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Ego Is the Enemy / (by Ryan Holiday, 2016) -

Ego Is the Enemy /     (by Ryan Holiday, 2016) -

Ego Is the Enemy / (by Ryan Holiday, 2016) -

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Ego Is the Enemy / (by Ryan Holiday, 2016) -
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2016
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Ryan Holiday
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Ryan Holiday
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upper_intermediate
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06:55:53
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88 kbps
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Ego Is the Enemy / :

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: Ego Is the Enemy

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Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty and sadness and remains far behind yours. Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find those words. RAINER MARIA RILKE THE PAINFUL PROLOGUE T his is not a book about me. But since this is a book about ego, Im going to address a question that Id be a hypocrite not to have thought about. Who the hell am I to write it? My story is not particularly important for the lessons that follow, but I want to tell it briefly here at the beginning in order to provide some context. For I have experienced ego at each of its stages in my short life: Aspiration. Success. Failure. And back again and back again. When I was nineteen years old, sensing some astounding and life-changing opportunities, I dropped out of college. Mentors vied for my attention, groomed me as their prot?g?. Seen as going places, I was the kid. Success came quickly. After I became the youngest executive at a Beverly Hills talent management agency, I helped sign and work with a number of huge rock bands. I advised on books that went on to sell millions of copies and invent their own literary genres. Around the time I turned twenty-one, I came on as a strategist for American Apparel, then one of the hottest fashion brands in the world. Soon, I was the director of marketing. By twenty-five, I had published my first bookwhich was an immediate and controversial best sellerwith my face prominently on the cover. A studio optioned the rights to create a television show about my life. In the next few years, I accumulated many of the trappings of successinfluence, a platform, press, resources, money, even a little notoriety. Later, I built a successful company on the back of those assets, where I worked with well-known, well-paying clients and did the kind of work that got me invited to speak at conferences and fancy events. With success comes the temptation to tell oneself a story, to round off the edges, to cut out your lucky breaks and add a certain mythology to it all. You know, that arcing narrative of Herculean struggle for greatness against all odds: sleeping on the floor, being disowned by my parents, suffering for my ambition. Its a type of storytelling in which eventually your talent becomes your identity and your accomplishments become your worth. But a story like this is never honest or helpful. In my retelling to you just now, I left a lot out. Conveniently omitted were the stresses and temptations; the stomach-turning drops and the mistakesall the mistakeswere left on the cutting-room floor in favor of the highlight reel. They are the times I would rather not discuss: A public evisceration by someone I looked up to, which so crushed me at the time that I was later taken to the emergency room. The day I lost my nerve, walked into my bosss office, and told him I couldnt cut it and was going back to schooland meant it. The ephemeral nature of best-sellerdom, and how short it actually was (a week). The book signing that one person showed up at. The company I founded tearing itself to pieces and having to rebuild it. Twice. These are just some of the moments that get nicely edited out. This fuller picture itself is still only a fraction of a life, but at least it hits more of the important notesat least the important ones for this book: ambition, achievement, and adversity. Im not someone who believes in epiphanies. There is no one moment that changes a person. There are many. During a period of about six months in 2014, it seemed those moments were all happening in succession. First, American Apparelwhere I did much of my best workteetered on the edge of bankruptcy, hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, a shell of its former self. Its founder, who I had deeply admired since I was a young man, was unceremoniously fired by his own handpicked board of directors, and down to sleeping on a friends couch. Then the talent agency where I made my bones was in similar shape, sued peremptorily by clients to whom it owed a lot of money. Another mentor of mine seemingly unraveled around the same time, taking our relationship with him. These were the people I had shaped my life around. The people I looked up to and trained under. Their stabilityfinancially, emotionally, psychologicallywas not just something I took for granted, it was central to my existence and self-worth. And yet, there they were, imploding right in front of me, one after another. The wheels were coming off, or so it felt. To go from wanting to be like someone your whole life to realizing you never want to be like him is a kind of whiplash that you cant prepare for. Nor was I exempt from this dissolution myself. Just when I could least afford it, problems I had neglected in my own life began to emerge. Despite my successes, I found myself back in the city I started in, stressed and overworked, having handed much of my hard-earned freedom away because I couldnt say no to money and the thrill of a good crisis. I was wound so tight that the slightest disruption sent me into a sputtering, inconsolable rage. My work, which had always come easy, became labored. My faith in myself and other people collapsed. My quality of life did too. I remember arriving at my house one day, after weeks on the road, and having an intense panic attack because the Wi-Fi wasnt workingIf I dont send these e-mails. If I dont send these e-mails. If I dont send these e-mails. If I dont send these e-mails . . . You think youre doing what youre supposed to. Society rewards you for it. But then you watch your future wife walk out the door because you arent the person you used to be. How does something like this happen? Can you really go from feeling like youre standing on the shoulders of giants one day, and then the next youre prying yourself out of the rubble of multiple implosions, trying to pick up the pieces from the ruins? One benefit, however, was that it forced me to come to terms with the fact that I was a workaholic. Not in an Oh, he just works too much kind of way, or in the Just relax and play it off sense, but more, If he doesnt start going to meetings and get clean, he will die an early death. I realized that the same drive and compulsion that had made me successful so early came with a priceas it had for so many others. It wasnt so much the amount of work but the outsized role it had taken in my sense of self. I was trapped so terribly inside my own head that I was a prisoner to my own thoughts. The result was a sort of treadmill of pain and frustration, and I needed to figure out whyunless I wanted to break in an equally tragic fashion. For a long time, as a researcher and writer, I have studied history and business. Like anything that involves people, seen over a long enough timeline universal issues begin to emerge. These are the topics I had long been fascinated with. Foremost among them was ego. I was not unfamiliar with ego and its effects. In fact, I had been researching this book for nearly a year before the events I have just recounted for you. But my painful experiences in this period brought the notions I was studying into focus in ways that I could never have previously understood. It allowed me to see the ill effects of ego played out not just in myself, or across the pages of history, but in friends and clients and colleagues, some at the highest levels of many industries. Ego has cost the people I admire hundreds of millions of dollars, and like Sisyphus, rolled them back from their goals just as theyve achieved them. I have now at least peeked over that precipice myself. A few months after my own realization, I had the phrase EGO IS THE ENEMY tattooed on my right forearm. Where the words came from I dont know, probably from a book I read long, long ago, but they were immediately a source of great solace and direction. On my left arm, of similarly muddled attribution, it says: THE OBSTACLE IS THE WAY. Its these two phrases that I look at now, every single day, and use them to guide the decisions in my life. I cant help but see them when I swim, when I meditate, when I write, when I get out of the shower in the morning, and both prepare meadmonish meto choose the right course in essentially any situation I might face. I wrote this book not because I have attained some wisdom I feel qualified to preach, but because its the book I wish existed at critical turning points in my own life. When I, like everyone else, was called to answer the most critical questions a person can ask themselves in life: Who do I want to be? And: What path will I take? (Quod vitae sectabor iter.) And because Ive found these questions to be timeless and universal, except for this note, I have tried to rely on philosophy and historical examples in this book instead of my personal life. While the history books are filled with tales of obsessive, visionary geniuses who remade the world in their image with sheer, almost irrational force, Ive found that if you go looking youll find that 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. Engaging with and retelling these stories has been my method of learning and absorbing them. Like my other books, this one is deeply influenced by Stoic philosophy and indeed all the great classical thinkers. I borrow heavily from them all in my writing just as I have leaned on them my entire life. If there is anything that helps you in this book, it will be because of them and not me. The orator Demosthenes once said that virtue begins with understanding and is fulfilled by courage. We must begin by seeing ourselves and the world in a new way for the first time. Then we must fight to be different and fight to stay differentthats the hard part. Im not saying you should repress or crush every ounce of ego in your lifeor that doing so is even possible. These are just reminders, moral stories to encourage our better impulses. In Aristotles famous Ethics, he uses the analogy of a warped piece of wood to describe human nature. In order to eliminate warping or curvature, a skilled woodworker slowly applies pressure in the opposite directionessentially, bending it straight. Of course, a couple of thousand years later Kant snorted, Out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing can be made straight. We might not ever be straight, but we can strive for straighter. Its always nice to be made to feel special or empowered or inspired. But thats not the aim of this book. Instead, 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 youve set out to achieve. INTRODUCTION The first principle is that you must not fool yourselfand you are the easiest person to fool. RICHARD FEYNMAN M aybe youre young and brimming with ambition. Maybe youre young and youre struggling. Maybe youve made that first couple million, signed your first deal, been selected to some elite group, or maybe youre already accomplished enough to last a lifetime. Maybe youre stunned to find out how empty it is at the top. Maybe youre charged with leading others through a crisis. Maybe you just got fired. Maybe you just hit rock bottom. Wherever you are, whatever youre doing, your worst enemy already lives inside you: your ego. Not me, you think. No one would ever call me an egomaniac. Perhaps youve always thought of yourself as a pretty balanced person. But for people with ambitions, talents, drives, and potential to fulfill, ego comes with the territory. Precisely what makes us so promising as thinkers, doers, creatives, and entrepreneurs, what drives us to the top of those fields, makes us vulnerable to this darker side of the psyche. Now this is not a book about ego in the Freudian sense. Freud was fond of explaining the ego by way of analogyour ego was the rider on a horse, with our unconscious drives representing the animal while the ego tried to direct them. Modern psychologists, on the other hand, use the word egotist to refer to someone dangerously focused on themselves and with disregard for anyone else. All these definitions are true enough but of little value outside a clinical setting. The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition. Thats the definition this book will use. Its that petulant child inside every person, the one that chooses getting his or her way over anything or anyone else. The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utilitythats ego. Its the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent. Its when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us. When, as the football coach Bill Walsh explained, self-confidence becomes arrogance, assertiveness becomes obstinacy, and self-assurance becomes reckless abandon. This is the ego, as the writer Cyril Connolly warned, that sucks us down like the law of gravity. In this way, ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success. It repulses advantages and opportunities. Its a magnet for enemies and errors. It is Scylla and Charybdis. Most of us arent egomaniacs, but ego is there at the root of almost every conceivable problem and obstacle, from why we cant win to why we need to win all the time and at the expense of others. From why we dont have what we want to why having what we want doesnt seem to make us feel any better. We dont usually see it this way. We think something else is to blame for our problems (most often, other people). We are, as the poet Lucretius put it a few thousand years ago, the proverbial sick man ignorant of the cause of his malady. Especially for successful people who cant see what ego prevents them from doing because all they can see is what theyve already done. With every ambition and goal we havebig or smallego is there undermining us on the very journey weve put everything into pursuing. The pioneering CEO Harold Geneen compared egoism to alcoholism: The egotist does not stumble about, knocking things off his desk. He does not stammer or drool. No, instead, he becomes more and more arrogant, and some people, not knowing what is underneath such an attitude, mistake his arrogance for a sense of power and self-confidence. You could say they start to mistake that about themselves too, not realizing the disease theyve contracted or that theyre killing themselves with it. If ego is the voice that tells us were better than we really are, we can say ego inhibits true success by preventing a direct and honest connection to the world around us. One of the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous defined ego as a conscious separation from. From what? Everything. The ways this separation manifests itself negatively are immense: We cant work with other people if weve put up walls. We cant improve the world if we dont understand it or ourselves. We cant take or receive feedback if we are incapable of or uninterested in hearing from outside sources. We cant recognize opportunitiesor create themif instead of seeing what is in front of us, we live inside our own fantasy. Without an accurate accounting of our own abilities compared to others, what we have is not confidence but delusion. How are we supposed to reach, motivate, or lead other people if we cant relate to their needsbecause weve lost touch with our own? The performance artist Marina Abramovi? puts it directly: If you start believing in your greatness, it is the death of your creativity. Just one thing keeps ego aroundcomfort. Pursuing great workwhether it is in sports or art or businessis often terrifying. Ego soothes that fear. Its a salve to that insecurity. Replacing the rational and aware parts of our psyche with bluster and self-absorption, ego tells us what we want to hear, when we want to hear it. But it is a short-term fix with a long-term consequence. EGO WAS ALWAYS THERE. NOW ITS EMBOLDENED. Now more than ever, our culture fans the flames of ego. Its never been easier to talk, to puff ourselves up. We can brag about our goals to millions of our fans and followersthings only rock stars and cult leaders used to have. We can follow and interact with our idols on Twitter, we can read books and sites and watch TED Talks, drink from a fire hose of inspiration and validation like never before (theres an app for that). We can name ourselves CEO of our exists-only-on-paper company. We can announce big news on social media and let the congratulations roll in. We can publish articles about ourselves in outlets that used to be sources of objective journalism. Some of us do this more than others. But its only a matter of degree. Besides the changes in technology, were told to believe in our uniqueness above all else. Were told to think big, live big, to be memorable and dare greatly. We think that success requires a bold vision or some sweeping planafter all, thats what the founders of this company or that championship team supposedly had. (But did they? Did they really?) We see risk-taking swagger and successful people in the media, and eager for our own successes, try to reverse engineer the right attitude, the right pose. We intuit a causal relationship that isnt there. We assume the symptoms of success are the same as success itselfand in our naivet?, confuse the by-product with the cause. Sure, ego has worked for some. Many of historys most famous men and women were notoriously egotistical. But so were many of its greatest failures. Far more of them, in fact. But here we are with a culture that urges us to roll the dice. To make the gamble, ignoring the stakes. WHEREVER YOU ARE, EGO IS TOO. At any given time in life, people find themselves at one of three stages. Were aspiring to somethingtrying to make a dent in the universe. We have achieved successperhaps a little, perhaps a lot. Or we have failedrecently or continually. Most of us are in these stages in a fluid sensewere aspiring until we succeed, we succeed until we fail or until we aspire to more, and after we fail we can begin to aspire or succeed again. Ego is the enemy every step along this way. In a sense, ego is the enemy of building, of maintaining, and of recovering. When things come fast and easy, this might be fine. But in times of change, of difficulty . . . And therefore, the three parts that this book is organized into: Aspire. Success. Failure. The aim of that structure is simple: to help you suppress ego early before bad habits take hold, to replace the temptations of ego with humility and discipline when we experience success, and to cultivate strength and fortitude so that when fate turns against you, youre not wrecked by failure. In short, it will help us be: Humble in our aspirations Gracious in our success Resilient in our failures This is not to say that youre not unique and that you dont have something amazing to contribute in your short time on this planet. This is not to say that there is not room to push past creative boundaries, to invent, to feel inspired, or to aim for truly ambitious change and innovation. On the contrary, in order to properly do these things and take these risks we need balance. As the Quaker William Penn observed, Buildings that lie so exposed to the weather need a good foundation. SO, WHAT NOW? This book you hold in your hands is written around one optimistic assumption: Your ego is not some power youre forced to satiate at every turn. It can be managed. It can be directed. In this book, well look at individuals like William Tecumseh Sherman, Katharine Graham, Jackie Robinson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bill Walsh, Benjamin Franklin, Belisarius, Angela Merkel, and George C. Marshall. Could they have accomplished what they accomplishedsaving faltering companies, advancing the art of war, integrating baseball, revolutionizing football offense, standing up to tyranny, bravely bearing misfortuneif ego had left them ungrounded and self-absorbed? It was their sense of reality and awarenessone that the author and strategist Robert Greene once said we must take to like a spider in its webthat was at the core of their great art, great writing, great design, great business, great marketing, and great leadership. What we find when we study these individuals is that they were grounded, circumspect, and unflinchingly real. Not that any of them were wholly without ego. But they knew how to suppress it, channel it, subsume it when it counted. They were great yet humble. Wait, but so-and-so had a huge ego and was successful. But what about Steve Jobs? What about Kanye West? We can seek to rationalize the worst behavior by pointing to outliers. But no one is truly successful because they are delusional, self-absorbed, or disconnected. Even if these traits are correlated or associated with certain