The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.
– Richard Feynman
- Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, your worst enemy already lives inside you: your ego.
- The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition.
- The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility—that’s ego. It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.
- It’s when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us.
- In this way, 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.
- We think something else is to blame for our problems (most often, other people).
- Without an accurate accounting of our own abilities compared to others, what we have is not confidence but delusion.
“If you start believing in your greatness, it is the death of your creativity.”
– Marina Abramović
- Just one thing keeps ego around—comfort.
- Pursuing great work—whether it is in sports or art or business—is often terrifying. Ego soothes that fear.
Ego was always there. Now it's emboldened.
- Sure, ego has worked for some. Many of history’s most famous men and women were notoriously egotistical. But so were many of its greatest failures. Far more of them, in fact.
Wherever you are, ego is too.
- At any given time in life, people find themselves at one of three stages.
- We’re aspiring to something—trying to make a dent in the universe.
- We have achieved success—perhaps a little, perhaps a lot.
- Or we have failed—recently or continually.
- Ego is the enemy every step along this way.
- Humble in our aspirations Gracious in our success Resilient in our failures
- When we remove ego, we’re left with what is real. What replaces ego is humility, yes—but rock-hard humility and confidence. Whereas ego is artificial, this type of confidence can hold weight. Ego is stolen. Confidence is earned.
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.
- Among men who rise to fame and leadership two types are recognizable—those who are born with a belief in themselves and those in whom it is a slow growth dependent on actual achievement.
- One must ask: if your belief in yourself is not dependent on actual achievement, then what is it dependent on? The answer, too often when we are just setting out, is nothing. Ego. And this is why we so often see precipitous rises followed by calamitous falls.
- Our cultural values almost try to make us dependent on validation, entitled, and ruled by our emotions.
- 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? Arrogance and self-absorption inhibit growth. So does fantasy and “vision.”
- Detachment is a sort of natural ego antidote.
- What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.
- Facts are better than dreams, as Churchill put it.
Talk, talk, talk
- It’s a temptation that exists for everyone—for talk and hype to replace action.
- 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.”
- At the beginning of any path, we’re excited and nervous. So we seek to comfort ourselves externally instead of inwardly. There’s a weak side to each of us, that—like a trade union—isn’t exactly malicious but at the end of the day still wants get as much public credit and attention as it can for doing the least. That side we call ego.
- Writing, like so many creative acts, is hard.
- In fact, many valuable endeavors we undertake are painfully difficult, whether it’s coding a new startup or mastering a craft. But talking, talking is always easy.
- We seem to think that silence is a sign of weakness. That being ignored is tantamount to death (and for the ego, this is true). So we talk, talk, talk as though our life depends on it. In actuality, silence is strength—particularly early on in any journey.
- Strategic flexibility is not the only benefit of silence while others chatter. It is also psychology. The poet Hesiod had this in mind when he said, “A man’s best treasure is a thrifty tongue.”
- 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. After spending so much time thinking, explaining, and talking about a task, we start to feel that we’ve gotten closer to achieving it. Or worse, when things get tough, we feel we can toss the whole project aside because we’ve given it our best try, although of course we haven’t.
- Success requires a full 100 percent of our effort, and talk flitters part of that effort away before we can use it.
- I just spent four hours talking about this. Doesn’t that count for something? The answer is no.
- 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.
- The only relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other.
To be or to do?
- Whatever we seek to do in life, reality soon intrudes on our youthful idealism. This reality comes in many names and forms: incentives, commitments, recognition, and politics.
- How do you prevent derailment? Well, often we fall in love with an image of what success looks like.
- For other people, it’s their job title, the business school they went to, the number of assistants they have, the location of their parking space, the grants they earn, their access to the CEO, the size of their paycheck, or the number of fans they have.
- Appearances are deceiving. Having authority is not the same as being an authority. Having the right and being right are not the same either. Being promoted doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing good work and it doesn’t mean you are worthy of promotion (they call it failing upward in such bureaucracies). Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.
