Ego Is The Enemy summary
This is a book for everyone to read at least once in their life. This should be a book that I re-read at least once per year, regardless of the stage in life that I feel I'm at. One of the core messages about focusing on persistence and results speaks a lot to me, and I wish more people would adhere to this.
If ego is the voice that tells us we’re better than we really are, we can say ego inhibits true success by preventing a direct and honest connection to the world around us. One of the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous defined ego as “a conscious separation from.” From what? Everything.
We’re told to think big, live big, to be memorable and “dare greatly.” We think that success requires a bold vision or some sweeping plan—after all, that’s what the founders of this company or that championship team supposedly had. (But did they? Did they really?)
The aim of that structure is simple: to help you suppress ego early before bad habits take hold, to replace the temptations of ego with humility and discipline when we experience success, and to cultivate strength and fortitude so that when fate turns against you, you’re not wrecked by failure. In short, it will help us be:
- Humble in our aspirations
- Gracious in our success
- Resilient in our failures
“Be affable in your relations with those who approach you, and never haughty; for the pride of the arrogant even slaves can hardly endure” and “Be slow in deliberation, but be prompt to carry out your resolves” and that the “best thing which we have in ourselves is good judgment.” Constantly train your intellect, he told him, “for the greatest thing in the smallest compass is a sound mind in a human body.”
One must ask: if your belief in yourself is not dependent on actual achievement, then what is it dependent on? The answer, too often when we are just setting out, is nothing. Ego. And this is why we so often see precipitous rises followed by calamitous falls. So which type of person will you be?
What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.
Writing, like so many creative acts, is hard. Sitting there, staring, mad at yourself, mad at the material because it doesn’t seem good enough and you don’t seem good enough. In fact, many valuable endeavors we undertake are painfully difficult, whether it’s coding a new startup or mastering a craft. But talking, talking is always easy.
Most people are decent at hype and sales. So what is scarce and rare? Silence. The ability to deliberately keep yourself out of the conversation and subsist without its validation. Silence is the respite of the confident and the strong.
Talk depletes us. Talking and doing fight for the same resources. Research shows that while goal visualization is important, after a certain point our mind begins to confuse it with actual progress. The same goes for verbalization.
The only relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other.
“To be or to do? Which way will you go?”
Whatever we seek to do in life, reality soon intrudes on our youthful idealism. This reality comes in many names and forms: incentives, commitments, recognition, and politics. In every case, they can quickly redirect us from doing to being. From earning to pretending. Ego aids in that deception every step of the way.
The mixed martial arts pioneer and multi-title champion Frank Shamrock has a system he trains fighters in that he calls plus, minus, and equal. Each fighter, to become great, he said, needs to have someone better that they can learn from, someone lesser who they can teach, and someone equal that they can challenge themselves against.
...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.
Passion typically masks a weakness. Its breathlessness and impetuousness and franticness are poor substitutes for discipline, for mastery, for strength and purpose and perseverance. You need to be able to spot this in others and in yourself, because while the origins of passion may be earnest and good, its effects are comical and then monstrous.
What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism. Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective.
Play the game. Ignore the noise; for the love of God, do not let it distract you. Restraint is a difficult skill but a critical one. You will often be tempted, you will probably even be overcome. No one is perfect with it, but try we must.
Living clearly and presently 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. There’s no one to perform for. There is just work to be done and lessons to be learned, in all that is around us.
We must prepare for pride and kill it early—or it will kill what we aspire to. We must be on guard against that wild self-confidence and self-obsession. “The first product of self-knowledge is humility,” Flannery O’Connor once said. This is how we fight the ego, by really knowing ourselves. 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? It is far better to ask and answer these questions now, with the stakes still low, than it will be later.
The best plan is only good intentions unless it degenerates into work.
The investor and serial entrepreneur Ben Horowitz put it more bluntly: “The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal.… The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare.”
...to get where we want to go isn’t about brilliance, but continual effort. While that’s not a terribly sexy idea, it should be an encouraging one. Because it means it’s all within reach—for all of us, provided we have the constitution and humbleness to be patient and the fortitude to put in the work.
Fac, si facis. (Do it if you’re going to do it.)
Fake it ’til you make it. It’s no surprise that such an idea has found increasing relevance in our noxiously bullshit, Nerf world. When it is difficult to tell a real producer from an adept self-promoter, of course some people will roll the dice and manage to play the confidence game. Make it so you don’t have to fake it—that’s they key.
The great manager and business thinker Peter Drucker says that it’s not enough simply to want to learn. As people progress, they must also understand how they learn and then set up processes to facilitate this continual education. Otherwise, we are dooming ourselves to a sort of self-imposed ignorance.
When we are aspiring we must resist the impulse to reverse engineer success from other people’s stories. When we achieve our own, we must resist the desire to pretend that everything unfolded exactly as we’d planned. There was no grand narrative.
Find out why you’re after what you’re after. Ignore those who mess with your pace. Let them covet what you have, not the other way around. Because that’s independence.
A smart man or woman must regularly remind themselves of the limits of their power and reach.
Entitlement assumes: This is mine. I’ve earned it. At the same time, entitlement nickels and dimes other people because it can’t conceive of valuing another person’s time as highly as its own.
