Fooxes Consulting

Ego is the Enemy - The Fight to Master Our Greatest Opponent - Ryan Holiday

Buch-Review - Hannes Kleist - 04.06.2020

Ego is the Enemy - The Fight to Master Our Greatest Opponent

That was a great read that fits perfectly into my 2020 missions of chipping away at my monstrous ego. Ryan Holiday draws from Stoisiscm, Buddhism and Neuroscience — with even a bit of Christianity thrown in — showing that all the evil in the world and your life is your lizard-brain-powered Ego and how to keep it in check.


Now more than ever, our culture fans the flames of ego. It’s never been easier to talk, to puff ourselves up. We can brag about our goals to millions of our fans and followers — things only rock stars and cult leaders used to have. We can follow and interact with our idols on Twitter, we can read books and sites and watch TED Talks, drink from a fire hose of inspiration and validation like never before (there’s an app for that). We can name ourselves CEO of our exists-only-on-paper company. We can announce big news on social media and let the congratulations roll in. We can publish articles about ourselves in outlets that used to be sources of objective journalism.

What a great start for this book. Our ego was always a problem — but now it’s on steroids.

In short, it will help us be: Humble in our aspirations. Gracious in our success. Resilient in our failures.

Part I: Aspire

“Be slow in deliberation, but be prompt to carry out your resolves.”

That’s actually from Isocrates some 400 years BC. I love that quote.

Almost universally, the kind of performance we give on social media is positive. It’s more “Let me tell you how well things are going. Look how great I am.” It’s rarely the truth: “I’m scared. I’m struggling. I don’t know.”

I have noticed the same effect on me. I actually get jealous and resentful towards (what I would call) “professional” facebookers and Instagrammers. That does not make you a better person in the long run.

Not to mention the poisonous narcissism that social media fosters — I used to check the stats of a post every couple of hours. My whole self-worth seemed to depend on how many likes and comments my trivial posts received.

As actors in the digital industry, we actually exploit the same triggers and methods that alcohol, gambling, smoking and cocaine use. Read “Hooked” for more details.

Lifehack: Delete that digital cocaine from your smartphone.

Most people are decent at hype and sales. So what is scarce and rare? Silence. The ability to deliberately keep yourself out of the conversation and subsist without its validation. Silence is the respite of the confident and the strong.

Imagine the Dalai Lama on Instagram. 😂

To be somebody or to do something. In life, there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision.”

Lovely put.

Appearances are deceiving. Having authority is not the same as being an authority.

I try to teach that to new leaders. Your title does not mean 🐑. Being a leader is a mindset.

We don’t like thinking that someone is better than us. Or that we have a lot left to learn. We want to be done. We want to be ready. We’re busy and overburdened.

I made the greatest leaps in life getting mentors (Thanks, Tobias) and coaches (Thanks, Alexander, Pete and Frau Most).

The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the antidote.

Ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger-Effect? The less people know about a subject the more they overestimate their ability.

That raises an interesting leadership point: If you feel somebody on your team is too confident on a topic that he knows little about, the best way to cure this might be to train her on the topic.

A true student is like a sponge. Absorbing what goes on around him, filtering it, latching on to what he can hold. A student is self-critical and self-motivated, always trying to improve his understanding so that he can move on to the next topic, the next challenge.

I wished I could approach every interaction with that open mindset.

Because we only seem to hear about the passion of successful people, we forget that failures shared the same trait.

That’s called a survivors bias.

Passion typically masks a weakness. Its breathlessness and impetuousness and franticness are poor substitutes for discipline, for mastery, for strength and purpose and perseverance.

Interestingly all great spiritual leaders are not “passionate”. Thinking of Jesus, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi…

Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself. Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function.

I have yet to find my purpose outside helping those close to me: My kids, my loving wife, my team, friends and mentees.

*Being a good company is an end in itself.

Ben Horowitz wrote that in The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Perhaps that is all the purpose I need…

Find canvases for other people to paint on. Be an anteambulo. Clear the path for the people above you and you will eventually create a path for yourself.

That is great advice. The most satisfying things I did in my career were meetings where I helped people overcome personal challenges. I also get this warm feeling when people leave my company to start some business on their own or join another great company. Somehow I take the credit for that.

This is also great advice for sales and business. Nobody cares about you, your company, your product or its features. They only care how you can make them look good. Focus on that and the rest will follow.

Franklin saw the constant benefit in making other people look good and letting them take credit for your ideas.

I found that to be helpful both in sales and leadership.

