Pete Carroll’s Book Recommendations

Illustration by Jack Kurzenknabe

When I mentor folks, or even in my client work, I emphasize the context of decision making. Too often people look at the end result of someone’s performance, or a flashy title–they see the external outcomes.

It’s an illusion. What matters is someone’s internal processing. When people are looking outside of themselves for advice, common questions include:

  • Looking for guidance on how to get to the next level? Who do you look to?
  • See someone who’s career or life situation looks appealing? How did they get there?
  • Want to learn a skill that someone else is good at? How did they learn what they know?

It’s so important to understand their influences, beliefs, and underlying values. If you are looking at a leadership figure for advice, ask what they read. It can give you a lot of insight into how they think, what motivates them, and how they define success.

The Road to Character by David Brooksvia USAToday. The book draws upon historical figures like Dorothy Day, George Marshall, Augustine, George Eliot, and President Dwight Eisenhower to show how selfless qualities sometimes considered to be old-fashioned in today’s individualistic society can lead to a greater good. The common thread in each tale is a humbling triumph. In each path, however, there first comes rock bottom.

It has affected my language in almost everything I tell them about leadership and serving each other.

Grit by Angela Duckworth.via The Next Big Idea Club This book is a great read for anyone interested in psychology and personal development. Grit describes what creates outstanding achievements, based on science, interviews with high achievers from various fields and the personal history of success of the author, Angela Duckworth, uncovering that achievement isn’t reserved for the talented only, but for those with passion and perseverance.

In terms of being resilient, we can find ways to instill resilience by training people to believe that they have abilities that allow them to maintain hope. The reason you bounce back is because you know you have a chance and you believe.

Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success by John Wooden. via The News Tribune When it comes down to it, success is an equal opportunity player. Anyone can create it in his or her career, family, and beyond. Based on John Wooden’s own method to victory, Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success reveals that success is built block by block, where each block is a crucial principle contributing to lifelong achievement in every area of life. Each of these 32 daily readings takes an in-depth look at a single block of the pyramid, which when combined with the other blocks forms the structure of the pyramid of success. Join John Wooden and Jay Carty to discover the building blocks and key values–from confidence to faith–that have brought Coach to the pinnacle of success as a leader, a teacher, and a follower of God.

In the bottom-right corner as a foundation of his “Pyramid of Success” for leaders and coaches, Wooden wrote: “Enthusiasm: Brushes off upon those with whom you come in contact. You must truly enjoy what you are doing.”

The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey. via Sports Illustrated  With more than 800,000 copies sold since it was first published thirty years ago, this phenomenally successful guide has become a touchstone for hundreds of thousands of people. Not just for tennis players, or even just for athletes in general, this handbook works for anybody who wants to improve his or her performance in any activity, from playing music to getting ahead at work. W. Timothy Gallwey, a leading innovator in sports psychology, reveals how to

  • focus your mind to overcome nervousness, self-doubt, and distractions
  • find the state of “relaxed concentration” that allows you to play at your best
  • build skills by smart practice, then put it all together in match play

Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, Gallwey’s engaging voice, clear examples, and illuminating anecdotes will give you the tools you need to succeed. “Habits are statements about the past, and the past is gone.” (page 74)

The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday–via Sports Illustrated The book draws its inspiration from stoicism, the ancient Greek philosophy of enduring pain or adversity with perseverance and resilience. Stoics focus on the things they can control, let go of everything else, and turn every new obstacle into an opportunity to get better, stronger, tougher. As Marcus Aurelius put it nearly 2000 years ago: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Ryan Holiday shows us how some of the most successful people in history—from John D. Rockefeller to Amelia Earhart to Ulysses S. Grant to Steve Jobs—have applied stoicism to overcome difficult or even impossible situations. Their embrace of these principles ultimately mattered more than their natural intelligence, talents, or luck.


Avoiding loss is an easier starting point than seeking gain.

Simon Ramo, an engineer, businessman, and author, wrote a neat little book that most people probably haven’t heard of: Extraordinary Tennis Ordinary Players.

I’m not a huge tennis follower. The reason this book is interesting to me is that Ramo highlights the difference between the Winner’s Game and a Loser’s Game adopting the lens of pro v amateur.

Some amateurs believe they are professionals but professionals never identify as amateurs. Both play by the same rules and scoring, use the same court, and sometimes even the same equipment.

The main difference?

All things being equal, professionals score points whereas amateurs lose points. It’s a professional’s game to win, and an amateur’s game to lose.

Consider a professional match. Opponents are equally matched. They play nearly a perfect game. They go back and forth until the ball is just too far out of reach. The positioning, control, spin of the ball is no accident. It’s a game of milliseconds and centimeters.

Two Games, Two Kinds of Decisions
Ramo came by his philosophy not by looking at total scores, but by focusing on points won versus points lost.

In pro tennis roughly 80 percent of the points are won; in amateur tennis, roughly 80 percent of the points are lost. These games are distinct and create the perfect foil for one another.

Since there are two discrete games, a generic strategy will not work for both games Simon devised a strategy by which ordinary players can win by losing less and letting the opponent defeat themselves.

… but you have to recognize that the game is won and lost on decisions. You have to choose to win at tennis. You have to decide to make fewer mistakes v simply enjoying yourself.  That means you play a tighter, more conservative game.  Keeping to solid basics, you give your opponent a lot of space in which to make as many mistakes as possible because he, being an amateur will play a losing game and not know it.

If you’re an amateur your focus should be on avoiding making bad decisions.

Play Your Own Game
Warren Buffett and Ben Graham gathered a group of people called the “Buffett Group.” At one such meeting Benjamin Graham, Warren Buffett’s mentor and teacher, gave them all a quiz. The reference comes from Benjamin Graham on Value Investing: Lessons from the Dean of Wall Street.

A true-false quiz where half of the answers were true and half were false. Most in the room scored less than 10 correct.

Deceptively simple, Buffett explained. “It was to illustrate a point, that the smart fellow kind of rigs the game.” In the late 60s, there was a lot of questionable accounting going on, much like today. And if you think you can find an “in” to take advantage of it, you are playing the other guy’s game, not your own.

We Are All Amateurs, All Of Us
None of us want to believe it. The engineer who looks back on a 25-year career, the CEO who has run a few companies, the founder who has a few exit stories–male, female, young, old–we are all amateurs. If we really care about what we do, we are always learning to become better.

If we identify with professionals we mistakenly think we are playing a professional game. With greater self-awareness, we need to approach the game with new eyes. Rather than trying to play a winner take all game, focusing on the win, the review, the bonus, or the payoff–we should avoid making mistakes.

