Egotism and its pitfalls -
"trumped up ideas of how important we are"
Lynne Malcolm: Hi, it's the All in the Mind podcast, I'm Lynne Malcolm. Today, our trumped up ideas of how important we are.
Donald Trump: I am officially running…
And everybody takes me very seriously.
…for president of the United States!
It's because of my genes, okay?
I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created.
I don't think I've had big failures.
Donald Trump has always been very, very successful.
I feel very confident. I went to the Wharton School of Finance, I was a good student. It's like one of the hardest schools in the world to get into.
And everybody takes me very seriously.
Ryan Holiday: I think ego when we're successful is probably the most recognisable form. That's the delusions, that absolute power corrupts absolutely, this is where the greed and the paranoia and all these traits come into effect. And we end up risking the very thing that we have just built.
Lynne Malcolm: Ryan Holiday, author and media strategist from the United States. Although he dropped out of college at the age of 19 he quickly became a successful writer and thinker, and found himself in high ranking positions at some of the top companies in the United States, including the marketing director of American Apparel. Now 29, he's at the New York Observer. In the process of his career though, he's come to some profound realisations about the pitfalls of getting carried away with your own sense of self-importance.
Ryan Holiday: I don't want to say that I was promoted above my level but I was quickly thrown in at a very high level with a bunch of incredibly talented people, and you sort of have to learn on the job. And then you have a lot of responsibility in a position like that, and you realise what a razor's edge you are on in terms of if this goes to your head, if you get complacent even for a second, the margin of error there is so small, and the stakes are so high that it sort of forces you to focus, it forces you to get very good very quickly. I learned how to become the director of marketing at a company when I was promoted to be the director of marketing, and it was this extraordinary experience.
But I had this thought all the time in all these positions which was that plenty of people have gotten up to this point but they didn't go any further. And so I was very curious as to what would prevent one from going further, what did I need to be worried about, what did I need to not do, what sort of skills were required to continue. I guess I found that ego or hubris or even a sense that I had 'it' was the way to lose it. So if you get an attitude, if you stop doing what they want you to do, if you start to think that you are better than other people, that's the second that you get knocked off that perch. So I was always very conscious that they were not choosing me or paying me because of how good I was right now but how good I could potentially be. But of course being conscious of your ego and attempting not to fall prey to it is very different to actually doing that in practice. I think we all think we are acting rationally but of course ego is sort of there in the background, maybe tweaking and changing how we see things.
Lynne Malcolm: Ryan Holiday's most recent book is called Ego is the Enemy. It's a philosophical exploration of the difficulties that ego can pose for us in all phases of our lives. And when he talks about ego, he doesn't mean it in the Freudian sense.
Ryan Holiday: No, frankly I probably couldn't give you the Freudian definition if you asked me, it's above my pay grade. When I talk about ego I'm doing it in the colloquial sense, I want to refer to a group of traits, arrogance, overconfidence, delusion, selfishness, self-absorption, ruthlessness, competitiveness. There's a famous Supreme Court case in the United States about pornography, and the ruling was, look, I don't know what the definition of pornography is but I know it when I see it. And I think that's sort of my definition of ego as well. And I think most people have that sense of what it is, provided you don't over-think it.
Lynne Malcolm: Is it similar to a concept of narcissism? There's a sense that our society is becoming more narcissistic. Is that the way you see it?
Ryan Holiday: I do think there's an overlap. Again, ego and narcissism, these are also psychiatric definitions, and I don't want to overstep my bounds in terms of what I'm qualified to talk about. But having worked with a lot of very successful people in a variety of fields, and of course been somewhat successful my own life, I know ego when I see it. And so I'm talking about when there's this sort of haze between you and the rest of the world, you're not seeing things clearly, you're not seeing them objectively, you're seeing them through this filter of what you think is true. If you want to see the embodiment of ego, it's what must the world look like through the eyes of a Donald Trump or a Kanye West. They are obviously very talented and they are very confident in that talent, but beyond that is this sort of wilful ability to create their own reality. They said Steve Jobs had this too, a sort of reality distortion field, that's the kind of ego that I'm talking about.
