Ego is the Enemy

Accomplishing What We Seek

The key to learning, growing, and becoming successful is iterative action. We will never achieve our dreams by going out and taking one massive step to reach our goals instantaneously. Success, and the pathway to success, is defined by the everyday actions we take that build into habits and bend our path toward the outcomes we want. This advice comes from Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy.

 

Our ego, Holiday explains, wants us to be successful right now and wants us to swiftly achieve success so that we can brag and show off to others. We want to demonstrate how easy it is for us to be great and we want other to see that we didn’t even break a sweat in the process. Maybe, like a typical movie, we want to put in a short hard work stretch with some inspirational music attached, but we only want that hard work phase to last for a minute or two and include awesome power-shots of us doing those rope swinging arm exercises at the gym while our favorite high tempo song blasts in the background. This is what our ego sees and imagines for our path to success.

 

Reaching for success without ego looks differently. It involves self-awareness and a commitment to the daily grind, even when those around us can’t see how hard we are working. Holiday describes it this way early in his book, “We will learn that though we think big we must act and live small in order to accomplish what wee seek. Because we will be action and education focused, and forgo validation and status, our ambition will not be grandiose but iterative — one foot in front of the other, learning and  growing and putting in the time.”

 

We can still have great visions, but we must understand that great accomplishments and success do not come in the form of a lottery. Our goals won’t be achieved in a single windfall. Instead, we reach our goals slowly by preparing ourselves to be the type of people who can become successful through hard work, focus, good habits, and meaningful actions. The grind and the daily small steps can be exhausting, unrewarding individually, and so small that no one recognizes them, but they build a life of purpose and give us something to look back on at the end of the day and feel proud of. Through all these steps and the changes they make to our lives and who we are, we will reach success and feel fulfilled with what we achieve.

Improvement and Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is something I have been trying to practice for several years and recently I have been thinking about it a little differently as I have recognized just how hard it is to be aware of ones actions, desires, and honest thoughts. Our lives are so busy that it is hard to look objectively at who we are and where were are. It is hard to honestly ask yourself what you are doing and working toward, what is really motivating you, and what you are afraid of. But this is a key skill to learn and something that is worth constantly thinking about.

 

In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday returns to the idea of self-awareness as a tool to help overcome arrogance. We become overconfident in ourselves and our abilities when we lack self-awareness and do not talk honestly about our strengths and the areas that we still need to develop. It is easy and more comforting to think of ourselves as being incredibly awesome and possessing great skills and work ethic that everyone else should recognize. I frequently find myself wanting to fall into this type of thinking and often tell myself I am the best even thought I truly have not been active enough in my life to develop skills and practice some of the work that is necessary to succeed in the areas where I want my life to move. But I know, if I truly want to grow and make a valuable impact in the world, then I will need to stop telling myself how awesome I am, and instead take steps to engage with the world and apply my skills to develop new talents. Without self-awareness, the application of talents and the development of new skills is not truly possible.

 

In his book, Holiday writes, “One might say that the ability to evaluate one’s own ability is the most important skill of all. Without it, improvement is impossible.” If we don’t practice self-awareness and make a habit of evaluating our skills and abilities without embellishment, we risk putting ourselves in places where we cannot be successful and we are less likely to pull in the people we need to help us learn, grow, and reach our goals collectively. This might not be a big deal when we are just trying to run a 5k race or crush that new personal record in the weight room, but if we are trying to help our company make smart business decisions, land a big sale, or complete a report that is going to shed insight into the operating inefficiencies of an agency, we must pull in the right people and put our ego aside as we honestly evaluate our strengths and recognize the areas where we still need to grow or the areas where we can learn from those who have skills we would like to emulate. Overconfidence will doom our work and harm the larger organizations in which we operate, whereas self-awareness will help us be more effective and make a larger impact on the world with the help of those around us.

