Book Review – Ego is the Enemy

Over the course of several conversations, it became clear to me, in large part by it being explicitly pointed out to me that I was displaying anger, and lashing out and hurting people who, in my right mind, I would walk barefoot over a mile of broken glass for. When I calmed down, I saw that they were right. I had a flaw in my thought, and it needed to be fixed.

To be sure, at the time of writing this, anger is more easily reached – I’m in the middle of breaking a couple of chemical dependencies. They were useful crutches at an earlier stage of my life, but I’ve come to a point where they were holding me back. So I quit THC and nicotine within a few days of each other, a decision that, while the correct one, has made me a bit edgy. That said, chemistry is not an excuse and I wasn’t going to just take that as a stopping point.

I did what I usually do when I know there’s something I need to fix and I don’t know how to – searched the internet for lists of good books on the subject. Once I have a decent stack of recommendations, I can work through several of them, putting aside the ones that don’t seem to be helping.

From the large pile I gathered, I pulled Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy. I was, as I’ve said, in a combative space, and this suited me.

I can frequently be heard referring to myself as lucky, usually in a tongue-in-cheek sense, but it’s moments like this one that make me wonder, sometimes…

Ego is the Enemy digs into the difference between the people who succeed briefly, then flame out, or never succeed at all, and those who stride forward, one foot in front of the other and their eyes on the goal. Holiday brings a wry humor to the task of reminding us that we are all, in the end, human. Drawing from exemplars of both the restrained and those who refused any restraint, each of his points is well supported and illustrated in a way that brings clarity of vision to the issue of ego.

In many ways, the diseases of the modern industrialized world are those of surfeit – too much sugar, too many calories, too much instant gratification and superstimuli. This excess is exacerbated by the fact that it is optimized for being form over substance. Prepacked foods are sugar and carbohydrates and fat. Porn comes in an instant, in a bewildering variety that your ancestors never had access to. In many ways, our civilization has a similar issue with self-esteem(link to review of pillars). At least for my generation, almost any achievement earned a gold star, trophies were given for showing up, and the adults chased us (this has gotten worse, I hear) trying to protect us from any failure. As a result, many of my peers (and me! I did not select this book at random!) grew up with a six hundred pound ego, suffering diabetic neuropathy and, like Fat Bastard, crying out, “I’m damn sexy!”

Ego is the enemy is the bread, water, and vitamin diet my ego needed. There is a mental sting one feels when a good point has been landed, one we know is accurate, and that we have no way of pushing aside. Ryan Holiday delivers that sting again and again, and if you’ve come to put your ego through fat camp, it’s just the suffering you want. Delicious!

The book is composed of fairly short chapters, each focused around one particular aspect. Talk, talk, talk. To be or to do? Become a student. Simple ideas that he puts flesh to with clear historic examples, ones that demand recognition. To be or to do? for example, focuses largely on John Boyd, a career serviceman who flew over Korea and became, in time, the lead instructor at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB. He touched the minds of many, shaped modern military thought directly and indirectly, and is almost totally unknown.

He would advise those he thought had promise to consider which path they wanted to follow in their lives. The version of this speech known to history is too good not to quote, so here you go:

“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. 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. Or you can go that way and you can do something — something 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 won’t 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. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”

John Boyd

If you, like many of John Boyd’s disciples, want to do something rather than be someone, I’d strongly recommend you grab a copy of Ego is the enemy, and read it with a will.

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