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Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday

nfwyt, personal-development20 min read

This is a book that every wannabe stoic person will want to read. In this book, the author, Ryan Holiday, shares the stories of politicians, professional athletes, war heroes and business leaders who had learned harsh lessons about the dangerous side of ego and also about people who had handled it.

In this book you will find subtle advice that instead of passion, look for purpose. Focus on your work and value the lessons that you get along the way.

Below are some parts, i liked in the book.

There is no one moment that changes a person. There are many.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.

The pioneering CEO Harold Geneen compared egoism to alcoholism: “The egotist does not stumble about, knocking things off his desk. He does not stammer or drool. No, instead, he becomes more and more arrogant, and some people, not knowing what is underneath such an attitude, mistake his arrogance for a sense of power and self-confidence.” You could say they start to mistake that about themselves too, not realizing the disease they’ve contracted or that they’re killing themselves with it.

If ego is the voice that tells us we’re better than we really are, we can say ego inhibits true success by preventing a direct and honest connection to the world around us. One of the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous defined ego as “a conscious separation from.” From what? Everything. The ways this separation manifests itself negatively are immense: We can’t work with other people if we’ve put up walls. We can’t improve the world if we don’t understand it or ourselves. We can’t take or receive feedback if we are incapable of or uninterested in hearing from outside sources. We can’t recognize opportunities or create them—if instead of seeing what is in front of us, we live inside our own fantasy. Without an accurate accounting of our own abilities compared to others, what we have is not confidence but delusion. How are we supposed to reach, motivate, or lead other people if we can’t relate to their needs because we’ve lost touch with our own?

The performance artist Marina Abramović puts it directly:

“If you start believing in your greatness, it is the death of your creativity.”

Important point here is, Replace the temptations of ego with humility and discipline


Isocrates “noble maxims.” Isocrates began by informing the young man that,

  • no adornment so becomes you as modesty, justice, and selfcontrol; for these are the virtues by which, as all men are agreed, the character of the young is held in restraint.
  • Practice self-control -- not to fall under the sway of “temper, pleasure, and pain.
  • abhor flatterers as you would deceivers; for both, if trusted, injure those who trust them.
  • Be affable in your relations with those who approach you, and never haughty; for the pride of the arrogant even slaves can hardly endure”
  • Be slow in deliberation, but be prompt to carry out your resolves
  • best thing which we have in ourselves is good judgment.

Constantly train your intellect, for the greatest thing in the smallest compass is a sound mind in a human body.

Story of Sherman

Sherman was one of the most famous men in America, and yet he sought no public office, had no taste for politics, and wished simply to do his job and then eventually retire. Dismissing the incessant praise and attention endemic to such success, he wrote as a warning to his friend Grant, “Be natural and yourself and this glittering flattery will be as the passing breeze of the sea on a warm summer day.”

In fact, he regularly and consistently deferred to others and was more than happy to contribute to a winning team, even if it meant less credit or fame for himself.

One might say that the ability to evaluate one’s own ability is the most important skill of all. Without it, improvement is impossible. And certainly ego makes it difficult every step of the way. It is certainly more pleasurable to focus on our talents and strengths, but where does that get us? Arrogance and selfabsorption inhibit growth. So does fantasy and “vision.”

In this phase, 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 selfawareness.

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.

Facts are better than dreams, as Churchill put it.

Talk, Talk, Talk

At the beginning of any path, we’re excited and nervous. So we seek to comfort ourselves externally instead of inwardly. There’s a weak side to each of us, that—like a trade union— isn’t exactly malicious but at the end of the day still wants to get as much public credit and attention as it can for doing the least. That side we call ego.

Sherman had a good rule he tried to observe. “Never give reasons for you what think or do until you must. Maybe, after a while, a better reason will pop into your head.”

Bottomline : Stop chit-chat, talking about yourself and other meaningless things. Get focus on, in silence and get work done.

Story of John Boyd

He was known as “Forty-Second Boyd” meaning that he could defeat any opponent, from any position, in less than forty seconds. He never published any books and he wrote only one academic paper. Only a few videos of him survive and he was rarely, if ever, quoted in the media. Despite nearly thirty years of impeccable service, Boyd wasn’t promoted above the rank of colonel. On the other hand, his theories transformed maneuver warfare in almost every branch of the armed forces, not just in his own lifetime but even more so after. The F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, which reinvented modern military aircraft, were his pet projects.

