48 pages 1 hour read

Ryan Holiday

Ego Is the Enemy: The Fight to Master Our Greatest Opponent

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


Ego Is the Enemy is a 2016 self-help book by best-selling American author Ryan Holiday. Holiday uses real-life anecdotes to illustrate how egotistical impulses are detrimental to people’s relationships, self-awareness, critical thinking, decision-making, and, ultimately, their life’s work. Holiday also draws on diverse examples of successful people, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Bill Belichick, to show how overcoming the ego can help people foster genuine confidence and achieve their goals while living out their values. Holiday’s book is presented in three parts: “Aspire,” “Success,” and “Failure.”

This guide refers to the 2016 Portfolio Kindle edition of this book.


In his Prologue and Introduction, Holiday recalls the early days in his career as a talent manager and marketing director. Holiday experienced quick material success but struggled with workaholism and became overinvested in his career at the expense of his mental health and relationships. He argues that, in the end, his egotistical impulses damaged his life and his chances of enjoying meaningful success. He explains that while everyone is susceptible to egoic thinking, ambitious people are particularly vulnerable to becoming delusional, arrogant, and self-centered, which ultimately will prevent them from becoming successful.

In his first two chapters, Holiday considers how easy it is to discuss great plans and visions without putting in the work to make them a reality. While egotistical people chase promotions and titles and worry about how others perceive them, truly successful people focus on measuring the impact of what they are doing. In Chapter 3, he advises the reader to “become a student” by remaining humble and curious about what they are interested in. Fostering a student mindset helps people learn from others and truly master skills through hard work. In Chapter 4, Holiday emphasizes purpose and reason over passion. He claims that while enthusiasm is considered a positive trait, passionate people can easily lose their ability to think critically and recognize their own biases and encourages the reader to work with reason instead.

In Chapter 5, Holiday explores the dynamic between bosses and employees, claiming that employees should embrace “humble beginnings” and focus on making meaningful contributions to their group. For instance, Bill Belichick began his career with the NFL as a volunteer and allowed coaches to take credit for his ideas. Over time, he developed his skills, earned the respect of his superiors, and was promoted to a paid position.

In the following chapter, Holiday touts the importance of self-restraint, arguing that being emotional and temperamental can become an expression of the ego, derailing one’s goals by creating conflict. In Chapter 7, he advises the reader to stop overthinking and perpetuating mental patterns of self-aggrandizement or shame. Internal monologues often focus on other people’s perceptions, and quelling the ego means to stop performing and focus on the task at hand. In Chapter 8, Holiday warns against “early pride,” which people might develop before they have really accomplished their goal. Pride can compromise real self-awareness by convincing people that they are better than they really are. While negativity and criticism can be detrimental, flattery and praise can also be obstacles to success if they make people proud.

In Chapter 9, “Work, Work, Work,” Holiday contrasts the ego’s view, which loves big dreams and notions of success, with the real discipline necessary to execute these plans. Charles Darwin was able to privately and consistently work on his theory of evolution for decades without receiving validation from others or knowing if it would be successful. In Chapter 10, the author concludes Part 1 by noting that beginning new challenges is scary and that egotistical thinking can become a kind of coping strategy to deal with insecurity. Holiday emphasizes the importance of managing one’s own egotistical tendencies early in life since experiencing success can exacerbate the ego.

Holiday begins Part 2 of his work, entitled “Success,” by imploring the reader to remain a student throughout their life. He lauds Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan for his openness to learning, as demonstrated by his continual adoption of foreign cultures’ strategies and technologies. While amateurs tend to stay in their comfort zone of what they already know, real professionals remain humble and enjoy the challenge of learning new things with a beginner mindset. In Chapter 12, the author tells the reader to resist mythologizing their success by creating a simplistic narrative around it. Holiday claims that people’s egos want to aggrandize their accomplishments and the role they played in achieving them while downplaying good luck and others’ contributions.

In the following chapter, “What’s Important to You?”, Holiday urges the reader to understand their own priorities in life and resist the ego’s desire to achieve and acquire everything. Holiday argues that the act of prioritizing and making compromises helps people resist the ego’s selfish desire to have everything they want. The author points to Ulysses Grant as an example of a good person led astray by their desire for additional power, wealth, and fame.

In Chapter 14, Holiday explores how experiencing success can increase people’s destructive qualities, namely a sense of entitlement, distrust of others, and desire for complete control. Some of the traits that help people attain success can later morph into weaknesses; for instance, confidence can become arrogance, or a disregard for criticism can become closed-mindedness. In the following chapter, Holiday explores the importance of managing oneself and others. He claims that egotists are likely to be controlling micromanagers or focus too much on their vision and neglect the everyday work necessary to make it a reality. In Chapter 16, Holiday examines “the disease of me,” in which successful people become self-centered and entitled. In Chapter 17, Holiday tells the reader to “meditate on the immensity” by reflecting on their tiny, but interconnected, role in the cosmos and putting their own problems and ambitions into perspective.

In the following chapter, he advises the reader to maintain “sobriety,” or a level head, and argues that stoic, steady reasoning is a better approach for long-term success than passion or charisma. He points to chancellor Angela Merkel’s success in politics as an example. In Chapter 19, Holiday concludes Part 2 by considering how a bit of success can quickly exacerbate delusion, greed, and ambition, which then ruin one’s plans. For instance, Alexander the Great had some good qualities but was prone to extreme thinking and refused Aristotle’s advice in favor of moderation. Holiday reiterates that people such as Alexander and Napoleon are cautionary tales and that by rejecting egoic tendencies, people can avoid the consequences they experienced.

In Part 3, Holiday examines failure, noting that most people experience a devastating personal or professional failure at some point in their lives, which can be a catalyst for self-transformation. For instance, while imprisoned for theft as a young man, Malcolm X decided to dedicate himself to learning and read voraciously every day. In Chapter 21, Holiday considers how, in spite of their best efforts, some people never receive validation for their work. He tells the reader to emulate Belisarius, a Roman commander who excelled but was never honored for his work. Holiday considers how people’s rock-bottom moments, or “katabasis,” have the potential to fuel personal growth if they can confront their egos and face uncomfortable truths.

He continues this discussion in Chapter 23, in which he argues that egotistical people respond to adversity by entrenching themselves in conflict and blaming others for their mistakes. In Chapter 24, the author coaches the reader to “maintain their own scoreboard” and listen to their conscience rather than external metrics of success (195). In Chapter 25, he critiques hate and resentment, even in response to mistreatment, claiming that such reactions are harmful to oneself and can only make problems worse. He borrows Dr. King’s advice, telling the reader to try to show love to those who have hurt them, as it is more “peaceful,” “productive,” and “egoless” (206). Holiday concludes his work by reiterating that, with self-reflection, failure can be a better teacher than success and that managing one’s ego requires continual effort.