We should focus on the obvious, return to and relearn the basic mechanics of good management and leadership.

This was a point Charlie Munger, the billionaire business partner of Warren Buffett, made a long time ago.

In a letter to Wesco Shareholders, where he was at the time Chairman (and found in the excellent Damn Right!: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger), Munger writes:

Wesco continues to try more to profit from always remembering the obvious than from grasping the esoteric. … It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent. There must be some wisdom in the folk saying, `It’s the strong swimmers who drown.’

I miss the Mungers, the Druckers, the Woodens–and so many other greats. In the repacking of their ideas by others decades later, the simplicity and wisdom of their message gets lost amidst the din of Tweets, 4-day workweeks, and 3-steps toward more effective meetings.

Someone needs to make that quote into a poster.

A little list for learning

Are you looking to expand your learning and development perspective?
Here are a few titles to add to your learning toolkit.

I have more serious lists to share, and will, over the coming months. But this is a nice little list of books and resources that moved me in different ways–so I thought I’d share.


1. Big Questions from Little People: And Simple Answers from Great Minds

A delightful alternative to Alexa! 🙂 and a smart, illuminating, essential, and utterly delightful handbook for perplexed parents and their curious children. Author Gemma Elwin Harris has lovingly compiled weighty questions from precocious grade school children—queries that have long dumbfounded even intelligent adults—and she’s gathered together a notable crew of scientists, specialists, philosophers, and writers to answer them.

Miles above your average general knowledge and trivia collections, this charming compendium includes responses from: Mary Roach and Phillip Pullman, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, chef Gordon Ramsay, adventurist Bear Gryllis, and linguist Noam Chomsky. Questions with no easy answers (“Do animals have feelings?”, “Why can’t I tickle myself?”, “Who is God?”) are addressed by well-known comedians, columnists, and raconteurs offering hilarious alternative answers.

2. A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader

A collection of original letters to the children of today and tomorrow about why we read and what books do for the human spirit, composed by 121 of the most interesting and inspiring humans in our world: Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Shonda Rhimes, Alain de Botton, James Gleick, Anne Lamott, Diane Ackerman, Judy Blume, Eve Ensler, David Byrne, Sylvia Earle, Richard Branson, Daniel Handler, Marina Abramović, Regina Spektor, Elizabeth Alexander, Adam Gopnik, Debbie Millman, Dani Shapiro, Tim Ferriss, Ann Patchett, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more immensely accomplished and largehearted artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

3. The White Cat and the Monk

My all-time favorite poem, about a monk studying his books late into the evening and searches for truth in their pages. His cat, Pangur, leads a simple life, too, chasing prey in the darkness. As night turns to dawn, Pangur leads his companion to the truth he has been seeking. The White Cat and the Monk is a retelling of the classic Old Irish poem and a contemplative story paying tribute to the wisdom of animals and the wonders of the natural world.

Written as a playful ode in the ninth century, today the poem lives partway between lamentation and celebration — it stands as counterpoint to our culture of competitive striving and ceaseless self-comparisons, but it also reminds us that the accomplishments of others aren’t to the detriment of our own; that we can remain purposeful about our pursuits while rejoicing in those of others; that we can choose to amplify each other’s felicity because there is, after all, enough to go around even in the austerest of circumstances.

That is a lesson we spend our whole lifetimes learning.


4.  There Is Nothing Wrong with You Going Beyond Self Hate

…and, I would add, every other book by Cheri Huber. Self-hate is something with which everyone must reckon. This book reveals the origin of self-hate, how self-hate works, how to identify it, and how to go beyond it. It provides examples of some of the forms self-hate takes, including taking blame but not credit, holding grudges, and trying to be perfect, and explores the many facets of self-hate, including its role in addiction, the battering cycle, and the illusion of control. After addressing these factors, it illustrates how a meditation practice can be developed and practiced in efforts to free oneself from self-hating beliefs.

5. Thanks For The Feedback

A highly applicable book from the authors of Difficult Conversations, this great read is for professionals and anyone looking to improve their relationships through better communication. This means you need to take on the toughest topic of all: how you see yourself. In Thanks for the Feedback, the authors explain why receiving feedback is so crucial yet so challenging, offering a simple framework and powerful tools to help us take on life’s blizzard of offhand comments, annual evaluations, and unsolicited input with curiosity and grace. They blend the latest insights from neuroscience and psychology with practical, hard-headed advice. Thanks for the Feedback is destined to become a classic in the fields of leadership, organizational behavior, and education.

6. Finite & Infinite Games

“There are at least two kinds of games,” states James P. Carse as he begins this extraordinary book. “One could be called finite; the other infinite.”

Carse explores these questions with stunning elegance, teasing out of his distinctions a universe of observation and insight, noting where and why and how we play, finitely and infinitely. He surveys our world—from the finite games of the playing field and playing board to the infinite games found in culture and religion—leaving all we think we know illuminated and transformed. Along the way, Carse finds new ways of understanding everything, from how an actress portrays a role to how we engage in sex, from the nature of evil to the nature of science. Finite games, he shows, may offer wealth and status, power and glory, but infinite games offer something far more subtle and far grander.

This is a beautifully written book about the struggle between two value systems. It lays the challenge of deciding for yourself which game you are playing.


7. Podcast: History of Rome

The History of Rome is a podcast tracing the history of the Roman Empire, beginning with Aeneas’s arrival in Italy and ending with the exile of Romulus Augustulus, last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire. Mike Duncan is one of the foremost history podcasters in the world, with over 100 million episode downloads over his ten-year career. His award-winning series The History of Rome remains one of the most popular history podcasts on the internet. Duncan mentioned that in making the podcast, he learned “human nature has changed very little,” and that people generally respond to the same situations in the same sorts of ways. “I don’t think we’re so completely different than any Roman was.” There is a lot to be learned here.

8. Podcast: Voices in AI
Published and sponsored by GigaomVoices in AI is a new podcast that features in-depth interviews with the leading minds in artificial intelligence. It covers the gambit of viewpoints regarding this transformative technology, from beaming techno-optimism to dark dystopian despair. The format features a single guest in an hour-long one-on-one interview with host Byron Reese. Featuring today’s most prominent authors, researchers, engineers, scientists and philosophers, the podcast explores the economic, social, ethical and philosophical implications of artificial intelligence. Conversation centers on familiar terrain relating to jobs, robots, and income inequality, yet also reaches more far-flung topics such as the possibility of conscious machines, robot rights, weaponized AI, and the possible re-definition of humanity and life itself. With a topic as rich as AI, there is seldom a slow moment.

