No matter where you are and what you’re doing, your worst enemy is always with you—your ego.
“Not me,” you think. “No one would ever call me an egomaniac.” Maybe you’ve always thought of yourself as a pretty balanced person. But for any person with ambitions, talents, drives, and potential to fulfill, ego comes with the territory. Precisely what makes us so promising as thinkers, doers, creatives, and entrepreneurs—what drives us to the top of those fields—makes us vulnerable to this darker side of our psyche.
Freud described the ego with a famous analogy—our ego was the rider on a horse, with our unconscious drives representing the animal the ego tried to direct. Modern psychologists use the word “egotist” to refer to someone who is dangerously focused on themselves, with disregard for anyone else. Each of these definitions is true enough but of little value outside a clinical setting. The ego we see most commonly goes by a more colloquial definition—an unhealthy belief in your own importance. It is, as Bill Walsh put it, “where confidence becomes arrogance.”
Most of us aren’t egomaniacs, but ego is at the root of almost every conceivable problem and obstacle we have, from why we can’t win to why we need to win all of the time—and at the expense of others.
We don’t usually see it this way. We think something else is to blame for our problems—most often, other people. We are, as the poet Lucretius put it a few thousand years ago, the proverbial “sick man ignorant of the cause of his malady.” With every ambition and goal we have—big or small—ego is there, undermining us on the very journey we’ve put everything into pursuing.
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. The second you believe in your greatness, the artist Marina Abramovic explains, that’s the death of your creative career.
Pioneering CEO Harold Geneen compared egoism to alcoholism: “The egotist does not stumble about, knocking things off his desk. He does not stammer or drool. No, instead, he becomes more and more arrogant, and some people, not knowing what is underneath such an attitude, mistake his arrogance for a sense of power and self-confidence.” You could say they start to mistake that about themselves too, not realizing the disease they’ve contracted or that they’re killing themselves with it.
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 early member of Alcoholics Anonymous defined ego as “a conscious separation from.” From what? Everything.
The ways this separation manifests itself negatively are immense: We can’t work with other people if we’ve put up walls. We can’t improve the world if we don’t understand it or ourselves. We can’t take or receive feedback if we are incapable of, or uninterested in, hearing from outside sources.
We can’t recognize opportunities—or create them— if instead of seeing what is in front of us, we live inside our own fantasy. Without an accurate accounting of our own abilities compared to those of others, what we have is not confidence but delusion. How are we supposed to reach, motivate, or lead other people if we can’t relate to their needs because we’ve lost touch with our own?
Just one thing keeps ego around—since it certainly doesn’t serve any productive purpose. It is comfort. Pursuing great work—whether in sports, art, or business— is often terrifying. Ego soothes that fear. It’s a salve to our insecurity. Replacing the rational and aware parts of our psyche with bluster and self-absorption, ego tells us what we want to hear, when we want to hear it.
But it is a short-term fix with a long-term consequence. Which is why we must fight it.
We all have goals: We want to matter. We want to be important. We want to have freedom and power to pursue our creative work. We want respect from our peers and recognition for our accomplishments. Not out of vanity or selfishness, but of an earnest desire to fulfill our personal potential.
While we hold up humility as an admirable trait, the problem is that we’re not sure it can get us to the goals above. We are petrified as the Reverend Dr. Sam Wells put it, that if we are humble, we will end up “subjugated, trodden on, embarrassed, and irrelevant.”
I’ve spent the last two years working on a book about ego, and I’ve heard some version of this paradox from many people. They would nod vigorously in agreement with me that ego was bad, that it destroyed creativity and happiness, that they knew plenty of toxic egomaniacs who had wrecked themselves. And then they would say, “But a little bit of ego is still important though, right?”
Even people who despise ego and aspire to humility, who plan to be humble once they are successful, are worried that actually enacting those beliefs would sentence them to a life of obscurity or weakness or failure.
Allow me to address that fear right now: One does not need to be an egotistical asshole to be successful. In fact, this is one of the most misleading and destructive myths in all of Western culture, right next to the idea that one must be a drug addict to be a successful musician or starving to produce great art.
The idea that only the swaggering, all-knowing, and ruthlessly ambitious succeed is a lie. One that has discouraged so many people with so much potential—and worse, encouraged many more to crash and burn.
History bears shows the truth. For every Douglas MacArthur or George McClellan, brilliant but laughably convinced of their own greatness and power, there is a George Marshall, a general who accomplished far more (far more quietly) and coveted far less credit along the way. For every Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian (who while successful are also spoiled and entitled), there is a Katharine Graham, who was born into greater wealth and did far more with it.
Ego is certainly there in many of the greatest and most dizzying tales of success—but it’s there in some of the greatest stories of failure and self-implosion as well. Howard Hughes. John DeLorean. Ty Warner. Lance Armstrong. Richard Nixon.
