Triumphing Over Ego: Ryan Holiday on Passion & the Importance of Remaining a Student

ego is enemyWhat is ego?  According to Freud, groundbreaking progenitor of psychoanalysis, the ego is the part of the mind that mediates between the primitive hungers of the unconscious and the demands of external reality.  Ego is “I”- the wellspring of the self.  For others, ego is the source of individuality and innovation and, thus, of all human achievement.  For still others, ego is arrogance, a grandiose sense of one’s own importance that inevitably leads the extraordinary to their doom.  A defeated Napoleon retreating from a war-torn Moscow, his enormous army of 500,000 diminished to a mere 100,000 men.  A reckless, overconfident Icarus ignoring his father Daedalus’s warnings and flying too close to the sun.  An ambitious scientist so hungry to unlock the mysteries of nature that he oversteps the proper bounds of human knowledge and creates a monster.  History abounds with stories of such figures, proud men whose hubris precipitated their fateful end.  

It is the peril of ego that marketing genius and sage stoic disciple Ryan Holiday contemplates in Ego is the Enemyhis instructive handbook to being “humble in your aspirations, resilient in your failures and gracious in your success.”  A tour guide through the millennia, Holiday recounts the stories of remarkable men and women who transformed industries, revolutionized art forms, and won world wars by triumphing over the yearnings of what astrologer and spiritual guru Tosha Silver calls the “small self.”  

If you’re ambitious like me, when pondering ego, one question inevitably asserts itself: who are we if we’re not our “small selves”?  isn’t the “small self” behind history’s greatest achievements?  haven’t the most cutting edge visionaries, the most enterprising entrepreneurs been those very people who had “big” dreams?  whose faith in their capacity to do the impossible was so unwavering as to seem deranged?  This is where Holiday makes a crucial distinction: ambition, he clarifies, is often admirable; after all, where would mankind be without pride, determination, yearning, and something for which to aim?  There would be no advancement, no betterment, no change.  Not to mention the fact that longing for something instills life with meaning and purpose.  It is only when desire teeters on the edge of obsession, when self-confidence tumbles into arrogance, and when self-love metamorphoses into narcissism, its hideously conceited twin, that ego deludes us into believing the myth of our own importance and becomes dangerous:

“[the ego is] 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.  It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.

It’s when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us.”

The sagest of philosophers concur that the mark of true wisdom is an appreciation of one’s own ignorance.  “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing,” Socrates once said.  Though ego is often thought of as the architect behind all human accomplishment, nothing poses more of a stumbling block to genuine mastery of a domain than an exaggerated sense of self-worth.  Why seek out the tutelage of an expert in your field or practice for several hours a day if you’re already a virtuoso?  Ego assures us there’s nothing more to learn: we’re already talented/intelligent/skilled enough.  It is this cocky bigheadedness, this smug belief in our own superiority that sabotages our ability to improve.  As Epictetus so wisely noted, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he already knows.”  Only when we possess an earnest sense of humility can we admit a lack of knowledge- the essential first step to real growth.  It is those humble few who are willing to be eternal students and enroll in the endlessly enlightening school of life that end up making the most significant contributions to their fields.

To illustrate the life-altering power of remaining a student, Holiday recalls the story of Kirk Hammett, lead guitarist of 80s megastar band Metallica.  Rather than revel in the glory of having “arrived” after being asked to join the up and coming thrash metal group, Hammett decided to seek out the instruction of Joe Satriani, legendary guitar maestro.  The result?  By being humble enough to recognize he still had more to learn, Hammett was able to develop the distinctive style that would land him the #11 spot on Rolling Stone’s distinguished list of 100 greatest guitarists and catapult Metallica into superstardom:

“In April in the early 1980s, a single day became one guitarist’s nightmare and became another’s dream, and dream job.  Without notice, members of the underground metal band Metallica assembled before a planned recording session in a decrepit warehouse in New York and informed their guitarist Dave Mustaine he was being thrown out of the group.  With few words, they handed him a bus ticket back to San Francisco. 

The same day, a decent young guitarist, Kirk Hammett, barely in his twenties and a member of a band called Exodus, was given the job.  Thrown right into a new life, he performed his first show with the band a few days later.

One would assume that this was the moment Hammett had been waiting for his whole life.  Indeed it was.  Though only known in small circles at the time, Metallica was a band that seemed destined to go places.  Their music had already begun to push the boundaries of the genre of thrash metal, and cult stardom had already begun.  Within a few short years, it would be one of the biggest bands in the world, eventually selling more than 100 million albums.

