Why understanding the word ego will help you succeed

The word ego is everywhere, but how would you define it? It it always a bad thing? If I asked you to use the word in a sentence, you might think about calling someone egotistical, or saying he has a big ego. Maybe you would say that ego can get in the way of having good relationships with others. These would all be accurate statments. But the word can be used in so many ways, especially when it comes to understanding psychological phenomena, that it is worth our time to carefully consider the various meanings that have been attached to this three-letter word.

What's the difference between "egoism" and "egotism?"

It's interesting to me that a word that means "I" in Greek, the first person pronoun, has come to be more synonymous with "self" in everyday usage.  A person with a "big ego" might be called self-centered.  Egotistical is a synonym for selfish.  But this is the nature of language.  It tends to change over time, especially when exposed to large cultural variations.  I'll start the consideration of the wide range of meanings this word is associated with by first examining its earliest known usage in English.  According to Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman of Grammarphobia, egotism and egotist first appeared in literature in the early 1700s.  

The first to show up in English, “egotism” and “egotist,” were used in reference to the “obtrusive or too frequent use of the pronoun of the first person singular: hence the practice of talking about oneself or one’s doings,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

From the same source I learned that Thomas Jefferson used the term egoism to describe references to his mundane personal matters, as well as to describe selfish acts.  It appears that in those early days, 'egoism' and 'egotism' were used more or less interchangeably, and this remains true today.  However, their modern definitions aren't the same in all contexts.  Egotistic is defined as: Given to talking about oneself; vain; boastful; opinionated. indifferent to the well-being of others; selfish.  Synonyms include conceited, self-conceited, swollen-headed, vain.  Generally characteristics that no one is proud to own.

On the other hand, egoism as a philosophical concept describes the belief that each person rightly acts primarily in their own interests.  In this sense egoism is the opposite of altruism, the idea that people should act in ways that help others.  

When you feel like the world revolves around you: egocentrism

A closely related concept is egocentrism, the inability to differentiate between self and other.  The Grammarphobia article referenced above points out that egocentric "showed up in the early 20th century as an ethnological or philosophical term, but it was soon being used popularly to mean self-centered."  An egocentric person is unable or unwilling to understand any perspective other than his own.  While all narcissists are egocentric, not all egotists require the constant approval of others.  Interestingly, egocentric thinking often leads to thinking errors known as egocentric bias, which can include the following:

  • Giving high acceptance of vaguely worded descriptions of personality, assuming they are specifically tailored for them (Forer effect or Barnum effect; Ex. horoscopes)
  • Tending to overestimate one's degree of influence over external events (Illusion of control)
  • Believing that one's judgments are accurate, especially when easily remembered information is consistent (Illusion of validity)
  • Tending to underestimate one's own task-completion times (Overconfidence effect)
  • Tending to to overestimate one's ability to resist temptation (Planning fallacy)

Thanks a lot, Freud

We're off to a pretty good start.  But before going further I need to acknowledge the role that a particular German psychologist played in altering the way we often use the word ego in modern English.  That's right, I'm talking about Sigmund Freud.  According to clinical psychologist Joseph Burgo, "The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud regularly substitutes clinical-scientific words for the everyday expressive language employed by Freud in German.... These terms actually go back to earlier efforts by Ernest Jones to bring Freud to the English-speaking world; Strachey and his team adopted those translations as they had already gained acceptance."  Unfortunately this added a new, often paradoxical, layer on top of the already existing meanings of the word 'ego.'The following quote sums this up nicely: "The English word ‘ego’ — for me, at any rate — has connotations which it doesn’t have in Freud (such as ‘egotistical’, ‘egocentric’, ‘ego-boost’, ‘ego-trip’ and the like)." Hall, K. (2006). Where “Id” was, there “it” or “Es” shall be: Reflections on translating Freud. Target, 17(2), 349–361. doi:10.1075/target.17.2.08hal  This article will continue with phrases based on the original meanings of the English word and in the future I'll write a follow up article with the new, Freud-flavored variations.

How to overcome ego barriers

Ray Dalio, considered the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, wrote a book entitled Principles: Life and Work.  He defines an ‘ego barrier’ as a “subliminal defense mechanism that makes it hard for you to accept your mistakes and weaknesses.”  He continues,

Your deepest-seated needs and fears—such as the need to be loved and the fear of losing love, the need to survive and the fear of not surviving, the need to be important and the fear of not mattering—reside in primitive parts of your brain such as the amygdala, which are structures in your temporal lobe that process emotions. Because these areas of your brain are not accessible to your conscious awareness, it is virtually impossible for you to understand what they want and how they control you. They oversimplify things and react instinctively. They crave praise and respond to criticism as an attack, even when the higher-level parts of the brain understand that constructive criticism is good for you. They make you defensive, especially when it comes to the subject of how good you are.

Regular readers of this blog may make a connection with my articles Choose Your Own Adventure, which addresses the crucial role fears play in our decisions, and  Who Influences Your Outlook? Can You Even Know? which addresses some of the evidence that our mind makes decisions outside our conscious awareness.

To counteract these barriers, Dalio recommends using logic to make decisions, relying on the help of others who are strong where you are weak, and taking "a no-excuses approach to achieving your goals with open-mindedness, determination, and courage."

Give your ego a time-out: ego suspension

We naturally want to be seen to be just as competent and intelligent as others.  But we can accomplish more by putting this desire aside, that is, by suspending our ego.  When someone shares a story with you, instead of sharing a similar story, why not keep your ego on the bench and encourage them to share more?  Ask them about what it was like.  Listen, and resist the urge to speak.  I'm working on this right now myself.  Unfortunately my ego is very pushy and I sometimes realize it has pushed me out of the way and I start telling a story and I realize I've just missed the chance to give someone a listening ear.  But at least I'm conscious of the need to do so.  One step at a time.

