Ego is the Enemy: Aspire

What do LL Cool J, Arnold Schwarzenegger, U.S. Olympians and NFL GM’s have in common?

They all like Ryan Holiday’s books.

His book, “The Obstacle is the Way,” is one of my all time favorites so, of course, I didn’t hesitate to pick up/read his latest work, “Ego is the Enemy.”

Ryan’s book explores the fact that many of us insist the main impediment to a full, successful life is the outside world.

In fact, the most common enemy lies within: our ego.

Early in our careers, it impedes learning and the cultivation of talent. With success, it can blind us to our faults and sow future problems. In failure, it magnifies each blow and makes recovery more difficult. At every stage, ego holds us back.

In an era that glorifies social media, reality TV, and other forms of shameless self-promotion, the battle against ego must be fought on many fronts.

There’s so much good stuff in this book that I’m doing something a little bit different with this review.

The book is organized into three parts: Aspire. Success. Failure.

In short the book is designed to help us be:

  • Humble in our aspirations
  • Gracious in our success
  • Resilient in our failures

What follows are my favorite excerpts, takeaways and lessons learned from the Introduction and first section (“Aspire”) of Ryan’s book.

Part II explores the second section, ‘Success‘, and Part III will focus on ‘Failure‘ and conclude the trifecta.

I hope you’ll learn something you can take with you and apply to your own life. I also hope that after being exposed to the ideas in the book, you’ll pick up a copy for yourself and explore the way your own ego may be holding you back and the strategies and tactics you can employ to conquer your own ego.



Ego is an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition. That’s the definition Ryan’s book uses. It’s the petulant child inside every person, the one that chooses getting his or her way over anything or anyone else. The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility — that’s ego.

Ego inhibits true success by preventing a direct and honest connection to the world around us.

Just one thing keeps ego around — comfort.

When we remove ego, we’re left with what is real. What replaces ego is humility, yes — but rock-hard humility and confidence. Whereas ego is artificial, this type of confidence can hold weight. Ego is stolen. Confidence is earned. 



To Whatever You Aspire, Ego is Your Enemy…

“Be slow in deliberation, but be prompt to carry out your resolves. The best thing which we have in ourselves is good judgment.” Constantly train your intellect, Isocrates told Demonicus, “for the greatest thing in the smallest compass is a sound mind in a human body.”

The Problem With Current Cultural Values Focusing on Self-Esteem:

Our cultural values try to make us dependent on validation, entitled, and ruled by our emotions.

Public figures have been almost exclusively aimed at inspiring, encouraging, and assuring us that we can do whatever we set our minds to. In reality, this makes us weak.

The Key to Consistent Improvement:

One might say that the ability to evaluate one’s own ability is the most important skill of all.

What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self- awareness.

Talk, Talk, Talk

On Talking About What We’re Going To Do, What Things Should or Could Be Like:

It’s a temptation that exists for everyone — for talk and hype to replace action.

We seek to comfort ourselves externally instead of inwardly.

It is easier to talk about writing, to do the exciting things related to art and creativity and literature, than to commit the act itself.

Silence is Not a Weakness:

Silence is strength — particularly early on in any journey. Silence is the respite of the confident and the strong.

Get Busy Working:

The only relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other.

To Be or to Do?

To be somebody or to do something. “To be or to do? Which way will you go?”

Appearances are Deceiving:

Having authority is not the same as being an authority.

Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.

Positive Virtues Often Turn Sour:

This is what the ego does. It crosses out what matters and replaces it with what doesn’t.

What is Your Purpose?

Purpose helps you answer the question “To be or do to?” quite easily.

The other “choices” wash away, as they aren’t really choices at all. They’re distractions.

It is not “Who do I want to be in life?” but “What is it that I want to accomplish in life?”

Become a Student

Keep Learning. Firm up the Fundamentals:

Despite joining his dream group (Metallica), Kirk (barely in his 20’s) insisted that he needed more instruction — that he was still a student.

On Apprenticing:

The power of being a student is not just that it is an extended period of instruction, it also places the ego and ambition in someone else’s hands.

Others are Better than You. You Have More to Learn:

Updating your appraisal of your talents in a downward direction is one of the most difficult things to do in life — but it is almost always a component of mastery.

A True Student is like a Sponge:

Absorbing what goes on around him, filtering it, latching on to what he can hold. A student is self-critical and self motivated.

The act of being an eternal student keeps men and women humble.

You Can’t Learn if You Think You Already Know:

The art of taking feedback is such a crucial skill in life, particularly harsh and critical feedback. We not only need to take this harsh feedback, but actively solicit it.

Ego Rushes:

To become what we ultimately hope to become often takes long periods of obscurity, of sitting and wrestling with some topic or paradox. Humility is what keeps us there.

There is No Excuse to Not Get Your Education:

Many of the best teachers are free.

Don’t be Passionate

Passion Has Flaws:

Your passion may be the very thing holding you back from power or influence or accomplishment.

She (Eleanor Roosevelt) wasn’t driven by passion, but by reason.

Alternatives to Passion:

In our endeavors, we will face complex problems, often in situations we’ve never faced before. What is really called for in these circumstances is clarity, deliberateness and methodological determination. (Not passion).

Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself.

The Drunkenness of Passion:

Passion typically masks a weakness, a poor substitute for discipline, for mastery, for strength and purpose and perseverance.

Passion — like our hormones — runs strongest in youth. This is just our impatience.

The Passion Paradox:

How can someone be busy and not accomplish anything? (Why are we all so damn busy?)

Passion Is For Amateurs:

Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function.

The critical work that you want to do will require your deliberation and consideration. Not passion. Not naïveté.

Follow the Canvas Strategy

The Supposed Indignities of “Serving” Someone Else:

The angry, unappreciated genius is forced to do stuff she doesn’t like, for people she doesn’t respect.

If you’re going to be the big deal you think you are going to be, isn’t this a rather trivial temporary imposition?

Make Other People Look Good:

It’s not about kissing ass. It’s not about making someone look good. It’s about providing support so that others can be good.

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

Obeisance Is The Way Forward:

Attach yourself to people and organizations who are already successful and subsume your identity into theirs and move both forward simultaneously.

Don’t Alienate Your Boss:

If you want to give your coach (boss) feedback or question a decision, you need to do it in private and self-effacingly.

Greatness comes from humble beginnings; it comes from grunt work:

It means you’re the least important person in the room — until you change that with results.

On Helping Others:

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

You’d learn a great deal by solving diverse problems. You’d develop a reputation for being indispensable. You’d have countless new relationships.

Forget Credit and “Respect”:

Make a concerted effort to trade your short-term gratification for a longer-term payoff.

Let the others take their credit on credit, while you defer and earn interest on the principal.

The Canvas Shapes the Painting:

The person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction.

[Ryan’s original blog post on The Canvas Strategy from 2008. Great read.]

Restrain Yourself

“I have observed that those who have accomplished the greatest results are those who ‘keep under the body’; are those who never grow excited or lose self-control, but are always calm, self-possessed, patient and polite. — Booker T. Washington

Sometimes You Have to Withstand Nonsense:

Are there not goals so important that we’d put up with anything to achieve them?

Our own path, whatever we aspire to, will in some ways be defined by the amount of nonsense we are willing to deal with.

It Doesn’t Matter How Talented You Are, How Great Your Connections Are, How Much Money You Have:

When you want to do something — something big and important and meaningful — you will be subjected to treatment ranging from indifference to outright sabotage. Count on it.

Ego Is The Opposite Of What You Need:

Those who have subdued their ego understand that 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:

In the meantime, you’ll have to find some way to make it suit your purposes — even if those purposes are just extra time to develop properly, to learn from others on their dime, to build your base and to establish yourself.

Get Out of Your Own Head

You Are Not Special, But Don’t Be Self-Loathing Either:

Anyone — particularly the ambitious — can fall prey to this narration, good and bad.

Live In the Present Moment:

Living clearly and presently takes courage. Don’t live in the haze of the abstract, live with the tangible and real, even if — especially if — it’s uncomfortable. Be part of what’s going on around you. Feast on it, adjust for it. There’s no one to perform for. There is just work to be done and lessons to be learned, in all that is around us.

The Danger of Early Pride

Pride Leads to Arrogance And Away From Humility And Connection:

Pride — even in real accomplishments — is a distraction.

Don’t Be Dulled By Pride:

Pride blunts the very instrument we need to own in order to succeed: our mind.

Pride Goeth Before the Fall:

If you’re doing the work and putting in the time, you won’t need to overcompensate.

Receive feedback, maintain hunger, and chart a proper course in life.

Be On Guard Against Wild Self Confidence, Self Obsession and Pride:

“The first product of self-knowledge is humility,” Flannery O’Connor once said. This is how we fight the ego, by really knowing ourselves.

Work, Work, Work

On Idea People:

“It’s not with ideas, my dear Degas, that one makes verse. It’s with words.” Or rather, with work.

Having an idea is not enough.

Cultivate a Product of Labor Instead of Just a Product Of The Mind:

Trade thinking and talking for working. “You can’t build a reputation on what you’re doing to do,” Henry Ford.

All Things Require Work:

Not work until you get your big break, not work until you make a name for yourself, but work, work, work, forever and ever.

To get where we want to go isn’t about brilliance, but continual effort.

It’s all within reach — for all of us, provided we have the constitution and humbleness to be patient and the fortitude to put in the work.

Are You Chasing Short Term Attention and Validation:

Do you love practice, the way great athletes do?

On Faking It Until You Make It:

Make it so you don’t have to fake it.

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

For Everything that comes Next, Ego is the Enemy…

“I am going to be myself, the best version of that self. I am in this for the long game, no matter how brutal it might be.”

To do, not to be.


This is just Part 1 of a three part series on Ryan’s book, “Ego is the Enemy.”

Part II: Success

Part III: Failure

Click here for my other book reviews and favorite excerpts.

This blog started primarily as a marketing blog, but now features much more about work/life, social psychology, health and happiness. We also explore top performers (authors, entrepreneurs, business leaders and more) and dissect what we can take away to become top performers in our own work and personal lives.

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