Ego seems necessary for success, but vesting in self-importance impedes your career.
Being great is different from doing great things.
Engaging in building a “personal brand” confuses accomplishing something with talking about it.
Cultivate restraint to manage your feelings of pride or anger.
“Clear the path” for others, and you’ll help determine the path they take.
Ego undermines the connection and engagement with others that both allow success to grow.
Goal visualization helps at the beginning of a project, but it can produce a misleading impression of progress.
Maintain “a student mind-set” to keep your ego in check by acknowledging that you always have more to learn.
Ego is “the disease of me”; this world is far greater than you.
Abandon ego’s attachment to success and commit to a path of constant improvement.
Why ego does not help you succeed and
What strategies you can use to avoid the trappings of ego.
Best-selling author Ryan Holiday recommends that people stop jabbering, forget their narratives, restrain their passions, learn from everything they do, accept failure and never stop working. He offers anecdotes about professional athletes, politicians and business leaders who learned hard lessons about the dangers of ego as well as tales of quiet workers who made enormous differences and remained unknown. Holiday’s conversational style reads like getting advice from a good friend. His chapters are short and easy to understand, though some entries cover similar topics. The partial bibliography directs readers to an extensive reading list on Holiday’s website. His alternative approach is great for people with an interest in self-improvement, not self-aggrandizement. He believes that the best way to move ahead is keep learning and to tame your ego – and he shows you how.
What Is Ego?
Anyone with ambition has ego. People who marshal their skills to meet their goals have ego. Artists, athletes, scientists and entrepreneurs achieve their objectives by harnessing the focus and desire to create and discover. But, too often, ego drives these activities. Ego is necessary for getting ahead. But “an unhealthy belief” in how important you are has the opposite impact and blocks your progress.Ego encourages lazy, self-congratulatory fantasizing. Defined as “self-centered ambition,” ego undermines the connection with others and the engagement that both allow success to grow. To assess your strengths accurately, embrace a blend of confidence and humility. Recognize that ego offers the comfort of self-satisfaction, but it’s self-absorbed and can blind you to opportunity.
“What makes us so promising as thinkers, doers, creatives and entrepreneurs, what drives us to the top of those fields, makes us vulnerable to this darker side of the psyche.”
Aspiring to Greatness
Greatness is often a quiet act. The late US Air Force fighter pilot and strategist John Boyd helped revolutionize modern warfare across the US armed forces, but the general public doesn’t know of him. To emphasize the difference between working for recognition and working to get something accomplished, he asked the soldiers he commanded if they wanted “to be or to do.” Just being somebody is much easier than actually getting things done.
“Ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success.”
Though popular wisdom encourages people “to find their passion,” that can be the wrong advice. Passion leads to enthusiasm at the expense of thoughtful deliberation. Passion’s energy and excitement can hide weaknesses that will eventually appear. Instead of impatient passion, seek purpose with reasons and goals.Practice restraint. Anger, resentment and pride cloud your thinking. You’re not special just because you went to a good school, work hard, or came from a rich or influential family. You may dislike it when your boss is rude or your colleagues are frustrating, but being reactive and claiming that you deserve better will get you nowhere. Such behaviors stem from ego. Being restrained lets you focus on the work at hand and value the lessons that emerge along the way.
“We start out knowing what is important to us, but once we’ve achieved it, we lose sight of our priorities.”
“The Canvas Strategy”
The canvas strategy builds on the notion of restraint, of being “a canvas for other people to paint on.” Shift away from the short-term satisfaction of resentment and move toward embracing the long-term enrichment of self-development. To follow the canvas strategy, keep these ideas in mind when first starting out in the world of work:
“Once you win, everyone is gunning for you. It’s during your moment at the top that you can afford ego the least – because the stakes are so much higher, the margins for error so much smaller.”
You will probably need to improve and cultivate a better attitude.
You “aren’t as good” as you may believe, nor as important.
