What exactly is an ego? How does having an inflated ego distort your perception of yourself and others?
According to Ryan Holiday, the author of Ego Is the Enemy, ego is an unhealthy belief in one’s own importance that distorts our perception of the world so that we see ourselves as central figures and see everyone else as either subservient or oppositional. Further, he argues that seeing the world this way causes a host of adverse consequences such as difficulty accomplishing things (because ego causes us to overestimate our abilities) and connecting with people.
In this article, we’ll discuss Holiday’s advice on how to let go of ego.
Ryan Holiday on Ego
Many successful people are famously egotistical—ambitious, self-important, and caught up in their own vision of the world. He says that as a result, society tends to think that ego is an important ingredient in success, as if ego leads to accomplishment. According to Holiday, this is not the case. He believes that ego leads far more often to failure, and that people find success only when they’re able to control their egotistical impulses.
Holiday argues that overall, ego leads us to failure because it causes us to overestimate our own skills while underestimating threats and challenges. It also prevents us from effectively connecting with people, which limits our ability to lead them or to inspire them to help us. Further, it can lead to a host of adverse characteristics, such as addiction, depression, mania, and abuse, which can destroy a person’s career (and life). He emphasizes that you don’t need to be a full-blown “egomaniac” (a person completely obsessed with themselves) to suffer the effects of ego, but that even slightly elevated levels of ego can hold you back from success and create difficulties in your life.
|Holiday’s Definition of Ego|
Holiday uses the term “ego” in the way it’s come to be known in our general popular culture and not as psychiatrists define the term.
Psychiatrists define the term as one of three pieces of the human psyche: the id, the superego, and the ego. The id is the impulsive part of us that responds to basic desires, fears, and urges. The superego is the opposite of the id—it counters the id’s urges with morals and societal expectations. The ego is the part in the middle. It evaluates the input from the id and the superego and makes our decisions.
Psychiatrists consider a healthy psyche as one where the ego is firmly in control of both the id and the superego, so that a person is not ruled by either too many primitive impulses (from the id) or too many rules (from the superego, which leads to compulsive disorders).
In contrast, Holiday uses the term “ego” to mean the part of our psyche that is always and only looking out for ourselves—the part that is driven by primitive instincts of “me first” and is influenced by fears and desires. His use of the term corresponds most closely with the psychiatric term “id.” Therefore, while he argues that the ego should not drive our decisions, psychiatrists would say the ego should drive our decisions. However, the difference between the two arguments is only a difference in language. Both theories say that we should not let the more primitive, instinct-driven part of our psyche control our thoughts and actions.
In the book, Holiday gives three pointers on how to let go of ego:
- Stop talking about yourself.
- Stop thinking about yourself.
- Stop being prideful.
Stop Talking About Yourself
Holiday notes that ego often drives people to talk about and promote themselves. We see this kind of egotistical “talk” every day, as people post their thoughts, activities, and interactions with other people all over social media.
Holiday warns that this type of self-promoting talk can prevent you from achieving the very things you’re bragging about because talk replaces action, and action is what’s actually going to make you successful. Self-promoting talk keeps us from our goals by:
- Monopolizing our time: When you talk about working toward something instead of actually working toward it, you rob your goals of the time needed to achieve them. (Shortform note: Business experts recognize time management as one of the most crucial for success. In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey recommends figuring out which tasks will lead to your goal and eliminating any others from your daily schedule.)
- Sapping our psychological energy: When you promote yourself, you engage in a type of positive visualization, which can make you feel like you’ve accomplished what you’re envisioning even though you haven’t made any concrete progress. (Shortform note: Research backs up Holiday’s claims. When test subjects visualize positive outcomes from a project, they lose enthusiasm for that project, working on it less and abandoning it quicker.)
- Preventing the silence needed for productive reflection: To properly struggle with a task, you must pause and focus your attention on that task completely. When you fill that silence with self-promoting talk, you rob yourself of the chance to focus. (Shortform note: Brain scans show that meditation measurably increases focus. Holiday doesn’t address meditation but the underlying theory is the same: Allowing for silence and freedom from distractions improves your focus.)
