“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. It repulses advantages and opportunities. It’s a magnet for enemies and errors. It is Scylla and Charybdis.” Ryan Holiday
The book Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday is filled with cautionary tales of those who let their egos run amok and were eventually undone by the resulting damage, as well as stories of those who practiced restraint and sobriety, and found success in their endeavors. This book can be an antidote (or at least the beginning of one) to the unraveling that is possible when one indulges ego and loses sight of reality—if you let it: “Not in the Freudian sense,” Holiday says of ego, but ego in the colloquial sense, as in “an unhealthy belief in your own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition.”
Ego Is the Enemy, published in 2016, is Ryan Holiday’s fourth book. It was a Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, international bestseller, and even has a following among the Seattle Seahawks, Olympic gold medalists, bestselling authors, CEOs, politicians, and many others.
This is the second book in which he draws from the principles of Stoicism; while his previous book, The Obstacle Is the Way, focused on overcoming life’s external obstacles. Holiday’s background is as a media strategist. Ryan dropped out of college at the age of nineteen to apprentice under Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power. Within six years, he became the youngest executive at a Beverly Hills talent management agency, advised authors who sold millions of copies of their books, became the director of marketing at American Apparel, built a successful company, Brass Check, and has written for publications ranging from Forbes to Thought Catalog to The Guardian. Then, in 2014, Holiday witnessed firsthand the effects of ego as American Apparel, the talent agency, and a relationship with a mentor all simultaneously unraveled:
“These were the people I had shaped my life around. The people I looked up to and trained under. Their stability—financially, emotionally, psychologically—was not just something I took for granted, it was central to my existence and self-worth. And yet, there they were, imploding right in front of me, one after another.”
In this way the author’s own experiences directed the book he was already contracted to write, and Ego Is the Enemy became:“…the book I [Holiday] wish existed at critical turning points in my own life.”
The book is structured as short essays split into three parts: Aspire, Success, and Failure. These being three phases that one invariably finds themselves in at any given moment, often alternating between them over the course of a life. As the book says, “Aspiration leads to success (and adversity). Success creates its own adversity (and, hopefully, new ambitions). And adversity leads to aspiration and more success. It’s an endless loop.”
In addition to these three phases, there are a few major themes running through each part of the book, as well as how people can successfully conquer their ego in each phase.
Three Key Themes From Ego Is The Enemy
1. Live with Purpose Not Passion
Having purpose will help you accomplish life changing work. Holiday says the first thing you need to do is ask yourself, “why do I do what I do?” If you don’t have an answer to this question, you should take some time to figure it out.
Most people aren’t living on purpose. They wander around life distracted, looking for the next form of gratification, wondering why they aren’t happy and why they don’t get what they want. They drive to a job they hate to pay for a car that brings them to that job, which also pays for a house they abandon during the day to go to that job. The ego loves the comfort a “secure” job has, but purpose, as well as the best things, happen outside of your comfort zone.
On the other hand, many harmonious and effective people have found that answering the following questions helped them live with purpose: Why do I do what I do? Who am I? What purpose am I serving?
Once one chooses to pursue the critical work over ego, how does one determine what that work is? Bill Walsh, the coach who took the 49ers from being the worst team in the NFL to the Super Bowl, is a great example of someone picking the critical work. He did not focus on some vague notion of “winning.” He knew that focusing on the basics and perfecting those would lead to success. He could change what the team was doing and how effectively they were working, but he could not put on a definitive timeline when the next win would happen. He was attached to effort (the part that could be controlled) not outcomes (which were out of his control). His standards were simple and ground level changes rather than fantastic visions, but by implementing them, as the saying goes, “the score takes care of itself.” Hall of Fame college basketball coach John Wooden also had a similar perspective as he led his team to winning ten basketball championships in twelve years. These coaches had clarity, discipline & patience in their ascent to mastery. They knew their purpose and their work brought them joy.
