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.

It Is What It Is

He who indulges in empty fears earns himself real fears.

Seneca

The universe seldom give us everything we want, but it always seems to provide a means to get what we need.

You didn’t have a choice of where you started in life. You got the hand you were dealt and you had to make it work for you. If you’re lucky, you may get a second chance at times—more often than not, you won’t.

It’s helpful to remember that though we do not have complete control over our own life, we can control our response to the experiences we’re given.

Nature isn’t concerned with the individual. You’re one of billions, and there is no cosmic scheme to guide you toward fantasies of destiny or illusions of everlasting happiness. You are the source of your own inspiration or defeat.

You could always lie down and wait for better days to come your way—but they likely won’t. You could also recognize that there is no universal agenda holding you back—you may face obstacles, but you are also not destined for failure. Somewhere, between the obstacles beyond our control and the random luck that makes some moments pass by with ease, is the fallacy of Fate. It’s the lie we tell ourselves when our hardships are greater than our resolve to overcome them or the dream we long to believe that emboldens us to grasp for more when our blessings are at their height.

In then end, there is really only one agenda holding you back—yours. It’s your prerogative to decide how you wish to frame your life.

  • Are you a victim of your experiences or a hero determined to overcome them?

Everyday we can find ourselves in a sea of endless possibilities. Somewhere a tempest is brewing, and it is only a matter of time before it finds its way to us. What are you going to do when disaster or hardship finds you?

  • Will you do nothing and hope for the best?
  • Will you prepare for the worst and be content to face whatever you find?
  • Do you give up and throw away everything because you can’t have it all?

We All Have Limits

Hippocrates, after curing many diseases, himself fell sick and died.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

It’s important to remember that we all have limits. At some point we’re going to find ourselves in a moment where we just can’t give any more of ourselves. We’ll continue to do our best, but our “best” simply won’t be good enough. Our failure will be certain before we even have a chance to change the outcome.

Don’t surrender in these moments. Don’t despair. Failure is just as much a part of life as success. Accept the limitations that bind you, and carry on content in the knowledge that you will nevertheless do your part. This is how you approach failure with both wisdom and grace.

If you find it hard to accept failure as a possible consequence of even the best-lived life, take a moment to reflect on our lives in relation to the passing of time.

We don’t expect our life to go on indefinitely. We accept that at some point our life will end as a natural part of the process of living. Yet, we struggle to apply that same principal of finality (a type of natural fatalism) in other aspects of our life. We try and hold on to this illusion of control, but the truth is we have very little control over anything.

We all have an expiration date. As we age, we can become keenly aware of it. That doesn’t mean we give up. Time is a gift. It allows us to put everything else into a shared perspective. If we have to say goodbye tomorrow, then how do you feel about the day you just lived?

  • Did you share love or spread gossip?
  • Did you help a stranger or buy a latte?
  • Did you make the world a better place?
  • Did you even try?

Perspective can keep us both honest and focused on something other than ourselves. Accept that gift and use it to change the world—build bridges, tear down walls, mend the broken—the point is you can make a difference today even if you can’t fix it all. Famine, disease and poverty won’t disappear overnight. You’re not going to defeat every obstacle you face today, but you can start chipping away at them.

If we broaden our perspective we can apply this same strategy to our struggles, our business problems and those seemingly insurmountable obstacles. There is no real difference between them. Our obstacles aren’t really obstacles, they’re an opportunity to reflect on our limitations and learn how to anticipate and prepare for failure.