Lynne Malcolm: You say at the beginning of the book that you hope that the reader will think less of themselves at the end. Why is that?
Ryan Holiday: Well, it certainly wasn't to sell books. Maybe the worst thing you could say in a self-help book is that I want you to think less of yourself. But my contention was that most of the people who are going to be picking up a business book or picking up a book like this, they are already talented, they are already ambitious, they've already accomplished something, even if it's just thinking like, hey, I can improve myself by reading. That is not a trait that everyone shares.
And so instead of telling them maybe what they wanted to hear or telling them what they would like to hear, I wanted to focus on what I think we all need to hear which is that we are not the centre of the universe, the sun does not rise and set on our wishes and dreams, and that the best way over the long term to be successful is to not so much focus on our goals or on our success but on doing the work.
Lynne Malcolm: So you say that we are all at one of three stages in relation to ego. There's aspire, success and failure. Let's start in the aspire phase. How does ego interfere?
Ryan Holiday: So my contention is that we are all at one of these three phases in life. We are somewhat fluid between them. So when we are young we are aspiring to do something, maybe we achieve some success, and then perhaps we aspire to greater success or perhaps we fail along the way and we need to start over. So it's this sort of fluid process. But the ego of a 17-year-old is going to be toxic but profoundly different from the ego of a 40-year-old billionaire. So what I wanted to focus on is the ego when we are setting out to do something, we have some ambitious goal. And I think ego manifests itself most of all in a sense of overconfidence, because we don't know how hard the thing we are trying to do is, we are overconfident about it. We think we know more than we do.
There's a wonderful quote from the stoic philosopher, Epictetus, who says, you know, one cannot learn that which they think they already know. And so what one must do when they are starting out is suppressed that ego, to take up the student mindset I talk about. The heavy metal guitarist Kirk Hammett has chosen to be the band Metallica, and the first thing he does is not buy a mansion or a car, he gets a new guitar teacher who turns out to be Joe Satriani, one of the greatest heavy metal guitarists of all time as well. But he is attaching…precisely the moment he turns professional, he is attaching himself to a master teacher so he can continue to learn. I think that's the opposite of what a lot of us do. It's like, oh, I've been accepted to Harvard, oh, I just got this internship at a Google, I've made it. When in fact the journey is really just beginning.
And so when we are starting out, what ego is doing is selling ourselves short, it is cutting off the educational process to soon, and I think that is profoundly dangerous. It's precisely when we are starting out that we need the most feedback, that we have the most left to learn. And if we cut ourselves off from that we are…in a way we are right because we are not going to learn anything else.
Lynne Malcolm: So once we get to the success phase, how does ego play into that?
Ryan Holiday: I think ego when we are successful is probably the most recognisable form. That's the delusions, absolute power corrupts absolutely, this is where the greed and the paranoia and all these traits come into effect. And we end up risking the very thing that we have just built. You look at someone like Richard Nixon, the US President, he is the most powerful man in the world and all he can focus on is recording these conversations, he is breaking in to his opposition's headquarters, he's lying about it. It's as if he forgot what his actual job was and he forgot that he won most of all. I think you see this with ego a lot. It takes things so far past the point of reasonable utility because it was never really based on utility to begin with. It was based on filling some hole inside oneself.
We saw this with Donald Trump now here in the US. People thought, okay, he has run this controversial campaign, he has said these ridiculous things, he has offended a lot of people. But now that he has won he is just going to pivot and he's going to become the more calm, reasonable, rational candidate and he's going to sew this thing up. And of course that is not what has happened, and that's not what happened because all of these decisions were based out of ego. And it's this profound insecurity, this profound weakness he compensates for with the ego that makes it impossible for him to see his own mistakes. And so in that he is sowing the seeds eventually for his destruction, whether that's going to come before the election, whether that is going to come while he is president. At some point he has already sown the seeds of his own destruction, and that is what is so insidious about ego.
Lynne Malcolm: I wonder if you could give me an example of somebody who is managing their ego in the success phase very well?
