“While the history books are filled with tales of obsessive visionary geniuses who remade the world in their image with sheer, almost irrational force, I’ve found that history is also made by individuals who fought their egos at every turn, who eschewed the spotlight, and who put their higher goals above their desire for recognition.” —from the prologue
Many of us insist the main impediment to a full, successful life is the outside world. In fact, the most common enemy lies within: our ego. Early in our careers, it impedes learning and the cultivation of talent. With success, it can blind us to our faults and sow future problems. In failure, it magnifies each blow and makes recovery more difficult. At every stage, ego holds us back.
Ego Is the Enemy draws on stories and examples, from literature to philosophy to history. We meet fascinating figures who all reached the highest levels of power and success by conquering their own egos. Their strategies and tactics can be ours as well.
Be wary of your ego.
What is Ego & The Dangers Of Ego
Stressed and overworked, having handed much of my hard-earned freedom away because I couldn’t say no to money and the thrill of a good crisis.
The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility—that’s ego.
Ego is especially dangerous for successful people, who can’t see what ego prevents them from doing, because all they can see is what they’ve already done.
“If you start believing in your greatness, it is the death of your creativity.”
Without an accurate accounting of our own abilities compared to others, what we have is not confidence but delusion.
Often we fall in love with an image of what success looks like.
At any given time in life, people find themselves at one of three stages. We’re aspiring to something—trying to make a dent in the universe. We have achieved success—perhaps a little, perhaps a lot. Or we have failed—recently or continually. Most of us are in these stages in a fluid sense—different stages at the same time, for different aspects of our life.
Managing The Ego
Your ego is not some power you’re forced to satiate at every turn. It can be managed. It can be directed.
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.
We will learn that though we think big, we must act and live small in order to accomplish what we seek.
Sobriety, open-mindedness, organization, and purpose—these are the great stabilizers. They balance out the ego and pride that comes with achievement and recognition.
Part 1 - Aspire
What is your purpose? What are you here to do? Because purpose helps you answer the question “To be or to do?“ quite easily.
To Be: If what matters is you—your reputation, your inclusion, your personal ease of life—your path is clear: Tell people what they want to hear. Seek attention over the quiet but important work. Appearances are deceiving. Having authority is not the same as being an authority. Having the right and being right are not the same either. Being promoted doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing good work and it doesn’t mean you are worthy of promotion. This is what the ego does. It crosses out what matters and replaces it with what doesn’t.
To Do: If your purpose is something larger than you—to accomplish something, to prove something to yourself—then suddenly everything becomes both easier and more difficult. Easier in the sense that you know now what it is you need to do and what is important to you. The other “choices” wash away, as they aren’t really choices at all. They’re distractions. It’s about the doing, not the recognition. Easier in the sense that you don’t need to compromise. Harder because each opportunity—no matter how gratifying or rewarding—must be evaluated along strict guidelines: Does this help me do what I have set out to do? Does this allow me to do what I need to do? Am I being selfish or selfless? 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?”
Be An Eternal Student:
The ability to evaluate one’s own ability is the most important skill of all. Without it, improvement is impossible. And certainly ego makes it difficult every step of the way.
The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Accept that others know more than you and that you can benefit from their knowledge, and then seek them out. As Epictatus said, “It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows,” You can’t learn if you think you already know. You will not find the answers if you’re too conceited and self-assured to ask the questions. You cannot get better if you’re convinced you are the best.
Use Shamrock’s Formula: To become great, one 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. The purpose is simple: to get real and continuous feedback about what you know and what you don’t know from every angle.
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.
Because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve. They don’t assume, ‘I know the way.’”
An amateur is defensive. The professional finds learning (and even, occasionally, being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled, and engage in education as an ongoing and endless process.
Be Wary Of Passion. Focus on Purpose.
Your passion may be the very thing holding you back from power or influence or accomplishment.
What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism. Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective. Passion is about. (I am so passionate about ______.) Purpose is to and for. (I must do ______. I was put here to accomplish ______. I am willing to endure ______ for the sake of this.) Actually, purpose deemphasizes the I. Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself. Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function.
Follow the Canvas Strategy:
Find canvases for other people to paint on. Be an anteambulo. Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself. 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.
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.
The person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction
Eyes Wide Open. Things Will Get Hard.
Doing great work is a struggle. It’s draining, it’s demoralizing, it’s frightening—not always, but it can feel that way when we’re deep in the middle of it. The greatest work and art comes from wrestling with the void, facing it instead of scrambling to make it go away.
It doesn’t matter how talented you are, how great your connections are, how much money you have. When you want to do something—something big and important and meaningful—you will be subjected to treatment ranging from indifference to outright sabotage. Count on it.
Those who have subdued their ego understand that it doesn’t degrade you when others treat you poorly; it degrades them.
The Danger of Pride
Pride blunts the very instrument we need to own in order to succeed: our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride.
As the famous conqueror and warrior Genghis Khan groomed his sons and generals to succeed him later in life, he repeatedly warned them, “If you can’t swallow your pride, you can’t lead.” He told them that pride would be harder to subdue than a wild lion. He liked the analogy of a mountain. He would say, “Even the tallest mountains have animals that, when they stand on it, are higher than the mountain.”
“Don’t boast.” There’s nothing in it for you.
Work, Work, Then Work Some More.
