In success and failure, our own ego can be our biggest enemy and self-sabotage can ruin us. Not as actionable or comprehensive as ‘The Obstacle Is The Way’ but a decent read on Stoic philosophy nonetheless.
While the history books are filled with tales of obsessive, visionary geniuses who remade the world in their image with sheer, almost irrational force, I've found that if you go looking you'll find that history is also made by individuals who fought their egos at every turn, who eschewed the spotlight, and who put their higher goals above their desire for recognition.
Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, your worst enemy already lives inside you: your ego.
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.
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. It repulses advantages and opportunities. It's a magnet for enemies and errors.
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
we're told to believe in our uniqueness above all else. We're told to think big, live big, to be memorable and "dare greatly." We think that success requires a bold vision or some sweeping plan — after all, that's what the founders of this company or that championship team supposedly had. (But did they? Did they really?)
Sure, ego has worked for some. Many of history's most famous men and women were notoriously egotistical. But so were many of its greatest failures. Far more of them, in fact. But here we are with a culture that urges us to
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.
Wait, but so-and-so had a huge ego and was successful. But what about Steve Jobs? What about Kanye West? We can seek to rationalize the worst behavior by pointing to outliers. But no one is truly successful because they are delusional, self-absorbed, or disconnected.
what we see when we study these people is that they did their best work in the moments when they fought back against these impulses, disorders, and flaws.
Ego is stolen. Confidence is earned. Ego is self-anointed, its swagger is artifice.
And "abhor flatterers as you would deceivers; for both, if trusted, injure those who trust them."
Among men who rise to fame and leadership two types are recognizable — those who are born with a belief in themselves and those in whom it is a slow growth dependent on actual achievement. To the men of the last type their own success is a constant surprise, and its fruits the more delicious, yet to be tested cautiously with a haunting sense of doubt whether it is not all a dream. In that doubt lies true modesty, not the sham of insincere self-depreciation but the modesty of "moderation," in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose.
if your belief in yourself is not dependent on actual achievement, then what is it dependent on? The answer, too often when we are just setting out, is nothing. Ego.
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 self-absorption inhibit growth. So does fantasy and "vision."
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.
It was easier to talk about writing, to do the exciting things related to art and creativity and literature, than to commit the act itself. She's not the only one. 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.
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. In actuality, silence is strength — particularly early on in any journey. As the philosopher (and as it happens, a hater of newspapers and their chatter) Kierkegaard warned, "Mere gossip anticipates real talk, and to express what is still in thought weakens action by forestalling 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.
Talk depletes us. Talking and doing fight for the same resources. Research shows that while goal visualization is important, after a certain point our mind begins to confuse it with actual progress. The same goes for verbalization. Even talking aloud to ourselves while we work through difficult problems has been shown to significantly decrease insight and breakthroughs.
The more difficult the task, the more uncertain the outcome, the more costly talk will be and the farther we run from actual accountability. It's sapped us of the energy desperately needed to conquer what Steven Pressfield calls the "Resistance" — the hurdle that stands between us and creative expression. Success requires a full 100 percent of our effort, and talk flitters part of that effort away before we can use it.
a voice of a generation doesn't call itself that. In fact, when you think about it, you realize just how little these voices seem to talk. It's a song, it's a speech, it's a book — the volume of work may be light, but what's inside it is concentrated and impactful. They work quietly in the corner. They turn their inner turmoil into product — and eventually to stillness. They ignore the impulse to seek recognition before they act. They don't talk much. Or mind the feeling that others, out there in public and enjoying the limelight, are somehow getting the better end of the deal. (They are not.) They're too busy working to do anything else. When they do talk — it's earned.
Having authority is not the same as being an authority. Having the right and being right are not the same either. Being promoted doesn't necessarily mean you're doing good work and it doesn't mean you are worthy of promotion (they call it failing upward in such bureaucracies). Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.
There's a quip from the historian Will Durant, that a nation is born stoic and dies epicurean.
If your purpose is something larger than you — to accomplish something, to prove something to yourself — then suddenly everything becomes both easier and more difficult. Easier in the sense that you know now what it is you need to do and what is important to you. The other "choices" wash away, as they aren't really choices at all. They're distractions. It's about the doing, not the recognition. Easier in the sense that you don't need to compromise. Harder because each opportunity — no matter how gratifying or rewarding — must be evaluated along strict guidelines: Does this help me do what I have set out to do? Does this allow me to do what I need to do? Am I being selfish or selfless? In this course, it is not "Who do I want to be in life?" but "What is it that I want to accomplish in life?" Setting aside selfish interest, it asks: What calling does it serve? What principles govern my choices? Do I want to be like everyone else or do I want to do something different? In other words, it's harder because everything can seem like a compromise.