Responsibility requires a readjustment and then increased clarity and purpose. First, setting the top-level goals and priorities of the organization and your life. Then enforcing and observing them. To produce results and only results.
He had the same traits that everyone has—ego, self-interest, pride, dignity, ambition—but they were “tempered by a sense of humility and selflessness.”
The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has described this duality well—it’s possible to bask in both your relevance and irrelevance to the cosmos. As he says, “When I look up in the universe, I know I’m small, but I’m also big. I’m big because I’m connected to the universe and the universe is connected to me.” We just can’t forget which is bigger and which has been here longer.
So often, this is just ego, escalating tension more than dealing with it. Merkel is firm, clear, and patient. She’s willing to compromise on everything except the principle at stake—which far too many people lose sight of. That is sobriety. That is command of oneself.
“DON’T BE DECEIVED BY RECOGNITION YOU HAVE GOTTEN OR THE AMOUNT OF MONEY IN YOUR BANK ACCOUNT.”
Because even if we manage ourselves well, prosperity holds no guarantees. The world conspires against us in many ways, and the laws of nature say that everything regresses toward the mean. In sports, the schedule gets harder after a winning season, the bad teams get better draft picks, and the salary cap makes it tough to keep a team together. In life, taxes go up the more you make, and the more obligations society foists on you. The media is harder on those it has covered before. Rumors and gossip are the cost of renown: He’s a drunk. She’s gay. He’s a hypocrite. She’s a bitch. The crowd roots for the underdog, and roots against the winners. These are just facts of life. Who can afford to add denial to all that? Instead of letting power make us delusional and instead of taking what we have for granted, we’d be better to spend our time preparing for the shifts of fate that inevitably occur in life.
Humble and strong people don’t have the same trouble with these troubles that egotists do. There are fewer complaints and far less self-immolation. Instead, there’s stoic—even cheerful—resilience. Pity isn’t necessary. Their identity isn’t threatened. They can get by without constant validation. This is what we’re aspiring to—much more than mere success. What matters is that we can respond to what life throws at us. And how we make it through.
According to Greene, there are two types of time in our lives: dead time, when people are passive and waiting, and alive time, when people are learning and acting and utilizing every second.
You will be unappreciated. You will be sabotaged. You will experience surprising failures. Your expectations will not be met. You will lose. You will fail. How do you carry on then? How do you take pride in yourself and your work? John Wooden’s advice to his players says it: Change the definition of success. “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” “Ambition,” Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, “means tying your well-being to what other people say or do… Sanity means tying it to your own actions.” Do your work. Do it well. Then “let go and let God.” That’s all there needs to be.
In Fight Club, the character has to firebomb his own apartment to finally break through. Our expectations and exaggerations and lack of restraint made such moments inevitable, ensuring that it would be painful. Now it’s here, what will you make of it? You can change, or you can deny.
Ego says we’re the immovable object, the unstoppable force. This delusion causes the problems.
At any given time in the circle of life, we may be aspiring, succeeding, or failing—though right now we’re failing. With wisdom, we understand that these positions are transitory, not statements about your value as a human being. When success begins to slip from your fingers—for whatever reason—the response isn’t to grip and claw so hard that you shatter it to pieces. It’s to understand that you must work yourself back to the aspirational phase. You must get back to first principles and best practices. “He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a living man,” Seneca once said. Alter that: He who will do anything to avoid failure
The only real failure is abandoning your principles. Killing what you love because you can’t bear to part from it is selfish and stupid.
This is characteristic of how great people think. It’s not that they find failure in every success. They just hold themselves to a standard that exceeds what society might consider to be objective success. Because of that, they don’t much care what other people think; they care whether they meet their own standards. And these standards are much, much higher than everyone else’s.
Ego can’t see both sides of the issue. It can’t get better because it only sees the validation. Remember, “Vain men never hear anything but praise.” It can only see what’s going well, not what isn’t. It’s why you might see egomaniacs with temporary leads, but rarely lasting runs of it.
For us, the scoreboard can’t be the only scoreboard. Warren Buffett has said the same thing, making a distinction between the inner scorecard and the external one. Your potential, the absolute best you’re capable of—that’s the metric to measure yourself against. Your standards are. Winning is not enough. People can get lucky and win. People can be assholes and win. Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.
Think of Martin Luther King Jr., over and over again, preaching that hate was a burden and love was freedom. Love was transformational, hate was debilitating. In one of his most famous sermons, he took it further: “We begin to love our enemies and love those persons that hate us whether in collective life or individual life by looking at ourselves.” We must strip ourselves of the ego that protects and suffocates us, because, as he said, “Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life.”
Not to aspire or seek out of ego. To have success without ego. To push through failure with strength, not ego.
My friend the philosopher and martial artist Daniele Bolelli once gave me a helpful metaphor. He explained that training was like sweeping the floor. Just because we’ve done it once, doesn’t mean the floor is clean forever. Every day the dust comes back. Every day we must sweep. The same is true for ego. You would be stunned at what kind of damage dust and dirt can do over time. And how quickly it accumulates and becomes utterly unmanageable.
Every day for the rest of your life you will find yourself at one of three phases: aspiration, success, failure. You will battle the ego in each of them. You will make mistakes in each of them. You must sweep the floor every minute of every day. And then sweep again.