“Ego is the Enemy” by Ryan Holiday

If you search for the most influential books on stoicism (a philosophical school that fosters facing the reality of life and cutting down on personal delusions or unreachable passions), you’ll notice an interesting gap.

On top of the list, there’s Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor who lived two thousand years ago. Then, there’s Seneca, a Roman philosopher and writer who lived in the times as distant. And then, there’s Ryan Holiday, a 29-year-old former marketing director at American Apparel and writer from Sacramento. What’s fascinating, is that in two thousand years the message has hardly changed. Ryan’s latest book, “Ego is the Enemy”, is a timely reminder of true values the modern society decided to put on hold: humility, discipline, patience, and personal principles. A delightful read, so necessary in the world that is forgetting what matters and what doesn’t. I read the ebook version on my Kindle. Here’re some of my highlights:

  • I’ve found that if you go looking you’ll find that history is also made by individuals who fought their egos at every turn, who eschewed the spotlight, and who put their higher goals above their desire for recognition.
  • The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.
  • Ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success. It repulses advantages and opportunities. It’s a magnet for enemies and errors.
  • When we remove ego, we’re left with what is real. What replaces ego is humility, yes—but rock-hard humility and confidence.
  • One might say that the ability to evaluate one’s own ability is the most important skill of all. Without it, improvement is impossible. And certainly ego makes it difficult every step of the way. It is certainly more pleasurable to focus on our talents and strengths, but where does that get us?
  • We will learn that though we think big, we must act and live small in order to accomplish what we seek. Because we will be action and education focused, and forgo validation and status, our ambition will not be grandiose but iterative—one foot in front of the other, learning and growing and putting in the time.
  • Talk depletes us. Talking and doing fight for the same resources. Research shows that while goal visualization is important, after a certain point our mind begins to confuse it with actual progress. The same goes for verbalization. Even talking aloud to ourselves while we work through difficult problems has been shown to significantly decrease insight and breakthroughs.
  • Doing great work is a struggle. It’s draining, it’s demoralizing, it’s frightening—not always, but it can feel that way when we’re deep in the middle of it. We talk to fill the void and the uncertainty.
  • We don’t like thinking that someone is better than us. Or that we have a lot left to learn. We want to be done. We want to be ready. We’re busy and overburdened. For this reason, updating your appraisal of your talents in a downward direction is one of the most difficult things to do in life—but it is almost always a component of mastery. The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the antidote.
  • Passion typically masks a weakness. Its breathlessness and impetuousness and franticness are poor substitutes for discipline, for mastery, for strength and purpose and perseverance. You need to be able to spot this in others and in yourself, because while the origins of passion may be earnest and good, its effects are comical and then monstrous.
  • Find people, thinkers, up-and-comers to introduce them to each other. Cross wires to create new sparks. Find what nobody else wants to do and do it. Find inefficiencies and waste and redundancies. Identify leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas. Produce more than everyone else and give your ideas away.
  • I have observed that those who have accomplished the greatest results are those who “keep under the body”; are those who never grow excited or lose self-control, but are always calm, self-possessed, patient, and polite.
  • Living clearly and presently takes courage. Don’t live in the haze of the abstract, live with the tangible and real, even if—especially if—it’s uncomfortable. Be part of what’s going on around you. Feast on it, adjust for it.
  • A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.
  • As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.
  • The same goes for us, whatever we do. Instead of pretending that we are living some great story, we must remain focused on the execution—and on executing with excellence. We must shun the false crown and continue working on what got us here. Because that’s the only thing that will keep us here.
  • According to Seneca, the Greek word euthymia is one we should think of often: it is the sense of our own path and how to stay on it without getting distracted by all the others that intersect it.
  • Maybe your priority actually is money. Or maybe it’s family. Maybe it’s influence or change. Maybe it’s building an organization that lasts, or serves a purpose. All of these are perfectly fine motivations. But you do need to know. You need to know what you don’t want and what your choices preclude. Because strategies are often mutually exclusive. One cannot be an opera singer and a teen pop idol at the same time. Life requires those trade-offs, but ego can’t allow it.
  • Goethe once observed, the great failing is “to see yourself as more than you are and to value yourself at less than your true worth.”
  • The only real failure is abandoning your principles. Killing what you love because you can’t bear to part from it is selfish and stupid. If your reputation can’t absorb a few blows, it wasn’t worth anything in the first place.
  • See much, study much, suffer much, that is the path to wisdom.

Ego is the Enemy
Ryan Holiday (Portfolio, 2016)
256 pages

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