“Among men who rise to fame and leadership two types are recognizable—those who are born with a belief in themselves and those in whom it is a slow growth dependent on actual achievement. To the men of the last type their own success is a constant surprise, and its fruits the more delicious, yet to be tested cautiously with a haunting sense of doubt whether it is not all a dream. In that doubt lies true modesty, not the sham of insincere self depreciation but the modesty of “moderation,” in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose.” – B.H. Liddell Hart
When we’re young and just setting out in our careers we tend to assume that the greatest impediments to our progress and success are external to us. We blame our bosses and “the system” but we rarely think that we might be our own worst enemies, sabotaging ourselves right when we are beginning on our path.
Too often the obstacle that impedes our progress the most is internal—our own ego.
Yes, all of us, with all our talent and promise and potential, if we don’t control our ego, risk blowing up before we start. Talent, as Irving Berlin put it, is only the starting point. What we also need is self-management, self-control and humility.
Here are three ways that ego is the enemy of those important traits.
1. Talk, talk, talk.
At the beginning of any path, we’re excited and nervous. So we seek to comfort ourselves externally instead of inwardly. There’s a weak side to each of us, that—like a trade union—isn’t exactly malicious but at the end of the day still wants to get as much public credit and attention as it can for doing the least. That side we call ego.
The writer and former Gawker blogger Emily Gould—essentially a real-life Hannah Horvath—realized this during her two-year struggle to get a novel published. Though she had a six-figure book deal, she was stuck. Why? She was too busy “spending a lot of time on the Internet,” that’s why.
“In fact, I can’t really remember anything else I did in 2010. I tumbld, I tweeted and I scrolled. This didn’t earn me any money but it felt like work… It was also the only creative thing I was doing.”
She did what a lot of us do when we’re scared or overwhelmed by a project—she did everything but focus on it. In fact, many valuable endeavors we undertake are painfully difficult, whether it’s coding a new startup or mastering a craft. But talking, talking is always easy. So we do that instead.
It’s a temptation that exists for everyone—for talk and hype to replace action.
Doing great work is a struggle. It’s draining, it’s demoralizing, it’s frightening—not always, but it can feel that way when we’re deep in the middle of it. We talk to fill the void and the uncertainty.
The question is, when faced with your particular challenge—whether it is researching in a new field, starting a business, producing a film, securing a mentor, advancing an important cause—do you seek the respite of talk or do you face the struggle head-on?
2. Early pride.
At 18, a rather triumphant Benjamin Franklin returned to visit Boston, the city he’d run away from. Full of pride, he had a new suit, a watch and a pocketful of coins that he showed to everyone he ran into. All posturing by a boy who was not much more than an employee in a print shop in Philadelphia.
In a meeting with Cotton Mather, one of the town’s most respected figures, Franklin quickly illustrated just how ridiculously inflated his young ego had become. As they walked down a hallway, Mather suddenly admonished him, “Stoop! Stoop!” Too caught up in his performance, Franklin walked right into a low ceiling beam.
Mather’s response was perfect: “Let this be a caution to you not always to hold your head so high,” he said wryly. “Stoop, young man, stoop—as you go through this world—and you’ll miss many hard thumps.”
The problem with pride is that it blunts the instrument we need to succeed—our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride. Most dangerously, this tends to happen either early in life or in the process—when we’re flushed with beginner’s conceit. Only later do you realize that that bump on the head was the least of what was risked.
The question to ask, when you feel pride, then, is this: What am I missing right now that a more humble person might see? What am I avoiding, or running from, with my bluster, franticness, and embellishments?
It is far better to ask and answer these questions now, with the stakes still low, than it will be later.
3. Don’t be passionate.
Early on in her ascendant political career, a visitor once spoke of Eleanor Roosevelt’s “passionate interest” in a piece of social legislation. The person had meant it as a compliment. But Eleanor’s response is illustrative. “Yes,” she did support the cause, she said. “But I hardly think the word ‘passionate’ applies to me.” As a genteel, accomplished, and patient woman born while the embers of the quiet Victorian virtues were still warm, Roosevelt was above passion. She had purpose and direction.
Today it’s all about passion. Find your passion. Live passionately. Inspire the world with your passion.
People go to Burning Man to find passion, to be around passion, to rekindle their passion. Same goes for TED and the now enormous SXSW and a thousand other events, retreats and summits, all fueled by what they claim to be life’s most important force.
Here’s what those same people haven’t told you: your passion may be the very thing holding you back from power or influence or accomplishment. Because just as often, we fail with—no, because of—passion. To be clear, this is not about caring. This is passion of a different sort—unbridled enthusiasm, our willingness to pounce on what’s in front of us with the full measure of our zeal, the “bundle of energy” that our teachers and gurus have assured us is our most important asset.
Instead, what we require in our ascent is purpose. Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries. Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function. The critical work that you want to do will require your deliberation and consideration. Not passion.
Passion is about. (I am so passionate about ______.) Purpose is to and for. (I must do ______. I was put here to accomplish ______. I am willing to endure ______ for the sake of this.) Actually, purpose deemphasizes the I.
Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself. “Great passions are maladies without hope,” as Goethe said. Which is why a deliberate, purposeful person operates on a different level, beyond the sway or the sickness.
It’d be far better if you were intimidated by what lies ahead—humbled by its magnitude and determined to see it through regardless. Leave passion for the amateurs. Make it about your purpose: what you feel you must do and say, not what you care about and wish to be. Then you will do great things. Then you will stop being your old, good-intentioned, but ineffective self.
Early on in our careers we are setting out to do something. We have a goal, a calling, a new beginning. Every great journey begins here—yet far too many of us never reach our intended destination. Ego more often than not is the culprit.
We build ourselves up with fantastical stories and talk, we pretend we have it all figured out, we let our star burn bright and hot only to fizzle out, and we have no idea why. These are symptoms of ego, for which humility and reality are the cure.
Do not let ego derail your career—before it even begins.
This piece is adapted from Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy, published by Penguin Portfolio.