Ego is the Enemy

By Ryan Holiday


This book explains how people tend to think that the world revolves around them. The "it's all about me" approach comes from the ego, and this thinking distorts failures and successes because the ego is so subjective. When efforts fail, the ego blames everyone else and stresses out. When efforts are successful, the ego pats itself on the back, ignoring the contributions of others and blowing the win out of proportion. The ego is the enemy because it creates such a distorted view of results. By understanding how the ego gets in the way and learning how to reign it in, it's possible to create a more balanced view of efforts and results.




Talk, talk, talk — Everyone loves to talk about their aspirations. They talk about doing great things or creating something new and different. The ego says that all that talk is necessary because it's about important ideas and worthy endeavors. Besides, it just feels good to be able to talk about things without having actually to do anything. But what the ego doesn't say is that talk is just that, talk. The problem here is that the ego doesn't like thinking about anything that may be uncomfortable, like work! No matter how great the idea or aspiration, there is no substitute for putting in the work. By understanding how all that talking is the ego's way of procrastinating or avoiding self-doubt, it makes it easier get back to work.

“All great men and women went through difficulties to get to where they are, all of them made mistakes. They found within those experiences some benefit, even if it was simply the realization that they were not infallible and that things would not always go their way. They found that self-awareness was the way out and through, if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have gotten better and they wouldn’t have been able to rise again.”


Don't be passionate — Self-help books usually have a lot of well-meaning advice about passion. Find your passion, and you will find your purpose. Follow your passion, and you will find work you love. It sounds deep and profound, and while passion can be a valuable driving force, it still doesn't get the job done. The ego tends to obsess over concepts like these and is willing to spend a lot of time thinking about all those wonderful possibilities. What the ego doesn't want to think about is that focused, deliberate work is what gets results. It's great to have a passion for the work, but that passion is secondary to putting in the effort.



Always stay a student — Success will give the ego what it longs for, but the achievements are often overestimated. This lack of perspective can lead to thoughts of finally “making it,” or thinking that the hard work is over. What the ego often fails to recognize is that success is a product of learning and that it's a stepping stone for more achievements. The ego likes to think that once it finds success that it is finally the master and no longer the student.

Defensive by nature, the ego can prevent any further learning because it thinks “I've got this.” But the first sign of being challenged or questioned will reveal how little the ego knows, leaving it damaged and resentful. By seeing how the ego is so defensive and prone to exaggerating its successes, it becomes easier to practice humility and focus on being a student again. Continue learning, stay humble, and keep that ego in check to achieve more success.

Do you know how you can tell when someone is truly humble? I believe there’s one simple test: because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve. They don’t assume, ‘I know the way.'”


Entitlement, control, and paranoia — When someone is feeling entitled, the need to always be in control, or paranoid, that's often the ego talking. The ego tries to convince someone that they should have something because it is rightfully theirs, that they've earned it, even when there is little evidence that it's true. The ego needs to be in control because it is afraid of any challenge to its “authority.” And the ego gets paranoid because it thinks, “I can only trust myself, and anyone who questions me is out to get me.”

All these ego-driven thoughts are just another way for the ego to hide the insecurity and weakness beneath the surface. See the ego for what it is: a finicky, often illogical part of the psyche that unwittingly undermines success. The ego isn't intentionally sabotaging efforts and causing chaos; it's just trying to protect itself. Remember that when these feelings appear, it's the ego that's behind them and that knowledge will help keep things in perspective.



Alive time or dead time? — There's a great line in the movie, The Shawshank Redemption. One of the characters wisely says, “Get busy living or get busy dying.” Those seven, simple words represent some of the best advice for avoiding failure and moving forward. Hitting a plateau, reeling from a failure, or finishing up a project creates a break in the action. Those moments where things come to a halt can be dead time or alive time. “Dead time” is when nothing is happening, when someone is being passive and waiting for inspiration or something else to get things going. “Alive time” is when someone uses this time for learning, planning, or otherwise keeping things moving.

These times aren't really “good” or “bad;” they can be dead times when someone just accepts them, or they can be alive times, providing opportunities to create or develop skills. How someone uses these moments will determine if they are getting busy living or getting busy dying.

“Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this. I am passing the marshmallow test. I am earning what my ambition burns for. I am making an investment in myself instead of in my ego. Give yourself a little credit for this choice, but not so much, because you’ve got to get back to the task at hand: practicing, working, improving.”


Maintain your own scorecard — The ego is an obsessive scorekeeper. It keeps track of every “score,” or type of feedback, and either gets overconfident because of the good ones or demoralized by the bad ones. These unchecked responses occur because most people get their scores from someone else. When people only tie their success to the opinions of others, they are always trying to perform up to someone else's standards. The flaw is that these rules are created by someone based on their idea of what's important and what determines a “good grade.”

Only when a person creates their scorecard can they stop trying to live up to standards that may not even be relevant. Someone who sets their standards of what progress and productivity mean to them can be sure they are scoring their efforts accurately. It's hard for the ego to go overboard because there is no external standard to live up to. These voluntary standards create an atmosphere of continuous improvement instead of a constant scramble to keep those scores up.



The ego is unavoidable but it is manageable. By understanding how the ego behaves much like a child, it's possible to put the ego's influence in perspective. Remember, the ego overreacts to failure and success with a distorted view; it's selfish, unreasonable, and persistent. Gone unchecked, the ego will try to take control of any situation it can, but with awareness and practice, it gets easier to keep the ego in its place.