“Our narratives are self-serving. They either make us much better than we actually are or they make us the victim in a way that we probably weren’t.”
Scott Barry Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, the scientific director of The Imagination Institute, and the author of Ungifted and Wired to Create. He recently hosted Ryan Holiday, former director of marketing for American Apparel, leading media strategist, and author of five books including Ego is the Enemy, on The Psychology Podcast. The two discussed meaningful action, self-transcendence, and the burden of an inflated ego.
Scott: You worked with Tucker Max and Dov [Charney, former American Apparel CEO]. They undoubtedly had, at least at one point, a huge ego. Have you seen a growth trajectory there?
Ryan: Tucker is very different than when I met him. He has a family, and he runs a company. Dov, I’m not close with anymore.
What I saw was what a burden [their ego] actually was. It motivated them to take huge risks that paid off, but I mostly saw that ego as a negative force. I was fighting against Tucker’s ego so that he wouldn’t do something stupid, or I would be fighting his presupposition about a person that he’d never met. As an advisor, marketer, employee, and partner, I was exhausted battling other people’s egos. It’s almost like a superhuman force. It’s not rational at all.
Scott: The main point of your book is that battling your own ego is exhausting, too.
Ryan: Of course. I’ve spent a lot of time [wondering] if I’ve picked up some of their bad habits. It’s like if you were the child of an alcoholic, you’re going to pick up certain habits both biologically and culturally.
Scott: There are a lot of things you wrote that are very beautifully worded: “Find out why you’re after what you’re after. Ignore those who mess with your pace. Let them covet what you have, not the other way around, because that’s independence.”
The great humanistic psychologists in the ’50s and ’60s, like Rollo May and Abraham Maslow, described being inwardly free as the ultimate of life. You’re striking that chord there.
Ryan: Have you heard of the band Lucius? They have this song with a line that says, “There is no race. There’s only a runner.” I think about it that way. If you think that you’re in a race with all these other people, then you have to measure whether you’re beating them or not, and you have to keep pace.
In college I would run around this dirt track. Then this other guy started running, and I could tell that he was racing me. I’m competitive, and I wanted to race against him. [But] then I realized, “I’ve already been running for three miles. If I keep pace with this person, I don’t know when he’s going to quit. I don’t know how long he’s been running before.”
If you [decide to] randomly compete with people because they’re in proximity to you, that’s a recipe for totally burning yourself out or making a big mistake. You’re lacking all the context you need to make that decision.
“Imagination is essential, but if it stops with imagination, then what good was it?”
Scott: Absolutely. Lin-Manuel Miranda from Hamilton once said something like, “I wasn’t necessarily the smartest kid in school, but I picked a lane that I knew I could run fast in, and I just ran.”
Scott: You also write: “Ego is a wicked sister of success.”
Ryan: Ego manifests itself differently depending on what you do. The egotism of a loser is going to be very different than the egotism of a billionaire. If you become successful and talk about your own greatness all the time, other people will tell you that same thing. In that way, success can breed egotism or compound those illusions that you already have about yourself.
Scott: Next one: “A person’s job is to create work. An idea is not enough. The hard thing isn’t dreaming big.”
Ryan: Imagination is essential, but if it stops with imagination, then what good was it?
Scott: You’re saying imagination is still good, but when it’s not coupled with reality at all, not constantly being tested, it can be a problem.
Ryan: That’s a huge part of it, because people can live in this fantasy world, but also, if you’re not putting work behind it, that’s a problem. There’s half a million books published last year because of self-publishing, but many millions of people thought they had a great book idea. Only half a million of them actually did it.
Scott: It’s coupled with your whole idea of “Be less and do more.” What do you mean by “being,” and how does that differ from “doing”?
Ryan: That chapter is based on John Boyd’s “To Do or To Be” speech. Most people have no idea who John Boyd was, but he transformed the armed forces. He shepherded the F-15 and the F-16 through. He was the genius behind the grand strategy of the first Gulf War. He was a brilliant mind who influenced a lot of people directly and also set up this network of proteges that had an immense amount of influence. He wasn’t concerned with rank or kissing asses or getting attention. He was focused on the doing rather than the getting credit or the rewards of doing.
“Work addiction is rooted in both insecurity and ego at the same time.”
Scott: In school, a lot of kids are labeled as gifted–that’s a “being” thing. You’re gifted. It doesn’t say anything about what you’ve actually done in the world. For a lot of adults, that’s still a strong part of their identity. But people tend to appreciate what you actually do.
Here’s another quote: “Ego tells us that meaning comes from activity. That being the center of attention is the only way to matter.” Is this something that you discovered when you started learning more about what the functioning ego is?
Ryan: This came from my own struggle. It’s really hard for me to do nothing, to just sit there and feel good about myself. But if I’m working on something, all of that emptiness or doubt or insecurity goes away. Work addiction is rooted in both insecurity and ego at the same time. [The fear is that if] I stop doing, especially doing something I’m good at, I will be nothing, and everyone will forget about me, and I will be worthless.
Scott: You [also] say, “Ego blocks us from the beauty and history in the world.”
