Meet Your Worst Enemy

April 21, 2017

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.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

7 responses to Meet Your Worst Enemy

  1. “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.”

    True words. The problem is that no one takes the time to reflect on their past errors to find out where their ego led them astray. There’s nothing harder that gaining control over yourself. It’s never perfect, but of course it’s worth it.

    Nice article.

    • I’ve started a journal at night where I write down thoughts and reflect on the day I’ve had, I’ll write down what I could have handled better or said differently, what goals I’m on my way to achieving or not achieving, what I’m grateful for and really think about that in great detail. For example my daughter stressing me out as children do, I’m thankful for, not just because handling the stress makes me more patient but the fact my daughter is screaming and upset, basically being herself means shes healthy and well, and the very thing that’s stressing me out doesn’t really mean anything because its trivial as there’s a lot that could be worse. Another example I was running yesterday and struggling a bit then it dawned on me it could be worse, I could have a rucksack on my back, or my shoes could be uncomfortable, or even worse I could have been born without any legs! So everything is opinion, perception and subjective! Funny when you think about things how simple they are to overcome. Thought I’d share that, hope it helps anyone reading!

  2. Great post Ryan. I am also thought am a modest guy that accommodates others until I received numerous complaints about the way I handle things. Sometimes it’s okay to have an ego. Have your say and face the consequences, but sometimes it can hurt you and others.

  3. This piece really connected to me. I’m nearing completion of a first book, but its getting harder to work on and finish. Perhaps my ego telling me that it’ll be done when in reality it isn’t?

    Was planning to read ‘Ego is the Enemy’ at some point, but I just bought it to read soon.

    Truly loved ‘Obstacle is the Way’. It’s a mantra I use very often and never disappoints 🙂

    Hats off and bows for the great content, Ryan!

  4. Great Article Ryan. Very true. Let go of the ego and everything starts to change.

  5. Great article Ryan, but do you think that there is a healthy amount of ego to have? How do you reign yourself in and know when to stop? I agree we need some ego in the short term. I often struggle with this, I know what I want and desire out of life, but at the same time I’m very humble and privileged for the things I do have. Wanting more I sometimes think to myself, you have enough to sustain you, you’re doing okay, why do you want more? Why can’t you be happy with what you have got? I can’t really come up with a decent answer other than starting a sentence with “I want to…”. I was running the other day and had Daily Stoic on audio book and heard about Alexander the great meeting an old philosopher, with one of his men saying “What have you done that’s so great, this man has conquered the world!” and the old man said “I have conquered my need to conquer the world.” That resonated with me so much. Anyway man, take care.

  6. Ego is a fascinating topic. I often wonder if the true definition of how small or large our ego’s are is what we are told by others or what we believe about ourselves?

    If it is the definition from others, I feel that ego may walk the very fine line of caring but not caring about what others think. That is, if the other is your spouse, family or close friends who know you best, then perhaps, they can see when you are becoming too full of yourself. However, if the person who is telling you about your large ego doesn’t know you too well, how much merit does their opinion have?