Hello. Happy Friday. Welcome to today’s blog post, a disjointed reaction to, well, life.
Just the other day I listened to a podcast of “This American Life” all about coincidences. People love coincidences. They make great stories. Coincidentally, the library notified me that a book I had requested had arrived. I had no memory of ordering this book, called Ego is the Enemy, but when I picked it up I saw mention of Eleanor Roosevelt and recalled I was looking for a book with some case studies of successful people. The book is by Ryan Holiday, who used to be the head of American Apparel and now has some kind of creative advisory company. And he lives on a ranch. And he’s about twelve. And his hair is just so. And appropriately, the book’s cover sports a marble bust, headless. Y’know, because it is egoless. Also because he loves a good Greek or Roman term. There were several, which I offer to you. Anteambulo. Euthymia. Sympatheia. I'll get to those.
What tidbits can I learn from this book, I thought to myself. And what can I sarcastically skewer for my readers? And also what can I offer them, besides the chance to pass judgment on a book - or accept its great advice, potentially - without having to read all two hundred-twenty-six pages of it.
So I haven’t yet finished the book, but his main idea is that ego keeps you from real, sustained success. It’s better to keep a student’s mindset - you always have more to learn. Okay, sounds good. And be an anteambulo. What is this anteambulo, you ask, Readers? It's a Roman term. An anteambulo was an artist slash writer with a patron. Ah, the glory days of Roma, when wealthy patrons took on artists and supported them - housed, fed, clothed them - so they could create. In return, the artist was expected to perform tasks for the patron. One of these was anteambulo, which means “one who clears the path.” The anteambulo walked in front of his patron, “making way, communicating messages, and generally making the patron’s life easier.”
Anteambulo. Who knew? I thought under the patronage system the artist just got time to create for free, all expenses paid - so, more than free. But no. No such thing as a free lunch or a free patron.
Holiday’s point is that to succeed, one should be in effect an anteambulo for whomever is one’s boss. He scolds The Youth of Today for lacking humility and expecting to be treated as special and important right from the moment they begin a job, for lacking a work ethic, and on and on. I could do without the scolding, because I doubt it’s true. But what he says about being the person who clears the way, the person who makes her boss look good, the person who is willing to focus and work without worrying whether she gets full credit immediately being key to success reminded me of Adam Grant’s philosophy of givers and takers.
Like Grant, Holiday says the most successful people are givers. Although Adam Grant says that while the most successful people are the givers, the least successful are also givers. So too much headless, egoless way-clearing can go wrong. Both of them are talking about people who manage to achieve goals and sustain them and the rest of their lives, too, as opposed to the spectacular successes who then undo their achievements in spectacular ways. Howard Hughes is one example. Apparently he was really a disaster. The only money he managed to keep was the money he amassed from the businesses his father started - which he left alone because they bored him.
Holiday’s message is to keep focused on what is important and not to give way to entitlement, control-seeking, or paranoia. Those are symptoms of ego and they take you down. People can get to be very successful by “raw power and force of will.” Those things unchecked, however, can cause them to destroy their success. To sustain success requires returning to the more humble, head-down, purpose-focused approach to life.
So I think about my life. Am I an anteambulo? Perhaps that is my role in my little family. As the mother. I don't do a lot of literal sweeping, but figuratively, I sweep and clear the path for everyone. If so, I would have to say that sometimes the anteambulo’s work is all-consuming and the art creation slackens. But after reading this book, I think perhaps the creative work lags more due to lack of euthymia, or sense of purpose or path and a little too much ego. I suffer from almost all the evils Holiday lists: envy, fear, desire. These things do indeed get in the way and they are indeed all about me, me, me, and they do obscure my purpose sometimes.
To proceed ego-free, know your values. Yes, that plank in the scaffolding of success comes up in this book, too. Ryan says, “‘Man is pushed by drives, Viktor Frankl observed. ‘But he is pulled by values.’ Without the right values, success is brief.” Without the right values, success is brief.
Without the right values, according to Holiday, ego takes over, leading to paranoia, control-seeking, aka being a control freak, and entitlement, all of which blind you to your own mistakes and prevent you from correcting course with input from others when needed. He offers anecdotes about all kinds of prominent successes who went on to destroy their lives, from Ulysses S. Grant to Nixon to the the maker of the Delorean. And he offers a few counter-examples of people who managed to avoid the ego trap, such as General Sherman and Katherine Graham of the Washington Post.
All of this drips with pertinence these days, but time will have to bear out the truth of these assertions in regards to the Orange One.
Another plank in the scaffolding he touches on is focusing on the present. That means staying focused on the purpose of the work - being anteambulo as well as creator. It also means taking time to center yourself by putting yourself in perspective. “Meditate on the immensity” of the universe, or the ocean or the mountains or sky. Something that reminds you that you are a small person compared to the vastness of the world.
I don’t really have a problem with that. Okay, that’s actually an untruth. I do have a problem with that. Those moments when I realize how very, very insignificant my one little self is in the whole shebang - history, the world, the universe, you name it - are the moments that could go either way for me. One way would be Ryan Holiday’s way, the way of feeling sympatheia (more Greek philosophy for you), or connected to the cosmos in an uplifting way; the other is to become overwhelmed by my own insignificance and inevitable erasure from existence and fall into existential despair.
I suppose Ryan Holiday would point out that the fear comes from grasping on to ego. If you can let go of the need to prove your importance to yourself or anybody else, I guess it becomes a lot easier to keep going forward, no matter what happens.
So I said it was a coincidence that this book I had forgotten about ordering arrived at the library. It wasn’t much of a coincidence, after all. It was more serendipitous. It arrived at a good moment, provided distraction when I needed it, and revealed a message that could not help but make me - and I hope you, Readers - feel reassured. Even though the flamboyant and seemingly successful among us cause us distress, history usually takes care of them. Until then, we do our work, we clear the way for a better future, and we remember that proceeding with purpose is the way to success.