9. Podcast: In Our Time
Last but not least, In Our Time seeks In Our Time is a live BBC radio discussion series exploring the history of ideas, expertly facilitated by Melvyn Bragg. Each programme covers a specific historical, philosophical, religious, cultural or scientific topic. Bragg hosts a discussion of the week’s subject featuring three experts on the subject. The program is normally broadcast live and unedited beginning with a short summary of the week’s topic. He guides the discussion along a generally chronological route, then either concludes the program himself or invites summation remarks from one of the specialists. At the end of each podcast, they do some outtakes as they wind down over, and this is so British, tea and coffee.


10. Best Museum Recommendation: The American Writers Museum of Chicago

No single picture does it justice, so I encourage you to visit their website. The American Writers Museum is a museum of American Literature and writing that opened in Chicago in May 2017. The museum was designed by Amaze Design of Boston and was inspired by the Dublin Writers Museum (now on my list to see).

The museum pays homage to American writers both past and present and is the first of its kind in the nation–and it did not disappoint! For lovers of the written word, the American Writers Museum should be the first stop on a trip through Chicago’s cultural playground.

The American Writers Museum worked closely with 65 authors’ homes and museums around the country in order to capture their unique stories. The result is a lively, interactive showcase that shares the personal tales and literary works of some of America’s best-loved writers, ranging from Mark Twain to Dr. Seuss. Multiple galleries have been designed to engage and spur the imaginations of visitors of all ages. The museum’s sense of playfulness and purpose is evident immediately upon entering, with the branches of a tree above the entryway formed by rows of hardcover books.

Read more about it here!

Christine Haskell, PhD works with startups, Fortune 100s, non-profit organizations, and individual leaders and thinkers to help clients interweave results and relationships. It sounds like a simple concept, but it is not easy to pull off. Her passion and specialty is to help clients leverage their leadership development to produce bottom-line business results. She is currently working on her third manuscript focused on what master craftsmen (and women) can teach business about leadership, creativity, and growth (pending publication in 2019).

Bookshelf: The Black Swan


  • “Black swans” are highly consequential but unlikely events that are easily explainable –but only in retrospect.
  • Black swans have shaped the history of technology, science, business and culture.
  • As the world gets more connected, black swans are becoming more consequential.
  • The human mind is subject to numerous blind spots, illusions and biases.
  • One of the most pernicious biases is misusing standard statistical tools, such as the “bell curve,” that ignore black swans.
  • Other statistical tools, such as the “power-law distribution,” are far better at modeling many important phenomena.
  • Expert advice is often useless.
  • Most forecasting is pseudoscience.
  • You can retrain yourself to overcome your cognitive biases and to appreciate
    randomness. But it’s not easy.
  • You can hedge against negative black swans while benefiting from positive ones.

3 Key Points

  • Highly significant yet unpredictable events, called “black swans,” are
  • People continually see misleading patterns in data;
  • We need to embrace randomness and come to terms with black swans.


According to critic Harold Bloom, Hamlet’s predicament is not “that he thinks too much” but rather that “he thinks too well,” being ultimately “unable to rest in illusions of any kind.” The same could be said for philosopher, essayist and trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who finds something rotten in misguided yet supremely confident investment gurus, traders, hedge fund managers, Wall Street bankers, M.B.A.s, CEOs, Nobel-winning economists and others who claim that they can predict the future and explain the past. Like everyone else, says Taleb, these so-called “experts” fail to appreciate “black swans”: highly consequential but unlikely events that render predictions and standard explanations worse than worthless. Taleb’s style is personal and literary, but his heterodox insights are rigorous (if sometimes jolted by authorial filigree). This combination makes for a thrilling, disturbing, contentious and unforgettable book on chance and randomness. While Taleb offers strong medicine some readers may find too bitter at times, it’s worth the read for anyone who wants a powerful inoculation against gullibility.


When All Swans Were White
Before 1697, teachers confidently taught European schoolchildren that all swans were white. They had little reason to think otherwise since every swan ever examined had the same snowy plumage. But then Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh landed in Australia. Among the many unlikely creatures down under – odd, hopping marsupials called kangaroos, furry duck-billed platypuses, teddy bear-like koalas – Vlamingh found  dark feathered birds that looked remarkably like swans. Black swans? Indeed. Once observed, they were as unmistakable as they had been unimaginable, and they forced Europeans to revise forever their concept of “swan.” In time, black swans came to seem ordinary.

This pattern is common. Just because you haven’t seen a black swan, doesn’t mean that there are no black swans. Unlikely events seem impossible when they lie in the unknown or in the future. But after they happen, people assimilate them into their conception of the world. The extraordinary becomes ordinary, and “experts” such as policy pundits and market prognosticators kick themselves because they didn’t predict the (now seemingly obvious) occurrence of the (then) unlikely event. Think of the advent of World Wars I and II, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the popping of the 1990s Internet stock bubble, or world-changing inventions like the internal combustion engine, the personal computer and the Internet. Cultural fads like the Harry Potter books are the same. These events and inventions came out of nowhere, yet in hindsight, they seem almost inevitable. Why?

The human mind is wonderful at simplifying the onslaught of today’s “booming, buzzing confusion” of data. This makes perfect sense: After all, the brain is the product of evolution, which works with what it has, and so it has not crafted some new, ideal cognitive mechanism. The human brain is a marvel, but it is built for living in hunter-gatherer groups on the African Savannah 200,000 years ago. Then, it just needed to be good enough to allow humans to survive until they reached reproductive age. Simplifications, mental schemas, heuristics, biases, self-deception – these are not “bugs” in the cognitive system, but useful features that allow the human mind to concentrate on the task at hand and not get overwhelmed by a literally infinite amount of data. But human simplifying mechanisms are not without their costs. Take stories, for example.

The Narrative Fallacy
Stories help people remember and make sense of the past. Think of a typical business magazine profile of a successful businessman. The story begins in the present after he has become rich beyond his wildest dreams. The story then cuts back to his humble beginnings. He started with nothing and wanted to get rich (in terms of story structure, his “dramatic need”). He faced obstacle after obstacle (perhaps he had a rival – the “antagonist”). But he made shrewd decisions and flouted the wisdom of the Cassandras who counseled caution (”Idiots!”). As success built on success, he amassed a fortune. He retired early, married a model and now has brilliant children who play Chopin blindfolded and will all attend Ivy League colleges. His virtues will be extolled in a B-School case study. Wide-eyed M.B.A. students will sit rapt at his feet when he visits their schools on a lecture tour promoting his latest book. He is a superman, an inspiration.

