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.

Turn Off the Ego and Learn

There is always something we can learn and something we can better understand. No matter how smart we think we are or how smart we feel, we can always adopt new perspectives, work to see things from new points of view, and begin to see the world in a more clear way. Challenging ourselves to see the world beyond the perspective we are accustomed to or beyond the perspective that is comfortable can open up new possibilities and help us understand the people in our lives who we would otherwise find puzzling. We never fully understand everything there is about something, and even if we feel we are a true master in a field, we likely don’t have a full grasp of how exactly our field connects with adjacent fields. Adopting this attitude however, cannot be done if we don’t clear our ego.

 

When we allow our ego to take over and tell us that we are smart and have it all figured out, we cease to learn. The ego wants us to believe that our perspective is the best, that our way of thinking is the only truly valuable way of thinking, that the contradictions in our thoughts are not contradictions at all, but rational decisions that others just don’t see clearly. The ego doesn’t want to be challenged, it doesn’t want the boat to be rocked, and it wants us to be morally and intellectually superior to others.

 

When we abandon this ego drive, we can be more open to the world around us and better learn as we move through an ever changing world. By being more humble about just how much we know and understand about the world, we can become more genuine people who better appreciate those around us. Ryan Holiday writes about this in his book Ego is the Enemy. He writes, “at ever step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn – and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.”

 

Everyone has both received and given the advice to be a sponge when you start a new career, hobby, athletic routine, or cooking class. We tell young people to learn as much as they can from those who are successful and from those who have been in their shoes. For some reason though, we seem to reach a point where being a sponge for knowledge fades away. Holiday would argue that our ego has a big part to do with why we stop focusing on learning from others and from experiences. We get to a point where we feel that we have become the wise elder, the successful person, the one with all the knowledge, and our job becomes teaching others and not learning. But continual learning is crucial if we want to continually adjust to the world around us, maintain the success we build, or even if we just want to stay engaged in the world and have meaningful relationships with those around us. If we can accept that we always have more to learn or that we always need refreshers on basic lessons from our past, we can better connect with the world and approach people and situations with a better perspective focused on gaining more understanding rather than showing how much we already think we know.

Pretending We Know Everything

A few years back I was in a health policy and administration class at the University of Nevada, and a recent graduate was presenting a lecture. At one point in her lecture, she talked about stepping into a role at a local hospital and working with a leader at the hospital who openly admitted to her that they were hesitant to work closely with doctors at the hospital because they did not want to be in a position where they were not the smartest person in the room. It is rare that someone opens up like this to any of us, but when someone does open up like this, we can use it as a moment to reflect on what ways we share the same insecurities, fears, habits, or ideas that we try to hide from everyone. In this case, a successful lead executive felt smart and successful, but didn’t want to be around brilliant doctors who may suspect that they were an impostor, someone who was not as smart as they wanted everyone to believe, and as a result not as competent as their job required.

 

It is easy to understand why this person may have been so afraid of not being seen as the smartest person in the room, but it is dangerous for anyone to believe they are smarter than they are, that they already know it all, and to actively avoid situations where they may encounter something they are not familiar with and don’t understand. Ryan Holiday addresses this issue in his book, Ego is the Enemy, when he writes, “With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pretend that we know more than we do. To pretend we already know everything. Scientia infla (knowledge puffs up). That’s the worry and the risk-thinking that we’re set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process.”

 

Our egos want to preserve a picture of us that presents us in the best possible light. As a result, the more success we achieve, the more likely we are to try to restrict ourselves to our own areas of expertise. Stepping beyond our comfort level, applying ourselves in new and unfamiliar terrains, and taking new chances creates the fearful possibility for the canvass of our perfect life to be torn in half. Rather than striving for more, we try to entrench what we have and protect the perfect presentation of ourselves.

 

What Holiday continues to write about in his book is that this mindset of self preservation ultimately becomes our ruin. The ego which wants to puff itself up and believe that it knows everything  puts us in a place where we can be surpassed and where we fail to grow and adapt to changes around us. Rather than helping us maintain our success, the ego actively helps other people and an evolving world sap success away from us.

 

What is worse, our ego likely makes us blind to the process. We vindicate our existing knowledge, habits, and self preservation by lying to ourselves about how smart and competent we are. We tell ourselves we already know what we need, we already figured out how to be the best, and we start to believe those lies and tell everyone what we think we already know. Somewhere, deep down, we may know that we are faking it, but we try to hide that from everyone (including ourselves) and make sure we are only in situations where we are the smartest person in the room. We tell ourselves we are great and create a dreamland around us that preserves the ego while sacrificing progress, growth, and sustained excellence. If we truly want to achieve those things in the long run, we must be aware of this tendency and its destructive power and actively move beyond this mindset.

Collapse from Within

In the book Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday includes a quote from Aristotle about success, ” Without virtue and training it is hard to bear the results of good fortune suitably.” Holiday includes this quote in a section of the book about Howard Hughes, the aviator, genius, and businessman who did some incredible things with his fortune, but ultimately crashed in a wasteland of his own ego. Hughes, Holiday explains, received a great deal of sustainable wealth as an inheritance from his father’s business and channeled that wealth into movie projects, a giant wooden plane that only flew once, and many other ventures that sometimes succeeded but more often failed to take flight.

 

About Hughes directly Holiday writes, “Howard Hughes, like so many wealthy people, died in an asylum of his own making. He felt little joy. He enjoyed almost nothing of what he had. Most importantly, he wasted. He wasted so much talent, so much bravery. so much energy.”  A common story arc that we have likely seen play out in real life as well as in movies or books is of someone achieving success and forgetting to keep doing the things that brought them success to begin with. The drive to be great can become overwhelmed by thoughts about how smart, how hard working, and how much better than everyone else the successful person had to be in order to reach the goal they sought after. When that happens, it is easy to forget the habits that drove success and clear thinking is replaced by ego. The ego begins to tell us that we don’t need to work hard, that we should seek attention and praise for who we are and what we have accomplished, and it begins to cloud our judgement and lead us to believe that we will be successful no matter what we do.

 

Holiday also writes, “We know that empires always fall, so we must think about why–and why they seem to always collapse from within.” Howard Hughes collapsed from within. He received so much wealth that he could spend it on whatever caught his eye and he could pursue goals that in hindsight seem laughable. He could whip up a storm of enthusiasm about flawed projects and use his wealth to suggest that he would succeed, as if the wealth accumulation of the past had any bearing on his future success and insightful thinking. In our own lives, we must recognize what parts of us threaten success when we achieve it. If we fail to be aware of things we pursue on purely egotistical grounds, then we too risk collapsing from within. On the other hand, however, if we recognize the pull of the ego, we can push back and remain humble, helping us make clear decisions and continue to work toward goals that truly matter once we have started to feel real success in our lives.