In fact, Satriani explained that what separated Hammett from the others was his willingness to endure the type of instruction they wouldn't. "He was a good student. Many of his friends and contemporaries would storm out complaining thinking I was too harsh a teacher."
updating your appraisal of your talents in a downward direction is one of the most difficult things to do in life — but it is almost always a component of mastery. The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the antidote.
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.
The need for a student mind-set doesn't stop with fighting or music. A scientist must know the core principles of science and the discoveries occurring on the cutting edge. A philosopher must know deeply, and also know how little they know, as Socrates did. A writer must be versed in the canon — and read and be challenged by her contemporaries too. A historian must know ancient and modern history, as well as their specialty. Professional athletes have teams of coaches, and even powerful politicians have advisers and mentors. Why? To become great and to stay great, they must all know what came before, what is going on now, and what comes next. They must internalize the fundamentals of their domain and what surrounds them, without ossifying or becoming stuck in time. They must be always learning. We must all become our own teachers, tutors, and critics.
It tends to surprise people how humble aspiring greats seem to have been. What do you mean they weren't aggressive, entitled, aware of their own greatness or their destiny? The reality is that, though they were confident, the act of being an eternal student kept these men and women humble. "It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows," Epictetus says. You can't learn if you think you already know. You will not find the answers if you're too conceited and self-assured to ask the questions. You cannot get better if you're convinced you are the best.
Today, books are cheaper than ever. Courses are free. Access to teachers is no longer a barrier — technology has done away with that. There is no excuse for not getting your education, and because the information we have before us is so vast, there is no excuse for ever ending that process either.
In our endeavors, we will face complex problems, often in situations we've never faced before. 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 thisÂ .Â .Â . 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." The advice: Okay, well, here's what you'll need to do step-by-step to accomplish it. The reality: We hear what we want to hear. We do what we feel like doing, and despite being incredibly busy and working very hard, we accomplish very little. Or worse, find ourselves in a mess we never anticipated.
Because we only seem to hear about the passion of successful people, we forget that failures shared the same trait.
Passion typically masks a weakness. Its breathlessness and impetuousness and franticness are poor substitutes for discipline, for mastery, for strength and purpose and perseverance.
Passion is seen in those who can tell you in great detail who they intend to become and what their success will be like — they might even be able to tell you specifically when they intend to achieve it or describe to you legitimate and sincere worries they have about the burdens of such accomplishments. They can tell you all the things they're going to do, or have even begun, but they cannot show you their progress. Because there rarely is any.
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. 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?
a deliberate, purposeful person operates on a different level, beyond the sway or the sickness. They hire professionals and use them. They ask questions, they ask what could go wrong, they ask for examples. They plan for contingencies. Then they are off to the races. Usually they get started with small steps, complete them, and look for feedback on how the next set can be better. They lock in gains, and then get better as they go, often leveraging those gains to grow exponentially rather than arithmetically. Is an iterative approach less exciting than manifestos, epiphanies, flying across the country to surprise someone, or sending four-thousand-word stream-of-consciousness e-mails in the middle of the night? Of course. Is it less glamorous and bold than going all in and maxing out your credit cards because you believe in yourself? Absolutely. Same goes for the spreadsheets, the meetings, the trips, the phone calls, software, tools, and internal systems — and every how-to article ever written about them and the routines of famous people. Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function.
It'd be far better if you were intimidated by what lies ahead — humbled by its magnitude and determined to see it through regardless. Leave passion for the amateurs. Make it about what you feel you must do and say, not what you care about and wish to be.
When someone gets his first job or joins a new organization, he's often given this advice: Make other people look good and you will do well. Keep your head down, they say, and serve your boss. Naturally, this is not what the kid who was chosen over all the other kids for the position wants to hear. It's not what a Harvard grad expects — after all, they got that degree precisely to avoid this supposed indignity. Let's flip it around so it doesn't seem so demeaning: It's not about kissing ass. It's not about making someone look good. It's about providing the support so that others can be good. The better wording for the advice is this: Find canvases for other people to paint on. Be an anteambulo. Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself.
When you are just starting out, we can be sure of a few fundamental realities: 1) You're not nearly as good or as important as you think you are; 2) You have an attitude that needs to be readjusted; 3) Most of what you think you know or most of what you learned in books or in school is out of date or wrong.
There's one fabulous way to work all that out of your system: attach yourself to people and organizations who are already successful and subsume your identity into theirs and move both forward simultaneously.
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.