Now consider an alternative hypothesis: He got lucky. His putative “virtues” had nothing to do with his success. He is, essentially, a lottery winner. The public looks at his life and concocts a story about how brilliant he was, when, in fact, he was merely at the right place at the right time. This is the “ludic fallacy” (ludus means game in Latin): People underestimate luck in life – though they ironically overestimate it in certain games of “chance.” Even the businessman himself falls victim to flawed thinking through the self-sampling bias. He looks at himself, a sample of one, and draws a sweeping conclusion, such as, “If I can do it, anyone can!” Notice that the same reasoning would apply had he merely bought a winning lottery ticket. “I’m a genius for picking 3293927! Those long odds didn’t mean a darn thing. I mean, after all, I won didn’t I!”

Not all success is luck. In some professions, skill matters (for example, if you are a dentist), but luck dominates in others. In the case of the inspiring businessman, consider his population cohort. Where are all the similarly situated people who started out like him and have the same attributes? Are they also rich? Or homeless? Usually, you can’t find this sort of “silent” disconfirming evidence. Artistic success provides a perfect illustration. While Balzac is famous now, perhaps countless other equally talented writers were producing comparable work at the same time. Yet their writings are lost to posterity because they did not succeed. Their “failure” hides the evidence that would undercut Balzac’s “success” as a uniquely great writer. The evidence is silent, lost in the graveyard of history.

The mind uses many more simplifying schemas that can lead to error. Once people have theories, they seek confirming evidence; this is called “confirmation bias.” They fall victim to “epistemic arrogance,” becoming overconfident about their ideas and failing to account for randomness. To make their theories work, people “smooth out” the “jumps” in a time series or historical sequence, looking for and finding patterns that are not there. Their conceptual categories will limit what they see; this is called “tunneling.” They turn to “experts” for help, but often these expert opinions are no better – and often they are worse – than the “insights” gained from flipping a coin or hiring a trained chimp to throw darts at the stock listings. Worst of all, people steadily fail to consider “black swans,” the highly consequential rare events that drive history.

“Mediocristan” or “Extremistan?”
So the human mind tends to smooth away the rough features of reality. Does this matter? It can matter, and a lot, depending on whether you’re in “Mediocristan” or “Extremistan.” Where are these strange places? Nowhere. They are actually memorable metaphors for remembering two wildly different classes of natural phenomena. Mediocristan refers to phenomena you could describe with standard statistical concepts, like the Gaussian distribution, known as the “bell curve.” Extremistan refers to phenomena where a single, curve-distorting event or person can radically skew the distribution. Imagine citing Bill Gates in a comparison of executive incomes.

To understand the difference, think about human height versus movie ticket sales. While a sample of human beings may contain some very tall people (perhaps someone eight feet tall) and some very short people (perhaps someone two feet tall), you wouldn’t find anyone 3,000 feet tall or an inch tall. Nature limits the heights in the sample. Now consider movie ticket sales. One hit movie can have sales that exceed the median value by such a radical extent that modeling the sample with a Gaussian curve is misleading – thereby rendering the notion of “median value” meaningless. You’d be better off using a different kind of curve for such data, for instance, the “power law” curve from the work of Vilfredo Pareto (of 80/20 “law” fame). In a power law-modeled distribution, extreme events are not treated as outliers. In fact, they determine the shape of the curve.

Social phenomena are impossible to model with the Gaussian normal distribution because these phenomena exhibit “social contagion,” that is, abundant feedback loops. For instance, one reason you want to see a hit movie is that everyone else has seen it and is talking about it. It becomes a cultural event that you don’t want to miss. And neither does anyone else. In these situations, the “rich get richer”: The hit film gets increasingly popular because of its popularity until some arbitrarily large number of people have seen it. And speaking of rich, wealth follows this pattern, too. The extremely wealthy are not just a little bit wealthier than normal rich people; they are so much wealthier that they skew the distribution. If you and Bill Gates share a cab, the average wealth in the cab can be north of $25 billion dollars. But the distribution is not bell-shaped. When this happens, odds are you’re no longer in Kansas. You’re in Extremistan.

Phony Forecasting (or Nerds and Herds)
Extremistan might not be so bad if you could predict when outliers would occur and what their magnitude might be. But no one can do this precisely. Consider hit movies. Screenwriter William Goldman is famous for describing the “secret” of Hollywood hits: Nobody can predict one. Similarly, no one knew whether a book by a mother on welfare about a boy magician with an odd birthmark would flop or make the author a billionaire. Stock prices are the same way. Anyone who claims to be able to predict the price of a stock or commodity years in the future is a charlatan. Yet the magazines are filled with the latest “insider” advice about what the market will do. Ditto for technology. Do you know what the “next big thing” will be? No. No one does. Prognosticators generally miss the big important
events – the black swans that impel history.

Chalk these errors up to “nerds and herds.” Nerds are people who can only think in terms of the tools they have been taught to use. When all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail. If all you have is Gaussian curves, sigma (standard deviation), and mild, ordinary randomness, you’ll see bell curves everywhere and will explain away disconfirming data as “outliers,” “noise” or “exogenous shocks.” (The proliferation of Excel  spreadsheets allowing every user to fit a regression line to any messy series of data doesn’t help.) Further,  humans follow the herd and look to “experts” for guidance. Yet, some domains can’t have experts because the phenomena the expert is supposed to know are inherently and wildly random. Of course, this discomforting thought requires a palliative, which is to think that the world is much more orderly and uniform than it often is. This soothing belief usually serves people well. Then comes a stock market drop or 9/11 (on the downside), or Star Wars and the Internet (on the upside), and the curve is shot.

Befriending Black Swans
Even given these grim facts, the world need not become, in Hamlet’s words, “a sterile promontory,” nor need a beautiful sky appear “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.” You can tame, if not befriend, the black swan by cultivating some “epistemic virtues:”