When creative people warn against ego, they aren’t relying on Freud’s definition or any psychiatric diagnosis. They are using the colloquial definition—referring to the dangerous inflection point where our notion of ourselves and the world grows so strong that it begins to distort the reality which surrounds us. When, as the football coach Bill Walsh explained, “self-confidence becomes arrogance, assertiveness becomes obstinacy, and self-assurance becomes reckless abandon.” It is this belief in our own greatness or specialness that can undo our creative abilities.
The reasons why ego is a career-killer instead of the killer-advantage people tell themselves it might be are two-fold:
First, the essence of creativity is a deep and continuous connection to the world around you. To product lasting and meaningful work, one must understand themselves, other people and their craft—not delusionally but intuitively. If ego is the voice that tells us we’re better than we really are, we can say ego inhibits artistic expression by preventing a direct and honest connection to the world around us. So the artist must possess a certain amount of realism because that realism is critical to great art, great writing, great design, great business, great marketing, and great leadership.
From this connection and understanding stem all the other important parts of the puzzle—for instance, we cannot reflect truth if we’re incapable of seeing any. We cannot take or receive feedback if we are too conceited to hear it or if our own reality overpowers the objective standards we need to measure ourselves against. We cannot connect with others if our attitude and approach pushes them away—or pushes us above them. We cannot recognize opportunities—or create them—if instead of seeing what is in front of us, we live inside our own fantasy. We cannot be truly confident unless we have an accurate accounting of our own abilities. And we certainly cannot relate to, reach, motivate or compel other people to follow our lead if we’re not able to grasp their deepest and often hidden human needs.
One of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous defined ego as “a conscious separation from.” From what? Everything and everyone—especially our audience. In other words, you can get too wrapped up in your own head.
In his recent exploration of what makes for bad art, Toby Little, put it well when he said, “Bad writing is almost always a love poem addressed by the self to the self.” Ego blocks us from hearing that. Even works of fantastical fiction and surrealism require not only knowledge of human nature and truth, but in the course of their execution will require the artist to receive, evaluate and integrate feedback if they hope to successfully deliver their message. A creative can’t get better or learn if they think they’re already perfect. Which is why we find that when it comes to the art itself—despite any bluster and marketing—the artist must be humble and dedicated and open.
Second, managing a creative career requires a connection to one’s audience as well as a network of relationships with managers, clients, bookers, agents, and other industry personnel. Ego makes the management of these relationships and the cultivation of this audience difficult, if not impossible over the long term. There is an almost unbelievable scene told in Zac Bissonnette’s fascinating biography of Ty Warner, the creative and marketing genius behind the billion dollar Beanie Baby empire. At the peak of the toy’s popularity, Warner decided to abruptly discontinue selling Beanie Babies to sell Beanie “Kids” instead. Everyone around him told him these new toys were ugly, that he was making an enormous mistake. Fearing his wrath, most employees stopped challenging him (and when they did he’d say “Who’s the billionaire here?”) On the eve of the launch, one trusted advisor stood up to him, predicting failure for this new product. Ty’s response: “I could put the Ty heart on manure and they’d buy it!” he told them.
Needless to say, “they” did not buy them. The same behavior that propelled Ty Warner to massive success also propelled him right through and out of it—in fact, he narrowly avoided going to jail just a few years later. John DeLorean, the brilliant engineer and car designer followed a similar trajectory. He was brilliant creatively, but no amount of brilliance could compensate for the destructiveness of his ego. It was ego and his inability to work well with others that drove him out of General Motors. His ego mired his new company in chaos and dysfunction. Ultimately, instead of being able to reflect on these failures and resolve them, he hatched a plan to save his company from insolvency with a $60 million dollar cocaine deal instead of, you know, anything but that.
When people say “But a little bit of ego is a good thing,” they’ve considered the matter only superficially. What they mean is that success requires a certain confidence, a faith in oneself—and in that they are correct. But it’s critical that we make the distinction between confidence and ego.
The mixed martial arts pioneer and UFC pioneer Frank Shamrock has observed that of the two, only confidence can bear weight. “Confidence is important,” he said, “But ego is something false. Humility is the way to build confidence, and ego is hugely dangerous in this sport, because if you’re running on ego you aren’t running on good clean emotions or cause and effect. You bypass it to support a false idea. It’s all garbage, the ego is garbage.”
Confidence is based on what is real—it is earned. Ego is based on delusion and wishful thinking—it is artifice. Confidence doesn’t alienate us from others. On the contrary, it allows us to relate to others better—because it has removed insecurity and fear from the equation. When you are confident you can be empathetic and vulnerable. Ego makes us an asshole. Confidence—as anyone who has ever stepped foot into any martial arts studio can tell you—has the opposite effect. Confidence is calm, compassionate, curious, careful. That is: it is all the things one needs to be creative.
And yet, we hold onto the vestige of the idea that ego is something worth retaining. We tell ourselves that we need a certain brashness to succeed, why? Fear. Pursuing great work—whether it is in sports or art or business—is often terrifying. Ego soothes that fear. It’s a salve to that insecurity. Replacing the rational and aware parts of our psyche with bluster and self-absorption, ego tells us what we want to hear, when we want to hear it.
