FOR WHAT OFTEN COMES NEXT, EGO IS THE ENEMY

 

Chapter 19

 FOR WHAT OFTEN COMES NEXT, EGO IS THE ENEMY . . .


The evidence is in, and you are the verdict.

—ANNE LAMOTT

Here you are at the pinnacle. What have you found? Just how tough and tricky it is to manage. You thought it would get easier when you arrived; instead, it’s even harder—a different animal entirely. What you found is that you must manage yourself in order to maintain your success.

   The philosopher Aristotle was not unfamiliar with the worlds of ego and power and empire. His most famous pupil was Alexander the Great, and partially through Aristotle’s teachings, the young man conquered the entire known world. Alexander was brave and brilliant and often generous and wise. Still, it’s clear that he ignored Aristotle’s most important lesson—and that’s partially why he died at age thirty-two, far from home, likely killed by his own men, who had finally said, “Enough.”

   It’s not that he was wrong to have great ambitions. Alexander just never grasped Aristotle’s “golden mean”—that is, the middle ground. Repeatedly, Aristotle speaks of virtue and excellence as points along a spectrum. Courage, for instance, lies between cowardice on one end and recklessness on the other. Generosity, which we all admire, must stop short of either profligacy and parsimony in order to be of any use. Where the line—this golden mean—is can be difficult to tell, but without finding it, we risk dangerous extremes. This is why it is so hard to be excellent, Aristotle wrote. “In each case, it is hard work to find the intermediate; for instance, not everyone, but only one who knows, finds the midpoint in a circle.”

   We can use the golden mean to navigate our ego and our desire to achieve.

   Endless ambition is easy; anyone can put their foot down hard on the gas. Complacency is easy too; it’s just a matter of taking that foot off the gas. We must avoid what the business strategist Jim Collins terms the “undisciplined pursuit of more,” as well as the complacency that comes with plaudits. To borrow from Aristotle again, what’s difficult is to apply the right amount of pressure, at the right time, in the right way, for the right period of time, in the right car, going in the right direction.

   If we don’t do this, the consequences can be dire.

   There is a line from Napoleon, who, like Alexander, died miserably. He said, “Men of great ambition have sought happiness . . . and have found fame.” What he means is that behind every goal is the drive to be happy and fulfilled—but when egotism takes hold, we lose track of our goal and end up somewhere we never intended. Emerson, in his famous essay on Napoleon, takes pains to point out that just a few years after his death, Europe was essentially exactly as it was before Napoleon began his precipitous rise. All that death, that effort, that greed, and those honors—for what? For basically nothing. Napoleon, he wrote, quickly faded away, just like the smoke from his artillery.

   Howard Hughes—despite his current reputation as some kind of bold maverick—was not a happy man, no matter how awesome his life may seem from history or movies. When he was near death, one of his aides sought to reassure a suffering Hughes. “What an incredible life you have led,” the aide said. Hughes shook his head and replied with the sad, emphatic honesty of someone whose time has clearly come, “If you had ever swapped places in life with me, I would be willing to bet that you would have demanded to swap back before the passage of the first week.”

   We do not have to follow in those footsteps. We know what decisions we must make to avoid that ignominious, even pathetic end: protecting our sobriety, eschewing greed and paranoia, staying humble, retaining our sense of purpose, connecting to the larger world around us.

   Because even if we manage ourselves well, prosperity holds no guarantees. The world conspires against us in many ways, and the laws of nature say that everything regresses toward the mean. In sports, the schedule gets harder after a winning season, the bad teams get better draft picks, and the salary cap makes it tough to keep a team together. In life, taxes go up the more you make, and the more obligations society foists on you. The media is harder on those it has covered before. Rumors and gossip are the cost of renown: He’s a drunk. She’s gay. He’s a hypocrite. She’s a bitch. The crowd roots for the underdog, and roots against the winners.

   These are just facts of life. Who can afford to add denial to all that? Instead of letting power make us delusional and instead of taking what we have for granted, we’d be better to spend our time preparing for the shifts of fate that inevitably occur in life. That is, adversity, difficulty, failure.

   Who knows—maybe a downturn is exactly what’s coming next. Worse, maybe you caused it. Just because you did something once, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it successfully forever.

   Reversals and regressions are as much a part of the cycle of life as anything else.

   But we can manage that too.




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