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.