Ego is the enemy

„Ego is the Enemy“ by Ryan Holiday is a tough pill to swallow.

Ryan Holiday, the man behind the book, is an American marketer and author. He is a former director of marketing for American Apparel and a media columnist and editor-at-large for the New York Observer. He has written extensively on media manipulation.

I guess there’s no right time to become a book writer and a successful one at that. Despite being 34 years of age, Ryan’s book is a great wake-up call. He invites us to introspection from which we come out feeling shaken up and distraught. And not in a good way.

By recounting stories of great men and women and the enemy behind their successes or failures, he, indirectly, places a mirror in front of us, asking us to check it at all times.

“Ego is the enemy” consists of three parts. However, we should understand each part as parts of the full cycle of life we go through with ego accompanying us at every turn.

A full circle in the battle with our ego

We start off by aspiring to greatness. We have set our goal. We’re on our way to the top. We might assume that this stage of our journey is risk-free. Our ego is in check. Or is it?

Ryan reminds us that even at the aspiring stage there are dangers waiting for us for which ego, more often than not, is the culprit.

We spend so much talking about our plans that we sometimes miss the plans altogether.

Think about the empty text box: “What’s on your mind?”, Facebook asks. “Compose a new tweet,” Twitter beckons. LinkedIn. Our inbox, the comments section on the bottom of the article you just read.

All those black spaces are begging you to fill them with your thoughts, your photos, your stories. What we are planning, what things should or could be like. Everything around you begs you to talk.

When we are at the beginning of something, we are excited and nervous. That’s why we seek to comfort ourselves externally instead of inwardly. We all have a weak side to us that wants to get as much public credit and attention as it can for doing the least. That side we call ego.

What’s the consequence ego has us bear?

The writer and former Gawker blogger Emily Gould realized this during her two-year struggle to get a novel published. Despite having a six-figure book deal, she was stuck. Why? She was too busy “spending a lot of time on the internet”, that’s why.

“In fact, I can’t really remember anything else I did in 2010. I tweeted, and I scrolled. This didn’t earn me any money, but it felt like work. I justified my habits to myself in various ways. I was building my brand. Blogging was a creative act – even “curating” by reblogging someone else’s post was a creative act, if not squinted. It was also the only creative thing I was doing”.

Emil did what most of us do when faced with a scary and overwhelming project: she did everything but focus on it. It was easier to talk about writing than actually doing it. Someone recently published a book called “Working on my novel” filled with social media posts from writers who are clearly not working on their novels. But that doesn’t stop them from talking about it.

The only relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other.

Dedicate yourself to working quietly in your corner. Turn that inner desire into the product. Ignore the impulse to seek recognition before you act.

Let others do them and become involved in what you have in front of you without much fuss or attention.

Always be a student and ignore your ego

Frank Shamrock, the mixed martial arts pioneer and a multi-title champion, has a system. He trains fighters in what he calls:

  • Plus
  • Minus
  • Equal

In order to be great, each fighter needs to have someone

  • better than they are so they can learn from
  • lesser who they can teach
  • equal that they can challenge themselves against

His formula is pretty simple. We should be ready, at all times, to get continuous feedback about what we know and what we don’t know from every angle.

In order for us to be great, we have to remember where we come from, where we are now, and what’s ahead of us. We must always be in a constant state of learning.

As Shamrock puts it: “we must all become our own teachers, tutors, and critics”. There’s no room for ego there.

We should seek feedback, especially when everybody around us, including ourselves, shows we are doing great. The ego avoids such feedback at all costs.

Who wants to remind themselves of remedial training? Our ego already thinks it knows how and who we are. That is, it thinks we are spectacular, perfect, genius, truly original. It dislikes reality and prefers its own assessment.

We’ve never really mastered anything. We are all mere students at various stages in our lives. By accepting that we are constantly in a learning process, getting feedback, and separating the meanness from genuine advice, can help us keep our ego in check.

Let your ego aside 

In the Roman system of art and science, successful businessmen, politicians, and rich playboys would subsidize a number of writers, thinkers, artists, and performers. Among the tasks they were required to perform, there’s one called “anteambulo”. “Anteambulo” literally means “one who clears the path”.

