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When Ego Gets in the Way: 3 Ideas to Work With Less Ego

The other day,  I was at the gym with my co-founder Joel and we started a short discussion about other products as part of Buffer’s product offering we might enjoy building one day. We went through various problems we’d enjoy solving, like online payments, social media monitoring and so forth.

At one point, we got into some light brainstorming of one of the areas and the name of a related, prominent startup in the space came up. I said “I know the founder.”

That line had nothing to do with the discussion and it didn’t add any value. It was rather pure display of ego, coming to light as what we commonly know as “namedropping.”

I paused for a second and added, “I think that was just my ego, that didn’t really add anything.”

Since I can remember, the general understanding of ego as we most often think of it is always only the display of the most blatant egoistic behavior from us. For example, strong arrogance and bragging, or extreme defensiveness of our opinion in an argument.

Since I started reading more texts about Buddhism, mindfulness and most recently Eckhart Tolle’s New Earth, I learned about some fascinating new perspectives regarding “ego.”

I learned that ego in most people, myself included, is the dominant driver of all thoughts, actions and ways of going about life.

The monk with the sweaty palms

There’s a great story in Eckhart Tolle’s New Earth that explains how subtle and yet still prevalent ego often is, even in people that have worked decades to remove their ego:

“Kasan, a Zen teacher and monk, was to officiate at a funeral of a famous nobleman. As he stood there waiting for the governor of the province and other lords and ladies to arrive, he noticed that the palms of his hands were sweaty.

The next day he called his disciples together and confessed he was not yet ready to be a true teacher. He explained to them that he still lacked the sameness of bearing before all human beings, whether beggar or king.

He was still unable to look through social roles and conceptual identities and see the sameness of being in every human. He then left and become the pupil of another master. The returned to his former disciples eight years later, enlightened.”

What’s so mind-blowing about this story for me is that I’d have never associated Kasan’s behaviour with ego. Instead I would have attributed it to humility or some other, very positive trait. That’s particularly interesting, as it showed me that ego is much more versatile in that sense than I’d originally thought.

Egoless work

What I quickly discovered is that when we do things we enjoy, we can easily be free from ego. When we do the stuff, when we are focused on doing great work, ego is largely not present. This is really great, since it means that nearly all of us, have moments, even daily, where we operate without ego.

If you think about the last time you wrote a blogpost or code, designed something or did anything else that most of us online workers do, there’s a chance that right at that moment, when you were fully involved in the task and you were just “doing,” you were completely free from ego. It’s what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “Flow.”

On the other hand, very often we sabotage our own work with ego. Eckhart Tolle puts it like this:

“I have also met many others who may be technically good at what they do but whose ego constantly sabotages their work. Only part of their attention is on the work they perform; the other part is on themselves. Their ego demands personal recognition and wastes energy in resentment if it doesn’t get enough— and it’s never enough. ‘Is someone else getting more recognition than me?’ Or their main focus of attention is profit or power, and their work is no more than a means to that end. When work is no more than a means to an end, it cannot be of high quality.”

That last line hit home like few things why it is so helpful to think about less ego at work: “When work is no more than a means to an end, it cannot be of high quality.”

Working on less ego

At the core of our lives’ purpose, I believe, is the pursuit of living without ego. “Living without ego” is probably just a different definition of either:

  • Happiness
  • True love
  • Spiritual fulfillment

Different world views, religions and upbringing would probably word it differently, and yet, essentially I think that every human is the same in that aspect. We all strive for that level of “being.”

3 ideas to work with less ego

Although I feel my own ego is still very strong, there’re a few hints that I’ve picked up on that make me feel like I am on the right track. (That sentence, likely presumptuous, is probably ego right there!)

  • Choosing an ego-free environment: We all know intuitively whether we are at a place with a high or low amount of ego. At Buffer, as part of our values, we partially focus on designing an organization that encourages recognizing ego and working to dissolve it. Picking such an environment can be one of the most helpful things to do. Seneca put this even better:

“Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them.”

  • Meditation and mindfulness: At its core, ego is a distortion of reality. What meditation and mindfulness helps us do, is to see things as they truly are, without judgement or attachment. I’ve found that practicing quiet moments of introspection is one of the best ways to see things clearly and to avoid the urges of giving in to the ego.
  • Compassion and gratitude: Putting yourself in other people’s shoes, seeing things from their perspective and practicing gratitude have been outlined by many famous minds as another method to dissolve ego. Practicing this can be as easy as taking 5 minutes in the evening to list 3 things that you are grateful for today. Surprisingly, I’ve also found that the best gift we can give others is to do and work on things that that we truly love. I had previously confused this with ego, when self-love and doing what we love is the exact opposite – living without ego. A great quote on this from the Dalai Lama:

“Once you develop confidence in your own ability, you’ll be able to make a real contribution to creating a better world. Self-confidence is very important. Not in the sense of blind pride, but as a realistic awareness of what you can do.”