- What you choose to do with your time and what you choose to do for money works on you.
- 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.
- 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
Become a student
- The power of being a student is not just that it is an extended period of instruction, it also places the ego and ambition in someone else’s hands. There is a sort of ego ceiling imposed—one knows that he is not better than the “master” he apprentices under. Not even close. You defer to them, you subsume yourself. You cannot fake or bullshit them. An education can’t be “hacked”; there are no shortcuts besides hacking it every single day. If you don’t, they drop you.
- The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the antidote.
- The mixed martial arts pioneer and multi-title champion Frank Shamrock has a system he trains fighters in that he calls plus, minus, and equal. Each fighter, to become great, he said, needs to have someone better that they can learn from, someone lesser who they can teach, and someone equal that they can challenge themselves against.
- The purpose of Shamrock’s formula is simple: to get real and continuous feedback about what they know and what they don’t know from every angle. It purges out the ego that puffs us up, the fear that makes us doubt ourselves, and any laziness that might make us want to coast. As Shamrock observed, “False ideas about yourself destroy you. For me, I always stay a student. That’s what martial arts are about, and you have to use that humility as a tool. You put yourself beneath someone you trust.” This begins by accepting that others know more than you and that you can benefit from their knowledge, and then seeking them out and knocking down the illusions you have about yourself.
- To become great and to stay great, they must all know what came before, what is going on now, and what comes next. They must internalize the fundamentals of their domain and what surrounds them, without ossifying or becoming stuck in time. They must be always learning. We must all become our own teachers, tutors, and critics.
- A true student is like a sponge. Absorbing what goes on around him, filtering it, latching on to what he can hold. A student is self-critical and self-motivated, always trying to improve his understanding so that he can move on to the next topic, the next challenge. A real student is also his own teacher and his own critic. There is no room for ego there.
- “It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows,” Epictetus says. You can’t learn if you think you already know. You will not find the answers if you’re too conceited and self-assured to ask the questions. You cannot get better if you’re convinced you are the best.
- The art of taking feedback is such a crucial skill in life, particularly harsh and critical feedback. We not only need to take this harsh feedback, but actively solicit it, labor to seek out the negative precisely when our friends and family and brain are telling us that we’re doing great.
- Ego doesn’t allow for proper incubation either. To become what we ultimately hope to become often takes long periods of obscurity, of sitting and wrestling with some topic or paradox. Humility is what keeps us there, concerned that we don’t know enough and that we must continue to study. Ego rushes to the end, rationalizes that patience is for losers (wrongly seeing it as a weakness), and assumes that we’re good enough to give our talents a go in the world.
- 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.
It’s why the old proverb says, “When student is ready, the teacher appears.”
Don't be passionate
- Your passion may be the very thing holding you back from power or influence or accomplishment. Because just as often, we fail with—no, because of—passion.
- 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.
- The passion paradox.
- If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then passion is a form of mental retardation—deliberately blunting our most critical cognitive functions. The waste is often appalling in retrospect; the best years of our life burned out like a pair of spinning tires against the asphalt.
- What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism. Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective.
- Passion is about. (I am so passionate about __.) Purpose is to and for. (I must do __. I was put here to accomplish __. I am willing to endure __ for the sake of this.) Actually, purpose deemphasizes the I. Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself.
- More than purpose, we also need realism. Where do we start? What do we do first? What do we do right now? How are we sure that what we’re doing is moving us forward? What are we benchmarking ourselves against?
- Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function.
- The critical work that you want to do will require your deliberation and consideration. Not passion. Not naïveté.
- It’d be far better if you were intimidated by what lies ahead—humbled by its magnitude and determined to see it through regardless. Leave passion for the amateurs. Make it about what you feel you must do and say, not what you care about and wish to be.
Follow the canvas strategy
- It’s a common attitude that transcends generations and societies. The angry, unappreciated genius is forced to do stuff she doesn’t like, for people she doesn’t respect, as she makes her way in the world. How dare they force me to grovel like this! The injustice! The waste!
