Main Ego is the Enenmy
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I started to read this book one week ago and it already made to change (for the good) some of my perceptions of myself about my ego. (I wish I had read this book long time ago.)
27 June 2020 (00:03)
A wonderful book by all standards. It’s a must read for all.
28 September 2020 (02:31)
“Ryan Holiday is one of his generation’s finest thinkers, and this book is his best yet.” —STEVEN PRESSFIELD, author of The War of Art “The comedian Bill Hicks said the world was tainted with fevered egos. In Ego Is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday writes us all a prescription: humility. This book is packed with stories and quotes that will help you get out of your own way. Whether you’re starting out or starting over, you’ll find something to steal here.” —AUSTIN KLEON, author of Steal Like an Artist “This is a book I want every athlete, aspiring leader, entrepreneur, thinker, and doer to read. Ryan Holiday is one of the most promising young writers of his generation.” —GEORGE RAVELING, Hall of Fame Basketball coach and Nike’s Director of International Basketball “I see the toxic vanity of ego at play every day and it never ceases to amaze me how often it wrecks promising creative endeavors. Read this book before it wrecks you or the projects and people you love. Consider it as urgently as you do a proper workout regimen and eating right. Ryan’s insights are priceless.” —MARC ECKO, founder of Ecko Unltd and Complex “I don’t have many rules in life, but one I never break is: If Ryan Holiday writes a book, I read it as soon as I can get my hands on it.” —BRIAN KOPPELMAN, screenwriter and director of Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen, and Billions “In his new book Ryan Holiday attacks the greatest obstacle to mastery and true success in life—our insatiable ego. In an inspiring yet practical way, he teaches us how to manage and tame this beast within us so that we can focus on what really matters—producing the best work possible.” —ROBERT GREENE, author of Mastery “We’re often told that to achieve success, we need confidence. With refreshing candor, Ryan Holiday challenges that assumption, highlighting how we can earn confidence by pursuing something bigger than our own success.” —ADAM GRANT, author of Originals and Give and Take “Once again Ryan Holiday has laid down the gauntlet for readers willing to challenge them; selves with the tough questions of our time. Every reader will find truths that are pertinent to each of our lives. Ego can be the enemy if we are unarmed with the cautionary insights of history, scripture, and philosophy. As was said to St. Augustine more than a thousand years ago, ‘Pick it up and read’; for to not do so is to allow the enemy to bring despair.” —DR. DREW PINSKY, host of HLN’s Dr. Drew On Call and Loveline “In this day and age where everyone seeks instant gratification, the idea of success is skewed—many believing the road to their goals is a linear path. As a former professional athlete I can tell you that the road is anything but linear. In fact, it is one that consists of twists, turns, and ups and downs—it requires you to put your head down and put in the work. Ryan Holiday hits the nail on the head with this book, reminding us that the real success is in the journey and learning process. I only wish I had had this gem as a reference during my playing days.” —LORI LINDSEY, former U.S. Women’s National Team soccer player “Philosophy has gotten a bad rap, but Ryan Holiday is restoring it to its rightful place in our lives. This book—packed with unforgettable stories, strategies, and lessons—is perfect for anyone who strives to do and accomplish. It’s no exaggeration to say that, after finishing it, you’ll never open your laptop and sit down to work the same way again.” —JIMMY SONI, Former Managing Editor of The Huffington Post and author of Rome’s Last Citizen “I would like to rip out every page and use them as wallpaper so I could be reminded constantly of the humility and work it takes to truly succeed. In the margins of my copy, I have scrawled the same message over and over—‘preGold.’ Reading this inspiring book brought me back to the humility and work ethic it took to win the Olympics.” —CHANDRA CRAWFORD, Olympic Gold Medalist “What a valuable book for those in positions of authority! It has made me a better judge.” —THE HONORABLE FREDERIC BLOCK, U.S. District Judge and author of Disrobed ALSO BY RYAN HOLIDAY Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph PORTFOLIO / PENGUIN An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC 375 Hudson Street New York, New York 10014 penguin.com Copyright © 2016 by Ryan Holiday Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader. ISBN 9781591847816 (hardcover) ISBN 9780698192157 (ebook) Version_1 Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty and sadness and remains far behind yours. Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find those words. —RAINER MARIA RILKE CONTENTS Praise for Ryan Holiday Also by Ryan Holiday Title Page Copyright Epigraph The Painful Prologue INTRODUCTION PART I. ASPIRE TALK, TALK, TALK TO BE OR TO DO? BECOME A STUDENT DON’T BE PASSIONATE FOLLOW THE CANVAS STRATEGY RESTRAIN YOURSELF GET OUT OF YOUR OWN HEAD THE DANGER OF EARLY PRIDE WORK, WORK, WORK FOR EVERYTHING THAT COMES NEXT, EGO IS THE ENEMY . . . PART II. SUCCESS ALWAYS STAY A STUDENT DON’T TELL YOURSELF A STORY WHAT’S IMPORTANT TO YOU? ENTITLEMENT, CONTROL, AND PARANOIA MANAGING YOURSELF BEWARE THE DISEASE OF ME MEDITATE ON THE IMMENSITY MAINTAIN YOUR SOBRIETY FOR WHAT OFTEN COMES NEXT, EGO IS THE ENEMY . . . PART III. FAILURE ALIVE TIME OR DEAD TIME? THE EFFORT IS ENOUGH FIGHT CLUB MOMENTS DRAW THE LINE MAINTAIN YOUR OWN SCORECARD ALWAYS LOVE FOR EVERYTHING THAT COMES NEXT, EGO IS THE ENEMY . . . EPILOGUE What Should You Read Next? Selected Bibliography Acknowledgments THE PAINFUL PROLOGUE T his is not a book about me. But since this is a book about ego, I’m going to address a question that I’d be a hypocrite not to have thought about. Who the hell am I to write it? My story is not particularly important for the lessons that follow, but I want to tell it briefly here at the beginning in order to provide some context. For I have experienced ego at each of its stages in my short life: Aspiration. Success. Failure. And back again and back again. When I was nineteen years old, sensing some astounding and life-changing opportunities, I dropped out of college. Mentors vied for my attention, groomed me as their protégé. Seen as going places, I was the kid. Success came quickly. After I became the youngest executive at a Beverly Hills talent management agency, I helped sign and work with a number of huge rock bands. I advised on books that went on to sell millions of copies and invent their own literary genres. Around the time I turned twenty-one, I came on as a strategist for American Apparel, then one of the hottest fashion brands in the world. Soon, I was the director of marketing. By twenty-five, I had published my first book—which was an immediate and controversial best seller—with my face prominently on the cover. A studio optioned the rights to create a television show about my life. In the next few years, I accumulated many of the trappings of success—influence, a platform, press, resources, money, even a little notoriety. Later, I built a successful company on the back of those assets, where I worked with well-known, wellpaying clients and did the kind of work that got me invited to speak at conferences and fancy events. With success comes the temptation to tell oneself a story, to round off the edges, to cut out your lucky breaks and add a certain mythology to it all. You know, that arcing narrative of Herculean struggle for greatness against all odds: sleeping on the floor, being disowned by my parents, suffering for my ambition. It’s a type of storytelling in which eventually your talent becomes your identity and your accomplishments become your worth. But a story like this is never honest or helpful. In my retelling to you just now, I left a lot out. Conveniently omitted were the stresses and temptations; the stomach-turning drops and the mistakes—all the mistakes—were left on the cutting-room floor in favor of the highlight reel. They are the times I would rather not discuss: A public evisceration by someone I looked up to, which so crushed me at the time that I was later taken to the emergency room. The day I lost my nerve, walked into my boss’s office, and told him I couldn’t cut it and was going back to school—and meant it. The ephemeral nature of bestsellerdom, and how short it actually was (a week). The book signing that one person showed up at. The company I founded tearing itself to pieces and having to rebuild it. Twice. These are just some of the moments that get nicely edited out. This fuller picture itself is still only a fraction of a life, but at least it hits more of the important notes—at least the important ones for this book: ambition, achievement, and adversity. I’m not someone who believes in epiphanies. There is no one moment that changes a person. There are many. During a period of about six months in 2014, it seemed those moments were all happening in succession. First, American Apparel—where I did much of my best work—teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, a shell of its former self. Its founder, who I had deeply admired since I was a young man, was unceremoniously fired by his own handpicked board of directors, and down to sleeping on a friend’s couch. Then the talent agency where I made my bones was in similar shape, sued peremptorily by clients to whom it owed a lot of money. Another mentor of mine seemingly unraveled around the same time, taking our relationship with him. These were the people I had shaped my life around. The people I looked up to and trained under. Their stability—financially, emotionally, psychologically— was not just something I took for granted, it was central to my existence and self-worth. And yet, there they were, imploding right in front of me, one after another. The wheels were coming off, or so it felt. To go from wanting to be like someone your whole life to realizing you never want to be like him is a kind of whiplash that you can’t prepare for. Nor was I exempt from this dissolution myself. Just when I could least afford it, problems I had neglected in my own life began to emerge. Despite my successes, I found myself back in the city I started in, stressed and overworked, having handed much of my hard-earned freedom away because I couldn’t say no to money and the thrill of a good crisis. I was wound so tight that the slightest disruption sent me into a sputtering, inconsolable rage. My work, which had always come easy, became labored. My faith in myself and other people collapsed. My quality of life did too. I remember arriving at my house one day, after weeks on the road, and having an intense panic attack because the Wi-Fi wasn’t working—If I don’t send these e-mails. If I don’t send these e-mails. If I don’t send these e-mails. If I don’t send these e-mails . . . You think you’re doing what you’re supposed to. Society rewards you for it. But then you watch your future wife walk out the door because you aren’t the person you used to be. How does something like this happen? Can you really go from feeling like you’re standing on the shoulders of giants one day, and then the next you’re prying yourself out of the rubble of multiple implosions, trying to pick up the pieces from the ruins? One benefit, however, was that it forced me to come to terms with the fact that I was a workaholic. Not in an “Oh, he just works too much” kind of way, or in the “Just relax and play it off” sense, but more, “If he doesn’t start going to meetings and get clean, he will die an early death.” I realized