well-known individuals, so are a few others: addiction, abuse (of themselves and others), depression, mania. In fact, what we see when we study these people is that they did their best work in the moments when they fought back against these impulses, disorders, and flaws. Only when free of ego and baggage can anyone perform to their utmost. For this reason, were also going to look at individuals like Howard Hughes, the Persian king Xerxes, John DeLorean, Alexander the Great, and at the many cautionary tales of others who lost their grip on reality and in the process made it clear what a gamble ego can be. Well look at the costly lessons they learned and the price they paid in misery and self-destruction. Well look at how often even the most successful people vacillate between humility and ego and the problems this causes. When we remove ego, were left with what is real. What replaces ego is humility, yesbut rock-hard humility and confidence. Whereas ego is artificial, this type of confidence can hold weight. Ego is stolen. Confidence is earned. Ego is self-anointed, its swagger is artifice. One is girding yourself, the other gaslighting. Its the difference between potent and poisonous. As youll see in the pages that follow, that self-confidence took an unassuming and underestimated general and turned him into Americas foremost warrior and strategist during the Civil War. Ego took a different general from the heights of power and influence after that same war and drove him to destitution and ignominy. One took a quiet, sober German scientist and made her not just a new kind of leader but a force for peace. The other took two different but equally brilliant and bold engineering minds of the twentieth century and built them up in a whirlwind of hype and celebrity before dashing their hopes against the rocks of failure, bankruptcy, scandal, and insanity. One guided one of the worst teams in NFL history to the Super Bowl in three seasons, and then on to be one of most dominant dynasties in the game. Meanwhile, countless other coaches, politicians, entrepreneurs, and writers have overcome similar oddsonly to succumb to the more inevitable probability of handing the top spot right back to someone else. Some learn humility. Some choose ego. Some are prepared for the vicissitudes of fate, both positive and negative. Others are not. Which will you choose? Who will you be? Youve picked up this book because you sense that youll need to answer this question eventually, consciously or not. Well, here we are. Lets get to it. ASPIRE Here, we are setting out to do something. We have a goal, a calling, a new beginning. Every great journey begins hereyet far too many of us never reach our intended destination. Ego more often than not is the culprit. We build ourselves up with fantastical stories, we pretend we have it all figured out, we let our star burn bright and hot only to fizzle out, and we have no idea why. These are symptoms of ego, for which humility and reality are the cure. He is a bold surgeon, they say, whose hand does not tremble when he performs an operation upon his own person; and he is often equally bold who does not hesitate to pull off the mysterious veil of self-delusion, which covers from his view the deformities of his own conduct. ADAM SMITH S ometime around the year 374 B.C., Isocrates, one of the most well-known teachers and rhetoricians in Athens, wrote a letter to a young man named Demonicus. Isocrates had been a friend of the boys recently deceased father and wanted to pass on to him some advice on how to follow his fathers example. The advice ranged from practical to moralall communicated in what Isocrates described as noble maxims. They were, as he put it, precepts for the years to come. Like many of us, Demonicus was ambitious, which is why Isocrates wrote him, because the path of ambition can be dangerous. Isocrates began by informing the young man that no adornment so becomes you as modesty, justice, and self-control; for these are the virtues by which, as all men are agreed, the character of the young is held in restraint. Practice self-control, he said, warning Demonicus not to fall under the sway of temper, pleasure, and pain. And abhor flatterers as you would deceivers; for both, if trusted, injure those who trust them. He wanted him to Be affable in your relations with those who approach you, and never haughty; for the pride of the arrogant even slaves can hardly endure and Be slow in deliberation, but be prompt to carry out your resolves and that the best thing which we have in ourselves is good judgment. Constantly train your intellect, he told him, for the greatest thing in the smallest compass is a sound mind in a human body. Some of this advice might sound familiar. Because it made its way over the next two thousand years to William Shakespeare, who often warned about ego run amok. In fact, in Hamlet, using this very letter as his model, Shakespeare puts Isocrates words in the mouth of his character Polonius in a speech to his son, Laertes. The speech, if you happen to have heard it, wraps up with this little verse. This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell. My blessing season this in thee! As it happened, Shakespeares words also made their way to a young United States military officer named William Tecumseh Sherman, who would go on to become perhaps this countrys greatest general and strategic thinker. He may never have heard of Isocrates, but he loved the play and often quoted this very speech. Like Demonicus, Shermans father died when he was very young. Like Demonicus, he was taken under the wing of a wise, older man, in this case Thomas Ewing, a soon-to-be U.S. senator and friend of Shermans father, who adopted the young boy and raised him as his own. Whats interesting about Sherman is that despite his connected father, almost no one would have predicted much more than regional accomplishmentsleast of all that he would one day need to take the unprecedented step of refusing the presidency of the United States. Unlike a Napoleon, who bursts upon the scene from nowhere and disappears in failure just as quickly, Shermans ascent was a slow and gradual one. He spent his early years at West Point, and then in the army. For his first few years in service, Sherman traversed nearly the entire United States on horseback, slowly learning with each posting. As the rumblings of Civil War broke out, Sherman made his way east to volunteer his services and he was shortly put to use at the Battle of Bull Run, a rather disastrous Union defeat. Benefiting from a dire shortage of leadership, Sherman was promoted to brigadier general and was summoned to meet with President Lincoln and his top military adviser. On several occasions, Sherman freely strategized and planned with the president, but at the end of his trip, he made one strange request; hed accept his new promotion only with the assurance that hed not have to assume superior command. Would Lincoln give him his word on that? With every other general asking for as much rank and power as possible, Lincoln happily agreed. At this point in time, Sherman felt more comfortable as a number two. He felt he had an honest appreciation for his own abilities and that this role best suited him. Imagine thatan ambitious person turning down a chance to advance in responsibilities because he actually wanted to be ready for them. Is that really so crazy? Not that Sherman was always the perfect model of restraint and order. Early in the war, tasked with defending the state of Kentucky with insufficient troops, his mania and tendency to doubt himself combined in a wicked way. Ranting and raving about being undersupplied, unable to get out of his own head, paranoid about enemy movements, he broke form and spoke injudiciously to several newspaper reporters. In the ensuing controversy, he was temporarily recalled from his command. It took weeks of rest for him to recover. It was one of a few nearly catastrophic moments in his otherwise steadily ascendant career. It was after this brief stumblehaving learned from itthat Sherman truly made his mark. For instance, during the siege at Fort Donelson, Sherman technically held a senior rank to General Ulysses S. Grant. While the rest of Lincolns generals fought amongst themselves for personal power and recognition, Sherman waived his rank, choosing to cheerfully support and reinforce Grant instead of issuing orders. This is your show, Sherman told him in a note accompanying a shipment of supplies; call upon me for any assistance I can provide. Together, they won one of the Unions first victories in the war. Building on his successes, Sherman began to advocate for his famous march to the seaa strategically bold and audacious plan, not born out of some creative genius but rather relying on the exact topography he had scouted and studied as a young officer in what had then seemed like a pointless backwater outpost. Where Sherman had once been cautious, he was now confident. But unlike so many others who possess great ambition, he earned this opinion. As he carved a path from Chattanooga to Atlanta and then Atlanta to the sea, he avoided traditional battle after traditional battle. Any student of military history can see how the exact same invasion, driven by ego instead of a strong sense of purpose, would have had a far different ending. His realism allowed him to see a path through the South that others thought impossible. His entire theory of maneuver warfare rested on deliberately avoiding frontal assaults or shows of strength in the form of pitched battles, and ignoring criticism designed to bait a reaction. He paid no notice and stuck to his plan. By the end of the war, Sherman was one of the most famous men in America, and yet he sought no public office, had no taste for politics, and wished simply to do his job and then eventually retire. Dismissing the incessant praise and attention endemic to such success, he wrote as a warning to his friend Grant, Be natural and yourself and this glittering flattery will be as the passing breeze of the sea on a warm summer day. One of Shermans biographers summarized the man and his unique accomplishments in a remarkable passage. It is why he serves as our model in this phase of our ascent. Among men who rise to fame and leadership two types are recognizablethose who are born with a belief in themselves and those in whom it is a slow growth dependent on actual achievement. To the men of the last type their own success is a constant surprise, and its fruits the more delicious, yet to be tested cautiously with a haunting sense of doubt whether it is not all a dream. In that doubt lies true modesty, not the sham of insincere self-depreciation but the modesty of moderation, in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose. One must ask: if your belief in yourself is not dependent on actual achievement, then what is it dependent on? The answer, too often when we are just setting out, is nothing. Ego. And this is why we so often see precipitous rises followed by calamitous falls. So which type of person will you be? Like all of us, Sherman had to balance talent and ambition and intensity, especially when he was young. His victory in this struggle was largely why he was able to manage the life-altering success that eventually came his way. This probably all sounds strange. Where Isocrates and Shakespeare wished us to be self-contained, self-motivated, and ruled by principle, most of us have been trained to do the opposite. Our cultural values almost try to make us dependent on validation, entitled, and ruled by our emotions. For a generation, parents and teachers have focused on building up everyones self-esteem. From there, the themes of our gurus and public figures have been almost exclusively aimed at inspiring, encouraging, and assuring us that we can do whatever we set our minds to. In reality, this makes us weak. Yes, you, with all your talent and promise as a boy wonder or a girl-whos-going-places. We take it for granted that you have promise. Its why youve landed in the prestigious university you now attend, why youve secured the funding you have for your business, why youve been hired or promoted, why whatever opportunity you now have has fallen into your lap. As Irving Berlin put it, Talent is only the starting point. The question is: Will you be able to make the most of it? Or will you be your own worst enemy? Will you snuff out the flame that is just getting going? What we see in Sherman was a man deeply tied and connected to reality. He was a man who came from nothing and accomplished great things, without ever feeling that he was in someway entitled to the honors he received. In fact, he regularly and consistently deferred to others and was more than happy to contribute to a winning team, even if it meant less credit or fame for himself. Its sad to think that generations of young boys learned about Picketts glorious cavalry charge, a Confederate charge that failed, but the model of Sherman as a quiet, unglamorous realist is forgotten, or worse, vilified. One might say that the ability to evaluate ones own ability is the most important skill of all. Without it, improvement is impossible. And certainly ego makes it difficult every step of the way. It is certainly more pleasurable to focus on our talents and strengths, but where does that get us? Arrogance and self-absorption inhibit growth. So does fantasy and vision. In this phase, you must practice seeing yourself with a little distance, cultivating the ability to get out of your own head. Detachment is a sort of natural ego antidote. Its easy to be emotionally invested and infatuated with your own work. Any and every narcissist can do that. What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness. For your work to have truth in it, it must come from truth. If you want to be more than a flash in the pan, you must be prepared to focus on the long term. We will learn that though we think big, we must act and live small in order to accomplish what we seek. Because we will be action and education focused, and forgo validation and status, our ambition will not be grandiose but iterativeone foot in front of the other, learning and growing and putting in the time. With their aggression, intensity, self-absorption, and endless self-promotion, our competitors dont realize how they jeopardize their own efforts (to say nothing of their sanity). We will challenge the myth of the self-assured genius for whom doubt and introspection is foreign, as well as challenge the myth of pained, tortured artist who must sacrifice his health for his work. Where they are both divorced from reality and divorced from other people, we will be deeply connected, aware, and learning from all of it. Facts are better than dreams, as Churchill put it. Although we share with many others a vision for greatness, we understand that our path toward it is very different from theirs. Following Sherman and Isocrates, we understand that ego is our enemy on that journey, so that when we do achieve our success, it will not sink us but make us stronger. TALK, TALK, TALK Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know. LAO TZU I n his famous 1934 campaign for the governorship of California, the author and activist Upton Sinclair took an unusual step. Before the election, he published a short book titled I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty, in which he outlined, in the past tense, the brilliant policies he had enacted as governor . . . the office he had not yet won. It was an untraditional move from an untraditional campaign, intended to leverage Sinclairs best assetas an author, he knew he could communicate with the public in a way that others couldnt. Now, Sinclairs campaign was always a long shot and hardly in good shape when they published the book. But observers at the time noticed immediately the effect it hadnot on the voters, but on Sinclair himself. As Carey McWilliams later wrote about his friends gubernatorial bid as it went south, Upton not only realized that he would be defeated but seemed somehow to have lost interest in the campaign. In that vivid imagination of his, he had already acted out the part of I, Governor of California, . . . so why bother to enact it in real life? The book was a best seller, the campaign a failure. Sinclair lost by something like a quarter of a million votes (a margin of more than 10 percentage points); he was utterly decimated in what was probably the first modern election. Its clear what happened: his talk got out ahead of his campaign and the will to bridge the gap collapsed. Most politicians dont write books like that, but they get ahead of themselves just the same. Its a temptation that exists for everyonefor talk and hype to replace action. The empty text box: Whats on your mind? Facebook asks. Compose a new tweet, Twitter beckons. Tumblr. LinkedIn. Our inbox, our iPhones, the comments section on the bottom of the article you just read. Blank spaces, begging to be filled in with thoughts, with photos, with stories. With what were going to do, with what things should or could be like, what we hope will happen. Technology, asking you, prodding you, soliciting talk. Almost universally, the kind of performance we give on social media is positive. Its more Let me tell you how well things are going. Look how great I am. Its rarely the truth: Im scared. Im struggling. I dont know. At the beginning of any path, were excited and nervous. So we seek to comfort ourselves externally instead of inwardly. Theres a weak side to each of us, thatlike a trade unionisnt exactly malicious but at the end of the day still wants get as much public credit and attention as it can for doing the least. That side we call ego. The writer and former Gawker blogger Emily Goulda real-life Hannah Horvath if there ever was onerealized this during her two-year struggle to get a novel published. Though she had a six-figure book deal, she was stuck. Why? She was too busy spending a lot of time on the Internet, thats why. In fact, I cant really remember anything else I did in 2010. I tumbld, I tweeted, and I scrolled. This didnt earn me any money but it felt like work. I justified my habits to myself in various ways. I was building my brand. Blogging was a creative acteven curating by reblogging someone elses post was a creative act, if you squinted. It was also the only creative thing I was doing. In other words, she did what a lot of us do when were scared or overwhelmed by a project: she did everything but focus on it. The actual novel she was supposed to be working on stalled completely. For a year. 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. Shes not the only one. Someone recently published a book called Working On My Novel, filled with social media posts from writers who are clearly not working on their novels. Writing, like so many creative acts, is hard. Sitting there, staring, mad at yourself, mad at the material because it doesnt seem good enough and you dont seem good enough. In fact, many valuable endeavors we undertake are painfully difficult, whether its coding a new startup or mastering a craft. But talking, talking is always easy. We seem to think that silence is a sign of weakness. That being ignored is tantamount to death (and for the ego, this is true). So we talk, talk, talk as though our life depends on it. In actuality, silence is strengthparticularly early on in any journey. As the philosopher (and as it happens, a hater of newspapers and their chatter) Kierkegaard warned, Mere gossip anticipates real talk, and to express what is still in thought weakens action by forestalling it. And thats what is so insidious about talk. Anyone can talk about himself or herself. Even a child knows how to gossip and chatter. Most people are decent at hype and sales. 