Do You Have to Be a Jerk to Be Successful?

Why the pervasive myth of the malcontent genius is harmful to our own creative development.

Confidence is based on what is real—it is earned. Pexels

We all have goals: We want to matter. We want to be important. We want to have freedom and power to pursue our creative work. We want respect from our peers and recognition for our accomplishments. Not out of vanity or selfishness, but of an earnest desire to fulfill our personal potential.

While we hold up humility as an admirable trait, the problem is that we’re not sure it can get us to the goals above. We are petrified as the Reverend Dr. Sam Wells put it, that if we are humble, we will end up “subjugated, trodden on, embarrassed, and irrelevant.”

I’ve spent the last two years working on a book about ego, and I’ve heard some version of this paradox from many people. They would nod vigorously in agreement with me that ego was bad, that it destroyed creativity and happiness, that they knew plenty of toxic egomaniacs who had wrecked themselves. And then they would say, “But a little bit of ego is still important though, right?”

Even people who despise ego and aspire to humility, who plan to be humble once they are successful, are worried that actually enacting those beliefs would sentence them to a life of obscurity or weakness or failure.

A little bit of ego is still important though, right?

Allow me to address that fear right now: One does not need to be an egotistical asshole to be successful. In fact, this is one of the most misleading and destructive myths in all of Western culture, right next to the idea that one must be a drug addict to be a successful musician or starving to produce great art.

The idea that only the swaggering, all-knowing, and ruthlessly ambitious succeed is a lie. One that has discouraged so many people with so much potential—and worse, encouraged many more to crash and burn.

History bears shows the truth. For every Douglas MacArthur or George McClellan, brilliant but laughably convinced of their own greatness and power, there is a George Marshall, a general who accomplished far more (far more quietly) and coveted far less credit along the way. For every Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian (who while successful are also spoiled and entitled), there is a Katharine Graham, who was born into greater wealth and did far more with it.

Ego is certainly there in many of the greatest and most dizzying tales of success—but it’s there in some of the greatest stories of failure and self-implosion as well. Howard Hughes. John DeLorean. Ty Warner. Lance Armstrong. Richard Nixon.

What is “ego”? Why is it bad?

When creative people warn against ego, they aren’t relying on Freud’s definition or any psychiatric diagnosis. They are using the colloquial definition—referring to the dangerous inflection point where our notion of ourselves and the world grows so strong that it begins to distort the reality which surrounds us. When, as the football coach Bill Walsh explained, “self-confidence becomes arrogance, assertiveness becomes obstinacy, and self-assurance becomes reckless abandon.” It is this belief in our own greatness or specialness that can undo our creative abilities.

The reasons why ego is a career-killer instead of the killer-advantage people tell themselves it might be are two-fold:

First, the essence of creativity is a deep and continuous connection to the world around you. To product lasting and meaningful work, one must understand themselves, other people and their craft—not delusionally but intuitively. If ego is the voice that tells us we’re better than we really are, we can say ego inhibits artistic expression by preventing a direct and honest connection to the world around us. So the artist must possess a certain amount of realism because that realism is critical to great art, great writing, great design, great business, great marketing, and great leadership.

Ego inhibits artistic expression by preventing a direct and honest connection to the world around us.

From this connection and understanding stem all the other important parts of the puzzle—for instance, we cannot reflect truth if we’re incapable of seeing any. We cannot take or receive feedback if we are too conceited to hear it or if our own reality overpowers the objective standards we need to measure ourselves against. We cannot connect with others if our attitude and approach pushes them away—or pushes us above them. We cannot recognize opportunities—or create them—if instead of seeing what is in front of us, we live inside our own fantasy. We cannot be truly confident unless we have an accurate accounting of our own abilities. And we certainly cannot relate to, reach, motivate or compel other people to follow our lead if we’re not able to grasp their deepest and often hidden human needs.

One of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous defined ego as “a conscious separation from.” From what? Everything and everyone—especially our audience. In other words, you can get too wrapped up in your own head.

In his recent exploration of what makes for bad art, Toby Little, put it well when he said, “Bad writing is almost always a love poem addressed by the self to the self.” Ego blocks us from hearing that. Even works of fantastical fiction and surrealism require not only knowledge of human nature and truth, but in the course of their execution will require the artist to receive, evaluate and integrate feedback if they hope to successfully deliver their message. A creative can’t get better or learn if they think they’re already perfect. Which is why we find that when it comes to the art itself—despite any bluster and marketing—the artist must be humble and dedicated and open.

