“The worst disease which can afflict business executives in their work is not, as popularly supposed, alcoholism; it’s egotism.” -- Harold Geneen
You worked hard, you made some smart bets and here you are, successful. Maybe someone acquired your startup for an unbelievable sum. Maybe you’re an athlete and your team just won a championship. Maybe you’re a filmmaker and received a grant to have your film made. Maybe you just won a coveted award in your field.
After we give ourselves proper credit, our ego wants us to think, I’m special. I’m better. The rules don’t apply to me. We become entitled, controlling, paranoid, selfish, even delusional.
As Aristotle observed, “it is hard to bear the results of good fortune suitably.”
When success arrives, ego begins to toy with our minds and weaken what made us win in the first place. This is the worst thing that can happen, because things get harder as we become more successful. In sports, the schedule gets harder after a winning season, the bad teams get better draft picks, and the salary cap makes it tough to keep a team together. Taxes go up the more you make.
Related: Success Is Its Own Worst Enemy
If you want to survive those new challenges, you must learn to fight these five manifestations of ego.
Disease of me.
Pat Riley, the famous coach and manager who led the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat to multiple championships, says that great teams tend to follow a trajectory. When they start -- before they have won -- a team is innocent. If the conditions are right, they come together, they watch out for each other and work together toward their collective goal. This stage, he calls the “innocent climb.”
After a team starts to win and media attention begins, the simple bonds that joined the individuals together begin to fray. Players calculate their own importance. Chests swell. Frustrations emerge. Egos appear. The innocent climb, Pat Riley says, is almost always followed by the “disease of me.” It can “strike any winning team in any year and at any moment,” and does so with alarming regularity.
Once we’ve “made it," our tendency is to switch to a mindset of “getting what’s mine.” Now, all of a sudden awards and recognition matter -- even though they weren’t what got us here. We need that money, that title, that media attention -- not for the team or the cause, but for ourselves. Because we’ve earned it.
Let’s make one thing clear: we never earn the right to be greedy or to pursue our interests at the expense of everyone else.
To think otherwise is not only egotistical and selfish, it’s counter-productive.
With success, particularly power, comes entitlement, one of the greatest and most dangerous delusions. It doesn’t matter if you’re a billionaire, a millionaire, or just a kid who snagged a good job early. The complete and utter sense of certainty that got you here can become a liability if you’re not careful. The demands and dream you had for a better life? The ambition that fueled your effort? These begin as earnest drives but left unchecked become hubris and entitlement.
Entitlement assumes: This is mine. I’ve earned it. At the same time, entitlement nickels and dimes other people because it can’t conceive of valuing another person’s time as highly as its own. It delivers tirades and pronouncements that exhaust the people who work for and with us, who have no choice other than to go along.
Right before he destroyed his own billion-dollar company, Ty Warner, creator of Beanie Babies, overrode the cautious objections of one of his employees and bragged, “I could put the Ty heart on manure and they’d buy it!” He was wrong. And the company not only catastrophically failed, he later narrowly missed going to jail.
With success and power, more often than not, we begin to overestimate our own power. Then we lose perspective. And there begins our downfall.
Entitlement comes hand in hand with the poisonous need to micromanage and control. Your ego says: it all must be done my way -- even little things, even inconsequential things.
It can become paralyzing perfectionism, or a million pointless battles fought merely for the sake of exerting its say. It too exhausts people whose help we need, particularly quiet people who don’t object until we’ve pushed them to their breaking point. We fight with the clerk at the airport, the customer service representative on the telephone, the agent who examines our claim.
To what end? In reality, we don’t control the weather, we don’t control the market, we don’t control other people, and our efforts and energies in spite of this are pure waste. Efforts and energies that would have been better spent strengthening our position, are now making it worse. A smart man or woman must regularly remind themselves of the limits of their power and reach.
The Oval Office tapes of Richard Nixon offer a harrowing insight into a man who has lost his grip not just on what he is legally allowed to do, on what his job was (to serve the people), but on reality itself. He vacillates wildly from supreme confidence to dread and fear. He talks over his subordinates and rejects information and feedback that challenges what he wants to believe. He lives in a bubble in which no one can say no -- not even his conscience. It made for a sad and pitiful demise from one of the world’s most prestigious and powerful positions.
Paranoia, another deadly manifestation of ego when we’ve achieved success, says: I can’t trust anyone. I’m in this totally by myself and for myself. It says, I’m surrounded by fools. It says, focusing on my work, my obligations, myself is not enough. I also have to be orchestrating various machinations behind the scenes -- to get them before they get me; to get them back for the slights I perceive.
In its frenzy to protect itself, paranoia creates the persecution it seeks to avoid, making the owner a prisoner of its own delusions. “He who indulges empty fears earns himself real fears,” wrote Seneca, who as a Roman statesman witnessed destructive paranoia at the highest levels.
Believing your own story.
In 1979, football coach and general manager Bill Walsh took the 49ers from being the worst team in football, and perhaps professional sports, to a Super Bowl victory, in just three years. Looking back, he refused to indulge in telling himself a story that it was his plan all along. It would have been delusional to think that at the time, taking over a team that bad. Instead, he created of culture of excellence and instilled what he called his “standard of performance” -- the behaviors and standards necessary to win.
Narrative is when you look back at an improbable or unlikely path to your success and say: I knew it all along. Instead of: I hoped. I worked. Or even: I thought this could happen. To accept the narratives we build looking back wouldn’t be a harmless personal gratification. They don’t change the past, they do have the power to negatively impact our future.
From that point, your ego makes you think that success in the future is just the natural next part of the story -- when really it’s rooted in work, creativity, persistence, and luck.
Resist indulging your ego in building narratives -- instead, stay focused on the task at hand, securing your base and creating success.
These are all instances of ego working against us -- right when we’ve made it, undermining us, knocking us off balance. With recognition, achievement and success we need to find stabilizers to balance our ego and pride.
We can’t let victory make us selfish and self-centered. We need to guard ourselves from some of the greatest and most dangerous delusions: entitlement, control, and paranoia. And instead of pretending that we are living some great story, we must remain focused on the execution and on executing with excellence.
If not, ego will take it all from us.
This piece is adapted from Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy, published by Penguin Portfolio
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of
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