Ego is a key obstacle to success in any phase of life. Whether you are just setting out, sitting at the pinnacle of success, or reeling from a precipitous fall, you must subdue your ego if you wish to capitalize on your opportunities and gifts. In this Ego is the Enemy summary, we’ll outline insights by Ryan Holiday on how we can master our ego to achieve what truly matters to us. For the full details, examples and tips, do get a copy of the book, or get a detailed overview with our complete book summary bundle.
By 25 years of age, Holiday had achieved considerable career progress with all the trappings of success, from money to press coverage and influence. Then, things fell apart and he lost his reputation, businesses, wealth, promoters and admirers. As he struggled to reconcile who he was without those success symbols, he realized that his ego had been his undoing—it had deceived him, set him up to fail and kept him from rebounding from failure. In this book, Holiday shares the deep insights about ego which he has developed through his personal experience and extensive research. He hopes that the pearls of wisdom will help you to make the right decisions at the critical junctures of your life.
Why Ego is the Enemy
In the context of this book, ego refers to the belief that we’re special and better than we really are. It’s an inflated sense of self that wraps us in fantasy and blinds us to the truth about ourselves. Mastering your ego doesn’t mean denying your talents or individuality. It’s about putting aside the sense of superiority so you become connected and grounded in reality, and can be confident without being arrogant. This frees you up to focus on your inspiration or mastery, so you’ll achieve even more.
Everyone goes through 3 experiences—aspiration, success and failure—and the book explains how ego can get in the way at each phase and what you can do about it. We’ll now zoom in on 1 key idea at each phase and briefly outline the rest. You can get more details from our complete 14-page summary
Part 1: Ego and Aspiration
When you’re just starting out, your ego can be an obstacle if you think you already have what it takes and know exactly what to do. You end up focusing on appearances instead of objectively examining the situation, addressing your shortfalls and doing the hard work with humility and patience. Remember: success doesn’t come from 1 big leap, but a series of small, iterative steps. It’s ok to have a big vision so long as you take the small, concrete steps to move toward your goal.
Talk is Cheap
Big talk is no substitute for action and only hinders results. You can’t chatter and think deeply at the same time. Talking exhausts valuable time and energy which could’ve been better spent on brainstorming, planning, learning, or problem-solving.
People also use talk to escape from the difficult tasks at hand—they spend so much time talking about something that they think they’ve done the work or put in their best effort when they haven’t done anything of value. In 1934, author Upton Sinclair was running for the governor of California. He wrote a book that detailed his political exploits as the governor as if they were already accomplished. Having exhausted his inspiration on the book, he lost the election by a huge margin.
Social media only encourages us to “talk” more. It’s easier to post and tweet about how well we’re doing rather than actually do the work. We end up looking great but not getting any real results.
Silence is a mark of strength, not weakness. People who need validation will keep talking about how great they are. People who’re strong and confident will quietly do the work and let the results speak for themselves.
Other tips on managing your ego while aspiring toward your goals
In the book and our full summary, we also explain why/how you should (i) focus on substance over image, (ii) be a lifelong student, (iii) focus on purpose (not passion), (iv) be an ace apprentice, (v) maintain self-control and (vi) stop living in your head, (vii) embrace humility and (viii) keep doing the work, if you’re to make your aspirations a reality.
Part 2: Ego and Success
Once you’ve achieved some success, it’s normal to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. The danger comes when you start believing that you’re special and above the rules. Ego can make you complacent (you think you’ve “arrived”) or push you to blindly pursue more. You stop doing what brought you success in the first place. No matter how much you’ve achieved, stay anchored in your purpose, values and principles, and remain humble and disciplined.
With each success (e.g. getting promoted to a bigger role or growing your business to a new level), you’ll face new challenges. To stay successful, you must keep learning, improving and adjusting.
The higher we rise, the more we see and realize how much we don’t know. Yet, ego pushes us to pretend to know, or to confine ourselves to a niche where we won’t be challenged. Gheghis Khan was one of the greatest conquerors and military minds in history because he was a lifelong student. With each culture he conquered, he broadened his knowledge of warfare and learned ideas and technologies from smart people like astrologers, doctors, and scribes.
Learn from everyone and everything. Read up on a totally new subject, learn from both your friends and foes, and sharpen how you learn.
Other tips on managing your ego while you’re experiencing success
In the book and our full 14-page summary, we also explain why/how you should (i) focus on facts (not stories), (ii) know what truly matters (so you don’t get derailed), (iii) manage your changing roles and responsibilities, (iv) avoid the “Disease of Me” that plague successful teams/people, (v) connect with the big picture and (vi) maintain your sobriety.
Part 3: Ego and Failure
Failure (big or small) happens to everyone. There’s no point in lamenting how unfair it is. Your response to setbacks will decide your outcomes: stay strong and resilient so you can rebound and move ahead. John Kennedy Toole took his life after his manuscript for “A Confederacy of Dunces” was repeatedly rejected. His mother eventually got the book published and it won the Pulitzer Prize. The material was the same; what differed was their response.
Exploit Your Downtime
Failure can disrupt our lives and bring things to a standstill. You can use your downtime to wallow in self-pity or to improve yourself. After landing in prison at 21 years old, Malcolm X decided to use this time to self-study. His time in prison ended up paving the foundation for his future success. When Ian Fleming was put on bed rest, doctors forbade him to even use a typewriter. So, Fleming started writing with a pen and produced his well-loved fantasy Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang.
When you’re hit with failure, don’t dwell on the problems, hide from them, or plot revenge. Reflect on how your choices have led to where you are, and use what you have to turn things around.
Other tips on managing your ego when you’ve experienced failure
In the book and our full 14-page summary, we also explain why/how you can (i) do your best and release the rest, (ii) rebound from rock bottom, (iii) stop making things worse, (iv) establish your own standards (vs living by others’ standards) and (v) choose love over hate.
Other Details in “Ego is the Enemy”
This book is a compilation of many stories and citations from famous people and philosophers to show how Ego shows up in each of the 3 areas above. In this article, we’ve only given a brief outline with selected examples. Do get a copy of the book for the full details, get our Ego is the Enemy summary bundle for an overview of the various ideas and tips, or check out more resources/details at egoistheenemy.com.
Master your Ego to Achieve Greater Success and Fulfillment in Life!