Two prominent tattoos that you’ll find on the arms of Ryan Holiday, the author of Ego Is the Enemy, read “Ego is the enemy,” and “The obstacle is the way.” Those two tattoos came before he wrote the books and they aren’t just ink on the Ryan’s arms. They are philosophy.
Centuries of philosophy that guides the way we should live our lives today. Thought that keeps us sober and focused. It shows us the way. It helps us triumph through trials. It makes us who we are.
More than a useful mantra, understanding that ego is the enemy of our aspirations, successes, and failures is a guiding cautionary light to keep us level-headed in the face of our upward and downward trajectory through life. This book isn’t about self-help, it’s about truth. Truth that pervades all races, colors, and creeds.
Simply put, ego is the enemy. It is your enemy as you aspire, as you succeed, and especially while you inevitably fail. It can and will appear in every aspect of your life if you are not meticulous about managing it. As ego follows you, you must follow it, and become self-aware of the effects that it might have on you at any given moment.
Unfortunately, ego has come to be seen as a necessary evil rather than an evil. After the death of Steve Jobs in late 2011, the tales of his egotistical reign over Apple over the years seemed to glorify egotism. Rather than see ego as an evil that will destroy your success, as it did Steve’s, egotism became cool—even admirable. Jobs, having achieved once in a generation levels of success, had plenty of ego. However, the correlation is not between ego and success. For every egotistical success like Jobs, there are countless failures of the same mental makeup who failed because of their ego. That’s what we must learn from.
Aspire, Success, Failure & Key Themes
Ego Is the Enemy is split into three sections: Aspire, success, and failure. These three sections correspond to the three ways you and I will experience ego and it’s potentially detrimental effects: while we aspire, while we are successful, and when we have failed. The challenges posed in the three stages are distinct and specific. They all come from ego. They all must be recognized and battled in order for us to lead lives worth living and not simply fall into a rat-race for rank and status.
Yield to others in your search for success.
William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the best military leaders and strategists that the United States has ever seen, had a slow and steady rise to the legacy that he would leave behind. With little expected of him by those around him as a young man, Sherman’s rise was entirely unpredicted. After the Civil War, he had gained considerable renown and had every opportunity to use his newfound recognition to chase higher office. He would end up rejecting the Presidency—not a rejection that many have been able to make.
One notable story about Sherman is a situation with Ulysses S. Grant where Sherman was actually ranked superior than Grant and could’ve taken control of the situation on his own. He opted not to, waived his rank and gave the show to Grant at the the Siege of Fort Donelson. This is a deliberate effort to curtail ego and yield to another general rather than take all for himself.
Yielding to others applies in a couple other ways as well, such as being a student. In order to be a student, you have to yield to your teacher. Telling yourself you know better is pure ego and will stunt your growth, so in order to overcome that you must actively attempt to yield to others—other generals, other teachers, even other coworkers.
Analogous to yielding to others is the canvas strategy: find canvases for others to paint on rather than paint on your own canvases. It’s an excellent analogy for being a part of greatness by supporting greatness. Too often, we refuse to support others in their endeavors because our ego tells us we are too good for that or that it is no longer worth our time. Bill Belichick never seemed to be afflicted by this entitlement early in his career. He sat and studied film four hours on end and delivered valuable insights, at first unpaid, doing the work that nobody else was willing to do.
He delivered value for others before looking out for himself, and the value inevitably followed later on in his career as the people he served paid him back in support and positions where he would have more responsibility. Now, he may or may not be the greatest coach in all of football.
To be or to do
The difference between being and doing was clearly outlined by another military genius by the name of John Boyd. His legacy was largely left by the pack of proteges he mentored and left to the world. To each of his pupils, Boyd posed the question: Do you want to be somebody or do something?
There’s a big difference between the two according to Boyd: to be somebody, you will have to compromise on your values along the way and make sacrifices that make you less of who you are and more of the person you want to be. On the other hand, you could also simply focus on doing the right thing. Instead of participating in endless amounts of talk and chatter about what you will do, you could just do. You will then be less focused on who you are, and your ego will subside.
This is echoed later on in the Aspire section in a chapter called “Work, Work, Work.” Ideas are not sufficient, as much as our brains may try to convince us otherwise. Our ideas only become truly valuable when we begin to execute on them. If we spend all our time talking about our great ideas and the things we’re going to do, it’s easy to feel like we’ve already accomplished something. We haven’t! Progress only comes by doing the real work, and we must actively make the choice to do rather than to simply be.
Success must not change you.
