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

Rating: 5/5
Date read: October, 2016

Note: I purchased this book and took these notes to further my own learning. If you enjoy these notes, go buy the book!


I hesitated before reading this book because I didn’t think I had much of an ego. I thought of ego as the over-confident, loud-mouthed idiot. But it’s a much deeper problem. Focus on the work, not the outcomes. Stay a student. Practice restraint. Be lesser, do more. So much timeless advice and a book I’ll be re-reading often.

Book Notes

For people with ambition, talent, and drive, ego comes with the territory. What makes thinkers, doers, creatives, and entrepreneurs, makes us vulnerable to ego.

Ego is:

Ego is the enemy of:

Ego prevents a direct and honest connection to the world around us.

Marina Abramović: “If you start believing in your greatness, it is the death of your creativity.”

What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.

Many valuable endeavours we undertake are painfully difficult (coding, writing, mastering a craft). But talking is easy. Talking depletes us. Talking and doing fight for the same resources.

Plus, minus, and equal training system. To become great, one needs:
– someone better that they can learn from
– someone lesser who they can teach
– and someone equal that they can challenge themselves against.

Shamrock: “False ideas about yourself destroy you. For me, I always stay a student. That’s what martial arts are about, and you have to use that humility as a tool. You put yourself beneath someone you trust.”

You can’t learn if you think you already know.

You will not find the answer if you’re too self-assured to ask the questions.

What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism. Purpose is like passion with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective.

The critical work that you want to do will require your deliberation and consideration. Not passion.

Help yourself by helping others.

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

Be lesser, do more.

Restraint is a difficult skill but a critical one.

Alan Watts: “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.”

Imagination is dangerous when it runs wild.

Living clearly and presently takes courage.

Live with the tangible and real, even if it’s uncomfortable.

Edgar Degas complained to his friend about his trouble writing. “I can’t manage to say what I want, and yet I’m full of ideas.” His friend responds: “It’s not with ideas, my dear Degas, that one makes verse. It’s with words.” Or rather, with work.

Henry Ford: “You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.”

Ira Glass, on the Taste/Talent Gap: “All of us who do creative work… we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good… It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste—the thing that got you into the game—your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.”

Ego shortens success. We stop learning, stop listening, and lose our grasp on what matters.

Sobriety, open-mindedness, organisation, and purpose balance out the ego and price that comes with achievement and recognition.

Genghis Khan was not born a genius. Instead, as one biographer put it, his was “a persistent cycle of pragmatic learning, experimental adaptation, and constant revision driven by his uniquely disciplined and focused will.”

What made the Mongols different was their ability to weigh each situation objectively, and if need be, swap out previous practices for new ones.

It takes humility to grasp that you know less, even as you know and grasp more and more.

With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pretend that we know more than we do. To pretend we already know everything. Understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process.

Do you know how you can tell when someone is truly humble? I believe there’s one simple test: because they consistently observe and listen. They don’t assume, ‘I know the way.’”

The way to do really big things seems to be to start with deceptively small things.

Make it about the work and the principles behind it—not about a glorious vision that makes a good headline.

We think “yes” will let us accomplish more, when in reality it prevents exactly what we seek.

This is especially true with money. If you don’t know how much you need, the default easily becomes: more.

If you can’t manage yourself, you won’t be able to manage others.

Tony Adams: “Play for the name on the front of the jersey and they’ll remember the name on the back.”

Bill Walsh: “Almost always, your road to victory goes through a place called ‘failure.’”

Narcissistic injury: when we take personally totally indifferent and objective events.

The less attached we are to outcomes, the better. When the effort—not the results, good or bad—is enough.

John Wooden: “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.”

Marcus Aurelius: “Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do… Sanity means tying it to your own actions.”

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.

Warren Buffett: make a distinction between the inner scorecard and the external one.

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

See much, study much, suffer much, that is the path to wisdom.

Training is like sweeping the floor. Just because we’ve done it once, doesn’t mean the floor is clean forever. Every day the dust comes back. Every day we must sweep. The same is true for ego.

Any fool can learn from experience. The trick is to learn from other people’s experience.