that the same drive and compulsion that had made me successful so early came with a price—as it had for so many others. It wasn’t so much the amount of work but the outsized role it had taken in my sense of self. I was trapped so terribly inside my own head that I was a prisoner to my own thoughts. The result was a sort of treadmill of pain and frustration, and I needed to figure out why—unless I wanted to break in an equally tragic fashion. For a long time, as a researcher and writer, I have studied history and business. Like anything that involves people, seen over a long enough timeline universal issues begin to emerge. These are the topics I had long been fascinated with. Foremost among them was ego. I was not unfamiliar with ego and its effects. In fact, I had been researching this book for nearly a year before the events I have just recounted for you. But my painful experiences in this period brought the notions I was studying into focus in ways that I could never have previously understood. It allowed me to see the ill effects of ego played out not just in myself, or across the pages of history, but in friends and clients and colleagues, some at the highest levels of many industries. Ego has cost the people I admire hundreds of millions of dollars, and like Sisyphus, rolled them back from their goals just as they’ve achieved them. I have now at least peeked over that precipice myself. A few months after my own realization, I had the phrase “EGO IS THE ENEMY” tattooed on my right forearm. Where the words came from I don’t know, probably from a book I read long, long ago, but they were immediately a source of great solace and direction. On my left arm, of similarly muddled attribution, it says: “THE OBSTACLE IS THE WAY.” It’s these two phrases that I look at now, every single day, and use them to guide the decisions in my life. I can’t help but see them when I swim, when I meditate, when I write, when I get out of the shower in the morning, and both prepare me—admonish me—to choose the right course in essentially any situation I might face. I wrote this book not because I have attained some wisdom I feel qualified to preach, but because it’s the book I wish existed at critical turning points in my own life. When I, like everyone else, was called to answer the most critical questions a person can ask themselves in life: Who do I want to be? And: What path will I take? (Quod vitae sectabor iter.) And because I’ve found these questions to be timeless and universal, except for this note, I have tried to rely on philosophy and historical examples in this book instead of my personal life. While the history books are filled with tales of obsessive, visionary geniuses who remade the world in their image with sheer, almost irrational force, I’ve found that if you go looking you’ll find that history is also made by individuals who fought their egos at every turn, who eschewed the spotlight, and who put their higher goals above their desire for recognition. Engaging with and retelling these stories has been my method of learning and absorbing them. Like my other books, this one is deeply influenced by Stoic philosophy and indeed all the great classical thinkers. I borrow heavily from them all in my writing just as I have leaned on them my entire life. If there is anything that helps you in this book, it will be because of them and not me. The orator Demosthenes once said that virtue begins with understanding and is fulfilled by courage. We must begin by seeing ourselves and the world in a new way for the first time. Then we must fight to be different and fight to stay different—that’s the hard part. I’m not saying you should repress or crush every ounce of ego in your life—or that doing so is even possible. These are just reminders, moral stories to encourage our better impulses. 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. Of course, a couple of thousand years later Kant snorted, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing can be made straight.” We might not ever be straight, but we can strive for straighter. It’s always nice to be made to feel special or empowered or inspired. But that’s not the aim of this book. Instead, I have tried to arrange these pages so that you might end in the same place I did when I finished writing it: that is, you will think less of yourself. I hope you will be less invested in the story you tell about your own specialness, and as a result, you will be liberated to accomplish the world-changing work you’ve set out to achieve. INTRODUCTION The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. —RICHARD FEYNMAN M aybe you’re young and brimming with ambition. Maybe you’re young and you’re struggling. Maybe you’ve made that first couple million, signed your first deal, been selected to some elite group, or maybe you’re already accomplished enough to last a lifetime. Maybe you’re stunned to find out how empty it is at the top. Maybe you’re charged with leading others through a crisis. Maybe you just got fired. Maybe you just hit rock bottom. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, your worst enemy already lives inside you: your ego. “Not me,” you think. “No one would ever call me an egomaniac.” Perhaps you’ve always thought of yourself as a pretty balanced person. But for people with ambitions, talents, drives, and potential to fulfill, ego comes with the territory. 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. Now this is not a book about ego in the Freudian sense. Freud was fond of explaining the ego by way of analogy—our ego was the rider on a horse, with our unconscious drives representing the animal while the ego tried to direct them. Modern psychologists, on the other hand, use the word “egotist” to refer to someone dangerously focused on themselves and with disregard for anyone else. All these definitions are true enough but of little value outside a clinical setting. The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition. That’s the definition this book will use. It’s that petulant child inside every person, the one that chooses getting his or her way over anything or anyone else. 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. It’s when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us. When, as the football coach Bill Walsh explained, “self-confidence becomes arrogance, assertiveness becomes obstinacy, and self-assurance becomes reckless abandon.” This is the ego, as the writer Cyril Connolly warned, that “sucks us down like the law of gravity.” In this way, ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success. It repulses advantages and opportunities. It’s a magnet for enemies and errors. It is Scylla and Charybdis. Most of us aren’t “egomaniacs,” but ego is there at the root of almost every conceivable problem and obstacle, from why we can’t win to why we need to win all the time and at the expense of others. From why we don’t have what we want to why having what we want doesn’t seem to make us feel any better. We don’t usually see it this way. We think something else is to blame for our problems (most often, other people). We are, as the poet Lucretius put it a few thousand years ago, the proverbial “sick man ignorant of the cause of his malady.” Especially for successful people who can’t see what ego prevents them from doing because all they can see is what they’ve already done. With every ambition and goal we have—big or small—ego is there undermining us on the very journey we’ve put everything into pursuing. The pioneering CEO Harold Geneen compared egoism to alcoholism: “The egotist does not stumble about, knocking things off his desk. He does not stammer or drool. No, instead, he becomes more and more arrogant, and some people, not knowing what is underneath such an attitude, mistake his arrogance for a sense of power and self-confidence.” You could say they start to mistake that about themselves too, not realizing the disease they’ve contracted or that they’re killing themselves with it. 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. One of the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous defined ego as “a conscious separation from.” From what? Everything. The ways this separation manifests itself negatively are immense: We can’t work with other people if we’ve put up walls. We can’t improve the world if we don’t understand it or ourselves. We can’t take or receive feedback if we are incapable of or uninterested in hearing from outside sources. We can’t recognize opportunities—or create them—if instead of seeing what is in front of us, we live inside our own fantasy. 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? The performance artist Marina Abramović puts it directly: “If you start believing in your greatness, it is the death of your creativity.” Just one thing keeps ego around—comfort. Pursuing great work—whether it is in sports or art or business—is often terrifying. Ego soothes that fear. It’s a salve to that insecurity. Replacing the rational and aware parts of our psyche with bluster and self-absorption, ego tells us what we want to hear, when we want to hear it. But it is a short-term fix with a long-term consequence. EGO WAS ALWAYS THERE. NOW IT’S EMBOLDENED. Now more than ever, our culture fans the flames of ego. It’s never been easier to talk, to puff ourselves up. We can brag about our goals to millions of our fans and followers—things only rock stars and cult leaders used to have. We can follow and interact with our idols on Twitter, we can read books and sites and watch TED Talks, drink from a fire hose of inspiration and validation like never before (there’s an app for that). We can name ourselves CEO of our exists-onlyon-paper company. We can announce big news on social media and let the congratulations roll in. We can publish articles about ourselves in outlets that used to be sources of objective journalism. Some of us do this more than others. But it’s only a matter of degree. Besides the changes in technology, we’re told to believe in our uniqueness above all else. We’re told to think big, live big, to be memorable and “dare greatly.” We think that success requires a bold vision or some sweeping plan— after all, that’s what the founders of this company or that championship team supposedly had. (But did they? Did they really?) We see risk-taking swagger and successful people in the media, and eager for our own successes, try to reverse engineer the right attitude, the right pose. We intuit a causal relationship that isn’t there. We assume the symptoms of success are the same as success itself—and in our naiveté, confuse the byproduct with the cause. Sure, ego has worked for some. Many of history’s most famous men and women were notoriously egotistical. But so were many of its greatest failures. Far more of them, in fact. But here we are with a culture that urges us to roll the dice. To make the gamble, ignoring the stakes. WHEREVER YOU ARE, EGO IS TOO. At any given time in life, people find themselves at one of three stages. We’re aspiring to something—trying to make a dent in the universe. We have achieved success—perhaps a little, perhaps a lot. Or we have failed—recently or continually. Most of us are in these stages in a fluid sense—we’re aspiring until we succeed, we succeed until we fail or until we aspire to more, and after we fail we can begin to aspire or succeed again. Ego is the enemy every step along this way. In a sense, ego is the enemy of building, of maintaining, and of recovering. When things come fast and easy, this might be fine. But in times of change, of difficulty . . . And therefore, the three parts that this book is organized into: Aspire. Success. Failure. The aim of that structure is simple: to help you suppress ego early before bad habits take hold, to replace the temptations of ego with humility and discipline when we experience success, and to cultivate