It’s easy to achieve a small level of success and feel like all of the work that got you there is no longer necessary, especially when that success feels like a big break. Once success hits your bank account or your mind, you have to remain sober, continue to be a student, and keep your eye on what’s important to you rather than what you now have access to. We saw this with William T. Sherman as when he got to a position where he was able to chase the Presidency, he simply refused. Success as a general did not make him any more capable of being the President, and he knew that better than anyone.
Kirk Hammett got his big break and was thrown into stardom when he was hired as a guitarist for the already well-known Metallica. It would have been easy to sit back and enjoy the life of a rockstar and cease to become a better musician. That’s not what he did at all. In fact, he became an eager student, understanding that his new position meant that he had a lot to live up to. He seeked out an excellent teacher that would mentor him over the years to improve his skills dramatically despite the fact that he had already reached the top. Success did not change the fact that he was an aspiring musician.
Don’t overplay your importance.
The challenge of success comes especially strong in what is described as the “disease of me”. When we become successful, it’s fairly easy to reverse engineer the story of how we got there to make it seem like we were a big part of it. Though that might be true in a some respect, a whole lot more had to go right in addition to our own actions. Just because we have been successful at something once does not immediately qualify us to recreate it time and time again. Nonetheless, ego will tell you otherwise, and you will quickly become disappointed that your ego was lying to you.
The narrative that is so easy to create must be completely abandoned, and we have to get out of our own heads when we feel good about our achievements. That’s not useful to us for next time around, it’s only useful to our ego. It’s only useful for our personal brand. It’s only useful to puff ourselves up to sell more books or get more votes. But none of it is reality.
It’s no coincidence that so many successes have spent time in the wilderness for a couple days or weeks only to come back with an amazing sense of self. Spending time in nature made them realize their inferiority to the universe as a whole! Ego is comfortable when it believes that it is the center of the universe, but it won’t be comfortable for long once the success disappears due to ego taking over.
Failure must not change you.
In order for failure not to drastically change you when it comes, it’s necessary that you avoid ego in the aspiration and success phase. Unfortunately, once you’ve hit failure, it already hurts. This can be summed up as narcissistic injury, and happens because the reason you were chasing your success was for your ego rather than simply doing the good work. In the aspiring lead-up to these testing moments of failure, you were aiming to be somebody rather than do something as John Boyd would prescribe. That’s why it’s so difficult, and the failure sends you on more than a downward spiral.
When faced with adversity
We’re all going to confront our “Fight Club moments” in which everything has blown up in our face and we are left with nothing. Sometimes this is described as an abyss. A downfall. A trial. If ego prevails, it will also be called the end.
This is only because ego is a weak motivating force for your work. Once the recognition and validation disappears when you inevitably fail, how will you continue to justify the hard work that you put in every day? All of the sudden, nobody cares. Whose scorecard will you be paying attention to? How will you continue to compete?
The concept of an internal scorecard is important, because it allows you to circumvent ego entirely and rely solely on your own self-awareness to judge your progress.
Katharine Graham, who took the helm at the Washington Post after her husband died, faced strenuous circumstances that anyone would have been unprepared for. In the midst of these very public struggles that the Post went through, she remained steadfast in her ability to keep the company afloat. The financials weren’t glorious, and the stock price sure didn’t reflect confidence, yet as everybody else sold their stake in the Post, she had the company buy back their own shares. This was a sign that she and the Post believed in themselves. While her ego must have been in major pain at the circumstance, she felt solace. She focused not on talk, but on work.
10 Best Quotes from Ego is the Enemy
- “We don’t need pity, or anyone else’s, we need purpose, poise, and patience.”
- “It’s about the doing, not the recognition. 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?’”
- “Humble and strong people don’t have the same trouble with these troubles that egotists do. There are fewer complaints and far less immolation. Instead, there’s stoic—even cheerful—resilience.”
- “The only real failure is abandoning your principles.”
- “Get out of your own head.”
- “... especially in a world that tells us to keep and promote a personal brand. We’re required to tell stories in order to sell our work and our talents, and after enough time, we forget where the line is that separates our fictions from reality.”
- “Find canvases for other people to paint on.”
- “... [Eleanor] Roosevelt was above passion. She had purpose, she had direction. She wasn’t driven by passion, but by reason.”
- “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. Why do we do this? Well, it should be obvious by now—ego leads to envy, and it rots the bones of people big and small. Ego undermines greatness by deluding it’s holder.”
- “Hate defers blame. It makes someone else responsible. It’s a distraction, too.”