The best sale is when clients close themselves. You want them to ask you if you can help them.

With regards to leadership, I was confronted with the issue that my team did not implement my brilliant (or so I thought) ideas enthusiastically. Even when giving context and getting a formal agreement by everyone, I faced downright denial of command ;-).

I totally stopped proposing anything that requires a change in behaviour. I rather come up with a solution but do not tell the team. I rather sketch the problem and then move the discussion along. If the team comes up with a solution (which surprisingly is often better than my initial idea), the adherence is way better — it is their idea after all.

You always want to think deep and hard about any problem though. Just passing the ball to the team hoping that by some magic group dynamic a solution will appear, proved inefficient. You want to tightly moderate the problem-solving process by asking questions and giving context. At least in areas, where the team is missing context or expertise.

Greatness comes from humble beginnings; it comes from grunt work.

That speaks to my protestant upbringing. We only feel good if we work ourselves to an early grave.

Find people, thinkers, up-and-comers to introduce them to each other. Cross wires to create new sparks. Find what nobody else wants to do and do it.

Felix Heberle is a master at that. I think I owe him half my contacts on LinkedIn.

Find inefficiencies and waste and redundancies. Identify leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas. Produce more than everyone else and give your ideas away.

Sounds like content marketing.

When you want to do something — something big and important and meaningful — you will be subjected to treatment ranging from indifference to outright sabotage. Count on it.

That’s a good measuring stick for innovation as well. If everyone and your mother agree that your idea is brilliant and cannot fail: It’s 🐑.

Every innovator ever got laughed at. Everyone now agrees that the iPhone was doomed to be a success. Back in the day even Steve Jobs only aspired to get 1% of the smartphone market.

Check what Steve Balmer thought about it.

(As we all wish to say: Do you know who I am?!) You want to remind them of what they’ve forgotten; your ego screams for you to indulge it.

Oh, have I been there!

Instead, you must do nothing. Take it. Eat it until you’re sick. Endure it. Quietly brush it off and work harder. Play the game.

Be the rock!

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?

A good exercise I found is meditating on the factors of anything you are proud of. Look for the lucky breaks that got you where you are: the chance meetings, the lucky introduction, the decisions of other people.

The difference between conventional success and failure is usually some chance that went your way that could have easily gotten the other way.

We are still striving, and it is the strivers who should be our peers — not the proud and the accomplished.

That is so hard. You see another successful (or less successful) person and you immediately start comparing yourself to them. But you are always bound to compare apples with oranges. You know nothing about the other person’s struggles or lucky breaks. The only reliable yardstick is your past self.

The investor and serial entrepreneur Ben Horowitz put it more bluntly: “The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal.… The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare.” Sure, you get it. You know that all things require work and that work might be quite difficult. But do you really understand? Do you have any idea just how much work there is going to be? Not work until you get your big break, not work until you make a name for yourself, but work, work, work, forever and ever.

Nothing to add here. Been there. Currently are there with the corona thing. Seems like my summers are supposed to suck.

Is it ten thousand hours or twenty thousand hours to mastery? The answer is that it doesn’t matter. There is no end zone. To think of a number is to live in a conditional future.

I like the expectation management of this: You cannot “hack” anything. To master anything of value, you either need to dedicate 5–10 years of your career to it or 30 years if you want to do this as a hobby with just one hour per day.

Do we sit down, alone, and struggle with our work? Work that may or may not go anywhere, that may be discouraging or painful? Do we love work, making a living to do work, not the other way around? Do we love practice, the way great athletes do?

I wonder about that a lot. Where is the practising-the-three-point-shot, golf-swing, playing-scales-on-the-piano, writing-for-hours in entrepreneurship — where you can lose yourself, where you can find flow? Such a task should be tiny, repeatable and with immediate feedback to get can collect those tiny improvements over the long term.

Is it “running meetings”, “writing emails”, “having a sales call”…?

How do you get the feedback into that? I journal every day to at least capture some reflection on my activities. But will I ever achieve Zen that way?

Back to another popular old trope: Fake it ’til you make it. It’s no surprise that such an idea has found increasing relevance in our noxiously bullshit, Nerf world.


Work is finding yourself alone at the track when the weather kept everyone at home. Work is pushing through the pain and crappy first drafts and prototypes.

I can hear the Rocky soundtrack right now.

Because no one ever said, reflecting on the whole of someone’s life, “Man, that monstrous ego sure was worth it.”

