Your own worst enemy

Review of Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

Holiday tackles an incredibly interesting and challenging subject; the human ego. What is great about ‘Ego is the Enemy’ is that there isn’t any judgement. Just a drive for acceptance and management of ego. Having been at the hands of his own ego and having watched his mentors fall from grace due to ego, Holiday writes with emotion. I found that this led to an engaging and thought provoking book.

It echoed some key themes from Charles Handy’s Hungry Spirit but without the religious undertone. This is a book that is against passion, which is fascinating after reading so many books that tout passion as the raison d’être for entrepreneurs and visionaries. Grit by Angela Duckworth, for example, is all about passion and perseverance.

It is an interesting angle to challenge passion and I don’t want to oversimplify a complex argument. But my take on it was to think about the underlying reasons for your passion. It is because you want to be recognised for greatness? Or is it because you believe in the cause? Would you continue to work towards your goal without the praise and would you turn down greatness to complete it?

Who is this book for?

This is a book that I will be recommending to a number of people. Not because I believe that they have big egos. In fact, many talented people lack confidence and, at times, ego. This book because is an excellent start for self-reflection and also helps in understanding the motivations and behaviours of others.

Ego is the Enemy’ explains why things can’t be amazing and wonderful all the time. How we are on a wave of success that ebbs and flows. This makes me think about a great TED talk about the up and downs of being a parent:

highs and lows of parenthood

You can see here that the average baseline still goes up and down, but the surrounding moments have extreme highs and lows. Essentially as a parent, you are on average less happy than non-parents. BUT you experience higher highs and lower lows. You are riding a much bigger wave. This is also like success. You may be at the top, which is a powerful high, but if you got there the wrong way or were powered by the wrong motivations, you will have a much steeper crash.

Why should you read it this book?

It will give your own life valuable context. I don’t believe that any of us have it all figured out or really understand our emotional and phycological drivers. This is a great book to help you begin the journey. As I mentioned I would recommend reading the Hungry Spirit as well as HBR’s On Managing yourself as a rounded trio for internal reflection and external action.

Ego is the Enemy is packed full of stories of quiet success and colossal failure, a little like Brooks’ Business AdventuresThis adds great context to what Holiday is explaining. As I mentioned before we are told often that confidence and passion are the keys to business success. It is great to see that an alternative way is being offered that is about belief, work, and values. We are also about public gratification and immediate success. Something that has been made worse through the amplification of social media. This is a healthy antidote.

Key learnings

Holiday talks about the Canvas strategy. This is how you fight the emotional and egotistical impulses. You should always be invested in relationships and your own personal development. This, for me at least, is a content marketing strategy. This is building your relationship with your clients and prospects whilst deepening your personal understanding of their wants and needs.

  • Find people, thinkers, up-and-comers and introduce them to each other. Cross wires to create new sparks
    This is networking which is now turbo-charged thanks to social networks. Don’t make introductions because there is a personal advantage to you. Do it because there is an interest for them. This could be across your customers. This could be across your extended networks. Be about others.
  • “Find what nobody else wants to do and do it”
    Which questions do your competitors refuse to answer? What are the elements in your industry that remain hidden? How can you open doors to your audience? Or is there a business need that hasn’t been filled that you can assist with?
  • “Find inefficiencies and waste and redundancies. Identify leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas”
    This should be at the heart of all digital marketing. It should always be about refinement and improvement. The better you make one area the more your client, or your company, will have to invest in another area.
  • “Produce more than everyone else and give your ideas away”
    You can again think of this in terms of content strategy. It is about producing regular content that is of use to your audience. Share more than everyone else in the marketplace. Finally, it is about giving your ideas. Sometimes it feels wrong to share our best ideas. But sharing them gives the opportunity for feedback and feedback drives improvement. No-one, ever, nailed the first draft.

Top 3 takeaways

 We often think that something else is to blame for our problems

Many of us believe that we are ego-free but fail to acknowledge some of its other symptoms. I didn’t consider myself to have too big an ego, it turns out that I was completely wrong. I am often quick to blame a situation or another for my circumstance and this is my ego talking. No good for anyone. Holiday explains that:

ego is there at the root of every conceivable problem and obstacle, from why we can’t win to why we need to win all the time and at the expense of others. From my we don’t have what we want to why having what we want doesn’t seem to make us feel any better

This is the reason that there are so many ‘unappreciated geniuses’ in history, so many people who have been unrightfully wronged. The ones who let the hatred and unfairness eat them up inside. Every time you don’t meet someone on their terms, or you won’t take a step back to move forwards, this is ego. This is the belief that this work/decision/sacrifice is beneath you. That you are better.

You are not better than anyone or any situation.

We are dealt cards in life, and we must simply play the best hand possible at all times. There is no use in folding and sitting crying in a corner. This won’t change the cards and won’t make anyone want to play with you again.

“It is impossible to learn what which one thinks one already knows”

This quote from Epictetus holds an important lesson. If you’ve already decided that you know it all, you have removed all opportunities for improvement. Only the person who has accepted a need for development and knowledge can become better and grow. Many of us don’t want to admit weaknesses as we falsely believe it goes against ambition and success. But acknowledging mistakes, opportunities and developments are how we go from good to great. It is also how we impart our knowledge to others. We are able to share our stories of failures.

Watch out for radio KFKD (K-Fucked)

“Out of the right speaker… will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. 

Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything one touches turns to shit, that doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud incapable of selfless love, that one had no talent or insight, and on and on’ 

The young and ambitious will often fall foul to this particular radio station. On reading the passage I was shocked at how often I chose to tune in. Social media and self-promotion encourage us to tell our story. We are constantly presenting the best version of ourselves, so often in fact that the presentation becomes the truth and the truth becomes exaggerated.

In summary

Despite all the challenges our ego has created we are hardwired to keep it around. The ego is handy because it helps us manage seemingly impossible situations, and it reduces fear. It is like having a few stiff drinks, it doesn’t solve the root problem at cause, but it pushes it away so that we can get on with the task at hand;

replacing the rational and aware part of our psyche with bluster and self-absorption, ego tells is what we want to hear when we want to hear it

This means that we must be constantly trying to break the cycle of ego by developing a counter-ego. As Holiday says, you can’t just sweep a room once. Ego management is a constant exercise.

About Good Words Online

This blog was designed to be a home for all the content I’ve created over the years. It is a mix of book reviews, personal reflections and business learnings. There is no definitive way to live or work, we all make our own choices. I in no way think I am right about any particular subject. This is simply about sharing what I’ve learnt and creating an online reminder for myself.

The name, good words, has no religious references. We can’t be good all the time. Each of us will make mistakes. All we can do is try to learn from them and try and attempt to be a little better next time.

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