I recently read Ryan Holiday’s new book Ego Is the Enemy. I found it a fascinating read, filled with insight on how to achieve what we want without losing sight of who we are. He uses historical figures to illustrate his points: this one remained true to himself, allowing his name to fade after his greatest triumph, while this one clung to fame, trying one plan after another and ultimately soiling what could have been a stellar reputation.
I find Holiday’s writing speaks to me in a way many writers’ work doesn’t; based on the ideas of Stoic philosophers, his books ask questions of me that I want to answer. And the central question of Ego Is the Enemy, the question I want to answer for myself, is this:
Do you want to be somebody, or do something?
There are those of us who work hard to get into the public eye and stay there as long as they can. These folks seem not to care much what they have to do to keep our attention, as long as they have it; they give us forgettable movies, reality show drama, press conferences in which they reveal little but tease that something big might be coming. They entertain us, divert us with their antics, make sure that when we talk about other people, they’re the ones we’re talking about.
Then there are those who fix their attention on accomplishing some impossible goal, who pursue it whether or not anybody is paying attention, who when they notice us watching tell us to go away and let them work. They often accomplish their goal–and when they do, they look around for someone to tell and find most of us are staring at the attention-seekers.
Most of us, of course, fall between these extremes. A little attention from time to time is a good thing, but we’d rather have it because we accomplished something good, because we did something worth noticing that helped people in some way. Attention in that case seems right, and good, and well-deserved, and if we don’t get it, we feel cheated. Let me share this great thing I did becomes Hey! Look at me!
It’s a kindergarten classroom on the scale of a society, and our celebrity-obsessed culture rewards it.
I want to work hard. I want my work to mean something to people. I want your life to be better because I shared my words with you. I do not want to become the kid in the corner jumping up and down and screaming because the teacher won’t look at him.
So if I must choose, I will choose to follow Holiday’s advice. It’s the work that’s important. It’s what I’ve accomplished, what I will accomplish, that’s worthy of your attention. I will remember that, and when the kid starts jumping, I’ll give him a cookie and tell him to take a seat.
Because I would much rather do something than be somebody.