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Ego - The Enemy Within


By Doug Zeisel, TV Growth Partner


“While history books are filled with tales of obsessive visionary geniuses who remade the world in their image with sheer, almost irrational force, I’ve found that history is also made by individuals who fought their egos at every turn, who eschewed the spotlight, and who put their highest goals above their desire for recognition” From Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday.


I don’t know about you but looking back, I can see that many of my greatest blunders were because my ego was out of control. Whether it was the loss of a friend or the failure of a startup, ego played a large part of the problem. But this blog post is not about me but about recognizing when ego is destructive and how to deal with it.


I’m sure you know someone who is always the smartest person in the room. They are an authority on all subjects and don’t hesitate to let everyone know. These people are either very insecure and are overcompensating or their ego’s are out of control. Either way, the other persons in the room are rolling their eyes and saying to themselves “oh no, here we go..”


Recognizing the problem requires some introspection and an ability to consider our motives. This is not easy and requires almost constant inner surveillance. When looking back on our lives, do we only see the successes and never see failures? While it may be unhealthy to dwell on failures, it can be a sign of excessive ego if all we can see is success. If all we see is success, how can you learn from failure? Life is about learning and learning rarely comes from success because success gives a blind eye to our weaknesses. After all – how could there be any weaknesses if the effort was successful?


Motive also plays a huge roll in whether ego is out of control. Consider- if you are having a debate with a colleague over a business issue, is the debate turning into an argument because your ego wants you to win? Are you able to stop and listen to the other side of the issue and logically understand the other side of the issue? One way to escape the ego trap is to reiterate the opposing viewpoint verbally. “So what you’re saying is…” This helps slow down the pace and actually lets you see the other side. Maybe they are wrong, and if so, that you are verbally repeating their side will hopefully let them see the fallacy of their viewpoint. But consider this – if you never lose, then maybe your ego is out of control.


As Adam Smith said- “There are two different occasions upon which we examine our own conduct, and endeavor to view it in the light in which the impartial spectator would view it: First, when we are about to act; and secondly after we have acted. Our views are apt to be very partial in both cases; but they are apt to be most partial when it is of most importance that they should be otherwise. When we are about to act, the eagerness of passion will seldom allow us to consider what we are doing, with the candor of an indifferent person… When the action is over, indeed, and the passions which prompted it have subsided, we can enter more coolly into the sentiments of the indifferent spectator.” (Page 198 – Ego is the Enemy, by Ryan Holiday)


Again, slow down, step back and try to see the other side. Show respect and be humble, and you will be surprised at the outcomes. Of course, if ego is the enemy, then humility is your ally.


As Sue Shellenbargar wrote in the Wall Street Journal (Oct. 9, 2018) The Best Bosses are Humble Bosses (https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-best-bosses-are-humble-bosses-1539092123)

“In an era when hubris is rewarded on social media and in business and politics, researchers and employment experts say turning the limelight on humble people might yield better results… Humility is a core quality of leaders who inspire close teamwork, rapid learning and high performance in their teams, according to several studies in the past three years. Humble people tend to be aware of their own weaknesses, eager to improve themselves, appreciative of others’ strengths and focused on goals beyond their own self-interest”… and while “Most of the thinking suggests leaders should be charismatic, attention-seeking and persuasive, … such leaders tend to ruin their companies because they take on more than they can handle, are overconfident and don’t listen to feedback from others”.


And as Ryan Holiday tells us in his book – some of the most successful persons are those who focus on the job at hand and not on the glory that will result from success. He cites civil war general William T. Sherman who rose from a so-so career as a graduate from West Point to become one of the greatest (and most controversial) generals of all time. However, he eschewed the spotlight and avoided politics at all cost to focus on the job at hand – ending the Civil War. After leaving the army he again avoided politics and settled back into a quite private life.


This trait goes a long way in ensuring the success of a startup enterprise. Company founders are often too in love with their pet idea to be able to accept that the idea is only interesting to themselves. Even with hundreds of hours of “customer discovery” they only hear what they want to hear and ignore negative feedback. I have witnessed this frequently and it is the reason so many customer discovery efforts fail. Not only do the founders not listen to negative feedback, they often don’t ask questions that might lead to negative feedback.


This is a reason that lately investors are looking at humility as a desired trait in founders. As reported in the Nov. 3rd, 2022 issue of the Wall Street Journal (https://www.wsj.com/articles/humility-can-really-help-an-entrepreneur-win-over-investors-11635512755)


“For entrepreneurs, sometimes it pays to be a little humble. That is the finding of a recent study in the Academy of Management Proceedings journal. Early-stage entrepreneurs who display signs of humility with investors are nearly twice as likely to reach the next step of the funding process as ones who don’t.” So keep in mind – confidence is one thing – but being brash and aggressive is a big no no!


Being humble means that you will admit that you don’t know everything and you will seek the advice of others. You listen and are grateful for criticism, even when it is painful. Food for thought? Feel free to offer suggestions and I will try to be humble enough to listen. Doug Zeisel

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