Ryan Holiday: One of the stories I tell in the book is about George C Marshall who was an American general during the Second World War, arguably the leading general. At one point FDR offers him the command at D-Day, and he says…this is the position that Marshall has been pining for his entire life, he has always wanted to lead troops in this way, and if he doesn't take this opportunity he's not going to have it. So I think we can all relate to that, that yearning ambition for greatness.
And he realises that he is probably not the best person for the job, and he also realises that the President needs him in Washington, that more than one person could potentially lead the invasion at Normandy, but he's the only one who could run things in Washington. And so what does he do? He says to Roosevelt, 'This is your decision to make, I want my personal choices to have nothing to do with the matter.' And so he passes on this thing that he wanted his whole life.
MacArthur had treated Marshall horribly pre-war, and at some point Marshall finds himself as MacArthur's boss, and this would have been the perfect opportunity to turn that around. And yet he resists. He understands that MacArthur offers a certain set of skills that are hard to replace. And so he suppresses the ego to retaliate, to exact vengeance. In fact Marshall doesn't keep a diary throughout the war because he was worried that he would be performing for history and that this would change and warp his decisions in an untruthful way, and he wanted to stay in the moment and he wanted to do the right thing at every turn.
So I love a story like Marshall because you can't argue that Marshall didn't accomplish extraordinary things. He is a high ranking general, he wins the Nobel Peace Prize, he's the Secretary of State, he is also the Secretary of War, the Marshall Plan saves Europe. He does all these things. You could argue maybe he's not as famous as some of the other generals because he declines to write his memoirs and he declines to manage his brand. But all of the work that he did was possible almost entirely because he chose the work over recognition and over credit and over ego.
Lynne Malcolm: You're with All in the Mind on RN, I'm Lynne Malcolm. My guest today is media strategist and author Ryan Holiday. His most recent book is Ego is the Enemy.
I asked him whether he thinks that egotism is any more common these days than it was in the past.
Ryan Holiday: We hear about the egotistical successful people because they want us to hear about them. We don't hear about the other ones because they don't need us to hear about them. So I think there is a certain bias. It's the egotistical ones who become famous, who become the well-known case studies. But I do think…you know, ego is this timeless battle, you go back to the Greeks, hubris is at the root of The Odyssey, of most of the Greek tragedies. So ego has always been this problem. And yet, they didn't have social media, they didn't have this sort of performance life that so many of us lead. I have some sympathy for what it must be like to be a 12-year-old and grow up in a world where Instagram is how you portray your own experiences. This adds an element of narcissism and ego to everything that we do that I didn't have to grow up with and you wouldn't have had to grow up with.
Lynne Malcolm: Yes, so that is a very big thing in contemporary society, that it's almost feeding an overinflated sense of ego.
Ryan Holiday: Absolutely. When you look at, say, an Instagram feed, you forget the moments that happened between the photos which were filtered. And even though you might know that your own life was more complicated than what is portrayed in that social media profile, as humans we inherently compare ourselves against other people. So we know that we are putting on a bit of a performance, yet we see other people's performance and it makes us insecure and it makes us feel like we are not getting enough, we are not making enough, we are not enough. And I think that motivates people to do things that they otherwise wouldn't do, and I don't think that's positive. I think we are just trying to become these things that…not out of a need for human happiness but out of a need to feel whole.
Lynne Malcolm: So for parents, what are your reflections on what self-esteem means, the true value of self-esteem? Because we are all intent on keeping our children's confidence and self-esteem really strong.
Ryan Holiday: I think it's Carol Dweck's work which looks at the way you speak to your child, the way you contextualise their achievements. So the difference, and I think this connects to the study of ego as well, the difference between telling a child 'you did well because you're so smart' is profoundly different than telling them 'you did well because you worked very hard'. Those are teaching radically different lessons, and one is making them feel good, and the other is instilling the right principles, advocating for a process that creates a good result. And so I think that's important because if you think that your success is what makes you smart or not, or that your success is what makes you good or not. Not only does that put you on a treadmill where you or the child has to chase an endless amount of that, but what happens when they fail? And we all fail. So if your success says something about you as a person, then logically your failure says something about you as a person.
