Reviewed in the United States on April 10, 2017
Ego is never neutral. If it is too small, you give away the farm. If it is too large, you eventually lose the farm. This superb book by Ryan Holiday, focuses on the more common affliction of the talented, ambitious and confident – an ego too large.
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. .