strength and fortitude so that when fate turns against you, you’re not wrecked by failure. In short, it will help us be: Humble in our aspirations Gracious in our success Resilient in our failures This is not to say that you’re not unique and that you don’t have something amazing to contribute in your short time on this planet. This is not to say that there is not room to push past creative boundaries, to invent, to feel inspired, or to aim for truly ambitious change and innovation. On the contrary, in order to properly do these things and take these risks we need balance. As the Quaker William Penn observed, “Buildings that lie so exposed to the weather need a good foundation.” SO, WHAT NOW? This book you hold in your hands is written around one optimistic assumption: Your ego is not some power you’re forced to satiate at every turn. It can be managed. It can be directed. In this book, we’ll look at individuals like William Tecumseh Sherman, Katharine Graham, Jackie Robinson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bill Walsh, Benjamin Franklin, Belisarius, Angela Merkel, and George C. Marshall. Could they have accomplished what they accomplished—saving faltering companies, advancing the art of war, integrating baseball, revolutionizing football offense, standing up to tyranny, bravely bearing misfortune—if ego had left them ungrounded and self-absorbed? It was their sense of reality and awareness—one that the author and strategist Robert Greene once said we must take to like a spider in its web— that was at the core of their great art, great writing, great design, great business, great marketing, and great leadership. What we find when we study these individuals is that they were grounded, circumspect, and unflinchingly real. Not that any of them were wholly without ego. But they knew how to suppress it, channel it, subsume it when it counted. They were great yet humble. Wait, but so-and-so had a huge ego and was successful. But what about Steve Jobs? What about Kanye West? We can seek to rationalize the worst behavior by pointing to outliers. But no one is truly successful because they are delusional, self-absorbed, or disconnected. Even if these traits are correlated or associated with certain wellknown individuals, so are a few others: addiction, abuse (of themselves and others), depression, mania. In fact, what we see when we study these people is that they did their best work in the moments when they fought back against these impulses, disorders, and flaws. Only when free of ego and baggage can anyone perform to their utmost. For this reason, we’re also going to look at individuals like Howard Hughes, the Persian king Xerxes, John DeLorean, Alexander the Great, and at the many cautionary tales of others who lost their grip on reality and in the process made it clear what a gamble ego can be. We’ll look at the costly lessons they learned and the price they paid in misery and self-destruction. We’ll look at how often even the most successful people vacillate between humility and ego and the problems this causes. 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 gaslighting. It’s the difference between potent and poisonous. As you’ll see in the pages that follow, that self-confidence took an unassuming and underestimated general and turned him into America’s foremost warrior and strategist during the Civil War. Ego took a different general from the heights of power and influence after that same war and drove him to destitution and ignominy. One took a quiet, sober German scientist and made her not just a new kind of leader but a force for peace. The other took two different but equally brilliant and bold engineering minds of the twentieth century and built them up in a whirlwind of hype and celebrity before dashing their hopes against the rocks of failure, bankruptcy, scandal, and insanity. One guided one of the worst teams in NFL history to the Super Bowl in three seasons, and then on to be one of most dominant dynasties in the game. Meanwhile, countless other coaches, politicians, entrepreneurs, and writers have overcome similar odds—only to succumb to the more inevitable probability of handing the top spot right back to someone else. Some learn humility. Some choose ego. Some are prepared for the vicissitudes of fate, both positive and negative. Others are not. Which will you choose? Who will you be? You’ve picked up this book because you sense that you’ll need to answer this question eventually, consciously or not. Well, here we are. Let’s get to it. ASPIRE Here, we are setting out to do something. We have a goal, a calling, a new beginning. Every great journey begins here—yet far too many of us never reach our intended destination. Ego more often than not is the culprit. We build ourselves up with fantastical stories, we pretend we have it all figured out, we let our star burn bright and hot only to fizzle out, and we have no idea why. These are symptoms of ego, for which humility and reality are the cure. He is a bold surgeon, they say, whose hand does not tremble when he performs an operation upon his own person; and he is often equally bold who does not hesitate to pull off the mysterious veil of self-delusion, which covers from his view the deformities of his own conduct. —ADAM SMITH S ometime around the year 374 B.C., Isocrates, one of the most well-known teachers and rhetoricians in Athens, wrote a letter to a young man named Demonicus. Isocrates had been a friend of the boy’s recently deceased father and wanted to pass on to him some advice on how to follow his father’s example. The advice ranged from practical to moral—all communicated in what Isocrates described as “noble maxims.” They were, as he put it, “precepts for the years to come.” Like many of us, Demonicus was ambitious, which is why Isocrates wrote him, because the path of ambition can be dangerous. Isocrates began by informing the young man that “no adornment so becomes you as modesty, justice, and self-control; for these are the virtues by which, as all men are agreed, the character of the young is held in restraint.” “Practice self-control,” he said, warning Demonicus not to fall under the sway of “temper, pleasure, and pain.” And “abhor flatterers as you would deceivers; for both, if trusted, injure those who trust them.” 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.” Some of this advice might sound familiar. Because it made its way over the next two thousand years to William Shakespeare, who often warned about ego run amok. In fact, in Hamlet, using this very letter as his model, Shakespeare puts Isocrates’ words in the mouth of his character Polonius in a speech to his son, Laertes. The speech, if you happen to have heard it, wraps up with this little verse. This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell. My blessing season this in thee! As it happened, Shakespeare’s words also made their way to a young United States military officer named William Tecumseh Sherman, who would go on to become perhaps this country’s greatest general and strategic thinker. He may never have heard of Isocrates, but he loved the play and often quoted this very speech. Like Demonicus’, Sherman’s father died when he was very young. Like Demonicus, he was taken under the wing of a wise, older man, in this case Thomas Ewing, a soon-to-be U.S. senator and friend of Sherman’s father, who adopted the young boy and raised him as his own. What’s interesting about Sherman is that despite his connected father, almost no one would have predicted much more than regional accomplishments—least of all that he would one day need to take the unprecedented step of refusing the presidency of the United States. Unlike a Napoleon, who bursts upon the scene from nowhere and disappears in failure just as quickly, Sherman’s ascent was a slow and gradual one. He spent his early years at West Point, and then in the army. For his first few years in service, Sherman traversed nearly the entire United States on horseback, slowly learning with each posting. As the rumblings of Civil War broke out, Sherman made his way east to volunteer his services and he was shortly put to use at the Battle of Bull Run, a rather disastrous Union defeat. Benefiting from a dire shortage of leadership, Sherman was promoted to brigadier general and was summoned to meet with President Lincoln and his top military adviser. On several occasions, Sherman freely strategized and planned with the president, but at the end of his trip, he made one strange request; he’d accept his new promotion only with the assurance that he’d not have to assume superior command. Would Lincoln give him his word on that? With every other general asking for as much rank and power as possible, Lincoln happily agreed. At this point in time, Sherman felt more comfortable as a number two. He felt he had an honest appreciation for his own abilities and that this role best suited him. Imagine that—an ambitious person turning down a chance to advance in responsibilities because he actually wanted to be ready for them. Is that really so crazy? Not that Sherman was always the perfect model of restraint and order. Early in the war, tasked with defending the state of Kentucky with insufficient troops, his mania and tendency to doubt himself combined in a wicked way. Ranting and raving about being undersupplied, unable to get out of his own head, paranoid about enemy movements, he broke form and spoke injudiciously to several newspaper reporters. In the ensuing controversy, he was temporarily recalled from his command. It took weeks of rest for him to recover. It was one of a few nearly catastrophic moments in his otherwise steadily ascendant career. It was after this brief stumble—having learned from it—that Sherman truly made his mark. For instance, during the siege at Fort Donelson, Sherman technically held a senior rank to General Ulysses S. Grant. While the rest of Lincoln’s generals fought amongst themselves for personal power and recognition, Sherman waived his rank, choosing to cheerfully support and reinforce Grant instead of issuing orders. This is your show, Sherman told him in a note accompanying a shipment of supplies; call upon me for any assistance I can provide. Together, they won one of the Union’s first victories in the war. Building on his successes, Sherman began to advocate for his famous march to the sea—a strategically bold and audacious plan, not born out of some creative genius but rather relying on the exact topography he had scouted and studied as a young officer in what had then seemed like a pointless backwater outpost. Where Sherman had once been cautious, he was now confident. But unlike so many others who possess great ambition, he earned this opinion. As he carved a path from Chattanooga to Atlanta and then Atlanta to the sea, he avoided traditional battle after traditional battle. Any student of military history can see how the exact same invasion, driven by ego instead of a strong sense of purpose, would have had a far different ending. His realism allowed him to see a path through the South that others thought impossible. His entire theory of maneuver warfare rested on deliberately avoiding frontal assaults or shows of strength in the form of pitched battles, and ignoring criticism designed to bait a reaction. He paid no notice and stuck to his plan. By the end of the war, Sherman was one of the most famous men in America, and yet he sought no public office, had no taste for politics, and wished simply to do his job and then eventually retire. Dismissing the incessant praise and attention endemic to such success, he wrote as a warning to his friend Grant, “Be natural and yourself and this glittering flattery will be as the passing breeze of the sea on a warm summer day.” One of Sherman’s biographers summarized the man and his unique accomplishments in a remarkable passage. It is why he serves as our model in this phase of our ascent. 