“Ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have.” — Ryan Holiday
Examining the rise and fall of some of history’s most notable names — Jackie Robinson, Ben Franklin, Alexander The Great, Howard Hughes, to name a few — the book serves as a roadmap to managing the one thing that has ruined countless careers, relationships, and lives — our own ego.
His definition is not meant in the Freudian sense, but as, “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.”
Coming off the heels of his last book, The Obstacle is The Way, (one of my favorites) Holiday again interprets core lessons from history with style and efficiency. The author allows the stories to stand on their own while presenting valuable insights that promote deeper thinking towards situations we have all experienced.
Broken down into three sections, Aspiration, Success, and Failure, Holiday demonstrates how ego can destroy us at all points in our journey. And while each chapter provides a true story and specific lesson, all roads point back to the pitfalls that come along with an unmastered ego.
Reading the book helped shine a light on where I have faltered in the past with my own ego, and of course, brought to mind a few people that I hope will give it a read.
Of the many takeaways from the book, here are three of my favorite that anyone can apply today:
PLUS / MINUS / EQUAL
In the chapter, “Become A Student” Holiday writes about a system that legendary mixed martial arts coach, Frank Shamrock used to train fighters called plus/minus/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.”
This system gives fighters “constant feedback about what they know and what they don’t know from every angle.”
This approach to learning or training is applicable in one’s pursuit of mastery in almost anything. Teaching our “minus” re-enforces what we know. Competing against an “equal” ignites challenge and staves off complacency. Our “plus” gives the opportunity learn from someone more advanced and shows us what’s possible.
Besides an effective training principle, this system keeps our ego in check. It shows our progress while still reminding us that we are not the best, and will always have more to learn.
DEAD TIME OR ALIVE TIME?
In part three of the book, Failure, Holiday writes about Malcolm X. Before Malcolm X became the legendary human rights activist he’s known as today, he was Detroit Red — a criminal that dabbled in drugs, prostitution, and armed robbery. After being arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison, Detroit Red had to make a choice — how would he spend his time behind bars?
Holiday credits Robert Greene with the concept of dead time or alive time. According to Greene, Holiday writes, “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 or Dead Time?”
Detroit Red chose alive time and became Malcolm X. He spent his prison sentence reading every book he could get his hands on. He studied history, philosophy, and even wrote out the dictionary long hand so he could learn all the words that he had never used or heard.
Our egos will try and tell us that, “this isn’t our fault,” or, “well, this is the end of my life, what’s the point in trying?” Malcolm X was a man that curved his ego into humility and turned time in prison into the ultimate opportunity of transformation and growth.
Most of us may not have a prison term hanging over our heads, but we still have a similar choice every day. Will we drift off, or focus in? Will it be mindless scrolling on our phones, or will we open that new book?
Will your free time be alive time or dead time?
In the chapter, “Meditate On The Immensity,” Holiday describes an experience the stoics called sympatheia. Defined as, “a connectedness with the cosmos,” and:
“A sense of belonging to something larger, of realizing that, ‘human thing are an infinitesimal point in the immensity’ It is in these moments that we’re not only free but drawn toward important questions: Who am I? What am I doing? What is my role in the world?”
He goes on to explain how lacking connection to anything larger than ourselves detaches us from the immensity of history and beauty of the world. And that it’s the focus on material success that often draws us away from those questions.
The search for sympatheia is the reason so many of us retreat into the wilderness in search of inspiration and fresh perspective. Finding sympatheia is a way we can silence the busyness and perpetual hustle of daily life. It reminds us, that while we are small in the universe, we are still a part of the universe and connected to everything inside it.
Our egos tell us how important we are, and blinds us to anything outside our own orbit. Sympatheia is the chance to remove ego and truly “check-in” with ourselves. It reminds us that there is always a larger picture to see. “By widening our perspective, more comes into view.”
I highly recommend Ego is The Enemy, along with the other books and articles by Ryan Holiday.
Want other book recommendations? Click here to see what’s on my shelf.