Do you ever get the feeling of wanting to be better than, more than, or acknowledged for something? Have you ever overestimated your talents in a project, pursuit or career and it returned to bite you? Although ego can move us forward, there’s a dark side. “If you start believing in your own greatness, it is the death of your creativity,” observed the performance artist, Marina Abramović.
As a trainee teacher in my early 20s, I wanted to make a difference. With humility and hard work, my students experienced success. Then came promotion, recognition, and awards. The praise went to my head and I delusionally thought that I could succeed at anything. So, I pursued a law career. It was completely ill-suited to me. Starting at the bottom of the treadmill again hurt my ego. The energy that once fuelled me began to fizzle. And my confidence and quality of life suffered.
How can you avoid the same mistake? How do you prevent the big E word tripping you up, moving you away from your purpose, and preventing you from doing work that matters? The book, “Ego Is The Enemy” explains many strategies to prevent ego from sabotaging your success—regardless of your path.
Here are four strategies to get you started.
1. Know what’s important to you
The Stoic Philosopher, Seneca reminded us that euthymia is staying on your own path without distraction. Great leaders and thinkers throughout history have “gone into the wilderness” and returned with insight, inspiration and a plan to change the world. Silencing the noise gave rise to the quiet voice within them. So: Go for a nature hike, start meditating with Headspace, or even attend a meditation course. Ask yourself questions like, “Who am I? What do I want for my life? What should I focus on right now? Do I need this or is it ego? Do I have the right skills or am I trying to impress someone?”
2. Say little. Do much
Talk and hype can distract from action. “What’s on your mind?” Facebook asks. Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, emails, iPhones, and the comments section of the latest online article all scream for your attention. And they offer comfort. Many valuable pursuits are painfully difficult—like learning a craft, building a business or regular exercise. But talking is easy. So: Every night in your journal, ask yourself, “Did I spend 3 to 4 hours today on what I really care about?”
3. Stay a student
“As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance,” observed the physicist John Wheeler. As we first succeed, we find ourselves in new situations, facing new problems. The company founder must learn how to delegate. The writer, how to edit others. The comedian, how to act. The chef turned restaurateur, how to run the other side of the house. With success comes a growing pressure to pretend that we know more. In reality, mastery is a fluid, continual process. Socrates’ wisdom came from knowing that he knew nothing. Author Rich Cohen says The Rolling Stones longevity came from continuously reinventing themselves. So: Read a book on a subject you know nothing about. Or take up a martial art like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which has a saying: “In practice, there is no losing. There is only winning and learning. The only way to lose is to not practice.”
4. Alive time or dead time?
Francis Scott Key wrote the US national anthem while trapped on a ship. Malcolm X used a lengthy prison sentence to transform himself through books. Victor Frankl refined his psychologies of meaning and suffering during three Nazi concentration camps. Ian Fleming created Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by hand on bed rest because his doctors forbade him from using a typewriter. They all chose what the author, Robert Greene calls “Alive Time” — learning and utilizing every second—over, and “Dead Time” — being passive and succumbing to distractions. So: The next time you feel that life is on hold, use it as an opportunity to work on your purpose and address what you’ve ignored for too long.
These strategies are excerpted from the book, Ego Is The Enemy, by Ryan Holiday.
Steve Costello is a freelance writer and editor. He is also a former teacher and lawyer. Connect with him via Twitter @SteveWCostello.
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