And this is the third phase of ego in my study of it, which is someone is forced to declare bankruptcy or their business struggles or a negative article is written about them. Instead of being able to take this in stride, it's as if their entire world has come crashing down. And they listen to this negativity, it impacts them as much as being rich and successful impacts a Donald Trump or another egotistical person. And so that's the same for me as an author. If I'm reading the good reviews and I'm letting that puff me up as a writer, then somebody gives me a one-star view on Amazon, I'm going to have to do that same thing. And obviously a better approach is to find worth and value in the things that you do control, which is the work, the product.
Lynne Malcolm: It sounds very simple, to change your view on your own ego. But there's so much societal pressure to be successful, whatever that means. And I just wonder whether you have some ideas around how one can shift their perspective on the role that ego plays.
Ryan Holiday: One of the things I say in this book and in my last book is that simple is not the same as easy. And so I think that's something we confuse as a society. A lot of the things that we know we need to do are simple and straightforward. It's the doing them that's hard, but it's the doing them that matters. Knowing that your ego can be a problem is very different than stopping yourself before you make a decision and asking, you know, am I doing this for any real reason or I doing this out of ego? And so I think that process in and of itself is a simple thing but an important one.
You know, Viktor Frankl talks about making the difference that…the pause between the stimulus and the response and evaluating those two things. I think that's essential. And so from an ego perspective it's actually putting in that check. Adam Smith the economist wrote this wonderful book years and years ago called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and one of the ways he says you become a moral person is by observing an exercise he calls the indifferent spectator. What if there was a totally indifferent person following you around just looking at what you were doing, how would they judge your behaviour, how would they judge your choices? And I think what you can add to that too is how would you interact with that person? Would you feel the need to rationalise what you were doing, would you feel the need to explain it and would you be defending yourself all the time, would you not do it because they were in the room?
And so I think one of the ways we check our ego is by putting in a little bit of that objectivity, taking our self-centred lens out of things and just looking at what we are doing and saying, you know, is this the person that I want to be, is this who I am?
Lynne Malcolm: And you talk about ego being embedded in the narrative that we tell ourselves. How powerful is that story we tell ourselves?
Ryan Holiday: It's incredibly powerful. I gave a talk at Google a few weeks ago, and what I was talking about is this story…I think it's really interesting the story Google has told itself. One of the founders of Google gave a speech a few years ago where he said, you know, the kinds of companies that I want to invest in are the companies where I can ask myself, you know, is what you're working on going to change the world? And that is I think a very inspiring, impressive way to think about it.
But here's the twist. Google when it started wasn't setting out to change the world, it was a graduate thesis that two students were working on. YouTube, which Google owns and has revolutionised television was a dating site when it launched, and then it was a place to share pirated movies and television clips. When Google launched Gmail, it was this tiny internal project that became what it became. It was in beta for like seven years. So what can happen is that we can look retroactively on our journey and add a story, add a sense of clarity to it that makes us seem more certain and better than we actually were, that we set out to do this thing. And so obviously the story you tell yourself doesn't change what happened in the past, but what it does have an impact on is the future.
So then when Google sits down and is considering a project like Google Wave or Google Plus or Google Glass, three pretty major failures, you can see how their overarching ambition, their vision for this project far outpaced the practical demands and the product that they made. And so I think that's the danger. I try to think about this in my own life. My last book is successful. It's successful for a variety of reasons, some of which I had to do with, a lot of which I didn't. If I tell myself a story about why I was successful and then I extrapolate the next chapter which is my next book will be the same amount of success, now I've set myself up for a failure, I have created a fake reality that is not going to hold weight. The world peskily does not conform to the way we would want it to be or the way we hope it to be, it simply is what it is. So I think that's why these stories are so dangerous.
Lynne Malcolm: The practice of mindfulness and meditation has become very popular very quickly across the Western world. Do you think that this is a reaction to too much focus on the self and to ego?
Ryan Holiday: I think it is. I think there's a connection. Obviously I talk about stoic philosophy a lot in this book and I think that there is some overlap between Zen Buddhism and stoic philosophy. I think meditation is great. I tend to not be a person who wants to sit down and watch my breath, but I think you can get that same meditative experience…you know, when you go out into the wilderness, if you are standing alone on a beach at night and the ocean is crashing there next to you, it's very hard for you to feel like you are the centre of the universe, it's very hard to even feel that you are a significant part of the universe.