Second, managing a creative career requires a connection to one’s audience as well as a network of relationships with managers, clients, bookers, agents, and other industry personnel. Ego makes the management of these relationships and the cultivation of this audience difficult, if not impossible over the long term. There is an almost unbelievable scene told in Zac Bissonnette’s fascinating biography of Ty Warner, the creative and marketing genius behind the billion dollar Beanie Baby empire. At the peak of the toy’s popularity, Warner decided to abruptly discontinue selling Beanie Babies to sell Beanie “Kids” instead. Everyone around him told him these new toys were ugly, that he was making an enormous mistake. Fearing his wrath, most employees stopped challenging him (and when they did he’d say “Who’s the billionaire here?”) On the eve of the launch, one trusted advisor stood up to him, predicting failure for this new product. Ty’s response: “I could put the Ty heart on manure and they’d buy it!” he told them.

Needless to say, “they” did not buy them. The same behavior that propelled Ty Warner to massive success also propelled him right through and out of it—in fact, he narrowly avoided going to jail just a few years later. John DeLorean, the brilliant engineer and car designer followed a similar trajectory. He was brilliant creatively, but no amount of brilliance could compensate for the destructiveness of his ego. It was ego and his inability to work well with others that drove him out of General Motors. His ego mired his new company in chaos and dysfunction. Ultimately, instead of being able to reflect on these failures and resolve them, he hatched a plan to save his company from insolvency with a $60 million dollar cocaine deal instead of, you know, anything but that.

He hatched a plan to save his company from insolvency with a $60 million dollar cocaine deal.

When people say “But a little bit of ego is a good thing,” they’ve considered the matter only superficially. What they mean is that success requires a certain confidence, a faith in oneself—and in that they are correct. But it’s critical that we make the distinction between confidence and ego.

The mixed martial arts pioneer and UFC pioneer Frank Shamrock has observed that of the two, only confidence can bear weight. “Confidence is important,” he said, “But ego is something false. Humility is the way to build confidence, and ego is hugely dangerous in this sport, because if you’re running on ego you aren’t running on good clean emotions or cause and effect. You bypass it to support a false idea. It’s all garbage, the ego is garbage.”

Confidence is based on what is real—it is earned. Ego is based on delusion and wishful thinking—it is artifice. Confidence doesn’t alienate us from others. On the contrary, it allows us to relate to others better—because it has removed insecurity and fear from the equation. When you are confident you can be empathetic and vulnerable. Ego makes us an asshole. Confidence—as anyone who has ever stepped foot into any martial arts studio can tell you—has the opposite effect. Confidence is calm, compassionate, curious, careful. That is: it is all the things one needs to be creative.

And yet, we hold onto the vestige of the idea that ego is something worth retaining. We tell ourselves that we need a certain brashness to succeed, why? Fear. Pursuing great work—whether it is in sports or art or business—is often terrifying. Ego soothes that fear. It’s a salve to that insecurity. Replacing the rational and aware parts of our psyche with bluster and self-absorption, ego tells us what we want to hear, when we want to hear it.

It is a short term fix with a long term consequence. Because we know how those stories end.

Not happily. Not with cheering crowds but with jeering boos. And self-loathing. And disgrace. And self-implosion.

Think Lance Armstrong training for the 1999 Tour de France or Barry Bonds debating whether to walk into the BALCO clinic. We flirt with arrogance and deceit and in the process, grossly overstate the importance of winning at all costs. Everyone is juicing, the ego says to us, you should too. There’s no way to beat them without it, we think.

Which is why we must resist the impulse towards ego in our creative pursuits. We must suppress it early on so that we can learn and work and not be distracted. When we experience success, we must learn to replace the temptations of ego with humility and discipline. Finally, we must cultivate strength, fortitude and our own standards so that when fate turns, we’re not wrecked by failure.

To put that briefly:

  • Humble in our aspirations
  • Gracious in our success
  • Resilient in our failures

Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living. Visit the Daily Stoic website for more information and sign up for a free 7 Day Stoic Starter Pack. He is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and you can subscribe to his posts via email. He lives in Austin, Texas.