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Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday - Summary and Book Notes

Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way, has just published his treatise on ego, sure to be another cult classic.


Holiday uses examples of historical figures--both successful and unsuccessful--to examine the destructive properties of ego. Through these stories we gain a better understanding of how dangerous ego can be, and how its' suppression leads to a better life. The writing is clear and engaging. I wish the author had provided more concrete ways to fight the ego. It's a quick read but full of great ideas.

Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

If you want to challenge yourself to be better, read this book. Highly recommend.

Buy Ego is the Enemy on Amazon


Quick Summary

The following are rough notes I took while reading. These are mostly paraphrased or quoted directly from the book.

Part 1: Aspire

Ego: The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility

Ego is at the root of almost every problem and obstacle

We don't usually see this, we think something else is to blame for our problems

Pursuing great work is terrifying. ego soothes that fear (and prevents us from doing the work)

We are all aspiring, succeeding, or failing and ego is the enemy at every step

Your ego can be managed and directed

Two types of people who rise to fame:

  • those born with a belief in themselves
  • those who grow slowly based on actual achievement (more satisfying and more resilient)

Our cultural values make us dependent on validation, entitled, and ruled by our emotions. This makes us weak.

"Talent is only the starting point" -Irving Berlin. Will you make the most of it?

Practice seeing yourself with detachment, as an outside observer

It is easier to talk about your work than to commit the act itself

Too much goal visualization can be confused in your mind with actual progress

Success requires 100% of our effort and talk flitters part of that away

The only relationship between work and chatter (talking yourself up) is that one kills the other

"To be or to do? Which way will you go?" - John Boyd

Impressing people is different from being impressive

The ego replaces what matters with what doesn't

If your purpose is larger than you - everything becomes easier and more difficult. Easier because you know what you need to do. Harder because every opportunity must be evaluated: does this help me do what I have set out to do?

Not "who do I want to be?" but "What do I want to accomplish?"

Become a Student, it places ego and ambition in someone else's hands. The master becomes an ego ceiling

Evaluate your own talents downward. Pretense of knowledge prevents you from getting better

To become great and stay great, one must know what came before, what is going on now, and what comes next

A true student is self-critical and self-motivataed, always improving his understanding

You can't learn if you think you already know

You must solicit harsh feedback

With information so readily available, there is no excuse for not getting your education.

Don't be passionate. Have purpose and reason.

Unbridled enthusiasm and passion will lead you down the wrong path

Purpose is passion with bounaries. Realism is detatchment and perspective

Passion is about. Purpose is to and for

Passion is form over function. Purpose is function function function

"I'm better than (unpaid/low-paid position which is 'beneath' you)!" -- if you're going to be the big deal you think you are going to be, isn't this a rather trivial temporary imposition?

It's not about kissing ass, it's about providing support so others can be good.

Clear the path for people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself

When you are starting out:

  • you aren't as good as you think
  • you have an attitude that needs to be readjusted
  • most of what you know is wrong

Reduce your ego at the beginning of your career and absorb everything you can

Imagine if for every person you met, you thought of some way to help them

Help yourself by helping others

The person who clears the path ultimately controls it's direction

Jackie Robinson (first black major league player)- knowing what he wanted to do in baseball, it was clear what he would have to tolerate to do it. He shouldn't have had to, but he did.

Our humiliations with be hard. It will be tough to keep our self-control.

Who can afford to be jerked around by impulses?

It doesn't degrade you when others treat you poorly; it degrades them

You can't change the system until after you've made it

We tend to think ego equals confidence. in fact it can be the opposite.

Ego can paralyze us or become a wall to information we need

General George Marshall refused to keep a diary during WWII to avoid turning reflection into a grand show about himself, into self-deception

Live with the tangible and real especially if it's uncomfortable

Pride - even in real accomplishments - is a distraction and deluder

Our mind is blunted by pride

When you feel pride, ask: what am I missing or avoiding that a humble person might see?

Privately thinking you are better than others is still pride

We are still striving and strivers should be our peers, not the proud and accomplished

Don't boast.

An idea is not enough. you must do the work

It's not 10,000 hours or 20,000 hours, its a lot of continual effort

Where we put our energy decides what we'll accomplish

Bill Clinton kept track of everyone he met and would keep in touch - he had over 10,000 contacts

Fac, si facis

Make it so you don't have to fake it

Everytime you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am making an investment in myself instead of my ego

Ira Glass's Taste/Talent gap

Don't let ego comfort you in this gap and prevent you from doing the work

Part 2: Success

Without virtue and training, it is hard to bear the results of good fortune suitably - Aristotle

Ego has the same roots as alcoholism--insecurity, fear, dislike for objectivity

Success is intoxicating, yet to sustain it requires sobriety

Genghis Khan was the greatest conqueror ever because he was more open to learning than any other conqueror

It takes humility to grasp that you know less as you know more and more

No matter what you've done, always stay a student

The professional finds learning (and being shown up) enjoyable

Don't tell yourself a story

Set a high standard of performance for yourself, the winning will take care of itself

Humans love to retroactively build a story about past events, but it's dangerous and untrue.

