I don’t know who originally said it, but I’ve often laughed at the saying “If I could kick the person who has caused me the greatest amount of headache and heartache in my life then I wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week!”

Marshall Goldsmith is arguably one of the most insightful and successful business coaches in the world. In this short 4 minute video he touches on the important subject of ego and how it can get in the way of us living truly satisfying and fulfilling lives. It is short, punchy and profound.

His provocative point is that everyday we make ego and pride (putting myself and my desires ahead of anyone or anything else) more important than our health, our safety and even more than the people we claim to love.  In many ways pride is the ultimate form of selfishness. That selfishness is the worst part of our human nature, or as Tim Keller has vividly described it, ” a ruthless sleepless unsmiling concentration on the self.” This is no small or trivial issue. It is a blind spot that affects all of us in some way or another. It has destroyed individuals, families and even nations.

From the video, taking the example of surgeons not allowing nurses to ask a series of simple questions such as ‘Did you wash your hands?”  and  simply systematising this into a simple checklist has, according to Dr Atul Gawande, contributed to more deaths than the Vietnam War, Afghan War and Iraqi War combined!

The positive way forward advocated in the video is to appeal to enlightened self-interest. So in the case of a pilot it is seeing that being asked simple questions from a checklist by a junior such as “How much fuel do you have?” is vital to prevent not just needless passenger deaths, but also the death of the pilot himself. When I let my ego win, ultimately I and everyone else loses.

The vast majority of us are not surgeons or pilots, but how can we be better armed against the dangerous self-sabotaging effects of our egos? Perhaps the best way is to recognise and be aware of the early warning signs before they cause irreparable and lasting damage. Here are four to consider:

Playing the comparison game
This is the tendency within me to compare myself to others and to find ways to put myself above or below them in some way.  What we also tend to do is pit our strength against another’s weaknesses, or we compare our weaknesses to their strengths. When we do the former we feel superior or morally better. When we do the latter we become discouraged or disillusioned with life and ourselves. Both paths ultimately distance me from others and create an impenetrable wall of aloofness.

Being defensive.
There is an important distinction to be made between defending an idea and being defensive. When I am defending an idea then my motive is to let the best argument win. I understand that nobody knows everything, especially in an increasingly complex and challenging world. The best decisions I understand are the result of rigorous independent thinking followed by passionate collaborative debate. However, when I am being defensive then I am so identified with my idea that any challenge becomes a personal attack. I refuse to back down as a way to protect my fragile ego. If my idea loses then I personally lose.

Having to show off my brilliance.
Once again there is an important distinction to be made. Yes we want to perform to the best of our ability and reach our maximum potential. The danger is when I seek to be the centre of attention and devote excessive time and energy to that. Here is how one certainly brilliant mind, Albert Einstein put it, “We should take care not to make intellect our god. It has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead, it can only serve.”

Needing to be liked and accepted.
Again it is not inherently wrong to want to be respected, liked and accepted. Of itself those are good thing and are fundamental needs.  However, when we become oversensitive to what people think of us, we are prevented from to being true to ourselves. That in turn puts speaking our mind behind personal promotion or public opinion. I don’t say what I really think as I fear losing respect, being liked and accepted over being true to my ideals and principles. This is incredibly subtle and so I need to be particularly sensitive to it.

Egotistical pride has been described as the worst of all sins. The reason is that it is the one sin that completely severs relationship. Thus, as C.S. Lewis points out, a group of thieves or murderers while committing terrible crimes can still be friends and show loving self-sacrifice for each other. However, a group of proud people ultimately can never do so for the moment one of them does not reach the required standard the they have to be thrown out of the group.

This is why recognising the seeds of pride in myself becomes so important. For this reason the words of Susana Wesley (1669-1742) are particularly powerful and resonant:

“Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, takes off your relish for spiritual things, whatever increases the authority of the body over the mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may seem in itself.”

What comments, thoughts or suggestions do you have on the dangers of ego? Is there someone you need to kick???

Also see the post How Do I Deal With My Ego?