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 selfdepreciation but the modesty of “moderation,” in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose. One must ask: if your belief in yourself is not dependent on actual achievement, then what is it dependent on? The answer, too often when we are just setting out, is nothing. Ego. And this is why we so often see precipitous rises followed by calamitous falls. So which type of person will you be? Like all of us, Sherman had to balance talent and ambition and intensity, especially when he was young. His victory in this struggle was largely why he was able to manage the life-altering success that eventually came his way. This probably all sounds strange. Where Isocrates and Shakespeare wished us to be self-contained, self-motivated, and ruled by principle, most of us have been trained to do the opposite. Our cultural values almost try to make us dependent on validation, entitled, and ruled by our emotions. For a generation, parents and teachers have focused on building up everyone’s self-esteem. From there, the themes of our gurus and public figures have been almost exclusively aimed at inspiring, encouraging, and assuring us that we can do whatever we set our minds to. In reality, this makes us weak. Yes, you, with all your talent and promise as a boy wonder or a girl-who’s-going-places. We take it for granted that you have promise. It’s why you’ve landed in the prestigious university you now attend, why you’ve secured the funding you have for your business, why you’ve been hired or promoted, why whatever opportunity you now have has fallen into your lap. As Irving Berlin put it, “Talent is only the starting point.” The question is: Will you be able to make the most of it? Or will you be your own worst enemy? Will you snuff out the flame that is just getting going? What we see in Sherman was a man deeply tied and connected to reality. He was a man who came from nothing and accomplished great things, without ever feeling that he was in someway entitled to the honors he received. In fact, he regularly and consistently deferred to others and was more than happy to contribute to a winning team, even if it meant less credit or fame for himself. It’s sad to think that generations of young boys learned about Pickett’s glorious cavalry charge, a Confederate charge that failed, but the model of Sherman as a quiet, unglamorous realist is forgotten, or worse, vilified. 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 selfabsorption inhibit growth. So does fantasy and “vision.” In this phase, 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. Any and every narcissist can do that. What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness. For your work to have truth in it, it must come from truth. If you want to be more than a flash in the pan, you must be prepared to focus on the long term. We will learn that though we think big, we must act and live small in order to accomplish what we seek. Because we will be action and education focused, and forgo validation and status, our ambition will not be grandiose but iterative—one foot in front of the other, learning and growing and putting in the time. With their aggression, intensity, self-absorption, and endless self-promotion, our competitors don’t realize how they jeopardize their own efforts (to say nothing of their sanity). We will challenge the myth of the self-assured genius for whom doubt and introspection is foreign, as well as challenge the myth of pained, tortured artist who must sacrifice his health for his work. Where they are both divorced from reality and divorced from other people, we will be deeply connected, aware, and learning from all of it. Facts are better than dreams, as Churchill put it. Although we share with many others a vision for greatness, we understand that our path toward it is very different from theirs. Following Sherman and Isocrates, we understand that ego is our enemy on that journey, so that when we do achieve our success, it will not sink us but make us stronger. TALK, TALK, TALK Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know. —LAO TZU I n his famous 1934 campaign for the governorship of California, the author and activist Upton Sinclair took an unusual step. Before the election, he published a short book titled I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty, in which he outlined, in the past tense, the brilliant policies he had enacted as governor . . . the office he had not yet won. It was an untraditional move from an untraditional campaign, intended to leverage Sinclair’s best asset—as an author, he knew he could communicate with the public in a way that others couldn’t. Now, Sinclair’s campaign was always a long shot and hardly in good shape when they published the book. But observers at the time noticed immediately the effect it had—not on the voters, but on Sinclair himself. As Carey McWilliams later wrote about his friend’s gubernatorial bid as it went south, “Upton not only realized that he would be defeated but seemed somehow to have lost interest in the campaign. In that vivid imagination of his, he had already acted out the part of ‘I, Governor of California,’ . . . so why bother to enact it in real life?” The book was a best seller, the campaign a failure. Sinclair lost by something like a quarter of a million votes (a margin of more than 10 percentage points); he was utterly decimated in what was probably the first modern election. It’s clear what happened: his talk got out ahead of his campaign and the will to bridge the gap collapsed. Most politicians don’t write books like that, but they get ahead of themselves just the same. It’s a temptation that exists for everyone—for talk and hype to replace action. The empty text box: “What’s on your mind?” Facebook asks. “Compose a new tweet,” Twitter beckons. Tumblr. LinkedIn. Our inbox, our iPhones, the comments section on the bottom of the article you just read. Blank spaces, begging to be filled in with thoughts, with photos, with stories. With what we’re going to do, with what things should or could be like, what we hope will happen. Technology, asking you, prodding you, soliciting talk. Almost universally, the kind of performance we give on social media is positive. It’s more “Let me tell you how well things are going. Look how great I am.” It’s rarely the truth: “I’m scared. I’m struggling. I don’t know.” At the beginning of any path, we’re excited and nervous. So we seek to comfort ourselves externally instead of inwardly. There’s a weak side to each of us, that—like a trade union—isn’t exactly malicious but at the end of the day still wants get as much public credit and attention as it can for doing the least. That side we call ego. The writer and former Gawker blogger Emily Gould—a real-life Hannah Horvath if there ever was one—realized this during her two-year struggle to get a novel published. Though she had a six-figure book deal, she was stuck. Why? She was too busy “spending a lot of time on the Internet,” that’s why. In fact, I can’t really remember anything else I did in 2010. I tumbld, I tweeted, and I scrolled. This didn’t earn me any money but it felt like work. I justified my habits to myself in various ways. I was building my brand. Blogging was a creative act—even “curating” by reblogging someone else’s post was a creative act, if you squinted. It was also the only creative thing I was doing. In other words, she did what a lot of us do when we’re scared or overwhelmed by a project: she did everything but focus on it. The actual novel she was supposed to be working on stalled completely. For a year. It was easier to talk about writing, to do the exciting things related to art and creativity and literature, than to commit the act itself. She’s not the only one. Someone recently published a book called Working On My Novel, filled with social media posts from writers who are clearly not working on their novels. Writing, like so many creative acts, is hard. Sitting there, staring, mad at yourself, mad at the material because it doesn’t seem good enough and you don’t seem good enough. In fact, many valuable endeavors we undertake are painfully difficult, whether it’s coding a new startup or mastering a craft. But talking, talking is always easy. We seem to think that silence is a sign of weakness. That being ignored is tantamount to death (and for the ego, this is true). So we talk, talk, talk as though our life depends on it. In actuality, silence is strength—particularly early on in any journey. As the philosopher (and as it happens, a hater of newspapers and their chatter) Kierkegaard warned, “Mere gossip anticipates real talk, and to express what is still in thought weakens action by forestalling it.” And that’s what is so insidious about talk. Anyone can talk about himself or herself. Even a child knows how to gossip and chatter. Most people are decent at hype and sales. 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. Sherman had a good rule he tried to observe. “Never give reasons for you what think or do until you must. Maybe, after a while, a better reason will pop into your head.” The baseball and football great Bo Jackson decided he had two things he wanted to accomplish as an athlete at Auburn: he would win the Heisman Trophy and be taken first in the NFL draft. Do you know who he told? Nobody but his girlfriend. Strategic flexibility is not the only benefit of silence while others chatter. It is also psychology. The poet Hesiod had this in mind when he said, “A man’s best treasure is a thrifty tongue.” Talk depletes us. Talking and doing fight for the same resources. 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. The more difficult the task, the more uncertain the outcome, the more costly talk will be and the farther we run from actual accountability. It’s sapped us of the energy desperately needed to conquer what Steven Pressfield calls the “Resistance”—the hurdle that stands between us and creative expression. Success requires a full 100 percent of our effort, and talk flitters part of that effort away before we can use it. A lot of us succumb to this temptation—particularly when we feel overwhelmed or stressed or have a lot of work to do. In our building phase, resistance will be a constant source of discomfort. Talking—listening to ourselves talk, performing for an audience—is almost like therapy. I just spent four hours talking about this. Doesn’t that count for something? The answer is no. Doing great work is a struggle. It’s draining, it’s demoralizing, it’s frightening —not always, but it can feel that way when we’re deep in the middle of it. We talk to fill the void and the uncertainty. “Void,” Marlon Brando, a quiet actor if there ever was one, once said, “is terrifying to most people.” It is almost as if we are assaulted by silence or confronted by it, particularly if we’ve allowed our ego to lie to us over the years. Which is so damaging for one reason: the greatest work and art comes from wrestling with the void, facing it instead of scrambling to make it go away. The question is, when faced with your particular challenge— whether it is researching in a new field, starting a business, producing a film, securing a mentor, advancing an important cause—do you seek the respite of talk or do you face the struggle head-on? Think about it: a voice of a generation doesn’t call itself that. In fact, when you think about it, you realize just how little these voices seem to talk. It’s a song, it’s a speech, it’s a book—the volume of work may be light, but what’s inside it is concentrated and impactful. They work quietly in the corner. They turn their inner turmoil into product— and eventually to stillness. They ignore the impulse to seek recognition before they act. They don’t talk much. Or mind the feeling that others, out there in public and enjoying