Ego Is the Enemy

Reviewed on , book by Ryan Holiday

Ego Is The Enemy starts off with a strong testament: The type of people who tend to succeed early, tend to be the same kind of people who are in danger of ego taking the predominant voice in their actions. As your body of accomplishments grow, your ego may follow, installing itself in you as an arrogance. Arrogance is often confused with power and self-confidence, both by the person, and by people around them. Ego is a soothing voice. It’s comforting. Pursuing great work, in arts, business or sports is a terrifying endeavor. Ego will justify not doing so, reminding us of our past great accomplishments. Replacing our uncertainty with self-absorption. It will tell us exactly what we want to hear, when we want to hear it. This is extremely dangerous. Instead of sitting with our heads down, and getting work done, the ego will lead us in the direction of the work that is more public. More easily recognized. It will take all the short term leaps it can.

But what does ego know? The ego was built by accomplishments that predated the strong ego. It doesn’t know anything about accomplishing success. Instead, it provides us with a great recipe for how to ruin it. Ego is what causes Kanye to go from the medium that built his ego, music, to fronts he’s convinced he can succeed in. Fashion. Arguably one of the most competitive, chaotic industries in the world. Kanye is convinced he can succeed here, but he is not. He is letting his ego carry from one accomplishment, to the other. It is not the rational, heads-down, humble, self-aware self that is driving this, it’s the ego. Talent, skill and confidence is not rare. Humility, diligence and self-awareness are.

When let the ego subdue, you will fall into traps of accomplishment. Research shows that goal visualization is important, but at a certain point our brains start to confuse it with actual progress. When I read this, it terrified me, because I am working on a project that has high complexity, high risks and high uncertainty. I spend a lot of time talking with people, collecting information, but how much am I confusing the action of explaining my goal, talking with people, with actual progress? How do I know the difference between the two? Am I talking to them because I want to show them this great project I will do? Am I having the meeting for validation of the ego, or am I having it because I legitimately need information?

Ego actively prevents us from getting better. We know about unknown-unknowns, we know about known unknowns, we know about known-knowns. What people often leave out, are the unknown-knowns. These are our assumptions. Our stereotypes. Our biases. This is our most dangerous vice. The ego completely ignores this. How will we turn anything upside down, if we cannot question our assumptions?

Holiday describes the dangers of passion. There is a survival bias present in the world of passion, where we see all the successes that come from it, but not the order of magnitude of failures that lie behind each success. They are invisible. It doesn’t surface when someone takes a loan in their house, maxes our their credit cards and uses all their SO’s savings to chase an idea. It surfaces when that succeeds, but never when it fails. This is the other side of the medal of passion. The ego loves passion, because it’s a blindfolding tool it can use.

The book touches on the issue of money: by default, we will always want more. If we don’t set ourselves a target, getting more is the easiest path forward. But money comes with significant downsides. You may accumulate habits on the hedonic treadmill that causes you to not rely on this money. This means you may have to say yes to things in the future that you don’t actually want to do. You need targets and metrics, not constant accumulation of money, which usually follows from increasing accumulation of expectations from other people. At this point, you’ve said yes to money over your own freedom. Find poise, not pose.

What is the ego? Holiday is not referring to the Freudian ego. He uses the term to describe the part of you that is always striving for recognition. The part of you that always has an excuse. The part of you that prevents you from getting done what you need to get done. It’s not a power that corrupts, that would be too simple. Instead, it is a force that fragments. It closes options. It mesmerizes. It clouds your mind, and puts blindfolds on you. It decreases your perspective. It makes you see what you want to see. Ego is the default choice, because it’s soothing. That is precisely why we must be cognizant of it, and counter-balance it. In every situation, ask yourself who is acting. Is it you, your goals, your vision, your long-term accomplishments, and your confidence? Or is it your ego?

Ego is the enemy. That is a sentence I’ll repeat to myself after reading this book. This is an extremely important book that I believe I read at the right time. I’m extremely grateful for this book, which is only something that happens every 20-40 books I read.