The artist Marina Abramović has said that the moment we begin to believe in our own greatness, that we kill our ability to be truly creative. What she is talking about is ego—the way that self-absorption ruins the very thing it celebrates.
So how do we keep this toxic ego and selfishness at bay? How do we prevent ego from “sucking us down like the law of gravity?” The primary answer is simple: awareness. But after that, it’s a matter of hard work.
In the course of researching Ego is the Enemy I was exposed to many strategies for combatting our arrogant and selfish impulses. Here are 25 proven exercises from successful men and women throughout history that will help you stay sober, clear-headed, creative and humble. They work if you work them.
1. Adopt the beginner’s mindset. “It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows,” Epictetus says. When we let ego tell us that we have arrived and figured it all out, it prevents us from learning. Pick up a book on a subject you know next to nothing about. Walk through a library or a bookstore—remind yourself how much you don’t know.
2. Focus on the effort—not the outcome. With any creative endeavour at some point what we made leaves our hands. We can’t let what happens after that point have any sway over us. We need to remember famous coach John Wooden’s advice: “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.” Doing your best is what matters. Focus on that. External rewards are just extra.
3. Choose purpose over passion. Passion runs hot and burns out, while people with purpose—think of it as passion combined with reason—are more dedicated and have control over their direction. Christopher McCandless was passionate when he went “into the wild” but it didn’t work well, right? The inventor of the Segway was passionate. Better to have clear-headed purpose.
4. Shun the comfort of talking and face the work. “Void,” Marlon Brando once said, “is terrifying to most people.” We talk endlessly on social media getting validation and attention with fake internet points avoiding the uncertainty of doing the difficult and frightening work required of any creative endeavour. As creatives we need to shut up and get to work. To face the void—despite the pain of doing so.
5. Kill your pride before you lose your head. “Whom the gods wish to destroy,” Cyril Connolly wrote, “they first call promising.” You cannot let early pride lead you astray. You must remind yourself everyday how much work is left to be done, not how much you have done. You must remember that humility is the antidote to pride.
6. Stop telling yourself a story—there is no grand narrative. When you achieve any sort of success you might think that success in the future is just the natural and expected next part of the story. This is a straightforward path to failure—by getting too cocky and overconfident. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, reminds himself that there was “no aha moment” for his billion-dollar behemoth, no matter what he might read in his own press clippings. Focus on the present moment, not the story.
7. Learn to manage (yourself and others). John DeLorean was a brilliant engineer but a poor manager (of people and himself). One executive described his management style as “chasing colored balloons”—he was constantly distracted and abandoning one project for another. It’s just not enough to be smart or right or a genius. It’s gratifying to be the micromanaging egotistical boss at the center of everything—but that’s not how organizations grow and succeed. That’s not how you can grow as a person either.
8. Know what matters to you and ruthlessly say no to everything else. Pursue what the philosopher Seneca refers to as euthymia—the tranquility of knowing what you are after and not being distracted by others. We accomplish this by having an honest conversation with ourselves and understanding our priorities. And rejecting all the rest. Learning how to say no. First, by saying no to ego which wants it all.
9. Forget credit and recognition. Before Bill Belichick became the four-time Super Bowl–winning head coach of the New England Patriots, he made his way up the ranks of the NFL by doing grunt work and making his superiors look good without getting any credit. When we are starting out in our pursuits we need to make an effort to trade short-term gratification for a long-term payoff. Submit under people who are already successful and learn and absorb everything you can. Forget credit.
10. Connect with nature and the universe at large. Going into nature is a powerful feeling and we need to tap into it as often as possible. Nothing draws us away from it more than material success. Go out there and reconnect with the world. Realize how small you are in relation to everything else. It’s what the French philosopher Pierre Hadot has referred to as the “oceanic feeling.” There is no ego standing beneath the giant redwoods or on the edge of a cliff or next to the crashing waves of the ocean.
11. Choose alive time over dead time. According to author Robert 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. During failure, ego picks dead time. It fights back: I don’t want this. I want ______. I want it my way. It indulges in being angry, aggrieved, heartbroken. Don’t let it—choose alive time instead.
12. Get out of your own head. Writer Anne Lamott knows the dangers of the soundtrack we can play in our heads: “The endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is.” That’s what you could be hearing right now. Cut through that haze with courage and live with the tangible and real, no matter how uncomfortable.