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. Sherman had a good rule he tried to observe. Never give reasons for you what think or do until you must. Maybe, after a while, a better reason will pop into your head. The baseball and football great Bo Jackson decided he had two things he wanted to accomplish as an athlete at Auburn: he would win the Heisman Trophy and be taken first in the NFL draft. Do you know who he told? Nobody but his girlfriend. Strategic flexibility is not the only benefit of silence while others chatter. It is also psychology. The poet Hesiod had this in mind when he said, A mans best treasure is a thrifty tongue. Talk depletes us. Talking and doing fight for the same resources. Research shows that while goal visualization is important, after a certain point our mind begins to confuse it with actual progress. The same goes for verbalization. Even talking aloud to ourselves while we work through difficult problems has been shown to significantly decrease insight and breakthroughs. After spending so much time thinking, explaining, and talking about a task, we start to feel that weve gotten closer to achieving it. Or worse, when things get tough, we feel we can toss the whole project aside because weve given it our best try, although of course we havent. The more difficult the task, the more uncertain the outcome, the more costly talk will be and the farther we run from actual accountability. Its sapped us of the energy desperately needed to conquer what Steven Pressfield calls the Resistancethe hurdle that stands between us and creative expression. Success requires a full 100 percent of our effort, and talk flitters part of that effort away before we can use it. A lot of us succumb to this temptationparticularly when we feel overwhelmed or stressed or have a lot of work to do. In our building phase, resistance will be a constant source of discomfort. Talkinglistening to ourselves talk, performing for an audienceis almost like therapy. I just spent four hours talking about this. Doesnt that count for something? The answer is no. Doing great work is a struggle. Its draining, its demoralizing, its frighteningnot always, but it can feel that way when were deep in the middle of it. We talk to fill the void and the uncertainty. Void, Marlon Brando, a quiet actor if there ever was one, once said, is terrifying to most people. It is almost as if we are assaulted by silence or confronted by it, particularly if weve allowed our ego to lie to us over the years. Which is so damaging for one reason: the greatest work and art comes from wrestling with the void, facing it instead of scrambling to make it go away. The question is, when faced with your particular challengewhether it is researching in a new field, starting a business, producing a film, securing a mentor, advancing an important causedo you seek the respite of talk or do you face the struggle head-on? Think about it: a voice of a generation doesnt call itself that. In fact, when you think about it, you realize just how little these voices seem to talk. Its a song, its a speech, its a bookthe volume of work may be light, but whats inside it is concentrated and impactful. They work quietly in the corner. They turn their inner turmoil into productand eventually to stillness. They ignore the impulse to seek recognition before they act. They dont talk much. Or mind the feeling that others, out there in public and enjoying the limelight, are somehow getting the better end of the deal. (They are not.) Theyre too busy working to do anything else. When they do talkits earned. The only relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other. Let the others slap each other on the back while youre back in the lab or the gym or pounding the pavement. Plug that holethat one, right in the middle of your facethat can drain you of your vital life force. Watch what happens. Watch how much better you get. TO BE OR TO DO? In this formative period, the soul is unsoiled by warfare with the world. It lies, like a block of pure, uncut Parian marble, ready to be fashioned intowhat? ORISON SWETT MARDEN O ne of the most influential strategists and practitioners in modern warfare is someone most people have never heard of. His name was John Boyd. He was a truly great fighter pilot, but an even better teacher and thinker. After flying in Korea, he became the lead instructor at the elite Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base. He was known as Forty-Second Boydmeaning that he could defeat any opponent, from any position, in less than forty seconds. A few years later he was quietly summoned to the Pentagon, where his real work began. In one sense, the fact that the average person might not have heard of John Boyd is not unexpected. He never published any books and he wrote only one academic paper. Only a few videos of him survive and he was rarely, if ever, quoted in the media. Despite nearly thirty years of impeccable service, Boyd wasnt promoted above the rank of colonel. On the other hand, his theories transformed maneuver warfare in almost every branch of the armed forces, not just in his own lifetime but even more so after. The F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, which reinvented modern military aircraft, were his pet projects. His primary influence was as an adviser; through legendary briefings he taught and instructed nearly every major military thinker in a generation. His input on the war plans for Operation Desert Shield came in a series of direct meetings with the secretary of defense, not through public or official policy input. His primary means of effecting change was through the collection of pupils he mentored, protected, taught, and inspired. There are no military bases named after him. No battleships. He retired assuming that hed be forgotten, and without much more than a small apartment and a pension to his name. He almost certainly had more enemies than friends. This unusual pathWhat if it were deliberate? What if it made him more influential? How crazy would that be? In fact, Boyd was simply living the exact lesson he tried to teach each promising young acolyte who came under his wing, who he sensed had the potential to be somethingto be something different. The rising stars he taught probably have a lot in common with us. The speech Boyd gave to a prot?g? in 1973 makes this clear. Sensing what he knew to be a critical inflection point in the life of the young officer, Boyd called him in for a meeting. Like many high achievers, the soldier was insecure and impressionable. He wanted to be promoted, and he wanted to do well. He was a leaf that could be blown in any direction and Boyd knew it. So he heard a speech that day that Boyd would give again and again, until it became a tradition and a rite of passage for a generation of transformative military leaders. Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road, Boyd said to him. And youre going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. Using his hands to illustrate, Boyd marked off these two directions. If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments. Then Boyd paused, to make the alternative clear. Or, he said, you can go that way and you can do somethingsomething for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. 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 wont 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. Thats when you will have to make a decision. And then Boyd concluded with words that would guide that young man and many of his peers for the rest of their lives. To be or to do? Which way will you go? Whatever we seek to do in life, reality soon intrudes on our youthful idealism. This reality comes in many names and forms: incentives, commitments, recognition, and politics. In every case, they can quickly redirect us from doing to being. From earning to pretending. Ego aids in that deception every step of the way. Its why Boyd wanted young people to see that if we are not careful, we can very easily find ourselves corrupted by the very occupation we wish to serve. How do you prevent derailment? Well, often we fall in love with an image of what success looks like. In Boyds world, the number of stars on your shoulder or the nature of your appointment or its location could easily be confused as a proxy for real accomplishment. For other people, its their job title, the business school they went to, the number of assistants they have, the location of their parking space, the grants they earn, their access to the CEO, the size of their paycheck, or the number of fans they have. Appearances are deceiving. Having authority is not the same as being an authority. Having the right and being right are not the same either. Being promoted doesnt necessarily mean youre doing good work and it doesnt mean you are worthy of promotion (they call it failing upward in such bureaucracies). Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive. So who are you with? Which side will you choose? This is the roll call that life puts before us. Boyd had another exercise. Visiting with or speaking to groups of Air Force officers, hed write on the chalkboard in big letters the words: DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY. Then he would cross those words out and replace them with three others: PRIDE, POWER, GREED. His point was that many of the systems and structures in the militarythe ones that soldiers navigate in order to get aheadcan corrupt the very values they set out to serve. Theres a quip from the historian Will Durant, that a nation is born stoic and dies epicurean. Thats the sad truth Boyd was illustrating, how positive virtues turn sour. How many times have we seen this played out in our own short livesin sports, in relationships, or projects or people that we care deeply about? This is what the ego does. It crosses out what matters and replaces it with what doesnt. A lot of people want to change the world, and its good that they do. You want to be the best at what you do. Nobody wants to just be an empty suit. But in practical terms, which of the three words Boyd wrote on the chalkboard are going to get you there? Which are you practicing now? Whats fueling you? The choice that Boyd puts in front of us comes down to purpose. What is your purpose? What are you here to do? Because purpose helps you answer the question To be or to do? quite easily. If what matters is youyour reputation, your inclusion, your personal ease of lifeyour path is clear: Tell people what they want to hear. Seek attention over the quiet but important work. Say yes to promotions and generally follow the track that talented people take in the industry or field youve chosen. Pay your dues, check the boxes, put in your time, and leave things essentially as they are. Chase your fame, your salary, your title, and enjoy them as they come. A man is worked upon by what he works on, Frederick Douglass once said. He would know. Hed been a slave, and he saw what it did to everyone involved, including the slaveholders themselves. Once a free man, he saw that the choices people made, about their careers and their lives, had the same effect. What you choose to do with your time and what you choose to do for money works on you. The egocentric path requires, as Boyd knew, many compromises. If your purpose is something larger than youto accomplish something, to prove something to yourselfthen suddenly everything becomes both easier and more difficult. Easier in the sense that you know now what it is you need to do and what is important to you. The other choices wash away, as they arent really choices at all. Theyre distractions. Its about the doing, not the recognition. Easier in the sense that you dont need to compromise. Harder because each opportunityno matter how gratifying or rewardingmust be evaluated along strict guidelines: Does this help me do what I have set out to do? Does this allow me to do what I need to do? Am I being selfish or selfless? 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? In other words, its harder because everything can seem like a compromise. Although its never too late, the earlier you ask yourself these questions the better. Boyd undeniably changed and improved his field in a way that almost no other theorist has since Sun Tzu or von Clausewitz. He was known as Genghis John for the way he never let obstacles or opponents stop him from what he needed to do. His choices were not without their costs. He was also known as the ghetto colonel because of his frugal lifestyle. He died with a drawerful of thousands of dollars in uncashed expense checks from private contractors, which he equated with bribes. That he never advanced above colonel was not his doing; he was repeatedly held back for promotions. He was forgotten by history as a punishment for the work he did. Think about this the next time you start to feel entitled, the next time you conflate fame and the American Dream. Think about how you might measure up to a great man like that. Think about this the next time you face that choice: Do I need this? Or is it really about ego? Are you ready to make the right decision? Or do the prizes still glitter off in the distance? To be or to dolife is a constant roll call. BECOME A STUDENT Let No Mans Ghost Come Back to Say My Training Let Me Down. SIGN IN THE NEW YORK FIRE DEPARTMENT TRAINING ACADEMY I n April in the early 1980s, a single day became one guitarists nightmare and became anothers dream, and dream job. Without notice, members of the underground metal band Metallica assembled before a planned recording session in a decrepit warehouse in New York and informed their guitarist Dave Mustaine he was being thrown out of the group. With few words, they handed him a bus ticket back to San Francisco. That same day, a decent young guitarist, Kirk Hammett, barely in his twenties and member of a band called Exodus, was given the job. Thrown right into a new life, he performed his first show with the band a few days later. One would assume that this was the moment Hammett had been waiting for his whole life. Indeed it was. Though only known in small circles at the time, Metallica was a band that seemed destined to go places. Their music had already begun to push the boundaries of the genre of thrash metal, and cult stardom had already begun. Within a few short years, it would be one of the biggest bands in the world, eventually selling more than 100 million albums. It was around this time that Kirk came to what must have been a humbling realizationthat despite his years of playing and being invited to join Metallica, he wasnt as good as hed like to be. At his home in San Francisco, he looked for a guitar teacher. In other words, despite joining his dream group and quite literally turning professional, Kirk insisted that he needed more instructionthat he was still a student. The teacher he sought out had a reputation for being a teachers teacher, and for working with musical prodigies like Steve Vai. Joe Satriani, the man Hammett chose as his instructor, would himself go on to become known as one of the best guitar players of all time and sell more than 10 million records of his unique, virtuosic music. Teaching out of a small music shop in Berkeley, Satrianis playing style made him an unusual choice for Hammett. That was the pointKirk wanted to learn what he didnt know, to firm up his understanding of the fundamentals so that he might continue exploring this new genre of music he now had a chance to pursue. Satriani makes it clear where Hammett was lackingit wasnt talent, certainly. The main thing with Kirk . . . was he was a really good guitar player when he walked in the door. He was already playing lead guitar . . . he was already shredding. He had a great right hand, he knew most of his chords, he just didnt learn how to play in an environment where he learned all the names and how to connect everything together. That didnt mean that their sessions were some sort of fun study group. In fact, Satriani explained that what separated Hammett from the others was his willingness to endure the type of instruction they wouldnt. He was a good student. Many of his friends and contemporaries would storm out complaining thinking I was too harsh a teacher. Satrianis system was clear: that there would be weekly lessons, that these lessons must be learned, and if they werent, that Hammett was wasting everyones time and neednt bother to come back. So for the next two years Kirk did as Satriani required, returning every week for objective feedback, judgment, and drilling in technique and musical theory for the instrument he would soon be playing in front of thousands, then tens of thousands, and then literally hundreds of thousands of people. Even after that two-year study period, he would bring to Satriani licks and riffs hed been working on with the band, and learned to pare down the instinct for more, and hone his ability to do more with fewer notes, and to focus on feeling those notes and expressing them accordingly. Each time, he improved as a player and as an artist. The power of being a student is not just that it is an extended period of instruction, it also places the ego and ambition in someone elses hands. There is a sort of ego ceiling imposedone knows that he is not better than the master he apprentices under. Not even close. You defer to them, you subsume yourself. You cannot fake or bullshit them. An education cant be hacked; there are no shortcuts besides hacking it every single day. If you dont, they drop you. We dont like thinking that someone is better than us. Or that we have a lot left to learn. We want to be done. We want to be ready. Were busy and overburdened. For this reason, updating your appraisal of your talents in a downward direction is one of the most difficult things to do in lifebut it is almost always a component of mastery. The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the antidote. The result, no matter what your musical tastes happen to be, was that Hammett became one of the great metal guitarists in the world, taking thrash metal from an underground movement into a thriving global musical genre. Not only that, but from those lessons, Satriani honed his own technique and became much better himself. Both the student and the teacher would go on to fill stadiums and remake the musical landscape. The mixed martial arts pioneer and multi-title champion Frank Shamrock has a system he trains fighters in that he calls plus, minus, and equal. 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. The purpose of Shamrocks formula is simple: to get real and continuous feedback about what they know and what they dont know from every angle. It purges out the ego that puffs us up, the fear that makes us doubt ourselves, and any laziness that might make us want to coast. As Shamrock observed, False ideas about yourself destroy you. For me, I always stay a student. Thats what martial arts are about, and you have to use that humility as a tool. You put yourself beneath someone you trust. This begins by accepting that others know more than you and that you can benefit from their knowledge, and then seeking them out and knocking down the illusions you have about yourself. The need for a student mind-set doesnt stop with fighting or music. A scientist must know the core principles of science and the discoveries occurring on the cutting edge. A philosopher must know deeply, and also know how little they know, as Socrates did. A writer must be versed in the canonand read and be challenged by her contemporaries too. A historian must know ancient and modern history, as well as their specialty. Professional athletes have teams of coaches, and even powerful politicians have advisers and mentors. Why? To become great and to stay great, they must all know what came before, what is going on now, and what comes next. They must internalize the fundamentals of their domain and what surrounds them, without ossifying or becoming stuck in time. They must be always learning. We must all become our own teachers, tutors, and critics. Think about what Hammett could have donewhat we might have done in his position were we to suddenly find ourselves a rock star, or a soon-to-be-rock star in our chosen field. The temptation is to think: Ive made it. Ive arrived. They tossed the other guy because hes not as good as I am. They chose me because I have what it takes. Had he done that, wed probably have never heard of him or the band. There are, after all, plenty of forgotten metal groups from the 1980s. A true student is like a sponge. Absorbing what goes on around him, filtering it, latching on to what he can hold. A student is self-critical and self-motivated, always trying to improve his understanding so that he can move on to the next topic, the next challenge. A real student is also his own teacher and his own critic. There is no room for ego there. Take fighting as an example again, where self-awareness is particularly crucial because opponents are constantly looking to match strength against weakness. If a fighter is not capable of learning and practicing every day, if he is not relentlessly looking for areas of improvement, examining his own shortcomings, and finding new techniques to borrow from peers and opponents, he will be broken down and destroyed. It is not all that different for the rest of us. Are we not fighting for or against something? Do you think you are the only one who hopes to achieve your goal? You cant possibly believe youre the only one reaching for that brass ring. It tends to surprise people how humble aspiring greats seem to have been. What do you mean they werent aggressive, entitled, aware of their own greatness or their destiny? The reality is that, though they were confident, the act of being an eternal student kept these men and women humble. It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows, Epictetus says. You cant learn if you think you already know. You will not find the answers if youre too conceited and self-assured to ask the questions. You cannot get better if youre convinced you are the best. The art of taking feedback is such a crucial skill in life, particularly harsh and critical feedback. We not only need to take this harsh feedback, but actively solicit it, labor to seek out the negative precisely when our friends and family and brain are telling us that were doing great. The ego avoids such feedback at all costs, however. Who wants to remand themselves to remedial training? It thinks it already knows how and who we arethat is, it thinks we are spectacular, perfect, genius, truly innovative. It dislikes reality and prefers its own assessment. Ego doesnt allow for proper incubation either. To become what we ultimately hope to become often takes long periods of obscurity, of sitting and wrestling with some topic or paradox. Humility is what keeps us there, concerned that we dont know enough and that we must continue to study. Ego rushes to the end, rationalizes that patience is for losers (wrongly seeing it as a weakness), and assumes that were good enough to give our talents a go in the world. As we sit down to proof our work, as we make our first elevator pitch, prepare to open our first shop, as we stare out into the dress rehearsal audience, ego is the enemygiving us wicked feedback, disconnected from reality. Its defensive, precisely when we cannot afford to be defensive. It blocks us from improving by telling us that we dont need to improve. Then we wonder why we dont get the results we want, why others are better and why their success is more lasting. Today, books are cheaper than ever. Courses are free. Access to teachers is no longer a barriertechnology has done away with that. There is no excuse for not getting your education, and because the information we have before us is so vast, there is no excuse for ever ending that process either. Our teachers in life are not only those we pay, as Hammett paid Satriani. Nor are they necessarily part of some training dojo, like it is for Shamrock. Many of the best teachers are free. They volunteer because, like you, they once were young and had the same goals you do. Many dont even know they are teachingthey are simply exemplars, or even historical figures whose lessons survive in books and essays. But ego makes us so hardheaded and hostile to feedback that it drives them away or puts them beyond our reach. Its why the old proverb says, When student is ready, the teacher appears. DONT BE PASSIONATE You seem to want that vivida vis animi which spurs and excites most young men to please, to shine, to excel. Without the desire and the pains necessary to be considerable, depend upon it, you never can be so. LORD CHESTERFIELD P assionits all about passion. Find your passion. Live passionately. Inspire the world with your passion. People go to Burning Man to find passion, to be around passion, to rekindle their passion. Same goes for TED and the now enormous SXSW and a thousand other events, retreats, and summits, all fueled by what they claim to be lifes most important force. Heres what those same people havent told you: your passion may be the very thing holding you back from power or influence or accomplishment. Because just as often, we fail withno, because ofpassion. Early on in her ascendant political career, a visitor once spoke of Eleanor Roosevelts passionate interest in a piece of social legislation. The person had meant it as a compliment. But Eleanors response is illustrative. Yes, she did support the cause, she said. But I hardly think the word passionate applies to me. As a genteel, accomplished, and patient woman born while the embers of the quiet Victorian virtues were still warm, Roosevelt was above passion. She had purpose. She had direction. She wasnt driven by passion, but by reason. