We all have ego within us. It is natural to have self-esteem or self-importance, and it is right for us to pursue these emotions if we do not possess them. Some people have confidence naturally, it is innate within them. Others have to work to find these emotions from within. But there is a difference between having these healthy emotions and the destruction they can cause once we allow them to write the story of our lives. Once ego begins to rule our actions in a destructive way, we must learn to kill it. More often than not, however, we cannot see when the two start to blur.
Ryan Holiday finishes his book, Ego is the Enemy, with the following message, “Every day for the rest of your life you will find yourself at one of three phases: aspiration, success, failure. You will battle the ego in each of them. You will make mistakes in each of them. You must sweep the floor every minute of every day. And then sweep again.”
What Holiday is speaking about here is that no matter what happens in your life, your ego will come into play. Whether you are aspiring for something, succeeding at a goal, or failing, your ego will roar its ugly head and try to convince you otherwise. You will hear the small voice in your head start creeping in. When you are succeeding, it will tell you you are unstoppable, nothing can befall you. When aspiring, it will tell you others have only achieved success earlier than you through shortcuts and cheating. And when failing, it will remind you that those around you cannot see your genius, that you are right and everyone else is wrong.
Before Apple was the Apple we all know today, it was a company run by Steve Jobs and his ego. Through a series of events, Jobs’ ego led to his ousting from the company he spent his life building. He could not get out of his own way and wanted to control every aspect of the company the way he wanted it. He did not want to listen to his board of directors or others input. And so, he fell from grace. He would spend years studying what went wrong and where he miscalculated. He would study philosophy and management and would come to have an understanding of where his faults had lay. Through yet another series of events, including starting a brand new computer company, NeXT, and that company later being bought by Apple, Jobs would return to his original home of Apple and once again regain control of his throne at the company, this time with the skills necessary to take the company, and himself, in the direction that was needed to succeed, not just for himself, but for the betterment of Apple.
This is not to say Jobs went from being an intolerable tyrant to being a saint to work with. Even once he regained control of Apple, he was known for his demanding vision for perfection and his verbal outbursts. But he had, to some degree, learned to recognize when others were right and when it was time to listen to others’ voices and not just his own. All one has to do is look at how well Pixar flourished under Jobs. He came to learn that the studio and its employees were good at what they did and didn’t need him over their shoulder studying what they did and critiquing every little detail. As Ed Catmull writes in Creativity, Inc., “In the time I worked with Steve, he didn’t just gain the kind of practical experience you would expect to acquire while running two dynamic, successful businesses; he also got smarter about when to stop pushing people and how to keep pushing them, if necessary, without breaking them. He became fairer and wiser, and his understanding of partnership deepened…”
Sometimes, it is necessary to fall in order to once again stand. To paraphrase Arthur Schopenhauer, it is through loss that teaches us the worth of things.
Robert Half once was quoted as saying an “ego trip is a journey to nowhere.” I would rephrase that and say it is a trip to destruction. You may be able to get away with ego here or there, but eventually it will catch up to you.
Ego is an addiction. Once you feed it, it needs to be fed again. In Little Shop of Horrors, the musical and film, Seymour, the protagonist, is gifted with a plant, the Audrey II, from outer space. As the story progresses, we learn the plant requires blood in order to survive. But what starts out as a single drop of blood to feed the plant quickly turns to murder, the plant always wanting more and more blood to feed off of.
This is ego. Always requiring more. Never satisfied. Always looking for the next bit of praise or recognition, always looking for more and more blood to feed its insatiable hunger.
Now compare Jobs to that of Jeff Dean. His name might not be as familiar but his impact on the world has been just as important. In Daniel Coyle’s phenomenal book, The Culture Code, Coyle explains how Dean, a Google engineer from Minnesota, changed the game for Google’s AdWords, helping move Google from a multimillion dollar company to multibillion. According to Coyle, “Dean’s fix unlocked the problem… In the year following Dean’s fix, Google’s profits went from $6 million to $99 million. By 2014, the AdWords engine was producing $160 million per day, and advertising was providing 90 percent of Google’s revenues.”
The catch? Dean doesn’t remember the accomplishment, and this is because he saw it as regular course of business. As Dean explains to Coyle, “I mean, I remember that it happened. But to be completely honest, it didn’t register strongly in my memory because it didn’t feel like that big of a deal. It didn’t feel special or different. It was normal.”
Dean’s story is a lesson in humility. What’s most important in situations like this is the team. The end-goal for the collective group. Nothing is guaranteed and all can be lost tomorrow. How we work with each other today for the betterment of the group is what is most important.
So how can we be like Dean and keep our egos in check?
We must start by finding actionable steps we can take to ward off ego once it begins to rule our actions. One way is to have an accountability partner, someone who will be frank and honest with you. This person can be a significant other, close friend, or colleague. They are there to keep us in check when we begin to allow our ego to direct our life story.
We must learn to be open. Ego feeds into paranoia. It tells you others are encroaching on your genius, that they want everything you have in life and will destroy you in order to get it. It tells you life is a zero-sum game and there can only be one winner.
We must understand that there are things within our control and things that are not. How we react to the world and our situations is within our control. It was within Dean’s control to find a solution to the Google AdWords problem. Dean could have asked for a promotion, he could have left and gone to a new organization if he didn’t get it. He could have done any number of things. But instead he responded by saying it was normal course of business. He understood his position within the larger picture of the company, and he understood it was within his control to fix the problem at hand. He found the solution and put that out into the world without need or desire to be recognized. Understanding what is in our control will help center us and quiet the ego. It is about the work we do, not the recognition we receive for it. In either case, ego will be there, knocking on the door asking to be let in. But by understanding ourselves and our control over our emotions, we know we don’t have to let it in.
Remember our time on this earth is limited. None of us know when that time will come to an end. We must therefore make the most of our time, not in a zero-sum game, but in the game of impact. What are you providing this world? Are you making the most of your time? As Seneca writes, “If each one could have the number of his future years set before him as is possible in the case of the years that have passed, how alarmed would those be who saw only a few remaining, how sparing of them would they be!”
What Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy, reminds us is that it is not about the self. It is not about feeding the ego. It is about the work. What we’re putting out into the world. The differences we’ve made to those around us. As Holiday says, “You must sweep the floor every minute of every day. And then sweep again.”