Book Review — Ego Is The Enemy by Ryan Holiday

'Tosin Adeoti
5 min readApr 17, 2023

Three days ago, I finished reading Ego Is The Enemy by Ryan Holiday. Holiday is an American author who considers himself a modern Stoic and has been the host of the popular podcast The Daily Stoic since 2020. The book was published in 2016.

Why did it take me so long to muster the strength to review this self-help book? You will understand as you read on.

This book is an attempt by the author to use various historical figures as case studies to illustrate the perils of egotism. According to Holiday, the ego being discussed is the negative notion of self-importance, conceit, and a self-centered drive that disregards others. It represents the immature aspect of an individual that prioritizes personal gain over everything and everyone else. The author perceives ego as the underlying cause of numerous issues and hindrances, ranging from our inability to succeed to our constant need to succeed at the cost of others.

Holiday takes the reader through the three phases — aspiration, success, or failure — during which ego reveals itself.

Part I — The first part, “Aspire,” covers the beginning stage where we have a strong desire to achieve success. It is crucial not to let our ego hinder our progress at this stage.

Part II — The second part, “Success,” deals with the phase where we have accomplished some level of success. It is important to be cautious and not let our ego become a roadblock to our growth.

Part III — The third part, “Failure,” focuses on the time when we face setbacks and failures. It is essential to ensure that our ego does not prevent us from bouncing back and overcoming challenges.

As you can see, the message is not bad. In fact, I posit that it is sorely needed in this age of social media where chest-pumping is encouraged and even applauded. “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,” Holiday explains. Using interesting and eye-catching stories from history, the author makes this important point of keeping the ego in check.

How can a reasonable person not want to speak glowingly of a book like this? I really wanted to like it. But try as I might, I just couldn’t overcome the flawed way the message was presented.

For instance, the book refers to two American Civil War generals, William Sherman and Ulysses Grant, and highlights certain decisions made by each of them that suggest Sherman had a modest ego while Grant possessed a significant one. However, he did not mention that both generals dedicated considerable time and effort to self-improvement to excel in their roles. Given the weight of their positions and the possibility of having to make decisions that could endanger lives, they needed to have a strong sense of self. Although Sherman made responsible choices, like delegating a critical battle to better-equipped officers, this does not necessarily imply that he lacked a strong sense of self-worth or self-importance.

Sherman may have told Lincoln he did not wish to assume superior command of the army, but that could be interpreted in different ways. Was it not Sherman who led the bold and audacious “March to the Sea”? Why didn’t he have someone else take care of that expedition? Was it not Sherman who openly criticized General Grant’s leadership during the Chattanooga Campaign? The author’s theory that Sherman’s lack of ego made him turn down a chance to be America’s president is also flawed. Unlike someone like Eisenhower, Sherman was deeply unpopular among politicians and members of the press who disagreed with his tactics during the Civil War. This would have made it more difficult for him to gain widespread support in a political campaign.

This cherry-picking of historical anecdotes to support his claims of putting one’s ego in check is littered throughout the book. He says John Wooden became a great coach because he was not about rah-rah speeches or inspiration. Instead, he says his philosophy, worth emulating for success, was about being in control and doing one’s job and never being “passion’s slave.” Do you know basketball coaches who are passionate and still successful? Phil Jackson, who led the Bulls from 1989 to 1998 to six NBA championships. It is Mike Brown who with the Kings snapped the longest playoff drought in NBA history. It is Pat Riley who was named NBA Coach of the Year three times in three different clubs. The same person was the head coach of an NBA All-Star Game team nine times and has been recognized as one of the 10 Greatest Coaches in NBA history. So much for being dispassionate.

Even more jarring is that some of the claims in this book may be inaccurate. When I read books, I like to check out the stories of those being reported (that’s why it can take me a while to get through books). For some of his claims, I just could not find any support. For example, it is unclear where he obtained the information that paints Howard Hughes as a negative character or who specifically accuses Grant of corruption for entering politics. It is unlikely that one can trace the origins of these claims without knowing the sources personally. But there is one I know about because I had written about it previously: Putin’s decision to scare Merkel. Here was what Holiday wrote:

“When Russian president Vladimir Putin once attempted to intimidate Merkel by letting his large hunting dog barge into a meeting (she is reportedly not a dog lover), she didn’t flinch and later joked about it. As a result, he was the one who looked foolish and insecure.”

While I agree that the episode made Putin look foolish and insecure, it is not true that Merkel did not flinch. If you look up that picture from 2007, you will see Merkel clearly frozen in fear. When responding to Putin’s attempt at machismo, Merkel betrayed Putin getting at her at that moment by saying “I understand why he has to do this — to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”

As I said, I understand the central message of this book — that you should trap your ego because it can ruin you. Unfortunately, the presentation almost undermines his argument, as for every anecdote he gives, I can think of another where the opposite is true.

Furthermore, the author makes no attempt to provide a strategy for putting the ego in check. He simply says, “Do it,” and in the last pages, he advises readers to “Do it everyday.”

How helpful is that?

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