our society treats those groups, and the outcomes those groups experience. In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander addresses this idea and looks at how society has, over time, reinforced the idea that black men and women are dangerous, less worthy of social assistance, and culturally flawed in ways that prevent them from achieving success.

In the United States, our society is comfortable talking about how bad criminals are, and about how sever punishment for criminals should be. What gets mixed up in this discussion however, are ideas of race. We police and arrest black communities and individuals at much higher rates than white communities and individuals, and then we place severe social stigmas against people who have been incarcerated. Once an individual has been let out of prison, they return to a society that is unwelcoming, will not employ them, does not offer them housing assistance, and rewards those who denigrate the formerly incarcerated. In her book, Alexander shares a quote from Frederick Douglas that demonstrates how this approach is counter productive for reducing crime and changing behavior, which is often described as the main goal of the criminal justice system.

“In Frederick Douglass’s words, “Men are so constituted that they derive their conviction of their own possibilities largely from the estimate formed of them by others. If nothing is expected of a people, that people will find it difficult to contradict that expectation.” A society that sets low expectations for black people, arrests them at unreasonably high levels, calls them criminals, and reduces black culture will produce more black people who fit the description and expectations that society has created. When we do not create environments that encourage everyone to succeed and demonstrate to everyone that they can participate and be welcomed to engage and grow, then many people are left behind and not helped forward.

We see this happening today. A recent paper from Raj Chetty demonstrated that black youth at the top of their class in math and science are less likely to go on to become inventors and file patents relative to white youth with average to below average performance in math and science. What is limiting our children is a lack of support and the lack of a vision of entrepreneurship. A classmate of mine, Chris Dickens, is a youth parol officer, and he explained that children who receive fee for service Medicaid during their time as a ward of the state see a reduced recidivism rate of about 50%. These two examples indicate that crime, success, and opportunity are not simply matters within our own power, but are shaped by the society and environment around us. If we celebrate a culture that criticizes and demeans those who have been marginalized, then we will constantly isolate those who need the most support, and our actions will create the very evils and social outcomes that we claim to dislike.