the limelight, are somehow getting the better end of the deal. (They are not.) They’re too busy working to do anything else. When they do talk—it’s earned. The only relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other. Let the others slap each other on the back while you’re back in the lab or the gym or pounding the pavement. Plug that hole—that one, right in the middle of your face—that can drain you of your vital life force. Watch what happens. Watch how much better you get. TO BE OR TO DO? In this formative period, the soul is unsoiled by warfare with the world. It lies, like a block of pure, uncut Parian marble, ready to be fashioned into—what? —ORISON SWETT MARDEN O ne of the most influential strategists and practitioners in modern warfare is someone most people have never heard of. His name was John Boyd. He was a truly great fighter pilot, but an even better teacher and thinker. After flying in Korea, he became the lead instructor at the elite Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base. He was known as “Forty-Second Boyd”— meaning that he could defeat any opponent, from any position, in less than forty seconds. A few years later he was quietly summoned to the Pentagon, where his real work began. In one sense, the fact that the average person might not have heard of John Boyd is not unexpected. He never published any books and he wrote only one academic paper. Only a few videos of him survive and he was rarely, if ever, quoted in the media. Despite nearly thirty years of impeccable service, Boyd wasn’t promoted above the rank of colonel. On the other hand, his theories transformed maneuver warfare in almost every branch of the armed forces, not just in his own lifetime but even more so after. The F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, which reinvented modern military aircraft, were his pet projects. His primary influence was as an adviser; through legendary briefings he taught and instructed nearly every major military thinker in a generation. His input on the war plans for Operation Desert Shield came in a series of direct meetings with the secretary of defense, not through public or official policy input. His primary means of effecting change was through the collection of pupils he mentored, protected, taught, and inspired. There are no military bases named after him. No battleships. He retired assuming that he’d be forgotten, and without much more than a small apartment and a pension to his name. He almost certainly had more enemies than friends. This unusual path—What if it were deliberate? What if it made him more influential? How crazy would that be? In fact, Boyd was simply living the exact lesson he tried to teach each promising young acolyte who came under his wing, who he sensed had the potential to be something—to be something different. The rising stars he taught probably have a lot in common with us. The speech Boyd gave to a protégé in 1973 makes this clear. Sensing what he knew to be a critical inflection point in the life of the young officer, Boyd called him in for a meeting. Like many high achievers, the soldier was insecure and impressionable. He wanted to be promoted, and he wanted to do well. He was a leaf that could be blown in any direction and Boyd knew it. So he heard a speech that day that Boyd would give again and again, until it became a tradition and a rite of passage for a generation of transformative military leaders. “Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” Boyd said to him. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” Using his hands to illustrate, Boyd marked off these two directions. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd paused, to make the alternative clear. “Or,” he said, “you can go that way and you can do something—something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision.” And then Boyd concluded with words that would guide that young man and many of his peers for the rest of their lives. “To be or to do? Which way will you go?” Whatever we seek to do in life, reality soon intrudes on our youthful idealism. This reality comes in many names and forms: incentives, commitments, recognition, and politics. In every case, they can quickly redirect us from doing to being. From earning to pretending. Ego aids in that deception every step of the way. It’s why Boyd wanted young people to see that if we are not careful, we can very easily find ourselves corrupted by the very occupation we wish to serve. How do you prevent derailment? Well, often we fall in love with an image of what success looks like. In Boyd’s world, the number of stars on your shoulder or the nature of your appointment or its location could easily be confused as a proxy for real accomplishment. For other people, it’s their job title, the business school they went to, the number of assistants they have, the location of their parking space, the grants they earn, their access to the CEO, the size of their paycheck, or the number of fans they have. Appearances are 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 (they call it failing upward in such bureaucracies). Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive. So who are you with? Which side will you choose? This is the roll call that life puts before us. Boyd had another exercise. Visiting with or speaking to groups of Air Force officers, he’d write on the chalkboard in big letters the words: DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY. Then he would cross those words out and replace them with three others: PRIDE, POWER, GREED. His point was that many of the systems and structures in the military—the ones that soldiers navigate in order to get ahead— can corrupt the very values they set out to serve. There’s a quip from the historian Will Durant, that a nation is born stoic and dies epicurean. That’s the sad truth Boyd was illustrating, how positive virtues turn sour. How many times have we seen this played out in our own short lives—in sports, in relationships, or projects or people that we care deeply about? This is what the ego does. It crosses out what matters and replaces it with what doesn’t. A lot of people want to change the world, and it’s good that they do. You want to be the best at what you do. Nobody wants to just be an empty suit. But in practical terms, which of the three words Boyd wrote on the chalkboard are going to get you there? Which are you practicing now? What’s fueling you? The choice that Boyd puts in front of us comes down to purpose. What is your purpose? What are you here to do? Because purpose helps you answer the question “To be or to do?“ quite easily. If what matters is you—your reputation, your inclusion, your personal ease of life—your path is clear: Tell people what they want to hear. Seek attention over the quiet but important work. Say yes to promotions and generally follow the track that talented people take in the industry or field you’ve chosen. Pay your dues, check the boxes, put in your time, and leave things essentially as they are. Chase your fame, your salary, your title, and enjoy them as they come. “A man is worked upon by what he works on,” Frederick Douglass once said. He would know. He’d been a slave, and he saw what it did to everyone involved, including the slaveholders themselves. Once a free man, he saw that the choices people made, about their careers and their lives, had the same effect. What you choose to do with your time and what you choose to do for money works on you. The egocentric path requires, as Boyd knew, many compromises. 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. The other “choices” wash away, as they aren’t really choices at all. They’re distractions. It’s about the doing, not the recognition. Easier in the sense that you don’t need to compromise. Harder because each opportunity—no matter how gratifying or rewarding—must be evaluated along strict guidelines: Does this help me do what I have set out to do? Does this allow me to do what I need to do? Am I being selfish or selfless? In this course, it is not “Who do I want to be in life?” but “What is it that I want to accomplish in life?” Setting aside selfish interest, it asks: What calling does it serve? What principles govern my choices? Do I want to be like everyone else or do I want to do something different? In other words, it’s harder because everything can seem like a compromise. Although it’s never too late, the earlier you ask yourself these questions the better. Boyd undeniably changed and improved his field in a way that almost no other theorist has since Sun Tzu or von Clausewitz. He was known as Genghis John for the way he never let obstacles or opponents stop him from what he needed to do. His choices were not without their costs. He was also known as the ghetto colonel because of his frugal lifestyle. He died with a drawerful of thousands of dollars in uncashed expense checks from private contractors, which he equated with bribes. That he never advanced above colonel was not his doing; he was repeatedly held back for promotions. He was forgotten by history as a punishment for the work he did. Think about this the next time you start to feel entitled, the next time you conflate fame and the American Dream. Think about how you might measure up to a great man like that. Think about this the next time you face that choice: Do I need this? Or is it really about ego? Are you ready to make the right decision? Or do the prizes still glitter off in the distance? To be or to do—life is a constant roll call. BECOME A STUDENT Let No Man’s Ghost Come Back to Say My Training Let Me Down. —SIGN IN THE NEW YORK FIRE DEPARTMENT TRAINING ACADEMY I n April in the early 1980s, a single day became one guitarist’s nightmare and became another’s dream, and dream job. Without notice, members of the underground metal band Metallica assembled before a planned recording session in a decrepit warehouse in New York and informed their guitarist Dave Mustaine he was being thrown out of the group. With few words, they handed him a bus ticket back to San Francisco. That same day, a decent young guitarist, Kirk Hammett, barely in his twenties and member of a band called Exodus, was given the job. Thrown right into a new life, he performed his first show with the band a few days later. One would assume that this was the moment Hammett had been waiting for his whole life. Indeed it was. Though only known in small circles at the time, Metallica was a band that seemed destined to go places. Their music had already begun to push the boundaries of the genre of thrash metal, and cult stardom had already begun. Within a few short years, it would be one of the biggest bands in the world, eventually selling more than 100 million albums. It was around this time that Kirk came to what must have been a humbling realization—that despite his years of playing and being invited to join Metallica, he wasn’t as good as he’d like to be. At his home in San Francisco, he looked for a guitar teacher. In other words, despite joining his dream group and quite literally turning professional, Kirk insisted that he needed more instruction—that he was still a student. The teacher he sought out had a reputation for being a teacher’s teacher, and for working with musical prodigies like Steve Vai. Joe Satriani, the man Hammett chose as his instructor, would himself go on to become known as one of the best guitar players of all time and sell more than 10 million records of his unique, virtuosic music. Teaching out of a small music shop in Berkeley, Satriani’s playing style made him an unusual choice for Hammett. That was the point—Kirk wanted to learn what he didn’t know, to firm up his understanding of the fundamentals so that he might continue exploring this new genre of music he now had a chance to pursue. Satriani makes it clear where Hammett was lacking—it wasn’t talent, certainly. “The main thing with Kirk . . . was he was a really good guitar player when he walked in the door. He was already playing lead guitar . . . he was already shredding. He had a great right hand, he knew most of his chords, he just didn’t learn how to play in an environment where he learned all the names and how to connect everything together.” That didn’t mean that their sessions were some sort of fun study group. In fact, Satriani explained that what separated Hammett from the others was his willingness to endure the type of instruction they wouldn’t. “He was a good student. Many of his friends and contemporaries would storm out complaining thinking I was too harsh a teacher.” Satriani’s system was clear: that there would be weekly lessons, that these lessons must be learned, and if they weren’t, that Hammett was wasting everyone’s time and needn’t bother to come back. So for the next two years Kirk did as Satriani required, returning every week for objective feedback, judgment, and drilling in technique and musical theory for the instrument he would soon be playing in front of thousands, then tens of thousands, and then literally hundreds of thousands of people. Even after that two-year study period, he would bring to Satriani licks and riffs he’d been working on with the band, and learned to pare down the instinct for more, and hone his ability to do more with fewer notes, and to focus on feeling those notes and expressing them accordingly. Each time, he improved as a player and as an artist. 