Ryan: If you go to some Civil War battlefield or beautiful national park, what do you see? A bunch of people on their cell phones, not paying attention. We become detached from the world around us because we’re focused on our email or bickering with someone or whatever. We deny how ephemeral life is and how vulnerable we are by focusing on modern shit. We don’t like to be humbled by nature, so we avoid it.
You walk through the Redwood Forest in Northern California, and you see a bunch of trees that are five times older than you will ever be. It reminds you of how inconsequential you are.
But most people don’t seek that experience out. Our modern lives are a denial of that feeling. We predict the weather. We live in safe housing. We can turn on the air conditioner when it gets hot. We have insulated ourselves from nature, but the fact that the world is relatively indifferent to our existence is an inherently humbling idea that not a lot of people contemplate.
Scott: A lot of astronauts describe what’s called the “overview effect,” [which seems like] the ultimate humbleness. It’s looking at your whole planet as a little pin drop, a little dot. Research suggests it causes an entire shift in your perspective of yourself and your ego.
Ryan: I’m fascinated by the overview effect. An astronaut was alone in the space station, and he took this photo of Earth. Someone said, “Literally everyone who’s alive on Earth is in this photo except the guy taking it.” How humbling and crazy is that?
Scott: “There was no grand narrative. You should remember you were there when it happened.” I love that quote. Can you unpack it a little bit?
Ryan: In retrospect, you can create clarity out of events. Coaches talk about this. You can look at the fact that you won and say, “We won for these reasons.” What you never seem to do is say, “Hey, remember when that ref blew that call in the third quarter? We wouldn’t be here if that hadn’t happened, so all of this is not our doing.”
Our narratives are self-serving. They either make us much better than we actually are or they make us the victim in a way that we probably weren’t.
[It might be] Daniel Gilbert who says that one of the beauties of cognitive dissonance is that whatever you’re anxious about, if it actually happens, your mind will find some rationalization for it. Maybe there actually will be things to regret, but your mind won’t let you feel the regret that you’re dreading.
“Ambition is tying yourself to something you don’t control. Sanity is tying your happiness to your own actions.”
Scott: You’re right, it’s called “affective forecasting.” Laura King has done research showing that the people who regret things their whole life and people who don’t have both had the same amount of regretful experiences, but the difference is that [those without regret] have actually quantified it. They have made meaning out of all the trials and tribulations in a way that makes them okay with it.
I’ve been [reading about] research on something called “the quiet ego.” When they experimentally manipulate humility, people fear death less. That’s a direct test of this idea that narcissism is associated with your fear of death.
You talk about the difference between alive time and dead time. That’s something that one of your mentors taught you, right?
Ryan: Yeah, that’s from Robert Greene. It was when I was thinking about leaving American Apparel. I had about a year left, and Robert said, “Look. This year can be alive time for you or dead time. You can get every second out of this, and you can use the benefits of your position to meet people, develop relationships, do research, and learn. Or you can just sort of ride this year out.”
It was great advice, but you don’t just apply it to, “Hey, I signed a four-year contract with the Marines, and I’ve got a year left.” It’s also, “I’m stuck in traffic,” or “My friend was supposed to meet me at four o’clock, and they just texted me to say they’re not going to be here before 4:45.” What are you going to do with those 45 minutes? Are you going to play Angry Birds on your phone, or are you going to read a book or make a phone call or go for a walk?
Scott: I’m very aware that life is short and that we need to maximize our time, but I find that I can get too obsessed with that. Like, “Oh wow. I have a full day free. Well, that means I can write four blog posts and five journal articles,” as opposed to actually getting pleasure. There are things I miss, like watching stupid movies. I think I can get too addicted to meaning.
Ryan: I agree with that, the idea that you have to squeeze every productive second out of every minute. [But] you’ve got to understand that the body is not a machine. Actually, even machines can overheat and break down if you don’t treat them well.
Scott: That’s good justification for binge watching on Netflix.
What’s the difference between ambition and sanity?
Ryan: Marcus Aurelius says that ambition is tying yourself to other people. If want to do something or be recognized, like become a general or a senator, that requires other people doing what you want. Someone has to grant you that position. You have to be elected. He’s saying ambition is tying yourself to something you don’t control. Sanity is tying your happiness to your own actions.
For instance, my book is out this week. If I tie my happiness to working hard and writing a book that I’m proud of, that is sanity. Tying it to whether it hits the New York Times bestseller list or sells an arbitrary number of copies is insanity, because I don’t control those things.
Scott: That really strikes to the heart of what this book is all about. What do we really care about in life? Do we care about living forever, about our ego living forever? Or [do we care about] working to help the world for as long as possible?
Ryan: There is a certain amount of ego in those people who lust for posthumous fame. Like, “I need generations to hear my name forever.” The stoics are like, “What do you care? You’re dead.” Alexandria is named after Alexander the Great. But he’s dead, so he has no idea that it still exists. What does matter is what he did in his own life.
Scott: And when you take the ego out of the equation, you have a greater likelihood of making an impact on the world.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To hear the entire discussion, check out The Psychology Podcast.