  • Keep your eyes open for black swans – Look around and realize when you are in
    Extremistan rather than Mediocristan. Social contagion and rich-get-richer phenomena are clues that you’ve just gotten off the bus in Extremistan.
  • Beliefs are “sticky,” but don’t get glued to them – Revise your beliefs when confronted with contrary evidence. Dare to say, “I don’t know,” “I was wrong” or “It didn’t work.”
  • Know where you can be a fool and where you can’t – Are you trying to predict
    what sort of birthday cake your daughter wants? Or the price of oil in 17 years after investing your life’s savings in oil futures? You can’t help being foolish – no one can. But sometimes foolishness is dangerous, and sometimes it is benign.
  • Know that in many cases, you cannot know – Think outside your usual, customary conceptual categories. Eliminate alternatives that you know are wrong rather than always trying to find out what is right.
  • As a forecasting period lengthens, prediction errors grow exponentially – Suspend judgment where evidence is lacking and be wary of overly precise predictions. “Fuzzy” thinking can be more useful. Often you should focus only on consequences, not overly precise probabilities.
  • Expose yourself to “positive black swans” – And, at the same time, hedge against negative ones. “Bet pennies to win dollars.” Look for asymmetries where favorable consequences are greater than unfavorable ones. Maximize the possibilities of serendipity by, say, living in a city, and having a wide circle of diverse friends and business associates.
  • Look for the nonobvious – Seek out disconfirming evidence for pet theories. Think, “What event would refute this theory?” rather than just stacking up confirming evidence for the sake of consistency, and turning out any evidence that contradicts your notion. In other words: Amassing confirming evidence doesn’t prove a theory or a mental model.
  • Avoid dogmatism – “De-narrate” the past and remember that stories mislead. That’s the whole point: They are psychological armor against the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Think for yourself. Avoid nerds and herds.
    This universe, this planet and your life were highly unlikely. But they happened. Enjoy your good fortune and remember that you are a black swan.


“We humans are an extremely lucky species, and…we got the genes of the risk takers. The foolish risk takers, that is.”

“We like stories, we like to summarize, and we like to simplify, i.e., to reduce the dimension of matters.”

“Now, I do not disagree with those recommending the use of a narrative to get
attention…It is just that narrative can be lethal when used in the wrong places.”

“Notice that close to two centuries ago people had an idealized opinion of their own past, just as we have an idealized opinion of today’s past.”

“I know that history is going to be dominated by an improbable event, I just don’t know what that event will be.”

“Prediction, not narration, is the real test of our understanding of the world.”

“I find it scandalous that in spite of the empirical record we continue to project into the future as if we were good at it, using tools and methods that
exclude rare events.”

“What matters is not how often you are right, but how large your cumulative errors are.”

“Put yourself in situations where favorable consequences are much larger than unfavorable ones.”

“We misunderstand the logic of large deviations from the norm.”

“Every morning the world appears to me more random than it did the day before, and humans seem to be even more fooled by it than they were the previous day.”

About The Author

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a former derivatives trader, is Dean’s Professor in the Sciences of Uncertainty at the University of Massachusetts and teaches at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. He also wrote Fooled by Randomness.

Book Shelf: Focus


  • Applying three categories of focus – “inner, other and outer” – is essential for a highly functioning life.
  • “Selective attention” is the ability to focus on one task in spite of “sensory and emotional” distractions.
  • Staying on target suppresses any emotional interference and helps you to remain cool under pressure.
  • Emotions intrude on focus; completing a task is more difficult when you’re upset.
  • Attention grows stronger and sharper with use, exercise and practice.
  • In a “wandering” state of mind, you pause for self-reflection, contemplate future scenarios, hatch ideas or question assumptions.
  • Self-awareness comes from recognizing internal cues and interpreting them accurately.
  • Focused empathy takes three forms: “cognitive, emotional and empathic concern.”
  • Today’s youth, members of the first digital generation, are growing up more attuned to devices than to people.
  • Every leader must focus a firm’s attention where it’s most needed and most productive.



Daniel Goleman, author of the groundbreaking, mid-‘90s classic Emotional Intelligence, turns his attention to the subject of attention – and explains why focus is essential for navigating life, performing at your best, leading others and, ultimately, improving the world for future generations. His illuminating explanations of brain functions will be useful to businesspeople and educators. Ironically, Goleman digresses often, and his efforts to incorporate issues that matter to him – such as climate change and economic inequality – prove confusing. Still, he’s superb at thoughtfully explaining how people think and feel. His simple explanations of the workings of the human brain, and his depiction of focus as a triad of attention paid to “inner, other and outer” targets make reading his work more than worthwhile. Goleman compares attention to a muscle you can flex and strengthen. For a buff psyche and enhanced mental tone, try this attention workout.

Key Points

  • How your brain exerts attention;
  • How to use three kinds of focus; and
  • How to build your focus to enhance your learning, performance and leadership.


Paying Attention
How well you pay attention affects every aspect of your life. Effective focusing skills enhance mental processes, including understanding, learning, listening, being creative and reading other people’s signals. Most people underestimate focus or overlook its importance.

You need to exercise all three categories of focus – “inner, other and outer” – to function well in life. Inner focus refers to heeding your gut feelings, values and decision-making abilities. Other focus pertains to how you relate to and connect with other people. Outer focus allows you to get by in the larger world.

“Focus is not just selecting the right thing, but also saying no to the wrong ones.”

“Selective Attention”
Someone writing poetry on a laptop in a busy coffeehouse is demonstrating selective attention – focusing on one task and ignoring external stimuli. Such distractions are either “sensory” or “emotional.” Sensory distractions like shapes, colors and sounds stimulate your senses. Emotional lures cut through the clutter to draw your attention, like hearing your name called in a crowded restaurant. Emotions intrude on focus; completing a task is more difficult when you’re upset.

“Though it matters enormously for how we navigate life, attention in all its varieties represents a little-noticed and underrated mental asset.”

The brain’s prefrontal region is responsible for selective attention. The more you focus on one thing, the better your performance. Staying on target suppresses emotional interference and helps you remain cool under pressure. Controlling your attention by focusing on one thing, then moving on to the next, indicates sound mental health. Jumping from one thing to the next multiplies any feelings of helplessness and anxiety.

You focus more easily when you’re doing something you enjoy. Feeling in the zone or the “flow” results from immersion in an activity you find rewarding, inspiring, stimulating or intellectually challenging. In contrast, repetitive, unfulfilling tasks cause disengagement, boredom and apathy.

“While the mind sometimes wanders to pleasant thoughts or fantasy, it more often seems to gravitate to rumination and worry.”

Two semi-independent systems make up the human brain. The lower brain’s massive computing power operates just below consciousness, coming into the forefront only when jarred by something unexpected. At such moments, the bottom brain, active in the subcortical circuitry, communicates with the top brain, or neocortex.

“People who are tuned out not only stumble socially, but are surprised when someone tells them they have acted inappropriately.”

Bottom brain activity is involuntary, reflexive and fast. It functions constantly, handling rote behaviors and filtering information and stimuli. As it continually learns, it adjusts your perceptions. Emotion sways the bottom brain. The top brain, which is under your conscious control, is the locus of voluntary focus, active when you choose to watch a sunset, plan your day or learn a new task. Sometimes the bottom and top systems share mental activities to optimize your results with a minimum of exertion. For example, as you master a task like driving, the top brain learns and then the bottom brain takes over. Performing the task becomes almost instinctive.

