If ego is the voice that tells us we're better than we really are, we can say ego inhibits true success by preventing a direct and honest connection to the world around us. One of the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous defined ego as "a conscious separation from." From what? Everything.
PART I: ASPIRE
One of Sherman's biographers summarized the man and his unique accomplishments in a remarkable passage. It is why he serves as our model in this phase of our ascent. Among men who rise to fame and leadership two types are recognizable--those who are born with a belief in themselves and those in whom it is a slow growth dependent on actual achievement. To the men of the last type their own success is a constant surprise, and its fruits the more delicious, yet to be tested cautiously with a haunting sense of doubt whether it is not all a dream. In that doubt lies true modesty, not the sham of insincere self-depreciation but the modesty of "moderation," in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose.
What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.
We will learn that though we think big, we must act and live small in order to accomplish what we seek. Because we will be action and education focused, and forgo validation and status, our ambition will not be grandiose but iterative--one foot in front of the other, learning and growing and putting in the time.
TALK, TALK, TALK
So what is scarce and rare? Silence. The ability to deliberately keep yourself out of the conversation and subsist without its validation. Silence is the respite of the confident and the strong.
Sherman had a good rule he tried to observe. "Never give reasons for you what think or do until you must. Maybe, after a while, a better reason will pop into your head."
Talk depletes us. Talking and doing fight for the same resources. Research shows that while goal visualization is important, after a certain point our mind begins to confuse it with actual progress. The same goes for verbalization.
The only relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other.
TO BE OR TO DO?
Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive. To be or to do--life is a constant roll call.
BECOME A STUDENT
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. There is a sort of ego ceiling imposed--one knows that he is not better than the "master" he apprentices under. Not even close. You defer to them, you subsume yourself. You cannot fake or bullshit them. An education can't be "hacked"; there are no shortcuts besides hacking it every single day. If you don't, they drop you.
The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the antidote.
The mixed martial arts pioneer and multi-title champion Frank Shamrock has a system he trains fighters in that he calls plus, minus, and equal. Each fighter, to become great, he said, needs to have someone better that they can learn from, someone lesser who they can teach, and someone equal that they can challenge themselves against.
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, always trying to improve his understanding so that he can move on to the next topic, the next challenge. A real student is also his own teacher and his own critic. There is no room for ego there.
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, labor to seek out the negative precisely when our friends and family and brain are telling us that we're doing great.
DON'T BE PASSIONATE
Passion typically masks a weakness. Its breathlessness and impetuousness and franticness are poor substitutes for discipline, for mastery, for strength and purpose and perseverance. You need to be able to spot this in others and in yourself, because while the origins of passion may be earnest and good, its effects are comical and then monstrous.
What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism. Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective.
Passion is about. (I am so passionate about __.) Purpose is to and for. (I must do __. I was put here to accomplish __. I am willing to endure __ for the sake of this.) Actually, purpose deemphasizes the I. Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself.
Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function.
FOLLOW THE CANVAS STRATEGY
It's not about kissing ass. It's not about making someone look good. It's about providing the support so that others can be good. The better wording for the advice is this: Find canvases for other people to paint on. Be an anteambulo. Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself.
Attach yourself to people and organizations who are already successful and subsume your identity into theirs and move both forward simultaneously. It's certainly more glamorous to pursue your own glory--though hardly as effective. Obeisance is the way forward.
There is an old saying, "Say little, do much." What we really ought to do is update and apply a version of that to our early approach. Be lesser, do more. Imagine if for every person you met, you thought of some way to help them, something you could do for them? And you looked at it in a way that entirely benefited them and not you. The cumulative effect this would have over time would be profound: You'd learn a great deal by solving diverse problems. You'd develop a reputation for being indispensable. You'd have countless new relationships. You'd have an enormous bank of favors to call upon down the road.
That's what the canvas strategy is about--helping yourself by helping others. Making a concerted effort to trade your short-term gratification for a longer-term payoff. Whereas everyone else wants to get credit and be "respected," you can forget credit. You can forget it so hard that you're glad when others get it instead of you--that was your aim, after all. Let the others take their credit on credit, while you defer and earn interest on the principal.
Maybe it's coming up with ideas to hand over to your boss.
Find people, thinkers, up-and-comers to introduce them to each other. Cross wires to create new sparks.
Find what nobody else wants to do and do it. Find inefficiencies and waste and redundancies. Identify leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas.
Produce more than everyone else and give your ideas away.
