• Book Review: Ego Is The Enemy

I’ll admit I had a lot of enthusiasm going into this book. I’d listened to a number of podcasts where Ryan was interviewed. I was excited to read him as an author. Many of his books look interesting to me. I selected Ego Is The Enemy as the first of his to read for a few reasons.

Originally posted on Medium.

First, I recognize there are periods of my life where my ego got in the way. It got in the way professionally and personally. As well as the relationship with myself. I think most people that know me would agree that I’m not overly egotistical. I try to stay humble. But we all have ego that prevents us from taking risks and doing things we’d like to do based on what we think others may think. Maybe that is contrary to what most people think of when they think ego. It pushes us and holds us back. Ryan does a terrific job of describing all the ways ego can manifest and impact our thoughts.

Second, I often think I can be my own worst enemy. Like many, I live with regret on how I handled past situations. I’ve made mistakes, regardless of ego being involved, and am sorry for those mistakes. Based on the description, I was hoping the book would cover being your own worst enemy and it does, without calling it that.

Right away, I was highlighting and taking notes. The stage is set right in the beginning. This book makes you reflect.

“best thing which we have in ourselves is good judgment”

A key point is how ego can get in the way of our best judgement. It clouds what would normally be a clear decision. Ironically, the point is made that ego can make us both too confident, as well as, under confident.

In the chapter, To Be Or To Do, Ryan makes some stoic points about our actions. Many of which can be influenced by our ego. The following spoke to me as a manager:

“Appearances are deceiving. Having authority is not the same as being an authority. Having the right and being right are not the same either. Being promoted doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing good work and it doesn’t mean you are worthy of promotion (they call it failing upward in such bureaucracies). Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.”

Staying with the manager theme:

If your purpose is something larger than you—to accomplish something, to prove something to yourself—then suddenly everything becomes both easier and more difficult. Easier in the sense that you know now what it is you need to do and what is important to you. The other “choices” wash away, as they aren’t really choices at all. They’re distractions. It’s about the doing, not the recognition. Easier in the sense that you don’t need to compromise. Harder because each opportunity—no matter how gratifying or rewarding—must be evaluated along strict guidelines: Does this help me do what I have set out to do? Does this allow me to do what I need to do? Am I being selfish or selfless?

I’ve been asked many times if being a manager is gratifying. In the context of my industry people are curious if being a manager can be as gratifying as an individual contributor that has tangible outputs. In some ways, the answer is that being a manager isn’t as gratifying. You have less to point to where you can say “I did that”. BUT, for me at least, unlocking the team is a greater purpose. Helping engineers enjoy their jobs and enable them so they can deliver is gratifying to me.

There are some key quotes throughout the book. For example, I highlighted:

A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts, so he loses touch with reality and lives in a world of illusions. —ALAN WATTS

I wish I could make my insomniac mind remember that one so I could turn off and get some sleep at night! Maybe I’ll write it on a Post-In and stick it next to my bed. I digress.

Back to the meat of the book content. Something that really stuck with me is how much our own internal dialog plays into every decision we make. We analyze more than we think. That analysis relies on data. That data is simply things we observe and learn throughout our time on this planet. One way to squash the misinformed ego is to continue learning. Ryan reminds us to always remain a student. Keep learning. Ego will tell you, you know everything there is to know about something. That is not true. Another amazing related quote:

The physicist John Wheeler, who helped develop the hydrogen bomb, once observed that “as our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.”

I love that. It invoked some real imagery in my head. I highlighted a lot around this concept of learning to suppress our naive ego:

An amateur is defensive. The professional finds learning (and even, occasionally, being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled, and engage in education as an ongoing and endless process.

Ever been on a team that has that one person that always needs to be the smartest person in the room? To the point where they are defensive? Ever considered it stems from their ego rather than their experience and intellect?

Ryan goes into ways to live alongside your ego. To be mindful it exists. To feed it and yourself data that can be used to make decisions rather than just its emotions. Ryan encourages certain practices and ceremonies throughout the book. Like sitting down to really figure out what success looks like. So you can keep your bearings throughout your journey to get there. Without it, it will be easy to be impulsive, which is a good place for ego to get involved. With a thoughtful map, you can control the decisions more. You can stay on tracki when that voice inside your head starts offering “advice”. Ego can make us fearful. It’s easy to be persuaded by fear in the moment.

There is a story about Merkel as a young girl, at a swimming lesson. She walked out on the diving board and stood there, thinking about whether she should jump. Minutes ticked by. More minutes. Finally, just as the bell marking the end of the lesson began to ring, she jumped. Was she afraid or just cautious? Many years later, she would remind Europe’s leaders during a major crisis that “Fear is a bad advisor.” As a kid on that diving board, she wanted to use every allotted second to make the right decision, not driven by recklessness or fear.

He continues with examples and quotes from Angela Merkel:

But as Merkel supposedly said, “You can’t solve . . . tasks with charisma.” She is rational. She analyzes. She makes it about the situation, not about herself, as people in power often do. Her background in science is helpful here, surely. Politicians are often vain, obsessing about their image. Merkel is too objective for that. She cares about results and little else. A German writer observed in a tribute on her fiftieth birthday that unpretentiousness is Merkel’s main weapon.

There’s an old line about how if you want to live happy, live hidden. It’s true. The problem is, that means the rest of us are deprived of really good examples. We’re lucky to see someone like Merkel in the public eye, because she is the representative of a very large, silent majority.

Ryan then moves from fear to failure. Most people recognize ego as a concept of confidence. We’re scared to fail, or at least look like a failure.

At any given moment, there is the chance of failure or setbacks. Bill Walsh says, “Almost always, your road to victory goes through a place called ‘failure.’” In order to taste success again, we’ve got to understand what led to this moment (or these years) of difficulty, what went wrong and why. We must deal with the situation in order to move past it. We’ll need to accept it and to push through it.

A lot of this may seem really heavy and it is. The ego is a complex concept. We all have one and it manifests in different ways. Where does it come from? How is it formed? Is it a little devil always telling you the wrong things?

As Goethe once observed, the great failing is “to see yourself as more than you are and to value yourself at less than your true worth.”

It’s not always telling us the wrong things. Some times we need to be told we are worth more than we feel at a given moment. Depression and anxiety hit a lot of us really hard. Especially this year. Thanks pandemic!

Yvonn Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, has a saying around the only way to beat depression is with action. Our ego can help there too if harnessed correctly. Sometimes we need that kick in the pants to take action. We need a little confidence. Our ego can supply what we need to push through adversity. But Ryan reminds us to be humble.

As Plutarch finely expressed, “The future bears down upon each one of us with all the hazards of the unknown.” The only way out is through. 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. Pity isn’t necessary. Their identity isn’t threatened. They can get by without constant validation.

I really liked this cycle of fear, failure, confidence and humbleness. I really liked the entire book. I had so many highlights by the end. I’ve touched on so few. This could have been an exhaustive review and maybe that is telling. If you’re reading this trying to make a decision around if you should spend the time to read the book, maybe the fact that I highlighted more than would be appropriate to fit into this book review should indicate that you too will enjoy this book.

I wasn’t disappointed and I would recommend this book to anyone. I have many of Ryan’s other books in my queue such as The Obstacle Is The Way and Stillness Is The Key. Look for reviews on those books soon as well.

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