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Ego Is the Enemy Hardcover – June 14, 2016
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“Ryan Holiday is one of his generation’s finest thinkers, and this book is his best yet.”
—Steven Pressfield, author of the New York Times bestseller The War of Art
“The comedian Bill Hicks said the world was tainted with fevered egos. In Ego Is The Enemy, Ryan Holiday writes us all a prescription: humility. This book is packed with stories and quotes that will help you get out of your own way. Whether you’re starting out or starting over, you’ll find something to steal here.”
—Austin Kleon, author of the New York Times bestseller Steal Like An Artist
"This is a book I want every athlete, aspiring leader, entrepreneur, thinker and doer to read. Ryan Holiday is one of the most promising young writers of his generation."
—George Raveling, Hall of Fame Basketball coach, Nike’s Director of International Basketball
"I see the toxic vanity of ego at play every day and it never ceases to amaze me how often it wrecks promising creative endeavors. Read this book before it wrecks you or the projects and people you love. Consider it as urgently as you do a proper workout regimen and eating right. Ryan’s insights are priceless."
—Marc Ecko, founder of Ecko Unltd and Complex
"I don't have many rules in life, but one I never break is: If Ryan Holiday writes a book, I read it as soon as I can get my hands on it."
—Brian Koppelman, screenwriter and director, Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen and Billions
“In his new book Ryan Holiday attacks the greatest obstacle to mastery and true success in life—our insatiable ego. In an inspiring yet practical way, he teaches us how to manage and tame this beast within us so that we can focus on what really matters—producing the best work possible.”
—Robert Greene, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Mastery
“We’re often told that to achieve success, we need confidence. With refreshing candor, Ryan Holiday challenges that assumption, highlighting how we can earn confidence by pursuing something bigger than our own success.”
—Adam Grant, author of the New York Times bestsellers Originals and Give and Take
“Once again Ryan Holiday has laid down the gauntlet for readers willing to challenge themselves with the tough questions of our time. Every reader will find truths that are pertinent to each of our lives. Ego can be the enemy if we are unarmed with the cautionary insights of history, scripture, and philosophy. As was said to St. Augustine more than a thousand years ago, 'pick it up and read'; for to not do so is to allow the enemy to bring despair.”
—Dr. Drew Pinsky, host of HLN’s “Dr. Drew On Call” and “Love Line”
"In this day in age where everyone seeks instant gratification, the idea of success is skewed - many believing the road to their goals is a linear path. As a former professional athlete I can tell you that the road is anything but linear. In fact it is one that consists of twists, turns, and ups and downs—it requires you to put your head down and put in the work. Ryan Holiday hits the nail on the head with this book, reminding us that the real success is in the journey and learning process. I only wish I had this gem as a reference during my playing days.”
—Lori Lindsey, former U.S. Women’s National Team soccer player
“Philosophy has gotten a bad rap, but Ryan Holiday is restoring it to its rightful place in our lives. This book—packed with unforgettable stories, strategies, and lessons—is perfect for anyone who strives to do and accomplish. It's no exaggeration to say that, after finishing it, you'll never open your laptop and sit down to work the same way again.”
—Jimmy Soni, former managing editor of Huffington Post and author of Rome's Last Citizen
“I would like to rip out every page and use them as wallpaper so I could be reminded constantly of the humility and work it takes to truly succeed. In the margins of my copy, I have scrawled the same message over and over—'pre-Gold.' Reading this inspiring book brought back me back to the humility and work ethic it took to win the Olympics.”
—Chandra Crawford, Olympic Gold Medalist
"What a valuable book for those in positions of authority! It has made me a better judge."
—The Honorable Frederic Block, United States District Judge and author of Disrobed
“It's rare that I finish a book then immediately reread it, this time with a yellow marker in hand…I can't recommend this book highly enough.”
—Kevin Rose, entrepreneur and technology investor
"Forget yourself and focus on the work. Be humble and persistent. Value discipline and results, not passion and confidence. Be lesser, do more. This message is crucial, but the opposite of almost every other book. I wish everyone would read this. I need to re-read it each year. It's that important."
—Derek Sivers, author of Anything You Want
"In an age when self-promotion and celebrity are glorified to the hilt and 'hero' gets overused, Ryan Holiday's book is a reminder that the biggest impediment to achievement is often ourselves. Holiday retells stories of the famous and not so famous that will both inspire you and stop you in your tracks. This is a book to savor by reading it in increments so the power of the examples sinks in, leaving time for healthy reflection. If the rat race of modern life has you feeling burned out, Ego is the Enemy just might help you view philosophy as anything but a relic of the ancient Greeks."
—Edith Chapin, executive editor at NPR News
"Removing the ego is a daily struggle but it feels a little easier after reading this."
--Martellus Bennett, NFL Tight End, Super Bowl Champion
About the Author
RYAN HOLIDAY is a bestselling author and media strategist. He dropped out of college at nineteen to apprentice under Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, and later served as the director of marketing for American Apparel. His company, Brass Check, has advised clients like Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as many prominent bestselling authors. Holiday has written several other books, including The Obstacle Is the Way, which has been translated into twenty-eight languages and has a cult following among NFL coaches, world-class athletes, TV personalities, political leaders, and others around the world. He lives on a small ranch outside Austin, Texas. Visit www.RyanHoliday.net.
