The path that Ryan Holiday took to writing a book about humility is quite surprising. It's almost the exact opposite of what one would expect of anyone from our culture, anyone of his generation, and especially anyone in his field. Barely twenty-nine years old, Holiday achieved early wealth, fame, and distinction in marketing, entrepreneurship, and writing. First book: bestseller. His explorations of philosophy in general and Stoicism in particular are well worth the read. Ego is the Enemy is a concise, provocative book. It has the rare quality of working as a touchstone, a book you can keep beside you and dip into over and over again.
Not a day goes by when some public figure or other does something ridiculous that undermines their reputation. Usually, it's an angry tantrum, a sexual indiscretion, or a drunken or drugged escapade. Before I even finished that list, some famous face probably sprang to mind. How many careers have to be destroyed by rampant egos before we start to realize that this could happen to anyone? Including me. Including you. When we let ego rear its ugly head and start making our decisions, we're heading for a fall. What Holiday has realized is that all of this was well known in antiquity. Philosophers whose writing has survived into our era already gave us a training manual for avoiding the traps and pitfalls of egotism. In fact, several of them. Popularizing the wisdom of five millennia is holy work. We can't afford to forget this stuff, and we need it now more than ever.
It's hard for us to hear a message that encourages humility, because we're constantly being fed messages about self-esteem. These are by no means incompatible traits. Humility somehow includes and acknowledges the possibility that we can do great things, and in fact that we can do more if we pace ourselves and avoid ruining our own legacy. The focus is not on how I am personally great, but on the reality that I can personally accomplish great things that live after me. When I've really done something worth doing, on the epochal scale, my name may have faded completely until the accomplishment feels inevitable, simply part of the background of the world.
When I met my husband, who is an aerospace engineer, he told me he'd always wanted to invent something so important that it would be named after him. I'm an historian, and I laughed. "If it's named after you, that means it's so obscure that only specialists will use it. Nobody remembers who invented the really important stuff. Who invented the scalpel? Who invented the button?" He replied, "Button" - possibly true, but the biography of the Miss Button who may have introduced the concept is lost to us. (Buttons as an object are much older than the Germanic language from whence that name is derived). (By the way, we both laughed really hard during that conversation). Thomas Jefferson invented the swivel chair, a revolutionary innovation but not one for which he is best known.
Ego is the enemy because narcissism is destructive. That's the great paradox. When we're motivated by concerns over our public image, how we compare to others, how well-liked we are, how much money we'll make, or when we'll get our next hotly desired gratification unit, we're sinking our own ships. We can never be satisfied by these pursuits. Acting out of any impulse based in social comparison will only undermine the very image we seek to perfect.
Ego is the Enemy should be taught in schools. If ever there is a Fame Academy, this should be the core text. It would eventually eliminate the root cause of the majority of our celebrity gossip, but that's okay, because there is plenty of work for us to do with that time instead. For Ryan Holiday, that work will probably be furthering his efforts to make Stoic philosophy more accessible for lay readers. For the rest of us, only time will tell.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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