Seeing Yourself With A Little Distance

In his book The Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday writes  the following, “You must practice seeing yourself with a little distance, cultivating the ability to get out of your own head. Detachment is a sort of natural ego antidote. It’s easy to be emotionally invested and infatuated with your own work. Any and every narcissist can do that. What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.”

 

In this quote, Holiday is encouraging us to focus on our work and goals in a way that is not flashy and that does not seek praise. He is encouraging us to practice the skill of doing good and meaningful work, even if we are not immediately recognized for what we do. Often, the important work that must be done isn’t sexy and isn’t visible to the people we want to impress. We won’t always be immediately rewarded with a trophy or a bonus for the work that needs to be done, but if we are the one to put in the extra effort and effectively and efficiently do a good job, we can find our way to success.

 

The flip side, and what Holiday is urging us to avoid, is doing work only when people are watching. He encourages us to recognize and work against the expectation that we will be noticed and recognized for our work, because the public recognition is not the most important piece of what we do. If we only put forward hard work and extra effort when we know our effort will be visible and publicly rewarded, then our effort in is not actually about the work, but instead about the praise and status that comes looking impressive. We may like the praise and incentives do matter for human beings, but if we are trying to approach the world rationally and make a difference, then we should recognize that this approach to life and work likely won’t guide us toward making the biggest impact possible.

 

When I was a child, one of the chores I always hated was vacuuming. When I would actually do what my parents had told me and vacuum, I intentionally leave the vacuum out because I knew that my mother would then have to acknowledge that I had vacuumed. I would be sure to get a “thank you for vacuuming, now can you please put the vacuum away?” but if I did my work completely and put the machine back in the closet when I finished, I risked getting no notice from my mother for having completed my chore. This is the childish mindset that Holiday is encouraging us to get away from when it comes to doing important work in our life. We should strive to be successful in life because it will mean that we are making a difference in the world or can obtain further resources to allow us to do more through charity and meaningful good deeds. What we should avoid is working hard to try to improve our status and to have more ego inflating fun trips and toys to try to set us apart from others. Focusing on the first goal will ultimately take us further and lead to better quality work and engagement with the world than the second ego inflating goal. Only performing and doing our best work when we can be praised for it will lead us to situations where we fail to cultivate habits of hard work and focus, and will drive us to positions where we are not working for ourselves and for the good of humanity, but for our ego and to make showy purchases to impress other people that we likely don’t even care much about.

Change for the Better

In his book Come Back Frayed, author Colin Wright echoes some of the sentiments and ideas that Ryan Holiday puts forward in his book, The Obstacle is the Way. Speaking about the challenges of travel and the new experiences and situations that travel forces us into, Wright focuses on the growth that is possible from getting outside what we are comfortable with and challenging our expectations. He writes,

 

“The energy produced when we struggle, when we grow, gives us the torque we need in order to climb. Seeing these frictions as fuel, as substance to burn so that we might achieve greater heights, means that every discomfort, peril, and concern is valuable. The environmental influences which cause us to change become tools we can use to guide our own evolution and ensure the changes are for the better.”

 

What Wright expresses is the same idea that Holiday focused on in his book: using our struggles and turning the impediment to action into the catalyst for action. Both authors follow stoic traditions, and the common theme between the two of them runs back to Marcus Aurelius who focused on how perception and struggle are pair together to either hold us down or create new opportunities for us.

 

Wright’s quote specifically looks at how the environment around us either pushes us toward growth, or allows us to slide backwards into predictability, comfort, and stagnation. What Wright explains is that travel puts us in new places where we experience friction and are unable to move forward using our standard rules and must develop new rules and strategies for advancing. Leaning into these experiences and working hard to better understand where our model of the world fails to meet the new culture around us is what fuels our growth. Looking at the small friction points as learning blocks gives us a chance to grow in ways that we never would have imagined had we not put ourselves in unfamiliar situations. Simply being in a new place where things are not familiar causes us to think more deeply and turn off the auto-pilot that usually guides our direction along pre-set paths in our day to day lives.

Crossing Finish Lines

A difficult challenge on my journey has been shifting ideas, focuses, and goals.  I begin working towards something or I get an idea in my head, but I seem to often times end up moving in a different direction several months later. While maintaining a vision and having the grit to see it through is important, Colin Wright in his book Considerations addresses my concern in a direct way.

 

“Live your life and allow your goals and priorities to grow as you grow.  Otherwise you may find yourself spending all your time running toward a finish line you have no interest in crossing, for no better reason than you told yourself you would cross it.”

 

When I look at the ideas and goals I am working towards and ask myself why I am pursuing these goals, I can better understand the motivation and reason for my efforts. If there does not seem to be a meaningful benefit in achieving that goal, then I can move on and allow that goal to shift with me or fall by the wayside.  Wright’s quote from above shows that reevaluating our goals is a natural progress of life, and he explains that cultivating self-awareness  will help you see which goals can be shifted and which ones should be maintained.

 

I have often been afraid of reaching a point where I was not happy with what I achieved, what my daily regimen was like, or finding out that the goal I worked for was not as sweet as I had imagined. What Wright’s quote says to me is that pursuing growth is the most important thing we can do in our life. Fearing that we will end up in a place we dislike should not stop us from looking for the right path. We can begin down a path and decide that it is not right for us, but if we change direction we must look for a path that offers growth that is more aligned with who we are.

