Note: The following are excerpts from Ego Is The Enemy: The Fight to Master Our Greatest Opponent by Ryan Holiday.
Early in his career, he’d had some success. He’d gotten a good job. He was saving money. He had a few investments. Considering his father had been a drunken swindler, this was no small feat. Rockefeller was on the right track. Understandably, a sort of self-satisfaction with his accomplishments—and the trajectory he was heading in—began to seep in. In a moment of frustration, he once shouted at a bank officer who refused to lend him money, “Some day I’ll be the richest man in the world!” Let’s count Rockefeller as maybe the only man in the world to say that and then go on to become the richest man in the world. But for every one of him, there are a dozen more delusional assholes who said the exact same thing and genuinely believed it, and then came nowhere close—in part because their pride worked against them, and made other people hate them too. All of this was why Rockefeller knew he needed to rein himself in and to privately manage his ego. Night after night he asked himself, “Are you going to be a fool? Are you going to let this money puff you up?” (However small it was.) “Keep your eyes open,” he admonished himself. “Don’t lose your balance.” 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. The childlike little prince in Saint-Exupéry’s famous story makes the same observation, lamenting that “vain men never hear anything but praise.” That’s exactly why we can’t afford to have it as a translator.”
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. “The first product of self-knowledge is humility,” Flannery O’Connor once said. This is how we fight the ego, by really knowing ourselves. The question to ask, when you feel pride, then, is this: What am I missing right now that a more humble person might see? What am I avoiding, or running from, with my bluster, franticness, and embellishments? It is far better to ask and answer these questions now, with the stakes still low, than it will be later.
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. “That on which you so pride yourself will be your ruin,” Montaigne had inscribed on the beam of his ceiling. It’s a quote from the playwright Menander, and it ends with “you who think yourself to be someone.”
Here you are at the pinnacle. What have you found? Just how tough and tricky it is to manage. You thought it would get easier when you arrived; instead, it’s even harder—a different animal entirely. What you found is that you must manage yourself in order to maintain your success. The philosopher Aristotle was not unfamiliar with the worlds of ego and power and empire. His most famous pupil was Alexander the Great, and partially through Aristotle’s teachings, the young man conquered the entire known world. Alexander was brave and brilliant and often generous and wise. Still, it’s clear that he ignored Aristotle’s most important lesson—and that’s partially why he died at age thirty-two, far from home, likely killed by his own men, who had finally said, “Enough.” It’s not that he was wrong to have great ambitions. Alexander just never grasped Aristotle’s “golden mean”—that is, the middle ground. Repeatedly, Aristotle speaks of virtue and excellence as points along a spectrum. 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. Where the line—this golden mean—is can be difficult to tell, but without finding it, we risk dangerous extremes. This is why it is so hard to be excellent, 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."
We can use the golden mean to navigate our ego and our desire to achieve. 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. We must avoid what the business strategist Jim Collins terms the “undisciplined pursuit of more,” as well as the complacency that comes with plaudits. 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. If we don’t do this, the consequences can be dire. There is a line from Napoleon, who, like Alexander, died miserably. He said, “Men of great ambition have sought happiness . . . and have found fame.” What he means is that behind every goal is the drive to be happy and fulfilled—but when egotism takes hold, we lose track of our goal and end up somewhere we never intended. Emerson, in his famous essay on Napoleon, takes pains to point out that just a few years after his death, Europe was essentially exactly as it was before Napoleon began his precipitous rise. All that death, that effort, that greed, and those honors—for what? For basically nothing. Napoleon, he wrote, quickly faded away, just like the smoke from his artillery.
The economist (and philosopher) Adam Smith had a theory for how wise and good people evaluate their actions: There are two different occasions upon which we examine our own conduct, and endeavour to view it in the light in which the impartial spectator would view it: first, when we are about to act; and secondly, after we have acted. Our views are apt to be very partial in both cases; but they are apt to be most partial when it is of most importance that they should be otherwise. When we are about to act, the eagerness of passion will seldom allow us to consider what we are doing, with the candour of an indifferent person. . . When the action is over, indeed, and the passions which prompted it have subsided, we can enter more coolly into the sentiments of the indifferent spectator. This “indifferent spectator” is a sort of guide with which we can judge our behavior, as opposed to the groundless applause that society so often gives out. Not that it’s just about validation, though. Think of all the people who excuse their behavior—politicians, powerful CEOs, and the like—as “not technically illegal.” Think of the times that you’ve excused your own with “no one will know.” This is the moral gray area that our ego loves to exploit. 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. It’s a harder road at first, but one that ultimately makes us less selfish and self-absorbed. A person who judges himself based on his own standards doesn’t crave the spotlight the same way as someone who lets applause dictate success. A person who can think long term doesn’t pity herself during short-term setbacks. A person who values the team can share credit and subsume his own interests in a way that most others can’t. Reflecting on what went well or how amazing we are doesn’t get us anywhere, except maybe to where we are right now. But we want to go further, we want more, we want to continue to improve. Ego blocks that, so we subsume it and smash it with continually higher standards. Not that we are endlessly pursuing more, as if we’re racked with greed, but instead, we’re inching our way toward real improvement, with discipline rather than disposition.