Book Review – Ego is the Enemy

Book:  Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

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Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

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. And so we throw good money and good life after bad and end up making everything so much worse.

Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy, p.189

You can’t tell from this carefully staged photo, but if you turn this book to its side and look at the edges you’ll see a disaster—about half a cup of coffee is splashed along the outer pages and leaves some embarrassing evidence of my clumsiness one fine November morning. It also quite clearly illustrates that “stuff happens” and regardless of the outer mess that sometimes gets thrown at us, at our core we can remain unchanged like the words on these pages.

Sure, there’s some coffee spilt and some pages are stained, but the words—the message—is still there if you’re willing to open the mess up and look for it. We still control our stories even if we can’t control the scratches, torn pages, and other “stuff” life happens to throw at us.

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 version of themselves.

Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy, p. 197

Here, we have a book about the phantom of success. Ryan Holiday gives us a guide for practicing mindfulness and humility during the good times as a caution against the downfall that can follow when our egos run amok. Too often, when things are going our way and we’re winning, we begin to lose the perspective that helped get us to the top. Once that frame of reference is lost, it’s just a matter of time before we experience our own fall from grace.

The danger lies when we come to expect greatness but forget about the sacrifices or lucky breaks that led to our success. That’s where Holiday excels in this book. He delivers us a variety of material to help us find our center in a world of uncertainty where success and failure are not a matter of fairness but often a measure of both luck and perseverance.

Ego is the Enemy is a fast, accessible read and an entertaining source of real world histories and anecdotes that illustrate the perils of allowing the ego free range in our lives. Some may argue that the Ego can be a source of motivation that drives one to achieve greatness, but Holiday counters that the Ego is more often a toxic mindset.

We love the big personalities of our celebrities, trailblazers and industry pioneers. However, we tend to confuse personality with Ego when we create fictitious narratives about the lives of our heroes.

  • Ego tells us we’re the best and we will always be the best.
  • Perseverance acknowledges that we may be the best today, but that it’s going to be a lot of hard work to stay the best.
  • Personality reflects how well we communicate and connect with others.

Clearly, personality has nothing to do with either. We can have a great personality and be a terrible decision-maker. That’s the message I enjoyed the most in this reading. Through the lives and experiences of notable men and women, we get an opportunity to learn from their experience and a chance to mitigate our own failures.

Journeys are neither destinations nor goals

Who said it could not be done? And what great victories has he to his credit which qualify him to judge others?

Napoleon Hill

Today, I propose the start of an experiment in living our best lives. I can’t promise we’ll find lasting happiness, but I know that we can find clarity and purpose.

Each of us has a unique opportunity to own our experience in this world. Rather than be thrown around by chance, we can choose the paths we will walk in this life.

We don’t have control over many things like where we were born, what we look like, or even our intelligence. We do, however, always have personal ownership over how we respond to our circumstances. We could always leave the town we were born in. We can dress our best, even if we’re not supermodels. We will still learn new things, even if we’ll never be geniuses.

  • Do your reactions to your circumstances help or hinder your efforts to build a better life?

No one has the power to control our response to circumstances. We get to decide how we will react to every new experience. In the end, our greatest strength comes from our ability to choose how we respond to the difficulties and limitations in our path.

  • We can’t control the world.
  • We can’t control others.
  • We can’t control nature.

Really, there’s only one thing we can control. We can be mindful of how our perceptions influence our responses. Mindfulness can empower us to make more impactful decisions that will improve our lives even when we lack the ability to control the external conditions which trouble us.

  • The world is both a place of opportunity and oppression depending on who you ask.

Our goal must be to learn how we can overcome the obstacles in our path and find the opportunities hidden from us. If you change nothing in your life today, you only guarantee that nothing in your life will change tomorrow. Is that what any of us want? Why not choose a path of action instead?

  • What does it means to be human?
  • How can we find meaning in this existence?