The Achievement is Not Really Yours

The great thing about an individualistic culture is that you get to own your success and feel great about your achievements. You can feel pride in winning a race, skiing down a mountain, having the best Christmas lights, or getting a promotion. Individualistic cultures treat these achievements as something more than just activities and outcomes. They become reflections of you and who you are, and in many ways your achievements become part of your identify. We show our friends our achievements on Facebook, we hang our achievements behind us on our office walls for everyone to see when they look at us, and we celebrate achievements with shiny objects that sit around on shelves and desktops.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to take a deeper look at our achievements than we typically do in an individualistic culture. He encourages us to look deeply at the successes in our lives and to ask how we contributed to the success, how other people had a hand in our success, and the role that luck played in our achievements. When we truly reflect on our achievements, we can begin to see that what we my think of as our own achievement was really a convergence of our own hard work and effort with many other factors that we had no control over. The outcome that we call an achievement is often less of something that we directly influence and more of something connected to the larger groups and societies to which we belong.

 

In detail, he writes, ” Recall the most significant achievements in your life and examine each of them. Examine your talent, your virtue, your capacity, the convergence of favorable conditions that have led to success. Examine the complacency and the arrogance that have arisen from the feeling that you are the main cause for such success.”  In my own life, I look back at my achievements and I never have a problem remembering the hard work that I put in to achieve my goals. It is easy to remember the studying and reading I put forward to graduate from college. It is easy for me to think about how much I did to earn my grades, but if I am being honest with myself, I can also see how often I was not serious about my studies and how often I was able to benefit from a nice curve on a test.

 

Hanh continues, “Shed the light of interdependence on the whole matter to see that the achievement is not really yours but the convergence of various conditions beyond your reach.” I received substantial financial support from an uncle during college, and as a result I did not have to work full time and was able to enjoy leisure time. I was able to focus on my studies and had time to be in the library because I did not have to work 40+ hours a week to support myself and complete college. My success academically is directly tied to the support I received from my uncle. I can think about completing my college degree as my own success and as a display of my own virtue, but I relied heavily on assistance from a family member, assistance I can take no credit in receiving.

 

What is important to remember, and what Hanh highlights, is that in an individualistic culture we are often too willing to give ourselves credit for our successes and to view our achievements as entirely our own. When we do this, we artificially inflate ourselves to levels that we do not honestly deserve. It is important that we acknowledge the assistance provided to us from a fortunate birth, our family, random strangers, great teachers, and sometimes from just being in the right place at the right time. Letting go of our achievement as badges of our identities reduces our arrogance and makes us more open to helping others and connecting with those who have not had the same fortune as ourselves.

More on the Goldfish Question

I am always surprised by how hard it is for myself, and really for anyone, to answer what sounds like one of the simplest questions that we could be presented with: “What do you want?”

 

We go through life with desires, pursuing the things that will make us happy, wake us up in the morning, and fill our stomachs. But when we really think about what we want in life, it can be a real challenge to come up with an answer. In my own life this has been a paralyzing question and the careful interrogation of myself and my life desires can really make me shake and bring about anxiety. I’m guessing that many people feel the same way, so we don’t spend a lot of careful time thinking through what we want, and as a result we don’t actually know.

 

Sure we all know when we want coffee or a doughnut or when we want a new car to one-up the neighbors, but these are just auto-pilot desires that we don’t have to spend a lot of mental energy dealing with. If we did, we might find that we don’t really want all these things to begin with.

 

In coaching situations, Michael Bungay Stanier loves to use this question. In his book The Coaching Habit he calls this question the foundation question and describes it this way:

 

“‘What do you want?’ I sometimes call it the Goldfish Question because it often elicits that response: slightly bugged eyes, and a mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out. Here’s why the question is so difficult to answer.
We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question ‘But what do you really want?’ will typically stop people in their tracks”

 

At the beginning of the summer of 2018 I was struck by an idea from Robin Hanson, which he detailed in his book co-authored with Kevin Simler titled The Elephant in the Brain. Our conscious mind is something like a press secretary. It is handed a script to explain our actions in a way that looks good to the broader public and creates a virtuous narrative about why we do the things we do. I believe the reason we can’t answer the question about what we want is because it stumps our press secretary. What we really want is to be popular, do work that isn’t that hard but looks and sounds impressive, and we want to stand out to get positive social recognition which brings with it the possibility of dates, more money, and other perks. It is hard for our press secretary to spin that to come up with a virtuous reason for us to want these things.

