There is no one moment that changes a person. There are many.
..history is also made by individuals who fought their egos at every turn, who eschewed the spotlight, and who put their higher goals above their desire for recognition.
I have tried to arrange these pages so that you might end in the same place I did when I finished writing it: that is, you will think less of yourself. I hope you will be less invested in the story you tell about your own specialness, and as a result, you will be liberated to accomplish the world- changing work you’ve set out to achieve.
But for people with ambitions, talents, drives, and potential to fulfill, ego comes with the territory.
The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self- centered ambition.
The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility— that’s ego. It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.
We assume the symptoms of success are the same as success itself— and in our naiveté, confuse the by- product with the cause.
Aspire. Success. Failure.
Humble in our aspirations Gracious in our success Resilient in our failures
PART I: ASPIRE
Detachment is a sort of natural ego antidote. It’s easy to be emotionally invested and infatuated with your own work.
What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self- awareness.
Because we will be action and education focused, and forgo validation and status, our ambition will not be grandiose but iterative— one foot in front of the other, learning and growing and putting in the time.
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.”
It was easier to talk about writing, to do the exciting things related to art and creativity and literature, than to commit the act itself.
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.
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.
If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. 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.”
“To be or to do? Which way will you go?”
In this course, it is not “Who do I want to be in life?” but “What is it that I want to accomplish in life?” Setting aside selfish interest, it asks: What calling does it serve? What principles govern my choices? Do I want to be like everyone else or do I want to do something different?
The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self- assessment is the antidote.
Each fighter, to become great, he said, needs to have someone better that they can learn from, someone lesser who they can teach, and someone equal that they can challenge themselves against.
..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.
She had purpose. She had direction. She wasn’t driven by passion, but by reason.
To be clear, I’m not talking about caring. I’m talking about 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. It is that burning, unquenchable desire to start or to achieve some vague, ambitious, and distant goal. This seemingly innocuous motivation is so far from the right track it hurts.
Because we only seem to hear about the passion of successful people, we forget that failures shared the same trait.
Passion typically masks a weakness. Its breathlessness and impetuousness and franticness are poor substitutes for discipline, for mastery, for strength and purpose and perseverance. You need to be able to spot this in others and in yourself, because while the origins of passion may be earnest and good, its effects are comical and then monstrous.
How can someone be busy and not accomplish anything? Well, that’s the passion paradox.
What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism. Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective.
Actually, purpose deemphasizes the I. Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself.
Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function.
Leave passion for the amateurs. Make it about what you feel you must do and say, not what you care about and wish to be.
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.
Imagine if for every person you met, you thought of some way to help them, something you could do for them?
It doesn’t matter how talented you are, how great your connections are, how much money you have. 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.
Anyone— particularly the ambitious— can fall prey to this narration, good and bad. It is natural for any young, ambitious person (or simply someone whose ambition is young) to get excited and swept up by their thoughts and feelings. Especially in a world that tells us to keep and promote a “personal brand.” We’re required to tell stories in order to sell our work and our talents, and after enough time, forget where the line is that separates our fictions from reality.
..adolescence is marked by a phenomenon known now as the “imaginary audience.”
We must prepare for pride and kill it early— or it will kill what we aspire to. We must be on guard against that wild self- confidence and self- obsession.
..just because you are quiet doesn’t mean that you are without pride. Privately thinking you’re better than others is still pride.
Where we decide to put our energy decides what we’ll ultimately accomplish.
I am delaying gratification by doing this. I am passing the marshmallow test. I am earning what my ambition burns for. I am making an investment in myself instead of in my ego. Give yourself a little credit for this choice, but not so much, because you’ve got to get back to the task at hand: practicing, working, improving.
Work is finding yourself alone at the track when the weather kept everyone else indoors. Work is pushing through the pain and crappy first
drafts and prototypes. It is ignoring whatever plaudits others are getting, and more importantly, ignoring whatever plaudits you may be getting. Because there is work to be done. Work doesn’t want to be good. It is made so, despite the headwind.
We know where we want to end up: success. We want to matter. Wealth and recognition and reputation are nice too. We want it all.
PART II: SUCCESS
With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pretend that we know more than we do. To pretend we already know everything. Scientia infla (knowledge puffs up). That’s the worry and the risk— thinking that we’re set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process.
No matter what you’ve done up to this point, you better still be a student. If you’re not still learning, you’re already dying.
The second we let the ego tell us we have graduated, learning grinds to a halt. That’s why Frank Shamrock said, “Always stay a student.” As in, it never ends.
..it’s not enough simply to want to learn. As people progress, they must also understand how they learn and then set up processes to facilitate this continual education. Otherwise, we are dooming ourselves to a sort of self- imposed ignorance.
Narrative is when you look back at an improbable or unlikely path to your success and say: I knew it all along. Instead of: I hoped. I worked. I got some good breaks. Or even: I thought this could happen. Of course you didn’t really know all along— or if you did, it was more faith than knowledge. But who wants to remember all the times you doubted yourself?
