THE PAINFUL PROLOGUE
The orator Demosthenes once said that virtue begins with understanding and is fulfilled by courage.
In Aristotle’s famous Ethics, he uses the analogy of a warped piece of wood to describe human nature. In order to eliminate warping or curvature, a skilled woodworker slowly applies pressure in the opposite direction—essentially, bending it straight.
The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition.
The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility—that’s ego. It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.
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.
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, its swagger is artifice. One is girding yourself, the other gas-lighting. It’s the difference between potent and poisonous.
PART I: ASPIRE
He wanted him to “Be affable in your relations with those who approach you, and never haughty; for the pride of the arrogant even slaves can hardly endure” and “Be slow in deliberation, but be prompt to carry out your resolves” and that the “best thing which we have in ourselves is good judgment.” Constantly train your intellect, he told him, “for the greatest thing in the smallest compass is a sound mind in a human body.”
Among men who rise to fame and leadership two types are recognizable—those who are born with a belief in themselves and those in whom it is a slow growth dependent on actual achievement. To the men of the last type their own success is a constant surprise, and its fruits the more delicious, yet to be tested cautiously with a haunting sense of doubt whether it is not all a dream. In that doubt lies true modesty, not the sham of insincere self-depreciation but the modesty of “moderation,” in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose.
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.”
What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.
TALK, TALK, TALK
Silence is the respite of the confident and the strong.
“Never give reasons for what you think or do until you must. Maybe, after a while, a better reason will pop into your head.”
Research shows that while goal visualization is important, after a certain point our mind begins to confuse it with actual progress. The same goes for verbalization. Even talking aloud to ourselves while we work through difficult problems has been shown to significantly decrease insight and breakthroughs. After spending so much time thinking, explaining, and talking about a task, we start to feel that we’ve gotten closer to achieving it. Or worse, when things get tough, we feel we can toss the whole project aside because we’ve given it our best try, although of course we haven’t.
TO BE OR TO DO?
Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.
BECOME A STUDENT
There is no excuse for not getting your education, and because the information we have before us is so vast, there is no excuse for ever ending that process either.
DON’T BE PASSIONATE
Remember, “zealot” is just a nice way to say “crazy person.”
Wooden wasn’t about rah-rah speeches or inspiration. He saw those extra emotions as a burden. Instead, his philosophy was about being in control and doing your job and never being “passion’s slave.”
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.
How can someone be busy and not accomplish anything? Well, that’s the passion paradox.
What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism. Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective.
Make it about what you feel you must do and say, not what you care about and wish to be.
FOLLOW THE CANVAS STRATEGY
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.
I have observed that those who have accomplished the greatest results are those who “keep under the body”; are those who never grow excited or lose self-control, but are always calm, self-possessed, patient, and polite. —BOOKER T. WASHINGTON
GET OUT OF YOUR OWN HEAD
There’s no one to perform for. There is just work to be done and lessons to be learned, in all that is around us.
THE DANGER OF EARLY PRIDE
Receive feedback, maintain hunger, and chart a proper course in life. Pride dulls these senses.
“Even the tallest mountains have animals that, when they stand on it, are higher than the mountain.”
The question to ask, when you feel pride, then, is this: What am I missing right now that a more humble person might see?
WORK, WORK, WORK
Each night, before he ever had a reason to, he would flip through the box, make phone calls, write letters, or add notations about their interactions.
There is another apt Latin expression: Materiam superabat opus. (The workmanship was better than the material.)
PART II: SUCCESS
“Man is pushed by drives,” Viktor Frankl observed. “But he is pulled by values.”
The public image of Eisenhower is of the man playing golf. In reality, he was not someone who ever slacked off, but the leisure time he did have was available because he ran a tight ship.
BEWARE THE DISEASE OF ME
The Innocent Climb, Pat Riley says, is almost always followed by the “Disease of Me.” It can “strike any winning team in any year and at any moment,” and does with alarming regularity.
For us, it’s beginning to think that we’re better, that we’re special, that our problems and experiences are so incredibly different from everyone else’s that no one could possibly understand. It’s an attitude that has sunk far better people, teams, and causes than ours.
He had the same traits that everyone has—ego, self-interest, pride, dignity, ambition—but they were “tempered by a sense of humility and selflessness.”
Play for the name on the front of the jersey, he says, and they’ll remember the name on the back.
MEDITATE ON THE IMMENSITY
“When I look up in the universe, I know I’m small, but I’m also big. I’m big because I’m connected to the universe and the universe is connected to me.” We just can’t forget which is bigger and which has been here longer.
PART III: FAILURE
ALIVE TIME OR DEAD TIME?
According to Greene, there are two types of time in our lives: dead time, when people are passive and waiting, and alive time, when people are learning and acting and utilizing every second.
THE EFFORT IS ENOUGH
“Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
Fight Club MOMENTS
In the end, the only way you can appreciate your progress is to stand on the edge of the hole you dug for yourself, look down inside it, and smile fondly at the bloody claw prints that marked your journey up the walls.
- Epicurean – a person devoted to sensual enjoyment, especially that derived from fine food and drink.
- Maladies – a disease or ailment
- Zeal – great energy or enthusiasm in pursuit of a cause or an objective
- Myopic – lacking imagination, foresight, or intellectual insight
- Noxiously – harmful, poisonous, or very unpleasant
- Avidity – extreme eagerness or enthusiasm
- Posits – assume as a fact; put forward as a basis of argument.
- Assiduously – with great care and perseverance.
- Harangue – a lengthy and aggressive speech.
- Sycophants – a person who acts obsequiously toward someone important in order to gain advantage.
- Magnanimous – very generous or forgiving, especially toward a rival or someone less powerful than oneself.
- Ennui – a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.
- Fjords – a long, narrow, deep inlet of the sea between high cliffs, as in Norway and Iceland, typically formed by submergence of a glaciated valley.
- Conscription – compulsory enlistment for state service, typically into the armed forces.
- Machinations – engage in plots and intrigues; scheme.
- Amalgam – a mixture or blend
- Sycophancy – a person who acts obsequiously toward someone important in order to gain advantage.
- Self-Effacingly – not claiming attention for oneself; retiring and modest