It is a short term fix with a long term consequence. Because we know how those stories end.
Not happily. Not with cheering crowds but with jeering boos. And self-loathing. And disgrace. And self-implosion.
Think Lance Armstrong training for the 1999 Tour de France or Barry Bonds debating whether to walk into the BALCO clinic. We flirt with arrogance and deceit and in the process, grossly overstate the importance of winning at all costs. Everyone is juicing, the ego says to us, you should too. There’s no way to beat them without it, we think.
Which is why we must resist the impulse towards ego in our creative pursuits. We must suppress it early on so that we can learn and work and not be distracted. When we experience success, we must learn to replace the temptations of ego with humility and discipline. Finally, we must cultivate strength, fortitude and our own standards so that when fate turns, we’re not wrecked by failure.
“The future bears down upon each one of us with all the hazards of the unknown.” — Plutarch
There is no way around it: We will experience difficulty. We will feel the touch of failure. As Benjamin Franklin observed, those who “drink to the bottom of the cup must expect to meet with some of the dregs.” Or as the 49ers coach Bill Walsh says, “Almost always, your road to victory goes through a place called ‘failure.’”
All great men and women went through difficulties to get to where they are, all of them made mistakes. They found within those experiences some benefit—even if it was simply the realization that they were not infallible and that things would not always go their way. They found that self awareness was the way out and through—if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have gotten better and they wouldn’t have been able to rise again.
For us to follow their example and push through failure we can be sure of one thing we’ll want to avoid. Ego. Unless we use this moment as an opportunity to understand ourselves and our own mind better, ego will seek out failure like true north. Unless we learn, right here and right now, from our mistakes.
During times of adversity, we need to keep in mind the four principles below to help us get back up on our feet and do so without ego, which when unleashed will only make things worse.
Alive time or dead time?
According to bestselling author Robert 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.
During times of failure the ego in all of us wants to complain about how the situation sucks. How it’s unfair. How we’d rather be doing just about anything else. And it’s this attitude that creates dead time we can never get back. In this way, ego is the mortal enemy of alive time.
It’s easy to be angry, to be aggrieved, to be depressed or heartbroken. Ego says: I don’t want this. I want ______. I want it my way. But this accomplishes nothing!
Let us say, the next time we find ourselves stuck: This is an opportunity for me. I am using it for my purposes. I will not let this be dead time for me. The dead time was when we were controlled by ego.
Alive time. Dead time. Which will it be?
Focus on what you can control.
Failure and rejection can be a miserable place. How do you carry on? How do you take pride in yourself and your work?
The famous coach John Wooden’s advice to his players gives the answer: 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.”
That’s it. Your effort, doing the best, is what you can control. This is what you need to focus on.
Do your work. Do it well. Then “let go and let God.“ That’s all there needs to be. Recognition and rewards — those are just extra. Rejection, that’s on them, not on us.
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. With ego, this is not nearly sufficient — it wants recognition and validation.
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 own standards. 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.
Don’t let ego hold sway and distract you with whether or not we are getting credit and validation. It’s far better when doing good work is sufficient.
Don’t make things worse.
People make mistakes all the time. This is all perfectly fine; it’s what being an entrepreneur or a creative or even a business executive is about. We take risks. We mess up. The problem is that when we get our identity tied up in our work, we worry that any kind of failure will then say something bad about us as a person. It’s a fear of taking responsibility, of admitting that we might have messed up.
Ego asks: Why is this happening to me? How do I save this and prove to everyone I’m as great as they think? It’s the animal fear of even the slightest sign of weakness.
“Act with fortitude and honor,” Alexander Hamilton once wrote to a distraught friend in serious financial and legal trouble of the man’s own making. “If you cannot reasonably hope for a favorable extrication, do not plunge deeper. Have the courage to make a full stop.”
A full stop. It’s not that you should quit everything. It’s that a fighter who can’t tap out or a boxer who can’t recognize when it’s time to retire gets hurt. Seriously so. You have to be able to see the bigger picture. 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?
One of ego’s worst traits is the tendency to turn a minor inconvenience or insult into a massive sore. The wound festers, becomes infected, and can borderline kill us with the hatred and anger bubbling up. Hatred is ego embodied.
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.
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.
We find that what defines great leaders is that instead of hating their enemies, they feel a sort of pity and empathy for them. Think of Martin Luther King Jr., over and over again, preaching that hate was a burden and love was freedom. Love was transformational, hate was debilitating. “Hate,” he said “is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life.”
These are the behaviors and standards we need to embrace and commit to to be able to handle adversity. We will choose alive time and not let any moment go to waste. We will focus only on what we can control: exerting maximum effort at being our best selves. We will act with dignity and decorum and emerge with our character intact.
The difficulty that we are experiencing now? It is not a position we chose for ourselves, but we can push through with strength and purpose, not ego. In other words, we will not let ego turn a temporary failure into a permanent one. That’s a choice we can make.