Ego Is The Enemy

Sometimes our most important challenge is getting out of our own way.  It sounds simple but is often easier said than done.  One book I enjoyed a year back was Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday.  Holiday describes the concept of ego (stemming from the Latin word for “I”) and the ease with which it can wreck our lives.  Holiday explains these problems through the medium of Stoic philosophy.

So today I will revisit and comment upon a few of my favorite highlights.

“The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition.”

This reminded me of a speaker at orientation.  He concluded his presentation with the news that some found jarring at the time.  “You are not as important to your school as you think.”

Here we were, many fresh-faced eager new teachers-to-be ready to make an impact on Korean children’s lives only to hear this man shatter our noble self-image.

Yet I later found this the most valuable piece of abstract advice from orientation.  It spoke to the diminishment of ego.  While it may have initially felt disheartening to accept non-importance, such ego deflation planted the seeds for flourishing.

I suddenly felt little to no pressure.  Do I have to be a great teacher? No. Does my class make or break these Korean kids’ education?  No. So relax. Do your best. Have fun.

So I did.  Classes have been much more enjoyable (and arguably more effective) since.

“One might say that the ability to evaluate one’s own ability is the most important skill of all.”

It saddens me to think of how much potential is wasted because people believe that their abilities obviate the need to work hard.  

It saddens me the most that I was one of those people.

Sometimes I wonder if I could have attended a more prestigious university or gone further in the game of football if I did not allow praise to go to my head.  I developed a fixed mindset, meaning I believed my talent would be enough to take me as far as I could go.

I was very mistaken.

The research of Dunning and Krueger have repeatedly shown that most people tend to overestimate their own abilities.  In other words, their ego compels them to think they are better than they are. That overconfidence leads to wasted potential and best and utter ruin at worst.

While it’s unwise to adopt the other extreme (“I am terrible at everything and unworthy of love”), there may be benefits to holding conservative estimates of one’s own abilities.  Rather, we should let our performance speak for itself.

“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.”

I struggled with this point for a while.  Sometimes I still do.

Great conversationalists tend to have one thing in common – they are great listeners.

I had long been an awful listener, only focusing long enough to produce my own related idea or point of rebuttal.  I erroneously believed that one displayed social value by speaking well – telling an engrossing story, making a side-splitting joke, or making a timely suggestion.

As I get a bit older, however, I notice that the less one speaks, the greater the value of their words.  Just as a government cheapens the value of its currency by printing more money, one cheapens the value of their words the more often they speak.

It’s been a hard-earned lesson that Korea actually helped accelerate.  Sitting in ambiguity as co-workers converse in Korean has become a commonplace experience now.  Simply sitting, nodding, and providing an occasional “uh-huh” has become more habitual. My next step is to learn enough Korean to contribute to a conversation without learning enough to dominate it.

“You can’t learn if you think you already know.”

Humility is essential to intellectual development.  One can only open themselves to growth if they can honestly admit their deficiencies.  Moreover, it is important to remain open to being proven wrong. 

We sometimes lionize people with unshakable beliefs.  Yet there are far more examples of people who ignored all evidence against their positions and collapsed under a shaky foundation of reason.

“It takes a special kind of humility to grasp that you know less, even as you know and grasp more and more.”

It’s a strange paradox.  The more one reads or learns through experience and observation, the more one becomes aware of their knowledge deficiencies.  As our knowledge expands, our conscious awareness of the possibilities of our knowledge also expands (at a faster rate).

This means one should maintain a healthy skepticism of nearly everything – especially the depth of their own knowledge.  The arrogance of asserting one’s intelligence is at best off-putting and at worst dangerous (as many con-men would acknowledge).

“The way to do really big things seems to start with deceptively small things.”

This is huge.  No one can accomplish great feats overnight.  As Aristotle once said, excellence is not a result, but a habit.  While success is never assured, one can improve their odds by magnifying their focus.  What are you doing today to move closer to your ultimate goal? What small habit can you establish to move closer to your ideal self?

Small, consistent helpful habits pay compound interest.  Most of the time the change is so imperceptible that it takes months or years before someone can realize how far they have come.

It also means that one must balance a long-term vision with a focus on short-term systems.  After all, a Ferrari with no destination in its GPS is just a 200 mile-per-hour half-a-million-dollar chair.

The world is, after all, indifferent to what we “want.”

Most people don’t selflessly care about what you want.  In reality, most people put themselves first.  For the arrogance of believing you deserve everyone’s kindness is only matched by the arrogance of believing you are completely selfless.  Those people are a stark statistical rarity.

Whether helping others provides you with a sense of purpose, a modicum of public goodwill, or some other intrinsic reward, there is something in it for the ego.  I doubt that many people would commit martyrdom if they knew beforehand that no one would care. I may be wrong, but I remain skeptical.

It is dangerous to assume that the world owes you something.  Even though I’m sure my school thinks I am a “swell guy”, they would not hesitate to cut me loose if I was a poor teacher or an uncooperative co-worker.  Their caring for me is conditional.

On the surface, this can feel disheartening.  However, this is merely the ego trying to assert its own importance.

If one can move past the idea that people “owe you something” or “will do something nice for you,” then the ensuing advice can be extremely empowering.  Think of others’ needs when thinking of your own needs. The best way to get what you want in life is to appeal to the interests of others.  In other words, create value to receive value.

There are many more quotes I marked down, but these six will do for now.  While one can never completely extinguish their ego, we would be wise to keep it in check.  It starts with having the humility to recognize our vulnerability to our egos. The next time you feel angry, proud, or hurt, it might help to check in on your ego.  It could save you a great deal of grief in the future.

Photo Corner



Watch out!  Mokpo has a new Hell’s Angels chapter.


  1.  Push the “water” button.
  2. Watch water shoot out.
  3. Drink water.

Solid instructions.


While I don’t think this will work for me (except as a B.O. cannon), I applaud my students’ clever pun.


Self-study time can be a sleepy time for students.  But I prefer not to disturb them.  For many of them, extra sleep would do more good than extra cram sessions.

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