The Greeks used the word Euthymia for this which is a sense of our own path and how we can stay on it without getting distracted. Prioritize your goals with clarity and then follow through. True confidence comes from putting in the time; it comes from discipline and mastery. One important point to note is that critical work is not helped by passion. It requires deliberation, not blind emotion, otherwise it is subject to the delusions of ego. Divorced from reality, an endeavor cannot succeed. People who are passionate will tell you all the things they are going to do, but they can never show you any progress, because there usually isn’t any. They talk a lot, but get little done. People who are driven by purpose don’t need to talk about their work because you will see the results. It’s okay to be passionate, but be passionate with discipline. Execute with excellence. Remain humble; know that you always have more to learn:
“The critical work that you want to do will require your deliberation and consideration. Leave passion for the amateurs. Make it about what you feel you must do and say, not what you care about and wish to be.”
Get to know your ego, but once you make the choice to manage your ego and pursue your purpose, be prepared for when people try to sabotage you. An illustration the book uses is of Jackie Robinson, who showed incredible restraint in the face of adversity. As the first African American to play Major League Baseball, fans, coaches and other players were openly racist to him as he was on the field and batting. If Robinson would have reacted to these injustices with his ego, he would not have had the impact he is still having today; he was driven by a higher purpose.
Our adversities likely pale in comparison to Jackie Robinson’s, but the only thing we can be sure of when we are embarking on an endeavor is that there will be adversity and we will very likely be treated poorly. In these situations, there are two things to remember: 1) It degrades others, not you, when they treat you poorly and unfairly, and 2) Choose alive time over dead time.
The second point requires further elaboration. Malcolm X went to jail for years. While there, he read voraciously, and left a much more educated man than when he had entered. He couldn’t do much about his circumstances, but he did choose what to do while he was in those circumstances. Many people go to prison, but some take the time to learn from their mistakes and change their lives when they leave, and others end up back in prison not long after.
Alive time is time when you are actively using your time usefully and improving; dead time is time you spend passive. We may not always be able to choose our circumstances, but we can always choose whether we want to make our time alive time or dead time. Viktor Frankl was able to refine his theories of meaning and suffering from Nazi concentration camps. Francis Scott Key wrote what would become the national anthem of the United States while a prisoner of war. The question the book leaves hanging:
“…this moment is not your life. But it is a moment in your life. How will you use it?”
2. Always Be a Student
The greatest leaders and wisest thinkers have all been students of life. They possessed a unique curiosity about life and had the discipline to constantly be learning. Many people get overly confident in one area and forget that they know so little about everything else. The ego tries to build an identification with success, withholding you from learning more, but learning is a requirement, especially in the beginning. The book explains that when you are just starting out you need to remember: You aren’t as good as you think you are, you probably need your attitude readjusted, and the things you learned in books or school are out of date or wrong.
Many factors will determine the success you will reach as you’re starting out, one of them being your willingness to listen to feedback, especially critical feedback. The book discusses an amateur as being defensive to critical feedback, but a professional as delighted in being challenged to learn more. It illustrates the idea of a real professional with Kirk Hammett, lead guitarists of the heavy metal band Metallica. After Metallica recruited him he quickly found a teacher so that he could become even better. Metallica went on to become one of the most successful bands in the world, and throughout all this success, Kirk remained humble and continued learning. According to the book, If you’re not still learning, you’re already dying.”
Hammett demonstrated the qualities of a true student:
“A true student is like a sponge. Absorbing what goes on around him, filtering it, latching on to what he can hold. A student is self-critical and self-motivated, always trying to improve his understanding so that he can move on to the next topic, the next challenge. A real student is also his own teacher and his own critic. There is no room for ego there.”
