How to not think too much of yourself

Ego is the Enemy, by Ryan Holiday (2016)

**Pages: 220**, Final verdict: Great-read

Did you ever think you are the best in the world? If yes, it's very likely you were suffering from a big ego and you got hurt because of it. This is the opinion Ryan Holiday, author of Ego is the Enemy, and this book will explain you why.

Holiday is a 30-year old who, despite his young age, has been marketing director for big brands and published 6 books (on the topics of marketing and philosophy). He has a large audience through his website and online articles and, in fact, I came across his work by subscribing to his monthly book recommendation newsletter which counts thousands of subscribers - I hope one day we will have that many people interested in reading our book reviews at BetaGlyph!

Are you an egotist?

The main premise in Ego is the Enemy is that we are all highly influenced by our Ego, and that such influence is negative to our happiness and achievements.

So, how is it that ego hurts us?

Holiday defines ego as "self-centered ambition", "arrogance", and "an unhealthy belief in our own importance". By making us think we are more special than we really are, ego prevents us from being receptive to learning, to negative feedback, or from enjoying our own success, as we're always looking for recognition, even after achieving what we had ambitioned.

Holiday believes that, while there have been successful egotists, we have not heard about most successful people because they were discrete and humble, even though they have achieved much more than any egotist. One example he brings up many times in the book is Howard Hughes, the American millionaire who is very famous and popularly regarded as very successful, but who has died very unhappy, paranoid and having destroyed almost all his inherited wealth.

"While the history books are filled with the tales of obsessive, visionary geniuses who remade the world in their image with sheer, almost irrational force, 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." - Ryan Holiday

Ego is the Enemy is divided in multiple short chapters with titles such as "To be or to do" or "Entitlement, control, and paranoia". In each chapter, Holiday explores one concept through examples from historic figures, both egotistic and humble. Moreover, the chapters are grouped into sections according to what Holiday considers to be different stages of life that each one of us lives in:

  • Aspire - At this stage in life, we aspire to achieve great goals. Ego will prevent us from achieving our goals if we focus on talking instead of doing; if we think so much of ourselves that we refuse to learn; or if we're just not willing to put enough work into it because we think that being special is enough.
  • Success - We have achieved our goals, but we get so full of ourselves that we start believing we don't have to learn any longer. Holiday also warns against the dangers of telling ourselves stories about how we achieved success: we start believing we always had it all figured out and that it was very clear how we would achieve success, because we're just so talented.
  • Failure - No matter who you are, you will experience failure at some point in your life. Either you never achieved your goals or you have been at the top only to come down spectacularly. In our hardest moments, thinking too much of ourselves will only make it more difficult to achieve success again. Use your down time to continue learning, cut your losses and make amends, and don't doubt that work and effort will bring you back up again.

Humility replaces the ego

"When someone gets his first job or joins a new organisation, he's often given this advice: Make other people look good and you will do well. Keep your head down, they say, and serve your boss. (...) Let's flip it around so it doesn't seem so demeaning: It's not about kissing ass. It's not about making someone look good. It's about providing the support so that others can be good." - Ryan Holiday

All through these chapters, we learn that staying humble, grounded, and focused on the work to be done instead of on recognition will help us truly achieve greatness.

Holiday brings up many times the example of the NFL coach Bill Walsh (I previously wrote a review of Walsh's book, and it's a must-read indeed) or how Steve Jobs learned to tame his temper and brought himself to start Pixar and NeXT after being fired from Apple. Ego is the Enemy is also highly influenced by stoic philosophy, which means that examples from ancient Greece and the Roman empire feature regularly in the book.

In the end, the main message I got from the book was:

  • Don't fool yourself about what the real objectives are (i.e. don't tell yourself you want to "have an impact" when all you want is fame);
  • Don't think that fame is a cause for success - it's a by-product, and most often not a good one;
  • Humility and grounded self-confidence are much better motivators than a bloated sense of your own abilities;
  • Work, willingness to learn, sobriety, and more work, will get you to where you want.

Bottom line

Short, concise and easy to follow, Ego is the Enemy is a very nice book to read.

However, it sometimes lacks depth. Being so short, it feels a bit like pop-philosophy - an easy to consume version of important concepts. Additionally, there was no mind-blowing insight I got from the book. But maybe it would have been different had I read it at another moment in my life... I will keep it on my shelf for when the right time comes.

Still, I would definitely recommend reading Ego is the Enemy. It has the potential to spark some interesting thoughts and help you question some of your assumptions.

Further learning:

Happy reading.