Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday is a book about your worst enemy that already lives inside you: your ego.
Not me, you think. No one would ever call me an egomaniac. “Perhaps you’ve always thought of yourself as a pretty balanced person,” Ryan Holiday explains, “But for people with ambitions, talents, drives, and potential to fulfill, ego comes with the territory.”
This book will help you when you’re called to answer the most critical questions a person can ask themselves in life: “Who do I want to be? And: What path will I take?”
As these are timeless questions, Holiday relied on philosophy and historical examples in the book. It’s deeply influenced by Stoic philosophy and you’ll find many mindsets and beliefs already the Stoics preached.
Who is Ego Is the Enemy for?
- Anyone who’s seeking humility, true confidence, and resilience.
- Anyone interested in the nature and dangers of ego.
- Anyone looking for life advice from historical thinkers.
1. What Is the Ego and Why Is It the Enemy?
The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition. That’s the definition this book will use. It’s that petulant child inside every person, the one that chooses getting his or her way over anything or anyone else. The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility – that’s ego. It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.
Most of us aren’t “egomaniacs,” but ego is there at the root of almost every conceivable problem or obstacle, from why we can’t win to why we need to win all the time and at the expense of others. From why we don’t have what we want to why having what we want doesn’t seem to make us feel any better.
Just one thing keeps ego around – comfort. Pursuing great work – whether it is in sports or art or business – is often terrifying. Ego soothes that fear. It’s a salve to that insecurity. Replacing the rational and aware parts of our psyche with bluster and self-absorption, ego tells us what we want to hear, when we want to hear it. But it is a short-term fix with a long-term consequence.
We’re not egomaniacs, and yet ego – an unhealthy belief in our own importance – is there and at the root of most of our problems. The ego replaces our rational side with an artificial sense of confidence, telling us what we want to hear when we need it to override our fears and insecurities.
That’s dangerous. Luckily, ego can be managed and directed.
2. Fight the Ego in 3 Stages of Life
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.
Ego is the enemy at every step along this way. In a sense, ego is the enemy of building, of maintaining, and of recovering.
The aim of the 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
When we remove the ego, we’re left with what is real. What replaces ego is humility, yes – but rock-hard humility and confidence. Whereas ego is artificial, this type of confidence can hold weight. Ego is stolen. Confidence is earned.
Ego is the enemy at every stage we find ourselves in life. When we’re setting out to do something (aspire), when we are at the top of the mountain we worked hard to climb (success), or when we experience setbacks along the way (failure).
The book shall help us not to aspire out of ego, to have success without ego, and to push through failure with strength instead of ego.
3. When You Aspire, Use Detachment as Ego Antidote
In this phase [of aspiring], you must practice seeing yourself with a little distance, cultivating the ability to get out of your own head. 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.
For your work to have truth in it, it must come from truth. If you want to be more than a flash in the pan, you must be prepared to focus on the long term.
We will learn that though we think big, we must act and live small in order to accomplish what we seek. Because we will be action and education focused, and forgo validation and status, our ambition will not be grandiose but iterative – one foot in front of the other, learning and growing and putting in the time.
Holiday says that our ability to evaluate one’s own ability is the most important skill of all. Unlike what society tells us, we don’t need to built self-esteem before we aspire, but along the way. That’s when our work comes from truth.
Otherwise, we build ourselves up with fantastical stories and pretend we’ve it all figured out, and then we’ll fizzle out and have no idea why.
4. Don’t Talk, Talk, Talk, – Act!
It’s a temptation that exists for everyone – for talk and hype to replace action.
Many valuable endeavors we undertake are painfully difficult… But talking, talking is always easy.
We seem to think that silence is a sign of weakness. That being ignored is tantamount to death (and for the ego, this is true). So we talk, talk, talk as though our life depends on it.
And that’s what is so insidious about talk. Anyone can talk about himself or herself. Even a child knows how to gossip and chatter. 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.
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 force. Watch what happens. Watch how much better you get.
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.
Forget recognition, it’s about the doing that brings you ahead. Hard work in silence is the true strength you’re looking for. Speak with your actions more than with your words. You want to truly earn your success, as Ryan Holiday says, “Nobody wants to be an empty suit.”
5. Always Stay a Humble Student
The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the antidote.
The power of being a student is not just that it is an extended period of instruction, it also places the ego and ambition in someone else’s hands.
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.
We don’t like to think that there’s much left to learn or that others are better than us. This is ego speaking. What we need is humility.
How can you tell when someone is truly humble? Holiday believes there’s one simple test: “because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve.” The humble never assume that they already know the way.