- Preventing the silence needed for productive reflection
|The Stoic View on Self-Interest and Self-Promotion|
Holiday bases his theories on Stoic philosophies, many of which were originally outlined in the letters of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (collected as Meditations). Aurelius argues:
Fame has no value because it’s just people knowing about you, and when those people who know about you die, your fame fades away and nothing meaningful is left. In the meantime, all fame does is make you feel better about yourself—again, creating nothing of value. Material wealth has no value because materials can’t reach your soul—only characteristics like courage and discipline touch your soul.
Overall, Stoicism encourages you to be emotionally indifferent to the trappings of success like wealth, power, and fame. Therefore, some people argue that Stoicism doesn’t allow for the pursuit of things like wealth and fame, as these are emotion-driven desires, and it discourages self-promotion, as this is part of chasing the trappings of success.
However, Holiday approaches Stoicism as a means to an end. He believes, as many other Stoic thinkers believe, that the purpose of Stoicism is to help people live great lives through wisdom, and that Stoic philosophy doesn’t forbid personal gain as long as those gains don’t interfere with living an ethical life—or even better, as long as the gains help promote ethical living.
For example, if your ethical life involved becoming the CEO of an organization that makes a positive contribution to society, Stoics would argue that it is acceptable for you to chase that position even though it furthers your own self-interest because it also is part of living an ethical life.
Therefore, Holiday seems to believe that Stoic ideals allow for people to desire things like wealth and fame as long as these are not overpowering desires. After all, many followers of Stoicism have risen to great heights of wealth and fame (including, of course, its most famous follower, Marcus Aurelius), and much of Holiday’s own success has come about because of self-promotion. Overall, then, while Holiday advocates tempering your ego in order to find success, he doesn’t advocate swearing off success, or the things that come with it, completely.
2. Stop Thinking About Yourself
In addition to not talking about yourself, Holiday urges you to not think about yourself either. He cautions that ego can prompt self-aggrandizing thoughts, leading you to spend more time thinking about what you’ll do with success than on how you’ll achieve it. Holiday outlines three ways that egotistical thoughts can paralyze you:
- They shift your focus from your task to your “greatness.” When you’re convinced of your own greatness, you’re more concerned with defending that image than completing your task.
- They stop you from taking action out of a fear that your plan must first be perfect. When you have an inflated sense of self-importance, you might be reluctant to embark on a course of action that doesn’t live up to the standards you envision for yourself.
- They erect a barrier between you and reality. Convinced of your own superiority, you might ignore facts or be consumed by imagined threats (such as nonexistent conspiracies).
3. Stop Being Prideful
Holiday draws a connection between ego and pride. He points to pride as a particular problem because it interferes with your perception of reality. Pride inflates accomplishments so that you feel like you’re winning when you’re in fact only temporarily ahead. Because of this, pride is a type of fraud—it’s your ego lying to you about your situation. When you can’t see the world clearly because you’re blinded by a prideful vision of yourself, you again can’t effectively interact with the world and achieve success.
Successful people are those who learn to control their pride. For example, industrial tycoon John D. Rockefeller made a habit of reminding himself every night that just because he was off to a good start didn’t mean he was truly successful. He would challenge himself to not lose balance and to not be a fool, lest he lose his head—and then his fortune.
(Shortform note: Here, Holiday references a wealthy, powerful person (J.D. Rockefeller) as an example of someone with a Stoic mindset. If you interpret Stoic philosophy as the rejection of material wants, this might seem counterintuitive. However, Holiday’s overall point is that Stoic ideas are tools to help you manage your thoughts and behaviors so that your ego doesn’t sabotage your success—he isn’t advising that you renounce all desire for worldly goods, but rather, that you don’t let those desires consume you.)
|Pride Drives Poor Decisions|
There are many ways in which pride can blind you to reality and prompt you to make poor decisions and end up losing money. In his book A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Burton Malkiel argues that pride is a common reason that investors make mistakes. For example, a trader might be proud if one of their stocks rises significantly in value and might decide to cash in that stock because they want to boast about such a good win. However, if doing so would incur capital gains taxes, then selling it might be a poor financial decision.
Malkiel also explores how pride blinds investors to reality by making them overconfident. This leads them to make mistakes like trading too frequently—investors who believe they can “beat the market” tend to trade more often and end up worse off because of it—and overvaluing stock that they’ve personally invested in, because they can’t see the possibility that they bet wrong.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Ego Is the Enemy summary:
- How to resist your emotions so you can keep thinking clearly
- Why your passion may be preventing you from achieving your goals
- How to apply the philosophy of Stoicism for success as a leader