If you look at the most successful performers with a large ego in the world, they tend to miss something in other areas of their life:

Steve Jobs relationship with his daughter, Tiger Woods sex episodes, Michael Jordan’s vindictive acceptance speech

But that could also be my jealous confirmation bias ignoring successful egomaniacs right now ;-)

Part II: Success

Put yourself in rooms where you’re the least knowledgeable person. That uncomfortable feeling, that defensiveness that you feel when your most deeply held assumptions are challenged — what about subjecting yourself to it deliberately?

I use this now as a measuring stick: If a meeting feels uncomfortable, I might just have learned something. If it feels great, it’s probably just feeding my ego and I am going nowhere.

An amateur is defensive. The professional finds learning (and even, occasionally, being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled.

That must be some powerful framing. How in the world do you enjoy being humbled?

Everyone buys into the myth that if only they had that — usually what someone else has — they would be happy.

It seems we want to get things over with to get to the really great moment. Just finish dinner, so I can watch TV, just finish this project to enjoy the fruits of our labour.

I like the Buddhist way of asking yourself at every moment: What would make this moment perfect. Often I find: It is already perfect.

He knew that urgent and important were not synonyms.

That is so true. Urgent is usually what is important to other people. My hack here is to dedicate 50% of my daily time to important topics. I block them out in my calendar and nothing gets in their way: Writing, lifting weights, meditation, reading, thinking…

DeLorean was convinced that the culture of order and discipline at GM had held brilliant creatives like himself down. When he set out to found his company, he deliberately did everything differently, flouting conventional wisdom and business practices. The result was not the freewheeling, creative sanctuary that DeLorean naively envisioned.

I fell into the same trap. I tried to do everything different as I have learned at ProSiebenSat.1 out of spite ;-)

A lot of practices slowly sneak back in ;-)

Part III: Failure

Humble and strong people don’t have the same trouble with these troubles that egotists do. There are fewer complaints and far less self-immolation. Instead, there’s stoic — even cheerful — resilience.

How in the world do you get to *cheerful resilience?

Perhaps it is finding the of-course-this-would-have-to-happen perspective. If your life were a movie, this is exactly what the screenwriter would add in here to create some dramatic tension or create comic relief.

It’s far better when doing good work is sufficient. In other words, the less attached we are to outcomes the better. When fulfilling our own standards is what fills us with pride and self-respect. When the effort — not the results, good or bad — is enough.

I wonder how you formulate “effort” goals. Outcome goals are simple.

Perhaps: OKR: Feeling uncomfortable per year > 1000 hours 😱

Maybe your parents will never be impressed. Maybe your girlfriend won’t care. Maybe the investor won’t see the numbers. Maybe the audience won’t clap. But we have to be able to push through. We can’t let that be what motivates us.

Yeah. Why would we want to hang our happiness on random events that we have only a tiny bit of control over?

Talking about bad situations:

A look at history finds that these events seem to be defined by three traits: They almost always came at the hands of some outside force or person. They often involved things we already knew about ourselves, but were too scared to admit. From the ruin came the opportunity for great progress and improvement. In 12-step groups, almost all the steps are about suppressing the ego and clearing out the entitlements and baggage and wreckage that has been accumulated — so that you might see what’s left when all of that is stripped away and the real you is left.

When you hit rock bottom, there is only one way and that is up!

Sometimes because we can’t face what’s been said or what’s been done, we do the unthinkable in response to the unbearable: we escalate. This is ego in its purest and most toxic form.

That is my usual knee jerk reaction. Find somebody to blame ;-)

In the end, the only way you can appreciate your progress is to stand on the edge of the hole you dug for yourself, look down inside it, and smile fondly at the bloody claw prints that marked your journey up the walls. The problem is that when we get our identity tied up in our work, we worry that any kind of failure will then say something bad about us as a person. Your potential, the absolute best you’re capable of — that’s the metric to measure yourself against. Your standards are. Winning is not enough. People can get lucky and win. People can be assholes and win. Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.

So ask yourself: Have I been kind, have I toiled, have I felt uncomfortable, have I learned?

Especially because almost universally, the traits or behaviors that have pissed us off in other people — their dishonesty, their selfishness, their laziness — are hardly going to work out well for them in the end. Their ego and shortsightedness contains its own punishment.

I do not like the vindictiveness that is implied here. I would look at this with loving-kindness — even pity — rather than Schadenfreude.

“People learn from their failures. Seldom do they learn anything from success.”

That’s what I keep telling myself 😂

Get the book on Amazon


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Hannes Kleist
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