Blind Spots From Pride

“The question to ask, when you feel pride, then, is this: What am I missing right now that a more humble person might see? What am I avoiding, or running from, with my bluster, franticness, and embellishments?”  This quote comes from Ryan Holiday and his book Ego is the Enemy. In the quote, Holiday is encouraging us to have enough self awareness to recognize the times when we are acting out of pride and when we are thinking so highly of ourselves that we do not clearly see our own shortcomings and the areas where we need to improve. Developing an awareness of our pride and being able to look at ourselves clearly is a powerful skill to cultivate to better connect with others and to learn and grow as we work toward our goals.

 

Feeling proud of ourselves is comfortable. After a good workout, when we receive praise at work, and when we buy that shiny new thing we have had our eye on for a while, our pride steps in and tells us how amazing, hard working, and smart we are. People applaud our good outcome on a project, give our gym post a like, or turn heads as we drive down the street and this makes us feel validated and as though we are doing all the right things. Unfortunately, none of this truly matters and if we start to believe that all of these things define us and are what make us a great person, then we are building a false foundation to stand on. Our pride takes over and we begin to tell ourselves how amazing we are because of the praise and attention we have received.

 

The danger here is that we become blind to what really matters. Focused on ourselves, we likely allow our relationships with others to wither, we likely miss the new market trends and opportunities, and we likely fail to recognize other areas in our life where we can improve ourselves to prepare for future challenges. Believing we are great sets us up to fail by making us overconfident in our own abilities. It takes away the focus on improvement and growth that tells us that we must put in extra effort on the small details and must cultivate strong habits that help us grow each day.

 

As Holiday writes in his book, being more humble about our successes, our abilities, and who we are will allow us to better engage in the important things in the world. When we recognize that we don’t know everything, don’t have all the skills necessary to stay at the top of the mountain in a changing landscape, and don’t have innate abilities that will never fail, we are more likely to treat those around us with more kindness and compassion and we are more likely to be comfortable with the daily work that helps us overcome the obstacles we face. Humility builds a self-awareness and an accurate sense of our strengths. Through this humble self-awareness, we can take a more measured approach to ourselves, our goals, and the actions we take each day.

The Ego Drives the Wrong Outcome

The idea in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy, shows up over and over again in children’s movies. We frequently see main characters who have incredible ambition but are not patient enough to learn from the wise elders of the show. They set off with confidence that they can be great, take on the mighty challenge, and achieve some impressive feat only to fail and return to gain knowledge and insight from the wise leader whose advice they previously ignored. The message is to be confident in yourself, to push yourself, but also to be patient and learn from those who have come before you. In other words, the message is to control your ego.

 

We see this all the time in children’s movies, but in our own lives, that message often seems forgotten as we plunge into AP classes in high school, 20 credits our first semester of college, and into a new career with an eye toward the corner office. We set out to be recognized in each of these areas, driven by our ego, with the advice of our elders falling on deaf ears unless that advice is really just someone telling us that we are great and will get into a great school, will get a great job, and will make boatloads of cash. Our ego takes over and the focus is not on doing great work and learning, but on getting something so we can show off.

 

What is worse, when we are under-prepared for challenges that we face in this situation, we tend to let the ego drive us forward as if it is our will that will push us where we want to go. As Holiday put it, “We tend to think that ego equals confidence, which is what we need to be in charge. In fact, it can have the opposite effect.” We face challenges and want to look strong and prepared for what we face. We want others to be impressed as we handle these difficulties without breaking a sweat. We try to be a leader by inflating our ego and standing tall in front of our desk with our arms crossed, the cliche magazine cover image of a CEO.

 

How we actually reach our goals and become successful is a different picture. We learn from grunt work. We set stretch goals and challenge ourselves, but within reasonable bounds that we know will force us to grow. This is completely different from setting goals that we know will impress other people. Trying to be the leader through sheer ego will make us look small and put us on a path toward isolation. Becoming a leader through experience and a willingness to learn from others will actually make us great, but it is something we can only do if we can control the ego and allow ourselves to learn from others. It all requires self-awareness and a dose of humility to put our ego aside and learn from the wise people in our lives and to take on our ambitious challenges when we are ready.

What is it that I Want to Accomplish?

Goal setting and prioritization is an incredibly challenging and difficult process. It is hard to know what one really wants to do and what truly motivates someone. We hold a lot of competing values in our head when we try to set our goals, and often we get tripped up and set goals for ourselves that we don’t really want to pursue, but that we think we should. We want to impress other people, live up to the expectations we think our parents have for us, and do something we think we will enjoy and be well compensated for. Often, these things don’t all align, and often goal setting in this way doesn’t actually make us happy or put us on a path toward something we can truly be motivated to pursue.

 

In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday helps us think through a framework for setting goals. The first step is to be aware of the factors in your decision that are purely ego enhancing. Those things that we do to impress others or to raise our own social status without necessarily doing something meaningful or something that truly interests us. After we can recognize what we do for ego purposes, we can ask ourselves new questions about our goals. Holiday writes, “In this course, its not ‘Who do I want to be in life?’ but ‘What is it that I want to accomplish in life?’ Setting aside selfish interests, it asks: What calling does it serve? What principles govern my choices? Do I want to be like everyone else or do I want to do something different?”