Midbrain circuitry notices things on a neural level, such as a baby’s cry or a spider on the floor, and signals to the top brain. The brain’s amygdala checks your surroundings for threats and sends alarms when it spots danger. When your amygdala senses a threat, it commandeers your emotions until the top brain analyzes the danger; then it defends you or sends calming signals.

“While the link between attention and excellence remains hidden most of the time, it ripples through almost everything we seek to accomplish.”

Never Mind
Your “wandering mind” – where your thoughts travel when not engaged in a mental task – is the brain’s default setting. In this state, people pause for self-reflection, contemplate future scenarios, hatch ideas, dwell on memories or question their assumptions. Brain scans show that the area for focus – the “executive system in the prefrontal cortex” – activates during downtime.

“Setting aside some regular reflective time in the daily or weekly schedule might help us get beyond the firefight-of-the-day mentality, to take stock and look ahead.”

While your mind wanders, your sensory systems dim. Doing activities that do not require a laser focus frees your mind to ramble. Focusing sharply on one activity quells outside stimuli, such as buzzing phones. Sustaining deep attention can be draining. To replenish, take breaks, meditate, exercise or do something fun.
Self-Awareness and Self-Control
Self-awareness comes from recognizing internal cues and interpreting them accurately. “Gut feelings” are messages from the insula, the area in the brain’s frontal lobes that acts as a nerve center for your internal organs. People in sync with their emotions have high-functioning insulae and a strong inner voice. The insula’s signals help you intuitively form a value system, which becomes more concrete as you articulate it to yourself and practice it.

“Video games focus attention and get us to repeat moves over and over, and so are powerful tutorials.”

Self-awareness is a focus that works as an internal compass. It governs your actions and aligns them with your values. Willpower and self-regulation are functions of “executive attention.” Focusing on achieving a goal requires exercising self-control to subdue your impulses and ignore intrusive emotions. An iconic study by the psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1970s measured the willpower of young children. In the “marshmallow test,” researchers told four-year-olds they could eat a marshmallow right away or they could wait a few minutes and get two marshmallows. Left alone with one marshmallow, the children who successfully waited for the extra treat succeeded by distracting their focus from the marshmallow by using fantasy play or singing songs. The continuing study eventually showed that the children who could delay gratification at age four performed better in all aspects of their adult lives.

“Kids who can ignore impulse, filter out what’s irrelevant, and stay focused on a goal fare better in life.”

I Feel for You
“Cognitive empathy” is a top-down brain function that enables you to look at things from another person’s point of view, understand what that person is thinking and feeling, and manage your emotional response. When your emotions align with someone else’s, you experience the bottom-up response of “emotional empathy.” A top-down/bottom-up response, called “empathic concern,” leads to taking helpful action.

You have to focus to tune in to other people’s nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and to perceive their emotions. You feel another person’s suffering – a hardwired physiological response – in your amygdala. Attention centers inside the brain connect with its areas for social sensitivity, giving humans the ability to feel compassion and manage their emotional reactions. Compassion and concern grow naturally from empathy, the feeling people want and expect from doctors, bosses and family members. For example, patients are more likely to sue for malpractice when their physicians share fewer signs of empathy and consideration, even if their rate of error matches that of more outwardly empathetic doctors.

“Self-awareness…represents an essential focus, one that attunes us to the subtle murmurs within that can help guide our way through life.”

Everyone’s social acuity falls on a continuum from socially oblivious to highly intuitive. People who fail to notice social cues often act inappropriately, missing nonverbal messages or misreading context. They’re often unaware when they make social gaffes, such as being rude or speaking too long or too loudly. Where you fall on the social hierarchy affects your ability and desire to read others. Columbia University research reveals a direct correlation between power and attention: The higher your rank, the less heed you pay to other people’s thoughts and feelings.

“While we are equipped with razor-sharp focus on smiles and frowns, growls and babies, as we’ve seen, we have zero neural radar for the threats to the global systems that support human life.”

System Navigation
No single area of the brain deals exclusively with system recognition and comprehension, but the mind uses the brain’s parietal cortex to recognize patterns. The ability to read and navigate systems is a learned process, separate from self-mastery and empathy. System navigation is an essential life skill. People understand systems indirectly, by developing mental models during firsthand experiences and by absorbing distributed knowledge.

Pandemics and climate change are systemic problems that people learn about by gathering data, identifying patterns, and noticing peaks and disturbances. For example, “big data” collected by Google and analyzed with sophisticated software identified areas of flu outbreaks within 24 hours. The brain readily perceives immediate threats, but your perceptual system is blind to long-term dangers, such as the thinning of the ozone layer.

“Directing attention toward where it needs to go is a primal task of leadership.”

Practice Makes Perfect, SometimesPsychologist Anders Ericsson’s research about expertise laid the foundation for the “10,000-hour rule,” which holds that achieving the highest possible level of performance takes at least 10,000 hours of practice. Unfortunately, the rule is only partly true. Practice makes close-to-perfect only if it’s conducted in a “smart” way – that is, if the person who is practicing uses that time to make adjustments and improvements. How much attention you pay during practice is crucial. Productive practice includes feedback, which is why dancers practice in front of a mirror.

“The power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is essential for well-being.”

Professional athletes, experts and other high performers counteract the brain’s natural inclination to make routines automatic and to transfer them to the bottom mind. They use focus, skill development, refinement and positivity to strengthen their brain circuitry. Feeling upbeat is a crucial requirement for productive practice. Positive emotions ignite the brain’s left prefrontal area, making people feel motivated, aware and energized.

Mindfulness refers to the practice of paying “attention to attention.” Meditation focuses on your inner state and develops your capacity to observe yourself in the moment without judgment. It strengthens focus by improving your ability to sustain attention. The meditation cycle rotates through the following four steps: “The mind wanders, you notice it’s wandering, you shift your attention to your breath and you keep it there,” until your mind wanders again.

“Attention works much like a muscle – use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows.”

Games and Cognitive Skills
Playing video games generally diminishes brainpower. Certain games do improve some cognitive abilities, including “visual acuity and spatial perception, attention switching, decision making and the ability to track objects.” “Smart games” that improve focus and boost cognitive function may become educational tools. Such games provide:

  • Specific goals for different levels of play.
  • Feedback and pacing geared toward each user.
  • Challenges that progress in accordance with players’ skills.
  • Different contexts for applying a particular set of skills.