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. In this scenario, ego is the absolute opposite of what is needed. Who can afford to be jerked around by impulses, or believe that you're god's gift to humanity, or too important to put up with anything you don't like? Those who have subdued their ego understand that it doesn't degrade you when others treat you poorly; it degrades them. Up ahead there will be: Slights. Dismissals. Little fuck yous. One-sided compromises. You'll get yelled at. You'll have to work behind the scenes to salvage what should have been easy.
Take it. Eat it until you're sick. Endure it. Quietly brush it off and work harder. Play the game. Ignore the noise; for the love of God, do not let it distract you. Restraint is a difficult skill but a critical one. You will often be tempted, you will probably even be overcome. No one is perfect with it, but try we must.
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
Twenty-four hundred years ago, Plato spoke of the type of people who are guilty of "feasting on their own thoughts." It was apparently common enough even then to find people who "instead of finding out how something they desire might actually come about, [they] pass that over, so as to avoid tiring deliberations about what's possible. They assume that what they desire is available and proceed to arrange the rest, taking pleasure in thinking through everything they'll do when they have what they want, thereby making their lazy souls even lazier." Real people preferring to live in passionate fiction than in actual reality.
adolescence is marked by a phenomenon known now as the "imaginary audience." Consider a thirteen-year-old so embarrassed that he misses a week of class, positive that the entire school is thinking and murmuring about some tiny incident that in truth hardly anyone noticed. Or a teenage girl who spends three hours in front of the mirror each morning, as if she's about to go on stage. They do this because they're convinced that their every move is being watched with rapt attention by the rest of the world. Even as adults, we're susceptible to this fantasy during a harmless walk down the street. We plug in some headphones and all of a sudden there's a soundtrack. We flip up our jacket collar and consider briefly how cool we must look. We replay the successful meeting we're heading toward in our head. The crowds part as we pass. We're fearless warriors, on our way to the top. It's the opening credits montage. It's a scene in a novel. It feels good — so much better than those feelings of doubt and fear and normalness — and so we stay stuck inside our heads instead of participating in the world around us. That's ego, baby. What successful people do is curb such flights of fancy. They ignore the temptations that might make them feel important or skew their perspective.
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.
"Whom the gods wish to destroy," Cyril Connolly famously said, "they first call promising."
"The first thing, Kurnos, which gods bestow on one they would annihilate, is pride."
Pride and ego say: I am an entrepreneur because I struck out on my own. I am going to win because I am currently in the lead. I am a writer because I published something. I am rich because I made some money. I am special because I was chosen. I am important because I think I should be.
We tend to be on guard against negativity, against the people who are discouraging us from pursuing our callings or doubting the visions we have for ourselves. This is certainly an obstacle to beware of, though dealing with it is rather simple. What we cultivate less is how to protect ourselves against the validation and gratification that will quickly come our way if we show promise. What we don't protect ourselves against are people and things that make us feel good — or rather, too good. 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 self-confidence and self-obsession.
The question to ask, when you feel pride, then, is this: What am I missing right now that a more humble person might see? What am I avoiding, or running from, with my bluster, franticness, and embellishments?
One day, Degas complained to his friend, the poet StÃ©phane MallarmÃ©, about his trouble writing. "I can't manage to say what I want, and yet I'm full of ideas." MallarmÃ©'s response cuts to the bone. "It's not with ideas, my dear Degas, that one makes verse. It's with words." Or rather, with work. The distinction between a professional and a dilettante occurs right there — when you accept that having an idea is not enough; that you must work until you are able to recreate your experience effectively in words on the page.
"You can't build a reputation on what you're going to do," was how Henry Ford put it.
The investor and serial entrepreneur Ben Horowitz put it more bluntly: "The hard thing isn't setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal.Â .Â .Â . The hard thing isn't dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare."
Sure, you get it. You know that all things require work and that work might be quite difficult. But do you really understand? Do you have any idea just how much work there is going to be? Not work until you get your big break, not work until you make a name for yourself, but work, work, work, forever and ever. Is it ten thousand hours or twenty thousand hours to mastery? The answer is that it doesn't matter. There is no end zone. To think of a number is to live in a conditional future.
Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuff — the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory. That's the reality. Where we decide to put our energy decides what we'll ultimately accomplish.
So: Do we sit down, alone, and struggle with our work? Work that may or may not go anywhere, that may be discouraging or painful? Do we love work, making a living to do work, not the other way around? Do we love practice, the way great athletes do? Or do we chase short-term attention and validation — whether that's indulging in the endless search for ideas or simply the distraction of talk and chatter? Fac, si facis. (Do it if you're going to do it.)
