Confidence is a very valuable trait to have, but an unhealthy ego is often an unjustified sense of confidence that can end up destroying us.
In the brand new book Ego Is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday shows how our egos can be a constant source of disaster no matter where we are in life. It can turn a good situation into a bad situation, and a bad situation into an even worse situation.
To protect ourselves from these damaging effects of “ego,” we must always be vigilant and aware of the pernicious influence it can have on our lives. In times of both failure and success, ego can rear its ugly head and make us miscalculate our choices and what we need to do next.
You can probably think of times when your ego got in the way and ruined you. Perhaps a person cancelled a date (for valid reasons), but you took it as a slight against you and decided to throw away the relationship altogether. Or you got promoted to a higher position at work, and it turned you into an entitled brat.
Ego is something we must always be on the look out for. It’s not just “confidence,” but an undeserved sense of self-importance that leads to delusions about yourself and your reality. Ultimately, it hinders your ability to be your best self.
Ryan Holiday’s new book is filled with insightful stories and wisdom on why you should destroy your ego before it destroys you. Here are some wonderful highlights from the book.
The power of silence
The ego constantly craves attention – whether positive or negative.
Negative attention still feeds the ego because at least the focus is on “me” and people are watching you. It may not be in the most flattering light but at least it makes you feel important, in some way.
Often, this craving of attention leads us to talking about ourselves – our accomplishments, goals, and ambitions. We become super talkers. We begin to see “silence” as a negative thing, because it means we are stepping down from the spotlight and someone else may have it. The ego can’t stand that.
But according to Holiday, silence is a great antidote to ego. It teaches us how to step aside and let others have the attention. It also teaches us that our actions are often far more important than our words.
“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.'”
It’s easy to talk about ourselves and try to make ourselves look good to others by putting on a wonderful presentation. But a truly confident person should let their actions speak for themselves.
If you have to constantly talk about yourself and your strengths to look good to others, that is actually a sign of weakness. It means you can’t stand on your own two feet and look good without needing to “sell yourself” to everyone.
If you can become comfortable with silence, and letting others have the spotlight, you have already taken a great step in diminishing your ego.
Always be a student
One of the most harmful effects of ego is that it makes us terrible students.
It’s very difficult to learn new things if you already think you know everything. This type of over-confidence can hurt your learning and education because it’s only when we admit ignorance (and admit what we don’t know) that we give ourselves the opportunity to improve ourselves.
To put yourself in the position of a “student” requires that you let your ego take a backseat.
“The power of being a student is not just that it is an extended period of instruction, it also places the ego and ambition in someone else’s hands. There is a sort of ego ceiling imposed – one knows that he is not better than the ‘master’ he apprentices under. Not even close. You defer to them, you subsume yourself. You cannot fake or bullshit them. And education can’t be ‘hacked,’ there are no short-cuts besides hacking it every single day. If you don’t, they drop you…The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the anti-dote.”
For a teacher or mentor to do their job, you must put yourself in a position below them. You must practice silence and humility, and recognize that this person is more knowledgeable and more skilled than you in some area in life.
Yes, it can be difficult for the ego to admit that someone is better than you in someway, but by temporarily putting yourself in that “lesser position” you give yourself room to grow as a person.
To disempower the ego, and continuously become a better person, we must always be willing to put ourselves in the position of a “student.”
The “imaginary audience”
One of my favorite concepts mentioned in the book is the idea of the “imaginary audience.”
Often the ego thinks that it is so important that we imagine we are always being watched and judged by others. While this “imaginary audience” comes from an egotistical view, it can actually lead to feelings of stress and anxiety – because we feel we must constantly live up to these unrealistically high standards.
“As the psychologist David Elkind has famously researched, adolescence is marked by a phenomenon known now as ‘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.”
I certainly remember as a teenager having this feeling of an “imaginary audience” always watching me. It was likely a big source of my social anxiety throughout high school.
Many of us still carry this feeling of an “imaginary audience” into our adult lives. While it feeds into feelings of anxiety and depression, it in-fact comes from an odd sense of self-importance.
The “imaginary audience” comes from the egotistical belief that the world revolves around us, and therefore we must always be more than what we are, because everyone’s eyes are always on us.
But when we set our egos aside, we know that this isn’t true but a belief based on delusion. The simple truth is that most people are likely not as interested in us as we think they are – and sometimes that can be a very freeing perspective.
Ego Is the Enemy is a new book by the legendary Ryan Holiday. It illustrates numerous examples throughout history of people struggling with ego and learning how to overcome it, including George Marshall, Jackie Robinson, Katharine Graham, Bill Belichick, and Eleanor Roosevelt. In today’s world where we are constantly told how perfect and important we are, this book provides a very necessary grounding back to reality.
The toxicity of success
Success is a great thing, but it can also be one of the biggest contributors to an over-sized ego.
It’s not uncommon to find top CEOs, all-star athletes, and popular celebrities become huge, self-entitled egomaniacs. This is because once we get a taste of success, we can begin to have a more inflated sense of ourselves and even become addicted to this positive feedback and attention.