- When someone gets his first job or joins a new organization, 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. Naturally, this is not what the kid who was chosen over all the other kids for the position wants to hear.
- 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. The better wording for the advice is this: Find canvases for other people to paint on. Be an anteambulo. Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself.
- When you are just starting out, we can be sure of a few fundamental realities:
- You’re not nearly as good or as important as you think you are;
- You have an attitude that needs to be readjusted;
- Most of what you think you know or most of what you learned in books or in school is out of date or wrong.
- There’s one fabulous way to work all that out of your system: attach yourself to people and organizations who are already successful and subsume your identity into theirs and move both forward simultaneously. It’s certainly more glamorous to pursue your own glory—though hardly as effective. Obeisance is the way forward.
- Franklin saw the constant benefit in making other people look good and letting them take credit for your ideas.
- Bill Belichick, the four-time Super Bowl–winning head coach of the New England Patriots, made his way up the ranks of the NFL by loving and mastering the one part of the job that coaches disliked at the time: analyzing film.
- His first job in professional football, for the Baltimore Colts, was one he volunteered to take without pay—and his insights, which provided ammunition and critical strategies for the game, were attributed exclusively to the more senior coaches.
- Belichick’s father, himself an assistant football coach for Navy, taught him a critical lesson in football politics: that if he wanted to give his coach feedback or question a decision, he needed to do it in private and self-effacingly so as not to offend his superior.
- You can see how easily entitlement and a sense of superiority (the trappings of ego) would have made the accomplishments of either of these men impossible. Franklin would never have been published if he’d prioritized credit over creative expression—indeed, when his brother found out, he literally beat him out of jealousy and anger. Belichick would have pissed off his coach and then probably been benched if he had one-upped him in public. He certainly wouldn’t have taken his first job for free, and he wouldn’t have sat through thousands of hours of film if he cared about status. Greatness comes from humble beginnings; it comes from grunt work. It means you’re the least important person in the room—until you change that with results.
- That’s what the canvas strategy is about—helping yourself by helping others. Making a concerted effort to trade your short-term gratification for a longer-term payoff.
- Our own path, whatever we aspire to, will in some ways be defined by the amount of nonsense we are willing to deal with.
- Your ego will do you no favors here, whether you’re struggling with a publisher, with critics, with enemies, or a capricious boss. It doesn’t matter that they don’t understand or that you know better. It’s too early for that. It’s too soon.
- 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.
- Restraint is a difficult skill but a critical one.
Get out of your own head
A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts, so he loses touch with reality and lives in a world of illusions.
— Alan Watts
- Twenty-four hundred years ago, Plato spoke of the type of people who are guilty of “feasting on their own thoughts.”
- It was apparently common enough even then to find people who “instead of finding out how something they desire might actually come about, they pass that over, so as to avoid tiring deliberations about what’s possible. They assume that what they desire is available and proceed to arrange the rest, taking pleasure in thinking through everything they’ll do when they have what they want, thereby making their lazy souls even lazier.” Real people preferring to live in passionate fiction than in actual reality.
- We tend to think that ego equals confidence, which is what we need to be in charge. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. In McClellan’s case it deprived him of the ability to lead. It robbed him of the ability to think that he even needed to act.
- Anyone—particularly the ambitious—can fall prey to this narration, good and bad. It is natural for any young, ambitious person (or simply someone whose ambition is young) to get excited and swept up by their thoughts and feelings. Especially in a world that tells us to keep and promote a “personal brand.” We’re required to tell stories in order to sell our work and our talents, and after enough time, forget where the line is that separates our fictions from reality.
- What successful people do is curb such flights of fancy. They ignore the temptations that might make them feel important or skew their perspective.
- All of us are susceptible to these 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. The more creative we are, the easier it is to lose the thread that guides us.
- Our imagination—in many senses an asset—is dangerous when it runs wild. We have to rein our perceptions in.