 

If we spend more time thinking about what we really want and why, we can find reasonable goals and accept that part of why we want the things we want is because we are inherently self-interested. It is OK to desire the fanciest car on the block and it is OK to work hard for positive social recognition. What is not OK, however, is for our desire for these things to be hidden from ourselves and to push toward those things in a way that is ruinous for ourselves and others. By carefully interrogating our desires we can start to think about what we want and whether it is truly reasonable for us to desire these things. Rather than lying to ourselves and saying that we are really passionate about automobile performance, or that we really just like running and fitness, or that the extra space on the home addition is really just going to help our children, we should at least be honest with ourselves in why we want those things. Then, when we are asked the goldfish question, we can understand that we have some self-interests motivating our behavior, but we can also begin to select things that we want that won’t be self-defeating or leave us on a hedonistic treadmill. We can find desires that align with our values and find places where our desires are satisfying to who we want to be and align with well thought out values.

Asking Others What They Really Want

The Coaching Habit is Michael Bungay Stanier’s book about how to become a more effective coach and help the people you work with, manage, or coach to become the best version of themselves possible. His book is full of both theory and practical applications, looking at psychology and building on his own coaching experiences and experiments. One of the suggestions that Bungay Stanier includes in his book is to ask people what they really want and help them build an understanding of what is at the core of their motivations and desires.

 

Bungay Stanier presents what he calls “The Foundation Question” as a tool to help build the ground to understand the direction that people want to go and start a conversation about why people are focused in a specific direction. Getting to the heart of someone’s desires will reveal a lot and will help prepare a road map toward the goals that go along with those desires. In the book, he writes,

 

“What do you want? I sometimes call it the Goldfish Question because it often elicits that response: sightly bugged eyes, and a mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out. Here’s why the question is so difficult to answer. We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question “But what do you really want?” will typically stop people in their tracks.”

 

It is hard for us to be self-aware and reflective enough to really know what we want, but it is even harder for us to be able to then take our desires and package them in a way that we can explain to other people. Beginning a process of thinking about what we really want and what drives us will shed light on how frequently we are motivated by selfish interests and meaningless definitions of success. Often our motivations are driven by someone else, outside ourselves, that we want to impress or whose standards we feel we need to live up to. Working through these complex emotions and desires with another person can be a way to help them get on a more stable and productive path. Bungay Stanier’s question can reveal a lot of fear and a lot of goals that sound great but have self-defeating motivations. The Foundation Question helps determine the starting point from which we can build better goals and align work and habits to achieve those goals.

Do We Actually Want Our Goals?

In the book Come Back Frayed, author Colin Wright is honest about his goals and explains a feeling that I think is not well addressed by most people. Focusing on the times when the direction of our life seems to be able to shift, Wright comments on the difficulties and challenges of pivoting. He encourages us to reflect on our path and destination, and be prepared for moments when our path takes a sudden turn, and we find ourselves moving toward a new destination. At these times, when our course changes, he encourages us to ask why we were on our original path? What set our goals and built our motivation to reach those goals? What are the stories we have been telling ourselves as travel toward our goals? These self reflective practices dive deeper into who we are and what we want than we often allow ourselves to think, and they can help us be more flexible in our journey, and more aligned toward goals that actually help us get to a place where we belong.

 

Wright asks, “If one’s goals are suddenly within reach but one doesn’t take them, what does it say about one’s knowledge of oneself and the truth of those goals?” I interpret this quote in two ways. The first being that we are complacent and our goals are impressive, but not more important than the status quo in our lives. And second, that we strive toward goals that were never in alignment with what we actually wanted. Wright continues in the book to detail what the second interpretation means, and I will explore both briefly.