You don’t know everything, and you need to learn more than your education taught you.
Your success often will come alongside the success of others. Work to make other people’s jobs easier. While an initial sense of subservience might confound your ego, starting at the bottom gives you an opportunity to learn how something really works. Overcome your ego by finding ideas to share with your boss. Introduce people who might collaborate. Do the small tasks others avoid. When you “clear the path” for other people, you help determine the course they’ll take.
“The more difficult the task, the more uncertain the outcome, the more costly talk will be and the farther from actual accountability.”
Problems with Narratives
Be someone who does things rather than someone who talks a lot. Social media encourage talk instead of productivity. Posting updates on Facebook and Twitter misleads you into focusing on speech over action. Filling boxes with text promotes the false presentation of confidence, ability and accomplishment. Don’t believe your own self-promotion. That’s your ego inflating itself.
“It takes a special kind of humility to grasp that you know less, even as you know and grasp more and more.”
Gawker blogger Emily Gould described the challenge she faced in completing her novel. She had a “six-figure book deal,” but her writing bogged down because she was always posting on Tumblr or Twitter or scrolling through websites. These were distractions from the real work she had to do, but she convinced herself that it was work: she was building her personal brand. In the relentless pursuit of building, curating or refining a personal brand, people lose sight of the difference between actual accomplishments and fictional advertisements of themselves. All that posting and all that talk use up the energy you need for your real work. Some people like to mutter the thoughts that are leading them through solving a problem, but some studies suggest that talking aloud slows the process of discovery. Likewise, goal visualization helps at the beginning of a project, but after a while it produces the misleading impression of progress. When a project is hard, talk does not help.
Stories of success make success seem inevitable. Looking back at your own story is dangerous because you can reject all the pieces that don’t fit the narrative you want to tell. Such a narrative can offer false clarity and distract you from remembering the work that enabled you to attain your goals. Narratives of success mislead by suggesting they are conclusive, that the story ends after success. But in life, the story continues. After you succeed, everyone wants to beat you. More than ever, you must work hard to maintain the success you strived to achieve.
“Ego needs honors to be validated. Confidence…is able to wait and focus on the task at hand regardless of external recognition.”
Pride is dangerous. It inhibits learning. Instead, maintain “a student mind-set” to keep your ego in check by acknowledging that you always have more to learn. Success doesn’t make you a master. Frank Shamrock, a mixed martial arts world champion, teaches that everyone needs “a plus, a minus and an equal.” Learn from someone who has more skill than you, someone who acts as a teacher. Gain from teaching someone who knows less than you, because being a professional requires understanding your task well enough to describe it to others. Working with someone at your level helps you cultivate finesse and dexterity.
“The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility – that’s ego.”
Maintaining a student mind-set is easier in the beginning of your career. Success brings the temptation to overestimate your knowledge. John Wheeler, a physicist who helped develop the hydrogen bomb, said, “As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” The more you know, the more you realize you need to learn.
Jazz great Wynton Marsalis once told an aspiring musician to be humble, explaining that humility is evident in those who don’t believe they already know everything. As you learn, discover the processes that enable you to learn most effectively. Repeat those procedures to ensure your continuous education.
“A smart man or woman must regularly remind themselves of the limits of their power and reach.”
The “theory of disruption” proposes that every industry will eventually encounter a change that no one predicted. When that happens, established business models – already too comfortable with their familiar approach – won’t respond effectively because they’ve stopped learning and growing. Newcomers are more agile; since they’re still in a learning mind-set, they see an opportunity to fill a market need and take advantage of it. They study their competitors to learn which changes would help them grow.
“Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.”
“Standard of Performance”
Professional football coach Bill Walsh established a Standard of Performance as general manager of the San Francisco 49ers. Over the course of three years, he took a team that earned ratings as one of the worst in the league and made it a Super Bowl champion. People told the story of this climb by saying Walsh had a vision of the team’s Super Bowl win and executed it. He refused to buy into that narrative. Instead, Walsh described how he focused on what the team members needed to do, when they needed to do it and how they should do it.