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. There is a sort of ego ceiling imposed—one knows that he is not better than the “master” he apprentices under. Not even close. You defer to them, you subsume yourself. You cannot fake or bullshit them. An education can’t be “hacked”; there are no shortcuts besides hacking it every single day. If you don’t, they drop you. We don’t like 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. For this reason, updating your appraisal of your talents in a downward direction is one of the most difficult things to do in life—but it is almost always a component of mastery. The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious selfassessment is the antidote. The result, no matter what your musical tastes happen to be, was that Hammett became one of the great metal guitarists in the world, taking thrash metal from an underground movement into a thriving global musical genre. Not only that, but from those lessons, Satriani honed his own technique and became much better himself. Both the student and the teacher would go on to fill stadiums and remake the musical landscape. The mixed martial arts pioneer and multi-title champion Frank Shamrock has a system he trains fighters in that he calls plus, minus, and equal. Each fighter, to become great, he said, needs to have someone better that they can learn from, someone lesser who they can teach, and someone equal that they can challenge themselves against. The purpose of Shamrock’s formula is simple: to get real and continuous feedback about what they know and what they don’t know from every angle. It purges out the ego that puffs us up, the fear that makes us doubt ourselves, and any laziness that might make us want to coast. As Shamrock observed, “False ideas about yourself destroy you. For me, I always stay a student. That’s what martial arts are about, and you have to use that humility as a tool. You put yourself beneath someone you trust.” This begins by accepting that others know more than you and that you can benefit from their knowledge, and then seeking them out and knocking down the illusions you have about yourself. The need for a student mind-set doesn’t stop with fighting or music. A scientist must know the core principles of science and the discoveries occurring on the cutting edge. A philosopher must know deeply, and also know how little they know, as Socrates did. A writer must be versed in the canon—and read and be challenged by her contemporaries too. A historian must know ancient and modern history, as well as their specialty. Professional athletes have teams of coaches, and even powerful politicians have advisers and mentors. Why? To become great and to stay great, they must all know what came before, what is going on now, and what comes next. They must internalize the fundamentals of their domain and what surrounds them, without ossifying or becoming stuck in time. They must be always learning. We must all become our own teachers, tutors, and critics. Think about what Hammett could have done—what we might have done in his position were we to suddenly find ourselves a rock star, or a soon-to-be-rock star in our chosen field. The temptation is to think: I’ve made it. I’ve arrived. They tossed the other guy because he’s not as good as I am. They chose me because I have what it takes. Had he done that, we’d probably have never heard of him or the band. There are, after all, plenty of forgotten metal groups from the 1980s. A true student is like a sponge. Absorbing what goes on around him, filtering it, latching on to what he can hold. A student is self-critical and self-motivated, always trying to improve his understanding so that he can move on to the next topic, the next challenge. A real student is also his own teacher and his own critic. There is no room for ego there. Take fighting as an example again, where self-awareness is particularly crucial because opponents are constantly looking to match strength against weakness. If a fighter is not capable of learning and practicing every day, if he is not relentlessly looking for areas of improvement, examining his own shortcomings, and finding new techniques to borrow from peers and opponents, he will be broken down and destroyed. It is not all that different for the rest of us. Are we not fighting for or against something? Do you think you are the only one who hopes to achieve your goal? You can’t possibly believe you’re the only one reaching for that brass ring. It tends to surprise people how humble aspiring greats seem to have been. What do you mean they weren’t aggressive, entitled, aware of their own greatness or their destiny? The reality is that, though they were confident, the act of being an eternal student kept these men and women humble. “It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows,” Epictetus says. You can’t learn if you think you already know. You will not find the answers if you’re too conceited and self-assured to ask the questions. You cannot get better if you’re convinced you are the best. The art of taking feedback is such a crucial skill in life, particularly harsh and critical feedback. We not only need to take this harsh feedback, but actively solicit it, labor to seek out the negative precisely when our friends and family and brain are telling us that we’re doing great. The ego avoids such feedback at all costs, however. Who wants to remand themselves to remedial training? It thinks it already knows how and who we are—that is, it thinks we are spectacular, perfect, genius, truly innovative. It dislikes reality and prefers its own assessment. Ego doesn’t allow for proper incubation either. To become what we ultimately hope to become often takes long periods of obscurity, of sitting and wrestling with some topic or paradox. Humility is what keeps us there, concerned that we don’t know enough and that we must continue to study. Ego rushes to the end, rationalizes that patience is for losers (wrongly seeing it as a weakness), and assumes that we’re good enough to give our talents a go in the world. As we sit down to proof our work, as we make our first elevator pitch, prepare to open our first shop, as we stare out into the dress rehearsal audience, ego is the enemy—giving us wicked feedback, disconnected from reality. It’s defensive, precisely when we cannot afford to be defensive. It blocks us from improving by telling us that we don’t need to improve. Then we wonder why we don’t get the results we want, why others are better and why their success is more lasting. Today, books are cheaper than ever. Courses are free. Access to teachers is no longer a barrier—technology has done away with that. 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. Our teachers in life are not only those we pay, as Hammett paid Satriani. Nor are they necessarily part of some training dojo, like it is for Shamrock. Many of the best teachers are free. They volunteer because, like you, they once were young and had the same goals you do. Many don’t even know they are teaching —they are simply exemplars, or even historical figures whose lessons survive in books and essays. But ego makes us so hardheaded and hostile to feedback that it drives them away or puts them beyond our reach. It’s why the old proverb says, “When student is ready, the teacher appears.” DON’T BE PASSIONATE You seem to want that vivida vis animi which spurs and excites most young men to please, to shine, to excel. Without the desire and the pains necessary to be considerable, depend upon it, you never can be so. —LORD CHESTERFIELD P assion—it’s all about passion. Find your passion. Live passionately. Inspire the world with your passion. People go to Burning Man to find passion, to be around passion, to rekindle their passion. Same goes for TED and the now enormous SXSW and a thousand other events, retreats, and summits, all fueled by what they claim to be life’s most important force. Here’s what those same people haven’t told you: your passion may be the very thing holding you back from power or influence or accomplishment. Because just as often, we fail with—no, because of—passion. Early on in her ascendant political career, a visitor once spoke of Eleanor Roosevelt’s “passionate interest” in a piece of social legislation. The person had meant it as a compliment. But Eleanor’s response is illustrative. “Yes,” she did support the cause, she said. “But I hardly think the word ‘passionate’ applies to me.” As a genteel, accomplished, and patient woman born while the embers of the quiet Victorian virtues were still warm, Roosevelt was above passion. She had purpose. She had direction. She wasn’t driven by passion, but by reason. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, on the other hand, were passionate about Iraq. Christopher McCandless was bursting with passion as he headed “into the wild.” So was Robert Falcon Scott as he set out to explore the arctic, bitten as he was with “the Pole mania” (as were many climbers of the tragic 1996 Everest climb, momentarily struck with what psychologists now call “goalodicy”). The inventor and investors of the Segway believed they had a world-changing innovation on their hands and put everything into evangelizing it. That all of these talented, smart individuals were fervent believers in what they sought to do is without dispute. It’s also clear that they were also unprepared and incapable of grasping the objections and real concerns of everyone else around them. The same is true for countless entrepreneurs, authors, chefs, business owners, politicians, and designers that you’ve never heard of—and never will hear of, because they sunk their own ships before they’d hardly left the harbor. Like every other dilettante, they had passion and lacked something else. To be clear, I’m not talking about caring. I’m talking about passion of a different sort—unbridled enthusiasm, our willingness to pounce on what’s in front of us with the full measure of our zeal, the “bundle of energy” that our teachers and gurus have assured us is our most important asset. It is that burning, unquenchable desire to start or to achieve some vague, ambitious, and distant goal. This seemingly innocuous motivation is so far from the right track it hurts. Remember, “zealot” is just a nice way to say “crazy person.” A young basketball player named Lewis Alcindor Jr., who won three national championships with John Wooden at UCLA, used one word to describe the style of his famous coach: “dispassionate.” As in not passionate. 