 

Tyler Cowen, a George Mason professor and author, is relentlessly striving to wake people from what he describes as the complacent class. He believes that people too often favor the status quo, don’t push for change, and don’t have a strong enough drive toward worthwhile goals. My first interpretation of Wright’s quote aligns with Cowen’s views on the complacent class. Sometimes our goals are out there and within reach, but we need to take uncomfortable steps and put ourselves in challenging positions to reach the goals.  We can achieve what we tell ourselves and others that we want, but we make excuses for why we can’t actually achieve our goals or why this moment isn’t the right time for us to take the tough steps toward our goals. When we stop and reflect, we can see how far we truly are from success and begin to ask what we can do to move forward. If we see that we can achieve our goals, but do not put in the effort to reach them, then we must assume that they are not important to us, and that we are more comfortable where we are. This can exist at a base level of an individual who says their goals is to get a job, but instead plays video games, or at the executive level with an individual who states that they want to be a CEO, but never steps forward when an opportunity arises.

 

The other view of Wright’s quote is that we are striving toward goals that other people have set for us, or that we have adopted to try to please others. It could be that the individual in my second example above has felt pressure to be a CEO because her parents always wanted her to succeed and challenge barriers in society, but she may feel perfectly in alignment with her current position and lifestyle. When we put goals in front of us that do not fit who we are and what we truly want, steps toward our goal will actually be a detractor from our overall happiness. When we see the way to reach out goal, and we recognize that we are procrastinating, we should reflect to determine whether our goal is something we actually want and if it is in line with who we are or want to become. If we see that it is, then we should lean into the obstacles that slow us down, but if not, we should redirect ourselves and find goals that better fit who we are as opposed to who others want us to be.

Avoiding Extremes

Colin Wright is an author, podcast host, and in to some degree full time traveler writing about his experiences and the ways in which he has come to see the world through stoic principles of self-awareness and mindful consideration. In his recent book, Come Back Frayed, Wright details his experiences living in the Philippines and explains ways in which his lifestyle contribute to his being able to not just survive, but thrive in very different environments and places. One of Wright’s traits lending to a successful lifestyle of travel is his ability to avoid extremes in terms of thought, behavior, and desires. Regarding extremes he writes,

 

“Extremes are insidious because they’re incredibly valuable until they’re not. At some point on the usefulness curve, they transition, hyde-like, to harmful. Even water is deadly if you drink too much of it.
Avoiding extremes has become an integral part of my lifestyle, because I find that walking up to that line, toeing it, and then stepping back to stand on healthier, more stable ground is what allows me to work and live and enjoy the world around me without suffering the consequences of burnout, sleep-deprivation, ill-health, and fanaticism.”

 

I enjoy this passage because Wright explains the importance of remaining even and level in our actions. It is easy, tempting, and often encouraged to push toward an extreme in whatever we are doing with our lives, but in the long run the consequences of living on the extremes can be disastrous. Pursuing diets without flexibility, driving toward completing incredible amounts of work, and even participating in non-stop leisure can lead to worse outcomes than if we had been more balanced in our approach. Focusing so highly on one area may help us find incredible success, but as we push further toward the extremes, we must out of necessity, and limitations on our time and energy, give up attention for other areas of our life. Without stopping to take notice of our focus, we will find that suddenly, our laser detail on one extreme, has allowed other areas to become problematic.

 

This is the sudden change that Wright discusses in his quote above. Extremes push us to places where the supports that allow for our behavior become weakened and unable to further support our specific efforts. Because our focus is so set in one area, it also means we are oblivious to areas we have chosen to neglect, and when problems arise, we might not know where to look to find solutions.

 

Greatness and deliberate action are things to strive for, but we should recognize what we are sacrificing to reach those goals. As we drive further toward extremes in pursuit of excellence, we will notice that we must take our focus away from other areas. Being conscious of our decisions and recognizing when we are approaching extreme points will help us find a place where we can continue to seek greatness on more stable footing.