The Crucial Difference Between Confidence and Ego: One Is Earned, the Other Is Imagined

The advertising legend Ryan Holiday, who maintains a humble profile, speaks to the difference between confidence and ego, exposing the latter as a thin veneer concealing weakness.

Ryan Holiday:  One of the things that psychologists talk about is threatened egotism, what happens with someone who has a very strong sense of ego is challenged in some fundamental way. So you can take – one of the stories I tell in the book that I think is interesting is there's this famous encounter between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin. And in an attempt to intimidate her in a state meeting he had heard that she was afraid of dogs. So he lets a dog come into the room in an attempt at basically to intimidate and to scare her. And so if Angela Merkel had been coming from a place of ego and obviously from fear she's going to react to this sort of petty attempt at intimidation with perhaps an attempt of her own with some saber rattling with any number of these things.

But instead she's got a sense of confidence I would say instead of ego that she's not going to react emotionally to this. She's not going to take it as a threat to her honor. It's not going to escalate into being more than what it is, in fact she ends up making a joke about it and it makes Putin look like the weaker bully in this case. But you can see how a different leader when this is revealed, when this attempt to do something is revealed would react in a dangerous way. You could think of one of the examples they use when they talk about threatened egotism is like a gang member whose honor is impugned, the way that they respond is obviously terrible for both parties involved. They escalate a verbal wound into violence and makes a non-serious situation into a serious one. And so what I'm trying to talk about then is if we have this sensitive ego and we're able to be wounded and instead of looking at that wound and sort of seeing it for what it is, we have to react emotionally. We have to react to compensate for the way that we feel that we've been harmed. It can create really dangerous situations very quickly. And often we think ego is supposed to be strength, but in fact it's a just a sort of veneer for a profound weakness and it's the compensation for that that creates bad situations.

There's a wonderful Bill Walsh quote about ego he says, "Ego is when self confidence becomes arrogance, self-assertiveness becomes reckless abandon and so forth." He saying it's sort of passed the point of any reasonable utility. Confidence is great, arrogance is not great. Or Sero Connolly is saying ego like cancer is sort of an over assertion of cells and that's sort of what I see ego is. It's great to believe in yourself, the problem is when your belief in yourself is not based on anything real. And so that's the enemy of trying to do basically anything that requires interacting with other people.

If you're creative and you're not able to take feedback because your ego is either so strong or you're not able to take feedback because you don't care what anyone thinks your work is not going to get any better. If you don't care about your audience, you don't understand who they are and what's going on in their life because you lack empathy, which is another symptom of ego, your work is going to suffer. If you can't work with other people because you're selfish and you have to be the center of attention at all times you're not going to have a team around you. So it basically makes anything that we're trying to do harder than it already is.

The ability to believe in oneself is great, but when that belief is over-asserted or based on delusions, ego, or "the enemy" as author and media strategist Ryan Holiday calls it, arises. Holiday's newest book Ego is the Enemy is an anthropology of the ego, and it shows that while confidence enables one to strive forward and reach new heights, ego can be detrimental and stunt accomplishment.


Ego can cause people to react emotionally and with reckless abandon when challenged even slightly. Being so arrogant to the point of being unable to receive any feedback, or lacking the empathy needed to care about doing a great job, puts that person at a severe disadvantage; nobody wants to work with someone like that, and when interactions with peers become nearly impossible, the quality of the work decreases.

Take a famous egotist like Steve Jobs. There’s no doubt that Jobs was a genius, but his need for control and compulsion for everything to be exactly the way he wanted it led to his tumultuous relationship with Apple. While Jobs revolutionized personal computing and created an iconic brand, his ego made him so impossible to work with that he was eventually forced out of the Macintosh department, his pride and joy. Apple is a huge success thanks to Jobs' genius, but his humiliation came at the hands of his ego. Perhaps the common conception is true, that Jobs only succeeded because he was so controlling and aggressive in his vision, but imagine what more he may have achieved had he been an open and pleasant person to work with.

Holiday also points out that this inability to process information rationally leaves caverns of room for dangerous situations. To an egotist, something as simple as an insult can trigger a compulsion for retribution that could quickly spiral out of control, and in a world where arrogance is often mistaken for strength, an egotist in power could have some detrimental ramifications.

Ryan Holiday’s most recent book is Ego is the Enemy.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.