What I came to enjoy about thinking about ego and the removal of it is that it can’t be a forceful process. Instead, it’s something that happens very gradually, over a long period of time. It’s something we can practice in almost every moment of our lives, and every step towards recognizing and dissolving ego makes living life a bit more enjoyable.

Have you worked on any habits to dissolve your own ego? I’m keen to hear any tips or reflections in the comments!

  • Chris

    A provoking post Leo – thanks.
    For me, there’s something about responsibility that feels important here. Choosing to take responsibility for things that ego convinces us are not ours, or perhaps more significantly, relinquishing responsibility for things that ego wants us to hold on to.

  • Ego is the root of all good and evil.

    Some people may argue that fear may be the most basic driving factor. In times of emergency or imminent danger fear can play a large role. In normal life when there is time for thought there is nothing but ego.

    Even to be enlightened and be the master is a display of ego. It is insidious and lives in the deepest recesses of our mind / character where we dare not look.

  • Miss Darryl Darling

    Love what you’ve written here Leo. I listen to Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now on audio as part of my nightly wind down routine. I use it to quiet my ego (mind) and to feel at peace. Some days I think its saved my life. It’s a good feeling.

  • This is an awesome philosophy for companies to adopt! I hope lots of managers are reading this and breeding better employee culture because of it.

    Choosing an ego-free environment is ideal, but what about employees who might not be able to escape an ego-full environment? There isn’t always that freedom unfortunately.

    • Lex Ariff

      I was gonna ask the exact same thing, @tylerrobb:disqus!

      • That’s a great one, @tylerrobb:disqus and @lexariff:disqus! Feels like there could be a great post on the idea of working without ego even if others you might be surrounded by aren’t necessarily practicing the same. Likely a common situation many are facing!

  • Ansubha

    A great connect to work life, I m glad I read this post. I try to remain conscious of what I m speaking and thinking;while doing anything, even boring tasks. concentrating and enjoying the work in progress, does the trick for me, of working with less ego.

  • jgdeutsch

    Developers struggle with this all the time in China. Face-saving can cripple development. Valuable time is lost figuring out how to make the person in charge feel like a good idea was their idea, so it can be adopted.

  • Heleen Kuiper

    Interesting post Leo! I can agree with most of your conclusions. It is the mean reason I offer Mondo Zen practice to managers, I believe the corporate world would be so much better off with more awareness on this topic.

    I don’t agree with you that one has to get rid of the ego though. Look what happened to Eckhart Tolle when he got struck by enlightening: he lived in the park for several years. That is what happens when you loose your ego. The thing is you have to “reinform” your ego, as the founder of Mondo Zen, Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi puts it, so that it understands its impermanence. In my words: you have to understand that you don’t have to take your ego (and all its ideas) so seriously. And remember that the ego is the tool for the pure awareness. Actually, to be an enlightened person you need a strong, but reinformed, ego! (an interesting read on this is The Heart of Zen by Keith Martin-Smith).

    • Fascinating perspective, Heleen! Thanks so much for sharing this, makes a lot of sense! Adding The Heart of Zen to my reading list. :)

  • Sam Holt

    Leo, thanks for sharing this wisdom in the ego-filled world of business. You echoed what Jesus of Nazareth said 2,000 years ago: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)

    Truth is timeless and applicable to all situations, from startups to interpersonal relationships.

    Keep up the great work. As a small business owner, I can’t wait to read the Buffer blog posts.

  • If ego, in most people, is the dominant driver of all thoughts, actions and ways of going about life then what would happen if we didn’t have one? Would we be lacking the drive to succeed? Would we ask him/her for their phone number? Would we have Buffer?! :O

  • James Henderson

    I’ve let my ego effect projects, started with all good intentions, come to a complete stop. Thanks for the wake up call.

  • Thanks for sharing this, Leo! Recently I was making some promotional materials for an event that my team is organising and I felt a bit of what Eckhart Tolle mentioned. I felt a desire to be recognised. I have to work on avoiding that now. Thanks for the gentle reminder :)

  • Birgitta Granstrom

    Thank You Loe for posting this even if I will present the paradox that the only way we can be “less ego” is to embrace, expand and include our ego. And I got so inspired of this that I wrote a new blog post: “Get Rid of Your Ego is the #1 wrong assumption that keeps us in struggle. I It’s not until we invite our ego to be a player in the game of the Greater Good we can win.

  • Birgitta Granstrom

    Thank You Loe for posting this even if I will present the paradox that the only way we can be “less ego” is to embrace, expand and include our ego. And I got so inspired of this that I wrote a new blog post: “Get Rid of Your Ego is the #1 wrong assumption that keeps us in struggle. I It’s not until we invite our ego to be a player in the game of the Greater Good we can win. And Leo…. if you want to get a “proof” how you can be a better version of yourself by expanding your ego I would be pleased to give you an unconditional LifeSpider Coaching Session as a energy exchange for this blog post.

  • I guess i just have a question, when you made that statement was it because you wanted to impress your partner, a comment like that is information on a basic level you would share with a partner, its data. Hmmmmmm …. If not, to me, it speaks more to insecurity with your partner than an ego trip.

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