Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

Read in August 2016

Rating 9/10

Be lesser, do more. Practice detachment. Don't invest in self-image and talking. Value alive time and be an avid student of life. Don't focus on passion and confidence, but on discipline and courage. There is no one to perform for. I've read this book with lots of curiosity and learned more about ego (and my ego) on the way. This is one of those books I plan to revisit and can highly recommend it.

My notes from the book

Ego is an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition.

Ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success.

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.

Though we think big, we must act and live small in order to accomplish what we seek.

Talk depletes us. Talking and doing fight for the same resources.

The greatest work and art comes from wrestling with the void, facing it instead of scrambling to make it go away.

This is what the ego does. It crosses out what matters and replaces it with what doesn’t.

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. There is a sort of ego ceiling imposed—one knows that he is not better than the “master” he apprentices under.

The mixed martial arts pioneer and multi-title champion Frank Shamrock has a system he trains fighters in that he calls plus, minus, and equal. Each fighter, to become great, he said, needs to have someone better that they can learn from, someone lesser who they can teach, and someone equal that they can challenge themselves against.

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.

“It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows,” Epictetus

It’s why the old proverb says, “When student is ready, the teacher appears.”

Opportunities are not usually deep, virgin pools that require courage and boldness to dive into, but instead are obscured, dusted over, blocked by various forms of resistance. What is really called for in these circumstances is clarity, deliberateness, and methodological determination. But too often, we proceed like this… A flash of inspiration: I want to do the best and biggest ______ ever. Be the youngest ______. The only one to ______. The “firstest with the mostest.”

Passion typically masks a weakness. Its breathlessness and impetuousness and franticness are poor substitutes for discipline, for mastery, for strength and purpose and perseverance. You need to be able to spot this in others and in yourself, because while the origins of passion may be earnest and good, its effects are comical and then monstrous.

What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism. Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective.

Passion is about. (I am so passionate about ______.) Purpose is to and for. (I must do ______. I was put here to accomplish ______. I am willing to endure ______ for the sake of this.) Actually, purpose deemphasizes the I. Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself.

Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function.

Be lesser, do more.

A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts, so he loses touch with reality and lives in a world of illusions. —ALAN WATTS

Living clearly and presently takes courage. Don’t live in the haze of the abstract, live with the tangible and real, even if—especially if—it’s uncomfortable. Be part of what’s going on around you. Feast on it, adjust for it.

There’s no one to perform for. There is just work to be done and lessons to be learned, in all that is around us.

What am I missing right now that a more humble person might see?

“You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do,” was how Henry Ford put it.

Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this.

All of us who do creative work… we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good… It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste—the thing that got you into the game—your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.

We can’t keep learning if we think we already know everything.

“as our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.”

No matter what you’ve done up to this point, you better still be a student. If you’re not still learning, you’re already dying.

It is not enough only to be a student at the beginning. It is a position that one has to assume for life. Learn from everyone and everything. From the people you beat, and the people who beat you, from the people you dislike, even from your supposed enemies. At every step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn—and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.

“The way to do really big things seems to be to start with deceptively small

“Keep your identity small,”

There is a real danger in any label that comes along with a career: are we suddenly a “film-maker,” “writer,” “investor,” “entrepreneur,” or “executive” because we’ve accomplished one thing? These labels put you at odds not just with reality, but with the real strategy that made you successful in the first place. From that place, we might think that success in the future is just the natural next part of the story—when really it’s rooted in work, creativity, persistence, and luck.

To know what you like is the beginning of wisdom and of old age.

That’s how it seems to go: we’re never happy with what we have, we want what others have too. We want to have more than everyone else. We start out knowing what is important to us, but once we’ve achieved it, we lose sight of our priorities. Ego sways us, and can ruin us.

We think “yes” will let us accomplish more, when in reality it prevents exactly what we seek. 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.

According to Seneca, the Greek word euthymia is one we should think of often: it is the sense of our own path and how to stay on it without getting distracted by all the others that intersect it.

Think about what’s truly important to you and then take steps to forsake the rest.

If you don’t know how much you need, the default easily becomes: more.

Ego rejects trade-offs. Why compromise? Ego wants it all.

So why do you do what you do? That’s the question you need to answer. Stare at it until you can. Only then will you understand what matters and what doesn’t.

We all occasionally find ourselves in the middle of some project or obligation and can’t understand why we’re there. It will take courage and faith to stop yourself.

“He who indulges empty fears earns himself real fears,” wrote Seneca,

The height of cultivation runs to simplicity. —BRUCE LEE

According to Greene, there are two types of time in our lives: dead time, when people are passive and waiting, and alive time, when people are learning and acting and utilizing every second. Every moment of failure, every moment or situation that we did not deliberately choose or control, presents this choice: Alive time. Dead time. Which will it be?

Think of what you have been putting off. Issues you declined to deal with. Systemic problems that felt too overwhelming to address. Dead time is revived when we use it as an opportunity to do what we’ve long needed to do.

As they say, this moment is not your life. But it is a moment in your life. How will you use it?

Duris dura franguntur. Hard things are broken by hard things.

Denial (which is your ego refusing to believe that what you don’t like could be true).

The only real failure is abandoning your principles. Killing what you love because you can’t bear to part from it is selfish and stupid. If your reputation can’t absorb a few blows, it wasn’t worth anything in the first place.

He explained that training was like sweeping the floor. Just because we’ve done it once, doesn’t mean the floor is clean forever. Every day the dust comes back. Every day we must sweep. The same is true for ego.

Any fool can learn from experience. The trick is to learn from other people’s experience.

Perhaps it is like Plutarch’s reflection that we don’t “so much gain the knowledge of things by the words, as words by the experience [we have] of things.”