- 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.
The danger of early pride
- “Let this be a caution to you not always to hold your head so high,” he said wryly. “Stoop, young man, stoop—as you go through this world—and you’ll miss many hard thumps.”
- You need only to care about your career to understand that pride—even in real accomplishments—is a distraction and a deluder.
- “Whom the gods wish to destroy,” Cyril Connolly famously said, “they first call promising.” Twenty-five hundred years before that, the elegiac poet Theognis wrote to his friend, “The first thing, Kurnos, which gods bestow on one they would annihilate, is pride.”
- Pride blunts the very instrument we need to own in order to succeed: our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride. Most dangerously, this tends to happen either early in life or in the process—when we’re flushed with beginner’s conceit.
- Pride takes a minor accomplishment and makes it feel like a major one.
- Pride and ego say:
- I am an entrepreneur because I struck out on my own.
- I am going to win because I am currently in the lead.
- I am a writer because I published something.
- I am rich because I made some money.
- I am special because I was chosen. I am important because I think I should be.
- At one time or another, we all indulge this sort of gratifying label making. Yet every culture seems to produce words of caution against it. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Don’t cook the sauce before catching the fish. The way to cook a rabbit is first to catch a rabbit. Game slaughtered by words cannot be skinned. Punching above your weight is how you get injured. Pride goeth before the fall.
- As he later reflected, “I had a horror of the danger of arrogance. What a pitiful thing it is when a man lets a little temporary success spoil him, warp his judgment, and he forgets what he is!” It creates a sort of myopic, onanistic obsession that warps perspective, reality, truth, and the world around us.
- Receive feedback, maintain hunger, and chart a proper course in life. Pride dulls these senses. Or in other cases, it tunes up other negative parts of ourselves: sensitivity, a persecution complex, the ability to make everything about us.
- As the famous conqueror and warrior Genghis Khan groomed his sons and generals to succeed him later in life, he repeatedly warned them, “If you can’t swallow your pride, you can’t lead.”
- We tend to be on guard against negativity, against the people who are discouraging us from pursuing our callings or doubting the visions we have for ourselves. This is certainly an obstacle to beware of, though dealing with it is rather simple.
- What we cultivate less is how to protect ourselves against the validation and gratification that will quickly come our way if we show promise. What we don’t protect ourselves against are people and things that make us feel good—or rather, too good.
- We must prepare for pride and kill it early—or it will kill what we aspire to. We must be on guard against that wild self-confidence and self-obsession.
- It’s worth saying: just because you are quiet doesn’t mean that you are without pride. Privately thinking you’re better than others is still pride. It’s still dangerous.
Work, work, work
- The distinction between a professional and a dilettante occurs right there—when you accept that having an idea is not enough; that you must work until you are able to recreate your experience effectively in words on the page.
- “You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do,” was how Henry Ford put it.
- Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuff—the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory.
- Fac, si facis. (Do it if you’re going to do it.)
- There is another apt Latin expression: Materiam superabat opus. (The workmanship was better than the material.) The material we’ve been given genetically, emotionally, financially, that’s where we begin. We don’t control that. We do control what we make of that material, and whether we squander it.
- As a young basketball player, Bill Bradley would remind himself, “When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win.”
- You can lie to yourself, saying that you put in the time, or pretend that you’re working, but eventually someone will show up. You’ll be tested. And quite possibly, found out.
- Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this. I am passing the marshmallow test. I am earning what my ambition burns for. I am making an investment in myself instead of in my ego. Give yourself a little credit for this choice, but not so much, because you’ve got to get back to the task at hand: practicing, working, improving.
- Work is finding yourself alone at the track when the weather kept everyone else indoors. Work is pushing through the pain and crappy first drafts and prototypes.
- There is another old expression: You know a workman by the chips they leave. It’s true. To judge your progress properly, just take a look at the floor.
For everything that comes next, ego is the enemy ...