Whatever we seek to do in life, reality soon intrudes on our youthful idealism. This reality comes in many names and forms: incentives, commitments, recognition, and politics. In every case, they can quickly redirect us from doing to being. From earning to pretending. Ego aids in that deception every step of the way. It’s why Boyd wanted young people to see that if we are not careful, we can very easily find ourselves corrupted by the very occupation we wish to serve.

Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.

Story of Kirk Hammett

It was around this time that Kirk came to what must have been a humbling realization that despite his years of playing and being invited to join Metallica, he wasn’t as good as he’d like to be. At his home in San Francisco, he looked for a guitar teacher. In other words, despite joining his dream group and quite literally turning professional, Kirk insisted that he needed more instruction that he was still a student. The teacher he sought out had a reputation for being a teacher’s teacher, and for working with musical prodigies like Steve Vai. Joe Satriani, the man Hammett chose as his instructor.

Must have student mindset.

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.

You cannot get better if you’re convinced you are the best.

Dont be Passionate

Your passion may be the very thing holding you back from power or influence or accomplishment.

Got to be above passion. Have purpose, direction and reason.

Emotions could be burden, so instead be in control and doing your job and never being “passion’s slave.”

Because we only seem to hear about the passion of successful people, we forget that failures shared the same trait.

More than purpose, we also need realism.

  • Where do we start?
  • What do we do first?
  • What do we do right now?
  • How are we sure that what we’re doing is moving us forward?
  • What are we benchmarking ourselves against?


Great men have almost always shown themselves as ready to obey as they afterwards proved able to command.


Successful businessmen, politicians, or rich playboys would subsidize a number of writers, thinkers, artists, and performers. More than just being paid to produce works of art, these artists performed a number of tasks in exchange for protection, food, and gifts. One of the roles was that of an anteambulo—literally meaning “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.

These people had unique insights into the lives of rich but instead they were bitter and had lots of hatered for people they were working this is sort of similar to people who sue their employers. They considered themselves as unappreciated geniuses who were forced to do stuff they didn't like, they could be geniuses but they were just boiling and moving around with hatered and not doing their work.

In the new jobs, common advice given is, Make other people look good and you will do well. Keep your head down, they say, and serve your boss.

Remember that anteambulo means clearing the path—finding the direction someone already intended to head and helping them pack, freeing them up to focus on their strengths. In fact, making things better rather than simply looking as if you are.

Benjamin Franklin’s Letters

Many people know of Benjamin Franklin’s famous pseudonymous letters written under names like Silence Dogwood. Franklin wrote those letters, submitted them by sliding them under the print-shop door, and received absolutely no credit for them until much later in his life. Franklin was playing the long game, though—learning how public opinion worked, generating awareness of what he believed in, crafting his style and tone and wit. It was a strategy he used time and again over his career—once even publishing in his competitor’s paper in order to undermine a third competitor—for Franklin saw the constant benefit in making other people look good and letting them take credit for your ideas.

Story of Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick, the four-time Super Bowl–winning head coach of the New England Patriots, made his way up the ranks of the NFL by loving and mastering the one part of the job that coaches disliked at the time. He thrived on what was considered grunt work, asked for it and strove to become the best at precisely what others thought they were too good for. “He was like a sponge, taking it all in, listening to everything,” one coach said. “You gave him an assignment and he disappeared into a room and you didn’t see him again until it was done, and then he wanted to do more,”

You can see how easily entitlement and a sense of superiority (the trappings of ego) would have made the accomplishments of either of these men impossible. Franklin would never have been published if he’d prioritized credit over creative expression—indeed, when his brother found out, he literally beat him out of jealousy and anger. Belichick would have pissed off his coach and then probably been benched if he had one-upped him in public. He certainly wouldn’t have taken his first job for free, and he wouldn’t have sat through thousands of hours of film if he cared about status. 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.

There is an old saying, “Say little, do much.” What we really ought to do is update and apply a version of that to our early approach. Be lesser, do more. Imagine if for every person you met, you thought of some way to help them, something you could do for them? And you looked at it in a way that entirely benefited them and not you. The cumulative effect this would have over time would be profound: You’d learn a great deal by solving diverse problems. You’d develop a reputation for being indispensable. You’d have countless new relationships. You’d have an enormous bank of favors to call upon down the road.

