Ego Is the Enemy draws on a vast array of stories and examples, from literature to philosophy
to history. Taking a critical look at figures such as George Marshall, Jackie Robinson, Katharine
Graham, Bill Belichick, and Eleanor Roosevelt, who all reached the highest levels of power and
success by conquering their own egos. Their strategies and tactics can be ours as well.
- “An amateur is defensive. The professional finds learning (and even, occasionally, being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled, and engage in education as an ongoing and endless process.”
- “Responsibility requires a readjustment and then increased clarity and purpose.”
- “There are two types of time in our lives: dead time, when people are passive and waiting, and alive time, when people are learning and acting and utilizing every second. Every moment of failure, every moment or situation that we did not deliberately choose or control, presents this choice: Alive time. Dead time.”
- “The only relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other.”
- “A person who judges himself based on his own standards doesn’t crave the spotlight the same way as someone who lets applause dictate success. A person who can think long term doesn’t pity herself during short-term setbacks. A person who values the team can share credit and subsume his own interests in a way that most others can’t.”
- “Put yourself in rooms where you’re the least knowledgeable person. That uncomfortable feeling, that defensiveness that you feel when your most deeply held assumptions are challenged—what about subjecting yourself to it deliberately? Change your mind. Change your surroundings.”
Key Concepts From The Book:
PART I. ASPIRE
Every great journey begins here—yet far too many of us never reach our intended destination. Ego more often than not is the culprit. We build ourselves up with fantastical stories, we pretend we have it all figured out, we let our star burn bright and hot only to fizzle out, and we have no idea why. These are symptoms of ego, for which humility and reality are the cure.
TO BE OR TO DO?
If your purpose is something larger than you—to accomplish something, to prove something to yourself—then suddenly everything becomes both easier and more difficult. Easier in the sense that you know now what it is you need to do and what is important to you. The other “choices” wash away, as they aren’t really choices at all. They’re distractions. It’s about the doing, not the recognition.
Easier in the sense that you don’t need to compromise. Harder because each opportunity—no matter how gratifying or rewarding—must be evaluated along strict guidelines:
Does this help me do what I have set out to do? Does this allow me to do what I need to do? Am I being selfish or selfless? Think about this the next time you face that choice: Do I need this? Or is it really about ego? Are you ready to make the right decision? Or do the prizes still glitter off in the distance? To be or to do—life is a constant roll call.
BECOME A STUDENT
As we sit down to proof our work, as we make our first elevator pitch, prepare to open our first shop, as we stare out into the dress rehearsal audience, ego is the enemy—giving us wicked feedback, disconnected from reality. It’s defensive, precisely when we cannot afford to be defensive. It blocks us from improving by telling us that we don’t need to improve. Then we wonder why we don’t get the results we want, why others are better and why their success is more lasting. Today, books are cheaper than ever. Courses are free. Access to teachers is no longer a barrier—technology has done away with that. There is no excuse for not getting your education, and because the information we have before us is so vast, there is no excuse for ever ending that process either.
It doesn’t matter how talented you are, how great your connections are, how much money you have. When you want to do something—something big and important and meaningful—you will be subjected to treatment ranging from indifference to outright sabotage. Count on it.
In this scenario, ego is the absolute opposite of what is needed. Who can afford to be jerked around by impulses, or believe that you’re god’s gift to humanity, or too important to put up with anything you don’t like? Those who have subdued their ego understand that it doesn’t degrade you when others treat you poorly; it degrades them.
Instead, you must do nothing. Take it. Eat it until you’re sick. Endure it. Quietly brush it off and work harder. Play the game. Ignore the noise; for the love of God, do not let it distract you. Restraint is a difficult skill but a critical one. You will often be tempted, you will probably even be overcome. No one is perfect with it, but try we must.
GET OUT OF YOUR OWN HEAD
All of us are susceptible to obsessions of the mind—whether we run a technology startup or are working our way up the ranks of the corporate hierarchy or have fallen madly in love. 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. There’s no one to perform for. There is just work to be done and lessons to be learned, in all that is around us.
THE DANGER OF EARLY PRIDE
Pride takes a minor accomplishment and makes it feel like a major one. It smiles at our cleverness and genius, as though what we’ve exhibited was merely a hint of what ought to come. From the start, it drives a wedge between the possessor and reality, subtly and not so subtly changing her perceptions of what something is and what it isn’t. It is these strong opinions, only loosely secured by fact or accomplishment, that send us careering toward delusion or worse. We are still striving, and it is the strivers who should be our peers—not the proud and the accomplished. Without this understanding, pride takes our self-conception and puts it at odds with the reality of our station, which is that we still have so far to go, that there is still so much to be done.
FOR EVERYTHING THAT COMES NEXT, EGO IS THE ENEMY…
What is truly ambitious is to face life and proceed with quiet confidence in spite of the distractions. Let others grasp at crutches. It will be a lonely fight to be real, to say “I’m not going to take the edge off.” To say, “I am going to be myself, the best version of that self. I am in this for the long game, no matter how brutal it might be.” To do, not be. You have a chance to do this yourself. To play a different game, to be utterly audacious in your aims. Because what comes next is going to test you in ways that you cannot begin to understand. For ego is a wicked sister of success.
PART II. SUCCESS
Now we face new temptations and problems. We breathe thinner air in an unforgiving environment. Why is success so ephemeral? Ego shortens it. Whether a collapse is dramatic or
a slow erosion, it’s always possible and often unnecessary. We stop learning, we stop listening,
and we lose our grasp on what matters. We become victims of ourselves and the competition.