Once you win, everyone is gunning for you. At the top is where you can afford ego the least

Resist the impulse to reverse engineer success from other people's stories

When you succeed, don't pretend that everything unfolded as we planned

Remain focused on executing with excellence

All of us waste precious life doing things we don't like because of ego

The more you accomplish the more you meet other more successful people

Each one of us has unique potential and purpose

Be what you are, and be as good as possible at it.

Think about whats truly important to you and forsake the rest

Ego rejects compromise - ego wants it all

Why do you do what you do? You need to answer this question

Illusion: I'd be happy if only I had that

With success comes dangerous delusions: entitlement, control, and paranoia

Ambition left unchecked can become hubris

Regularly remind yourself of the limits of your power and reach

Control can become paralyzing perfectionism or millions of micromanagment points

Paranoia thinks, I can't trust anyone

"He who indulges empty fears earns himself real fears" - Seneca

Urgent and important are not synonyms

The systems that got you to success won't necessarily keep you there

As you become successful, days become less about doing and more about making decisions

Responsibility requires a readjustment and then increased clarity and purpose

An innocent climb is often follow by the 'disease of Me'

Ego needs honors to be validated. confidence will focus on the task at hand regardless of external recognition.

We never earn the right to be greedy at the expense of everyone else

"Never did [General] Marshall think about himself" - President Truman

Who has time to look at a picture of himself? What's the point?

Meditate on the immensity

sympatheia-- a connectedness with the cosmos

Realize you are an infinitesimal point in the immensity

In these moments we are free and drawn toward important questions: "Who am I? What am I doing? What is my role in this world?"

Nothing draws us away from those questions like material success

Creativity is a matter of receptiveness and recognition. This cannot happen if you're convinced the world revolves around you.

Remind yourself how pointless it is to rage and fight and try to one-up those around you

Fear is a bad advisor

Be willing to compromise on everything except the principle at stake

If you want to live happy, live hidden (unfortunately that means the rest of us are deprived of good examples)

Instead of letting power make us delusional, prepare for inevitable shifts of life

Part 3: Failure

Life takes our plans and dashes them to pieces

If ego is often a nasty side effect of success, it can be fatal during failure

Life isn't fair

Whether what you're going through is your fault or your problem doesn't matter, it's yours to deal with right now.

Seek stoic resiliance

Dead time: when people are passive and waiting Alive time: when people are learning and acting and utilizing every second

Think of what you have been putting off

When we fail, what if we said: This is an oppourtunity for me

Make use of what's around you

Do your duty, that is enough

If ego holds sway, we'll accept nothing less than full appreciation

Many great people have not been rewarded for their work. Should they not have done it?

The less attached we are to outcomes the better.

You will be unappreciated. You will be sabotaged. You will experience surprising failures. Your expectations will not be met. You will lose. You will fail.

Doing the work is enough.

We all go through hell

In these moments we are forced to make eye contact with the truth

Ego often causes the crash and then blocks us from improving

The world can show you the truth but no one can force you to accept it.

Rising from the bottom is one of the most powerful perspectives in the world

Don't get your identity tied up in your work

Ego kills what we love

If you are failing have the courage to make a full stop

Say you've failed, are you going to make it worse?

The only real failure is abandoning your principles

Don't care what others think, care whether you meet you own very high standards

Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.

Evaluate yourself as an 'indifferent spectator'

Always love

Streisand effect

Best response to an attack? Love

What do you dislike? Whose name fills you with rage? Have these strong feelings really helped you accomplish anything?

Are we going to be miserable just because other people are?

Obsession with the past, something that someone did, how things should have been, is ego embodied

It's so easy to hate. Hate defers blame. Does it get us any closer to where we want to be? No.

We will experience failure

whatever happens, avoid ego

Not to aspire or seek out of ego.
To have success without ego.
To push through failure with strength, not ego.

Perfecting the personal regularly leads to success as a professional, but not the other way around

You must sweep the floor every minute of every day. And then sweep again.


Buy Ego is the Enemy on Amazon

If you liked this book, you would also enjoy these:
The Obstacle is the Way
The War of Art