Materiam superabat opus. (The workmanship was better than the material.) The material we've been given genetically, emotionally, financially, that's where we begin. We don't control that. We do control what we make of that material, and whether we squander it.
Bill Bradley would remind himself, "When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win."
Adopt this mentality
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.
Make it so you don't have to fake it — that's they key. Can you imagine a doctor trying to get by with anything less? Or a quarterback, or a bull rider?
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. Work is finding yourself alone at the track when the weather kept everyone else indoors. Work is pushing through the pain and crappy first drafts and prototypes.
There is another old expression: You know a workman by the chips they leave. It's true. To judge your progress properly, just take a look at the floor.
In the early stages, ego can be temporarily adaptive. Craziness can pass for audaciousness. Delusions can pass for confidence, ignorance for courage. But it's just kicking the costs down the road. Because no one ever said, reflecting on the whole of someone's life, "Man, that monstrous ego sure was worth it."
Of course, what is truly ambitious is to face life and proceed with quiet confidence in spite of the distractions. Let others grasp at crutches. It will be a lonely fight to be real, to say "I'm not going to take the edge off." To say, "I am going to be myself, the best version of that self. I am in this for the long game, no matter how brutal it might be." To do, not be.
Without virtue and training, Aristotle observed, "it is hard to bear the results of good fortune suitably."
"Man is pushed by drives," Viktor Frankl observed. "But he is pulled by values."
Success is intoxicating, yet to sustain it requires sobriety. We can't keep learning if we think we already know everything. We cannot buy into myths we make ourselves, or the noise and chatter of the outside world. We must understand that we are a small part of an interconnected universe. On top of all this, we have to build an organization and a system around what we do — one that is about the work and not about us.
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.
With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pretend that we know more than we do. To pretend we already know everything. Scientia infla (knowledge puffs up). That's the worry and the risk — thinking that we're set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process.
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. Too often, convinced of our own intelligence, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to learn or reconsider what we know). It obscures from view various weaknesses in our understanding, until eventually it's too late to change course.
The solution is as straightforward as it is initially uncomfortable: Pick up a book on a topic you know next to nothing about. Put yourself in rooms where you're the least knowledgeable person.
when Bill Walsh took control, he 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.
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.
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.
We want so desperately to believe that those who have great empires set out to build one. Why? So we can indulge in the pleasurable planning of ours. So we can take full credit for the good that happens and the riches and respect that come our way. Narrative is when you look back at an improbable or unlikely path to your success and say: I knew it all along. Instead of: I hoped. I worked. I got some good breaks.
Writing our own narrative leads to arrogance. It turns our life into a story — and turns us into caricatures — while we still have to live it.
once you win, everyone is gunning for you. It's during your moment at the top that you can afford ego the least — because the stakes are so much higher, the margins for error are so much smaller. If anything, your ability to listen, to hear feedback, to improve and grow matter more now than ever before.
When we are aspiring we must resist the impulse to reverse engineer success from other people's stories. When we achieve our own, we must resist the desire to pretend that everything unfolded exactly as we'd planned. There was no grand narrative.
€™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.
All of us regularly say yes unthinkingly, or out of vague attraction, or out of greed or vanity. Because we can't say no — because we might miss out on something if we did. 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.
The farther you travel down that path of accomplishment, whatever it may be, the more often you meet other successful people who make you feel insignificant. It doesn't matter how well you're doing; your ego and their accomplishments make you feel like nothing — just as others make them feel the same way. It's a cycle that goes on ad infinitumÂ .Â .Â . while
Only you know the race you're running. That is, unless your ego decides the only way you have value is if you're better than, have more than, everyone everywhere. More urgently, each one of us has a unique potential and purpose; that means that we're the only ones who can evaluate and set the terms of our lives. Far too often, we look at other people and make their approval the standard we feel compelled to meet, and as a result, squander our very potential and purpose.
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. In other words, it's not about beating the other guy. It's not about having more than the others. It's about being what you are, and being as good as possible at it, without succumbing to all the things that draw you away from it. It's about going where you set out to go.
euthymia means "tranquillity" in English.)
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.
When "you combine insecurity and ambition," the plagiarist and disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer said when reflecting back on his fall, "you get an inability to say no to things."
Maybe your priority actually is money. Or maybe it's family. Maybe it's influence or change. Maybe it's building an organization that lasts, or serves a purpose. All of these are perfectly fine motivations. But you do need to know. You need to know what you don't want and what your choices preclude. Because strategies are often mutually exclusive. 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.