 

Ego can still cause all of these questions to be derailed and miss the mark, but each question encourages us to think about what we do for ego purposes, and whether we want to pursue the ego or whether we want to do something important that other people are not pursuing. In a recent interview on the Tim Ferris Show, author Jim Collins recommended an approach to making these types of decisions. Building on his “Hedgehog Principle” for businesses in his book Good to Great, Collins suggested that we find something we are coded to do, something we do exceptionally well, something we can be world (or local/community) leading in doing, and something that truly motivates us. Pursuing that will help us do meaningful work. Following his instructions and keeping Holiday’s warning about the ego in mind will ensure we focus on rewarding goals that help bring substantial positivity to the world.

 

We can follow everyone else and try to increase our status and have a standard career focused on ourselves, or we can step out and try to be intentional about our choices and actions. Collins compared this approach to creating artwork on a blank canvass compared to following a paint-by-numbers board. We can live a meaningful life following everyone else and taking the paint-by-numbers approach, but to truly do something different and have the biggest possible impact on the world, we need to be self-aware, avoid ego boosting decision-making, and try to paint our lives on a new canvass.

The Struggle of Great Work

Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy helped me really understand the benefits of getting away from habits, thoughts, and behaviors that serve to boost the ego. His writing has helped me better think through my desires and the actions I take to reach those desires. Focusing on my ego and understanding the destructive nature of egotistical goals has helped me to be more content and to think about what I pursue in a more sound manner.

 

One quote in Holiday’s book that stood out to me is about how challenging it is to do great work. In the past I have written about my childhood spending too much time watching TV and how that gave me a false sense of what success looked and felt like. I had an idea of what it looked like and felt like to be successful and pursue success that was based on made-up stories that took place over a 30 minute or one hour show. Holiday’s book helped me develop a better perspective. He writes, “Doing great work is a struggle. It’s draining, it’s demoralizing, its frightening–not always, but it can feel that way when we’re deep in the middle of it.”

 

My biggest criticism of TV shows and movies is that the hard part for the main character, the part that transforms them, the part where their grit pushes them to the great opportunity, the big battle, and the defining moment of the movie, is glossed over with some motivational sound track. In the Pursuit of Happiness we see Will Smith working his ass off in short 30 second spurts — he answers the phone like a boss, shows up early, and does all the right things and it looks easy and rewarding. In countless movies our hero works out, writes that article, somehow climbs up their metaphorical mountain, but that is never what the movie is about or what the focus is on. In our own lives however, that daily grid, the hard work, the transformation before the big moment is everything. It is never cut up into short clips to the tune of Eye of the Tiger.

 

Hearing from Holiday that meaningful work doesn’t always feel meaningful is helpful for me. It is reassuring to hear from people that I look up to that the bad days for them are as bad as they are for me. It is helpful to hear that others have been frightened as they try something they know might not really work out. Our ego hates these situations because we feel that if we fail publicly it will reflect something about us. Overcoming this piece of our ego is critical and accepting that the hard work will be frustrating and challenging can help us be more prepared for the journey ahead and to have more realistic expectations about the work we want to achieve. Looking at the ways our ego pushes us to pursue things we don’t really want or need also helps us better align our goals to make the hard work more meaningful and worthwhile. Getting away from an ego drive to have more things to impress more people allows us to be more content in the moments of hard work and grit.

Don’t Spend Too Much Time Talking and Too Little Time Doing

One of the aspects of Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy that I really like is the way that Holiday helps us with strategies and advice for achieving our goals. His main focus in the book is on our ego, and how our ego can trip us up and prevent us from reach the destinations we want. As he explains the pitfalls of living for our ego, he indirectly shows us what he thinks is a good life and what we can do to live a good life. The strategies and ideas he present are simple and help build habit which I have found very helpful.

 

One piece of advice from the book is to talk a lot less, especially about our goals and projects. “Research shows that while goal visualization is important,” Holiday writes, “after a certain point our mind begins to confuse it with actual progress. The same goes for verbalization.” Our brains seem to confuse actual action on a project with thoughts about and talk about a project or goal. Our mental resources get used up in talking through and explaining our goal before we ever put any mental energy into the necessary steps to achieve our goal.

 

“After spending so much time thinking, explaining, and talking about a task, we start to feel that we’ve gotten closer to achieving it … although of course we haven’t.”

 

Actual action requires that we stop talking and planning. We have to stop telling people about the great thing we want to do and put forward the energy to make that thing a reality. Planning in our mind, getting excited about a project or goal, and  thinking through all things we could do to either achieve or heighten the goal is at some point just as much of a distraction for us as social media, the next Marvel movie, or that box of girl-scout cookies. We must get moving, even if the action is small and seems insignificant at first. Talking and over thinking a goal will lead to inaction and will not actually help us do the things to reach our goal.

 

Holiday adds a rhetorical question (italics his), “I just spent four hours talking about this. Doesn’t that count for something? The answer is no.”
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.