Me vs My Ego

Alex Yang
7 min readJan 20, 2024
Photo by Danny Howe on Unsplash

A friend recently showed me his bookshelf and I found myself gravitating towards Ego Is The Enemy by Ryan Holiday. Something about the idea of ego interested me. I knew it was something that had gotten me in trouble in the past, but it was also one of those things where I was too lazy to address proactively.

What I love most about a book is when reading the words make me instantly think about moments in my life that were relevant to what was written. It can help me realize a past mistake I made, remind me of something I wanted to improve on but forgot about, and help me also see why certain situations ended up not working out. With Ego Is The Enemy, I now see how ego was accompanying me all throughout my life, in the passenger seat posing as my fake best friend. There are a lot of different stories where ego has really affected me, but I want to focus on one particular story.

I’m sitting at the End of the Year gala for all student-athletes at my university. I’m in my senior year and all my teammates in my graduating class just went up on stage to take a photo and we all even got lululemon duffel bags as our senior gifts. Should be a great time, right? But I was actually feeling miserable for most of the event and afterwards. I was miserable because presenters went one by one announcing awards for all the student athletes, and I just watched as I didn’t win a single one of those awards. At the time I don’t think I really could’ve explained why I felt so down. Now I know that my ego was sitting comfortably right next to me the entire gala, casting a dark cloud over myself.

Ryan Holiday says in the beginning pages of Ego Is The Enemy that ego is the voice that tells us that we’re better than we really are. It soothes fear and insecurity. If I had to make an additional note to that, ego also exposes some of our worst insecurities that we have about ourselves.

I’ve had an interesting journey as a tennis player. During high school it was all I did besides school and as a result I thought that my identity was basically being a tennis player. How I felt about my self-worth was heavily staked on my results and how I did in my matches. As a kid I was motivated to win matches not for the sake of improvement and bettering myself, but because I needed the win to feel good about myself as a person. Research has found how the more complex our sense of self, the more resilient we are to stress and adversity. My sense of self was as simple as could be: tennis player. When I lost, Alex sucked as a person. When I won, Alex was the man. What this inadvertently led to was a need to also be recognized by others as a good tennis player. I wanted to be praised, especially by people in my high school, even those who knew nothing about tennis. The end result of this desire was that I never felt praised enough, intensifying the feeling that I wasn’t good enough.

This desire to be praised was due to my ego, falsely telling me that getting compliments from others was the most special part of improving at tennis. When left ignored I guess this unfulfilled desire festered all throughout college up until that night at the student-athlete gala. No awards, no special recognition, nothing. People typically think of someone with a big ego as someone who’s loud and arrogant. Ego doesn’t come in one shape and size. Ego can also exist for those who are proud but quiet. I never outwardly claimed to want recognition and from the outside no one probably would have ever guessed that about me, but deep down I wanted glory and praise badly. I was obsessed with my own importance. That’s ego.

There are two cold hard truths about this situation. One, I didn’t deserve to be recognized, at least not for my athletic achievement. Ego tells us that we’re the greatest. Ego is stolen, while confidence is earned. I had an average tennis career at my school. I had an atrocious doubles record, and in singles I lost many matches that cost my team. I didn’t have the hallmarks of an All-American. I got All-Conference one year. But part of me still felt that I should’ve been recognized more. I felt miserable during a moment that should’ve been joyful because my ego told me I deserved more than I actually should’ve.

The second cold hard truth is that failure is a part of life. As Holiday mentions in his book — life isn’t fair, and good people fail all the time. Just because I worked hard and was an above average recruit coming out of high school doesn’t mean I was entitled to a hall of fame career at NYU. I had a pretty good junior season, and in my senior season I had hopes of doing even better. In my senior year, I had improved my diet to the best it had ever been and worked out more than I did in my junior year. And then I ended up doing way worse than I could’ve imagined. I had failed. So thinking that I should’ve been recognized more when in reality I’d actually done worse made no sense whatsoever. The gap in logic is a wide space created by the powerful forces of ego.

However, related to these two sobering truths are other realities that gave me more reason to believe in myself and move forward with optimism.

For the first truth, I certainly didn’t deserve to be recognized for my athletic achievements, but there were other things that I did to try and help our tennis program. As a captain, I took time to help the underclassmen with their school and tennis and establish a culture of hard work within our team. I poured a lot of effort into making sure we were doing the right things as a team and making sure everyone around me felt supported and had the best chance to succeed as an individual. I think in my evening of disappointment at the student-athlete gala I had become so obsessed with external validation that I forgot about my own standards that were important to me. Holiday calls this your own ‘scoreboard.’ I had completely ignored the fact that my own scoreboard should’ve included not just my wins and losses as a player but how well I led and helped my teammates. And reflecting now, the latter was actually more personally important to me and what I’ll remember most about being part of my school’s team. At this point now I would’ve long forgotten about some award I got, and I now see how ego made me want something that wouldn’t have even made me happier in the long run. As Holiday writes, “A person who judges himself based on his own standards doesn’t crave the spotlight the same way as someone who lets applause dictate success.”

From the second truth, reading Holiday has helped me to see that even in failure, the effort to become great and attempt to win is not in vain. It’s incredibly important. When I was a junior tennis player, I remember losing close matches and sitting on the bench by the court wondering why I even would bother training and putting in all this time if I was just going to lose every close match. It was certainly a thought that came up in the heat of the moment, but it was a genuine one and one that haunted me if I was having a streak of bad tournament results. This thought is unfortunately ego getting in the way, telling us that only results matter. There’s only so much control that we have over results.

For me there were a ton of insights that came out of Ego is The Enemy, so it’s hard to distill them down into simple recommendations. But for those like me who are looking to reduce ego in their life by even just the smallest bit, I would suggest putting an incredible amount of focus into the work you do and to reflect upon what matters to you, whether your focus in life right now is sports, work, family, health, or something else. In reading a book like Holiday’s it’s easy to see all the mistakes that you might’ve made regarding ego in the past, so you might think “don’t do this” or “don’t do that to feed your ego.” It’s hard to not do something, it’s easier to do. So I think in taming ego it’s important to maybe take a few minutes to write down what’s important to you in your life right now, and come back to those things every week or so. Hopefully by focusing on just those few things that you’ve written down, you’ll find yourself naturally thinking less about attention and credit. Become more intentional about the work you do, enjoy the process, and always find ways to improve on the next rep, point, project, or time that you spend time with family or friends.



Alex Yang

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