To become the best you can be, and to maintain that greatness you need to have a student mindset. You need to always be learning. Everything in life has something to teach you, but ego gets in the way of opportunities you have had or will have. The ego tells you that you shouldn’t do an internship because you are overqualified for it. The ego doesn’t want to do the grunt work because it thinks it’s too good for that. People living with purpose look past this, and they focus on what is important, believing in what they need to do. Appreciate the opportunity. Take the internship. Put in the time and effort, and learn. Think long-term, this investment will pay dividends in the future, the book explains:
“Humility is what keeps us there, concerned we don’t know enough and that we must continue to study. Ego rushes to the end, rationalizes that patience is for losers (wrongly seeing it as a weakness), and assumes we’re good enough to give our talents a go in the world.”
Humility can be gained by thinking about that bigger picture of life. Think about the vastness of the universe, multiple galaxies around us, and think about how small you are. Know that you are also connected to this vast universe, and your purpose is more likely to emerge. Looking into the sky at night can help with this, as well as thinking about all the people and events that came before you and all that is to come after. Purpose seems to easily flow within those who take time to focus on the bigger picture.
The stoics used the word sympatheia for this state of mind, which means “a connectedness with the cosmos.” This connection makes you ask yourself: Who am I? What am I doing and why? The book elaborates on how material success can take you away from this perspective. Don’t let your ego convince you the world revolves around you. Intentionally seek out the cosmos and your purpose will be revealed to you over time, which is also a part of the stoic view: “Purpose deemphasizes the I. Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself.”
Find and follow your purpose, and then do the work. The book explains that you should make it so you don’t have to fake it: “Can you imagine a doctor trying to get by with anything less? Or a quarterback? So why would you try otherwise?”
Be a lifelong student even after—especially after, your major accomplishments. Eliminate what isn’t necessary. Stay open-minded. Set goals and live on purpose.
3. Talk & think less; do more
When you begin to live with purpose instead of passion your ego will begin to lessen, and you will gain the quiet confidence the philosopher Seneca referred to as Euthymia: having a sense of your own path and not getting distracted by externals. As you talk less and act more you will begin to gain this tranquility when working, helping you maintain your purposeful work:
“You know that all things require work and that work might be quite difficult. But do you really understand? Do you have any idea just how much work there is going to be? Not work until you get your big break, not work until you make a name for yourself, but work, work, work, forever and ever.”
Talking is easy, everyone does it, but silence is rare in today’s world. Your ego tells you that you need recognition from others, but real confidence doesn’t need to talk, it produces work. Talking destroys action. Sit quietly and work. Let go of the distractions of social media and of the news, and focus on your work. Watch how much better you get:
“They work quietly in the corner. They turn their inner turmoil into product—and eventually into stillness. They ignore the impulse to seek recognition before they act. They don’t talk too much. And they don’t mind the feeling that others, out there in public are enjoying the limelight, are somewhat getting the better end of the deal (They are not).”
Talking and thinking too much drain the energy you could be using to put into your work. At times we definitely need to be thinking, such as when envisioning goals, but if you spend too much time thinking and talking about what you are going to do, you are less likely to actually do it. Where are the results? Stay focused on execution. Think when you need to and then get to work. People who live with purpose understand they aren’t working to retire and live on their couch. They are working for something beyond themselves, and this guides them confidently throughout their lives:
“When facing a new task, do you seek to talk about it or do you face the struggle head on?”
Thinking too much can also lead you into living with a psychological term marked as “imaginary audience,” which is explained in the book. Many adolescents go through this and many adults hold on to it. It’s the idea that people are watching and thinking about you when they are not. It’s the teenager who misses a week of class because they are so embarrassed of spilling juice on their pants and think that everyone in the school is talking about it. They are not. This is the imaginary audience. People don’t think about you as much as you think they do, which is a relief. Most people are so consumed in their own lives, so take time to rationalize your thoughts and get back to work. The ego loves the imaginary audience and thrives on it, so remember the bigger picture, let go of your wandering thoughts and bring yourself into the present moment:
“Living clearly and present takes courage. Don’t live in the haze of the abstract, live with the tangible and real, even if—especially if—it’s uncomfortable. Be part of what’s going on around you. Feast on it, adjust for it.”
