I’m currently reading this book by Ryan Holiday and I thought that rather than make a short summary and post it into my Finished Readings section, I’d dedicate a post to summarizing the teachings and what I found interesting within this book. As a stoic, I believe the lessons in this book are incredibly relevant today and especially to me. Similar to Holiday, I also try to take to heart the teachings of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, however, training yourself to be completely stoic is just as difficult today as it was 2000 years ago. I’m hoping that my summary of this modern rendition on the philosophy will help me better internalize it as well as be a place to occasionally refer back to. More or less, I will be simply quoting or paraphrasing snippets from the book that I find to be key takeaways.
Ryan opens with a prologue rightfully titled “The Painful Prologue” in which he gives an overview of what the audience is about to read, his painful recollections throughout his life, and his realizations that led him to write this book.
“It wasn’t so much the amount of work but the outsized role it had taken in my sense of self. I was trapped so terribly inside my own head that I was a prisoner to my own thoughts. The result was a sort of treadmill of pain and frustration, and I needed to figure out why—unless I wanted to break in an equally tragic fashion.”
This was someone who had been the symbol of success by every definition, yet, he realized that he was on a path toward implosion should he continue to allow his ego to take control. He also comments on society’s current treatment of ego and makes a simple, but powerful remark:
“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 higher goals above their desire for recognition.”
All in all, I hope that by the end of this novel, I’ll think less of myself and less invested in the story of my own significance. Interestingly, Holiday’s novel is well supplemented by the teachings of Albert Camus and his philosophy of Absurdism, which should help to absorbing this material. These quotes from the prologue are also worth mentioning before moving on to the first part of the book.
“The orator Demosthenes once said that virtue begins with understanding and is fulfilled by courage. We must begin by seeing ourselves and the world in a new way for the first time. Then we must fight to be different and fight to stay different—that’s the hard part.”
“In Aristotle’s famous Ethics, he uses the analogy of a warped piece of wood to describe human nature. In order to eliminate warping or curvature, a skilled woodworker slowly applies pressure in the opposite direction—essentially, bending it straight. Of course, a couple of thousand years later Kant snorted, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing can be made straight.” We might not ever be straight, but we can strive for straighter.”
The introduction elaborates more on the reasoning behind why “Ego is the Enemy” and cites many notable people from history. We establish that the definition of the ego as an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition. It’s that 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. It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.
“In this way, ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success. It repulses advantages and opportunities. It’s a magnet for enemies and errors. It is Scylla and Charybdis.”
“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.”
Another thought-provoking comment of our current societal trends:
“Many of history’s most famous men and women were notoriously egotistical. But so were many of its greatest failures. Far more of them, in fact. But here we are with a culture that urges us to roll the dice. To make the gamble, ignoring the stakes.”
“Now more than ever, our culture fans the flames of ego. It’s never been easier to talk, to puff ourselves up. We can brag about our goals to millions of our fans and followers—things only rock stars and cult leaders used to have. We can follow and interact with our idols on Twitter, we can read books and sites and watch TED Talks, drink from a fire hose of inspiration and validation like never before (there’s an app for that).”
Finally, Holiday closes his introduction with a simple aim to help suppress your ego early before bad habits formulate.