The more you have and do, the harder maintaining fidelity to your purpose will be, but the more critically you will need to. Everyone buys into the myth that if only they had that — usually what someone else has — they would be happy. It may take getting burned a few times to realize the emptiness of this illusion.
Find out why you're after what you're after. Ignore those who mess with your pace. Let them covet what you have, not the other way around.
"The Strongest Poison ever known," the poet William Blake wrote, "came from Caesar's Laurel Crown." Success casts a spell over us.
The problem lies in the path that got us to success in the first place. What we've accomplished often required feats of raw power and force of will.
Achieving success involved ignoring the doubts and reservations of the people around us. It meant rejecting rejection. It required taking certain risks. We could have given up at any time, but we're here precisely because we didn't. Persistence and courage in the face of ridiculous odds are partially irrational traits — in some cases really irrational. When it works, those tendencies can feel like they've been vindicated.
The complete and utter sense of certainty that got you here can become a liability if you're not careful. The demands and dream you had for a better life? The ambition that fueled your effort? These begin as earnest drives but left unchecked become hubris and entitlement.
A smart man or woman must regularly remind themselves of the limits of their power and reach.
The sad feedback loop is that the relentless "looking out for number one" can encourage other people to undermine and fight us. They see that behavior for what it really is: a mask for weakness, insecurity, and instability. In its frenzy to protect itself, paranoia creates the persecution it seeks to avoid, making the owner a prisoner of its own delusions and chaos.
I n 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower returned from his inaugural parade and entered the White House for the first time as president late in the evening. As he walked into the Executive Mansion, his chief usher handed Eisenhower two letters marked "Confidential and Secret" that had been sent to him earlier in the day. Eisenhower's reaction was swift: "Never bring me a sealed envelope," he said firmly. "That's what I have a staff for." How snobbish, right? Had the office really gone to his head already? Not at all. Eisenhower recognized the seemingly insignificant event for what it was: a symptom of a disorganized, dysfunctional organization. Not everything needed to run through him. Who was to say that the envelope was even important? Why hadn't anyone screened it?
As his chief of staff later put it, "The president does the most important things. I do the next most important things."
He knew that urgent and important were not synonyms.
in moving up the ladder in life, the system and work habits that got us where we are won't necessarily keep us there. When we're aspiring or small time, we can be idiosyncratic, we can compensate for disorganization with hard work and a little luck. That's not going to cut it in the majors. In fact, it'll sink you if you can't grow up and organize.
As one executive put it, DeLorean "had the ability to recognize a good opportunity but he didn't know how to make it happen." Another executive described his management style as "chasing colored balloons" — he was constantly distracted and abandoning one project for another. He was a genius. Sadly, that's rarely enough.
DeLorean couldn't manage himself, and so he had trouble managing others. And so he managed to fail, both himself and the dream.
Yes — in the end, we all face becoming the adult supervision we originally rebelled against.
He understood that order and responsibility were what the country needed. And that this far outweighed his own concerns.
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. Yes, it would be more fun to be constantly involved in every tiny matter, and might make us feel important to be the person called to put out fires. The little things are endlessly engaging and often flattering, while the big picture can be hard to discern. It's not always fun, but it is the job. If you don't think big picture — because you're too busy playing "boss man" — who will?
Micromanagers are egotists who can't manage others and they quickly get overloaded.
The Disease of "Me"
Ego needs honors in order to be validated. Confidence, on the other hand, is able to wait and focus on the task at hand regardless of external recognition. Early on in our careers, we may be able to make these sacrifices more easily. We can drop out of a prestigious college to start our own company. Or we can tolerate being looked over once in a while. Once we've "made it, " the tendency is to switch to the mind-set of "getting what's mine."
Is that to say that managing your image isn't important? Of course not. Early in your career, you'll notice that you jump on every opportunity to do so. 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. Who has time to look at a picture of himself? What's the point?
It doesn't make you a bad person to want to be remembered. To want to make it to the top. To provide for yourself and your family. After all, that's all part of the allure.
The credit? Who cares.
Who am I? What am I doing? What is my role in this world? Nothing draws us away from those questions like material success — when we are always busy, stressed, put upon, distracted, reported to, relied on, apart from. When we're wealthy and told that we're important or powerful. Ego tells us that meaning comes from activity, that being the center of attention is the only way to matter. When we lack a connection to anything larger or bigger than us, it's like a piece of our soul is gone.
Here's an exercise: walk onto ancient battlefield or a place of historical significance. Look at the statues and you can't help but see how similar the people look, how little has changed since then — since before, and how it will be forever after. Here a great man once stood. Here another brave woman died. Here a cruel rich man lived, in this palatial homeÂ .Â .Â . It's the sense that others have been here before you, generations of them, in fact. In those moments, we have a sense of the immensity of the world. Ego is impossible, because we realize, if only fleetingly, what Emerson meant when he said that "Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors." They are part of us, we are part of a tradition.
