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.

Crafting Stories

Our brains are awesome at pattern recognition. It helps us drive down the freeway and know when traffic is going to come to a stop, it helps us identify fresh bananas and avoid overly ripe ones, and it gives us the ability to do complex mathematics. The brain evolved to recognize and identify patterns in nature so that we could adapt and adjust to the world around us and live in societies with other people and their pattern recognizing brains.

 

Today however, our brains’ pattern recognition can get us in trouble. In our daily lives we encounter a lot of randomness. We have a lot of experiences and face a lot of situations that truly don’t have any meaning behind them, but just happened to happen. Whether it was our toast getting knocked off the counter, seeming to hit every red light on our way to work, or someone not texting us back, we have a lot of daily experiences that our brain will attempt to find patterns between to find meaning where there isn’t any (or at least isn’t any substantial meaning).  Being aware of our brain’s pattern recognition engine and its desire to create a story between random events is important if we want to be able to react to the world in a reasonable way and to draw reasonable conclusions about the world around us.

 

Ryan Holiday writes about the danger of creating unrealistic stories from the standpoint of our own egos in his book Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes, “Crafting stories out of past events is a very human impulse. It’s also dangerous and untrue. Writing our own narrative leads to arrogance. It turns our life into a story – and turns us into caricatures…” Holiday was writing about the way we look at success in the lives of other people and the way we think about where we are going and how we have gotten to where we are today. We often see a clear path looking backward that really didn’t exist when the journey began. We likely fail to see the doubt, the uncertainty, and the luck that just happened to bounce along and open a new path for ourselves or someone else. We create a narrative that highlights our good decisions, downplays our errors, and makes our journey through life seem like an inevitable trajectory and not like a rocky forest path that just happened to wind up where it did and not someplace else.

 

Its likely that none of us will stop telling our life in the form of a story or that we will ever be able to turn our brain’s pattern recognition engine off to stop the stories, but we need to be aware of the fact that we do this. Our perceptions of the world will always be limited, which means the stories we tell will never truly represent the reality of the world around us. We also have strong incentives to tell a story that gives meaning to things without any meaning, like the person who cut us off on the freeway leading to the accident was clearly an immoral person who victimized me, the innocent and pure driver who didn’t deserve such misfortune. Our stories will also likely create positive groups that we belong to and out-groups that are somehow less virtuous than our group. Our stories will feature us as prime actors driving our life forward, when we know that sometimes we just bump into good fortune or receive an opportunity without truly doing anything to deserve the opportunity. Ultimately, our stories are likely to be tools to inflate our ego and our status, are likely to jumble together patterns that the brain perceived from nothing, and to include only slivers of reality from our singular perspective. The stories are not real, so we should question them and be aware of when we are trying to make decisions based on the story of our lives that we tell ourselves.

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.

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.

Talking, Taking Action, Working Hard, and Being Afraid

I remember listening to a podcast a while back and learning about a study that examined what happened with children’s performance on tests when they received praise. After being given a test, a group of students were praised for their hard work in studying and preparing for the test and told that they did well and got a good grade. Another group of students took the test and were praised for being very smart and doing well on the test. In the end, on a follow-up test, the group of students praised for working hard ended up outperforming the group who was told they were smart.  The group that was told they were smart ended up performing worse on the second test than they had on the first test. What the researchers found was that children who were told they were smart and special were afraid to make mistakes on the second test, as if not doing well on the second test would reveal that they were not as smart as they had been told. The students who were praised for their hard work on the other hand did not have the same fear of making mistakes and doing worse. As a result, the group praised for effort was more willing to take chances on hard questions and apply themselves on the second test.

 

This experiment comes back to my mind frequently. This morning I was reminded of it after reading a quote in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes about the way that our ego wants instant gratification and success. It does not want to work hard to achieve the things that bring us glory, attention, and praise. We just want to do well and be rewarded.

 

The quote that brought the experiment with children back to my mind is specifically about the time and effort we spend talking about how great our goals and plans our. It is easy, and somewhat comforting, to think about our big exciting goals, but it is hard to actually get started with working toward our goals. We can tell people all about what we want to do and even how we are going to do it, but taking the first step and actually doing things to move forward, is much more of a challenge than all our talk would make it seem. Holiday writes,

 

“Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuff – the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory.”

