No matter who you are or what you do, we all experience the “success trap”: the joy of success, the struggle of achievement, and the pain of failure. Ryan Holiday, a college dropout turned marketing advisor to millionaires, was no stranger to that trap. “Ego is the Enemy” are the hard-won lessons he (and others) of getting out while pursuing a life they could be proud of.
The book, Ego is the Enemy, confronts the subtle paradox that happens with success: The more we succeed, the more happiness becomes a struggle. This paradox isn’t an immediate thing. It can take some time, but it always has the same result. We end up chasing things for happiness without an end in sight. There’s always a “new thing” to acquire or possess.
In other words, Ego is the Enemy is about the “Is all of this effort worth it”? questions we ask ourselves about success.
What is Ego is the Enemy About?
Ego is the Enemy author Ryan Holiday doesn’t have a problem with the concept of success. It’s just the ego-driven way that we go about it he rails against. It’s the self-entitlement, the defensive mindsets and the self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviors we engage in while trying to be number one. In Holiday’s opinion, these kinds of thoughts (“I deserve this promotion now” or “If I can just earn X amount of money, I will be happy”) actually sabotage the very happiness that we try to achieve.
Holiday, a college dropout turned C-suite level marketing guru at the age of 19, speaks from his own experience throughout the book. Having lived a lifestyle that many can only dream about, he found the ego-driven chase for success empty. He found that as we start to rack up (or lose) points on the path to success, our ego gets trapped in the middle. We slowly start to link that sales report, that promotion or that press release to our value and worth. When the numbers aren’t good or we don’t get that promotion, we feel it personally.
Tying results (which we can’t always control) to our ego is a recipe for disaster. In an effort to keep our ego happy, we have to constantly achieve more. What happens when we fail? Ego is the Enemy hints at the solution. Instead of excessively investing in the results, why not invest in the work and then let it go? In other words, work hard because you believe it’s the right thing to do. That way, whether you receive that promotion or not, you can enjoy the “reward” of knowing you controlled the one thing in your power to control — yourself. The more you are able to do this, the less susceptible you are to traps of the ego.
Author Holiday is himself an unusual success story. A marketing consultant and business owner who dropped out of college at 18 and ended up apprenticing under best-selling author Robert Greene and serving as a director of marketing at American Apparel. Known for his unconventional marketing and PR tactics in addition to his dedication to Stoic philosophy (which is featured prominently in Ego is the Enemy), he is the current founder of Brass Check, a creative advisory firm, and Editor-at-Large for the New York Observer.
What Was Best About Ego is the Enemy?
The best part of Ego is the Enemy is the approach. To make his point about the false illusions of the ego, Holiday provides examples from mostly historical figures — Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, Benjamin Franklin and Howard Hughes. Holiday finds a unique story from each of these historical figures that teaches and offers a new perspective. His use of various figures from businessmen to warlords demonstrate that the principles he refers to are universal. This allows the readers to carry the book’s lessons into whatever endeavors they pursue.
What Could Have Been Done Differently
The downside of a book like Ego is the Enemy is that it focuses on broad principles and not on specific advice, especially on some of the paradoxes it raises. For example, the book advises a strategy (called the “canvas strategy”) of “making your boss look good” for your own success. It doesn’t, however, provide enough advice on how to strike the balance between “making the boss look good” versus “being taken advantage of”. That is an important distinction that could be made with counterexamples to the stories mentioned in the book.
Why Read Ego is the Enemy?
Ego is the Enemy is the kind of book that will resonate with almost everyone because we are all trying to achieve something, whether that is more money, more power or more attention. The book is like a quiet, but strong, voice that reminds us about the inherent dangers of ego. It could be an important message for anyone seeking career success in our highly competitive business world.