An anteambulo proceeded in front of his patron anywhere they traveled in Rome, making way, communicating messages, and generally making the patron’s life easier.

In reality, serving the role of the apprentice is not as bad as we think. In order to make it big, we have to first go through some stages. Being an apprentice and learning by placing others in better light can serve us better than we think. It’s not about making others look good but providing support so that others do good.

When we are starting out, we can be sure that we:

  • are not nearly as good as we think we are
  • have an attitude that needs adjustment
  • are under the wrong impression about what we think we know

On your way to greatness


Imagine that for every person we met, we thought of ways to help them, to make them look good? The effect of this would be that we would learn a great deal by solving problems, even if those problems are not our own. And, since we should always be in a state of continuous learning, a student of life, what better way to learn than by helping somebody else?

          It’s amazing how Dale Carnegie’s teachings bear truth in modern times. Ryan invites us to “help ourselves by helping others”. Isn’t that the same thing Carnegie told us in his eternal “How to win friends and influence people” – “find out what the other people want and help them get it”.

          If we are strong enough to let our ego aside, we can get out of our own way and give a helping hand to the ones around us.

Why is success so ephemeral?

“Ego shortens it”

We cannot continue to learn if we believe we know everything.

If during the aspiration stage, we are a student, that stage should never end. This position of learning should never come to completion.

We should learn from everything and everyone. From the people, we beat, to the people who beat us. Everyone has a lesson to teach, even those we don’t like or are our supposed enemies. At every step, we have an opportunity to learn.

Some people enter our lives only to teach us how not to do something. There’s always a lesson there. We just need to take notice, find it and use it in our future endeavors.

More often than not, we are so convinced of our own intelligence, that we stay in a comfort zone which ensures that we never feel stupid or reconsider what we know.

“An amateur is defensive”, says Ryan. “The professional finds learning to be enjoyable. They like to be challenged and humbled. They engage in education as an ongoing process.

Success is great. However, success can be our doom if we don’t keep our ego in check if we think that we’ve reached a level where there’s nothing for us to learn and keep doing the same thing over and over again because it has worked for us in the past.

Keep your ego in check


 The moment we reach success is very easy to let it go to our heads. Now it’s crucial that we are vigilant and step lightly. We start to believe that we are entitled to fame, position, recognition, when in fact we don’t. The moment is delicate and if we lose control and let it dominate us, it can lead us to our ruin. Now the stakes are much higher and the margin for error much smaller. Our ability to listen, get feedback, improve and grow matter the most.

It takes work to get to the top, but it takes a hell of a lot more to stay there. Focus and constant effort are our main priorities. Improve and work without break.

Some might believe that our moment of glory is the moment when we can take a break and slack off. After all, we’ve earned it. There he goes, that damn ego telling us a story we so much want to hear. In fact, the qualities and skills that got us there need constant attention and attendance. We cannot afford a moment of break. Work never finishes. There’s no one man or woman of greatness that took a break only because they felt they deserved it.


After aspiring and success, failure follows


          It’s silly to believe that aspiration and success are the only variables of our journey. Although nobody likes to talk about it, failure is part of the circle. Without failure, we cannot know victory.

          We tend to avoid the failure part of life. After all, we believe that failing defines our values as human beings. When failure creeps in, the response is not to claw so hard that we shatter it to pieces. Now it’s time to go back to the aspiring stage and remind ourselves of the initial reasons for our journey.

          Successful people are not interested in meeting anyone’s standards. They hold themselves accountable to their own standards.

          The only real measure is with yourself. Yes, competition is healthy but don’t let that ego tell you it’s everything.

          The metric to measure yourself is your absolute best.

          Ryan puts it nicely when he says: “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.”

Takeaways from “Ego is the enemy”

          Reading his book “Ego is the enemy” is a battle in itself. Our road to success is never easy, no matter what success means to us. However, reading Ryan’s book is both pleasurable and painful. It makes us confront our own ego and, most of the time, it’s not an easy task. You read about people aspiring, succeeding, and failing and the reasons behind their stories. You discover about the causes behind it and you, automatically, find some of them, if not many, in your own story. It’s a painful moment of introspection. However, you can only become stronger because of it, unless you let that ego creep in to tell you otherwise.  


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