Hearing the name “DeLorean” usually calls to mind Doc Brown’s time-traveling car from the movie “Back to the Future.” But that name once represented much more: a promise of what the automotive industry could be.
John DeLorean started the DeLorean Motor Company with plans to revolutionize automobile production, even more than he had during his time as a top executive at General Motors. But when cars started coming off the line with all sorts of issues, the company found itself in trouble — with only DeLorean’s ego to blame, according to Ryan Holiday, author of “Ego is the Enemy.”
The story of DeLorean’s fall from grace, including his attempt to sustain the company by trafficking millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine, exemplifies Holiday’s argument that our egos can get in our way more often than not.
“He would go from shiny thing to shiny thing. He was over-promising, he assumed details would take care of themselves — and they just didn’t,” Holiday said. “Before [his company had] even really gotten off the ground, let alone succeeded ... he was already predicting and celebrating his success.”
Holiday believes we need to control our egos if we want to avoid meeting the same fate as DeLorean.
“Ego is this profound insecurity, this obsession with identity and status and ultimately with dominance over other people,” Holiday said. “Ego is particularly insidious when we start to fail, or when we’re under attack or when we experience some disadvantage because now, ego is whispering that because you’re not being recognized, because you don’t have a lot of money, somehow you’re less than other people.”
Holiday says that ego is often confused with confidence, but while confidence is justified, ego pushes us to overestimate our capabilities.
“People find that a very difficult task, whether it’s being president, or CEO or a professional football player, is now made exceedingly more difficult because they’ve alienated other people [and] they’ve promised things they can’t possibly deliver,” Holiday said.
And our ego problem has only been getting worse, he believes. He argues that a generation ago, we never would have valued ego the way we do today — and the digital age is to blame.
“What we see now culturally is that ego is embodied,” Holiday said. “Because of our culture of reality television, personal branding, marketing and the centrality that fame and attention has in our world, some of these self-promotional vices appear to be virtues to some people.”
"Because of our culture of reality television, personal branding, marketing and the centrality that fame and attention has in our world, some of these self-promotional vices appear to be virtues to some people.”
According to Holiday, this puts our ability to act on principle at risk, especially if it requires going against the grain of public opinion.
“If you need to be validated, if you need to be loved to do what you’re doing, you’re never going to go against the crowd. It requires real strength to make an unpopular decision that you think is in line with your principles,” Holiday said.
Although embrace of the ego seems to be stronger than ever, the issue is an ancient one. Numerous Greek texts, including "The Odyssey," warn against hubris, or excessive pride. But contemporary culture has left us without the tools needed to control that pride.
“The old institutions, whether it’s a notion of civic duty, a sense of honor or a religious faith that talks about pride being a sin, as all of these things have fallen away, we’re lacking some of those defenses … that keep [our egos] in check,” Holiday said.
He believes that those very institutions and philosophies that have waned in popularity may be key to solving our issues with ego.
“We’re looking backwards for guidance,” Holiday said, “because we’re rediscovering constantly how harmful ego can be.”
And whether it’s from Jackie Robinson or Odysseus, Holiday believes we still have a lot to learn.
Eleanor Ho is an intern at Innovation Hub. Follow her on Twitter: @eleanorho_17.