When we are aspiring we must resist the impulse to reverse engineer success from other people’s stories. When we achieve our own, we must resist the desire to pretend that everything unfolded exactly as we’d planned.
Instead of pretending that we are living some great story, we must remain focused on the execution— and on executing with excellence. We must shun the false crown and continue working on what got us here. Because that’s the only thing that will keep us here.
We start out knowing what is important to us, but once we’ve achieved it, we lose sight of our priorities. Ego sways us, and can ruin us.
The farther you travel down that path of accomplishment, whatever it may be, the more often you meet other successful people who make you feel insignificant.
Ego needs honors in order to be validated. Confidence, on the other hand, is able to wait and focus on the task at hand regardless of external recognition.
We feel the life and motion about us, and the universal beauty: the tides marching back and forth with weariless industry, laving the beautiful shores, and swaying the purple dulse of the broad meadows of the sea where the fishes are fed, the wild streams in rows white with waterfalls, ever in bloom and ever in song, spreading their branches over a thousand mountains; the vast forests feeding on the drenching sunbeams, every cell in a whirl of enjoyment; misty flocks of insects stirring all the air, the wild sheep and goats on the grassy ridges above the woods, bears in the berry- tangles, mink and beaver and otter far back on many a river and lake; Indians and adventurers pursuing their lonely ways; birds tending to their young— everywhere, everywhere, beauty and life, and glad, rejoicing action.
Sympatheia— a connectedness with the cosmos.
Ego tells us that meaning comes from activity, that being the center of attention is the only way to matter.
As our power or talents grow, we like to think that makes us special— that we live in blessed, unprecedented times.
In most cases, we think that people become successful through sheer energy and enthusiasm. We almost excuse ego because we think it’s part and parcel of the personality required to “make it big.” Maybe a bit of that overpoweringness is what got you where you are. But let’s ask:
Is it really sustainable for the next several decades? Can you really outwork and outrun everyone forever?
The answer is no. The ego tells us we’re invincible, that we have unlimited force that will never dissipate. But that can’t be what greatness requires— energy without end?
We have to stand up for ourselves, right?
But do we? So often, this is just ego, escalating tension more than dealing with it. Merkel is firm, clear, and patient. She’s willing to compromise on everything except the principle at stake— which far too many people lose sight of. That is sobriety. That is command of oneself.
“It requires a strong constitution to withstand repeated attacks of prosperity.”
Most successful people are people you’ve never heard of. They want it that way. It keeps them sober. It helps them do their jobs.
PART III: FAILURE
Almost without exception, this is what life does: it takes our plans and dashes them to pieces. Sometimes once, sometimes lots of times.
If success is ego intoxication, then failure can be a devastating ego blow— turning slips into falls and little troubles into great unravelings.
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.”
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.
According to Greene, there are two types of time in our lives: dead time, when people are passive and waiting, and alive time, when people are learning and acting and utilizing every second. Every moment of failure, every moment or situation that we did not deliberately choose or control, presents this choice: Alive time. Dead time.
Think of what you have been putting off. Issues you declined to deal with. Systemic problems that felt too overwhelming to address. Dead time is revived when we use it as an opportunity to do what we’ve long needed to do.
But what if we said: This is an opportunity for me. I am using it for my purposes. I will not let this be dead time for me.
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.
“Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self- satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
Recognition and rewards— those are just extra.
In fact, many significant life changes come from moments in which we are thoroughly demolished, in which everything we thought we knew about the world is rendered false. We might call these “Fight Club moments.”
1. They almost always came at the hands of some outside force or person. 2. They often involved things we already knew about ourselves, but were too scared to admit. 3. 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.
(which is your ego refusing to believe that what you don’t like could be true).
..threatened egotism is one of the most dangerous forces on earth.
We take risks. We mess up. 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.
He who will do anything to avoid failure will almost certainly do something worthy of a failure. The only real failure is abandoning your principles. Killing what you love because you can’t bear to part from it is selfish and stupid. If your reputation can’t absorb a few blows, it wasn’t worth anything in the first place.
..they don’t much care what other people think; they care whether they meet their own standards. And these standards are much, much higher than everyone else’s.
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.
A person who judges himself based on his own standards doesn’t crave the spotlight the same way as someone who lets applause dictate success. A person who can think long term doesn’t pity herself during short- term setbacks. A person who values the team can share credit and subsume his own interests in a way that most others can’t.
That it’s admirable to want to be better businessmen or businesswomen, better athletes, better conquerors. We should want to be better informed, better off financially . . . We should want, as I’ve said a few times in this book, to do great things. I know that I do. But no less impressive an accomplishment: being better people, being happier people, being balanced people, being content people, being humble and selfless people.
And what is most obvious but most ignored is that perfecting the personal regularly leads to success as a professional, but rarely the other way around. Working to refine our habitual thoughts, working to clamp down on destructive impulses, these are not simply the moral requirements of any decent person. They will make us more successful; they will help us navigate the treacherous waters that ambition will require us to travel. And they are also their own reward.