Does having a big ego help achieve goals?

In a series of posts, called readers choice, I write on whatever topics people submit and vote for. This week’s reader’s choice post:

Does having a big ego help? My short answer is any energy you have can be used to help you.

Nietzsche had this notion that there are positive and negative energies you can use to motivate yourself. If you’re afraid of being picked on at school, it might motivate you to learn karate. Or if you love food, you might be inspired to do the work needed to become a chef. Love, hate, angst, curiosity, fear and even competition are all possible motivators to achieve something.

To achieve any goal involves effort, and effort involves converting a feeling into action. It’s one thing to feel inspired or enraged, but what do you do with that emotional energy? Are you able to convert it into actions you’re proud of? That ability to convert explains achievement. Some people get a lot of mileage out of a small amount of emotional energy. Others seems to have massive quantities of emotional energy, but it never goes anywhere productive.  Having a big ego, if managed well, can be a useful source of energy in achieving things. To do difficult work requires fuel, and ego can burn quite well.

Fundamentally, anyone who isn’t dedicating most of their waking hours to helping others has a big ego. We  are mostly self-motivated, with ambitions primarily about satisfying our own needs, and worries mostly centered on ourselves (even our desire to help others can be motivated by wanting to feel good about ourselves). Buddhism, in part, is about learning to diminish our egos – and Buddhists believe this is the path to enlightenment. I think they’re probably right. The problem is you’d need to escape many aspects of American culture in order to do it, but that’s a topic for another day.

Generally when we say someone has “a big ego” we really mean their ego is out of control, and gets in the way. They talk down to people, treat others as inferior, and their sense of self makes them unpleasant to work with. We may actually have bigger egos than they do, but we manage them better. Someone with “a big ego” is likely someone who, for whatever reason, is not self-aware enough to realize their lack of respect for others. Or worse, realizes it but either doesn’t care, or takes pleasure in making people feel bad. When I meet people like this I feel sad – they’re lost. And somewhere deep down inside they probably know it. Odds are good they’re taking it out on everyone else, as they don’t have the courage or the tools to focus that energy on improving themselves.

The goal should be to have a high opinion of yourself, and a high opinion of others at the same time. Some might define this as a healthy psychology. I admit I have a big ego in the sense I’m confident I can do some things well. Is that ambition? Confidence? Whatever word you’d prefer, it’s all tied to the ego.  I do my best not to allow that sense of self to violate someone else’s sense of self. I fail now and then of course, but I’m aware and sensitive to this notion. I also know to grow I have to do things I’m not confident in. I have to put myself in situations where I’m forced to say “I don’t know” or “I’m afraid” and go to places an ego dominated mind would never have the courage to go. Being humble is healthy and creates opportunities you never find if you insist on only doing things you’re confident in.

There are many famous people who achieved big goals with big egos, and were awful to their families, their friends, and their employees. There are also many famous, successful people who were/are miserable despite all their success. Read a biography of Edison, Ford, J.P. Morgan, or any current master of the universe, and you’ll hear similar stories. In chasing an abstract dream (wealthiest man, best athlete, most famous X, etc.) they sacrificed some very obvious and available necessities for a happy, fulfilling life (friends, family, health, community,self-knowledge).

If happiness and fulfillment is the true goal, a big ego alone doesn’t seem to be the way to get it.

In the end, I think of Nietzsche, or what I recall of his notion –  the more aware of our feelings we are, and the better we are at converting those feelings into useful, positive actions, the healthier and more successful we’ll be.

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12 Responses to “Does having a big ego help achieve goals?”

  1. Alex Karasyov

    Greatly put. I really like your blog man. I started reading your posts a couple of weeks ago and every time I read your posts, I feel like you are completing my thoughts and opening my mind.

    Thanks for the post.

    Reply
    1. FreeRange

      I’m sure this blog and others you have written have helped many people Scott. For me personally since I became aware of my ego and its destructive side I’ve been a little out of balance in that I’m needing to find how best to incorporate it. As Sean said its impaired my sense of humour somewhat, I’ve lost my swagger because I’ve become too conscious of other people’s feelings and needs and neglected my own becoming to serious and less funny. Often people benefit more from being told to “Harden up Princess” than a “Everything will be fine”.

      Reply
  2. Sean Crawford

    If in nearly a week this post has received only three comments it’s because the original essay left little to say.

    Perhaps another fruitful avenue to explore is: Does having no ego help? As a child I did not want to sign my paintings and thus egotistically spoil the picture. I would take the team jersey with no number. Without the knowing the term “worm Christianity” I believed that humbleness was next to Godliness. I was as dumb as the folks in Atlas Shrugged, a book that woke me up … and now, I guess, would make me cringe in embarrassment.

    I suppose what a squashed ego shares with a big ego is… an impaired sense of humor.

    Reply
    1. FreeRange

      I’ve been reading up on Atlas Shrugged and its helped me fill a gap in my understanding. It compliments the points in this blog perfectly. Thank you

      Reply
  3. Andy

    So how do you address issues that comes along with ego? like lack of interpersonal skills etc. What are some good guides out there ?

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      If you care about results, and are willing to accept the possibility some of your own behavior contributes to things not going well, it will take care of itself. You’ll eventually realize that some of your attitudes negatively impact other people’s performance and if you truly care about results, you’ll start learning how to change.

      Reply
  4. Ehsan

    “They talk down to people, treat others as inferior, and their sense of self makes them unpleasant to work with” – in a nutshell, very well put.

    “You’ll eventually realize that some of your attitudes negatively impact other people’s performance and if you truly care about results, you’ll start learning how to change.”

    Since there is learning involved, it would be great if was a pool of resource that has been researched on. If you have any specific areas that are worth delving into off the top of your head, please could you suggest (e.g. behavioral therapy in being “mindful”, exercising self-awareness, etc).

    Reply
  5. Sean Crawford

    I’m here today because someone jumped to my web site from here, so I thought I’d take a look. Oh, is that what I said, years ago…I was being supportive of Scott, as the third speaker after a week was me.

    As for how to learn to manage your ego, I don’t know. What Scott said about valuing self and others makes sense…

    One way I manage is by saying that I will have lots of chances in the future, it is a bountiful universe for me to show off: Therefore I don’t need to disclose my ego unless it is during a chance to help others as much as to help myself.

    In other words, I think before I speak. I am self-aware, and being so does not threaten me.

    My humour is famous, as again I self-check before I speak. I make a joke to be safe, supportive, reduce tension so the group can work better, provide perspective so the group can work better… Again, I self-check. There will be lots of other times to be funny, so no jokes to put people down, help us run away from the task, stop us in our tracks, or solely to get attention.

    In my purely social life,hanging out, my humour must not impede the flow of us socializing, it must fit the pace and energy level. It’s no fun for others, if my fun is only for me. By being a social asset I get asked out again, while the oblivious ego-maniac is less welcome. At some lower level people know if you have their interests in mind, just as they know at the top of their mind if you don’t.

    Managing my ego is amusing: Here I am, putting my pants one leg at a time, just like the U.S. president does. And so does the village idiot.

    Reply

Pingbacks

  1. […] Converting emotions into energy to help achieve goals – it’s hard to resist a post about the psychology of achieving goals that quotes Nietzsche.  Scott Berkun explains that achieving goals seems to be about being good at converting feelings into action.  It’s one thing to feel inspired or enraged but what do you do with that emotional energy? Are you able to convert it into actions you’re proud of?  That ability to convert explains achievement. Some people get a lot of mileage out of a small amount of emotional energy. Others seems to have massive quantities of emotional energy, but it never goes anywhere productive. […]

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