- Ira Glass, which could be called the Taste/Talent Gap.
- "All of us who do creative work… we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good… It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste—the thing that got you into the game—your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you."
PART II – SUCCESS
To whatever success you have achieved, ego is the enemy ...
- “The worst disease which can afflict business executives in their work is not, as popularly supposed, alcoholism; it’s egotism,” Geneen famously said.
- Success is intoxicating, yet to sustain it requires sobriety. We can’t keep learning if we think we already know everything.
Always stay a student
- For not only was Genghis Khan one of the greatest military minds who ever lived, he was a perpetual student, whose stunning victories were often the result of his ability to absorb the best technologies, practices, and innovations of each new culture his empire touched.
- He was the greatest conqueror the world ever knew because he was more open to learning than any other conqueror has ever been.
- As we first succeed, we will find ourselves in new situations, facing new problems.
- It takes a special kind of humility to grasp that you know less, even as you know and grasp more and more. It’s remembering Socrates’ wisdom lay in the fact that he knew that he knew next to nothing.
- With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pretend that we know more than we do. To pretend we already know everything. Scientia infla (knowledge puffs up). That’s the worry and the risk—thinking that we’re set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process.
- Wynton Marsalis
- “Humility engenders learning because it beats back the arrogance that puts blinders on. It leaves you open for truths to reveal themselves. You don’t stand in your own way.… Do you know how you can tell when someone is truly humble? I believe there’s one simple test: because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve. They don’t assume, ‘I know the way.’”
- Too often, convinced of our own intelligence, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to learn or reconsider what we know). It obscures from view various weaknesses in our understanding, until eventually it’s too late to change course. This is where the silent toll is taken.
- The second we let the ego tell us we have graduated, learning grinds to a halt.
- 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.
- The great manager and business thinker Peter Drucker says that it’s not enough simply to want to learn. As people progress, they must also understand how they learn and then set up processes to facilitate this continual education.
Don't tell yourself a story
- Crafting stories out of past events is a very human impulse. It’s also dangerous and untrue. Writing our own narrative leads to arrogance.
- once you win, everyone is gunning for you. It’s during your moment at the top that you can afford ego the least—because the stakes are so much higher, the margins for error are so much smaller. If anything, your ability to listen, to hear feedback, to improve and grow matter more now than ever before.
- Facts are better than stories and image.
- The twentieth-century financier Bernard Baruch had a great line: “Don’t try to buy at the bottom and sell at the top. This can’t be done—except by liars.”
- When we are aspiring we must resist the impulse to reverse engineer success from other people’s stories. When we achieve our own, we must resist the desire to pretend that everything unfolded exactly as we’d planned.
- There is a real danger in believing it when people use the word “genius”—and it’s even more dangerous when we let hubris tell ourselves we are one.
- The same goes for any label that comes along with a career: are we suddenly a “film-maker,” “writer,” “investor,” “entrepreneur,” or “executive” because we’ve accomplished one thing? These labels put you at odds not just with reality, but with the real strategy that made you successful in the first place.
- artists who think it was “inspiration” or “pain” that fueled their art and create an image around that—instead of hard work and sincere hustle—will eventually find themselves at the bottom of a bottle or on the wrong end of a needle.
- 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.
What's important to you?
- That’s how it seems to go: we’re never happy with what we have, we want what others have too. We want to have more than everyone else. We start out knowing what is important to us, but once we’ve achieved it, we lose sight of our priorities. Ego sways us, and can ruin us.
- All of us regularly say yes unthinkingly, or out of vague attraction, or out of greed or vanity. Because we can’t say no—because we might miss out on something if we did. We think “yes” will let us accomplish more, when in reality it prevents exactly what we seek.
- All of us waste precious life doing things we don’t like, to prove ourselves to people we don’t respect, and to get things we don’t want.
- Ego leads to envy and it rots the bones of people big and small. Ego undermines greatness by deluding its holder.
- The farther you travel down that path of accomplishment, whatever it may be, the more often you meet other successful people who make you feel insignificant.
- Let’s be clear: competitiveness is an important force in life. It’s what drives the market and is behind some of mankind’s most impressive accomplishments. On an individual level, however, it’s absolutely critical that you know who you’re competing with and why, that you have a clear sense of the space you’re in.
- Far too often, we look at other people and make their approval the standard we feel compelled to meet, and as a result, squander our very potential and purpose.
- This is especially true with money. If you don’t know how much you need, the default easily becomes: more.
- When “you combine insecurity and ambition,” the plagiarist and disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer said when reflecting back on his fall, “you get an inability to say no to things.”
- Ego rejects trade-offs. Why compromise? Ego wants it all.
Entitlement, control and paranoia
- One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. — BERTRAND RUSSELL
- With success, particularly power, come some of the greatest and most dangerous delusions: entitlement, control, and paranoia.
- Achieving success involved ignoring the doubts and reservations of the people around us. It meant rejecting rejection. It required taking certain risks.
- Ego is its own worst enemy. It hurts the ones we love too. Our families and friends suffer for it. So do our customers, fans, and clients.
- A critic of Napoleon nailed it when remarking: “He despises the nation whose applause he seeks.” He couldn’t help but see the French people as pieces to be manipulated, people he had to be better than, people who, unless they were totally, unconditionally supportive of him, were against him.
- Entitlement assumes: This is mine. I’ve earned it. At the same time, entitlement nickels and dimes other people because it can’t conceive of valuing another person’s time as highly as its own.
- Control says, It all must be done my way—even little things, even inconsequential things.
- Paranoia thinks, I can’t trust anyone. I’m in this totally by myself and for myself. It says, I’m surrounded by fools.
- I also have to be orchestrating various machinations behind the scenes—to get them before they get me; to get them back for the slights I perceive.
- “He who indulges empty fears earns himself real fears,” wrote Seneca,
- 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 yes-men 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
- Pat Riley, the famous coach and manager who led the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat to multiple championships, says that great teams tend to follow a trajectory. When they start—before they have won—a team is innocent. If the conditions are right, they come together, they watch out for each other and work together toward their collective goal. This stage, he calls the “Innocent Climb.”
- 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.
- Ego needs honors in order to be validated. Confidence, on the other hand, is able to wait and focus on the task at hand regardless of external recognition.
Meditate on the immensity
- sympatheia—a connectedness with the cosmos.
- Ego tells us that meaning comes from activity, that being the center of attention is the only way to matter.
- Creativity is a matter of receptiveness and recognition. This cannot happen if you’re convinced the world revolves around you.
- As our power or talents grow, we like to think that makes us special—that we live in blessed, unprecedented times.
Maintain your sobriety
- Chancellor Angela Merkel is sober, when far too many leaders are intoxicated—with ego, with power, with position. This sobriety is precisely what has made her a wildly popular three-term leader and, paradoxically, a powerful, sweeping force for freedom and peace in modern Europe.
- “Fear is a bad advisor.”
- The ego tells us we’re invincible, that we have unlimited force that will never dissipate. But that can’t be what greatness requires—energy without end?
- Yet the rest of us want to get to the top as fast as humanly possible. We have no patience for waiting. We’re high on getting high up the ranks. Once we’ve made it, we tend to think that ego and energy is the only way to stay there. It’s not.
- “DON’T BE DECEIVED BY RECOGNITION YOU HAVE GOTTEN OR THE AMOUNT OF MONEY IN YOUR BANK ACCOUNT.”
- The historian Shelby Foote observed that “power doesn’t so much corrupt; that’s too simple. It fragments, closes options, mesmerizes.” That’s what ego does. It clouds the mind precisely when it needs to be clear. Sobriety is a counterbalance, a hangover cure—or better, a prevention method.
- there certainly is an element of restraint to egoless sobriety—an elimination of the unnecessary and the destructive.