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Those familiar with Holiday’s last book, “The Obstacle is the Way,” will know exactly what practical philosophy means. Eschewing the commonly held view that philosophy is the province of academics in classrooms bloviating about abstract concepts, Holiday follows the Stoic tradition that puts philosophy firmly in the realm of everyday life. It’s about learning to deal with destructive emotions, unpredictable circumstances, self-interested people, and yes, ego, without succumbing to them. It’s philosophy as a way of achieving a better life.
In “Ego is the Enemy,” Holiday moves beyond the clinical definitions of ego and places the concept firmly in the realm of the practical. To be sure, the clinical and the practical in this case have some common ground. Modern psychologists define the ego as a critical part of identity construction, and further, an egotist as someone excessively focused on himself. Holiday defines ego along those lines: “an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition…It’s when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us.”
The idea that becoming untethered from reality is the primary symptom of an ego out of control is the thread that unites all three sections of this book. Holiday expands this idea throughout the three sections that form a continuum - Aspire, Success, and Failure - to show how this form of ego plagues everyone from the ambitious and striving, to the wildly successful and those who have been crushed by personal and professional defeat. In our own lives, we are always somewhere on that circle of aspiration, success and failure.
To this end, Holiday goes right to the sources of practical wisdom: the primary sources of great practical wisdom – Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Aristotle, and Martial to name a few - and the biographies of those who apply that wisdom to great effect or ignore it at their own peril.
This is where Holiday’s other key influence, strategist and author Robert Greene, becomes apparent. Like Greene, all of Holiday’s chapters start out with a short, pithy title sets the direction of the advice contained within the chapter. From there, Holiday mines the stories of great men and women who have either applied the advice laid out in the chapter title or ignored it and shows us the consequences of both.
For example, in the chapter titled, “Restrain Yourself” in the Aspire section of the book, Holiday launches right into the story of Jackie Robinson. As the first black player in the newly integrated MLB, Robinson faced discrimination and outright abuse at the hands of everyone from his own teammates and opponents, to hotel managers and restaurant owners and, of course, the press. At any point, Robinson could have lashed out, fighting back to defend his dignity against the injustices he faced.
But Robinson knew that if he fought back even once, it would end his MLB career and set the prospect of full integration of the league back for a generation. As Holiday writes, “Jackie’s path called for him to put aside both his ego and in some respects his basic sense of fairness and rights as a human being.”
Now, it’s likely that few of us will face the kind of treatment Robinson did, but the lesson here is that when we have ambitions and goals, we’re likely to run into the kind of people that Robinson did. The kind who react to your striving with cold indifference. The kind who aim to weaken your will with taunts and jeers. The kind who will go out of their way to sabotage you and undo all your efforts.
Holiday concludes here that ego tells us to snap back at these people and demand the respect we think we deserve. But that won’t earn it from anyone. We must ignore this impulse, no matter how badly we’re treated, and continue to work on our craft and ourselves. We must forget what we think the world owes us and focus on building our base, developing our skills and continuing to learn.
The rest of the chapters follow this same model, and plumb the depths of modern and ancient history to show us how those who put their egos aside achieve great things. Think of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick spending years doing unpaid grunt work and film study before finally getting a chance to put his knowledge into practice. Think of the great conqueror Genghis Khan seeking greater knowledge and expertise from those he defeated, rather than forcing them into silent subservience.
Yet, others turn themselves into cautionary tales. Howard Hughes was a mechanical genius who inherited a successful family business, and then squandered all of it through a lack of focus, entitlement and paranoia. John DeLorean had a great vision for an automobile company, but never built the solid foundation of leadership skills he would need to run a successful company.
Holiday gives us a healthy dose of both kinds of stories, and that’s what makes the advice in this book stick with us. Ultimately, practical philosophy is meant to be used in our daily lives, away from the safety of our reading chair. Holiday’s aphoristic style of advice, bolstered by memorable stories is what gives us the tools we need to remember this wisdom when our egos start to take control of us.
Holiday positions the three states of our lives – Aspire, Success and Failure – as being a never ending continuum. We must put our egos aside as we aspire to our goals, aside when we achieve them, and aside again when we flame out and have to start over. At each stage, ego threatens to knock us off the continuum altogether and lock us into an unproductive state of stasis.
Taming your ego is never easy, but it is essential when we are confronted by failure or bolstered by success, as we all will be in our lives. Ego can easily let both conditions become debilitating: With success, we think we can stop being humble and working hard. In failure, we can become paralyzed, blaming others for our rotten luck and ignoring the fact that it’s on us to right the ship.
Ego is always encroaching on us, even after we think we’ve beaten it back. As Daniele Bolelli puts it, a floor doesn’t stay clean because you’ve swept it once; you must sweep again and again. With this short, accessible book, Holiday gives us the tools we need to do just that.
