“If success is ego intoxication, then failure can be a devastating ego blow – turning slips into falls and little troubles into great unraveling. If ego is often just a nasty side effect of great success, it can be fatal during failure.”
Some would call me an arrogant son of a bitch. Some would call me a know it all. Some would call me a big head. I always thought I was plain old me. But after my spectacular implosion in the summer of 2016, there is something stopping me making things right, doing things bravely and growing in the right direction.
And then came an electrician called Paul, who fitted a cooker for me during his Christmas break. My oven hasn’t worked properly since Ive moved in and Paul took sympathy on me and took an hour out of his winter break to come and fit it for me. A quiet and jovial man. Polite and busy in his nature. Before he left he came into my lounge and admired the shelves of books that I own. Many of them business and autobiographical books. He told me that over the last year he too had massively got into the self help genre of books because of a very painful break up.
Without me saying anything he asked what I was going through as I looked like a man who was pre-occupied and in pain. Our stories are very similar. He’s become my ‘poster boy’ in that if you want something badly enough, you will get it and be happier for it. But during this conversation he talked to me about an author that helped him in the face of stagnant personal growth and bitter pain in his life. He then asked me a question.
Is ego your enemy?
I didn’t know how to answer that question to be honest. Was it? Is it?
But it’s a key question that author and strategist Ryan Holiday explores in his book, “Ego Is The Enemy.” He shows how ego – irrational or delusional self-belief – has long been linked with success and striving for goals yet this same drive has a dark side. It’s an interesting challenge to navigate in the age of personal branding and social media.
Holiday references for managing one’s ego: it is like sweeping the floor. It’s an activity that needs to be done over and over again to maintain order.
The Canvas Strategy
“The person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas shapes the painting.”
Would you consider serving as an assistant, intern or aide to a successful person? Our popular culture is conflicted on this point. On the one hand, we have “The Devil Wears Prada” which suggests the opportunity aspect of working as an assistant. In contrast, we have the novel “The Assistants” by Camille Perri which emphasises the stress and disappointment associated with this role. There is little glory in serving as an assistant. Yet, that lack of glory and attention presents an opportunity.
Drawing on Benjamin Franklin’s early career and Roman history, Holiday shows how these relationships have provided benefits for the supposed ‘underling’ for years. As an apprentice, intern or simply a new person to the organisation, serving and clearing the way for those in charge yields benefits. First, this strategy encourages you to slow down and observe how the organisation works and what it values (e.g. risk management may be prized over innovation). Second, there is reduced personal risk in a support role so you have the opportunity to make mistakes as you learn. Finally, the canvas strategy helps to proactively avoid charges of egotism.
Career Application: If you are new graduate, apprentice or new hire, this strategy will equip you to focus on opportunity and learning rather than complaining about limitations. If you are established in your career, look for ways to serve those in higher levels.
Always Stay A Student
“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” – Epictetus, Stoic philosopher
For years, I have pursued continuing education for professional and personal growth, with varying degrees of success and failure. Holiday shows that a student mindset goes a long way toward managing ego and avoiding disaster. Taking a page from history, he argues that the attitude to learn and adapt is a key reason for the success of the Mongol empire. Holiday’s perspective is especially important if you are thinking about career change, starting your career or simply looking to avoid the pain of ego. Continuing to focus on learning is easy when you acknowledge the world’s complexity.
Career Application: There are many ways to stay a student. Observe your reactions to performance extremes (i.e. “What did that person do to become this company’s youngest executive?” or “What led to that division bearing the brunt of layoffs last year?”). Analyze somebody who has achieved success in your field using a different approach (e.g. if you became a successful project manager by mastering the details, observe how another project manager achieved success by focusing on leadership skills). Finally, take up the challenge to read in a different field.
Managing Yourself Like Eisenhower, Not DeLorean
How far does genius, skill and inspiration take you? And what is the role of discipline and organization for high performance people? Holiday contrasts U.S. President Eisenhower’s focus on prioritization and delegation ( with the apparently unfocused approach of DeLorean. As a fan of the Back To The Future movies, I had only heard of DeLorean cars in those movies I had no idea about the company’s troubled history and leadership.
In Holiday’s analysis, DeLorean comes up as a brilliant player in the automotive industry who is frustrated by the restrictions at General Motors He leaves to start his own company where he can pursue his own vision. So far, this story fits perfectly into our culture’s fascination with maverick entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, DeLorean’s poor management translated into major operational problems: “Cost per unit was massively over budget. They hadn’t secured enough dealers. They couldn’t deliver cars to the ones they had. The launch was a disaster. DeLorean Motor Company never recovered.” Genius alone was not enough. A genius inventor or designer needs leadership skills to lead a company.
Career Application: As you climb the ladder of success, develop new skills. As Holiday writes, “As you become more successful in your own field, your responsibilities may begin to change. Days become less and less about doing and more and more about making decisions… It requires a certain humility to put aside some of the more enjoyable or satisfying aspects parts of your previous job.” Shifting from an individual contributor (e.g. a software developer) to a management role (e.g. a project manager) is one of the most challenging shifts in our careers. That promotion is like entering high school or college – you’re starting at the bottom of a new ladder.
Maintain Your Own Scorecard
How you measure your success matters. If you exclusively use external measures (e.g. money earned, page views and awards), you are unlikely to be happy. Why? An exclusive scorecard ultimately depends on other people and factors that you cannot control. Instead, Holiday encourages readers to build our own scorecard.
Warren Buffet, the billionaire investor, is noted for his commitment to this approach. Of course, there ought to be some link between inner measures and outer results. If your scorecard simply tracks minutes per day spent watching paint dry, boosting that score is unlikely to lead to interesting results.
Career Application: Take note of Holiday’s observation – “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.” In the context of traditional employment, that means setting your own goals and standards apart from what an employer asks.
I’ve looked at the business aspect of this book, because this is a business blog after all, but the book itself has had some profound effects on me. Thank you Paul for introducing me to this book. Thank you Ryan for reminding me that my ego did get in the way. It did stop me reaching out when I was in trouble in 2016.
Ego was my enemy, it will never be my friend because I’ve realised we have too much to lose if we honour it.