When someone doesn't reckon you with the seriousness that you'd like, the impulse is to correct them. (As we all wish to say: Do you know who I am?!) You want to remind them of what they've forgotten; your ego screams for you to indulge it. Instead, you must do nothing. Take it. Eat it until you're sick. Endure it. Quietly brush it off and work harder. Play the game. Ignore the noise; for the love of God, do not let it distract you. Restraint is a difficult skill but a critical one. You will often be tempted, you will probably even be overcome. No one is perfect with it, but try we must.
GET OUT OF YOUR OWN HEAD
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 blunts the very instrument we need to own in order to succeed: our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride. Most dangerously, this tends to happen either early in life or in the process--when we're flushed with beginner's conceit.
Receive feedback, maintain hunger, and chart a proper course in life. Pride dulls these senses. Or in other cases, it tunes up other negative parts of ourselves: sensitivity, a persecution complex, the ability to make everything about us.
"The first product of self-knowledge is humility," Flannery O'Connor once said. This is how we fight the ego, by really knowing ourselves. The question to ask, when you feel pride, then, is this: What am I missing right now that a more humble person might see?
We are still striving, and it is the strivers who should be our peers--not the proud and the accomplished. Without this understanding, pride takes our self-conception and puts it at odds with the reality of our station, which is that we still have so far to go, that there is still so much to be done.
WORK, WORK, WORK
Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuff--the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory.
So: Do we sit down, alone, and struggle with our work? Work that may or may not go anywhere, that may be discouraging or painful? Do we love work, making a living to do work, not the other way around? Do we love practice, the way great athletes do? Or do we chase short-term attention and validation--whether that's indulging in the endless search for ideas or simply the distraction of talk and chatter? Fac, si facis. (Do it if you're going to do it.)
Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing this. I am passing the marshmallow test. I am earning what my ambition burns for. I am making an investment in myself instead of in my ego. Give yourself a little credit for this choice, but not so much, because you've got to get back to the task at hand: practicing, working, improving.
PART II: SUCCESS
ALWAYS STAY A STUDENT
With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pretend that we know more than we do. To pretend we already know everything. Scientia infla (knowledge puffs up). That's the worry and the risk--thinking that we're set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process.
It is not enough only to be a student at the beginning. It is a position that one has to assume for life. Learn from everyone and everything. From the people you beat, and the people who beat you, from the people you dislike, even from your supposed enemies. At every step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn--and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again. Too often, convinced of our own intelligence, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to learn or reconsider what we know). It obscures from view various weaknesses in our understanding, until eventually it's too late to change course. This is where the silent toll is taken.
The solution is as straightforward as it is initially uncomfortable: Pick up a book on a topic you know next to nothing about. Put yourself in rooms where you're the least knowledgeable person. That uncomfortable feeling, that defensiveness that you feel when your most deeply held assumptions are challenged--what about subjecting yourself to it deliberately? Change your mind. Change your surroundings.
DON'T TELL YOURSELF A STORY
Crafting stories out of past events is a very human impulse. It's also dangerous and untrue. Writing our own narrative leads to arrogance. It turns our life into a story--and turns us into caricatures--while we still have to live it.
When we are aspiring we must resist the impulse to reverse engineer success from other people's stories. When we achieve our own, we must resist the desire to pretend that everything unfolded exactly as we'd planned. There was no grand narrative. You should remember--you were there when it happened.
WHAT'S IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Let's be clear: competitiveness is an important force in life. It's what drives the market and is behind some of mankind's most impressive accomplishments. On an individual level, however, it's absolutely critical that you know who you're competing with and why, that you have a clear sense of the space you're in. Only you know the race you're running.
According to Seneca, the Greek word euthymia is one we should think of often: it is the sense of our own path and how to stay on it without getting distracted by all the others that intersect it. In other words, it's not about beating the other guy. It's not about having more than the others. It's about being what you are, and being as good as possible at it, without succumbing to all the things that draw you away from it. It's about going where you set out to go. About accomplishing the most that you're capable of in what you choose. That's it. No more and no less. (By the way, euthymia means "tranquillity" in English.)
So why do you do what you do? That's the question you need to answer. Stare at it until you can. Only then will you understand what matters and what doesn't. Only then can you say no, can you opt out of stupid races that don't matter, or even exist.
We all occasionally find ourselves in the middle of some project or obligation and can't understand why we're there. It will take courage and faith to stop yourself. Find out why you're after what you're after. Ignore those who mess with your pace. Let them covet what you have, not the other way around. Because that's independence.
