"Among men who rise to fame and leadership two types are recognizable - those who are born with a belief in themselves and those in whom it is a slow growth dependent on actual achievement. To the men of the last type their own success is a constant surprise, and its fruits the more delicious, yet to be tested cautiously with a haunting sense of doubt whether it is not all a dream. In that doubt lies true modesty, not the sham of insincere self-deprecation but the modesty of moderation", in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose."
-William Tecumseh Sherman’s biographer
Ego only Gets in the Way
“The egotist does not stumble about, knocking things off his desk. He does not stammer or drool. No, instead, he becomes more and more arrogant, and some people, not knowing what is underneath such an attitude, mistake his arrogance for a sense of power and self-confidence.” (Harold Geneen)
Ryan Holiday contrasts two men in Ego is the Enemy: Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Both were successful Civil War generals, nationally beloved men, and friends. Yet one died penniless of throat cancer while the spent his life in quiet retirement.
Well, ego. After his success in the Civil War, Ulysses Grant wished for the wealth of investing and political power. His investments and reputation were used to back a Ponzi scheme that bankrupted him and being President of the United States broke him.
As his friend William Tecumseh Sherman said: “Grant aimed to rival the millionaires, who would have given their all to have won any of his battles.”
Dying of throat cancer Grant penned his memoirs (which became a bestseller) so that his family could have money to survive on after he died. Upon their completion, he died 4 days later at the age of 63.
In contrast, Sherman turned down opportunities for public office. He knew his limits. He was aware of his strengths and weaknesses. His desires were in check. And so he spent the rest of his life in apparently happy and active in New York.
“Christians believe that pride is a sin because it is a lie – it convinces people that they are better than they are, that they are better than God made them. Pride leads to arrogance and then away from humility and connection with their fellow man. You don’t have to be Christian to see the wisdom in this. You need only to care about your career to understand that pride – even in real accomplishments – is a distraction and a deluder.” (Ryan Holiday)
There Will Be Tension
Yet becoming competent, becoming a high performer, requires an awareness and knowledge of one’s abilities. We are all running a race that we are trying to win. There is an “I” that is running this race and as long as there is an “I” there will be an ego.
What to Do?
Prepare Your Ego: "Doing great work is a struggle. It's draining, it's demoralizing, it's frightening - not always but it can feel that way when we're in the middle of it." You’re going to be unfairly yelled at, dismissed, slighted, you’ll make compromises and go unappreciated. But rather than saying “I deserve better” – suck it up. Do nothing, just work harder. Ignore the noise, play the game.
Others cannot degrade you. The former slave and statesman Frederick Douglass was asked to move to and ride in baggage because of his race. A white supporter came and apologised. Douglas said: "They cannot degrade Frederick Douglass. The soul that is within me no man can degrade. I am not the one that is being degraded on account of this treatment, but those who are inflicting it upon me."
Be Self-Contained, Self-Motivated, Ruled by Principle: Arrogance, self-absorption, fantasy, and “vision” all inhibit growth. Everyone has arrogance, pride, ego – the difference is that some temper those with humility and selflessness.
Don’t be ruled by passion but by purpose. Passion is about, purpose is to and for.
Learn to Honestly Evaluate Yourself: The ability to evaluate one's own ability might be the most important ability of all.
Seek out harsh, honest evaluation. Ego withers before it.
What is your purpose? Don’t be like Grant and seek to have everything, be everything. Know why you’re here and what you’re after.
Serve: Clear the path – anteambula. The crier who walked ahead of Roman dignitaries literally clearing the path. Subsume your ego under someone else’s. Raise others up.
Lastly, we need to seek humility. After all, what we’re after is the transcendent experiences that make petty ego impossible. “I require a Thou to become; becoming I, I say Thou.” (Martin Buber) “Under the stars, in the light of the infinite and All-Knowing, there is no singular, inflated “I”. To quote Blake:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour