Ryan Holiday’s first book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator detailed Holiday’s life as a media strategist for various authors and companies and how he managed to create news stories out of thin air, drum up word-of-mouth and drive eyes and money to the companies he worked for by leveraging the news media, blogs and the 24/7 news cycle to his advantage.
His second book Growth Hacker Marketer followed a similar theme outlining all the ways Holiday and others were able to create and build companies seemingly overnight while growing their popularity and their valuations by subverting traditional methods. Since then “growth-hacking” is all over the place and once again Holiday’s methods proved valuable both to his companies and readers alike.
However, Holidays third book, The Obstacle is the Way was a departure from the previous two. From modern-day media hype and manipulation, The Obstacle is the Way instead focussed on a millennia-old school of philosophy called Stoicism. In the book Holiday ties the practices and philosophy of stoicism to the likes of businessman John Rockefeller, NCAA Division 1 coach Nick Saban and former-MLB pitcher Tommy John.
Holiday’s newest offering Ego is the Enemy, available now, follows a similar path of The Obstacle is the Way. The book is divided into three parts:
Aspire. Success. Failure.
Weaving stories of Presidents, NFL coaches, entrepreneurs and army generals, Holiday outlines the difference between those whose ego led them astray and, therefore, to ruin and those who were able to become successful and remain so by both keeping their ego and their ambitions in check.
For ego is a wicked sister of success
In so many cases repeated throughout history, one’s ego, the very thing which allowed them to ascend to such great heights so quickly is also what ultimately leads to their failure. They become blinded by ego, set in their ways, ignorant to the opinion of others or so sure of themselves they can’t see what’s right in from of them. It can be hard or next to impossible to recognize the difference between ambition and delusion.
Think of UFC fighter Anderson Silva in 2013 in his fight against young upstart Chris Weidman. Silva had stormed into the UFC, winning his first fight in under a minute, winning the UFC Middleweight title in his second fight and successfully defending it a record 10 times in a row. Silva taunted Weidman throughout the first round, drawing boos from the crowd and ire from Weidman. Silva sometimes quite literally letting his guard down and leaving his hands at this sides. Early in the second round Weidman hit Silva with a left, Silva pretended to be hurt, then Weidman followed with a right and another left and suddenly Silva was on the ground and the fight was over.
Silva allowed his success and his ego. His inability to see past his ego and previous success caused him to overlook the fight and underestimate his opponent and unceremoniously ending his reign as the longest-serving UFC Champion.
Ego leads to envy and it rots the bones of people big and small. Ego undermines greatness by deluding its holder.
On the flip side of the coin you have Warren Buffett with a net worth of $63 billion. Who lives in the same house he bought in 1958. Who despite his massive, nearly incomprehensible wealth, still lives frugally, maintains his same investment strategy to “be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” He does not give into the hype that drives so many in the market. His success is because he operates as if he is without ego. He keeps his pride under control and constantly, consistently reaps the benefits.
These lessons are hard to ignore. The evidence to the title of the book are seen time and time again. One’s ego can very easily become their enemy. It has been the case for centuries and will continue to do so. It’s not that those who are able to overcome have less of an ego, less ambition or less pride. It’s that they are aware and capable of keeping their ego at bay. Of foregoing honour, recognition and promotions because they have no meaning but to impress others.
The ego wants more but they fight back.
As I read this book I was constantly reminded of two of my favourite movie quotes, both from westerns.
In Unforgiven as Gene Hackman’s Bill Daggett lays prone, about to be killed by Clint Eastwood’s William Munny after he and his deputies lost a gunfight to Munny, the following exchange occurs:
Daggett: I don’t deserve this… to die like this. I was building a house.
Munny: Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
Then Munny pulls the trigger.
This wasn’t how Daggett pictured it. He had been a Sherriff for some time now, a renowned fighter and he was set to retire to his new house. This was not how life was supposed to go. And, yet, here he was about to be on the losing end of a fight he felt never should have been in in the first place.
What he felt he earned or deserved, it did not matter.
The second quote is from No Country for Old Men:
You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you … that’s vanity.
The lesson in both cases is that life is indifferent to us. We are all mortal. It does not matter what we have done or been through before, life does not care. Vanity and ego and “deserve” can cloud all this. Believing the hype. Giving into the narrative fallacy. Expecting each decision to benefit us as the last has. These are all driven by ego and life will soon show us the error in our ways.
Ambition is a dangerous thing. Like running or exercising, we begin with a goal in mind and then, soon enough the same distance or the same weight isn’t enough. We need more to get the same stimulation and satisfaction. So it is with success and money. When we get to where we think we want to be, we are not satisfied as we expected to be. We need more and more.
While Holiday’s book is shorter than most, coming in at 216 pages, but it’s as long as it needs to be. In The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday uses stoicism as a practical philosophy and school of thought for working through the problems and hardships we come across in life. The resolution to Ego is the Enemy is purposefully made less clear. There is no tried or true method of taming one’s ego. Of balancing ambition with humility. The book has been written as much for the author as for the audience. Holiday shows us time and time again the historical evidence of dealing with the ugly side of one’s ego. It is something must be practiced and cared for every day.
It’s not an enemy that will be defeated and permanently vanquished. It will rear its head and we must be ready to fight back day in and day out.