 

All our time spent talking makes us look great. Our big plans impress people and may even inspire the people around us. The action to achieve our goals however, is dangerous and scary. Once we start working, putting one foot in font of the other and making efforts to move forward, we risk failure. Just like the children in the experiment I started this post with, when we are praised for having such good ideas, we risk failure in round  two if we actually try to be smart and do well on the next test. If what we remember to be important is the hard work that we put toward solving the big problems that prevent us from reaching our goal, then we can shift our mindset and overcome the obstacles in our way. By understanding that we might not succeed, but that we can put forward our best effort and learn along the way, we can overcome the paralysis that prevents us from turning our talk into action. The ego wants to just enjoy the time we spend having great ideas and it wants the thoughts of ideas to equal the action toward our big ideas, but we know it does not. We must remember that accomplishing (or making progress toward a goal) is what really matters, not whether our goal and the way we talk about it inspires other people.

Helping Yourself by Helping Others

In The Ego is the Enemy, author Colin Wright encourages us to get beyond our own selfish thoughts and desires. He encourages us to be aware of our ego and the times that our ego kicks in to run the show and determine what we do. The Ego, Holiday writes, seeks things for our own self-interest, and puts us in situations where it actually becomes harder to achieve what we want or to live the life that we want. Rather than pursuing our ego, Holiday suggests that we work toward or goals by helping others first. He suggest that we practice humility and put in the grunt work, tackling projects that are small and seem unimportant but will help us learn and grow over time.

 

He writes, “Imagine if for every person you met, you thought of some way to help them, something you could do for them? And you looked at it in a way that entirely benefited them and not you. The cumulative effect this would have over time would be profound: You’d learn a great deal by solving diverse problems. You’d develop a reputation for being indispensable. You’d have countless new relationships. You’d have an enormous bank of favors to call upon down the road.”

 

Helping others in this way truly does help ourselves. It puts our short term self-interests aside as we assist other people and show that we care about them. People want help and are more likely to give you opportunities to grow when what you are doing is serving them rather than serving yourself. To pursue this type of strategy, you have to accept that your work may be kept in the background and that other people may get more credit than you for the work you do or the ideas you produce. Holiday encourages us to be confident that this approach will still lead to long term success even if it feels we are being overlooked in the short run.

 

This strategy aims toward is positive results in the world, your company, or in your family. What matters most is that you are part of a successful team and that the world is made better with your actions. Where we can be confident is that in the long run we will be recognized as the source of the great ideas, or as the person who put in the hard work to keep things moving in a positive direction. But even if we are not, we still benefit in the long run by a rising tide that lifts us with the other people in our company, family, or group. Pursuing success and helping others become the best versions of themselves will ultimately help us more and create more cohesion among the groups we belong to than will our selfish attention seeking ego.

The Seed of Greatness

How do we do something great? What do we need to do in order to achieve a high level success that everyone agrees to be truly outstanding? I don’t necessarily ask myself these direct questions, but every day of my life I feel as though I am asking and trying to answer these questions. When it comes to being great, Ryan Holiday has an idea of where greatness gets it start in his book Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes, “Greatness comes from humble beginnings; it comes from grunt work. It means you’re the least important person in the room-until you change that with results.”

 

As I write this, the NCAA Championship is getting right down to the wire. The final four games were just played, and tomorrow is the national championship game. One of the coaches is in only his third season as the head coach of one of the teams, and he seems to have appeared out of nowhere to become incredibly successful. These flashes of greatness and sudden success are what I feel we are all looking for. We want to have success drop into our laps and we want to jump into something and be instantly great and successful. But the sudden success of the Texas Tech coach, Chris Beard, isn’t really sudden success. Coach Beard has been working for years to become a better coach and to be able to lead a team to a potential national championship. His success to the outside world seems to be very sudden, but the reality is that years of work and anonymity went into his build to greatness and his sudden success in college basketball.

 

The lesson from Holiday is that sudden successes are rarely sudden successes. We look around and see someone achieve something great and often feel envious of how easily they accomplished something, but our view from the outside misses the grunt work that went into their success. The seed of greatness is planted in the habits and effort we put into every day. The work we do that forces us to focus on the tedious, the effort we spend to think about how we could constantly improve, and the small actions we take that help us learn something each day are what eventually build to greatness. To achieve sudden success, we must prepare ourselves over years of hard work so that we can perform at our best and be ready for the opportunity to fully apply ourselves.