That’s what the canvas strategy is about—helping yourself by helping others. Making a concerted effort to trade your short-term gratification for a longer-term payoff. Whereas everyone else wants to get credit and be “respected,” you can forget credit. You can forget it so hard that you’re glad when others get it instead of you—that was your aim, after all. Let the others take their credit on credit, while you defer and earn interest on the principal.

The strategy part of it is the hardest. It’s easy to be bitter.

Once we fight this emotional and egotistical impulse, the canvas strategy is easy. The iterations are endless.

  • Maybe it’s coming up with ideas to hand over to your boss.
  • Find people, thinkers, up-and-comers to introduce them to each other. Cross wires to create new sparks.
  • Find what nobody else wants to do and do it.
  • Find inefficiencies and waste and redundancies.
  • Identify leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas.
  • Produce more than everyone else and give your ideas away


I have observed that those who have accomplished the greatest results are those who “keep under the body”; are those who never grow excited or lose self-control, but are always calm, self-possessed, patient, and polite.

It doesn’t matter how talented you are, how great your connections are, how much money you have. When you want to do something—something big and important and meaningful—you will be subjected to treatment ranging from indifference to outright sabotage. Count on it.


Dreams are there to make it into reality and not to live there

Just remember. 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


We must prepare for pride and kill it early—or it will kill what we aspire to. We must be on guard against that wild selfconfidence and self-obsession. “The first product of selfknowledge is humility,” Flannery O’Connor once said. This is how we fight the ego, by really knowing ourselves.

“Don’t boast.” There’s nothing in it for you.

Work, Work, Work

“You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do”
—Henry Ford

As a young basketball player, Bill Bradley would remind himself, “When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win.” The Bible says something similar in its own way: “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes.” You can lie to yourself, saying that you put in the time, or pretend that you’re working, but eventually someone will show up. You’ll be tested. And quite possibly, found out.


Story of Howard Hughes

When his father died, young Howard Hughes, Jr., inherited three fourths of the private company, which held patents and leases critical to oil drilling, worth nearly $1 million. In a move of almost incomprehensible foresight, the young Hughes, whom many saw as a spoiled little boy, made the decision to buy out his relatives and control the entire company himself. Against their objections and still legally considered a minor, Hughes leveraged his personal assets and nearly all the company’s funds to purchase the stock, and in doing so, consolidated ownership of a business that would create billions of dollars of cash profit over the next century.

A quick rundown of his feats

  • After purchasing his fathers company from relatives, he never foot on it.
  • Trading stocks from his bedside, he lost more than $8 million in the market leading up to the Depression.
  • He lost $1.5 million on a budget of $4.2 million in making a movie called 'Hells Angel'
  • Hughes lost another $4 million on Chrysler stock in early 1930.
  • Even being a mechanical genius, in aviation business. His two contracts during World War II, worth $40 million, were massive failures at the expense of the American taxpayer and himself. Hercules which was one of the biggest planes ever made—took more than five years to develop, cost roughly $20 million, and flew just a single time for barely a mile, only 70 feet above the water. At his insistence and expense, it then sat in an air-conditioned hangar in Long Beach for decades at the cost of $1 million a year.
  • Purchased a movie studio RKO and produced losses of over $22 million, it went from 2k employees to 500 employees.

There is a scene from Howard’s slow descent into madness that bears illustrating. His biographers have him sitting naked in his favorite white chair, unwashed, unkempt, working around the clock to battle lawyers, investigations, investors, in an attempt to save his empire and to hide his shameful secrets. One minute he would dictate some irrational multipage memo about Kleenex, food preparation, or how employees should not speak to him directly, and then he would turn around and seize upon a genuinely brilliant strategy to outrun his creditors and enemies. It was as if, they observed, his mind and business were split in two parts.

