I just completed Ryan Holiday’s latest work Ego Is The Enemy. For those unfamiliar with Holiday or writing, let me begin with a little background before reviewing this work (note: I have not read Holiday’s other works, but I have heard him share his ideas on multiple podcasts).
Holiday has found noteworthy success in his young career — only 29 years of age — climbing to high ranking corporate positions and consistently landing works on various bestsellers lists. As Ryan Holiday’s fourth publication Ego Is The Enemy serves as a fitting follow up to his last best seller Obstacle Is The Way (2014). Obstacle reached popular altitudes when sports stars and pop culture icons began lauding it’s philosophy as an element of their success.
Holiday has carved his niche in the idea marketplace by championing the Greek philosophy of stoicism. Obstacle, Ego is the Enemy, and his upcoming work The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance and the Art of Living, all draw heavily on this ancient approach to life. It takes great effort to bring lost ideas back to the contemporary mind and Holiday has succeeded.
At a glance, Stoicism teaches perseverance, patience, humility, and stability in a chaotic world. Stoics train themselves to avoid the rapture of emotions that sway the populous so easily. Ground yourself in diligent labor and develop character for that is where the good life hides.
Acknowledging the virtue of the Stoic ethic requires little argument. Nearly all New Year’s resolutions unknowingly apply elements of stoicism. All of our attempts at discipline, developing new habits and the ability to focus on our goals are stoic ideals.
Theologically, Stoicism contains commendable attributes. I have no doubt that many Christians would feel quite comfortable reading most of Holiday’s books. Holiday is not, however, a Christian and makes no attempt at entertaining Christian ideals. The benefits of Stoicism, for Holiday, are good and praiseworthy independent of the Christian faith. Any overlap between the Stoicism and the Bible only appear coincidental. For this reason, I would recommend Holiday’s works but (as always) read with a bit of discernment.
The tone of Ego Is The Enemy shapes the work in stoic ways. Most “self-help” or personal development books take on a positive or motivational spin. But, Holiday’s book is somber. It exchanges enthusiasm for seriousness and a purposeful warning. The title aptly expresses this warning. For whatever you aspire to, succeed in, and fail at, ego is the enemy.
He nestles the narrative of his argument around these three sections: Aspire, Success and Failure. Across each section he scatters stories of success and failure to craft his point in high contrast.
Shaved to its essence, Holiday argues that unchecked (or uncontrolled) ego remains humanities biggest downfall. People (particularly leaders, for Holiday’s purposes) who fail to manage their ego, consistently face failure. Ego destroys you, your aspirations, and your successes. Humanity owns no immunity to such a virus and no can ever take a break from treatment.
The antidote proscribed, feels simple in concept, but difficult in practice. Humble yourself, listen to the critiques and opinions of others, and work toward the success of others, are the first among many steps in removing ego. Holiday offers encouraging appeals to discard entitlement, credit seeking, and reading your name in the headlines.
Some might call it “pride comes before the fall.”
In many ways, Holiday articulates an anthropology that sounds downright Christian. We are our own worst enemy. This marks a refreshing reprieve from the typical “be true to your self” and “seek the goodness inside you” that pop culture typically offers.
My primary area of critique for Holiday is the manner in which he speaks about humility. What is the point of humility? For Holiday, humility means to get out of your own way. You are your greatest barrier to success. Consequently, keeping your ego subdued can allow you accomplish incredible things. You fight the ego because only by removing that barrier will you accomplish great success.
In one of his few nods to Christianity, Holiday says this: “Christians believe that pride is a sin because it is a lie — it convinces people that they are better than they are, that they are better than God made them. Pride leads to arrogance and then away from humility and connection with their fellow man. You don’t have to be a Christian to see the wisdom in this. You only need to care about your career to understand that pride — even in real accomplishments — is a distraction and a deluder.” (74)
We could breakdown his theology in a few places, but one element stands out. Humility isn’t about connection with “my fellow man” or thinking I am “better than God made” me. A “distraction and deluder”, yes, but not primarily.
Christian humility points to divinity. It’s pushing glory elsewhere. Pride steals glory from God. This makes the offense of pride far greater than Holiday crafts it.
Jesus, as our example, “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8). This was not because he thought of himself too highly and needed a dose of humility. Rather, he humble himself “to the glory of God the Father” (2:11).
The closest Holiday gets to a Christian view of humility is his chapter on “Mediate on the Immensity.” In that chapter, he suggests we consider our connection to the past, our participation in the vastness of the world, and that our time here is infinitesimally small. This smells similar to the Christian humility in light of divinity, but it’s not. At best it’s pantheistic worship of creation. His intoxicating prose leads into powerful arguments, which consequentially, obscures some very “unChristian” ideas.
We can commend Holiday’s work for quality of writing, numerous literature references (popular, classical, and obscure), and championing an unpopular life philosophy.
Yet, this piece feels hollow. The irony is that humility without divinity inevitably turns narcissistic. I fear that Holiday’s approach to humility (get out of your own way, so that you can succeed) will not offer the fulfillment that readers seek.
Ego Is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday; Portfolio/Penguin; New York, New York: 2016