Why do you think that great leaders and thinkers throughout history have "gone out into the wilderness" and come back with inspiration, with a plan, with an experience that puts them on a course that changes the world? It's because in doing so they found perspective, they understood the larger picture in a way that wasn't possible in the bustle of everyday life. Silencing the noise around them, they could finally hear the quiet voice they needed to listen to.
Muhammad Ali once said. Yeah, okay. That's why great people have to work even harder to fight against this headwind. It's hard to be self-absorbed and convinced of your own greatness inside the solitude and quiet of a sensory deprivation tank. It's hard to be anything but humble walking alone along a beach late at night with an endless black ocean crashing loudly against the ground next to you.
We almost excuse ego because we think it's part and parcel of the personality required to "make it big." Maybe a bit of that overpoweringness is what got you where you are. But let's ask: Is it really sustainable for the next several decades? Can you really outwork and outrun everyone forever? The answer is no. The ego tells us we're invincible, that we have unlimited force that will never dissipate. But that can't be what greatness requires — energy without end?
The historian Shelby Foote observed that "power doesn't so much corrupt; that's too simple. It fragments, closes options, mesmerizes." That's what ego does. It clouds the mind precisely when it needs to be clear. Sobriety is a counterbalance, a hangover cure — or better, a prevention method.
there certainly is an element of restraint to egoless sobriety — an elimination of the unnecessary and the destructive. No more obsessing about your image; treating people beneath you or above you with contempt; needing first-class trappings and the star treatment; raging, fighting, preening, performing, lording over, condescending, and marveling at your own awesomeness or self-anointed importance. Sobriety is the counterweight that must balance out success. Especially if things keep getting better and better.
Here you are at the pinnacle. What have you found? Just how tough and tricky it is to manage. You thought it would get easier when you arrived; instead, it's even harder — a different animal entirely. What you found is that you must manage yourself in order to maintain your success.
Alexander just never grasped Aristotle's "golden mean" — that is, the middle ground. Repeatedly, Aristotle speaks of virtue and excellence as points along a spectrum. Courage, for instance, lies between cowardice on one end and recklessness on the other. Generosity, which we all admire, must stop short of either profligacy and parsimony in order to be of any use. Where the line — this golden mean — is can be difficult to tell, but without finding it, we risk dangerous extremes.
Endless ambition is easy; anyone can put their foot down hard on the gas. Complacency is easy too; it's just a matter of taking that foot off the gas. We must avoid what the business strategist Jim Collins terms the "undisciplined pursuit of more," as well as the complacency that comes with plaudits. To borrow from Aristotle again, what's difficult is to apply the right amount of pressure, at the right time, in the right way, for the right period of time, in the right car, going in the right direction.
In sports, the schedule gets harder after a winning season, the bad teams get better draft picks, and the salary cap makes it tough to keep a team together. In life, taxes go up the more you make, and the more obligations society foists on you. The media is harder on those it has covered before.
while yes, often people set themselves up to crash, good people fail (or other people fail them) all the time too. People who have already been through a lot find themselves stuck with more. Life isn't fair.
Ego loves this notion, the idea that something is "fair" or not. Psychologists call it narcissistic injury when we take personally totally indifferent and objective events.
When we face difficulty, particularly public difficulty (doubters, scandals, losses), our friend the ego will show its true colors.
To paraphrase Epicurus, the narcissistically inclined live in an "unwalled city." A fragile sense of self is constantly under threat. Illusions and accomplishments are not defenses, not when you've got the special sensitive antennae trained to receive (and create) the signals that challenge your precarious balancing act.
As Goethe once observed, the great failing is "to see yourself as more than you are and to value yourself at less than your true worth."
What both Graham and Walsh were doing was adhering to a set of internal metrics that allowed them to evaluate and gauge their progress while everyone on the outside was too distracted by supposed signs of failure or weakness. This is what guides us through difficulty.
know that everyone experiences failure and adversity, that we're all subject to the rules of gravity and averages. What does that mean? It means we'll face them too.
Humble and strong people don't have the same trouble with these troubles that egotists do. There are fewer complaints and far less self-immolation. Instead, there's stoic — even cheerful — resilience. Pity isn't necessary. Their identity isn't threatened. They can get by without constant validation.