- No more obsessing about your image; treating people beneath you or above you with contempt; needing first-class trappings and the star treatment; raging, fighting, preening, performing, lording over, condescending, and marveling at your own awesomeness or self-anointed importance.
- Sobriety is the counterweight that must balance out success. Especially if things keep getting better and better.
- Most successful people are people you’ve never heard of. They want it that way.
For what often comes next, ego is the enemy ...
- Courage, for instance, lies between cowardice on one end and recklessness on the other.
- Generosity, which we all admire, must stop short of either profligacy and parsimony in order to be of any use.
- Aristotle wrote. “In each case, it is hard work to find the intermediate; for instance, not everyone, but only one who knows, finds the midpoint in a circle.”
- Endless ambition is easy; anyone can put their foot down hard on the gas. Complacency is easy too; it’s just a matter of taking that foot off the gas.
- To borrow from Aristotle again, what’s difficult is to apply the right amount of pressure, at the right time, in the right way, for the right period of time, in the right car, going in the right direction.
- We know what decisions we must make to avoid that ignominious, even pathetic end: protecting our sobriety, eschewing greed and paranoia, staying humble, retaining our sense of purpose, connecting to the larger world around us.
- The crowd roots for the underdog, and roots against the winners.
- Instead of letting power make us delusional and instead of taking what we have for granted, we’d be better to spend our time preparing for the shifts of fate that inevitably occur in life. That is, adversity, difficulty, failure.
- Reversals and regressions are as much a part of the cycle of life as anything else.
PART III - FAILURE
- Failure and adversity are relative and unique to each of us. Almost without exception, this is what life does: it takes our plans and dashes them to pieces. Sometimes once, sometimes lots of times.
- If success is ego intoxication, then failure can be a devastating ego blow—turning slips into falls and little troubles into great unravelings. If ego is often just a nasty side effect of great success, it can be fatal during failure.
- Bill Walsh says, “Almost always, your road to victory goes through a place called ‘failure.’”
- Ego loves this notion, the idea that something is “fair” or not. Psychologists call it narcissistic injury when we take personally totally indifferent and objective events. We do that when our sense of self is fragile and dependent on life going our way all the time.
- A fragile sense of self is constantly under threat.
Alive time or dead time?
- Malcolm do with this 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.
- Yes, it would feel much better in the moment to be angry, to be aggrieved, to be depressed or heartbroken. When injustice or the capriciousness of fate are inflicted on someone, the normal reaction is to yell, to fight back, to resist. You know the feeling: I don’t want this. I want __. I want it my way. This is shortsighted.
- Dead time is revived when we use it as an opportunity to do what we’ve long needed to do.
- As they say, this moment is not your life. But it is a moment in your life. How will you use it?
- That’s what so many of us do when we fail or get ourselves into trouble. Lacking the ability to examine ourselves, we reinvest our energy into exactly the patterns of behavior that caused our problems to begin with.
- In life, we all get stuck with dead time. Its occurrence isn’t in our control. Its use, on the other hand, is.
- Make use of what’s around you. Don’t let stubbornness make a bad situation worse.
The effort is enough
- In life, there will be times when we do everything right, perhaps even perfectly. Yet the results will somehow be negative: failure, disrespect, jealousy, or even a resounding yawn from the world. Depending on what motivates us, this response can be crushing. If ego holds sway, we’ll accept nothing less than full appreciation.
- We have only minimal control over the rewards for our work and effort—other people’s validation, recognition, rewards.
- the less attached we are to outcomes the better.
- Change the definition of success. “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
- Recognition and rewards—those are just extra. Rejection, that’s on them, not on us.
- Doing the work is enough.
Fight club moments
- There is hardly the space to list all the successful people who have hit rock bottom. The notion everyone experiences jarring, perspective-altering moments is almost a cliché. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
- In Greek mythology, characters often experience katabasis—or “a going down.” They’re forced to retreat, they experience a depression, or in some cases literally descend into the underworld. When they emerge, it’s with heightened knowledge and understanding.