Create your own path. That’s how you know that this philosophy is more than a trend or a motivational thriller. We’ve been exploring these same ideas across the millennia from every civilization. The same questions on your mind today were being discussed a thousand years ago.

There isn’t an answer written here. There’s only a path presented that you can choose to walk. Here are some final thoughts to help you on your journey.

  1. Question everything.
  2. Trust there’s always a path you have not yet tried.
  3. Don’t give up. Progress only stops when you do. If you lose your way, you can always start again.

It’s okay to feel lost

I set my intention for the day: that this day should be meaningful. Meaningful means, if possible, serve and help others. If not possible, then at least not to harm others. That’s a meaningful day.

Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama

Today was an average day. It was mediocrity and bedlam. It was mundane and unfulfilling. In short, it was a day of reacting to the world and whatever task or disaster landed on my desk. There was no planning involved in any of my actions. I was running through my waking hours on autopilot. This day could have had any date attached to it, and I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish it from any other.

This is not how any of us should live, and at some point, we all come to recognize two important truths.

  1. Our time on this world is limited.
  2. Our life can be taken from us at any moment.

At some point we lost sight of the fact that we are actually in control of how we respond to the world. We may be powerless in the face of death, but our lives can be meaningful. You would think that with this knowledge we would choose to dedicate our short lives toward some lasting communal goal. Instead, we often seem to get trapped in a cruel cycle of consumerism—working more hours to earn more money so that we can buy more things. Our lives become focused on these fleeting moments of pleasure found in the excitement of adding something new to our lives, and we get ensnared in a web of working harder to pay for things we never actually needed.

  • It’s time to stop trying to buy happiness.

It’s true. The world dictates many things that remain outside of our control. That’s okay, because we get to choose how we respond to those challenges. Recognize that you make the choice to surrender that power to others—to the world, governments, religion, schools, employers, television, social media, marketing campaigns, video games, partners and family. You can choose to change your position at any time. You can find meaning in life and leave behind the expectations of others.

I started my day without a plan to improve myself, my situation or my future. Instead, I was a creature of habit and my morning ran as if on autopilot and it soon escaped me. My day became nothing more than a to do list of mindless tasks from dawn to dusk.

  • I awoke to an alarm clock ringing.
  • I jumped in the shower.
  • I gulped down a cup of coffee.
  • I sat in an hour of traffic as I commuted to the office.

When I finally arrived at work, I jumped from one emergency after another as urgent issues hit me up on my mobile phone, email, office line, instant messenger and visitors stopped by my office. My day wasn’t very meaningful, and I think that is an all too common reality for many of us. Our routines make us reactive rather than proactive. We’re constantly “running late” and going through the motions of “getting ready” when we should be setting aside time to invest in ourselves. In the end it can feel meaningless. We’re doing the same things over and over again and we’re getting nowhere.

I’ve found that one of the easiest ways to find purpose and personal direction in life is to shift your focus from yourself to others. We can change our point of focus in an instant. We can stop hiding behind our electronic screens and begin to see the difficulties others face in the world. You’ll be surprised how quickly your actions to help others can make a difference in how you feel about your own life.

I look back at Gyatso’s words and there’s this moment of clarity. It’s like there’s this silent partner in my head who finally jumps up from his desk and says “That’s it! That’s how you do it!”

  • A meaningful existence is framed by our actions toward others.

We cannot serve meaningful lives when our focus is only self-serving. That’s a significant shift from the 21st century obsession with “Success.” The truth is we cannot control what the world throws our way. As long as we learn from our mistakes and choose the best response available to circumstances outside of our control, there’s no point in obsessing over misfortune or failure.

  • It’s okay to fail.
  • It’s fine to mess up.
  • It’s going to be alright if you have a bad day.

All this means is that stuff just happens in life. We have to rise to the occasion and choose to respond better, kinder and wiser to these situations than others may act toward us. If we don’t work on improving our responses to these situations, all we can hope to contribute to the world is more anger, resentment and frustration for the next generation.