In this way, success is intoxicating. It changes how we look at ourselves and it can make us seem like we are “above” others for unjustified reasons.
The most difficult thing is to remain humble and sober even when we are on top of the world.
This is especially important because our success is not likely to last forever. And when future obstacles or failures happen, we have to be prepared to “step back” and remember that we aren’t invincible and we always have more growing to do.
- “Once we’ve ‘made it,’ the tendency is to switch to the mindset of ‘getting what’s mine.’ Now, all of a sudden awards and recognition matter – even though they weren’t what got us here. We ‘need’ that money, that title, that media attention – not for the team or the cause, but for ourselves. Because we’ve ‘earned’ it.”
Past success makes us feel that we are entitled to future success. But that’s not how life works – no one is completely immune to failures, or obstacles, or mistakes.
It’s important that we keep in mind that life always finds a way to push us back down and keep us humble. To the egomaniac, this can lead to lots of anger, frustration, and even childish temper tantrums. Especially when we believe that we’ve already earned what life has denied us.
To be successful yet sober is a difficult task. It requires that we keep our egos tame, even when we have achieved something truly spectacular and great.
I believe this is why when people accept awards at the Grammys or Academy Awards, they often look toward thanking God, their families, their colleagues, and their friends to help remind them that they didn’t achieve their greatness all on their own. Because they didn’t.
Doing the right thing vs. getting credit
As you already know, the ego craves attention and it craves getting credit for its accomplishments.
However, what happens if you know you did your best and you know you did the right thing, but you don’t feel like you’re getting the credit you deserve? This can often lead to a bitter and bruised ego.
“We have minimal control over the rewards for our work and effort – other people’s validation, recognition, rewards. So what are we going to do? Not be kind, not work hard, not produce, because there is a chance it wouldn’t be reciprocated? C’mon.
Think of all the activists who will find that they can only advance their cause so far. The leaders who are assassinated before their work is done. The inventors whose ideas languish ‘ahead of their time.’ According to society’s main metrics, these people were not rewarded for their work. Should they have not done it?”
The answer is of course not. We have to draw a distinction between “doing the right thing” vs. “getting credit for doing the right thing.”
When we put our egos aside, we focus on what needs to be done regardless if anyone is watching or if there’s a nice shiny trophy for us at the end of the road.
Instead of focusing on these external metrics of fame, success, or money – we have to follow our own internal metrics of doing the right thing because it is the right thing – and that is enough.
Perhaps you feel that the work you are doing is very important, but it’s possible that you will never see recognition for it within your lifetime. Should you stop doing it? Or should you make the world a better place whether people realize it or not?
I think a truly noble and righteous person would choose the latter.
The paradox of hate and bitterness
When we find ourselves being attacked by others, the ego has a natural response to want to attack back and fight to protect itself.
Paradoxically, this natural response to “fight back” can often only make things even worse. It causes us to focus and pour energy into attacking our “enemies” that could often be used doing more productive things.
Also, by drawing more energy and attention toward what we hate, we give it more power. It begins to consume our minds more. And when done publicly, it draws other people’s attention toward it too.
“Thus, 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 Barbara 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.”
As difficult as it is to do, sometimes when we are being attacked the only appropriate response is to ignore it and move on. Don’t let it consume you – instead, know that deep down it isn’t worthy of your attention at all.
By elevating something to your attention, you are only letting others know how important it really is to you and how much you feel hurt by it. If it’s something embarrassing or shameful, other bullies will pick up on that and know that it’s something they can continue to use against you.
The ego wants to fight back. But sometimes the best way to win a fight is to not get caught up in it to begin with. Treat it “like water off a duck’s back.” Make people realize that it really doesn’t bother you at all, and they will stop feeding energy into it.
“Lose…and then win” situations
To the ego, everything is super important. That’s one of the main warnings throughout Ego Is the Enemy.
But just as your ego can cause you to over-estimate the importance of your wins and successes, it can also cause you to over-estimate the importance of your losses and failures.
To an egotistical mind, any failure can be seen as a sign of great distress that makes you just want to throw your hands up in the air and say “Screw this!”
After all, you are so important – so a failure is literally “the end of the world.” Right?
“Only ego thinks embarrassment or failure are more than what they are. History is full of people who suffered abject humiliations yet recovered to have long and impressive careers. Politicians who lost elections or lost offices due to indiscretions – but came back to lead after time had passed. Actors whose movies bombed, authors who got writer’s block, celebrities who made gaffes, parents who made mistakes, entrepreneurs with faltering companies, executives who got fired, athletes who were cut, people who lived too well at the top of the market. All these folks felt the hard edge of failure, just like we have. When we lose, we have a choice: Are we going to make this a lose-lose situation for ourselves and everyone involved? Or will it be a lose…and then win?”
Holiday rightly points out that every success story is riddled with failures – no matter who the person is or what they are trying to achieve.
When we can put ego aside, we know that no single moment can completely define us for better or worse. It forces you to see the “bigger picture” behind everything in your life and recognize that nothing that happens to you is rarely as important as you think it is.
Zoom outside of your momentary ego and you’ll see that for every loss there is another win around the corner.
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