Written in an accessible and conversational style, this book is an easy read. Marcum and Smith decided to study ego, within the context of business, setting out with the idea that the ego was “negative and needed cold-blooded elimination”.
Once they started studying it (and I suspect clarified their definition), they found it can also be very helpful, hence the subtitle of the book “What makes ego our greatest asset (or most expensive liability)”.
While the book is written with a business focus, it’s blatantly applicable to life in general, and the business context simply gives a nice set of examples through which to understand the concepts they’re teaching.
The most interesting idea from the book is that our greatest strengths can be turned against us when our “ego isn’t balanced”. Some examples:
- assertive becomes pushy
- charismatic becomes manipulative
- discerning becomes judgemental
- pragmatic becomes uninspired
- determined becomes stubborn
- innovative becomes impractical
This is a double whammy as our weaknesses can feel almost the same as our strengths, so it can be a dangerous blind spot. This is where having trusted people around you is important – we are great at spotting the faults in the reasoning in others, but not in ourselves.
Marcum & Smith give some nice systems to aid awareness of these issues. When ego is working against us it is likely that we are:
1) being comparative
2) being defensive
3) showcasing brilliance
4) seeking acceptance
Being comparative means we become less competitive, as we give up our own potential to the goal of only being better than the person with whom we are competing.
Being defensive is when we start to defend ourselves rather than an idea. If we separate ourselves from our ideas then we can let the best argument win.
Showcasing brilliance means that we want people to recognise our expertise. The irony is that while we’re showcasing, people will tend to ignore the good points that we are making, however brilliant they may be.
Seeking acceptance is when we need others to validate who we are. It’s important to be aware of what other people think, but that must not keep us from being our true selves.
To counter these they give “three principles of egonomics:
In the second half of the book they expand on these principles to give practical advice on how to put them in action.
They make the excellent point that intensity should not be confused with aggression, and humility should not be confused with meekness. They define intensity as the ability to argue a position with passion and strength, and humility as the ability to question everything. Both of these qualities are needed to come to the best conclusions. Otherwise you either have confrontational clashes without conclusions, or courteous but meaningless exchanges. They argue (strongly!) that vigorous debate is extremely productive if there is humility alongside it. People need to understand that it is ideas that are being questioned, not their identities. I think this distinction is very, very important.
Regarding curiosity, it’s easy to go with the first solution that presents itself, especially if that solution is your own. The ability to take other solutions on board and weigh them equally is key. So the authors give 4 questions to aid curiosity, a mini-version of Socratic questioning:
1) What do we mean?
2) What are we seeing?
3) What are we assuming?
4) What does that lead to?
The final area is veracity. They define veracity as an active searching for truth. People often avoid this as “the reaction to hard-to-hear truth when revealed isn’t usually favourable. As a result of the typical reaction to candour, most people believe truth telling is risky… A major barrier to hearing truth is our belief that dissent is disloyalty. If we view dissent as disloyalty, we’ve closed our mind. More often than not, there’s positive intent behind a negative comment.” Both those speaking truth, and those hearing it, have equal responsibility towards humility.
To counter these issues, before speaking up they suggest you:
1) establish permission
2) make your intentions clear
3) be candid.
To be able to understand these lessons, and apply them to myself, I found it practical to digest this book in small chunks over time. I read a few chapters every week or so, then observed myself and others, looking at ways to improve.
Usually we are our own worst enemies, so it’s worth a read if you find yourself slowing down your own progress.