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.
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:
- 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!)
1. 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.”
2. 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.
3. 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.