In short, the book says we must manage our ego or see it get the best of us. Think of coach Bill Walsh who focused on perfecting the basics, taking the worst team in the NFL to winning the Super Bowl. Be an eternal student, like Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, absorbing everything around you like a sponge, knowing that there is always more to learn. As well as living with purpose and remaining a student, focus on doing the work instead of seeking recognition, letting your confidence show with results.
Practicing stoicism can escalate your implementation of the lessons within each theme. Now go out and accomplish the life changing work you are meant to do.
10 Best Quotes from Ego Is The Enemy
“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.”
“You can lie to yourself, saying that you put in the time, or pretend that you’re working, but eventually someone will show up. You’ll be tested. And quite possibly, found out.”
“In this course, it is not ‘Who do I want to be in life’ But ‘What is it that I want to accomplish in life?’ Setting aside selfish interest, 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?”
“And what is most obvious but most ignored is that perfecting the personal regularly leads to success as a professional, but rarely the other way around.”
“Most trouble is temporary…unless you make that not so.”
“Work is finding yourself alone at the track when the weather kept everyone else indoors. It’s pushing through the pain and crappy first drafts and prototypes. It is ignoring whatever plaudits others are getting, and more importantly, ignoring whatever plaudits you may be getting. Because there is work to be done. Work doesn’t want to be good. It is made so, despite the headwind.”
“Most successful people are people you’ve never heard of. They want it that way. It keeps them sober. It helps them do their jobs.”
“Remind yourself how pointless it is to rage and fight and try to one-up those around you. Go and put yourself in touch with the infinite, and end your conscious separation from the world. Reconcile yourself a bit better with the realities of life. Realize how much came before you, and how only wisps of it remain.”
“What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.”
“Your ego screams for people to acknowledge you. But you must do nothing. Take it. Eat it until you’re sick. Endure it. Quietly brush it off and work harder. Play the game. Ignore the noise; for the love of God, do not let it distract you.”
Where To Buy Ego Is The Enemy
Ego Is The Enemy Medallion From Daily Stoic
Carry this medallion with you for a daily reminder on the lessons of the ego:
Ego Is The Enemy Testimonials
“Ryan Holiday is one of his generation’s finest thinkers, and this book is his best yet.”—Steven Pressfield, author of the New York Times bestseller The War of Art
“This is a book I want every athlete, aspiring leader, entrepreneur, thinker and doer to read. Ryan Holiday is one of the most promising young writers of his generation.” —George Raveling, Hall of Fame Basketball coach, Nike’s Director of International Basketball
“I don’t have many rules in life, but one I never break is: If Ryan Holiday writes a book, I read it as soon as I can get my hands on it.” —Brian Koppelman, screenwriter and director, Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen and Billions
“In his new book Ryan Holiday attacks the greatest obstacle to mastery and true success in life—our insatiable ego. In an inspiring yet practical way, he teaches us how to manage and tame this beast within us so that we can focus on what really matters—producing the best work possible.”—Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power and Mastery
“I would like to rip out every page and use them as wallpaper so I could be reminded constantly of the humility and work it takes to truly succeed. In the margins of my copy, I have scrawled the same message over and over—’pre-Gold.’ Reading this inspiring book brought back me back to the humility and work ethic it took to win the Olympics.” —Chandra Crawford, Olympic Gold Medalist
“What a valuable book for those in positions of authority! It has made me a better judge.”—The Honorable Frederic Block, United States District Judge and author of Disrobed
“Removing the ego is a daily struggle but it feels a little easier after reading this.”—Martellus Bennett, NFL Tight End, Super Bowl Champion
Ego Is The Enemy Talks By Ryan Holiday
You can watch Ryan talk about Ego Is The Enemy at Google
Ryan gives a talk at LinkedIn on his book
Ryan discusses Ego Is The Enemy with Gerard Adams in the episode: Leaders Create Leaders
Ego Is The Enemy Animation