"What's holding you back?"
I've asked hundreds of people this question and I've heard hundreds of unique reasons. The answers are a virtual laundry list of problems ranging from the terrible government to rough childhoods to horrible jobs...and just about everything in between.
It's also a question that I've asked myself hundreds of times and came up with my own unique excuses each time. My justifications ran the gamut from not coming from money to having too many freckles to a priest almost beating me up and so much more (depending on the day). And for all of that time, I was stuck in a self-defeating cycle of desolation.
But guess what I discovered? None of those things were to blame. There was (and is) only one real enemy and I live with it every minute of every day...
The 3-Letter Enemy
There's an old African proverb that says, "If there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do us no harm". So who is this enemy?
It's your EGO and if you can defeat and "tame" it, your life will change forever.
This is exactly what author Ryan Holiday walks us through in his excellent new book, aptly titled, Ego Is The Enemy. This quick read offers invaluable advice on how to overcome our worst enemy...and do our best work.
So...What's the Problem with Ego?
As I was reading Holiday's book, I found myself nodding my head in agreement time and time again. Not just because of the examples he uses but also because of how my ego has affected my own life.
"While the history books are filled with tales of obsessive, visionary geniuses who remade the world in their image with sheer, almost irrational force, I've found that if you go looking you'll find that history is also made by individuals who fought their egos at every turn, who eschewed the spotlight, and who put their highest goals above their desire for recognition. Engaging with and retelling these stories has been my method of learning and absorbing them."
I recently interviewed Holiday and asked him a question that often comes up whenever ego is discussed: "Isn't ego important?" He explained that it's not about getting rid of your ego completely (that's not possible) but it's about not letting it become too big. The definition he uses in the book is "an unhealthy belief in your own importance."
"It's that petulant child inside every person, the one that chooses getting his or her way over anything else. The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility--that's ego. It's the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent."
The Three "Stages"
It's easy to think that ego is just a problem for super successful CEOs and megalomaniac celebrities, right? After taking a quick glance at your social media feeds or after a few interactions at work and you will see this is something that affects us all.
That's why Ego Is The Enemy is broken down into different sections because "...at any given time in life, people find themselves at one of three stages." Here's a quick breakdown of each one.
When: You are setting out to do something new. The start of a great journey. A new goal, calling or beginning (first job, new business, side-hustle, writing a novel, etc).
The "Ego" Problem: You don't ask for help. You pretend to have it all "figured out". You don't want to do something "beneath you."
The Solution: Think BIG but act SMALL. Be someone who is focused on taking action and learning, and forgo validation and status.
When: You've made it! You worked hard and you're at the top of the mountain of success (or at very close to it).
The "Ego" Problem: You stop learning. You stop listening to advice (you've got it all figured out!). You focus too much on everyone else and lose a grasp on what really matters to you.
The Solution: Ask and answer this simple question: WHY DO I DO WHAT I DO? As Holiday explains, "Stare at it until you can [answer it]. Only then will you understand what matters and what doesn't."
What Is It?: You are experiencing something that everyone (even the most successful people in the world) have gone through over and over...you failed. It might have been an outright flop or perhaps your goal was harder to achieve than you thought it would be and you came up short.
The "Ego" Problem: Your ego tells you that you are a failure. It wants you to believe that you are the only one who has ever failed like this. It gently keeps repeating, "You suck. You suck."
The Solution: Understand (and know) that you are not a failure but rather, you are simply "experiencing failure".
Which leads us directly to one of my favorite takeaways from Holiday's book...
The Stockdale Paradox
When you're dealing with failure, you need to embody what's come to be known as the Stockdale Paradox. This concept is based on the philosopher soldier James Stockdale, who spent seven years in a North Vietnamese prison camp.
"On the one hand, to survive such an ordeal you must have deep faith in yourself and your ability to persevere. On the other, you must be realistic about your situation and surroundings. False hope is not your friend; like ego, it betrays you in the toughest moments."
In other words, trust in your ability to not only get through this failure and believe that you can persevere to create something even better...but be realistic about what you are facing and what needs to be done now.
So...What's In It For Me?
My "battle" with my own ego is something I fight everyday. Sometimes I win and sometimes my ego kicks my butt. But I keep fighting, regardless of which of the three stages I'm currently at in life.
"Everyday for the rest of your life you will find yourself at one of three phases: aspiration, success, failure. You will battle the ego in each of them. You will make mistakes in each of them."
At this point you might be thinking, "Ummm....that sounds like a lot of work. Why should I bother? What's in it for me?"
"We should want...to do great things. But no less impressive an accomplishment: being better people, being happier people, being balanced people, being content people, being humble and selfless people. Or better yet, all of these traits together.
And what is most obvious but most ignored is that perfecting the personal regularly leads to success as a professional, but rarely the other way around."
And that's what makes it a war worth waging...every single day.