Aristotle’s most famous pupil was Alexander the Great. The young man became king at age 20 and conquered the entire known world at age 30. Alexander was brave and brilliant and often generous and wise.
Still, in his pinnacle of success, he clearly ignored his teacher’s most important lesson on ego, power, and empire. And that’s partially why he died at the age of 32, far from home, likely killed by his own men, who had finally said enough: “Enough.”
Arrogance, self-centered ambition, ego – an unhealthy belief of his own importance – sucked Alexander down like the law of gravity.
It is not that he was wrong to have great ambitions. Alexander just never grasped Aristotle’s “golden mean”- that is the middle ground. Where the line – this golden mean – is can be difficult to tell, but without finding it, we risk dangerous extremes. Because even if we manage ourselves well, prosperity holds no guarantees. The world conspires us in many ways. The laws of nature say that everything regresses toward the mean.
We can use the golden mean to navigate our ego and our desire to achieve.
Endless ambition is easy. Anyone can put their foot down hard on the gas. Complacency is easy too – it’s just a matter of taking the foot off the gas. We must avoid what the business strategist Jim Collins terms the “undisciplined pursuit” of more,” as well as the complacency that comes with plaudits.
To borrow from Aristotle again, what’s difficult is to apply the right amount of pressure, at the right time, in the right way, for the right period of time, in the right car, going in the right direction.
If we don’t do this, the consequences can be dire.
There is a line from Napoleon, who, like Alexander, died miserably. He said, “Men of great ambition, have sought happiness, and found fame.” What he means is that behind every goal is the drive to be happy and fulfilled – but when egotism takes hold, we lose track of our goal and end up somewhere we never intended. It is the beast within us that we can’t focus on what really matters – producing the best work possible.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, on his famous essay on Napoleon, takes pains to point out that just a few years after his death, Europe was essentially exactly as it was before Napoleon began his precipitous rise. All that death, that effort, that greed, and those honors – for what? For basically nothing. Napoleon, he wrote, quickly faded away like the smoke from his artillery.
Ego was, is, and will always be the enemy.