In the Classroom
Some schools are adding “social and emotional learning” (SEL) practices to their curriculum in order to help children self-regulate. For example, the “stoplight” exercise instructs kids to think of a traffic signal when they become upset or overstimulated. The red light means: Take deep breaths and try to calm down. A yellow light cautions kids to pause first, then reflect and come up with alternative behavior. A green light encourages them to try a solution.

The constant lure of technology waylays young people’s attention and compromises their interactions with other people. Today’s youth, the first digital generation, grow up more attuned to devices than to people. They may develop cognitive skills for navigating the virtual world at the cost of the kind of person-to-person attentive skills needed to build rapport, empathy and social dexterity. Adults are not immune. They may find it hard to read more than a couple of pages, listen to a speech longer than five minutes or stop constantly checking their smartphones. However, the ability to pay attention grows stronger with use, exercise and practice.

Attention in Organizations

Every effective leader must focus a firm’s attention where it’s most needed and productive. Triple focus provides direction. First comes inner focus: Heed your behaviors and the effects of your actions. Leadership requires knowing your values and communicating your vision to inspire and motivate others. Other focus means developing an organizational strategy to provide a road map of issues and goals that require attention. Great managers develop interpersonal skills and can effectively listen, respond and collaborate. Using outer focus, leaders absorb the big picture, visualize complicated systems and foresee how their decisions will play out in the future.

About the Author

Science journalist and two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee Daniel Goleman wrote The New York Times bestseller Emotional Intelligence.

Book Shelf: Ego is the enemy


  • Ego seems necessary for success, but vesting in self-importance impedes your career.
  • Being great is different from doing great things.
  • Engaging in building a “personal brand” confuses accomplishing something with talking about it.
  • Cultivate restraint to manage your feelings of pride or anger.
  • “Clear the path” for others, and you’ll help determine the path they take.
  • Ego undermines the connection and engagement with others that both allow success to grow.
  • Goal visualization helps at the beginning of a project, but it can produce a misleading impression of progress.
  • Maintain “a student mind-set” to keep your ego in check by acknowledging that you always have more to learn.
  • Ego is “the disease of me”; this world is far greater than you.
  • Abandon ego’s attachment to success and commit to a path of constant improvement.

Key Points

  • Why ego does not help you succeed and
  • What strategies you can use to avoid the trappings of ego.


Best-selling author Ryan Holiday recommends that people stop jabbering, forget their narratives, restrain their passions, learn from everything they do, accept failure and never stop working. He offers anecdotes about professional athletes, politicians and business leaders who learned hard lessons about the dangers of ego as well as tales of quiet workers who made enormous differences and remained unknown. Holiday’s conversational style reads like getting advice from a good friend. His chapters are short and easy to understand, though some entries cover similar topics. The partial bibliography directs readers to an extensive reading list on Holiday’s website. His alternative approach is great for people with an interest in self-improvement, not self-aggrandizement. He believes that the best way to move ahead is keep learning and to tame your ego – and he shows you how.


What Is Ego?

Anyone with ambition has ego. People who marshal their skills to meet their goals have ego. Artists, athletes, scientists and entrepreneurs achieve their objectives by harnessing the focus and desire to create and discover. But, too often, ego drives these activities. Ego is necessary for getting ahead. But “an unhealthy belief” in how important you are has the opposite impact and blocks your progress.

Ego encourages lazy, self-congratulatory fantasizing. Defined as “self-centered ambition,” ego undermines the connection with others and the engagement that both allow success to grow. To assess your strengths accurately, embrace a blend of confidence and humility. Recognize that ego offers the comfort of self-satisfaction, but it’s self-absorbed and can blind you to opportunity.

“What makes us so promising as thinkers, doers, creatives and entrepreneurs, what drives us to the top of those fields, makes us vulnerable to this darker side of the psyche.”

Aspiring to Greatness

Greatness is often a quiet act. The late US Air Force fighter pilot and strategist John Boyd helped revolutionize modern warfare across the US armed forces, but the general public doesn’t know of him. To emphasize the difference between working for recognition and working to get something accomplished, he asked the soldiers he commanded if they wanted “to be or to do.” Just being somebody is much easier than actually getting things done.

“Ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success.”

Though popular wisdom encourages people “to find their passion,” that can be the wrong advice. Passion leads to enthusiasm at the expense of thoughtful deliberation. Passion’s energy and excitement can hide weaknesses that will eventually appear. Instead of impatient passion, seek purpose with reasons and goals.

Practice restraint. Anger, resentment and pride cloud your thinking. You’re not special just because you went to a good school, work hard, or came from a rich or influential family. You may dislike it when your boss is rude or your colleagues are frustrating, but being reactive and claiming that you deserve better will get you nowhere. Such behaviors stem from ego. Being restrained lets you focus on the work at hand and value the lessons that emerge along the way.

“We start out knowing what is important to us, but once we’ve achieved it, we lose sight of our priorities.”

“The Canvas Strategy”

The canvas strategy builds on the notion of restraint, of being “a canvas for other people to paint on.” Shift away from the short-term satisfaction of resentment and move toward embracing the long-term enrichment of self-development. To follow the canvas strategy, keep these ideas in mind when first starting out in the world of work:

“Once you win, everyone is gunning for you. It’s during your moment at the top that you can afford ego the least – because the stakes are so much higher, the margins for error so much smaller.”

  • You will probably need to improve and cultivate a better attitude.
  • You “aren’t as good” as you may believe, nor as important.
  • You don’t know everything, and you need to learn more than your education taught you.

Your success often will come alongside the success of others. Work to make other people’s jobs easier. While an initial sense of subservience might confound your ego, starting at the bottom gives you an opportunity to learn how something really works. Overcome your ego by finding ideas to share with your boss. Introduce people who might collaborate. Do the small tasks others avoid. When you “clear the path” for other people, you help determine the course they’ll take.

“The more difficult the task, the more uncertain the outcome, the more costly talk will be and the farther from actual accountability.”

Problems with Narratives

Be someone who does things rather than someone who talks a lot. Social media encourage talk instead of productivity. Posting updates on Facebook and Twitter misleads you into focusing on speech over action. Filling boxes with text promotes the false presentation of confidence, ability and accomplishment. Don’t believe your own self-promotion. That’s your ego inflating itself.

“It takes a special kind of humility to grasp that you know less, even as you know and grasp more and more.”