He faced what Robert Greene — a man who sixty years later would find his wildly popular books banned in many federal prisons — calls an "Alive Time or Dead Time" scenario. How would the seven years ultimately play out? What would Malcolm do with this time? 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.
Malcolm chose alive time. He began to learn. He explored religion. He taught himself to be a reader by checking out a pencil and the dictionary from the prison library and not only consumed it from start to finish, but copied it down longhand from cover to cover. All these words he'd never known existed before were transferred to his brain.
"From then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading in my bunk." He read history, he read sociology, he read about religion, he read the classics, he read philosophers like Kant and Spinoza.
Prison was his college. He transcended confinement through the pages he absorbed. He reflected that months passed without his even thinking about being detained against his will. He had "never been so truly free in his life."
Most people know what Malcolm X did after he got out of prison, but they don't realize or understand how prison made that possible. How a mix of acceptance, humility, and strength powered the transformation. They also aren't aware of how common this is in history, how many figures took seemingly terrible situations — a prison sentence, an exile, a bear market or depression, military conscription, even being sent to a concentration camp — and through their attitude and approach, turned those circumstances into fuel for their unique greatness.
When injustice or the capriciousness of fate are inflicted on someone, the normal reaction is to yell, to fight back, to resist. You know the feeling: I don't want this. I want ______. I want it my way. This is shortsighted. 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?
"Many a serious thinker has been produced in prisons," as Robert Greene put it, "where we have nothing to do but think."
That's what so many of us do when we fail or get ourselves into trouble. Lacking the ability to examine ourselves, we reinvest our energy into exactly the patterns of behavior that caused our problems to begin with. It comes in many forms. Idly dreaming about the future. Plotting our revenge. Finding refuge in distraction. Refusing to consider that our choices are a reflection of our character. We'd rather do basically anything else. But what if we said: This is an opportunity for me. I am using it for my purposes. I will not let this be dead time for me. The dead time was when we were controlled by ego. Now — now we can live.
In life, we all get stuck with dead time. Its occurrence isn't in our control. Its use, on the other hand, is.
In his eyes, he was just doing his job — one he believed was his sacred duty. He knew that he did it well. He knew he had done what was right. That was 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.
Belisarius could win his battles. He could lead his men. He could determine his personal ethics. He could not control whether his work was appreciated or whether it aroused suspicion. He had no ability to control whether a powerful dictator would treat him well. This reality rings essentially true for everyone in every kind of life. What was so special about Belisarius was that he accepted the bargain. Doing the right thing was enough. Serving his country, his God, and doing his duty faithfully was all that mattered. Any adversity could be endured and any rewards were considered extra.
how do you intend to endure tough times? What if you're ahead of the times? What if the market favors some bogus trend? What if your boss or your clients don't understand? It's far better when doing good work is sufficient. In other words, the less attached we are to outcomes the better.
Maybe your parents will never be impressed. Maybe your girlfriend won't care. Maybe the investor won't see the numbers. Maybe the audience won't clap. But we have to be able to push through. We can't let that be what motivates us.
You will be unappreciated. You will be sabotaged. You will experience surprising failures. Your expectations will not be met. You will lose. You will fail. How do you carry on then? How do you take pride in yourself and your work? John Wooden's advice to his players says it: Change the definition of success. "Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming."
Do your work. Do it well. Then "let go and let God. " That's all there needs to be.
T here is hardly the space to list all the successful people who have hit rock bottom.
In Greek mythology, characters often experience katabasis — or "a going down." They're forced to retreat, they experience a depression, or in some cases literally descend into the underworld. When they emerge, it's with heightened knowledge and understanding.
Duris dura franguntur. Hard things are broken by hard things. The bigger the ego the harder the fall.
many significant life changes come from moments in which we are thoroughly demolished, in which everything we thought we knew about the world is rendered false. We might call these "Fight Club moments."
Such a moment raises many questions: How do I make sense of this? How do I move onward and upward? Is this the bottom, or is there more to come? Someone told me my problems, so how do I fix them? How did I let this happen? How can it never happen again?
A look at history finds that these events seem to be defined by three traits: 1. They almost always came at the hands of some outside force or person. 2. They often involved things we already knew about ourselves, but were too scared to admit. 3. From the ruin came the opportunity for great progress and improvement.
In 12-step groups, almost all the steps are about suppressing the ego and clearing out the entitlements and baggage and wreckage that has been accumulated — so that you might see what's left when all of that is stripped away and the real you is left.
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.
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.
We take risks. We mess up. The problem is that when we get our identity tied up in our work, we worry that any kind of failure will then say something bad about us as a person. It's a fear of taking responsibility, of admitting that we might have messed up. It's the sunk cost fallacy.
