Book discussion: Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday, overall highly recommended.

Here I will discuss my ideas about the book, overall impression, and I reference a lot of related material that is not in the book. Whenever I read something my mind likes to make connections with related material I have read. I will try to discern what I read in the book from external sources but I have to apologize ahead of time because everything I read eventually blurs together. What I find valuable about reading new books is not just the information content you get from the book directly, but also the directions the book can lead you once you key in on something and decide to pursue your own research.

I have heard some people argue that ego is healthy for a person (they interpret ego as “confidence” or some other positive trait). This is because they are confusing different definitions of ego. I often see disagreements stem from a difference in interpretation of definitions. This ego is not the Freudian definition. I need to explain that Ryan talks about the ego that is an obstacle to success. When self confidence becomes arrogance. Selfishness, Self absorption, and hubris.

Why is ego bad? Ego prevents you from adapting and changing. The ancient philosopher Epictetus, said ‘one cannot learn that which they think they already know’.”

When taking on a new challenge it’s critical that people suppress their ego and take on a “student mindset”. Like the martial arts master instructor says to the student, I can’t fill your cup if it’s already full. You must empty your cup first.

Ego distorts your perception of reality. In NLP the map is not the territory. The map is your perception of reality and the territory is reality itself. To be successful you need to have the most accurate perception of events that you can. Precise feedback will result in better practice and more effective results. Ego whispers to you “I’m good” or “I don’t need to practice more” or “I will crush this opponent”. Ryan suggests taking the indifferent spectator approach. The neutral observer is like “Spock” or Commander Data from Star Trek, logical. Emotions are good to motivation us to take action. After that they only get in the way. But they can’t be turned on and off easily. (My interpretation)
1. the “I” or self of any person; a person as thinking, feeling, and willing, and distinguishing itself from the selves of others and from objects of its thought.
2. Psychoanalysis. the part of the psychic apparatus that experiences and reacts to the outside world and thus mediates between the primitive drives of the id and the demands of the social and physical environment.
3. egotism; conceit; self-importance

The book has a 3-part structure – how ego manifests/affects these phases of our life: Aspire, Success, and Failure. He created these 3 categories because he mentions that you will always be in one of these categories, and ego can rear its ugly head at any time.

Before reading the book I had a similar theory. I use the example how people say “America is the best country in the world.” Although one can say that this statement shows pride in their nation. It is OK to be proud to be a citizen of your country. The problem is if you believe the country is the best, that implies there is nothing to learn by studying other countries. This is obviously false since there are many countries doing better than the USA in various categories. The better way to state national pride and also help make the country better is to say: “I love my country and I will do what it takes to make this the best place in the world to live.” Other countries can be a model to follow regarding policies where the USA is not #1. Ego will lead someone to feel they are the best and therefore there is nothing more to learn, no more improvements to make. This can’t be farther from the truth.

If you are not #1 then you have room to improve. If you are #1 then you have a lot of work to do in order to retain that title.

Civil war general Sherman stuck to what he knew, therefore he was successful. He avoided the spotlight preferring to work in modest silence. Sherman avoided the ego trap, he didn’t try to impress anyone. In contrast, general Grant was also a successful general in war but went on to be President, and failed due to ego. He tried to impress people rather than stick to what he knew best. I’m not saying he was wrong to pivot, many people need to pivot at some point in their life or business. However there is a right and a wrong way to pivot, and Grant let ego sway his decisions. Analogy is Michael Jordan being successful in basketball then trying baseball and being terrible at it.

The to be or to do speech. Choose between credit or accomplishment. Status or Credit is ego. Influence is doing.
“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed in another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something- something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?” – Colonel John Richard Boyd (January 23, 1927 – March 9, 1997) was a United States Air Force fighter pilot and Pentagon consultant.

Passion vs. Purpose. Purpose is deliberate and controlled. Passion is unrestrained and not sustainable.

Jackie Robinson was the first black major league baseball player. He had to restrain himself from the racism displayed by players and fans. If he didn’t restrain his emotions, his lashing out would have been used against him. But he proved he was the better man. In the end he caused change to happen and made a difference – like MLK Jr.

General George McClellan, a union civil war general was in his head (self aggrandized) and failed because of this. His ego distorted his perception of his performance and negatively influenced his decision making.