Gawker blogger Emily Gould described the challenge she faced in completing her novel. She had a “six-figure book deal,” but her writing bogged down because she was always posting on Tumblr or Twitter or scrolling through websites. These were distractions from the real work she had to do, but she convinced herself that it was work: she was building her personal brand. In the relentless pursuit of building, curating or refining a personal brand, people lose sight of the difference between actual accomplishments and fictional advertisements of themselves. All that posting and all that talk use up the energy you need for your real work. Some people like to mutter the thoughts that are leading them through solving a problem, but some studies suggest that talking aloud slows the process of discovery. Likewise, goal visualization helps at the beginning of a project, but after a while it produces the misleading impression of progress. When a project is hard, talk does not help.

Stories of success make success seem inevitable. Looking back at your own story is dangerous because you can reject all the pieces that don’t fit the narrative you want to tell. Such a narrative can offer false clarity and distract you from remembering the work that enabled you to attain your goals. Narratives of success mislead by suggesting they are conclusive, that the story ends after success. But in life, the story continues. After you succeed, everyone wants to beat you. More than ever, you must work hard to maintain the success you strived to achieve.

“Ego needs honors to be validated. Confidence…is able to wait and focus on the task at hand regardless of external recognition.”

Learning Focus

Pride is dangerous. It inhibits learning. Instead, maintain “a student mind-set” to keep your ego in check by acknowledging that you always have more to learn. Success doesn’t make you a master. Frank Shamrock, a mixed martial arts world champion, teaches that everyone needs “a plus, a minus and an equal.” Learn from someone who has more skill than you, someone who acts as a teacher. Gain from teaching someone who knows less than you, because being a professional requires understanding your task well enough to describe it to others. Working with someone at your level helps you cultivate finesse and dexterity.

“The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility – that’s ego.”

Maintaining a student mind-set is easier in the beginning of your career. Success brings the temptation to overestimate your knowledge. John Wheeler, a physicist who helped develop the hydrogen bomb, said, “As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” The more you know, the more you realize you need to learn.

Jazz great Wynton Marsalis once told an aspiring musician to be humble, explaining that humility is evident in those who don’t believe they already know everything. As you learn, discover the processes that enable you to learn most effectively. Repeat those procedures to ensure your continuous education.

“A smart man or woman must regularly remind themselves of the limits of their power and reach.”

The “theory of disruption” proposes that every industry will eventually encounter a change that no one predicted. When that happens, established business models – already too comfortable with their familiar approach – won’t respond effectively because they’ve stopped learning and growing. Newcomers are more agile; since they’re still in a learning mind-set, they see an opportunity to fill a market need and take advantage of it. They study their competitors to learn which changes would help them grow.

“Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.”

“Standard of Performance”

Professional football coach Bill Walsh established a Standard of Performance as general manager of the San Francisco 49ers. Over the course of three years, he took a team that earned ratings as one of the worst in the league and made it a Super Bowl champion. People told the story of this climb by saying Walsh had a vision of the team’s Super Bowl win and executed it. He refused to buy into that narrative. Instead, Walsh described how he focused on what the team members needed to do, when they needed to do it and how they should do it.

Walsh instilled a sense of excellence by insisting on small behavioral rules: Players must stand while on the practice field; coaches must appear in tucked-in shirts and ties; the locker room must be clean. Bill Walsh expected the team to perform well on the field and off. After winning the Super Bowl, the team had two terrible years because the players became overconfident and self-satisfied. The team had to accept that the Standard of Performance was their route to victory before they started to win again and became recurring champions.

“Unless we use this moment as an opportunity to understand ourselves and our own mind better, ego will seek out failure like true north.”

Accept Failure

Mistakes are inevitable. Being an entrepreneur or creative person requires taking risks, and risks don’t always work out. The problem isn’t failing. The problem is identifying with failure. Ego believes that the only options are success or failure. That is ego confusion. Failure isn’t indicative of who you are, only of what you did. Ego tries to prove that failure is, or will become, success.

“At every step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn – and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.”

When Dov Charney was the CEO of American Apparel, his practices cost the company some $300 million and the reputational damage of multiple scandals. When the board asked Charney to step aside, he refused. He then wasted a fortune on a useless lawsuit to vindicate himself. He lost, and faced public humiliation when the media published details that the case revealed about his behavior.

Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, the company he founded, because of his huge ego. Jobs was angry and fought the company’s decision, but he didn’t let it ruin him. He sold all but one share of Apple and decided to try again. Learning from his management failures, he funded the animation company Pixar and slowly rebuilt his reputation. He eventually returned to Apple, and made it an even better company than he could have built before learning such hard life lessons.

“You can’t learn if you think you already know.”

As with Jobs, failure is an opportunity to learn. When success begins to wane, don’t attach yourself even more tightly to your job, project or goal. Recognize that something went wrong; try to identify how your behavior contributed to that error and begin to change.

Check Yourself

When people first succeed, they may indulge in wild behavior. Success can transform that confusion and erratic conduct into self-assurance and bravery. If your success came from a surprising guess, recognize that you didn’t know what would lead to success. When others applaud your greatness, stay sober.

Consider Germany’s Angela Merkel, one of the most powerful women in the world. When Russian president Vladimir Putin tried to intimidate her by allowing his hunting dog to interrupt a meeting, she didn’t take it personally or react badly even though her dislike of dogs is common knowledge. In the midst of adversity, she remained “firm, clear and patient.” As Merkel once said, “You can’t solve…tasks with charisma.”

Success has the adverse effect of making people feel larger than life. Stress reinforces their sense of importance. Similarly, rebukes or failures hurt people’s inflated egos. Tame your ego by observing the vastness of the universe; “meditate on immensity.” Observe nature. Find something that allows you to connect. Let go of ego’s desire for retaliation or its efforts to reinforce its value. See how grand the world is. Ego is “the disease of me,” but the world offers much more than you.

Do things for the purpose of doing them. Let the effort be enough. When a project becomes focused on success alone, your ego is in control. Your work might incur ridicule or sabotage. Recognition may never arrive in the forms you seek: public praise, financial success or approval from the one person whose respect you want. Focus on your expectations, not someone else’s. Ego drives the desire to succeed. Let the effort you put into your work be success enough. If it’s not, then maybe this isn’t the work you should be doing.

Learn What Matters to You

Ego makes everything about the self. Genuine self-awareness diminishes ego by allowing the self to grow and change. Ask, “What’s important to you?” so that you focus on self-evaluation and not on external measures. Learn what matters to you so you can be true to yourself. Recognize that the world has much to continue teaching you. Abandon ego’s attachment to success. Commit, instead, to a path of constant improvement.

About the Author

Ryan Holiday is the former director of marketing at American Apparel and a best-selling author. He wrote The Obstacle Is The WayGrowth Hacker Marketing, and Trust MeI’m Lying and co-wrote The Daily Stoic with Stephen Hanselman.