Walsh instilled a sense of excellence by insisting on small behavioral rules: Players must stand while on the practice field; coaches must appear in tucked-in shirts and ties; the locker room must be clean. Bill Walsh expected the team to perform well on the field and off. After winning the Super Bowl, the team had two terrible years because the players became overconfident and self-satisfied. The team had to accept that the Standard of Performance was their route to victory before they started to win again and became recurring champions.
“Unless we use this moment as an opportunity to understand ourselves and our own mind better, ego will seek out failure like true north.”
Mistakes are inevitable. Being an entrepreneur or creative person requires taking risks, and risks don’t always work out. The problem isn’t failing. The problem is identifying with failure. Ego believes that the only options are success or failure. That is ego confusion. Failure isn’t indicative of who you are, only of what you did. Ego tries to prove that failure is, or will become, success.
“At every 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.”
When Dov Charney was the CEO of American Apparel, his practices cost the company some $300 million and the reputational damage of multiple scandals. When the board asked Charney to step aside, he refused. He then wasted a fortune on a useless lawsuit to vindicate himself. He lost, and faced public humiliation when the media published details that the case revealed about his behavior.
Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, the company he founded, because of his huge ego. Jobs was angry and fought the company’s decision, but he didn’t let it ruin him. He sold all but one share of Apple and decided to try again. Learning from his management failures, he funded the animation company Pixar and slowly rebuilt his reputation. He eventually returned to Apple, and made it an even better company than he could have built before learning such hard life lessons.
“You can’t learn if you think you already know.”
As with Jobs, failure is an opportunity to learn. When success begins to wane, don’t attach yourself even more tightly to your job, project or goal. Recognize that something went wrong; try to identify how your behavior contributed to that error and begin to change.
When people first succeed, they may indulge in wild behavior. Success can transform that confusion and erratic conduct into self-assurance and bravery. If your success came from a surprising guess, recognize that you didn’t know what would lead to success. When others applaud your greatness, stay sober.
Consider Germany’s Angela Merkel, one of the most powerful women in the world. When Russian president Vladimir Putin tried to intimidate her by allowing his hunting dog to interrupt a meeting, she didn’t take it personally or react badly even though her dislike of dogs is common knowledge. In the midst of adversity, she remained “firm, clear and patient.” As Merkel once said, “You can’t solve…tasks with charisma.”Success has the adverse effect of making people feel larger than life. Stress reinforces their sense of importance. Similarly, rebukes or failures hurt people’s inflated egos. Tame your ego by observing the vastness of the universe; “meditate on immensity.” Observe nature. Find something that allows you to connect. Let go of ego’s desire for retaliation or its efforts to reinforce its value. See how grand the world is. Ego is “the disease of me,” but the world offers much more than you.
Do things for the purpose of doing them. Let the effort be enough. When a project becomes focused on success alone, your ego is in control. Your work might incur ridicule or sabotage. Recognition may never arrive in the forms you seek: public praise, financial success or approval from the one person whose respect you want. Focus on your expectations, not someone else’s. Ego drives the desire to succeed. Let the effort you put into your work be success enough. If it’s not, then maybe this isn’t the work you should be doing.
Learn What Matters to You
Ego makes everything about the self. Genuine self-awareness diminishes ego by allowing the self to grow and change. Ask, “What’s important to you?” so that you focus on self-evaluation and not on external measures. Learn what matters to you so you can be true to yourself. Recognize that the world has much to continue teaching you. Abandon ego’s attachment to success. Commit, instead, to a path of constant improvement.
About the Author
Ryan Holiday is the former director of marketing at American Apparel and a best-selling author. He wrote The Obstacle Is The Way, Growth Hacker Marketing, and Trust Me, I’m Lying and co-wrote The Daily Stoic with Stephen Hanselman.