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Be Lesser, Do More

You might know Ryan Holiday from American Apparel, where he became Director of Marketing at the age of 21, or from his 2014 book ‘The Obstacle is the Way,’ which was a hit with people from all walks of life, from political figures to professional athletes. His latest work, ‘Ego is the Enemy,’ is gaining just as much traction, maybe more, and again with people seeking true mastery in life.

From Genghis Khan to Ben Franklin and through a lot of research, Holiday pulls from notable characters of history to prove that ego hinders, not helps. He highlights the importance of the receptive mentality of the student, the quality of humility, and an others-before-self perspective, for personal and professional fulfilment, and for success defined by longevity and substance.

In his book, Holiday quotes nine-time Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz musician Wynton Marsalis: “Because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve. They don’t assume, ‘I know the way.’” Relatedly, Elon Musk has been widely documented to have said, “Take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.” Being conceited and defensive can lead to destruction for both yourself and others around you — regardless of how brilliant you might be.

That’s because great leadership calls for empathy — genuinely seeing people and listening to them. Holiday explains in another essay: “We cannot connect with others if our attitude and approach pushes them away — or pushes us above them. We cannot recognize opportunities — or create them — if instead of seeing what is in front of us, we live inside our own fantasy.”

The cocoon of that fantasy is precisely the allure of ego. Holiday goes on: “We tell ourselves that we need a certain brashness to succeed, why? Fear. Pursuing great work […] is often terrifying. Ego soothes that fear. It’s a salve to that insecurity.”

It’s important here to note that ego is not the same as confidence. “Confidence is calm, compassionate, curious, careful,” Holiday writes. “It is earned.”

To this point it is worth bringing up David Zweig’s book ‘Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in the Age of Relentless Self-Promotion.’ Zweig defines Invisibles as “highly skilled individuals whose work is critical to whatever enterprise they’re a part of, but who generally go unnoticed by the end user,” like a UN interpreter, the guitar technician for Radiohead, or the IT manager for a co-working space. The better Invisibles do their job, the more they disappear from public consciousness — but they also tend to be more satisfied and successful.

What Zweig found after two years of interviewing Invisibles was that “great heights of fulfillment and success can be achieved by focusing on the value of your work, not the amount of attention you receive for it.” Paradoxically, an ambivalence to recognition results in recognition.

“Be lesser; do more,” says Holiday. “Produce more than everyone else and give your ideas away.” It will all come back one day. Take nothing personally. Your ego is the only enemy.