Over time, my views on ego have shifted. Where once I thought ego was always bad, now I think the concept of ego is misunderstood.
My first memories of understanding ego were hearing references to someone having a “big ego,” meaning someone had an overinflated sense of self-esteem or self-importance and felt superior to others. But ego has a few definitions. When I got to college, I learned that ego is the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity. In this context, ego is your consciousness of your own identity. Then I got introduced to Ayn Rand’s books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which extol the benefits of egoism.
Given these different (and sometimes conflicting) ideas about ego, it can be hard to know if ego is good or bad. The short answer is that in the context of having an overinflated view of yourself, it is most certainly bad. However, believing in yourself, perhaps envisioning a future self that does not exist yet and seems out of reach (especially to others!), is a wonderful thing. It can even be said that this belief in yourself is key for peak performance.
How Ego Improves Performance
In looking at the latest Olympics, I think there were three athletes who achieved incredible results and are worth highlighting. The first two, Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky, won many gold medals in their respective sports, gymnastics and swimming, and stunned everyone with their jaw-dropping performances.
In watching many of their interviews during and after their events, they embodied the perfect mix of confidence and humility. Did they have an inflated self-worth? I don’t think so — they earned every feeling of pride! To achieve their incredible results, they had to believe they were capable of being the greatest in the world. To be clear, they needed to believe this long before they ever stood on top of the podium. My view of these athletes is that they are confident but not cocky and are probably more focused on the process and using results to hone their skills than defining themselves based on their material achievements.
The third athlete I want to highlight is clearly the best sprinter of all time, Usain Bolt. I don’t think anyone would put humility and Bolt’s name in the same sentence. In interviews and in comments before and after races, he clearly believes he is the best in the world … an accurate statement. Does that mean Bolt has a huge ego? In short, no. It means he is realistic. He treated all of his fellow racers with respect and regularly joked with them before and after races. He is able to be both the greatest sprinter ever in the Olympics and just another one of the guys.
Ego as the Enemy
While ego can help us achieve great things, it can also have a dark side. I recently read Ryan Holiday’s latest book, Ego is the Enemy. Holiday defines ego as: “It’s that petulant child inside every person, the one that chooses getting his or her way over anything or anyone else. The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility—that’s ego. It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.”
Holiday uses Stoic philosophy, among other things, to help others find traction in their careers and personal lives. Holiday says, “At any given time in life, people find themselves at one of three stages. We’re aspiring to something—trying to make a dent in the universe. We have achieved success—perhaps a little, perhaps a lot. Or we have failed—recently or continually. Ego is the enemy every step along this way. In a sense, ego is the enemy of building, of maintaining, and of recovering.”
To summarize the three phases, while aspiring, “ego is the enemy because it prefers talking over doing.”
While succeeding, “ego is the enemy because it convinces us of our ‘greatness’ and erodes our will to work for continued success.”
Finally, while failing, “ego is the enemy because it avoids responsibility and casts blame when experiencing failure. Ego erodes relationships and erases progress by trying to save face.”
Holiday uses famous examples from history to explain how ego is the enemy and how a lack of it can lead to a happy and fulfilled life. He provides advice along the way for these three stages:
- Aspiring: When you aspire to do something great, associate with ambitious people who have similar goals and find a competitor who challenges you each day. This will help lead to less talking and more doing!
- Succeeding: When you achieve noteworthy success, find people who have achieved greater success, remind yourself of your ultimate purpose and reflect on the immensity of the world around you. Gaining a larger perspective generates humility and avoids the trappings of success. My favorite quote from 2015 is from J.J. Watt: “Success isn’t owned. It’s leased—and rent is due every day.”
- Failing: When you encounter failure, discuss failure with your colleagues and friends. Don’t run from it. Reflect on it and know that there are always lessons to be learned from failures. Lastly, don’t attach your confidence and self-worth to a failure or for that matter, a success.
To conclude, Holiday shares two strategies that go a long way toward managing ego.
- Always be learning. Holiday shows that a student mindset goes a long way toward managing ego and avoiding disaster. Taking a page from history, he argues that the attitude to learn and adapt is a key reason for the success of the Mongol empire. Holiday debunks a lot of the myths about Genghis Khan and explains that the Mongol empire was a result of “a persistent cycle of pragmatic learning, experimental adaptation, and constant revision driven by his uniquely disciplined and focused will.” Holiday goes on to say that, “He was the greatest conqueror the world ever knew because he was more open to learning than any other conqueror has ever been.”
- Adhere to a standard of performance. Holiday states that, “A person who judges himself based on his own standards doesn’t crave the spotlight the same way as someone who lets applause dictate success.” He uses Coach Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers as an example. Walsh was not focused on “turning around a franchise” in the early 1980s. He was focused on a standard of performance: no fighting, no sitting on the field, hard work, etc. He believed that if the 49ers adhered to these standards, eventually they would win. In his first season, they went 2 and 14, in his second season, they went 6 and 10, and in the third season, they won the Super Bowl.
As the great Morpheus from The Matrix (one of my favorite movies!) says, “There is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.” Holiday reminds us of the right path and shows some incredible examples from the past, such as the contrast between Gen. William Sherman and Gen. Ulysses Grant, Abraham Lincoln’s top two generals in the Civil War. Almost every American knows Grant as this incredible general who helped turn the tide of the Civil War and eventually became president. What most people don’t know is that he had two terrible terms as president, started an investment firm, lost most of his fortune and died in agony. Grant was clearly driven by ego, chasing fame and fortune and losing it all. Sherman, on the other hand, retired in near obscurity, happy as could be. Which path would you take?