Tag Archives: Ego

Egonomics by David Marcum and Steven Smith

16 May

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:

1)      humility

2)      curiosity

3)      veracity

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.


The Self Illusion

5 Jun

The excellent Jonah Lehrer interviews Bruce Hood about his new book The Self Illusion here.

I’ve included a few choice quotes, but recommend the whole article as a very interesting discussion around the self and consciousness, and it fits with the neuroscience books I’ve read. It’s an evidence-based view rather than the usual wishful thinking that gives us the tendency to think we’re something more than we are. It’s an approach that goes against our ego, which is kind of the point.

Personally I prefer Occam’s Razor when it comes to choosing the most likely explanation for a phenomenon, and Bruce Hood seems to take the same approach.

In his book The Self Illusion, Hood argues “that the self – this entity at the centre of our personal universe – is actually just a story, a constructed narrative.”

He uses “a distinction that William James drew between the self as “I” and “me.” Our consciousness of the self in the here and now is the “I” and most of the time, we experience this as being an integrated and coherent individual – a bit like the character in the story. The self which we tell others about, is autobiographical or the “me” which again is a coherent account of who we think we are based on past experiences, current events and aspirations for the future.

This is an important point to bear in mind when we justify our behaviour: “We can easily spot the inconsistencies in other people’s accounts of their self but we are less able to spot our own, and when those inconsistencies are made apparent by the consequences of our actions, we make the excuse, “I wasn’t myself last night” or “It was the wine talking!” Well, wine doesn’t talk and if you were not yourself, then who were you and who was being you?

It has been experimentally confirmed that we decide most of our actions subconsciously and our conscious mind then creates reasons for our behaviour post hoc.

Whole branches of philosophy are based around this one: “We have no direct contact with reality because everything we experience is an abstracted version of reality that has been through the processing machinery of our brains to produce experience.

And Hood comes to terms with his conclusion with equanimity; “I don’t think appreciating that the self is an illusion is a bad thing. In fact, I think it is inescapable… we know that the self must be the output of the material brain.

And there’s a fascinating section that concludes “the brain creates both the mind and the experience of mind”.

Humans, And Other Animals

10 Apr

“To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.”

– Frans de Waal

Lewis Wolpert said that tool use – and hence awareness of cause and effect – is uniquely human. This has been clearly shown to be otherwise for primates and even for crows.

What is different about us is the degree of our awareness of causality, due to our relatively large frontal cortex.

We humans tend to think that we’re somehow superior to all the other animals. Surely, the argument goes, a mere beast cannot experience the breadth of emotion we can? Or understand the moral duties we feel towards each other. Not to mention our linguistic capabilities or self-awareness.

However this approach gets in the way of us understanding how we evolved to be like we are. If we are the pinnacle of evolution then why don’t we have the sense of smell of a dog, the eyesight of an eagle, and the ability to regrow limbs like a spider? We have survived partly due to our adaptability and partly due to blind chance.

Pigeons have been shown to be superstitious, bees can be emotional, elephants mourn their dead and are self-aware and vampire bats are surprisingly altruistic, yet we persist in maintaining a sense of superiority.

This human-centred thinking has held us back in our understanding (we insisted for too long that the sun and other stars go round the earth). Our egotistical tendencies are key to our survival so they do serve a good purpose, but we need to be aware of the side-effects.

Carl Sagan said (in a very silly voice): “It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world … Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”

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