Howard Hughes, like all of us, was not completely crazy or completely sane. His ego, fueled and exacerbated by physical injuries (mostly from plane and car crashes for which he was at fault) and various addictions, led him into a darkness that we can scarcely comprehend.

a multi-million-dollar empire with a monopoly on a critical drill bit used in the oil business. Howard Hughes proved himself to be quite possibly the worst businessman of the 20th Century

Harold Geneen famously said. In the Mad Men era of corporate America, there was a major drinking problem, but ego has the same roots—insecurity, fear, a dislike for brutal objectivity. “Whether in middle management or top management, unbridled personal egotism blinds a man to the realities around him; more and more he comes to live in a world of his own imagination; and because he sincerely believes he can do no wrong, he becomes a menace to the men and women who have to work under his direction,”

“Man is pushed by drives,”
—Viktor Frankl


Story of Genghis Khan

Under Genghis Khan’s direction, the Mongols were as ruthless about stealing and absorbing the best of each culture they encountered as they were about conquest itself. Though there were essentially no technological inventions, no beautiful buildings or even great Mongol art, with each battle and enemy, their culture learned and absorbed something new. Genghis Khan was not born a genius. Instead, as one biographer put it, his was “a persistent cycle of pragmatic learning, experimental adaptation, and constant revision driven by his uniquely disciplined and focused will.” He was the greatest conqueror the world ever knew because he was more open to learning than any other conqueror has ever been.

Khan’s first powerful victories came from the reorganization of his military units, splitting his soldiers into groups of ten. This he stole from neighboring Turkic tribes, and unknowingly converted the Mongols to the decimal system. Soon enough, their expanding empire brought them into contact with another “technology” they’d never experienced before: walled cities. In the Tangut raids, Khan first learned the ins and outs of war against fortified cities and the strategies critical to laying siege, and quickly became an expert. Later, with help from Chinese engineers, he taught his soldiers how to build siege machines that could knock down city walls. In his campaigns against the Jurched, Khan learned the importance of winning hearts and minds. By working with the scholars and royal family of the lands he conquered, Khan was able to hold on to and manage these territories in ways that most empires could not. Afterward, in every country or city he held, Khan would call for the smartest astrologers, scribes, doctors, thinkers, and advisers—anyone who could aid his troops and their efforts. His troops traveled with interrogators and translators for precisely this purpose.

Mongols themselves seemed dedicated almost solely to the art of war, they put to good use every craftsman, merchant, scholar, entertainer, cook, and skilled worker they came in contact with. The Mongol Empire was remarkable for its religious freedoms, and most of all, for its love of ideas and convergence of cultures. It brought lemons to China for the first time, and Chinese noodles to the West. It spread Persian carpets, German mining technology, French metalworking, and Islam. The cannon, which revolutionized warfare, was said to be the resulting fusion of Chinese gunpowder, Muslim flamethrowers, and European metalwork. It was Mongol openness to learning and new ideas that brought them together.

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.’”

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.


Myth becomes myth not in the living but in the retelling.

Story of Bill Walsh

Bill Walsh wasn’t focused on winning per se. Instead, he implemented what he called his “Standard of Performance.” That is: What should be done. When. How. At the most basic level and throughout the organization, Walsh had only one timetable, and it was all about instilling these standards.

He focused on seemingly trivial details: Players could not sit down on the practice field. Coaches had to wear a tie and tuck their shirts in. Everyone had to give maximum effort and commitment. Sportsmanship was essential. The locker room must be neat and clean. There would be no smoking, no fighting, no profanity. Quarterbacks were told where and how to hold the ball. Linemen were drilled on thirty separate critical drills. Passing routes were monitored and graded down to the inch. Practices were scheduled to the minute. It would be a mistake to think this was about control. The Standard of Performance was about instilling excellence. These seemingly simple but exacting standards mattered more than some grand vision or power trip. In his eyes, if the players take care of the details, “the score takes care of itself.” The winning would happen.

Instead of pretending that we are living some great story, we must remain focused on the execution—and on executing with excellence. We must shun the false crown and continue working on what got us here.


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.

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 its holder.

It’s time to sit down and think about what’s truly important to you and then take steps to forsake the rest. Without this, success will not be pleasurable, or nearly as complete as it could be. Or worse, it won’t last. This is especially true with money. If you don’t know how much you need, the default easily becomes: more. And so without thinking, critical energy is diverted from a person’s calling and toward filling a bank account.

One cannot be an opera singer and a teen pop idol at the same time. Life requires those trade-offs, but ego can’t allow it. 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. Only then can you say no, can you opt out of stupid races that don’t matter, or even exist. Only then is it easy to ignore “successful” people, because most of the time they aren’t—at least relative to you, and often even to themselves. Only then can you develop that quiet confidence Seneca talked about.


