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.
Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor during the years 161 to 180, kept a journal that he continually returned to with all of his thoughts and values. His journal was published after his death as a collection called Meditations, and in his journal he makes constant references to the importance of self-control, self-reflection, and rational thought. He combines these ideas with social challenges and presents a view of he world that resonates with people to this day. Regarding how we should think about ourselves relative to others and how we should think about our own joy Aurelius wrote the following.
“He who loves fame considers another man’s activity to be his own good; and he who loves pleasure, his own sensations; but he who has understanding, considers his own acts to be his own good.”
Aurelius constantly focuses on the idea that we are independent from the actions, thoughts, and judgements of those around us. In his mind we may all be connected, but we choose how to allow others to move and shape our lives. It is the way that we decide to think about the world and interpret the actions of others that determines how the actions of those around us impact us.
In the first part of the quote Aurelius is showing that those who desire fame and popularity depend on the thoughts of other people to find their happiness. To them, their own thoughts about themselves matter less than the thoughts that other people have of them.
In the second part, the Emperor explains that people who live for nothing other than their own pleasure have submitted their own independence to material things or physical pleasures. Their enjoyment and life’s meaning comes from what they can obtain as opposed to a recognition of who they are. They have made the world around them more important than themselves, and their value and happiness is based not on the person who they are, but on the items in their lives that make them happy.
Lastly, Aurelius argues that those who bring rational thought into all aspects of their lives are the most fulfilled. Since we all determine through out own thoughts what is good in our lives and what is bad, what is going to help us and what will harm us, and what is important and what is not, we have the power to determine how we see the world. The people who base their lives on rational thought are able to reflect on what happens around them and rely on their own decisions and actions to find happiness. They may find some level of fame and material well being, but rather than finding inspiration in things and popularity, they are inspired and moved by the things that they can do to better themselves and others. They are not dependent on others for their own happiness because they understand who they are, and have an ability to determine how they react to the world around them.