6. Handle Success with Sobriety
Why is success so ephemeral? Ego shortens it… We stop learning, we stop listening, and we lose our grasp on what matters… Sobriety, open-mindedness, organization, and purpose – these are the great stabilizers. They balance out the ego and pride that comes with achievement and recognition.
Without virtue and training, Aristotle observed, “it is hard to bear the fruits of good fortune suitably.”
As success arrives… ego begins to toy with our minds and weaken the will that made us win in the first place. We know that empires always fall, so we must think about why – and why they seem to always collapse from within.
Here we are having accomplished something. After we give ourselves proper credit, ego wants us to think, I’m special. I’m better. The rules don’t apply to me.
Pride goes before the fall. We know it, and yet ego tells us otherwise. “This is one of the most dangerous ironies of success,” Holiday tells us, “it can make us someone we never wanted to be in the first place. The Disease of Me can corrupt the most innocent climb.”
We must balance out success with its counterweight: Sobriety.
7. The 3 Dangerous Delusions
With success, particularly power, come some of the greatest and most dangerous delusions: entitlement, control, and paranoia.
Entitlement assumes: This is mine. I’ve earned it… It overstates our abilities to ourselves, it renders generous judgment of our prospects, and it creates ridiculous expectations.
Control says, it all must be done my way… It can become paralyzing perfectionism, or a million pointless battles fought merely for the sake of exerting its say… In reality… we don’t control other people, and our efforts and energies in spite of this are pure waste.
Paranoia thinks, I can’t trust anyone. I’m in this totally by myself and for myself… It says, focusing on my work, my obligations, myself is not enough. I also have to be orchestrating various machinations behind the scenes.
If we let ego create those delusions, we’re bound to fail. We must not overestimate our power and lose our perspective – we are just a tiny dot in the vast universe. You’ve got to get yourself and your perceptions under control. Take responsibility.
8. When You Fail, Don’t Let Ego Destroy You
No one is permanently successful, and not everyone finds success on the first attempt. We all deal with setbacks along the way… The way through, the way to rise again, requires a reorientation and increased self-awareness. We don’t need pity – our own or anyone else’s – we need purpose, poise, and patience.
Almost without exception, this is what life does: it takes our plans and dashes them to pieces.
Absorbing the negative feedback, ego says: I knew you couldn’t do it. Why did you every try? Why don’t you come up with a good excuse and wash your hands of this? It tells us that we’re not the problem.
We must deal with the situation in order to move past it. We’ll need to accept it and to push through it… Whether what you’re going through is your fault or your problem doesn’t matter, because it’s yours to deal with right now.
All of us fail.
What matters is that we respond with humility, strength, and responsibility instead of self-destructing pity and complaints.
We must accept our situation with emotional resilience. Our identity is not threatened by failure, we don’t need constant validation. We’re working on it. We’re trying our best. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. No big deal. Let’s move on.
9. Effort Is Enough
In life, there will be times when we do everything right, perhaps even perfectly. Yet the results will somehow be negative: failure, disrespect, jealousy, or even a resounding yawn from the world.
Depending on what motivates us, this response can be crushing. If ego holds sway, we’ll accept nothing less than full appreciation.
We are all faced with this same challenge in the pursuit of our own goals: Will we work hard for something that can be taken away from us? Will we invest time and energy even if an outcome is not guaranteed? With the right motives we’re willing to proceed. With ego, we’re not.
It’s far better when doing good work is sufficient. In other words, the less attached we are to outcomes the better. When fulfilling our own standards is what fills us with pride and self-respect. When the effort – not the results, good or bad – is enough.
We have only minimal control over the rewards for our work and effort. We only control our actions, that’s where we must find satisfaction and peace of mind: in knowing that you’ve tried your best.
We can’t let outside circumstances decide over our well-being. As Goethe said:
“What matters to an active man is to do the right thing; whether the right thing comes to pass should not bother him.”
10. Choose Love Over Hate
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…” 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.”
Where has hatred and rage ever really gotten anyone? Especially because almost universally, the traits or behaviors that have pissed us off in other people – their dishonesty, their selfishness, their laziness – are hardly going to work out well for them in the end. Their ego and shortsightedness contains its own punishment.
We all have stuff that pisses us off. But hate isn’t the solution. A far better response to an attack or something we don’t like is love. Anger is our worst enemy and will make of us someone we don’t want to be, love will do the opposite.
In failure or adversity, it’s so easy to hate. Hate defers blame. It makes someone else responsible… Does this get us any closer to where we want to be? No. It just keeps us where we are… Meanwhile, love is right. Egoless, open, positive, vulnerable, peaceful, and productive.