The first Ryan Holiday book I read was The Obstacle is the Way, which is a explanation of Stoic philosophy and application of it in modern life. Ego is the Enemy explores the role of ego (selfishness and self-centeredness) and how to move away from ego to live a more fulfilling and more successful life.
Ego is the Enemy did not resonate with me the same way The Obstacle is the Way did. It seemed to be a collection of quotes and stories to support Holiday’s thesis and perspective, rather than vice versa. Still there were several good take-aways that connected to other learning.
1. Keep Perspective
Keeping the broadest, grandest, greatest perspective can help us realize what matters and what matters much less. I often worry that I am letting what is immediate get in the way of what is important. Perspective helps with this. Perspective can come from nature, our smallness, our largeness, and everything in between.
We might consider the expanse of time to give us perspective. Some suggest when troubled with a problem to think about whether or not that problem will matter in six months, a year, or two years. If it won’t matter then, perhaps you can spend less time and energy worried about it now. Or we might consider the expanse of time in the context of the planet. This video helps us put that perspective into context.
Spending time in nature can also bring perspective. The enormous cottonwood tree in my yard doesn’t care that I’m behind on a project. The squirrels and rabbits flying around my yard aren’t concerned with that snarky comment someone left on social media.
Another way to keep perspective is to pay attention to the universe on it’s grandest and most minuscule scales. Physicist Frank Wilczek describes how his professional, scholarly, and intellectual life tending to the enormous expansiveness of the entire universe and considering the minuscule molecules, atoms, and quantum particles that make up our immediate world and bodies, helps him keep perspective. We are simultaneously unimaginably big and small. Perspective helps us stay grounded in the fact that we are neither as significant or as small as we may fear.
2. Focus on Process, Not Outcome
Goals are great. However, if we get so focused on achieving the intended outcome we can loose sight of what needs to be done to achieve the outcome. Do you know folks who have talked for years about writing a book or even a best seller but haven’t written anything? Ego wants the best seller.
Oftentimes the outcome is beyond our control. The process is usually within our control. The more we focus on what we control the less out of control we will feel. In The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday highlights that famous Zen Buddhist, Nick Saban – one of the most successful college football coaches in history. He has adapted this approach by admonishing his players to NOT focus on winning national championships, conference championships, or even individual games. Those lofty goals are impossible to achieve in the August humidity. Those goals are also impossible to achieve for an individual player. Instead, Saban admonishes each player to do their absolute best in focus, energy, and effort on THIS play in practice, this weight lift, this film study. By asking each player to focus on what is immediate he grounds them in the present moment and gives them something within their control to devote themselves to – this play. And then on the next play. And then the next. Being excellent at each individual play is the kind of focus on the process that leads to the outcome – wins, conference titles, and national championships – or five of them in Saban’s case.
3. Being Intentional with Time
Holiday cites a mentor of his, Robert Greene, distinguishing between Alive Time and Dead Time. Alive time is time well spent with purpose and intentionality. Dead time is time wasted and not put to use. In Ego is the Enemy, Holiday uses the example of Malcolm X and his time in prison to illustrate someone who used his time as alive time rather than dead time. In Malcolm X’s case, he used his time in prison to read, study, and learn.
I hate wasting my time. Nothing is a reminder of how precious time is than watching your children grow-up so quickly in front of your eyes. This doesn’t mean that time needs to be productive. Intentionally spending time doing nothing is a great joy and can actually be incredibly valuable. Flipping through cable channels = dead time. Sitting down to watch 2 episodes of a TV show we’ve been eagerly anticipating = alive time. Listening to an audiobook and learning new things while waiting for a plane delay at the airport = alive time. Mindlessly flicking through social media with no purpose during the same delay = dead time.
As Gretchen Rubin says in this video, “the days are long and the year’s are short.”