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, on the other hand, were passionate about Iraq. Christopher McCandless was bursting with passion as he headed into the wild. So was Robert Falcon Scott as he set out to explore the arctic, bitten as he was with the Pole mania (as were many climbers of the tragic 1996 Everest climb, momentarily struck with what psychologists now call goalodicy). The inventor and investors of the Segway believed they had a world-changing innovation on their hands and put everything into evangelizing it. That all of these talented, smart individuals were fervent believers in what they sought to do is without dispute. Its also clear that they were also unprepared and incapable of grasping the objections and real concerns of everyone else around them. The same is true for countless entrepreneurs, authors, chefs, business owners, politicians, and designers that youve never heard ofand never will hear of, because they sunk their own ships before theyd hardly left the harbor. Like every other dilettante, they had passion and lacked something else. To be clear, Im not talking about caring. Im talking about passion of a different sortunbridled enthusiasm, our willingness to pounce on whats 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. Remember, zealot is just a nice way to say crazy person. A young basketball player named Lewis Alcindor Jr., who won three national championships with John Wooden at UCLA, used one word to describe the style of his famous coach: dispassionate. As in not passionate. Wooden wasnt about rah-rah speeches or inspiration. He saw those extra emotions as a burden. Instead, his philosophy was about being in control and doing your job and never being passions slave. The player who learned that lesson from Wooden would later change his name to one you remember better: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. No one would describe Eleanor Roosevelt or John Wooden or his notoriously quiet player Kareem as apathetic. They wouldnt have said they were frenetic or zealous either. Roosevelt, one of the most powerful and influential female activists in history and certainly Americas most important First Lady, was known primarily for her grace, her poise, and her sense of direction. Wooden won ten titles in twelve years, including seven in a row, because he developed a system for winning and worked with his players to follow it. Neither of them were driven by excitement, nor were they bodies in constant motion. Instead, it took them years to become the person they became known as. It was a process of accumulation. In our endeavors, we will face complex problems, often in situations weve never faced before. Opportunities are not usually deep, virgin pools that require courage and boldness to dive into, but instead are obscured, dusted over, blocked by various forms of resistance. What is really called for in these circumstances is clarity, deliberateness, and methodological determination. But too often, we proceed like this . . . A flash of inspiration: I want to do the best and biggest ______ ever. Be the youngest ______. The only one to ______. The firstest with the mostest. The advice: Okay, well, heres what youll need to do step-by-step to accomplish it. The reality: We hear what we want to hear. We do what we feel like doing, and despite being incredibly busy and working very hard, we accomplish very little. Or worse, find ourselves in a mess we never anticipated. Because we only seem to hear about the passion of successful people, we forget that failures shared the same trait. We dont conceive of the consequences until we look at their trajectory. With the Segway, the inventor and investors wrongly assumed a demand much greater than ever existed. With the run-up to the war in Iraq, its proponents ignored objections and negative feedback because they conflicted with what they so deeply needed to believe. The tragic end to the Into the Wild story is the result of youthful naivet? and a lack of preparation. With Robert Falcon Scott, it was overconfidence and zeal without consideration of the real dangers. We imagine Napoleon was brimming with passion as he contemplated the invasion of Russia and only finally became free of it as he limped home with a fraction of the men hed so confidently left with. In many more examples we see the same mistakes: overinvesting, underinvesting, acting before someone is really ready, breaking things that required delicacynot so much malice as the drunkenness of passion. 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. Passion is seen in those who can tell you in great detail who they intend to become and what their success will be likethey might even be able to tell you specifically when they intend to achieve it or describe to you legitimate and sincere worries they have about the burdens of such accomplishments. They can tell you all the things theyre going to do, or have even begun, but they cannot show you their progress. Because there rarely is any. How can someone be busy and not accomplish anything? Well, thats the passion paradox. If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then passion is a form of mental retardationdeliberately blunting our most critical cognitive functions. The waste is often appalling in retrospect; the best years of our life burned out like a pair of spinning tires against the asphalt. Dogs, god bless them, are passionate. As numerous squirrels, birds, boxes, blankets, and toys can tell you, they do not accomplish most of what they set out to do. A dog has an advantage in all this: a graciously short short-term memory that keeps at bay the creeping sense of futility and impotence. Reality for us humans, on the other hand, has no reason to be sensitive to the illusions we operate under. Eventually it will intrude. What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism. Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective. When we are young, or when our cause is young, we feel so intenselypassion like our hormones runs strongest in youththat it seems wrong to take it slow. This is just our impatience. This is our inability to see that burning ourselves out or blowing ourselves up isnt going to hurry the journey along. Passion is about. (I am so passionate about ______.) Purpose is to and for. (I must do ______. I was put here to accomplish ______. I am willing to endure ______ for the sake of this.) Actually, purpose deemphasizes the I. Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself. More than purpose, we also need realism. Where do we start? What do we do first? What do we do right now? How are we sure that what were doing is moving us forward? What are we benchmarking ourselves against? Great passions are maladies without hope, as Goethe once said. Which is why a deliberate, purposeful person operates on a different level, beyond the sway or the sickness. They hire professionals and use them. They ask questions, they ask what could go wrong, they ask for examples. They plan for contingencies. Then they are off to the races. Usually they get started with small steps, complete them, and look for feedback on how the next set can be better. They lock in gains, and then get better as they go, often leveraging those gains to grow exponentially rather than arithmetically. Is an iterative approach less exciting than manifestos, epiphanies, flying across the country to surprise someone, or sending four-thousand-word stream-of-consciousness e-mails in the middle of the night? Of course. Is it less glamorous and bold than going all in and maxing out your credit cards because you believe in yourself? Absolutely. Same goes for the spreadsheets, the meetings, the trips, the phone calls, software, tools, and internal systemsand every how-to article ever written about them and the routines of famous people. Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function. The critical work that you want to do will require your deliberation and consideration. Not passion. Not na?vet?. Itd be far better if you were intimidated by what lies aheadhumbled by its magnitude and determined to see it through regardless. 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. Remember Talleyrands epigram for diplomats, Surtout, pas trop de z?le (Above all, not too much zeal). Then you will do great things. Then you will stop being your old, good-intentioned, but ineffective self. FOLLOW THE CANVAS STRATEGY Great men have almost always shown themselves as ready to obey as they afterwards proved able to command. LORD MAHON I n the Roman system of art and science, there existed a concept for which we have only a partial analog. Successful businessmen, politicians, or rich playboys would subsidize a number of writers, thinkers, artists, and performers. More than just being paid to produce works of art, these artists performed a number of tasks in exchange for protection, food, and gifts. One of the roles was that of an anteambuloliterally meaning one who clears the path. An anteambulo proceeded in front of his patron anywhere they traveled in Rome, making way, communicating messages, and generally making the patrons life easier. The famous epigrammist Martial fulfilled this role for many years, serving for a time under the patron Mela, a wealthy businessman and brother of the Stoic philosopher and political adviser Seneca. Born without a rich family, Martial also served under another businessman named Petilius. As a young writer, he spent most of his day traveling from the home of one rich patron to another, providing services, paying his respects, and receiving small token payments and favors in return. Heres the problem: like most of us with our internships and entry-level positions (or later on, publishers or bosses or clients), Martial absolutely hated every minute of it. He seemed to believe that this system somehow made him a slave. Aspiring to live like some country squire, like the patrons he serviced, Martial wanted money and an estate that was all his own. There, he dreamed, he could finally produce his works in peace and independence. As a result, his writing often drags with a hatred and bitterness about Romes upper crust, from which he believed he was cruelly shunted aside. For all his impotent rage, what Martial couldnt see was that it was his unique position as an outsider to society that gave him such fascinating insight into Roman culture that it survives to this day. Instead of being pained by such a system, what if hed been able to come to terms with it? What ifgasphe could have appreciated the opportunities it offered? Nope. It seemed to eat him up inside instead. Its a common attitude that transcends generations and societies. The angry, unappreciated genius is forced to do stuff she doesnt like, for people she doesnt respect, as she makes her way in the world. How dare they force me to grovel like this! The injustice! The waste! We see it in recent lawsuits in which interns sue their employers for pay. We see kids more willing to live at home with their parents than to submit to something theyre overqualified to work for. We see it in an inability to meet anyone else on their terms, an unwillingness to take a step back in order to potentially take several steps forward. I will not let them get one over on me. Id rather we both have nothing instead. Its worth taking a look at the supposed indignities of serving someone else. Because in reality, not only is the apprentice model responsible for some of the greatest art in the history of the worldeveryone from Michelangelo to Leonardo da Vinci to Benjamin Franklin has been forced to navigate such a systembut if youre going to be the big deal you think you are going to be, isnt this a rather trivial temporary imposition? When someone gets his first job or joins a new organization, hes often given this advice: Make other people look good and you will do well. Keep your head down, they say, and serve your boss. Naturally, this is not what the kid who was chosen over all the other kids for the position wants to hear. Its not what a Harvard grad expectsafter all, they got that degree precisely to avoid this supposed indignity. Lets flip it around so it doesnt seem so demeaning: Its not about kissing ass. Its not about making someone look good. Its about providing the support so that others can be good. The better wording for the advice is this: 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. When you are just starting out, we can be sure of a few fundamental realities: 1) Youre not nearly as good or as important as you think you are; 2) You have an attitude that needs to be readjusted; 3) Most of what you think you know or most of what you learned in books or in school is out of date or wrong. Theres one fabulous way to work all that out of your system: attach yourself to people and organizations who are already successful and subsume your identity into theirs and move both forward simultaneously. Its certainly more glamorous to pursue your own glorythough hardly as effective. Obeisance is the way forward. Thats the other effect of this attitude: it reduces your ego at a critical time in your career, letting you absorb everything you can without the obstructions that block others vision and progress. No one is endorsing sycophancy. Instead, its about seeing what goes on from the inside, and looking for opportunities for someone other than yourself. Remember that anteambulo means clearing the pathfinding the direction someone already intended to head and helping them pack, freeing them up to focus on their strengths. In fact, making things better rather than simply looking as if you are. Many people know of Benjamin Franklins famous pseudonymous letters written under names like Silence Dogwood. What a clever young prodigy, they think, and miss the most impressive part entirely: Franklin wrote those letters, submitted them by sliding them under the print-shop door, and received absolutely no credit for them until much later in his life. In fact, it was his brother, the owner, who profited from their immense popularity, regularly running them on the front page of his newspaper. Franklin was playing the long game, thoughlearning how public opinion worked, generating awareness of what he believed in, crafting his style and tone and wit. It was a strategy he used time and again over his careeronce even publishing in his competitors paper in order to undermine a third competitorfor Franklin saw the constant benefit in making other people look good and letting them take credit for your ideas. Bill Belichick, the four-time Super Bowlwinning head coach of the New England Patriots, made his way up the ranks of the NFL by loving and mastering the one part of the job that coaches disliked at the time: analyzing film. His first job in professional football, for the Baltimore Colts, was one he volunteered to take without payand his insights, which provided ammunition and critical strategies for the game, were attributed exclusively to the more senior coaches. He thrived on what was considered grunt work, asked for it and strove to become the best at precisely what others thought they were too good for. He was like a sponge, taking it all in, listening to everything, one coach said. You gave him an assignment and he disappeared into a room and you didnt see him again until it was done, and then he wanted to do more, said another. As you can guess, Belichick started getting paid very soon. Before that, as a young high school player, he was so knowledgeable about the game that he functioned as a sort of assistant coach even while playing the game. Belichicks father, himself an assistant football coach for Navy, taught him a critical lesson in football politics: that if he wanted to give his coach feedback or question a decision, he needed to do it in private and self-effacingly so as not to offend his superior. He learned how to be a rising star without threatening or alienating anyone. In other words, he had mastered the canvas strategy. You can see how easily entitlement and a sense of superiority (the trappings of ego) would have made the accomplishments of either of these men impossible. Franklin would never have been published if hed prioritized credit over creative expressionindeed, when his brother found out, he literally beat him out of jealousy and anger. Belichick would have pissed off his coach and then probably been benched if he had one-upped him in public. He certainly wouldnt have taken his first job for free, and he wouldnt have sat through thousands of hours of film if he cared about status. Greatness comes from humble beginnings; it comes from grunt work. It means youre the least important person in the roomuntil you change that with results. There is an old saying, Say little, do much. What we really ought to do is update and apply a version of that to our early approach. Be lesser, do more. Imagine if for every person you met, you thought of some way to help them, something you could do for them? And you looked at it in a way that entirely benefited them and not you. The cumulative effect this would have over time would be profound: Youd learn a great deal by solving diverse problems. Youd develop a reputation for being indispensable. Youd have countless new relationships. Youd have an enormous bank of favors to call upon down the road. Thats what the canvas strategy is abouthelping yourself by helping others. Making a concerted effort to trade your short-term gratification for a longer-term payoff. Whereas everyone else wants to get credit and be respected, you can forget credit. You can forget it so hard that youre glad when others get it instead of youthat was your aim, after all. Let the others take their credit on credit, while you defer and earn interest on the principal. The strategy part of it is the hardest. Its easy to be bitter, like Martial. To hate even the thought of subservience. To despise those who have more means, more experience, or more status than you. To tell yourself that every second not spent doing your work, or working on yourself, is a waste of your gift. To insist, I will not be demeaned like this. Once we fight this emotional and egotistical impulse, the canvas strategy is easy. The iterations are endless. Maybe its coming up with ideas to hand over to your boss. Find people, thinkers, up-and-comers to introduce them to each other. Cross wires to create new sparks. Find what nobody else wants to do and do it. Find inefficiencies and waste and redundancies. Identify leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas. Produce more than everyone else and give your ideas away In other words, discover opportunities to promote their creativity, find outlets and people for collaboration, and eliminate distractions that hinder their progress and focus. It is a rewarding and infinitely scalable power strategy. Consider each one an investment in relationships and in your own development. The canvas strategy is there for you at any time. There is no expiration date on it either. Its one of the few that age does not limiton either side, young or old. You can start at any timebefore you have a job, before youre hired and while youre doing something else, or if youre starting something new or find yourself inside an organization without strong allies or support. You may even find that theres no reason to ever stop doing it, even once youve graduated to heading your own projects. Let it become natural and permanent; let others apply it to you while youre too busy applying it to those above you. Because if you pick up this mantle once, youll see what most peoples egos prevent them from appreciating: the person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas shapes the painting. RESTRAIN YOURSELF I have observed that those who have accomplished the greatest results are those who keep under the body; are those who never grow excited or lose self-control, but are always calm, self-possessed, patient, and polite. BOOKER T. WASHINGTON P eople who knew Jackie Robinson as a young man probably wouldnt have predicted that theyd one day see him become the first black player in Major League Baseball. Not that he wasnt talented, or that the idea of eventually integrating white baseball was inconceivable, its that he wasnt exactly known for his restraint and poise. As a teenager, Robinson ran with a small gang of friends who regularly found themselves in trouble with local police. He challenged a fellow student to a fight at a junior college picnic for using a slur. In a basketball game, he surreptitiously struck a hard-fouling white opponent with the ball so forcefully that the kid bled everywhere. He was arrested more than once for arguing with and challenging police, who he felt treated him unfairly. Before he started at UCLA, he spent the night in jail (and had a gun drawn on him by an officer) for nearly fighting a white man whod insulted his friends. And in addition to rumors of inciting protests against racism, Jackie Robinson effectively ended his career as a military officer at Camp Hood in 1944 when a bus driver attempted to force him to sit in the back in spite of laws that forbade segregation on base buses. By arguing and cursing at the driver and then directly challenging his commanding officer after the fracas, Jackie set in motion a series of events that led to a court-martial. Despite being acquitted, he was discharged shortly afterward. Its not just understandable and human that he did this; it was probably the right thing to do. Why should he let anyone else treat him that way? No one should have to stand for that. Except sometimes they do. Are there not goals so important that wed put up with anything to achieve them? When Branch Rickey, the manager and owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, scouted Jackie to potentially become the first black player in baseball, he had one question: Do you have the guts? Im looking, Rickey told him, for a ball player with the guts not to fight back. In fact, in their famous meeting, Rickey playacted the abuse that Robinson was likely to experience if he accepted Rickeys challenge: a hotel clerk refusing him a room, a rude waiter in a restaurant, an opponent shouting slurs. This, Robinson assured him, he was ready to handle. There were plenty of players Rickey could have gone with. But he needed one who wouldnt let his ego block him from seeing the bigger picture. As he started in baseballs farm system, then in the pros, Robinson faced more than just slights from service staff or reticent players. There was an aggressive, coordinated campaign to libel, boo, provoke, freeze out, attack, maim, or even kill. In his career, he was hit by more than seventy-two pitches, nearly had his Achilles tendon taken out by players who aimed their spikes at him, and that says nothing of the calls he was cheated out of and the breaks of the game that didnt go his way. Yet Jackie Robinson held to his unwritten pact with Rickey, never giving into explosive angerhowever deserved. In fact, in nine years in the league, he never hit another player with his fist. Athletes seem spoiled and hotheaded to us today, but we have no concept of what the leagues were like then. In 1956, Ted Williams, one of the most revered and respected players in the history of the game, was once caught spitting at his fans. As a white player he could not only get away with this, he later told reporters, Im not a bit sorry for what I did. I was right and Id spit again at the same people who booed me today . . . Nobodys going to stop me from spitting. For a black player, this sort of behavior would have been not only unthinkable but shortsighted beyond comprehension. Robinson had no such freedomit would have ended not only his career, but set back his grand experiment for a generation. Jackies path called for him to put aside both his ego and in some respects his basic sense of fairness and rights as a human being. Early in his career, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Chapman, was particularly brutal in his taunting during a game. Theyre waiting for you in the jungles, black boy! he yelled over and over. We dont want you here, nigger. Not only did Jackie not responddespite, as he later wrote, wanting to grab one of those white sons of bitches and smash his teeth in with my despised black fista month later he agreed to take a friendly photo with Chapman to help save the mans job. The thought of touching, posing with such an asshole, even sixty years removed, almost turns the stomach. Robinson called it one of the most difficult things he ever did, but he was willing to because it was part of a larger plan. He understood that certain forces were trying to bait him, to ruin him. Knowing what he wanted and needed to do in baseball, it was clear what he would have to tolerate in order do it. He shouldnt have had to, but he did. Our own path, whatever we aspire to, will in some ways be defined by the amount of nonsense we are willing to deal with. Our humiliations will pale in comparison to Robinsons, but it will still be hard. It will still be tough to keep our self-control. The fighter Bas Rutten sometimes writes the letter R on both his hands before fightsfor the word rustig, which means relax in Dutch. Getting angry, getting emotional, losing restraint is a recipe for failure in the ring. You cannot, as John Steinbeck once wrote to his editor, [lose] temper as a refuge from despair. Your ego will do you no favors here, whether youre struggling with a publisher, with critics, with enemies, or a capricious boss. It doesnt matter that they dont understand or that you know better. Its too early for that. Its too soon. Oh, you went to college? That doesnt mean the world is yours by right. But it was the Ivy League? Well, people are still going to treat you poorly, and they will still yell at you. You have a million dollars or a wall full of awards? That doesnt mean anything in the new field youre trying to tackle. It doesnt matter how talented you are, how great your connections are, how much money you have. When you want to do somethingsomething big and important and meaningfulyou will be subjected to treatment ranging from indifference to outright sabotage. Count on it. In this scenario, ego is the absolute opposite of what is needed. Who can afford to be jerked around by impulses, or believe that youre gods gift to humanity, or too important to put up with anything you dont like? Those who have subdued their ego understand that it doesnt degrade you when others treat you poorly; it degrades them. Up ahead there will be: Slights. Dismissals. Little fuck yous. One-sided compromises. Youll get yelled at. Youll have to work behind the scenes to salvage what should have been easy. All this will make you angry. This will make you want to fight back. This will make you want to say: I am better than this. I deserve more. Of course, youll want to throw that in other peoples faces. Worse, youll want to get in other peoples faces, people who dont deserve the respect, recognition, or rewards they are getting. In fact, those people will often get perks instead of you. When someone doesnt reckon you with the seriousness that youd like, the impulse is to correct them. (As we all wish to say: Do you know who I am?!) You want to remind them of what theyve forgotten; your ego screams for you to indulge it. Instead, you must do nothing. Take it. Eat it until youre sick. Endure it. Quietly brush it off and work harder. Play the game. Ignore the noise; for the love of God, do not let it distract you. Restraint is a difficult skill but a critical one. You will often be tempted, you will probably even be overcome. No one is perfect with it, but try we must. It is a timeless fact of life that the up-and-coming must endure the abuses of the entrenched. Robinson was twenty-eight when he started with the Dodgers, and hed already paid plenty of dues in life as both a black man and a soldier. Still, he was forced to do it again. Its a sad fact of life that new talents are regularly missed, and even when recognized, often unappreciated. The reasons always vary, but its a part of the journey. But youre not able to change the system until after youve made it. In the meantime, youll have to find some way to make it suit your purposeseven if those purposes are just extra time to develop properly, to learn from others on their dime, to build your base and establish yourself. As Robinson succeeded, after he had proved himself as the Rookie of the Year and as an MVP, and as his spot on the Dodgers was certain, he began to more clearly assert himself and his boundaries as a player and as a man. Having carved out his space, he felt that he could argue with umpires, he could throw his shoulder if he needed to make a player back off or to send a message. No matter how confident and famous Robinson became, he never spit on fans. He never did anything that undermined his legacy. A class act from opening day until the end, Jackie Robinson was not without passion. He had a temper and frustrations like all of us do. But he learned early that the tightrope he walked would tolerate only restraint and had no forgiveness for ego. Honestly, not many paths do. GET OUT OF YOUR OWN HEAD 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. ALAN WATTS I t is Holden Caulfield, the self-absorbed boy walking the streets of Manhattan, struggling to adjust to the world. It is a young Arturo Bandini in Los Angeles, alienating every person he meets as he tries to become a famous writer. It is the blue blood Binx Bolling in 1950s uptown New Orleans, trying to escape the everydayness of life. These fictional characters all had something in common: they couldnt get out of their own heads. In J. D. Salingers The Catcher in the Rye, Holden cant stay in school, is petrified of growing up, and wants desperately to get away from it all. In John Fantes Ask the Dust (part of a series known as The Bandini Quartet), this young writer doesnt experience the life he is living, he sees it all across a page in a typewriter, wondering if nearly every second of his life is a poem, a play, a story, a news article with him as its main character. In Walker Percys The Moviegoer, his protagonist, Binx, is addicted to watching movies, preferring an idealized version of life on the screen to his own uncomfortable ennui. Its always dangerous to psychologize a writer based on his work, but these are famously autobiographical novels. When we look at the writers lives, the facts are clear: J. D. Salinger really did suffer from a sort of self-obsession and immaturity that made the world too much for him to bear, driving him from human contact and paralyzing his genius. John Fante struggled to reconcile his enormous ego and insecurity with relative obscurity for most of his career, eventually abandoning his novels for the golf course and Hollywood bars. Only near death, blind with diabetes, was he finally able to get serious again. The Moviegoer, Walker Percys first book, came only after hed conquered his almost teenage indolence and existential crisis, which lasted alarmingly into his forties. How much better could these writers have been had they managed to get through these troubles earlier? How much easier would their lives have been? Its an urgent question they pushed onto their readers with their cautionary characters. Because sadly, this trait, the inability to get out of ones head, is not restricted to fiction. Twenty-four hundred years ago, Plato spoke of the type of people who are guilty of feasting on their own thoughts. It was apparently common enough even then to find people who instead of finding out how something they desire might actually come about, [they] pass that over, so as to avoid tiring deliberations about whats possible. They assume that what they desire is available and proceed to arrange the rest, taking pleasure in thinking through everything theyll do when they have what they want, thereby making their lazy souls even lazier. Real people preferring to live in passionate fiction than in actual reality. The Civil War general George McClellan is the perfect example of this archetype. He was chosen to command the Union forces because he checked all the boxes of what a great general should be: West Point grad, proven in battle, a student of history, of regal bearing, loved by his men. Why did he turn out to be quite possibly the worst Union general, even in a crowded field of incompetent and self-absorbed leaders? Because he could never get out of his own head. He was in love with his vision of himself as the head of a grand army. He could prepare an army for battle like a professional, but when it came to lead one into battle, when the rubber needed to meet the road, troubles arose. He became laughably convinced that the enemy was growing larger and larger (it wasntat one point he actually had a three-times advantage). He was convinced of constant threats and intrigues from his political allies (there werent any). He was convinced that the only way to win the war was with the perfect plan and a single decisive campaign (he was wrong). He was so convinced of all of it that he froze and basically did nothing . . . for months at a time. McClellan was constantly thinking about himself and how wonderful he was doingcongratulating himself for victories not yet won, and more often, horrible defeats he had saved the cause from. When anyoneincluding his superiorsquestioned this comforting fiction, he reacted like a petulant, delusional, vainglorious, and selfish ass. By itself thats insufferable, but it meant another thing: his personality made it impossible to do what he needed to do mostwin battles. A historian who fought under McClellan at Antietam later summed it up: His egotism is simply colossalthere is no other word for it. We tend to think that ego equals confidence, which is what we need to be in charge. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. In McClellans case it deprived him of the ability to lead. It robbed him of the ability to think that he even needed to act. The repeated opportunities he missed would be laughable were it not for the thousands and thousands of lives they cost. The situation was made worse by the fact that two pious, quiet SouthernersLee and Stonewall Jacksonwith a penchant for taking the initiative were able to embarrass him with inferior numbers and inferior resources. Which is what happens when leaders get stuck in their own heads. It can happen to us too. The novelist Anne Lamott describes that ego story well. If you are not careful, she warns young writers, station KFKD (K-Fucked) will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of ones specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesnt do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesnt do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one had no talent or insight, and on and on and on. Anyoneparticularly the ambitiouscan 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. Were 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. Ultimately this disability will paralyze us. Or it will become a wall between us and the information we need to do our jobswhich is largely why McClellan continually fell for flawed intelligence reports he ought to have known were wrong. The idea that his task was relatively straightforward, that he just needed to get started, was almost too easy and too obvious to someone who had thought so much about it all. Hes not that different from the rest of us. Were all full of anxieties, doubts, impotence, pains, and sometimes a little tinge of crazy. Were like teenagers in this regard. As the psychologist David Elkind has famously researched, adolescence is marked by a phenomenon known now as the imaginary audience. Consider a thirteen-year-old so embarrassed that he misses a week of class, positive that the entire school is thinking and murmuring about some tiny incident that in truth hardly anyone noticed. Or a teenage girl who spends three hours in front of the mirror each morning, as if shes about to go on stage. They do this because theyre convinced that their every move is being watched with rapt attention by the rest of the world. Even as adults, were susceptible to this fantasy during a harmless walk down the street. We plug in some headphones and all of a sudden theres a soundtrack. We flip up our jacket collar and consider briefly how cool we must look. We replay the successful meeting were heading toward in our head. The crowds part as we pass. Were fearless warriors, on our way to the top. Its the opening credits montage. Its a scene in a novel. It feels goodso much better than those feelings of doubt and fear and normalnessand so we stay stuck inside our heads instead of participating in the world around us. Thats ego, baby. What successful people do is curb such flights of fancy. They ignore the temptations that might make them feel important or skew their perspective. General George C. Marshallessentially the opposite of McClellan even though they briefly held the same position a few generations apartrefused to keep a diary during World War II despite the requests of historians and friends. He worried that it would turn his quiet, reflective time into a sort of performance and self-deception. That he might second-guess difficult decisions out of concern for his reputation and future readers and warp his thinking based on how they would look. All of us are susceptible to these obsessions of the mindwhether we run a technology startup or are working our way up the ranks of the corporate hierarchy or have fallen madly in love. The more creative we are, the easier it is to lose the thread that guides us. Our imaginationin many senses an assetis dangerous when it runs wild. We have to rein our perceptions in. Otherwise, lost in the excitement, how can we accurately predict the future or interpret events? How can we stay hungry and aware? How can we appreciate the present moment? How can we be creative within the realm of practicality? Living clearly and presently takes courage. Dont live in the haze of the abstract, live with the tangible and real, even ifespecially ifits uncomfortable. Be part of whats going on around you. Feast on it, adjust for it. Theres no one to perform for. There is just work to be done and lessons to be learned, in all that is around us. THE DANGER OF EARLY PRIDE A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you. C. S. LEWIS A t eighteen, a rather triumphant Benjamin Franklin returned to visit Boston, the city hed run away from seven months before. Full of pride and self-satisfaction, he had a new suit, a watch, and a pocketful of coins that he spread out and showed to everyone he ran intoincluding his older brother, whom he particularly hoped to impress. All posturing by a boy who was not much more than an employee in a print shop in Philadelphia. In a meeting with Cotton Mather, one of the towns most respected figures, and a former adversary, Franklin quickly illustrated just how ridiculously inflated his young ego had become. Chatting with Mather as they walked down a hallway, Mather suddenly admonished him, Stoop! Stoop! Too caught up in his performance, Franklin walked right into a low ceiling beam. Mathers response was perfect: Let this be a caution to you not always to hold your head so high, he said wryly. Stoop, young man, stoopas you go through this worldand youll miss many hard thumps. Christians believe that pride is a sin because it is a lieit convinces people that they are better than they are, that they are better than God made them. Pride leads to arrogance and then away from humility and connection with their fellow man. You dont have to be Christian to see the wisdom in this. You need only to care about your career to understand that prideeven in real accomplishmentsis a distraction and a deluder. Whom the gods wish to destroy, Cyril Connolly