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.” The player who learned that lesson from Wooden would later change his name to one you remember better: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. No one would describe Eleanor Roosevelt or John Wooden or his notoriously quiet player Kareem as apathetic. They wouldn’t have said they were frenetic or zealous either. Roosevelt, one of the most powerful and influential female activists in history and certainly America’s most important First Lady, was known primarily for her grace, her poise, and her sense of direction. Wooden won ten titles in twelve years, including seven in a row, because he developed a system for winning and worked with his players to follow it. Neither of them were driven by excitement, nor were they bodies in constant motion. Instead, it took them years to become the person they became known as. It was a process of accumulation. In our endeavors, we will face complex problems, often in situations we’ve never faced before. Opportunities are not usually deep, virgin pools that require courage and boldness to dive into, but instead are obscured, dusted over, blocked by various forms of resistance. What is really called for in these circumstances is clarity, deliberateness, and methodological determination. But too often, we proceed like this . . . A flash of inspiration: I want to do the best and biggest ______ ever. Be the youngest ______. The only one to ______. The “firstest with the mostest.” The advice: Okay, well, here’s what you’ll need to do step-by-step to accomplish it. The reality: We hear what we want to hear. We do what we feel like doing, and despite being incredibly busy and working very hard, we accomplish very little. Or worse, find ourselves in a mess we never anticipated. Because we only seem to hear about the passion of successful people, we forget that failures shared the same trait. We don’t conceive of the consequences until we look at their trajectory. With the Segway, the inventor and investors wrongly assumed a demand much greater than ever existed. With the run-up to the war in Iraq, its proponents ignored objections and negative feedback because they conflicted with what they so deeply needed to believe. The tragic end to the Into the Wild story is the result of youthful naiveté and a lack of preparation. With Robert Falcon Scott, it was overconfidence and zeal without consideration of the real dangers. We imagine Napoleon was brimming with passion as he contemplated the invasion of Russia and only finally became free of it as he limped home with a fraction of the men he’d so confidently left with. In many more examples we see the same mistakes: overinvesting, underinvesting, acting before someone is really ready, breaking things that required delicacy—not so much malice as the drunkenness 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. Passion is seen in those who can tell you in great detail who they intend to become and what their success will be like—they might even be able to tell you specifically when they intend to achieve it or describe to you legitimate and sincere worries they have about the burdens of such accomplishments. They can tell you all the things they’re going to do, or have even begun, but they cannot show you their progress. Because there rarely is any. How can someone be busy and not accomplish anything? Well, that’s the passion paradox. If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then passion is a form of mental retardation— deliberately blunting our most critical cognitive functions. The waste is often appalling in retrospect; the best years of our life burned out like a pair of spinning tires against the asphalt. Dogs, god bless them, are passionate. As numerous squirrels, birds, boxes, blankets, and toys can tell you, they do not accomplish most of what they set out to do. A dog has an advantage in all this: a graciously short short-term memory that keeps at bay the creeping sense of futility and impotence. Reality for us humans, on the other hand, has no reason to be sensitive to the illusions we operate under. Eventually it will intrude. What humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism. Purpose, you could say, is like passion with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective. When we are young, or when our cause is young, we feel so intensely— passion like our hormones runs strongest in youth—that it seems wrong to take it slow. This is just our impatience. This is our inability to see that burning ourselves out or blowing ourselves up isn’t going to hurry the journey along. Passion is about. (I am so passionate about ______.) Purpose is to and for. (I must do ______. I was put here to accomplish ______. I am willing to endure ______ for the sake of this.) Actually, purpose deemphasizes the I. Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself. More than purpose, we also need realism. Where do we start? What do we do first? What do we do right now? How are we sure that what we’re doing is moving us forward? What are we benchmarking ourselves against? “Great passions are maladies without hope,” as Goethe once said. Which is why a deliberate, purposeful person operates on a different level, beyond the sway or the sickness. They hire professionals and use them. They ask questions, they ask what could go wrong, they ask for examples. They plan for contingencies. Then they are off to the races. Usually they get started with small steps, complete them, and look for feedback on how the next set can be better. They lock in gains, and then get better as they go, often leveraging those gains to grow exponentially rather than arithmetically. Is an iterative approach less exciting than manifestos, epiphanies, flying across the country to surprise someone, or sending four-thousand-word streamof-consciousness e-mails in the middle of the night? Of course. Is it less glamorous and bold than going all in and maxing out your credit cards because you believe in yourself? Absolutely. Same goes for the spreadsheets, the meetings, the trips, the phone calls, software, tools, and internal systems—and every how-to article ever written about them and the routines of famous people. Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function. The critical work that you want to do will require your deliberation and consideration. Not passion. Not naïveté. It’d be far better if you were intimidated by what lies ahead—humbled by its magnitude and determined to see it through regardless. Leave passion for the amateurs. Make it about what you feel you must do and say, not what you care about and wish to be. Remember Talleyrand’s epigram for diplomats, “Surtout, pas trop de zèle” (“Above all, not too much zeal”). Then you will do great things. Then you will stop being your old, good-intentioned, but ineffective self. FOLLOW THE CANVAS STRATEGY Great men have almost always shown themselves as ready to obey as they afterwards proved able to command. —LORD MAHON I n the Roman system of art and science, there existed a concept for which we have only a partial analog. Successful businessmen, politicians, or rich playboys would subsidize a number of writers, thinkers, artists, and performers. More than just being paid to produce works of art, these artists performed a number of tasks in exchange for protection, food, and gifts. One of the roles was that of an anteambulo—literally meaning “one who clears the path.” An anteambulo proceeded in front of his patron anywhere they traveled in Rome, making way, communicating messages, and generally making the patron’s life easier. The famous epigrammist Martial fulfilled this role for many years, serving for a time under the patron Mela, a wealthy businessman and brother of the Stoic philosopher and political adviser Seneca. Born without a rich family, Martial also served under another businessman named Petilius. As a young writer, he spent most of his day traveling from the home of one rich patron to another, providing services, paying his respects, and receiving small token payments and favors in return. Here’s the problem: like most of us with our internships and entry-level positions (or later on, publishers or bosses or clients), Martial absolutely hated every minute of it. He seemed to believe that this system somehow made him a slave. Aspiring to live like some country squire, like the patrons he serviced, Martial wanted money and an estate that was all his own. There, he dreamed, he could finally produce his works in peace and independence. As a result, his writing often drags with a hatred and bitterness about Rome’s upper crust, from which he believed he was cruelly shunted aside. For all his impotent rage, what Martial couldn’t see was that it was his unique position as an outsider to society that gave him such fascinating insight into Roman culture that it survives to this day. Instead of being pained by such a system, what if he’d been able to come to terms with it? What if—gasp—he could have appreciated the opportunities it offered? Nope. It seemed to eat him up inside instead. It’s a common attitude that transcends generations and societies. The angry, unappreciated genius is forced to do stuff she doesn’t like, for people she doesn’t respect, as she makes her way in the world. How dare they force me to grovel like this! The injustice! The waste! We see it in recent lawsuits in which interns sue their employers for pay. We see kids more willing to live at home with their parents than to submit to something they’re “overqualified” to work for. We see it in an inability to meet anyone else on their terms, an unwillingness to take a step back in order to potentially take several steps forward. I will not let them get one over on me. I’d rather we both have nothing instead. It’s worth taking a look at the supposed indignities of “serving” someone else. Because in reality, not only is the apprentice model responsible for some of the greatest art in the history of the world—everyone from Michelangelo to Leonardo da Vinci to Benjamin Franklin has been forced to navigate such a system—but if you’re going to be the big deal you think you are going to be, isn’t this a rather trivial temporary imposition? When someone gets his first job or joins a new organization, he’s often given this advice: Make other people look good and you will do well. Keep your head down, they say, and serve your boss. Naturally, this is not what the kid who was chosen over all the other kids for the position wants to hear. It’s not what a Harvard grad expects—after all, they got that degree precisely to avoid this supposed indignity. Let’s flip it around so it doesn’t seem so demeaning: It’s not about kissing ass. It’s not about making someone look good. It’s about providing the support so that others can be good. The better wording for the advice is this: 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 to 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. No one is endorsing sycophancy. Instead, it’s about seeing what goes on from the inside, and looking for opportunities for someone other than yourself. Remember that anteambulo means clearing the path—finding the direction someone already intended to head and helping them pack, freeing them up to focus on their strengths. In fact, making things better rather than simply looking as if you are. Many people know of Benjamin Franklin’s famous pseudonymous letters written under names like Silence Dogwood. What a clever young prodigy, they think, and miss the most impressive part entirely: Franklin wrote those letters, submitted them by sliding them under the print-shop door, and received absolutely no credit for them until much later in his life. In fact, it was his brother, the owner, who profited from