That Brilliant Idea

Colin Wright writes about getting great ideas out of our head and into the world in his book Considerations, and he hits on all of the roadblocks that  keep our ideas locked away in our imagination.  He addresses the fear we have with bringing our ideas out of our mind and into the world to understand why so many great ideas never materialize.  When I first read through his book I highlighted a section reading, “…scared that perhaps our secret gift for money-making/cancer-curing/potato-chip-flavoring isn’t a gift at all, but just our own arrogance convincing us that we’re something special, when we’re not.”  I highlighted this section because it shows how easily in our minds we can begin to over inflate ourselves thinking we are special and amazing even though we have not accomplished anything.  That is not to say that the only value and measure of our worth is in our accomplishments, but it takes a level of self awareness to see that we are not special simply for having good ideas, or simply because we like the way we think. What can make us great, standout, and feel a level of accomplishment is taking the ideas we have and building upon them. Once we get those ideas out into the world and start working to actualize our thoughts, the special magic flows.

 

Wright addresses why our brilliant ideas often times stay locked in our heads, “The problem with great ideas is that they feel very valuable, and as such are something we want to protect … Part of why we do this is that we’re very proud of ourselves when we have good ideas, part is that we don’t want a competitor equipped with full financial-backing to steal it before we’re ready to act, and part is that we’re scared.”  With my own ideas I have faced all of these challenges.  I am often afraid of acting on my ideas because they may require additional work for me and that I spend extra time focusing on creating my idea rather than lazy leisure activities.  The fear of extra work and difficult challenges is a fear that I have yet to truly confront and overcome, but it is one that I believe I can change with a certain amount of self-awareness.

 

Wright also addresses the idea that another person may steal our idea before it is ready, which makes many of us think that it is better not to discuss our idea with people.  This fallacy can be damaging because it limits our ability to find those who could help us. When we are afraid of telling others about our idea then we miss an opportunity to have someone connect us with other people who can help us, and we miss a chance to have another person’s perspective on our plan. What we may find when we tell as many people about our idea as possible is that there are holes in our plan that other innovators can help us bridge in creative ways.

 

Wright offers one other thought on ideas and why we lock them away in our mind. He believes that we are often too enamored with our idea to let others poke holes in our theories. He states, “…scared that the idea might not be as good as it seems in the variable-less vacuums of our brains.” In our own minds we cannot see the shortcomings of our ideas, or perhaps we just chose not to see the weaknesses of our thoughts. Locked away in our own mind, the idea is pristine and perfect, but once we begin to tell others about our plan it is in danger of being ripped open.  Successful entrepreneurs would tell us that having others challenge aspects of our ideas is a crucial part of success, but on an individual level this can seem to be too much of a threat.

 

Wright encourages us to overcome this anxiety and fear by looking for abundance. Expecting that we will have more great ideas, better opportunities, and more chances to work on ideas in the future can help us feel more comfortable as we begin to develop our ideas. Seeing the success or failure of any idea as a stepping stone makes it seem smaller, reducing the gravity of a potential failure.  If we can approach an idea as a chance to grow, knowing that we will have an abundance of opportunities to act on another ideas or fit in with an existing idea in the future, then we are not paralyzed by the fear of executing an idea.

The Long Haul

In the book Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People who Know a Thing or Two, James Harmon organized a collection of letters from creative people he admired, even though most of the world would not call them celebrities.  Richard Meltzer is one of the many writers who sent Harmon a letter to be published in his book, and one of the themes in Meltzer’s letter is accepting that success and becoming good at something takes longer than what we would like. Meltzer writes, “it will in all likelihood take you much longer than you expect— an unfair percentage of the time you’ve got left — to get much of anything right.”  This is an important quote for young people today to understand since so often we want success to happen immediately.  “You have to factor in the LONG HAUL,” Meltzer continued as he explained that in order to achieve the goals and desires, we must plan for the unavoidable periods of mundane and hard work.
I know that I have felt a lot of pressure to succeed and to reach certain milestones very quickly. The pressure comes from the outside as well as the inside as I criticize myself for not having achieved goals, whether they relate to exercise, finances, or personal hobbies. From the outside we are all driven to achieve a level of success that other people expect from us. We see the lives that our parents have and strive to reach or exceed their lifestyle, and we compete against our peers and high school classmates to be impressive.  All of these pressures can be damaging, especially if we expect to achieve success overnight.
Factoring in the long haul means that you are aware of the hard work that it will take to build the experience necessary to grow.  It involves showing up, being self aware, and re-organizing your desires so that you can have alignment in your life.  The amount of time it takes to reach the level we all desire takes longer than what seems fair as we spend our younger lives preparing ourselves to become the person we want to be. Constant self awareness and accepting the fact that the hard work is not sexy will help us continue to grow and reach for new opportunities, no matter how slowly we seem to progress towards our dreams.

Accepting that Life is not Easy

This quote from Allison Vesterfelt’s friend and companion on her 50 state road trip in her book Packing Light, really helps me understand the difficulties we have in our life. “I think sometimes when things get hard, too many of us assume we’re moving in the wrong direction … Like if we’re doing life right, it’s supposed to be easy.” The quote helps me see that my ideas of success are often out of touch with reality. Reaching a level of success financially or in a career will not mean that things are suddenly easy for me. I will still feel insecurities about how hard I must work or about not having everything I may want and desire.  At the same time, becoming successful does not mean that other parts of my life will fall into place and become easy. Financial success does not translate into a happy home life, and a successful relationship also may not reach a point where everything feels easy.  By remembering Vesterfelt’s quote, I am able to accept the challenges that come with success, and I am better able to judge my journey when I hit rough patches.  Rather than running away from challenges to look for success and “easy” someplace else, this quote helps me see the value in persevering and growing from the difficulties.