famously said, they first call promising. Twenty-five hundred years before that, the elegiac poet Theognis wrote to his friend, The first thing, Kurnos, which gods bestow on one they would annihilate, is pride. Yet we pick up this mantle on purpose! Pride blunts the very instrument we need to own in order to succeed: our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride. Most dangerously, this tends to happen either early in life or in the processwhen were flushed with beginners conceit. Only later do you realize that that bump on the head was the least of what was risked. Pride takes a minor accomplishment and makes it feel like a major one. It smiles at our cleverness and genius, as though what weve exhibited was merely a hint of what ought to come. From the start, it drives a wedge between the possessor and reality, subtly and not so subtly changing her perceptions of what something is and what it isnt. It is these strong opinions, only loosely secured by fact or accomplishment, that send us careering toward delusion or worse. Pride and ego say: I am an entrepreneur because I struck out on my own. I am going to win because I am currently in the lead. I am a writer because I published something. I am rich because I made some money. I am special because I was chosen. I am important because I think I should be. At one time or another, we all indulge this sort of gratifying label making. Yet every culture seems to produce words of caution against it. Dont count your chickens before they hatch. Dont cook the sauce before catching the fish. The way to cook a rabbit is first to catch a rabbit. Game slaughtered by words cannot be skinned. Punching above your weight is how you get injured. Pride goeth before the fall. Lets call that attitude what it is: fraud. If youre doing the work and putting in the time, you wont need to cheat, you wont need to overcompensate. Pride is a masterful encroacher. John D. Rockefeller, as a young man, practiced a nightly conversation with himself. Because you have got a start, hed say aloud or write in his diary, you think you are quite a merchant; look out or you will lose your headgo steady. Early in his career, hed had some success. Hed gotten a good job. He was saving money. He had a few investments. Considering his father had been a drunken swindler, this was no small feat. Rockefeller was on the right track. Understandably, a sort of self-satisfaction with his accomplishmentsand the trajectory he was heading inbegan to seep in. In a moment of frustration, he once shouted at a bank officer who refused to lend him money, Some day Ill be the richest man in the world! Lets count Rockefeller as maybe the only man in the world to say that and then go on to become the richest man in the world. But for every one of him, there are a dozen more delusional assholes who said the exact same thing and genuinely believed it, and then came nowhere closein part because their pride worked against them, and made other people hate them too. All of this was why Rockefeller knew he needed to rein himself in and to privately manage his ego. Night after night he asked himself, Are you going to be a fool? Are you going to let this money puff you up? (However small it was.) Keep your eyes open, he admonished himself. Dont lose your balance. As he later reflected, I had a horror of the danger of arrogance. What a pitiful thing it is when a man lets a little temporary success spoil him, warp his judgment, and he forgets what he is! It creates a sort of myopic, onanistic obsession that warps perspective, reality, truth, and the world around us. The childlike little prince in Saint-Exup?rys famous story makes the same observation, lamenting that vain men never hear anything but praise. Thats exactly why we cant afford to have it as a translator. Receive feedback, maintain hunger, and chart a proper course in life. Pride dulls these senses. Or in other cases, it tunes up other negative parts of ourselves: sensitivity, a persecution complex, the ability to make everything about us. As the famous conqueror and warrior Genghis Khan groomed his sons and generals to succeed him later in life, he repeatedly warned them, If you cant swallow your pride, you cant lead. He told them that pride would be harder to subdue than a wild lion. He liked the analogy of a mountain. He would say, Even the tallest mountains have animals that, when they stand on it, are higher than the mountain. We tend to be on guard against negativity, against the people who are discouraging us from pursuing our callings or doubting the visions we have for ourselves. This is certainly an obstacle to beware of, though dealing with it is rather simple. What we cultivate less is how to protect ourselves against the validation and gratification that will quickly come our way if we show promise. What we dont protect ourselves against are people and things that make us feel goodor rather, too good. We must prepare for pride and kill it earlyor it will kill what we aspire to. We must be on guard against that wild self-confidence and self-obsession. The first product of self-knowledge is humility, Flannery OConnor once said. This is how we fight the ego, by really knowing ourselves. The question to ask, when you feel pride, then, is this: What am I missing right now that a more humble person might see? What am I avoiding, or running from, with my bluster, franticness, and embellishments? It is far better to ask and answer these questions now, with the stakes still low, than it will be later. Its worth saying: just because you are quiet doesnt mean that you are without pride. Privately thinking youre better than others is still pride. Its still dangerous. That on which you so pride yourself will be your ruin, Montaigne had inscribed on the beam of his ceiling. Its a quote from the playwright Menander, and it ends with you who think yourself to be someone. We are still striving, and it is the strivers who should be our peersnot the proud and the accomplished. Without this understanding, pride takes our self-conception and puts it at odds with the reality of our station, which is that we still have so far to go, that there is still so much to be done. After hitting his head and hearing from Mather, Franklin spent a lifetime battling against his pride, because he wanted to do much and understood that pride would made it much harder. Which is why, despite what would be dizzying accomplishments in any erawealth, fame, powerFranklin never had to experience most of the misfortunes brought upon people by their carrying their heads too high. At the end, this isnt about deferring pride because you dont deserve it yet. It isnt Dont boast about what hasnt happened yet. It is more directly Dont boast. Theres nothing in it for you. WORK, WORK, WORK The best plan is only good intentions unless it degenerates into work. PETER DRUCKER T he painter Edgar Degas, though best known for his beautiful Impressionist paintings of dancers, toyed briefly with poetry. As a brilliant and creative mind, the potential for great poems was all therehe could see beauty, he could find inspiration. Yet there are no great Degas poems. There is one famous conversation that might explain why. One day, Degas complained to his friend, the poet St?phane Mallarm?, about his trouble writing. I cant manage to say what I want, and yet Im full of ideas. Mallarm?s response cuts to the bone. Its not with ideas, my dear Degas, that one makes verse. Its with words. Or rather, with work. The distinction between a professional and a dilettante occurs right therewhen you accept that having an idea is not enough; that you must work until you are able to recreate your experience effectively in words on the page. As the philosopher and writer Paul Val?ry explained in 1938, A poets function . . . is not to experience the poetic state: that is a private affair. His function is to create it in others. That is, his job is to produce work. To be both a craftsman and an artist. To cultivate a product of labor and industry instead of just a product of the mind. Its here where abstraction meets the road and the real, where we trade thinking and talking for working. You cant build a reputation on what youre going to do, was how Henry Ford put it. The sculptor Nina Holton hit the same note in psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyis landmark study on creativity. That germ of an idea, she told him, does not make a sculpture which stands up. It just sits there. So the next stage, of course, is the hard work. The investor and serial entrepreneur Ben Horowitz put it more bluntly: The hard thing isnt setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal. . . . The hard thing isnt dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare. Sure, you get it. You know that all things require work and that work might be quite difficult. But do you really understand? Do you have any idea just how much work there is going to be? Not work until you get your big break, not work until you make a name for yourself, but work, work, work, forever and ever. Is it ten thousand hours or twenty thousand hours to mastery? The answer is that it doesnt matter. There is no end zone. To think of a number is to live in a conditional future. Were simply talking about a lot of hoursthat to get where we want to go isnt about brilliance, but continual effort. While thats not a terribly sexy idea, it should be an encouraging one. Because it means its all within reachfor all of us, provided we have the constitution and humbleness to be patient and the fortitude to put in the work. By this point, you probably understand why the ego would bristle at this idea. Within reach?! it complains. That means youre saying I dont have it now. Exactly right. You dont. No one does. Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuffthe stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory. Thats the reality. Where we decide to put our energy decides what well ultimately accomplish. As a young man, Bill Clinton began a collection of note cards upon which he would write names and phone numbers of friends and acquaintances who might be of service when he eventually entered politics. Each night, before he ever had a reason to, he would flip through the box, make phone calls, write letters, or add notations about their interactions. Over the years, this collection grewto ten thousand cards (before it was eventually digitized). Its what put him in the Oval Office and continues to return dividends. Or think of Darwin, working for decades on his theory of evolution, refraining from publishing it because it wasnt yet perfect. Hardly anyone knew what he was working on. No one said, Hey Charles, its okay that youre taking so long, because what youre working on is just so important. They didnt know. He couldnt have known. He just knew that it wasnt done yet, that it could be better, and that that was enough to keep him going. So: Do we sit down, alone, and struggle with our work? Work that may or may not go anywhere, that may be discouraging or painful? Do we love work, making a living to do work, not the other way around? Do we love practice, the way great athletes do? Or do we chase short-term attention and validationwhether thats indulging in the endless search for ideas or simply the distraction of talk and chatter? Fac, si facis. (Do it if youre going to do it.) There is another apt Latin expression: Materiam superabat opus. (The workmanship was better than the material.) The material weve been given genetically, emotionally, financially, thats where we begin. We dont control that. We do control what we make of that material, and whether we squander it. As a young basketball player, Bill Bradley would remind himself, When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win. The Bible says something similar in its own way: Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. You can lie to yourself, saying that you put in the time, or pretend that youre working, but eventually someone will show up. Youll be tested. And quite possibly, found out. Since Bradley went on to be an All-American, a Rhodes Scholar, then a two-time champion with the New York Knicks and a U.S. senator, you get the sense that this sort of dedication will take you places. So we must have it. Because there is no triumph without toil. Wouldnt it be great if work was as simple as opening a vein and letting the genius pour out? Or if you could walk into that meeting and spit brilliance off the top of your head? You walk up to the canvas, hurl your paint at it, and modern art emerges, right? That is the fantasyrather, that is the lie. Back to another popular old trope: Fake it til you make it. Its no surprise that such an idea has found increasing relevance in our noxiously bullshit, Nerf world. When it is difficult to tell a real producer from an adept self-promoter, of course some people will roll the dice and manage to play the confidence game. Make it so you dont have to fake itthats they key. Can you imagine a doctor trying to get by with anything less? Or a quarterback, or a bull rider? More to the point, would you want them to? So why would you try otherwise? Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: 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 youve 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 doesnt want to be good. It is made so, despite the headwind. There is another old expression: You know a workman by the chips they leave. Its true. To judge your progress properly, just take a look at the floor. FOR EVERYTHING THAT COMES NEXT, EGO IS THE ENEMY . . . Tis a common proof, That lowliness is young ambitions ladder. SHAKESPEARE W e know where we want to end up: success. We want to matter. Wealth and recognition and reputation are nice too. We want it all. The problem is that were not sure that humility can get us there. We are petrified, as the Reverend Dr. Sam Wells put it, that if we are humble, we will end up subjugated, trodden on, embarrassed and irrelevant. Midway through his career, if youd asked our model Sherman how he felt, he probably would have described himself in almost exactly those terms. He had not made much money. He had won no great battles. He had not seen his name in lights or headlines. He might have, at that moment, before the Civil War, begun to question the path hed chosen, and whether those who follow it finished last. This is the thinking that creates the Faustian bargain that turns most clean ambition into shameless addiction. In the early stages, ego can be temporarily adaptive. Craziness can pass for audaciousness. Delusions can pass for confidence, ignorance for courage. But its just kicking the costs down the road. Because no one ever said, reflecting on the whole of someones life, Man, that monstrous ego sure was worth it. The internal debate about confidence calls to mind a well-known concept from the radio pioneer Ira Glass, which could be called the Taste/Talent Gap. All of us who do creative work . . . we get into it because we have good taste. But its like theres a gap, that for the first couple years that youre making stuff, what youre making isnt so good . . . Its really not that great. Its trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but its not quite that good. But your tastethe thing that got you into the gameyour taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what youre making is kind of a disappointment to you. It is in precisely this gap that ego can seem comforting. Who wants to look at themselves and their work and find that it does not measure up? And so here we might bluster our way through. Cover up hard truths with sheer force of personality and drive and passion. Or, we can face our shortcomings honestly and put the time in. We can let this humble us, see clearly where we are talented and where we need to improve, and then put in the work to bridge that gap. And we can set upon positive habits that will last a lifetime. If ego was tempting in Shermans time, in this era, we are like Lance Armstrong training for the 1999 Tour de France. We are Barry Bonds debating whether to walk into the BALCO clinic. We flirt with arrogance and deceit, and in the process grossly overstate the importance of winning at all costs. Everyone is juicing, the ego says to us, you should too. Theres no way to beat them without it, we think. Of course, what is truly ambitious is to face life and proceed with quiet confidence in spite of the distractions. Let others grasp at crutches. It will be a lonely fight to be real, to say Im not going to take the edge off. To say, I am going to be myself, the best version of that self. I am in this for the long game, no matter how brutal it might be. To do, not be. For Sherman, it was precisely his choice that prepared him for the time his country and history most needed himand allowed him to navigate the massive responsibilities that shortly came his way. In this quiet crucible, hed forged a personality that was ambitious but patient, innovative without being brash, brave without being dangerous. He was a real leader. You have a chance to do this yourself. To play a different game, to be utterly audacious in your aims. Because what comes next is going to test you in ways that you cannot begin to understand. For ego is a wicked sister of success. And youre about to experience what that means. SUCCESS Here we are at the top of a mountain we worked hard to climbor at least the summit is in sight. Now we face new temptations and problems. We breathe thinner air in an unforgiving environment. Why is success so ephemeral? Ego shortens it. Whether a collapse is dramatic or a slow erosion, its always possible and often unnecessary. We stop learning, we stop listening, and we lose our grasp on what matters. We become victims of ourselves and the competition. Sobriety, open-mindedness, organization, and purposethese are the great stabilizers. They balance out the ego and pride that comes with achievement and recognition. Two different characters are presented to our emulation; the one, of proud ambition and ostentatious avidity. The other, of humble modesty and equitable justice. Two different models, two different pictures, are held out to us, according to which we may fashion our own character and behaviour; the one more gaudy and glittering in its colouring; the other more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline. ADAM SMITH A t a business meeting in January 1924, Howard Hughes Sr., the successful inventor and tool magnate, stood up, convulsed, and died from a sudden heart attack at the age of fifty-four. His son, a quiet, reserved, and sheltered boy of just eighteen, inherited three fourths of the private company, which held patents and leases critical to oil drilling, worth nearly $1 million. Various family members were bequeathed the remaining shares. In a move of almost incomprehensible foresight, the young Hughes, whom many saw as a spoiled little boy, made the decision to buy out his relatives and control the entire company himself. Against their objections and still legally considered a minor, Hughes leveraged his personal assets and nearly all the companys funds to purchase the stock, and in doing so, consolidated ownership of a business that would create billions of dollars of cash profit over the next century. It was a bold move for a young man with essentially zero experience in business. And it was with similar boldness that over his career he would create one of the most embarrassing, wasteful, and dishonest business track records in history. In retrospect, his years at the helm of the Hughes empire resemble a deranged crime spree more than a capitalistic enterprise. One cannot argue whether Hughes was gifted, visionary, and brilliant. He just was. Literally a mechanical genius, he was also one of the best and bravest pilots in the pioneer days of aviation. And as a businessman and filmmaker he had the ability to predict wide, sweeping changes that came to transform not just the industries he was involved in, but America itself. Yet, after filtering out his acumen from the legend, glamour, and self-promotion at which he was so adept, only one image remains: an egomaniac who evaporated hundreds of millions of dollars of his own wealth and met a miserable, pathetic end. Not by accident, not because he was beset by unforeseen circumstances or competition, but almost exclusively due to his own actions. A quick rundown of his featsif you can call them thatprovides a stark perspective: After purchasing control of his fathers tool company from his family, Hughes abandoned it almost immediately except to repeatedly siphon off its cash. He left Houston and never stepped foot in the companys headquarters again. He moved to Los Angeles, where he decided to become a film producer and celebrity. Trading stocks from his bedside, he lost more than $8 million in the market leading up to the Depression. His most well-known movie, Hells Angels, took three years to make, lost $1.5 million on a budget of $4.2 million, and nearly bankrupted the tool company in the process. Then, not having learned a lesson the first time, Hughes lost another $4 million on Chrysler stock in early 1930. He then put all this aside to enter the aviation business, creating a defense contractor called the Hughes Aircraft Company. Despite some astounding personal achievements as an