How to Develop Your Success Consciousness

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Ego Is the Enemy" by Ryan Holiday. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do you achieve success? More importantly, how do you sustain the success you already have?

There is no doubt that rising to success—whatever it means for you—is hard work. Many people fail to sustain their success long-term because it often comes a boost in ego, which can sabotage all the hard work they put into it.

We will explore how this happens and how you can resist that fate and sustain success long-term.

Why Most People Fail to Sustain Success

When you have success, you’ll have different challenges than you had when you were seeking success, and you’ll need a different set of skills and knowledge. If your ego doesn’t properly navigate these new requirements, you’ll find it difficult to sustain the success that you’ve earned.

Although a person with an ego usually doesn’t even achieve success, there are a few ways in which an egotistical person can end up with success, and therefore be faced with the difficulty of maintaining that success as well as her ego: 

  • Sometimes, a person might not have a big ego when ascending to success, but she might develop one after she’s attained it. On the ascent, she might do all the right things: work diligently, help her teammates, absorb knowledge, control her emotions, and focus on her priorities. But when she’s at the top, things can change: She becomes aware of her importance, her ego swells, and she starts behaving poorly. 
  • Other times, a person might have a big ego all along but her idea or breakthrough is brilliant enough to propel her to success despite her egotistical urges. 
  • And sometimes, a person is born wealthy enough to fund ill-thought-out activities fueled by ego that would sink a person born to a lower socio-economic class. Howard Hughes is an example of such a person: Born wealthy, he squandered all of the opportunities given him and ran his inherited companies into the ground, but he had enough money to live like this for decades. 

In any case, a person who winds up with both success and an unchecked ego will most likely fail to sustain their success down the road.

Stay a Lifelong Student

Sometimes we do the right things while rising to success but our attitude changes once we’ve attained it. For example, you might understand that to become successful, you must absorb whatever knowledge and lessons you can, but once you’re successful, you start thinking your intelligence is superior and your knowledge and skills are infallible. You might also feel the need to pretend to know everything, as if to prove that you deserve your success. 

To maintain this facade, you’ll ignore new information and consequently blind yourself to challenges, threats, and points of weakness in your knowledge. Unfortunately, you can’t sustain success by by pretending weaknesses and threats don’t exist. Eventually, the issues we ignore reveal themselves and take away our gains. To prevent this fate, you must continue to learn as if you’re just starting out. 

Further, when you become successful, you need new information and skills. You may no longer need to learn the lessons that brought you success, but you’ll need to learn new lessons to sustain it, or to bring it to the next level. For example, a salesperson promoted to manager must now learn to oversee other salespeople. The chef opening her own restaurant must now learn to run both food production and customer service. 

An example of a military power that sustained its success because it prioritized continual learning was the Mongol army under Genghis Khan, who sustained its increasing empire by absorbing the technologies, political systems, arts, and innovations of each culture it invaded. The Mongols traveled with translators and demanded to consult with doctors, astrologers, scribes, and advisers in each land they conquered. For example, they adopted Turkish military strategies and Chinese technology for breaching walled cities. Further, they worked with royal families of conquered lands to maintain control where no other dynasties could. In doing so, they fused influences from all parts of the world and ended up with long-lasting influence on cultures, technologies, and political systems. 

Don’t Lose Sight of Your Priorities

When we become successful, we may be presented with opportunities that were unavailable to us previously—ones that promise additional greatness in different ways. For example, a famous actor might have the opportunity to open a themed restaurant, bringing her culinary fame as well as theatrical fame. 

When your ego tells you that you can have it all, it drives you to say yes to a hodge-podge of offers, each of which aspires to a different goal or priority. Unfortunately, if you start to pursue all these options, you end up spreading your energy and resources thinly, and you are less likely to accomplish any of your goals. 

Instead of giving in to the temptation to chase fame, money, or any other form of success that is offered to you, keep an eye on what success means to you personally and remember why you started your career in the first place. When a new opportunity comes around, pause before you accept it:

  • Ask yourself if this opportunity will divert your focus from your most important goals—will it monopolize your time, energy, and money so that your existing goals suffer?
  • Ask yourself if it will, in fact, compete with your existing goals—some goals are inherently at odds with one another, so that when you aim for one you can’t have the other. For example, imagine you rose to fame as an opera singer; you would probably not have success aiming to now be a teen idol as well.

The Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant is an example of how a successful person can end up in ruin by failing to say no to various opportunities that arise. After the war ended, Grant decided to leverage his fame as a successful military leader and enter politics. He was elected President in a landslide and served for two terms. Unfortunately, he had little experience in or talent for political life, and his administration is remembered as one of the most corrupt and least effective in U.S. history. After his presidency, he again shifted his priorities and yearned for quick riches. He invested almost his entire fortune in a Ponzi scheme and was publicly bankrupted and humiliated. He ended up using his priceless war mementos as collateral to pay off his debts. All of this was because he followed his ego in a vain quest to have more and more fame and success.

Sustain Success: Don’t Let Your Ego Trip You Up

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Ryan Holiday's "Ego Is the Enemy" at Shortform .

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

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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