Dont live in a bubble where no one can say no. The promised land is not going to be nice. So you cannot let the walls close in on you. You have got to get yourself and your perceptions under control.

A smart man or woman must regularly remind themselves of the limits of their power and reach.

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

Managing Yourself

Eisenhower thought, His job was to set the priorities, to think big picture, and then trust the people beneath him to do the jobs they were hired for.

Story of DeLorean

As you become successful in your own field, your responsibilities may begin to change. Days become less and less about doing and more and more about making decisions. Such is the nature of leadership. This transition requires reevaluating and updating your identity. It requires a certain humility to put aside some of the more enjoyable or satisfying parts of your previous job. It means accepting that others might be more qualified or specialized in areas in which you considered yourself competent—or at least their time is better spent on them than yours.

What matters is that you learn how to manage yourself and others, before your industry eats you alive. Micromanagers are egotists who can’t manage others and they quickly get overloaded. So do the charismatic visionaries who lose interest when it’s time to execute. Worse yet are those who surround themselves with yes-men or sycophants who clean up their messes and create a bubble in which they can’t even see how disconnected from reality they are.

Responsibility requires a readjustment and then increased clarity and purpose. First, setting the top-level goals and priorities of the organization and your life. Then enforcing and observing them. To produce results and only results.


Story of General Marshall

“You’re becoming who you are going to be and so you might as well not be an asshole.”

As you become more accomplished, you’ll realize that so much of it is a distraction from your work—time spent with reporters, with awards, and with marketing are time away from what you really care about.

When it comes to Marshall, the old idea that selflessness and integrity could be weaknesses or hold someone back are laughably disproven. Sure, some people might have trouble telling you much about him—but each and every one of them lives in a world he was largely responsible for shaping.

The credit? Who cares.


Ego tells us that meaning comes from activity, that being the center of attention is the only way to matter


Story of Angela Merkel

There’s an old line about how if you want to live happy, live hidden.



Story of Katharine Graham of Washington Post



Story of Malcolm X

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?

In life, we all get stuck with dead time. Its occurrence isn’t in our control. Its use, on the other hand, is. As Booker T. Washington most famously put it, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” Make use of what’s around you. Don’t let stubbornness make a bad situation worse.


Story of Belisarius

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 selfrespect. When the effort—not the results, good or bad—is enough.

Doing the work is enough.


Face the symptoms. Cure the disease. Ego makes it so hard —it’s easier to delay, to double down, to deliberately avoid seeing the changes we need to make in our lives. But change begins by hearing the criticism and the words of the people around you. Even if those words are mean spirited, angry, or hurtful. It means weighing them, discarding the ones that don’t matter, and reflecting on the ones you do.

In Fight Club, the character has to firebomb his own apartment to finally break through. Our expectations and exaggerations and lack of restraint made such moments inevitable, ensuring that it would be painful. Now it’s here, what will you make of it? You can change, or you can deny. Vince Lombardi said this once: “A team, like men, must be brought to its knees before it can rise again.” So yes, hitting bottom is as brutal as it sounds.


It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character.

“If you cannot reasonably hope for a favorable extrication, do not plunge deeper. Have the courage to make a full stop.”
—Alexander Hamilton

A full stop. It’s not that these folks should have quit everything. It’s that a fighter who can’t tap out or a boxer who can’t recognize when it’s time to retire gets hurt. Seriously so. You have to be able to see the bigger picture.

When we lose, we have a choice: Are we going to make this a lose-lose situation for ourselves and everyone involved? Or will it be a lose . . . and then win?

When success begins to slip from your fingers—for whatever reason—the response isn’t to grip and claw so hard that you shatter it to pieces. It’s to understand that you must work yourself back to the aspirational phase. You must get back to first principles and best practices. “He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a living man,” Seneca once said.

If your reputation can’t absorb a few blows, it wasn’t worth anything in the first place.


You’re not as good as you think. You don’t have it all figured out. Stay focused. Do better.

Warren Buffett has said the same thing, making a distinction between the inner scorecard and the external one. Your potential, the absolute best you’re capable of—that’s the metric to measure yourself against. Your standards are. Winning is not enough. 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.


Take inventory for a second. What do you dislike? Whose name fills you with revulsion and rage? Now ask: Have these strong feelings really helped you accomplish anything?


See much, study much, suffer much, that is the path to wisdom.
—Old Celtic Sayings

# References

  • Working the Djinn