Sobriety, open-mindedness, organization, and purpose—these are the great stabilizers. They
balance out the ego and pride that comes with achievement and recognition.
ALWAYS STAY A STUDENT
Each of us faces a threat as we pursue our craft. Like sirens on the rocks, ego sings a soothing, validating song—which can lead to a wreck. The second we let the ego tell us we have graduated, learning grinds to a halt. That’s why Frank Shamrock said, “Always stay a student.” As in, it never ends.
The solution is as straightforward as it is 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. That uncomfortable feeling, that defensiveness that you feel when your most deeply held assumptions are challenged—what about subjecting yourself to it deliberately? Change your mind. Change your surroundings.
An amateur is defensive. The professional finds learning (and even, occasionally, being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled, and engage in education as an ongoing and endless process.
As you become successful in your own field, your responsibilities may begin to change. Days become less and less about doing and more and more about making decisions. Such is the nature of leadership. What matters is that you learn how to manage yourself and others, before your industry eats you alive. Micromanagers are egotists who can’t manage others and they quickly get overloaded. So do the charismatic visionaries who lose interest when it’s time to execute. Worse yet are those who surround themselves with yesmen or sycophants who clean up their messes and create a bubble in which they can’t even see how disconnected from reality they are. Responsibility requires a readjustment and then increased clarity and purpose. First, setting the top-level goals and priorities of the organization and your life. Then enforcing and observing them. To produce results and only results.
BEWARE THE DISEASE OF ME
After a team starts to win and media attention begins, the simple bonds that joined the individuals together begin to fray. Players calculate their own importance. Chests swell. Frustrations emerge. Egos appear. The Innocent Climb, Pat Riley
says, is almost always followed by the “Disease of Me.” It can “strike any winning team in any year and at any moment,” and does with alarming regularity. For us, it’s beginning to think that we’re better, that we’re special, that our problems and experiences are so incredibly different from everyone else’s that no one could possibly understand. It’s an attitude that has sunk far better people, teams, and causes than ours.
It doesn’t make you a bad person to want to be remembered. To want to make it to the top. To provide for yourself and your family. After all, that’s all part of the allure. There is a balance. Soccer coach Tony Adams expresses it well. Play for the name on the front of the jersey, he says, and they’ll remember the name on the back.
MEDITATE ON THE IMMENSITY
As our power or talents grow, we like to think that makes us special—that we live in blessed, unprecedented times. “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am,” Muhammad Ali once said. Yeah, okay. That’s why great people have to work even harder to fight against this headwind. It’s hard to be self-absorbed and convinced of your own greatness inside the solitude and quiet of a sensory deprivation tank. It’s hard to be anything but humble walking alone along a beach late at night with an endless black ocean crashing loudly against the ground next to you.
Feel unprotected against the elements or forces or surroundings. Remind yourself how pointless it is to rage and fight and try to one-up those around you. Go and put yourself in touch with the infinite, and end your conscious separation from the world. Reconcile yourself a bit better with the realities of life. Realize how much came before you, and how only wisps of it remain. Let the feeling carry you as long as you can. Then when you start to feel better or bigger than, go and do it again.
PART III. FAILURE
No one is permanently successful, and not everyone finds success on the first attempt. We all deal with setbacks along the way. Ego not only leaves us unprepared for these circumstances, it often contributed to their occurrence in the first place. The way through, the way to rise again, requires a reorientation and increased self-awareness. We don’t need pity—our own or anyone else’s—we need purpose, poise, and patience.
ALIVE TIME OR DEAD TIME?
According to Greene, there are two types of time in our lives: dead time, when people are passive and waiting, and alive time, when people are learning and acting and utilizing every second. Every moment of failure, every moment or situation that we did not deliberately choose or control, presents this choice: Alive time. Dead time.
In life, we all get stuck with dead time. Its occurrence isn’t in our control. Its use, on the other hand, is. As Booker T. Washington most famously put it, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” Make use of what’s around you. Don’t let stubbornness make a bad situation worse.
MAINTAIN YOUR OWN SCORECARD
It’s a harder road at first, but one that ultimately makes us less selfish and self-absorbed.
A person who judges himself based on his own standards doesn’t crave the spotlight the same way as someone who lets applause dictate success. A person who can think long term doesn’t pity herself during short-term setbacks. A person who values the team can share credit and subsume his own interests in a way that most others can’t.
Reflecting on what went well or how amazing we are doesn’t get us anywhere, except maybe to where we are right now. But we want to go further, we want more, we want to continue to improve. Ego blocks that, so we subsume it and smash it with continually higher standards. Not that we are endlessly pursuing more, as if we’re racked with greed, but instead, we’re inching our way toward real improvement, with discipline rather than disposition.
FOR EVERYTHING THAT COMES NEXT, EGO IS THE ENEMY…
Whatever is next for us, we can be sure of one thing we’ll want to avoid. Ego. It makes all the steps hard, but failure is the one it will make permanent. Unless we learn, right here and right now, from our mistakes. Unless we use this moment as an opportunity to understand ourselves and our own mind better, ego will seek out failure like true north. All great men and women went through difficulties to get to where they are, all of them made mistakes. They found within those experiences some benefit—even if it was simply the realization that they were not infallible and that things would not always go their way. They found that self-awareness was the way out and through—if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have gotten better and they wouldn’t have been able to rise again.
Which is why we have their mantra to guide us, so that we can survive and thrive in every phase of our journey. It is simple (though, as always, never easy). Not to aspire or seek out of ego. To have success without ego. To push through failure with strength, not ego.