As the book sets out to prove, your worst enemy already lives inside you: your ego. Holiday saw this unfold in slow motion with the demise of Dov Charney, founder and chairman of the huge, but failing American Apparel. He saw this unfold in his own ostensibly spectacular career, and in the careers of ancient historical personalities, as well as the contemporary ones that illustrate this sobering book.
The ego he is referring to is the unhealthy belief in our own importance, our arrogance, and our self-centred ambition. It is that petulant child in every person, who chooses getting his or her way over anything, or anyone else. Holiday believes that ego is “at the root of almost 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.”
This problem is now more acute than ever. The culture of the developed world fans the flames of ego. It has never been easier to boast to millions through free social media. Motivational speakers mislead by telling us to think big, live big, be memorable and “dare greatly”, because that is what this great company founder, or that championship team, supposedly did.
Throughout the rest of your life, if you fit into the category of the talented, ambitious and confident, you will be at one of three phases: aspiration, success, or failure. In each phase you will need to do battle with your ego, and the mistakes it can cause.
Holiday’s book leads the reader though each of the phases. The first is when we aspire - and whatever one aspires to, ego is the enemy. A common ego ploy is a belief in oneself that is not dependent on actual achievement, but on intense self-absorption, and endless self-promotion.
“Almost universally, the kind of performance we give on social media is positive. It’s more ‘Let me tell you how well things are going. Look how great I am.’ It’s rarely the truth: ‘I’m scared. I’m struggling. I don’t know,” Holiday explains.
Most valuable projects we chase are painfully difficult: launching a new start-up, or mastering a new skill. Talking, on the other hand, is always easy. While research does show that goal visualization is important, after a certain point our mind begins to confuse the visualization and the talk, with actual progress. The more difficult the task and the more uncertain the outcome, the more talk costs. Great work is a struggle. It’s draining, demoralizing, and frightening. “The only relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other,” Holiday claims.
‘Facts are better than dreams,’ Winston Churchill asserted. Appearances deceive. Having authority is not the same as being an authority. Having the right and being right are not the same, and impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.
The second phase kicks in when you are successful. Here the enemy of sustained success takes a different form, and requires a different response.
The theory of ‘disruption’ posits that at some point every industry will be disrupted by some trend or innovation that the incumbents will be incapable of responding to. The question then is why can’t the businesses change and adapt?
Holiday believes that this mimics why successful people fail – they have lost the ability to learn. Learning requires true humility and this can be seen from how people observe and listen. The humble don’t assume they know. As such, the remedy for avoiding the ‘I know it all’ ego trap in phase two, is straightforward but initially uncomfortable: “Pick up a book on a topic you know next to nothing about. Put yourself in rooms where you’re the least knowledgeable person,” he recommends. This aids the development of one ego antidote – humility.
Ego fragments, closes options, and mesmerizes. It clouds the mind precisely when it needs to be clear, and a second potent solution for this is sobriety. This acts as both a counterbalance, and as a prevention method.
The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, both during her rise and especially during her time in power, has consistently maintained her equilibrium and clear-headedness, regardless of the immediate stressors or stimuli. When Russian president Vladimir Putin once attempted to intimidate Merkel by letting his large hunting dog barge into a meeting (Merkel is not a dog lover), she didn’t flinch and later joked about it. As a result, Putin was the one who looked foolish and insecure.
A German writer observed in a tribute on her 50th birthday that unpretentiousness is Merkel’s main weapon. The successful, who like Merkel, maintain their equilibrium and clear-headedness, have normal private lives with their spouses. They lack pretence, they wear normal clothes, and for the most part are people you’ve never heard of, which is the way they want it.
The third phase, failure, is an inevitable stop on the journey to success. “There is hardly the space to list all the successful people who have hit rock bottom,” Holiday explains. Ego not only leaves us unprepared for failure, but often contributes to it in the first place.
Humble and strong people, who maintain their equilibrium and clear-headedness, don’t have the same trouble with failure that egotists do.
What matters in the failure phase is that we can respond to what life throws at us. When we fail, many questions arise: how do I make sense of this? How do I move onward and upward? Is this the bottom, or is there more to come? How did I let this happen? How can it never happen again?
The experience of failure almost always comes from some outside force or person, and it often involves things we already knew about ourselves, but were too scared to admit. However, from the ruin, the opportunity for great progress and improvement can emerge.
“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 asks.
Perfecting oneself is what leads to success as a professional, but rarely the other way around. To be a success, requires that we are humble in our aspirations, gracious in our success, and resilient in our failures. Studies of truly successful individuals show them to be grounded, circumspect, and unflinchingly real. No truly successful person is delusional, self-absorbed, or disconnected.
“When we remove ego, we’re left with what is real. What replaces ego is humility, yes—but rock-hard humility and confidence,” Holiday concludes.
This book should be read, and then re-read intermittently.
Readability Light --+-- Serious
Insights High +---- Low
Practical High --+--Low
*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. .