How Ego Holds Us Back
It’s normal to let success get to our heads every once in a while. I felt this way quickly into my writing life when I tasted my first crumb of earning money and praise online. I began using Medium and earned my first penny on the night of publishing my first blog. Shortly after, I wrote about a topic I was deeply interested in and it got published by a publication that messaged me previously. That earned me my first $100.
My mind was blown. How can I, this nobody, after such a short time, earn something like this so soon? Of course, my head would over-inflate!
I was to blame (not that blaming is necessary) as to why I got lazy straight after, I felt too accomplished. It took weeks to get back on track. This is why I agree that our ego is the enemy, as Ryan Holiday famously puts it. And so I wanted to explain that we can always do better to understand it—and most importantly, avoid it.
I liked the framework by Youtuber Ali Abdaal, so I’ll be using that along with personal examples to explain how we can live better by treating our ego as the enemy.
First, we start with Pupil.
The motto of this section is to ‘embrace the beginner’s mindset.’ As a new writer, I wanted to make sure that I remembered I was just a beginner. Because I was. So, it was okay to write poorly written work and not have a clue about writing for an audience. It would get better.
I studied writing and reading books, listened to podcasts and read other blogs (though I did sometimes get jealous of other beautifully written prose). I learned more about branding, styles, voices, vocabulary, how consistency and my deep interests do matter. But when success soon came in, I lost touch with that beginner mindset.
Now, I constantly tell myself that ‘the more you think you know, the less you actually know.’ I stick to treating myself as a beginner because there’s always more to learn and many holes in my ability as a writer (and as a person) to fill in and reinforce. Even if we’ve been in our field for 10 years, we’re always a beginner in some way. Everything changes, things evolve and new innovative ideas take over. “The pretence of knowledge is our most dangerous vice because it prevents us from getting any better”, says Holiday.
Next is the process.
Two key qualities in this section are focus and consistency. To do well and be continuous learners, we have to keep our goal in mind but remain focused on the journey alone. Ryan Holiday even suggests keeping your ambitions internal. I wholeheartedly agree. I always felt like I never achieved my goals because I used to talk about them too much. I got hooked on the feeling of letting everybody know where I was going in life that I somehow felt already accomplished.
Holiday says that when we share our goals and ambitions with other people, there’s a decent amount of evidence suggesting that this prevents us from achieving them. Two examples I remember are our infamous New Year Resolutions and Upton Sinclair, who quite literally wrote an entire manifesto about becoming Mayor—in the past tense, so it looked like he already did it. His motivation then dived off a cliff afterwards and he never went on to do anything he said.
When we make goals and then tell people about them, our brain loses its drive to carry them out. It’s a balancing act. Nowadays, I usually talk about my goals to a few close friends and then forget about them, to focus on the process rather than the outcome. As if I write them all down on paper, and then burn the paper.
On top of this are labels. I learned about self-fulfilling prophecy in school and how we morph into the labels given to us. But this phenomenon isn’t often the case here.
When we tell ourselves we want to ‘be’ something or someone, that’s typically ego-led. Our goals shouldn’t be about fulfilling some desired identity, these are simply ‘things’ that slow us down or worse. In a way, we should focus on ‘doing the verb rather than being the noun’ as Ali says. This was something I realised early on.
Instead of my goal being ‘I want to be a top writer,’ my goal was to write three times a week, every single week. Instead of the goal of ‘I want to be an athlete,’ I focus on training three or more times a week. The magic of the journey is shifting from a ‘being’ mindset to a ‘doing’ mindset. This is a perfect way to combat our ego. Focus on keeping your head down and doing the work, and the right things will come to you. “Be so good that you eventually ignore what you seek”.
Lastly, we have perseverance, which touches on our relationship with failure.
Success often creates our ego and pride and failure because that desire to surround perfection around our success can make us become scared of risk and worried about going wrong after achieving something great. There’s a chapter in Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy called “The effort is enough” which nails this idea because it argues that we want our barometer of success to be our effort, not the result of our effort.
Goals should be paths that are almost completely within your control. Creating art that you’re proud of is within your control and is something to aim for, as is doing exercise every day. But expecting a certain amount of people to buy your book or getting 100 people to walk into your shop every day is not something you can directly control.
The point is to be okay with it. And reward yourself for the effort every time you carry it out. We can’t let externals determine whether something was worth it or not, it’s on us. The world is always indifferent to what we want, and so if we persist in what we want and need, we will always be met with resentment or worse. The effort is enough. How much money you make or how many people follow your work are all focused on your destination. If we can focus on the journey, the process, the more ready we are to eliminate our ego and live a happier, healthy and simple life.
What I’ve Learned This Week
You Are Your Own Worst Enemy
“You yourself will always be the worst enemy you can encounter; you yourself lie in wait for yourself in caves and forests”, said Nietzsche. And this is an important point to remember. What often stands in our way is fear, which arises from our thoughts, which arises from desire, which arises from our understanding of the world, which changes through contact with reality. Change your contact with reality to change what fear is to you.
Journey Before Destination
This will likely be known as an idea popularised by Ali Abaal. But you can’t go wrong with it. Your destination centres around externals that are outside of your control. Your journey focuses on you. To be happy in life—and get anything you want—you must put the journey first.
Laziness is a motivator
Being too lazy to do something is often a great motivator. The greatest solutions and innovations are born out of laziness, by people too lazy to do a certain task. When I’m actively lazy, my best ideas for writing come out to play. My best thoughts are created and I find myself happier for it.
What’s on My Mind
Nothing can bring us peace but ourselves.
Talent sets the floor, character sets the ceiling.
— Bill Belichick
Altruism is hard to see today because every selfless action offers some kind of reward. So it can look like everyone acts purely out of their own interest. So why don’t we turn it around: selfless actions do exist, except at the same time, they are selfish actions only as there is no better feeling than that of helping others.”
“Chronic stress is a dangerous response to mental and emotional pressure. It’s often likened to that feeling of losing control over something and feeling vulnerable. But sometimes, it’s not that obvious to see. This stress is a real killer. Over time, it tends to be associated with the heart, brain and immune dysfunction some people suffer later in life, and it seemingly causes or contributes to all manners of health problems. So how do we really fix stress?”
Favourite Things This Week
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Have a wonderful week