- The bigger the ego the harder the fall.
- The Reverend William A. Sutton observed some 120 years ago that “we cannot be humble except by enduring humiliations.”
- In fact, many significant life changes come from moments in which we are thoroughly demolished, in which everything we thought we knew about the world is rendered false.
- Such a moment raises many questions: How do I make sense of this? How do I move onward and upward? Is this the bottom, or is there more to come? Someone told me my problems, so how do I fix them? How did I let this happen? How can it never happen again? A look at history finds that these events seem to be defined by three traits: They almost always came at the hands of some outside force or person. They often involved things we already knew about ourselves, but were too scared to admit. From the ruin came the opportunity for great progress and improvement.
- Ego often causes the crash and then blocks us from improving.
- The world can show you the truth, but no one can force you to accept it.
- Psychologists often say that threatened egotism is one of the most dangerous forces on earth.
- Ego makes it so hard—it’s easier to delay, to double down, to deliberately avoid seeing the changes we need to make in our lives.
- But change begins by hearing the criticism and the words of the people around you. Even if those words are mean spirited, angry, or hurtful. It means weighing them, discarding the ones that don’t matter, and reflecting on the ones you do.
Draw the line
It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character.
— Marcus Aurelius
- The problem is that when we get our identity tied up in our work, we worry that any kind of failure will then say something bad about us as a person. It’s a fear of taking responsibility, of admitting that we might have messed up. It’s the sunk cost fallacy. And so we throw good money and good life after bad and end up making everything so much worse.
- Ego kills what we love. Sometimes, it comes close to killing us too.
- Only ego thinks embarrassment or failure are more than what they are.
- Ego says we’re the immovable object, the unstoppable force. This delusion causes the problems. It meets failure and adversity with rule breaking—betting everything on some crazy scheme; doubling down on behind-the-scenes machinations or unlikely Hail Marys—even though that’s what got you to this pain point in the first place.
- He who will do anything to avoid failure will almost certainly do something worthy of a failure.
- If your reputation can’t absorb a few blows, it wasn’t worth anything in the first place.
Maintain your own scorecard
- This is characteristic of how great people think. It’s not that they find failure in every success. They just hold themselves to a standard that exceeds what society might consider to be objective success. Because of that, they don’t much care what other people think; they care whether they meet their own standards. And these standards are much, much higher than everyone else’s.
- Ego can’t see both sides of the issue. It can’t get better because it only sees the validation.
- Your potential, the absolute best you’re capable of—that’s the metric to measure yourself against.
- When you take ego out of the equation, other people’s opinions and external markers won’t matter as much.
- Holding your ego against a standard (inner or indifferent or whatever you want to call it) makes it less and less likely that excess or wrongdoing is going to be tolerated by you. Because it’s not about what you can get away with, it’s about what you should or shouldn’t do.
- The paradox of hate and bitterness – it accomplishes almost exactly the opposite of what we hope it does.
- Streisand effect (named after a similar attempt by the singer and actress Barbra Streisand, who tried to legally remove a photo of her home from the Web. Her actions backfired and far more people saw it than would have had she left the issue alone.)
- Attempting to destroy something out of hate or ego often ensures that it will be preserved and disseminated forever.
- This obsession with the past, with something that someone did or how things should have been, as much as it hurts, is ego embodied.
- In failure or adversity, it’s so easy to hate. Hate defers blame. It makes someone else responsible. It’s a distraction too; we don’t do much else when we’re busy getting revenge or investigating the wrongs that have supposedly been done to us.
For everything that comes next, ego is the enemy ...
“People learn from their failures. Seldom do they learn anything from success.”
– Harold Geneen
- training was like sweeping the floor. Just because we’ve done it once, doesn’t mean the floor is clean forever. Every day the dust comes back. Every day we must sweep.
- There’s a quote from Bismarck that says, in effect, any fool can learn from experience. The trick is to learn from other people’s experience.
Cover image source.