Another form of ego suspension is to resist correcting someone at a time that would cause problems.  Making a mental note of the problem instead of speaking up may be hard, but it is well worth the effort.  Perhaps you'll discover you don't really need to say something after all.  Or if you do, you'll be better prepared to say it in a way that will respect the person's feelings, which in turn will make them more likely to accept it.

Michael J. Formica wrote an article about ego suspension using the illustration of rowing a four-person scull.  Each rower needs to work together, coordinating their efforts, in order to compete successfully.  Each one needs to subordinate his strengths to the overall purpose.  The team is the focus, not the individual.  In his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't, Jim C. Collins describes the best leaders as channeling their ego needs "away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It's not that [top] leaders have no ego or self interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is foremost for the institution, not themselves."

Suspending your ego avoids ego interference

The ego can really get in the way sometimes.  Whether it's a coordinated effort with others, such as the rowing team example above, or an individual effort to improve in a sport, ego interference is a true handicap.  For example, the Australian Law Management Group encourages law firms to avoid ego interference by coming together to connect with a shared purpose, such as going the extra mile to serve the interests of their clients.

Timothy Gallwey's The Inner Game of Tennis addresses the role of nonjudgmental awareness in making improvement in sports.  He points out how the ego creates pressure to succeed, especially in response to criticism or praise from the coach.  "The inevitable result was divided concentration and ego-interference."  Gallwey introduced the concepts Self 1 and Self 2 to describe mental processes that influence sports performance.  While Self 1 is critical and judgmental, Self 2 is the true athlete.I find it interesting that Self 1, the critical, conscious part of the mind corresponds best with Daniel Kahneman's System 2 while Self 2, the automatic, largely subconscious processes align more closely with System 1. According to Gallwey, Self 1:

1. Is highly critical of past behavior
2. Tells the body what to do
3. Tries hard to do things the right way

In contrast, Self 2:

1. Observes existing behavior non-judgmentally
2. Pictures the desired outcome
3. Trusts the process

These ideas really resonate with my personal experience.  As a young person I had a very pronounced Self 1, which apparently means I was dominated by my ego in some ways.  I decided that I was no good at sports, because the harder I tried the worse I performed.  As an adult I've discovered the opposite to be the case.  After telling myself I wasn't good at sports, something amazing happened: I began to see improvement!  After graduation I no longer had the pressure to look good in front of my peers so I didn't pressure myself to succeed, and I've made gradual improvement.  Because of this I can say I'm more athletic in my 50s than I was in my 20s.  That's not something most people can say.

Ego satisfaction: is it even possible?

As a segue into this section, I'll make one last quote from Gallwey:

When you try hard to hit the ball correctly, and it goes well, you get a certain kind of ego satisfaction. You feel that you are in control, that you are master of the situation. But when you simply allow the serve to serve itself, it doesn’t seem as if you deserve the credit. It doesn’t feel as if it were you who hit the ball. You tend to feel good about the ability of your body, and possibly even amazed by the results, but the credit and sense of personal accomplishment are replaced by another kind of satisfaction.

I don't believe Gallwey gives a name to this "other kind of satisfaction," but the one he describes sounds much more satisfying than trying to satisfy the ego. "The ego is never satisfied," according to Dan Harris, who wrote 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works. It constantly urges us to acquire more, to win arguments, to accomplish more than others, to have better experiences.  It constantly measures our looks, wealth, and social status against others.  

Harris cites the work of Eckhart Tolle, spiritual author, who has identified a critical weakness of ego that we can exploit.  According to Harris, "It is obsessed with the past and the future, at the expense of the present." The ego thrives by remembering being superior to others, or it ruminates endlessly over mistakes. It feels vindicated by counting the offenses of others.  It keenly anticipates future accomplishments and acquisitions.  The remedy is being completely present in the now.  Focusing on the positives of the here and now with a sense of gratitude is an effective antidote to ego.  

You can't satisfy it; maybe you can't suspend it, so deflate it

I don't make these phrases up; I'm merely reporting what I see.  I'm currently in the information-gathering phase on this whole ego thing, so I'm not making any judgments about what I think it means.  Yet.

According to Todd Henry, author of the book Louder Than Words: Harness The Power Of Your Authentic Voice, there are three characteristics of individuals with an over-inflated ego:

  1. They often play the victim.
  2. They aggressively defend their turf.
  3. They are easily offended.

Ego deflation is also referred to as ego reduction.  In the book Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success, author Shane Snow writes,

Experts tended to be able to turn off the part of their egos that took legitimate feedback personally when it came to their craft, and they were confident enough to parse helpful feedback from incorrect feedback. Meanwhile novices psyched themselves out. They needed encouragement and feared failure.

Leonard Kim also recognizes the importance of gratitude in combating his ego.  He makes a practice of thinking of three things he's grateful for after waking up each morning.  He contrasts confidence (“I believe in myself”) with ego (“I am the best”).  He continues,

To inflate confidence and to deflate ego, what I did was realized that I was human. I had my faults. I wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t an almighty being that had all the answers to the world. Hell, earlier today I spilled some water on my shirt.

Would an almighty being be able to do something so stupid?

Kim tries to keep his ego small by staying humble, hungry, and honest.  What he wrote resonates with my experience as well.

No wonder people talk about a big ego

This is a long article, and hopefully you've learned some insights and ways to keep your ego from elbowing its way to the front and center of your life and disrupting your activities and relationships.  Even with a better understanding we still have an uphill battle against it.  But the word ego has many more concepts attached to it.  I've covered most of the negative ones here, the ones that are synonymous with selfishness and dysfunction.  But ego can also have neutral and even positive meanings.  We'll consider those in future articles.