As you become 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. Such is the nature of leadership. This transition requires reevaluating and updating your identity. It requires a certain humility to put aside some of the more enjoyable or satisfying parts of your previous job. It means accepting that others might be more qualified or specialized in areas in which you considered yourself competent--or at least their time is better spent on them than yours.
BEWARE THE DISEASE OF ME
it's beginning to think that we're better, that we're special, that our problems and experiences are so incredibly different from everyone else's that no one could possibly understand. It's an attitude that has sunk far better people, teams, and causes than ours.
MEDITATE ON THE IMMENSITY
When we lack a connection to anything larger or bigger than us, it's like a piece of our soul is gone. Like we've detached ourselves from the traditions we hail from, whatever that happens to be (a craft, a sport, a brotherhood or sisterhood, a family). Ego blocks us from the beauty and history in the world. It stands in the way.
Creativity is a matter of receptiveness and recognition. This cannot happen if you're convinced the world revolves around you. By removing the ego--even temporarily--we can access what's left standing in relief. By widening our perspective, more comes into view.
We have to actively seek out this cosmic sympathy. There's the famous Blake poem that opens with "To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour." That's what we're after here. That's the transcendental experience that makes our petty ego impossible. Feel unprotected against the elements or forces or surroundings. Remind yourself how pointless it is to rage and fight and try to one-up those around you. Go and put yourself in touch with the infinite, and end your conscious separation from the world. Reconcile yourself a bit better with the realities of life. Realize how much came before you, and how only wisps of it remain. Let the feeling carry you as long as you can. Then when you start to feel better or bigger than, go and do it again.
MAINTAIN YOUR SOBRIETY
Sobriety is the counterweight that must balance out success. Especially if things keep getting better and better.
As hard as it might be to believe from what we see in the media, there actually are some successful people with modest apartments. Like Merkel, they have normal private lives with their spouses (her husband skipped her first inauguration). They lack artifice, they wear normal clothes. Most successful people are people you've never heard of. They want it that way. It keeps them sober. It helps them do their jobs.
PART III: FAILURE
When we face difficulty, particularly public difficulty (doubters, scandals, losses), our friend the ego will show its true colors. Absorbing the negative feedback, ego says: I knew you couldn't do it. Why did you ever try? It claims: This isn't worth it. This isn't fair. This is somebody else's problem. Why don't you come up with a good excuse and wash your hands of this? It tells us we shouldn't have to put up with this. It tells us that we're not the problem. That is, it adds self-injury to every injury you experience. To paraphrase Epicurus, the narcissistically inclined live in an "unwalled city." A fragile sense of self is constantly under threat. Illusions and accomplishments are not defenses, not when you've got the special sensitive antennae trained to receive (and create) the signals that challenge your precarious balancing act. It is a miserable way to live.
What both Graham and Walsh were doing was adhering to a set of internal metrics that allowed them to evaluate and gauge their progress while everyone on the outside was too distracted by supposed signs of failure or weakness. This is what guides us through difficulty.
ALIVE TIME OR DEAD TIME?
Vivre sans temps mort. (Live without wasted time.) -- PARISIAN POLITICAL SLOGAN
According to Greene, there are two types of time in our lives: dead time, when people are passive and waiting, and alive time, when people are learning and acting and utilizing every second. Every moment of failure, every moment or situation that we did not deliberately choose or control, presents this choice: Alive time. Dead time. Which will it be?
Think of what you have been putting off. Issues you declined to deal with. Systemic problems that felt too overwhelming to address. Dead time is revived when we use it as an opportunity to do what we've long needed to do. As they say, this moment is not your life. But it is a moment in your life. How will you use it?
As Booker T. Washington most famously put it, "Cast down your bucket where you are." Make use of what's around you. Don't let stubbornness make a bad situation worse.
THE EFFORT IS ENOUGH
In life, there will be times when we do everything right, perhaps even perfectly. Yet the results will somehow be negative: failure, disrespect, jealousy, or even a resounding yawn from the world. Depending on what motivates us, this response can be crushing. If ego holds sway, we'll accept nothing less than full appreciation. A dangerous attitude because when someone works on a project--whether it's a book or a business or otherwise--at a certain point, that thing leaves their hands and enters the realm of the world. It is judged, received, and acted on by other people. It stops being something he controls and it depends on them.
It's far better when doing good work is sufficient. In other words, the less attached we are to outcomes the better. When fulfilling our own standards is what fills us with pride and self-respect. When the effort--not the results, good or bad--is enough.