Ryan talks about how Genghis Khan would learn military tactics from all the people he came in contact with. He was not egocentric enough to feel his tactics were superior and led to his win. He would absorb all new technology and ways that were better, or more beneficial. He was agnostic towards the solution. Ryan also talks about how Genghis Khan would absorb the people and cultures that he conquered. This would make his empire stronger in the end. I had this belief before I read the book. As a kid I played video games and D&D, and in those games you learned quickly to use the most powerful weapon you could find. If you found a better one, you took it in place of the weapon you had. Always keep the best, discard the rest. The games would limit you as to what you could carry, so you had to be choosy with what you kept. This thought is the same as what Genghis Khan practiced.

Robert Greene talks about alive time and dead time. Dead time—where they are passive and biding and Alive time—where they are learning and acting and leveraging every second towards their intended future. I’m not sure how this related to ego. But I find it valuable advice. Sometimes we all need down time to veg out or meditate. And we have productive time where we get work done and have something to show for our time. I have a new mantra, I want to accomplish something every time I have a holiday or significant block of free time. I want to be able to look back at that time and feel like it was used wisely. We have all had days where we puttered around the house, or seem to lollygag and not do real work. It’s like we are waiting for something – what I have no idea. This resonates soundly with me, therefore I wanted to highlight it even though I was not able to directly link it to ego.

The kings suit of invisible clothes. Ego does not allow an advisor to give powerful people honest feedback. Criticism is hard to take for the egotist.

Many people think outside forces are to blame for their failures. In fact ego it what causes people to avoid taking responsibility for their actions and failures. The ego redirects fault to others outside the self. When in fact if one admits it is their fault, only then are they empowered to realize they control their destiny. People avoid important discussions because their ego doesn’t like to be criticized. And people don’t like to give advice to those who act like an ass and can’t take constructive criticism.

Not being able to delegate is a sign of ego because you feel that you are the only one who can do the job correctly. Reference Turn the Ship Around by David Marquet for tips on leadership with the ability to more effectively delegate.

This causes people to avoid talking about important topics.

Talking kills action. If you talk a lot about doing something your brain has a difficult time distinguishing between talking about something and actually doing it. After talking, your willpower and desire for accomplishment diminishes. Less talk and more action makes one successful.

Helping others helps you. Give value to get value. One thing I learned in internet marketing and life in general is that when you give value you build “credit” in the eyes of others. Then when it comes time to sell your idea or product, or ask for help, others are much more willing to do so.

General George Marshall refused to keep a diary during WWII to avoid turning reflection into a grand show about himself, into self-deception.

Know when to quit. If you are in an failing endeavor, the ego will want to keep going. Some think this is persistence. If it appears to be a failed attempt, cut your losses. This is called the sunk cost fallacy. We want to keep trying so we get back what we lost, like in gambling when we are down, and in the stock market. Smart money knows when to sell. Ego doesn’t want to admit defeat so it holds on. All the way to the bottom.

Don’t be a hater. Jealousy of others success is ego.

It is the journey, not the destination

Inability to delegate is a sign of ego. Turn the Ship Around by David Marquet is a great book about how to delegate and be a great leader. Marquet has no ego, and takes a sub command from last place to best in the Navy.

In the end of the audio book there is a 1 hour 20 minute interview with Ryan and Tim Ferriss which could have been a podcast. This extra material could be considered passing to make the audio book some minimum length of 6-7 hour product. I found the dialog extremely valuable and I’m glad they included it. One point they make is that Fahrenheit 451 was about censorship of book burning because the people didn’t want to be offended. This reminds me a lot of how our modern culture are too PC and there are so many people in social media who are easily offended. Also like how the workplace is excessively PC. I guess there could be a link made between ego and being easily offended, or not wanting to hear an opinion that differs from yours. Trophy culture and the over-protection of kids today can build unhealthy ego.

Additional thoughts:

Good sportsmanship is practicing absence of ego.

I see hubris as the ego manifesting itself in the Bush administration regarding getting the USA involved in the Middle East conflict. Some say it was inevitable, however I feel many decisions were made with a hubris mindset, and we made mistakes because of it. There is even a book written about it. Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War by Michael Isikoff