It was around this time that Kirk came to what must have been a humbling realization-that despite years of playing and being invited to join Metallica, he wasn’t as good as he’d like to be.  At his home in San Francisco, he looked for a guitar teacher.  In other words, despite joining his dream group and literally turning professional, Kirk insisted that he needed more instruction- that he was still a student

Think about what Hammett could have done- what we might have done in his position were we to suddenly find ourselves a rock star, or soon-to-be rock star in our chosen field.  The temptation is to think: I’ve made it.  I’ve arrived.  They tossed the other guy out because he’s not as good as I am.  They chose me because I have what it takes.  Had he done that, we’d probably have never heard of him or the band.  There are, after all, plenty of forgotten metal groups from the 1980s.”

It’s easy to be students when we’re novices in our fields, when it’s so undeniably apparent that we know nothing, but the key to gaining true mastery and making a noteworthy contribution is remaining a student- even after we turn pro.  As we rise to the top of our professions and garner the esteem of the most prominent members of our domains, the tendency is to become complacent: we choose the harbor of the familiar over the expedition to the unknown.  Strengthening our command of a skill, deepening our expertise: all require we be vulnerable enough to risk looking like an imbecile.  But if we’re too egotistical, our very worth as a human being depends on being better than, recognized for.  Because we find being “less than” intolerable, we refrain from the very risks that would stretch our abilities and help us improve.  Like learning to ride a bike, it’s only the unflinching child who’s willing to stumble who ever parts with his training wheels:

“It is not enough 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 an 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.  

Each of us faces a threat as we pursue our craft.  Like sirens on the rocks, ego sings a soothing, validating song- which can lead to a wreck.  The second we let the ego tell us we have graduated, learning grinds to a halt.  That’s why Frank Shamrock said, ‘Always stay a student.’  As in, it never ends.” 

ryan holiday

As a lifelong proponent of passion, I’ve always cherished the idea that irrepressible vehemence for one’s vocation is what separated the exceptional from the mediocre.  It was when preoccupation verged on obsession, when zeal crossed the line into zealotry that- I thought- ordinary men became extraordinary.  However, throughout the ages, hysterical, irrational passion is what has led countless remarkable men to their doom.  Romeo is the quintessential example.  Enamored of the stunning Juliet, Romeo mistakes youthful infatuation for true love and allows his passion to interfere with his ability to make sound decisions.  Rash and foolhardy, Romeo marries a 14-year-old he barely knows, brutally murders her cousin, gets banished, and kills himself- all in a span of less than four days.  Had he taken the time to carefully consider any one of these decisions, his life (and Juliet’s) might have been spared.  

Though today Romeo & Juliet is seen as the pinnacle of romance (or, for teenage boys forced to read it against their will, as a syrupy, sentimental piece of 17th century chick lit), Shakespeare actually intended for these star-crossed lovers to warn against passion’s exhilarating- but intoxicating- effects.  Like a heady liqueur, passion entrances and elates- but ultimately hinders our capacity to make sober judgements:

Because we only seem to hear about the passion of successful people, we forget that failures shared the same trait.  We don’t conceive of the consequences until we look at their trajectory.  With the Segway, the inventor and investors wrongly assumed a much greater demand than ever existed.  With the run-up to the war in Iraq, its proponents ignored objections and negative feedback because they conflicted with what they so deeply needed to believe.  The tragic end to the Into the Wild story is the result of youthful naiveté and a lack of preparation.  With Robert Falcon Scott, it was overconfidence and zeal without consideration of real dangers.  We imagine Napoleon was brimming with passion as he contemplated the invasion of Russia and only finally became free of it as he limped home with a fraction of the men he’d so confidently left with.  In many more examples we see the mistakes of over investing, underinvesting, acting before someone is really ready, breaking things that required delicacy- not so much malice as the drunkenness of passion.”  

So why does our cultural admiration of passion persist- despite evidence that fervor unfettered usually leads to catastrophe?  For one, passion is glamourous.  It’s exciting to write a 20-page letter confessing your love to a long-time crush at 3 in the morning; it’s exciting to risk your life savings on a business idea.  More moderate, reserved qualities- caution, prudence, pragmatism- are depicted as disgraceful signs of cowardice- or worse, harbingers of failure.  But those who attain real, lasting success embody these very traits.  Rather than be rushed headlong by passion or naiveté, rather than let their desire to accomplish a particular goal persuade them to overestimate its feasibility, successful people weigh the pros and cons of their decisions and rationally consider their consequences- in other words, behave responsibly.  Does this mean they refuse to be daring, that they tremble at the thought of taking daunting risks?  No, they just don’t act hastily:

“What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism.  Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries.  Realism is detachment and perspective.”

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