You will be unappreciated. You will be sabotaged. You will experience surprising failures. Your expectations will not be met. You will lose. You will fail. How do you carry on then? How do you take pride in yourself and your work? John Wooden's advice to his players says it: Change the definition of success. "Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming." "Ambition," Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, "means tying your well-being to what other people say or do… Sanity means tying it to your own actions." Do your work. Do it well. Then "let go and let God." That's all there needs to be.
FIGHT CLUB MOMENTS
In Greek mythology, characters often experience katabasis--or "a going down." They're forced to retreat, they experience a depression, or in some cases literally descend into the underworld. When they emerge, it's with heightened knowledge and understanding. Today, we'd call that hell--and on occasion we all spend some time there. We surround ourselves with bullshit. With distractions. With lies about what makes us happy and what's important. We become people we shouldn't become and engage in destructive, awful behaviors. This unhealthy and ego-derived state hardens and becomes almost permanent. Until katabasis forces us to face it. Duris dura franguntur. Hard things are broken by hard things. The bigger the ego the harder the fall.
Many significant life changes come from moments in which we are thoroughly demolished, in which everything we thought we knew about the world is rendered false. We might call these "Fight Club moments." Sometimes they are self-inflicted, sometimes inflicted on us, but whatever the cause they can be catalysts for changes we were petrified to make. Such a moment raises many questions: How do I make sense of this? How do I move onward and upward? Is this the bottom, or is there more to come? Someone told me my problems, so how do I fix them? How did I let this happen? How can it never happen again?
A look at history finds that these events seem to be defined by three traits:
They almost always came at the hands of some outside force or person.
They often involved things we already knew about ourselves, but were too scared to admit.
From the ruin came the opportunity for great progress and improvement.
Face the symptoms. Cure the disease. Ego makes it so hard--it's easier to delay, to double down, to deliberately avoid seeing the changes we need to make in our lives. But change begins by hearing the criticism and the words of the people around you. Even if those words are mean spirited, angry, or hurtful. It means weighing them, discarding the ones that don't matter, and reflecting on the ones you do.
DRAW THE LINE
Let's say you've failed and let's even say it was your fault. Shit happens and, as they say, sometimes shit happens in public. It's not fun. The questions remain: Are you going to make it worse? Or are you going to emerge from this with your dignity and character intact? Are you going to live to fight another day? Most trouble is temporary… unless you make that not so. Recovery is not grand, it's one step in front of the other. Unless your cure is more of the disease.
When we lose, we have a choice: Are we going to make this a lose-lose situation for ourselves and everyone involved? Or will it be a lose… and then win?
When success begins to slip from your fingers--for whatever reason--the response isn't to grip and claw so hard that you shatter it to pieces. It's to understand that you must work yourself back to the aspirational phase. You must get back to first principles and best practices. The only real failure is abandoning your principles.
MAINTAIN YOUR OWN SCORECARD
For us, the scoreboard can't be the only scoreboard. Warren Buffett has said the same thing, making a distinction between the inner scorecard and the external one. Your potential, the absolute best you're capable of--that's the metric to measure yourself against. Your standards are. Winning is not enough. People can get lucky and win. People can be assholes and win. Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.
This isn't necessarily fun, by the way. It can feel like self-inflicted torture sometimes. But it does force you to always keep going, and always improve.
Thus, the paradox of hate and bitterness. It accomplishes almost exactly the opposite of what we hope it does. In the Internet age, we call this the Streisand effect (named after a similar attempt by the singer and actress Barbra Streisand, who tried to legally remove a photo of her home from the Web. Her actions backfired and far more people saw it than would have had she left the issue alone.) Attempting to destroy something out of hate or ego often ensures that it will be preserved and disseminated forever.
You know what is a better response to an attack or a slight or something you don't like? Love. That's right, love. For the neighbor who won't turn down the music. For the parent that let you down. For the bureaucrat who lost your paperwork. For the group that rejects you. For the critic who attacks you. The former partner who stole your business idea. The bitch or the bastard who cheated on you. Love. Because, as the song lyrics go, "hate will get you every time." Okay, maybe love is too much to ask for whatever it is that you've had done to you. You could at the very least try to let it go. You could try to shake your head and laugh about it.
The question we must ask for ourselves is: Are we going to be miserable just because other people are?
In failure or adversity, it's so easy to hate. Hate defers blame. It makes someone else responsible. It's a distraction too; we don't do much else when we're busy getting revenge or investigating the wrongs that have supposedly been done to us. Does this get us any closer to where we want to be? No. It just keeps us where we are--or worse, arrests our development entirely. Meanwhile, love is right there. Egoless, open, positive, vulnerable, peaceful, and productive.