inventor, Hughess company was a failure. His two contracts during World War II, worth $40 million, were massive failures at the expense of the American taxpayer and himself. The most notable, the Spruce Goosewhich Hughes called the Hercules and which was one of the biggest planes ever madetook more than five years to develop, cost roughly $20 million, and flew just a single time for barely a mile, only 70 feet above the water. At his insistence and expense, it then sat in an air-conditioned hangar in Long Beach for decades at the cost of $1 million a year. Deciding to double down on the film business, Hughes purchased the movie studio RKO and produced losses of over $22 million (and went from two thousand employees to fewer than five hundred as he ran it into the ground over several years). Tiring of these businesses as he had of the tool company, he forsook defense contracting and handed it off to executives to run, where it slowly began to thrive . . . because of his absence. It would make sense to stop here to avoid belaboring the issuebut that would risk skipping Hughess egregious tax fraud; the plane crashes and fatal car accidents; the millions he wasted on private investigators, lawyers, contracts for starlets he refused to let act, property he never lived in; the fact that the only thing that got him to behave responsibly was the threat of public exposure; the paranoia, racism, and bullying; the failed marriages; the drug addiction; and dozens of other ventures and businesses he mismanaged. That we have made a hero out of Howard Hughes, a young Joan Didion wrote, tells us something interesting about ourselves. Shes absolutely right. For Howard Hughes, despite his reputation, was quite possibly one of the worst businessmen of the twentieth century. Usually a bad businessman fails and ceases to be in business anymore, making it hard to see what truly caused his failures. But thanks to the steady chain of profits from his fathers company, which he found too boring to interfere with, Hughes was able to stay afloat, allowing us to see the damage that his ego repeatedly wroughtto himself as a person, to the people around him, to what he wanted to accomplish. There is a scene from Howards slow descent into madness that bears illustrating. His biographers have him sitting naked in his favorite white chair, unwashed, unkempt, working around the clock to battle lawyers, investigations, investors, in an attempt to save his empire and to hide his shameful secrets. One minute he would dictate some irrational multipage memo about Kleenex, food preparation, or how employees should not speak to him directly, and then he would turn around and seize upon a genuinely brilliant strategy to outrun his creditors and enemies. It was as if, they observed, his mind and business were split in two parts. It was as if, they wrote, IBM had deliberately established a pair of subsidiaries, one to produce computers and profits, another to manufacture Edsels and losses. If someone was looking for a flesh-and-blood metaphor for ego and destruction, it would be hard to do better than this image of a man working furiously with one hand toward a goal and with the other working equally hard to undermine it. Howard Hughes, like all of us, was not completely crazy or completely sane. His ego, fueled and exacerbated by physical injuries (mostly from plane and car crashes for which he was at fault) and various addictions, led him into a darkness that we can scarcely comprehend. There were brief moments of lucidity when the sharp mind of Hughes broke throughtimes when he made some of his best movesbut as he progressed through life, these moments became increasingly rare. Eventually, ego killed Howard Hughes as much as the mania and trauma didif they were ever separate to begin with. You can only see this if you want to see it. Its more attractive and exciting to see the rebel billionaire, the eccentric, the world renown, and the fame, and think: Oh, how I want that. You do not. Howard Hughes, like so many wealthy people, died in an asylum of his own making. He felt little joy. He enjoyed almost nothing of what he had. Most importantly, he wasted. He wasted so much talent, so much bravery, and so much energy. Without virtue and training, Aristotle observed, it is hard to bear the results of good fortune suitably. We can learn from Hughes because he was so publicly and visibly unable to bear his birthright properly. His endless taste for the spotlight, no matter how unflattering, gives us an opportunity to see our own tendencies, our own struggles with success and luck, refracted back through his tumultuous life. His enormous ego and its destructive path through Hollywood, through the defense industry, through Wall Street, through the aviation industry give us a look inside someone who was repeatedly felled by impulses we all have. Of course, hes far from the only person in history to follow such an arc. Will you follow his trajectory? Sometimes ego is suppressed on the ascent. Sometimes an idea is so powerful or timing is so perfect (or one is born into wealth or power) that it can temporarily support or even compensate for a massive ego. As success arrives, like it does for a team that has just won a championship, ego begins to toy with our minds and weaken the will that made us win in the first place. We know that empires always fall, so we must think about whyand why they seem to always collapse from within. Harold Geneen was the CEO who more or less invented the concept of the modern international conglomerate. Through a series of acquisitions, mergers, and takeovers (more than 350 in all), he took a small company called ITT from $1 million in revenues in 1959 to nearly $17 billion in 1977, the year he retired. Some claimed that Geneen himself was an egotistin any case, he spoke candidly about the effects that ego had in his industry and warned executives against it. The worst disease which can afflict business executives in their work is not, as popularly supposed, alcoholism; its egotism, Geneen famously said. In the Mad Men era of corporate America, there was a major drinking problem, but ego has the same rootsinsecurity, fear, a dislike for brutal objectivity. Whether in middle management or top management, unbridled personal egotism blinds a man to the realities around him; more and more he comes to live in a world of his own imagination; and because he sincerely believes he can do no wrong, he becomes a menace to the men and women who have to work under his direction, he wrote in his memoirs. Here we are having accomplished something. After we give ourselves proper credit, ego wants us to think, Im special. Im better. The rules dont apply to me. Man is pushed by drives, Viktor Frankl observed. But he is pulled by values. Ruled by or ruling? Which are you? Without the right values, success is brief. If we wish to do more than flash, if we wish to last, then it is time to understand how to battle this new form of ego and what values and principles are required in order to beat it. Success is intoxicating, yet to sustain it requires sobriety. We cant keep learning if we think we already know everything. We cannot buy into myths we make ourselves, or the noise and chatter of the outside world. We must understand that we are a small part of an interconnected universe. On top of all this, we have to build an organization and a system around what we doone that is about the work and not about us. The verdict on Hughes is in. Ego wrecked him. A similar judgment awaits us all at some point. Over the course of your own career, you will face the choices that he didthat all people do. Whether you built your empire from nothing or inherited it, whether your wealth is financial or merely a cultivated talent, entropy is seeking to destroy it as you read this. Can you handle success? Or will it be the worst thing that ever happened to you? ALWAYS STAY A STUDENT Every man I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of him. RALPH WALDO EMERSON T he legend of Genghis Khan has echoed through history: A barbarian conqueror, fueled by bloodlust, terrorizing the civilized world. We have him and his Mongol horde traveling across Asia and Europe, insatiable, stopping at nothing to plunder, rape, and kill not just the people who stood in their way, but the cultures they had built. Then, not unlike his nomadic band of warriors, this terrible cloud simply disappeared from history, because the Mongols built nothing that could last. Like all reactionary, emotional assessments, this could not be more wrong. For not only was Genghis Khan one of the greatest military minds who ever lived, he was a perpetual student, whose stunning victories were often the result of his ability to absorb the best technologies, practices, and innovations of each new culture his empire touched. In fact, if there is one theme in his reign and in the several centuries of dynastic rule that followed, its this: appropriation. Under Genghis Khans direction, the Mongols were as ruthless about stealing and absorbing the best of each culture they encountered as they were about conquest itself. Though there were essentially no technological inventions, no beautiful buildings or even great Mongol art, with each battle and enemy, their culture learned and absorbed something new. 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. He was the greatest conqueror the world ever knew because he was more open to learning than any other conqueror has ever been. Khans first powerful victories came from the reorganization of his military units, splitting his soldiers into groups of ten. This he stole from neighboring Turkic tribes, and unknowingly converted the Mongols to the decimal system. Soon enough, their expanding empire brought them into contact with another technology theyd never experienced before: walled cities. In the Tangut raids, Khan first learned the ins and outs of war against fortified cities and the strategies critical to laying siege, and quickly became an expert. Later, with help from Chinese engineers, he taught his soldiers how to build siege machines that could knock down city walls. In his campaigns against the Jurched, Khan learned the importance of winning hearts and minds. By working with the scholars and royal family of the lands he conquered, Khan was able to hold on to and manage these territories in ways that most empires could not. Afterward, in every country or city he held, Khan would call for the smartest astrologers, scribes, doctors, thinkers, and advisersanyone who could aid his troops and their efforts. His troops traveled with interrogators and translators for precisely this purpose. It was a habit that would survive his death. While the Mongols themselves seemed dedicated almost solely to the art of war, they put to good use every craftsman, merchant, scholar, entertainer, cook, and skilled worker they came in contact with. The Mongol Empire was remarkable for its religious freedoms, and most of all, for its love of ideas and convergence of cultures. It brought lemons to China for the first time, and Chinese noodles to the West. It spread Persian carpets, German mining technology, French metalworking, and Islam. The cannon, which revolutionized warfare, was said to be the resulting fusion of Chinese gunpowder, Muslim flamethrowers, and European metalwork. It was Mongol openness to learning and new ideas that brought them together. As we first succeed, we will find ourselves in new situations, facing new problems. The freshly promoted soldier must learn the art of politics. The salesman, how to manage. The founder, 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. This is not a harmless conceit. The physicist John Wheeler, who helped develop the hydrogen bomb, once observed that as our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance. In other words, each victory and advancement that made Khan smarter also bumped him against new situations hed never encountered before. It takes a special kind of humility to grasp that you know less, even as you know and grasp more and more. Its remembering Socrates wisdom lay in the fact that he knew that he knew next to nothing. 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). Thats the worry and the riskthinking that were set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process. The nine-time Grammy and Pulitzer Prizewinning jazz musician Wynton Marsalis once advised a promising young musician on the mind-set required in the lifelong study of music: Humility engenders learning because it beats back the arrogance that puts blinders on. It leaves you open for truths to reveal themselves. You dont stand in your own way. . . . Do you know how you can tell when someone is truly humble? I believe theres one simple test: because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve. They dont assume, I know the way. No matter what youve done up to this point, you better still be a student. If youre not still learning, youre already dying. It is not enough only to be a student at the beginning. It is a position that one has to assume for life. Learn from everyone and everything. From the people you beat, and the people who beat you, from the people you dislike, even from your supposed enemies. At every step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learnand even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again. Too often, convinced of our own intelligence, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to learn or reconsider what we know). It obscures from view various weaknesses in our understanding, until eventually its too late to change course. This is where the silent toll is taken. Each of us faces a threat as we pursue our craft. Like sirens on the rocks, ego sings a soothing, validating songwhich can lead to a wreck. The second we let the ego tell us we have graduated, learning grinds to a halt. Thats why Frank Shamrock said, Always stay a student. As in, it never ends. The solution is as straightforward as it is initially uncomfortable: Pick up a book on a topic you know next to nothing about. Put yourself in rooms where youre the least knowledgeable person. That uncomfortable feeling, that defensiveness that you feel when your most deeply held assumptions are challengedwhat about subjecting yourself to it deliberately? Change your mind. Change your surroundings. An amateur is defensive. The professional finds learning (and even, occasionally, being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled, and engage in education as an ongoing and endless process. Most military culturesand people in generalseek to impose values and control over what they encounter. What made the Mongols different was their ability to weigh each situation objectively, and if need be, swap out previous practices for new ones. All great businesses start this way, but then something happens. Take the theory of disruption, which posits that at some point in time, every industry will be disrupted by some trend or innovation that, despite all the resources in the world, the incumbent interests will be incapable of responding to. Why is this? Why cant businesses change and adapt? A large part of it is because they lost the ability to learn. They stopped being students. The second this happens to you, your knowledge becomes fragile. The great manager and business thinker Peter Drucker says that its 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. DONT TELL YOURSELF A STORY Myth becomes myth not in the living but in the retelling. DAVID MARANISS S tarting in 1979, football coach and general manager Bill Walsh took the 49ers from being the worst team in football, and perhaps professional sports, to a Super Bowl victory, in just three years. It would have been tempting, as he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy over his head, to tell himself that the quickest turnaround in NFL history had been his plan all along. It would have been tempting decades later, when he assembled his memoirs, to assume that narrative as well. Its a sexy story. That his takeover, his turnaround, and the transformation were assiduously scheduled. That it all happened exactly as he wantedbecause he was just that good and that talented. No one would have faulted him if he said that. Yet he refused to indulge in those fantasies. When people asked Walsh whether he had a timetable for winning the Super Bowl, do you know what his answer was? The answer was always no. Because when you take over a team that bad, such ambitions would have been utterly delusional. The year before he arrived, the 49ers were 2 and 14. The organization was demoralized, broken, without draft picks, and fully ensconced in a culture of losing. His first season, they lost another fourteen games. He nearly resigned midway through his second year, because he wasnt sure he could do it. Yet, twenty-four months from taking over (and a little over a year from having almost quit), there he was, the Super Bowl champion genius. How did it happen? How was that not part of the plan? The answer is that when Bill Walsh took control, he wasnt focused on winning per se. Instead, he implemented what he called his Standard of Performance. That is: What should be done. When. How. At the most basic level and throughout the organization, Walsh had only one timetable, and it was all about instilling these standards. He focused on seemingly trivial details: Players could not sit down on the practice field. Coaches had to wear a tie and tuck their shirts in. Everyone had to give maximum effort and commitment. Sportsmanship was essential. The locker room must be neat and clean. There would be no smoking, no fighting, no profanity. Quarterbacks were told where and how to hold the ball. Linemen were drilled on thirty separate critical drills. Passing routes were monitored and graded down to the inch. Practices were scheduled to the minute. It would be a mistake to think this was about control. The Standard of Performance was about instilling excellence. These seemingly simple but exacting standards mattered more than some grand vision or power trip. In his eyes, if the players take care of the details, the score takes care of itself. The winning would happen. Walsh was strong and confident enough to know that these standards would eventually contribute to victory. He was also humble enough to know that when victory would happen was not something he could predict. That it happened faster than for any coach in history? Well, that was a fortuitous break of the game. It was not because of his grand vision. In fact, in his second season, a coach complained to the owner that Walsh was too caught up in minutiae and had no goals to win. Walsh fired that coach for tattling. We want so desperately to believe that those who have great empires set out to build one. Why? So we can indulge in the pleasurable planning of ours. So we can take full credit for the good that happens and the riches and respect that come our way. 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 didnt really know all alongor if you did, it was more faith than knowledge. But who wants to remember all the times you doubted yourself? Crafting stories out of past events is a very human impulse. Its also dangerous and untrue. Writing our own narrative leads to arrogance. It turns our life into a storyand turns us into caricatureswhile we still have to live it. As the author Tobias Wolff writes in his novel Old School, these explanations and stories get cobbled together later, more or less sincerely, and after the stories have been repeated they put on the badge of memory and block all other routes of exploration. Bill Walsh understood that it was really the Standard of Performancethe deceptively small thingsthat was responsible for the teams transformation and victory. But thats too boring for newspaper headlines. Its why he ignored it when they called him the Genius. To accept the title and the story wouldnt be a harmless personal gratification. These narratives dont change the past, but they do have the power to negatively impact our future. His players shortly proved the risks inherent in letting a story go to their heads. Like most of us, they wanted to believe that their unlikely victory occurred because they were special. In the two seasons after their first Super Bowl, the team failed terriblypartly due to the dangerous confidence that accompanies these kinds of victorieslosing 12 of 22 games. This is what happens when you prematurely credit yourself with powers you dont yet have control of. This is what happens when you start to think about what your rapid achievements say about you and begin to slacken the effort and standards that initially fueled them. Only when the team returned wholeheartedly to the Standard of Performance did they win again (three more Super Bowls and nine conference or division championships in a decade). Only when they stopped with the stories and focused on the task at hand did they begin to win like they had before. Heres the other part: once you win, everyone is gunning for you. Its during your moment at the top that you can afford ego the leastbecause the stakes are so much higher, the margins for error are so much smaller. If anything, your ability to listen, to hear feedback, to improve and grow matter more now than ever before. Facts are better than stories and image. The twentieth-century financier Bernard Baruch had a great line: Dont try to buy at the bottom and sell at the top. This cant be doneexcept by liars. That is, peoples claims about what theyre doing in the market are rarely to be trusted. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has talked about this temptation. He reminds himself that there was no aha moment for his billion-dollar behemoth, no matter what he might read in his own press clippings. The founding of a company, making money in the market, or the formation of an idea is messy. Reducing it to a narrative retroactively creates a clarity that never was and never will be there. When we are aspiring we must resist the impulse to reverse engineer success from other peoples stories. When we achieve our own, we must resist the desire to pretend that everything unfolded exactly as wed planned. There was no grand narrative. You should rememberyou were there when it happened. A few years ago, one of the founders of Google gave a talk in which he said that the way he judges prospective companies and entrepreneurs is by asking them if theyre going to change the world. Which is fine, except thats not how Google started. (Larry Page and Sergey Brin were two Stanford PhDs working on their dissertations.) Its not how YouTube started. (Its founders werent trying to reinvent TV; they were trying to share funny video clips.) Its not how most true wealth was created, in fact. Investor Paul Graham (who invested in Airbnb, reddit, Dropbox, and others), working in the same city as Walsh a few decades later, explicitly warns startups against having bold, sweeping visions early on. Of course, as a capitalist, he wants to fund companies that massively disrupt industries and change the worldthats where the money is. He wants them to have frighteningly ambitious ideas, but explains, The way to do really big things seems to be to start with deceptively small things. Hes saying you dont make a frontal attack out of ego; instead, you start with a small bet and iteratively scale your ambitions as you go. His other famous piece of advice, Keep your identity small, fits well here. Make it about the work and the principles behind itnot about a glorious vision that makes a good headline. Napoleon had the words To Destiny! engraved on the wedding ring he gave his wife. Destiny was what hed always believed in, it was how he justified his boldest, most ambitious ideas. It was also why he overreached time and time again, until his real destiny was divorce, exile, defeat, and infamy. A great destiny, Seneca reminds us, is great slavery. There is a real danger in believing it when people use the word geniusand its even more dangerous when we let hubris tell ourselves we are one. The same goes for any label that comes along with a career: are we suddenly a filmmaker, writer, investor, entrepreneur, or executive because weve accomplished one thing? These labels put you at odds not just with reality, but with the real strategy that made you successful in the first place. From that place, we might think that success in the future is just the natural next part of the storywhen really its rooted in work, creativity, persistence, and luck. Certainly Googles alienation from its own roots (confusing vision and potential with scientific and technological prowess) will cause it to stumble soon enough. It fact, the public failures of projects like Google Glass and Google Plus might be evidence of it already. Theyre not alone. Too often, artists who think it was inspiration or pain that fueled their art and create an image around thatinstead of hard work and sincere hustlewill eventually find themselves at the bottom of a bottle or on the wrong end of a needle. The same goes for us, whatever we do. Instead of pretending that we are living some great story, we must remain focused on the executionand on executing with excellence. We must shun the false crown and continue working on what got us here. Because thats the only thing that will keep us here. WHATS IMPORTANT TO YOU? To know what you like is the beginning of wisdom and of old age. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON A t the end of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant and his friend William Tecumseh Sherman were two of the most respected and important men in America. Essentially the dual architects of the Unions victory, a grateful country, with a snap of its fingers, said: Whatever you like, as long as you live, is yours. With this freedom at their disposal, Sherman and Grant took different paths. Sherman, whose track we followed earlier, abhorred politics and repeatedly declined entreaties to run for office. I have all the rank I want, he told them. Having seemingly mastered his ego, he would later retire to New York City, where he lived in what was, by all appearances, happiness and contentment. Grant, who had expressed almost no prior interest in politics, and, in fact, had succeeded as a general precisely because he didnt know how to play politics, chose instead to pursue the highest office in the land: the presidency. Elected by a landslide, he then presided over one of the most corrupt, contentious, and least effective administrations in American history. A genuinely good and loyal individual, he was not cut out for the dirty world of Washington, and it made quick work of him. He left office a maligned and controversial figure after two exhausting terms, almost surprised by how poorly it had gone. After the presidency, Grant invested almost every penny he had to create a financial brokerage house with a controversial investor named Ferdinand Ward. Ward, a Bernie Madoff of his day, turned it into a Ponzi scheme, and publicly bankrupted Grant. As Sherman wrote with sympathy and understanding of his friend, Grant had aimed to rival the millionaires, who would have given their all to have won any of his battles. Grant had accomplished so much, but to him, it wasnt enough. He couldnt decide what was importantwhat actually matteredto him. Thats how it seems to go: were never happy with what we have, we want what others have too. We want to have more than everyone else. We start out knowing what is important to us, but once weve achieved it, we lose sight of our priorities. Ego sways us, and can ruin us. Compelled by his sense of honor to cover the debts of the firm, Grant took out a loan using his priceless war mementos as collateral. Broken in mind, spirit, and body, the last years of his life found him battling painful throat cancer, and racing to finish his memoirs so that he might leave his family with something to live on. He made it, just barely. One shudders to think of the vital forces drained from this hero, who died at just sixty-three in agony and defeat, this straightforward, honest man who just couldnt help himself, who couldnt manage to focus, and ended up far outside the bounds of his ample genius. What could he have done with those years instead? How might have America looked otherwise? How much more could he have done and accomplished? Not that he is unique in this regard. All of us regularly say yes unthinkingly, or out of vague attraction, or out of greed or vanity. Because we cant say nobecause we might miss out on something if we did. We think yes will let us accomplish more, when in reality it prevents exactly what we seek. All of us waste precious life doing things we dont like, to prove ourselves to people we dont respect, and to get things we dont want. Why do we do this? Well, it should be obvious by now. Ego leads to envy and it rots the bones of people big and small. Ego undermines greatness by deluding its holder. Most of us begin with a clear idea of what we want in life. We know whats important to us. The success we achieve, especially if it comes early or in abundance, puts us in an unusual place. Because now, all of a sudden, were in a new place and have trouble keeping our bearings. 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. It doesnt matter how well youre doing; your ego and their accomplishments make you feel like nothingjust as others make them feel the same way. Its a cycle that goes on ad infinitum . . . while our brief time on earthor the small window of opportunity we have heredoes not. So we unconsciously pick up the pace to keep up with others. But what if different people are running for different reasons? What if there is more than one race going on? Thats what Sherman was saying about Grant. There is a certain Gift of the Magi irony in how badly we chase what will not be truly pleasurable. At the very least, it wont last. If only we could all stop for a second. Lets be clear: competitiveness is an important force in life. Its what drives the market and is behind some of mankinds most impressive accomplishments. On an individual level, however, its absolutely critical that you know who youre competing with and why, that you have a clear sense of the space youre in. Only you know the race youre running. That is, unless your ego decides the only way you have value is if youre better than, have more than, everyone everywhere. More urgently, each one of us has a unique potential and purpose; that means that were the only ones who can evaluate and set the terms of our lives. Far too often, we look at other people and make their approval the standard we feel compelled to meet, and as a result, squander our very potential and purpose. According to Seneca, the Greek word euthymia is one we should think of often: it is the sense of our own path and how to stay on it without getting distracted by all the others that intersect it. In other words, its not about beating the other guy. Its not about having more than the others. Its about being what you are, and being as good as possible at it, without succumbing to all the things that draw you away from it. Its about going where you set out to go. About accomplishing the most that youre capable of in what you choose. Thats it. No more and no less. (By the way, euthymia means tranquillity in English.) Its time to sit down and think about whats truly important to you and then take steps to forsake the rest. Without this, success will not be pleasurable, or nearly as complete as it could be. Or worse, it wont last. This is especially true with money. If you dont know how much you need, the default easily becomes: more. And so without thinking, critical energy is diverted from a persons calling and toward filling a bank account. When you combine insecurity and ambition, the plagiarist and disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer said when reflecting back on his fall, you get an inability to say no to things. Ego rejects trade-offs. Why compromise? Ego wants it all. Ego tells you to cheat, though you love your spouse. Because you want what you have and what you dont have. Ego says that sure, even though youre just starting to get the hang of one thing, why not jump right in the middle of another? Eventually, you say yes to too much, to something too far beyond the pale. Were like Captain Ahab, chasing Moby Dick, for reasons we dont even understand anymore. Maybe your priority actually is money. Or maybe its family. Maybe its influence or change. Maybe its building an organization that lasts, or serves a purpose. All of these are perfectly fine motivations. But you do need to know. You need to know what you dont want and what your choices preclude. Because strategies are often mutually exclusive. One cannot be an opera singer and a teen pop idol at the same time. Life requires those trade-offs, but ego cant allow it. So why do you do what you do? Thats the question you need to answer. Stare at it until you can. Only then will you understand what matters and what doesnt. Only then can you say no, can you opt out of stupid races that dont matter, or even exist. Only then is it easy to ignore successful people, because most of the time they arentat least relative to you, and often even to themselves. Only then can you develop that quiet confidence Seneca talked about. The more you have and do, the harder maintaining fidelity to your purpose will be, but the more critically you will need to. Everyone buys into the myth that if only they had thatusually what someone else hasthey would be happy. It may take getting burned a few times to realize the emptiness of this illusion. We all occasionally find ourselves in the middle of some project or obligation and cant understand why were there. It will take courage and faith to stop yourself. Find out why youre after what youre after. Ignore those who mess with your pace. Let them covet what you have, not the other way around. Because thats independence. ENTITLEMENT, CONTROL, AND PARANOIA One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that ones work is terribly important. BERTRAND RUSSELL W hen Xerxes, the Persian emperor, crossed the Hellespont during his invasion of Greece, the waters surged up and destroyed the bridges his engineers had spent days building. And so he threw chains into the river, ordered it be given three hundred lashes, and branded it with hot irons. As his men delivered his punishment, they were ordered to harangue it: You salt and bitter stream, your master lays this punishment upon you for injuring him, who never injured you. Oh, and he cut off the heads of the men who had built the bridges. Herodotus, the great historian, called the display presumptuous, which is probably an understatement. Surely preposterous and delusional are more appropriate. Then again, it was part of his personality. Shortly before this, Xerxes had written a letter to a nearby mountain in which he needed to cut a canal. You may be tall and proud, he wrote, but dont you dare cause me any trouble. Otherwise, Ill topple you into the sea. How hilarious is that? More important, how pathetic? Xerxes delusional threats are unfortunately not a historical anomaly. With success, particularly power, come some of the greatest and most dangerous delusions: entitlement, control, and paranoia. Hopefully you wont find yourself so crazed that you start anthropomorphizing, and inflicting retribution on inanimate objects. Thats pure, recognizable crazy, and thankfully rare. Whats more likely, and more common, is we begin to overestimate our own power. Then we lose perspective. Eventually, we can end like Xerxes, a monstrous joke. The Strongest Poison ever known, the poet William Blake wrote, came from Caesars Laurel Crown. Success casts a spell over us. The problem lies in the path that got us to success in the first place. What weve accomplished often required feats of raw power and force of will. Both entrepreneurship and art required the creation of something where nothing existed before. Wealth means beating the market and the odds. Athletic champions have proved their physical superiority over opponents. Achieving success involved ignoring the doubts and reservations of the people around us. It meant rejecting rejection. It required taking certain risks. We could have given up at any time, but were here precisely because we didnt. Persistence and courage in the face of ridiculous odds are partially irrational traitsin some cases really irrational. When it works, those tendencies can feel like theyve been vindicated. And why shouldnt they? Its human to think that since its been done oncethat the world was changed in some big or small waythat there is now a magical power in our possession. Were here because were bigger, stronger, smarter. That we make the reality we inhabit. Right before he destroyed his own billion-dollar company, Ty Warner, creator of Beanie Babies, overrode the cautious objections of one of his employees and bragged, I could put the Ty heart on manure and theyd buy it! He was wrong. And the company not only catastrophically failed, he later narrowly missed going to jail. It doesnt matter if youre a billionaire, a millionaire, or just a kid who snagged a good job early. The complete and utter sense of certainty that got you here can become a liability if youre not careful. The demands and dream you had for a better life? The ambition that fueled your effort? These begin as earnest drives but left unchecked become hubris and entitlement. The same goes for the instinct to take charge; now youre addicted to control. Driven to prove the doubters wrong? Welcome to the seeds of paranoia. Yes, there are legitimate stresses and anguish that come with the responsibilities of your new life. All the things youre managing, the frustrating mistakes of people who should know better, the endless creep of obligationsno one prepares us for that, which makes the feelings all the harder to deal with. The promised land was supposed to be nice, not aggravating. But you cant let the walls close in on you. Youve got to get yourselfand your perceptionsunder control. When Arthur Lee was sent to France and England to serve as one of Americas diplomats during the Revolutionary War, instead of relishing the opportunity to work with his fellow diplomat Silas Deane and elder statesman Benjamin Franklin, he raged and resented them and suspected them of disliking him. Finally, Franklin wrote him a letter (one that weve probably all deserved to get at one point or another): If you do not cure yourself of this temper, Franklin advised, it will end in insanity, of which it is the symptomatic forerunner. Probably because he was in such command of his own temper, Franklin decided that writing the letter was cathartic enough. He never sent it. If youve ever listened to the Oval Office tapes of Richard Nixon, you can hear the same sickness, and you wish someone could have sent him such a letter. Its a harrowing insight into a man who has lost his grip not just on what he is legally allowed to do, on what his job was (to serve the people), but on reality itself. He vacillates wildly from supreme confidence to dread and fear. He talks over his subordinates and rejects information and feedback that challenges what he wants to believe. He lives in a bubble in which no one can say nonot even his conscience. Theres a letter from General Winfield Scott to Jefferson Davis, then the secretary of war for the United States. Davis belligerently pestered Scott repeatedly about some trivial matter. Scott ignored it until, finally, forced to address it, he wrote that he pitied Davis. Compassion is always due, he said to him, to an enraged imbecile, who lays about him in blows which hurt only himself. Ego is its own worst enemy. It hurts the ones we love too. Our families and friends suffer for it. So do our customers, fans, and clients. A critic of Napoleon nailed it when remarking: He despises the nation whose applause he seeks. He couldnt help but see the French people as pieces to be manipulated, people he had to be better than, people who, unless they were totally, unconditionally supportive of him, were against him. A smart man or woman must regularly remind themselves of the limits of their power and reach. Entitlement assumes: This is mine. Ive earned it. At the same time, entitlement nickels and dimes other people because it cant conceive of valuing another persons time as highly as its own. It delivers tirades and pronouncements that exhaust the people who work for and with us, who have no choice other than to go along. It overstates our abilities to ourselves, it renders generous judgment of our prospects, and it creates ridiculous expectations. Control says, It all must be done my wayeven little things, even inconsequential things. It can become paralyzing perfectionism, or a million pointless battles fought merely for the sake of exerting its say. It too exhausts people whose help we need, particularly quiet people who dont object until weve pushed them to their breaking point. We fight with the clerk at the airport, the customer service representative on the telephone, the agent who examines our claim. To what end? In reality, we dont control the weather, we dont control the market, we dont control other people, and our efforts and energies in spite of this are pure waste. Paranoia thinks, I cant trust anyone. Im in this totally by myself and for myself. It says, Im surrounded by fools. It says, focusing on my work, my obligations, myself is not enough. I also have to be orchestrating various machinations behind the scenesto get them before they get me; to get them back for the slights I perceive. Everyone has had a boss, a partner, a parent like this. All that strife, anger, chaos, and conflict. How did it go for them? How did it end? He who indulges empty fears earns himself real fears, wrote Seneca, who as a political adviser witnessed destructive paranoia at the highest levels. The sad feedback loop is that the relentless looking out for number one can encourage other people to undermine and fight us. They see that behavior for what it really is: a mask for weakness, insecurity, and instability. In its frenzy to protect itself, paranoia creates the persecution it seeks to avoid, making the owner a prisoner of its own delusions and chaos. Is this the freedom you envisioned when you dreamed of your success? Likely not. So stop.

  • Peter Pan Comes to London /      (Disney, 2011)    Peter Pan Comes to London /
  • Atomic Habits /   (by James Clear, 2018) -   Atomic Habits /
  • The Universe in a Nutshell /     (by Stephen Hawking, 2001) -   The Universe in a Nutshell /
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