Ego asks: Why is this happening to me? How do I save this and prove to everyone I'm as great as they think? It's the animal fear of even the slightest sign of weakness.
"If you cannot reasonably hope for a favorable extrication, do not plunge deeper. Have the courage to make a full stop."
Most trouble is temporary... unless you make that not so. Recovery is not grand, it's one step in front of the other. Unless your cure is more of the disease.
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 loseÂ .Â .Â . and then win? Because you will lose in life. It's a fact. A doctor has to call time of death at some point. They just do.
He who will do anything to avoid failure will almost certainly do something worthy of a failure. 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.
You're not as good as you think. You don't have it all figured out. Stay focused. Do better.
This is characteristic of how great people think. It's not that they find failure in every success. They just hold themselves to a standard that exceeds what society might consider to be objective success. Because of that, they don't much care what other people think; they care whether they meet their own standards. And these standards are much, much higher than everyone else's.
For us, the scoreboard can't be the only scoreboard. 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.
Think of the times that you've excused your own with "no one will know." This is the moral gray area that our ego loves to exploit. Holding your ego against a standard (inner or indifferent or whatever you want to call it) makes it less and less likely that excess or wrongdoing is going to be tolerated by you.
Reflecting on what went well or how amazing we are doesn't get us anywhere, except maybe to where we are right now. But we want to go further, we want more, we want to continue to improve. Ego blocks that, so we subsume it and smash it with continually higher standards. Not that we are endlessly pursuing more, as if we're racked with greed, but instead, we're inching our way toward real improvement, with discipline rather than disposition.
the paradox of hate and bitterness. It accomplishes almost exactly the opposite of what we hope it does. In the Internet age, we call this the Streisand effect (named after a similar attempt by the singer and actress Barbra Streisand, who tried to legally remove a photo of her home from the Web. Her actions backfired and far more people saw it than would have had she left the issue alone.) Attempting to destroy something out of hate or ego often ensures that it will be preserved and disseminated forever.
We all have stuff that pisses us off. The more successful or powerful we are, the more there will be that we think we need to protect in terms of our legacy, image, and influence. If we're not careful, however, we can end up wasting an incredible amount of time trying to keep the world from displeasing or disrespecting us.
You know what is a better response to an attack or a slight or something you don't like? Love. That's right, love. For the neighbor who won't turn down the music. For the parent that let you down. For the bureaucrat who lost your paperwork. For the group that rejects you. For the critic who attacks you. The former partner who stole your business idea. The bitch or the bastard who cheated on you. Love. Because, as the song lyrics go, "hate will get you every time."
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? Take an even wider inventory. 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. The question we must ask for ourselves is: Are we going to be miserable just because other people are?
I don't like work — no man does — but I like what is in the work — the chance to find yourself. — JOSEPH CONRAD
There is no way around it: We will experience difficulty. We will feel the touch of failure.
"People learn from their failures. Seldom do they learn anything from success." It's why the old Celtic saying tells us, "See much, study much, suffer much, that is the path to wisdom."
Aspiration leads to success (and adversity). Success creates its own adversity (and, hopefully, new ambitions). And adversity leads to aspiration and more success. It's an endless loop.
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.
Not to aspire or seek out of ego. To have success without ego. To push through failure with strength, not ego.
My friend the philosopher and martial artist Daniele Bolelli once gave me a helpful metaphor. 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.
One of the most freeing realizations came to me while I was writing and thinking about the ideas in the pages you've just read. It occurred to me what a damaging delusion this notion that our lives are "grand monuments" set to last for all time really is. Any ambitious person knows that feeling — that you must do great things, that you must get your way, and that if you don't that you're a worthless failure and the world is conspiring against you. There is so much pressure that eventually we all break under it or are broken by it. Of course, that is not true. Yes, we all have potential within us. We all have goals and accomplishments that we know we can achieve — whether it's starting a company, finishing a creative work, making a run at a championship, or getting to the top of your respective field. These are worthy aims. A broken person will not get there. The problem is when ego intrudes on these pursuits, corrupting them and undermining us as we set out to achieve and accomplish. Whispering lies as we embark on that journey and whispering lies as we succeed in it, and worse, whispering painful lies when we stumble along the way. Ego, like any drug, might be indulged at first in a misguided attempt to get an edge or to take one off. The problem is how quickly it becomes an end unto itself.
There's a quote from Bismarck that says, in effect, 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."
Every day for the rest of your life you will find yourself at one of three phases: aspiration, success, failure. You will battle the ego in each of them. You will make mistakes in each of them. You must sweep the floor every minute of every day. And then sweep again.