When you remove ego, you're left with humility and confidence. To do that, you must practice seeing yourself with a little distance, cultivating the ability to get out of your own head, and learning how to see beneath an appearance. When you're just starting out, attach yourself to successful people and organizations and subsume your identity into theirs and move both forward simultaneously. When you're successful, you must stay humble, keep learning, and focus on your work and practice. When you fail, embrace it with appreciation and move on to start over again.
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. —Richard Feynman
Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, your worst enemy already lives insides you: your ego.
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.
If ego is the voice that tells us we’re better than we really are, we can say ego inhibits true success by preventing a direct and honest connection to the world around us.
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 can’t relate to their needs—because we’ve lost touch with our own?
When we remove ego, we’re left with what is real. What replaces ego is humility, yes—but 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, it swagger is artifice. One is girding yourself, the other is gaslighting. It’s the difference between potent and poisonous.
Be affable in your relations with those who approach you, and never haughty; for the pride of the arrogant even slaves can hardly endure. Be slow in deliberation, but be prompt to carry out your resolves. The best thing which we have in ourselves is good judgment. Constantly train your intellect, for the greatest thing in the smallest compass is a sound mind in a human body.
One might say that the ability to evaluate one’s 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.”
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. It’s easy to be emotionally invested and infatuated with your own work. What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.
Those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know. —Lao Tzu
In actuality, silence is strength—particularly early on in any journey. Talk depletes us. Talking and doing fight for the same resources. The more difficult the task, the more uncertain the outcome, the more costly talk will be and the farther we run from actual accountability.
Appearance is deceiving. Having authority is not the same as being an authority. Having the right and being right are not the same either. Being promoted doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing good work and it doesn’t mean you are worthy of promotion. Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.
If your purpose is something larger than you—to accomplish something, to prove something to yourself—then 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. Harder because each opportunity—no matter how gratifying or rewarding—must be evaluated along strict guidelines.
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 else’s hands. We don’t link 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. We’re busy and overburdened. The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the antidote.
Your passion may be the very thing holding you back from power or influence or accomplishment. Because just as often, we fail because 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.
The critical work that you want to do will require your deliberation and consideration. Not passion. Not naivete.
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) You’re not nearly as good or as important as you think you are; 2) You have an attitude that needs 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.
There’s 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. It’s certainly more glamorous to pursue your own glory—though hardly as effective. Obeisance is the way forward.
That’s 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.
It doesn’t matter how talented you are, how great your connections are, how much money you have. When you want to do something—something big and important and meaningful—you 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.
Living clearly and presently takes courage. Don’t live in the haze of the abstract, live with the tangible and real, even if—especially if—it’s uncomfortable. Be part of what’s going on around you. Feast on it, adjust for it.
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. 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 don’t protect ourselves against are people and things that make us feel good, or rather, too good. We must prepare for pride and kill it early—or it will kill what we aspire to. We must be on guard against that wild self-confidence and self-obsession.
Every time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by doing things. I am passing the marshmallow test. I am earning what my ambition burns for. I am making an investment in myself instead of my ego. Give yourself a little credit for this choice, but not so much, because you’ve got to get back to the task at hand: practicing, working, and improving.
Success is intoxicating, yet to sustain it requires sobriety. We can’t 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 do—one that is about the work and not about us.
No matter what you’ve done up to this point, you better still be a student. If you’re not still learning, you’re 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.
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 doesn’t matter how well you’re doing; your ego and their accomplishments make you feel like nothing. 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? Only you know the race you’re running. That is, unless your ego decides the only way you have value is if you’re better than, have more than, everyone everywhere.
Find out why you’re after what you’re after. Ignore those who mess with your pace. Let me covet what you have, not the other way around. Because that’s independence.
Entitlement assumes: This is mine. I’ve earned it. Control says, It all must be done my way—even little things, even inconsequential things. Paranoia thinks, I can’t trust anyone. I’m in this totally by myself and for myself. If this the freedom you envisioned when you dreamed of your success? Likely not. So stop.
Early on in our careers, we may be able to make sacrifices more easily. We can drop out of a prestigious college to start our own company. Or we can tolerate being looked over once in a while. Once we’ve “made it,” the tendency is to switch to the mindset of “getting what’s mine.” Now, all of a sudden awards and recognition matter—even though they weren’t what got us here. We need that money, that title, that media attention—not for the team or the cause, but for ourselves. Because we’ve earned it.
Feel unprotected against the elements or forces or surroundings. Remind yourself how pointless it is to rage and fight and try to one-up those around you. Go and put yourself in touch with the infinite, and end your conscious separation from the world. Reconcile yourself a bit better with the realities of life. Realize how much came before you, and how only wisps of it remain. Let the feeling carry you as long as you can. Then when you start to feel better or bigger than, go and do it again.
Humble and strong people don’t have the same trouble with these troubles that egotist do. There are fewer complaints and far less self-immolation. Instead, there’s stoic—even cheerful—resilience. Pity isn’t necessary. Their identity isn’t threatened. They can get by without constant validation. This is what we’re aspiring to—much more than mere success. What matters is that we can respond to what life throws at us. And how we make it through.
What matters to an active man is to do the right thing; whether the right things come to pass should not bother him. —Goethe
In life, there will be times when we do everything right, perhaps even perfectly. Yet the results will somehow be negative: failure, disrespect, jealousy, or even a resounding yawn from the world. Depending on what motivates us, this response can be crushing. If ego holds sway, we’ll accept nothing less than full appreciation.
We can’t let externals determine whether something was worth it or not. It’s on us. The world is, after all, indifferent to what we humans “want.” If we persist wanting, in needing, we are simply setting ourselves up for resentment or worse. Doing the work is enough.
Ego kills what we love. Sometimes, it comes close to killing us too.
Most trouble is temporary, unless you make that not so. Recovery is not grand, it’s one step in front of the other. Unless your cure is more of the disease. Only ego thinks embarrassments or failures are more than what they are.
At any given time in the circle of life, we may be aspiring, succeeding, or failing—though right now we’re failing. With wisdom, we understand that these positions are transitory, not statements about your value as a human being. When success begins to slip from your fingers for whatever reason, the response isn’t to grip and claw so hard that you shatter it to pieces. It’s to understand that you must work yourself back to the aspirational phase. You must get back to first principles and best practices.
Reflecting on what went well or how amazing we are doesn’t get us anywhere, except maybe to where we are right now. But we want go further, we want more, we want to continue to improve. Ego blocks that, so we subsume it and smash it with continually higher standards. Not that we are endlessly pursuing more, as if we’re racked with greed, but instead, we’re inching our way toward real improvement, with discipline rather than disposition.
In failure or adversity, it’s so easy to hate. Hate defers blame. It makes someone else responsible. It’s a distraction too; we don’t do much else when we’re busying getting revenge or investigating the wrongs that have supposedly been done to us. Does this get us any closer to where we want to be? No. It just keeps us where we are —or worse, arrests our development entirely.
Meanwhile, love is right there. Egoless, open, positive, vulnerable, peaceful, and productive.
Join Work Less to get practical insights and tips to help you work less, earn more, and live a better life—straight to your inbox—every Sunday.
👆 Join 3,100+ leaders, creatives, and knowledge workers today.
Dean is a strong voice in the self-mastery space. His newsletter consistently delivers insightful ideas on how to become a better version of yourself and is the only newsletter that I always read.
Head of product and engineering