In his new book, Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday takes philosophy out of the ivory towers and translates often-dense concepts into actionable insights—things like the “right” way to pursue excellence, and how to cultivate and sustain a high-performance mindset. As its title suggests, the book, out June 14, highlights what Holiday considers the greatest barrier to performance: ego. “The ability to evaluate one’s own ability is the most important skill of all,” he writes. “Without it, improvement is impossible.”
Holiday—whose previous book, The Obstacle Is the Way, gained a cult following amongst elite athletes for its lessons on mental toughness—is an avid athlete himself. He swims or runs daily, and boasts a 5:02 mile PR. I recently caught up with the author and entrepreneur from his farm in Austin, Texas, to discuss his latest book, mental fitness, and the connection between movement and creativity.
Ego Is the Enemy: Ego whispers things in your ear that are not true. It pulls you away from your craft. It’s an inflated perception of yourself, a false sense of security. When you start to think “I’m the best in the world” is when you start to get beat.
Confidence: People tend to confuse confidence and ego. Whereas ego is based on delusion, confidence is based on the fact that you’ve done the work, that you’ve put in the time and energy. Confidence is earned—it is a humble preparedness. I’m all for confidence.
Success: Success is intoxicating, yet to sustain it requires sobriety. Unless you intentionally suppress your ego, it is going to creep in and stop upward progression. Remind yourself that others out there are better than you. Find a new benchmark, a new standard, to hold yourself against. Emphasize the craft and the journey, not the result. You don’t want to get too hung up over a poor result, and similarly you don’t want to get too satisfied with a good one. Success is knowing that you left it all on the table. Any external validation is extra.
Managing Performance Anxiety: Focus on what you can control, like the effort that you put in, and don’t waste energy on the things you cannot control, like the outcome of an event. This is especially important in athletic endeavors, where conserving energy is of the utmost importance.
Bulletproofing Yourself: I practice a Stoic technique called negative visualization. [Stoicism is an ancient Greco-Roman philosophy that emphasizes confronting adversity by focusing on the things you can control, and letting go of everything else.] I imagine the worst case scenario for a particular situation—e.g., my book completely flopping—and I ask myself, “Can I live with that?” This simple practice is so powerful. It readies me for the worst and makes me less fragile.
Overcoming Setbacks: While you can’t always control what happens to you, you can always control how you respond to it. For example, take getting injured before a big event. You determine what this is going to mean. Is it going to be an awful tragedy—the end of a season, or perhaps even a career? Or, is it going to be a learning experience? A chance to examine root causes, correct them, and pour energy into recovery? Even more important, maybe you’ll realize that you poured too much of your identity into a single pursuit, that you need more balance. That’s a very important, and individual, reflection.
You define—with your mindset and your actions—whether a “set back” is just that, or, if it’s actually a step forward.
Greatness Comes from Grunt Work: Bill Belichick, the wildly successful coach of the New England Patriots, started off as an intern in the film room. Those years of grunt work underlie his seemingly intuitive genius. Great performance always rests upon consistent practice. If you want to be great, you better want to show up and do the work.
Being Content: Man, this is so hard for me. I struggle to satiate the drive. It’s like I have an inability to be still, but I know this is a recipe for burnout. I’ve found that being close to animals really helps me. The goats on my farm aren’t in a rush to do anything. They are satisfied to just be. I sit and watch my goats and have an easier time turning it off.
Activity Leads to Creativity: I run or swim every day. Doing so powers my creative brain. I actually think of exercise as a part of my job. The introduction to Obstacle is the Way came to me during a run. The title Ego is the Enemy came to me while swimming. It’s crazy, but whenever I am creatively blocked, movement unblocks me.