The artist Marina Abramović has said that the moment we begin to believe in our own greatness, that we kill our ability to be truly creative. What she is talking about is ego—the way that self-absorption ruins the very thing it celebrates.
So how do we keep this toxic ego and selfishness at bay? How do we prevent ego from “sucking us down like the law of gravity?” The primary answer is simple: awareness. But after that, it’s a matter of hard work.
In the course of researching Ego is the Enemy I was exposed to many strategies for combatting our arrogant and selfish impulses. Here are 25 proven exercises from successful men and women throughout history that will help you stay sober, clear-headed, creative and humble. They work if you work them.
1. Adopt the beginner’s mindset. “It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows,” Epictetus says. When we let ego tell us that we have arrived and figured it all out, it prevents us from learning. Pick up a book on a subject you know next to nothing about. Walk through a library or a bookstore—remind yourself how much you don’t know.
2. Focus on the effort—not the outcome. With any creative endeavour at some point what we made leaves our hands. We can’t let what happens after that point have any sway over us. We need to remember famous coach John Wooden’s advice: “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” Doing your best is what matters. Focus on that. External rewards are just extra.
3. Choose purpose over passion. Passion runs hot and burns out, while people with purpose—think of it as passion combined with reason—are more dedicated and have control over their direction. Christopher McCandless was passionate when he went “into the wild” but it didn’t work well, right? The inventor of the Segway was passionate. Better to have clear-headed purpose.
4. Shun the comfort of talking and face the work. “Void,” Marlon Brando once said, “is terrifying to most people.” We talk endlessly on social media getting validation and attention with fake internet points avoiding the uncertainty of doing the difficult and frightening work required of any creative endeavour. As creatives we need to shut up and get to work. To face the void—despite the pain of doing so.
5. Kill your pride before you lose your head. “Whom the gods wish to destroy,” Cyril Connolly wrote, “they first call promising.” You cannot let early pride lead you astray. You must remind yourself everyday how much work is left to be done, not how much you have done. You must remember that humility is the antidote to pride.