When you are looking up at the thousands of stars or you are standing in an old growth forest, what you get there is that you are a speck in a much larger universe and that things have been going on and will continue to go on with or without you. And these are inherently humbling things. And I think you get a little bit of that in meditation as well.
But the idea is to see yourself as both a part of the universe and a very, very small part of that, and this suppresses our natural human impulse to say, hey, whatever I'm thinking about is important because I'm thinking about it.
Lynne Malcolm: And you draw on the ancient philosophy of stoicism. Can you briefly explain stoicism and what it is about that philosophy that informs your thought around the concept of ego?
Ryan Holiday: Stoic philosophy is an ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, I would say it's primarily concerned with practical ethics. So it's not who are we and why are we here, it's what do I do about my temper, what do I do about my fear of death, what's the best way to live? And so it's practised by people like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca and Epictetus, and it has been popular with statesmen and politicians and creatives for centuries. If I had to define it I would say stoicism holds that we don't control the world around us, we control how we respond. And so that idea, that even just making the distinction between what's in your control and what's not in your control and reminding yourself of that on a daily basis is inherently a suppressor of ego.
I think ego wants to be in control of everything all the time. That's why we've had that image of the powerful man or woman yelling at their assistant or yelling at some customer service representative. There's a famous story about Steve Jobs berating a woman who was making him a smoothie. And it's this idea that no one else matters but you and that everything that happens is everyone else's fault and that if you get upset about it enough or you feel enough about it, that that will change things. These are delusions, obviously, and they are not very well thought out opinions. And so stoicism to me is about questioning that and putting in processes and beliefs that replace it.
Lynne Malcolm: Stoics were renowned for writing down and carrying around their favourite concepts. And I believe you have a couple of tattoos that are your favourite concepts. Can you tell me about your tattoos?
Ryan Holiday: So on one arm I have the expression 'The obstacle is the way', which is based on a quote from Marcus Aurelius, he says, you know, the impediment to action advances action, what stands in the way becomes the way. And then on my other arm I have the phrase 'Ego is the enemy', which is not explicitly a stoic concept but I think it's one they would believe. What I've found is that there is no situation in which reminding myself of those two ideas does not make it better in some way.
So I had to make some big decision last week about something, I had been told that I couldn't do something and your first instinct when you are told you can't do something is, you know, who are you to tell me this, I'm going to do it anyway. And so I looked down and it's, okay, am I justified here, what is the right decision? And this is a negative situation that I am upset about, but what benefit can be derived from this situation? How can I use this to move the ball forward? And I think these are timeless concepts, but I love that the Stoics were, even 2,000 years ago, dealing with the petty inconveniences of life but always asking themselves how can I use this productively?
Lynne Malcolm: So what do you think it is that has enabled you to step outside I guess the vortex that we can all go down in terms of ego and really look at it more helpfully?
Ryan Holiday: I don't think I am really any different than anyone else. Everything that I'm talking about in Ego is the Enemy is what I have personally struggled with. I've just found time and time again that ego is the worst element that I can introduce into my life, into these equations. And what wisdom is there from the past, from history, from literature, from philosophy that we can draw on that will make that easier?
Lynne Malcolm: So what's next for you? How do you see your future?
Ryan Holiday: I try to follow my own advice to the extent that I take it one day at a time, I work on project to project. I think one of the things that as creatives can be very dangerous, especially in the social media era, is you can start talking about the things you are going to do and you can get validation and credit for how you are going to do them. But instead of focusing that energy on talking about it, I'm going to focus that energy on making the thing exist. There is a quote from Henry Ford, he says, 'You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do,' and I think that's the way I try to approach my career.
Lynne Malcolm: Ryan Holiday, author of Ego is the Enemy which is published by Profile Books. Details of this and his previous book, The Obstacle is the Way are on the All in the Mind website. Get there via the RN home page.
Diane Dean is the producer, and the sound engineer is Judy Rapley. I'm Lynne Malcolm, thanks for your company today, catch you next time.