their immense popularity, regularly running them on the front page of his newspaper. Franklin was playing the long game, though—learning how public opinion worked, generating awareness of what he believed in, crafting his style and tone and wit. It was a strategy he used time and again over his career—once even publishing in his competitor’s paper in order to undermine a third competitor—for Franklin saw the constant benefit in making other people look good and letting them take credit for your ideas. Bill Belichick, the four-time Super Bowl–winning head coach of the New England Patriots, made his way up the ranks of the NFL by loving and mastering the one part of the job that coaches disliked at the time: analyzing film. His first job in professional football, for the Baltimore Colts, was one he volunteered to take without pay—and his insights, which provided ammunition and critical strategies for the game, were attributed exclusively to the more senior coaches. He thrived on what was considered grunt work, asked for it and strove to become the best at precisely what others thought they were too good for. “He was like a sponge, taking it all in, listening to everything,” one coach said. “You gave him an assignment and he disappeared into a room and you didn’t see him again until it was done, and then he wanted to do more,” said another. As you can guess, Belichick started getting paid very soon. Before that, as a young high school player, he was so knowledgeable about the game that he functioned as a sort of assistant coach even while playing the game. Belichick’s father, himself an assistant football coach for Navy, taught him a critical lesson in football politics: that if he wanted to give his coach feedback or question a decision, he needed to do it in private and self-effacingly so as not to offend his superior. He learned how to be a rising star without threatening or alienating anyone. In other words, he had mastered the canvas strategy. You can see how easily entitlement and a sense of superiority (the trappings of ego) would have made the accomplishments of either of these men impossible. Franklin would never have been published if he’d prioritized credit over creative expression—indeed, when his brother found out, he literally beat him out of jealousy and anger. Belichick would have pissed off his coach and then probably been benched if he had one-upped him in public. He certainly wouldn’t have taken his first job for free, and he wouldn’t have sat through thousands of hours of film if he cared about status. Greatness comes from humble beginnings; it comes from grunt work. It means you’re the least important person in the room—until you change that with results. There is an old saying, “Say little, do much.” What we really ought to do is update and apply a version of that to our early approach. Be lesser, do more. Imagine if for every person you met, you thought of some way to help them, something you could do for them? And you looked at it in a way that entirely benefited them and not you. The cumulative effect this would have over time would be profound: You’d learn a great deal by solving diverse problems. You’d develop a reputation for being indispensable. You’d have countless new relationships. You’d have an enormous bank of favors to call upon down the road. That’s what the canvas strategy is about—helping yourself by helping others. Making a concerted effort to trade your short-term gratification for a longer-term payoff. Whereas everyone else wants to get credit and be “respected,” you can forget credit. You can forget it so hard that you’re glad when others get it instead of you—that was your aim, after all. Let the others take their credit on credit, while you defer and earn interest on the principal. The strategy part of it is the hardest. It’s easy to be bitter, like Martial. To hate even the thought of subservience. To despise those who have more means, more experience, or more status than you. To tell yourself that every second not spent doing your work, or working on yourself, is a waste of your gift. To insist, I will not be demeaned like this. Once we fight this emotional and egotistical impulse, the canvas strategy is easy. The iterations are endless. Maybe it’s coming up with ideas to hand over to your boss. Find people, thinkers, up-and-comers to introduce them to each other. Cross wires to create new sparks. Find what nobody else wants to do and do it. Find inefficiencies and waste and redundancies. Identify leaks and patches to free up resources for new areas. Produce more than everyone else and give your ideas away In other words, discover opportunities to promote their creativity, find outlets and people for collaboration, and eliminate distractions that hinder their progress and focus. It is a rewarding and infinitely scalable power strategy. Consider each one an investment in relationships and in your own development. The canvas strategy is there for you at any time. There is no expiration date on it either. It’s one of the few that age does not limit—on either side, young or old. You can start at any time—before you have a job, before you’re hired and while you’re doing something else, or if you’re starting something new or find yourself inside an organization without strong allies or support. You may even find that there’s no reason to ever stop doing it, even once you’ve graduated to heading your own projects. Let it become natural and permanent; let others apply it to you while you’re too busy applying it to those above you. Because if you pick up this mantle once, you’ll see what most people’s egos prevent them from appreciating: the person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas shapes the painting. RESTRAIN YOURSELF 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 P eople who knew Jackie Robinson as a young man probably wouldn’t have predicted that they’d one day see him become the first black player in Major League Baseball. Not that he wasn’t talented, or that the idea of eventually integrating white baseball was inconceivable, it’s that he wasn’t exactly known for his restraint and poise. As a teenager, Robinson ran with a small gang of friends who regularly found themselves in trouble with local police. He challenged a fellow student to a fight at a junior college picnic for using a slur. In a basketball game, he surreptitiously struck a hard-fouling white opponent with the ball so forcefully that the kid bled everywhere. He was arrested more than once for arguing with and challenging police, who he felt treated him unfairly. Before he started at UCLA, he spent the night in jail (and had a gun drawn on him by an officer) for nearly fighting a white man who’d insulted his friends. And in addition to rumors of inciting protests against racism, Jackie Robinson effectively ended his career as a military officer at Camp Hood in 1944 when a bus driver attempted to force him to sit in the back in spite of laws that forbade segregation on base buses. By arguing and cursing at the driver and then directly challenging his commanding officer after the fracas, Jackie set in motion a series of events that led to a court-martial. Despite being acquitted, he was discharged shortly afterward. It’s not just understandable and human that he did this; it was probably the right thing to do. Why should he let anyone else treat him that way? No one should have to stand for that. Except sometimes they do. Are there not goals so important that we’d put up with anything to achieve them? When Branch Rickey, the manager and owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, scouted Jackie to potentially become the first black player in baseball, he had one question: Do you have the guts? “I’m looking,” Rickey told him, “for a ball player with the guts not to fight back.” In fact, in their famous meeting, Rickey playacted the abuse that Robinson was likely to experience if he accepted Rickey’s challenge: a hotel clerk refusing him a room, a rude waiter in a restaurant, an opponent shouting slurs. This, Robinson assured him, he was ready to handle. There were plenty of players Rickey could have gone with. But he needed one who wouldn’t let his ego block him from seeing the bigger picture. As he started in baseball’s farm system, then in the pros, Robinson faced more than just slights from service staff or reticent players. There was an aggressive, coordinated campaign to libel, boo, provoke, freeze out, attack, maim, or even kill. In his career, he was hit by more than seventy-two pitches, nearly had his Achilles tendon taken out by players who aimed their spikes at him, and that says nothing of the calls he was cheated out of and the breaks of the game that didn’t go his way. Yet Jackie Robinson held to his unwritten pact with Rickey, never giving into explosive anger—however deserved. In fact, in nine years in the league, he never hit another player with his fist. Athletes seem spoiled and hotheaded to us today, but we have no concept of what the leagues were like then. In 1956, Ted Williams, one of the most revered and respected players in the history of the game, was once caught spitting at his fans. As a white player he could not only get away with this, he later told reporters, “I’m not a bit sorry for what I did. I was right and I’d spit again at the same people who booed me today . . . Nobody’s going to stop me from spitting.” For a black player, this sort of behavior would have been not only unthinkable but shortsighted beyond comprehension. Robinson had no such freedom—it would have ended not only his career, but set back his grand experiment for a generation. Jackie’s path called for him to put aside both his ego and in some respects his basic sense of fairness and rights as a human being. Early in his career, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Chapman, was particularly brutal in his taunting during a game. “They’re waiting for you in the jungles, black boy!” he yelled over and over. “We don’t want you here, nigger.” Not only did Jackie not respond—despite, as he later wrote, wanting to “grab one of those white sons of bitches and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist”—a month later he agreed to take a friendly photo with Chapman to help save the man’s job. The thought of touching, posing with such an asshole, even sixty years removed, almost turns the stomach. Robinson called it one of the most difficult things he ever did, but he was willing to because it was part of a larger plan. He understood that certain forces were trying to bait him, to ruin him. Knowing what he wanted and needed to do in baseball, it was clear what he would have to tolerate in order do it. He shouldn’t have had to, but he did. Our own path, whatever we aspire to, will in some ways be defined by the amount of nonsense we are willing to deal with. Our humiliations will pale in comparison to Robinson’s, but it will still be hard. It will still be tough to keep our self-control. The fighter Bas Rutten sometimes writes the letter R on both his hands before fights—for the word rustig, which means “relax” in Dutch. Getting angry, getting emotional, losing restraint is a recipe for failure in the ring. You cannot, as John Steinbeck once wrote to his editor, “[lose] temper as a refuge from despair.” Your ego will do you no favors here, whether you’re struggling with a publisher, with critics, with enemies, or a capricious boss. It doesn’t matter that they don’t understand or that you know better. It’s too early for that. It’s too soon. Oh, you went to college? That doesn’t mean the world is yours by right. But it was the Ivy League? Well, people are still going to treat you poorly, and they will still yell at you. You have a million dollars or a wall full of awards? That doesn’t mean anything in the new field you’re trying to tackle. 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 t