Do Instead of Talking About Doing: It’s a temptation that exists for everyone—for talk and hype to replace action. 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. Let the others slap each other on the back while you’re back in the lab or the gym or pounding the pavement. Plug that hole—that one, right in the middle of your face—that can drain you of your vital life force. Watch what happens. Watch how much better you get.
The distinction between a professional and a dilettante occurs right there—when you accept that having an idea is not enough; “That germ of an idea,” she told him, “does not make a sculpture which stands up. It just sits there. So the next stage, of course, is the hard work.” Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough.
We’re simply talking about a lot of hours—that 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.
As a young basketball player, Bill Bradley would remind himself, “When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win.”
Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this.
When Bill Walsh took control, he wasn’t focused on winning per se. Instead, he implemented what he called his “Standard of Performance.” That is: What should be done. When. How. At the most basic level and throughout the organization, Walsh had only one timetable, and it was all about instilling these standards. He focused on seemingly trivial details: Players could not sit down on the practice field. Coaches had to wear a tie and tuck their shirts in. Everyone had to give maximum effort and commitment. Sportsmanship was essential. The locker room must be neat and clean. There would be no smoking, no fighting, no profanity. Quarterbacks were told where and how to hold the ball. Linemen were drilled on thirty separate critical drills. Passing routes were monitored and graded down to the inch. Practices were scheduled to the minute. It would be a mistake to think this was about control. The Standard of Performance was about instilling excellence. These seemingly simple but exacting standards mattered more than some grand vision or power trip. In his eyes, if the players take care of the details, “the score takes care of itself.” The winning would happen.
Part 2 - Surviving Success
Don’t Let The Story Of Greatness Distract You From the Important Work
Instead of pretending that we are living some great story, we must remain focused on the execution—and on executing with excellence. We must shun the false crown and continue working on what got us here. Because that’s the only thing that will keep us here.
Constantly Remind Yourself What’s Important to You
That’s how it seems to go: we’re never happy with what we have, we want what others have too. We want to have more than everyone else. We start out knowing what is important to us, but once we’ve achieved it, we lose sight of our priorities. Ego sways us, and can ruin us.
All of us waste precious life doing things we don’t like, to prove ourselves to people we don’t respect, and to get things we don’t want. 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. You need to know what you don’t want and what your choices preclude. Because strategies are often mutually exclusive.
The farther you travel down that path of accomplishment, whatever it may be, the more often you meet other successful people who make you feel insignificant. It doesn’t matter how well you’re doing; your ego and their accomplishments make you feel like nothing—just as others make them feel the same way. It’s a cycle that goes on.
On an individual level, however, it’s absolutely critical that you know who you’re competing with and why, that you have a clear sense of the space you’re in.
So why do you do what you do? That’s the question you need to answer. Stare at it until you can. Only then will you understand what matters and what doesn’t. Only then can you say no, can you opt out of stupid races that don’t matter, or even exist. Only then is it easy to ignore “successful” people, because most of the time they aren’t—at least relative to you, and often even to themselves. 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.
Success May Change What You Need to Focus On & Let Go of Some Control
In moving up the ladder in life, the system and work habits that got us where we are won’t necessarily keep us there. When running the show, your job is to set the priorities, to think big picture, and then trust the people beneath you to do the jobs they were hired for. And you need to understand that urgent and important are not synonyms.
As you become successful in your own field, your responsibilities may begin to change. Days become less and less about doing and more and more about making decisions. Such is the nature of leadership. This transition requires reevaluating and updating your identity. It requires a certain humility to put aside some of the more enjoyable or satisfying parts of your previous job. It means accepting that others might be more qualified or specialized in areas in which you considered yourself competent—or at least their time is better spent on them than yours.
Micromanagers are egotists who can’t manage others and they quickly get overloaded. So do the charismatic visionaries who lose interest when it’s time to execute. Worse yet are those who surround themselves with yes-men or sycophants who clean up their messes and create a bubble in which they can’t even see how disconnected from reality they are.
The Importance of Perspective
Why do you think that great leaders and thinkers throughout history have “gone out into the wilderness” and come back with inspiration, with a plan, with an experience that puts them on a course that changes the world? It’s because in doing so they found perspective, they understood the larger picture in a way that wasn’t possible in the bustle of everyday life. Silencing the noise around them, they could finally hear the quiet voice they needed to listen to.
Part 3 - Learn From Failure
Failures Are Inevitable
Almost without exception, this is what life does: it takes our plans and dashes them to pieces. Sometimes once, sometimes lots of times.
At times, failure can be a reminder, and ego check. You’re not as good as you think. You don’t have it all figured out. Stay focused. Do better.
There are many ways to hit bottom. Almost everyone does in their own way, at some point.
It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. —MARCUS AURELIUS
Recognize That Effort Is Enough. Focus On The Process Not The Outcome.
We can at least see how arbitrary many of the breaks in life are. This is why we can’t let externals determine whether something was worth it or not. It’s on us.
Maintain Your Own Scorecard
We surround ourselves with bullshit. With distractions. With lies about what makes us happy and what’s important. We become people we shouldn’t become. Always ground yourself on what’s important to you, and measure yourself against that scorecard.
The problem is that when we get our identity tied up in our work, we worry that any kind of failure will then say something bad about us as a person.
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.
There Are Always Lessons To Be Learned
As Harold Geneen put it, “People learn from their failures. Seldom do they learn anything from success.” It’s why the old Celtic saying tells us, “See much, study much, suffer much, that is the path to wisdom.”
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.