13. Let go of control. The poisonous need to control everything and micromanage is usually revealed with success. Ego starts saying: it all must be done my way—even little things, even inconsequential things. The solution is straightforward. A smart man or woman must regularly remind themselves of the limits of their power and reach. It’s simple, but not easy.
14. Place the mission and purpose above you. During World War II, General George Marshall, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for the Marshall Plan, was practically offered the command of the troops on D-Day. Yet he told President Roosevelt: “The decision is yours, Mr. President; my wishes have nothing to do with the matter.” It came to be that Eisenhower led the invasion and performed with excellence. Marshall put the mission and purpose above himself—an act of selflessness we need to remind ourselves of.
15. When you find yourself in a hole—stop digging. “Act with fortitude and honor,” Alexander Hamilton wrote to a distraught friend in serious trouble of the man’s own making. “If you cannot reasonably hope for a favorable extrication, do not plunge deeper. Have the courage to make a full stop.” Our ego screams and rattles when it is wounded. We will then do anything to get out of trouble. Stop. Don’t make things worse. Don’t dig yourself further. Make a plan.
16. Don’t be deceived by recognition, money and success—stay sober. Success, money and power can intoxicate. What is required is those moments is sobriety and a refusal to indulge. One look at Angela Merkel, one of the most powerful women on the planet is revealing. She is plain and modest—one writer said that unpretentiousness is Merkel’s main weapon—unlike most world leaders intoxicated with position. Leave self-absorption and obsessing over one’s image for the egotists.
17. Leave your entitlement at the door. Right before he destroyed his own billion-dollar company, Ty Warner, creator of Beanie Babies, overrode the objections of one of his employees and bragged, “I could put the Ty heart on manure and they’d buy it!” You can see how this manifestation of ego can lead you to success—and how it can lead to downright failure.
18. Choose love. Martin Luther King understood that hate is like an “eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life.” Hatred is when ego turns a minor insult in a massive sore and it lashes out. But pause and ask: has hatred and lashing out ever helped anyone with anything? Don’t let it eat at you—choose love. Yes, love. See how much better you feel.
19. Pursue mastery in your chosen craft. When you are pursuing a craft you realize that the better you get, the humbler you are. Because you understand there’s always something you can learn and you are inherently humbled by this fascinating craft or career you’re after. It is hard to get a big head or become egotistical when you’ve decided on that path.
20. Keep an inner scorecard. Just because you won doesn’t mean you deserved to. We need to forget other people’s validation and external markers of success. Warren Buffett has advised keeping an inner scorecard versus the external one. Your potential, the absolute best you’re capable of—that’s the metric to measure yourself against.
21. Paranoia creates things to be paranoid about. “He who indulges empty fears earns himself real fears,” wrote Seneca, who as a political adviser witnessed destructive paranoia at the highest levels. If you let ego think that everyone is out to get you you will seem weak…and then people will really try to take advantage of you. Be strong, confident and forgiving.
22. Always stay a student. Put yourself in rooms where you’re the least knowledgeable person. Observe and learn. That uncomfortable feeling, that defensiveness that you feel when your most deeply held assumptions are challenged? Do it deliberately. Let it humble you. Remember how the physicist John Wheeler put it, “As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.”
23. No one can degrade you—they degrade themselves. Ego is sensitive about slights, insults and not getting their due. This is a waste of time. After Frederick Douglass was asked to ride in a baggage car because of his race, someone rushed to apologize for this mistreatment. Frederick’s reply? “They cannot degrade Frederick Douglass. The soul that is within me no man can degrade. I am not the one that is being degraded on account of this treatment, but those who are inflicting it upon me.”
24. Stop playing the image game—focus on a higher purpose. One of the best strategists of the last century, John Boyd, would ask the promising young acolytes under him: “To be or to do? Which way will you go?” That is, will you choose to fall in love with the image of how success looks like or you focus on a higher purpose? Will you pick obsessing over your title, number of fans, size of paycheck or on real, tangible accomplishment? You know which way ego wants to go.
25. Focus on the effort—not the results. This is so important it is appearing twice. If you can accept that you control only the effort that goes in and not the results which come out, you will be mastering your ego. All work leaves our hands at some point. Ego wants to control everything—but it cannot control other people or their reactions. Focus on your end of the equation, leave them to theirs. Remember Goethe’s line: “What matters to an active man is to do the right thing; whether the right thing comes to pass should not bother him.”