Turn Off the Ego and Learn

There is always something we can learn and something we can better understand. No matter how smart we think we are or how smart we feel, we can always adopt new perspectives, work to see things from new points of view, and begin to see the world in a more clear way. Challenging ourselves to see the world beyond the perspective we are accustomed to or beyond the perspective that is comfortable can open up new possibilities and help us understand the people in our lives who we would otherwise find puzzling. We never fully understand everything there is about something, and even if we feel we are a true master in a field, we likely don’t have a full grasp of how exactly our field connects with adjacent fields. Adopting this attitude however, cannot be done if we don’t clear our ego.

 

When we allow our ego to take over and tell us that we are smart and have it all figured out, we cease to learn. The ego wants us to believe that our perspective is the best, that our way of thinking is the only truly valuable way of thinking, that the contradictions in our thoughts are not contradictions at all, but rational decisions that others just don’t see clearly. The ego doesn’t want to be challenged, it doesn’t want the boat to be rocked, and it wants us to be morally and intellectually superior to others.

 

When we abandon this ego drive, we can be more open to the world around us and better learn as we move through an ever changing world. By being more humble about just how much we know and understand about the world, we can become more genuine people who better appreciate those around us. Ryan Holiday writes about this in his book Ego is the Enemy. He writes, “at ever step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn – and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.”

 

Everyone has both received and given the advice to be a sponge when you start a new career, hobby, athletic routine, or cooking class. We tell young people to learn as much as they can from those who are successful and from those who have been in their shoes. For some reason though, we seem to reach a point where being a sponge for knowledge fades away. Holiday would argue that our ego has a big part to do with why we stop focusing on learning from others and from experiences. We get to a point where we feel that we have become the wise elder, the successful person, the one with all the knowledge, and our job becomes teaching others and not learning. But continual learning is crucial if we want to continually adjust to the world around us, maintain the success we build, or even if we just want to stay engaged in the world and have meaningful relationships with those around us. If we can accept that we always have more to learn or that we always need refreshers on basic lessons from our past, we can better connect with the world and approach people and situations with a better perspective focused on gaining more understanding rather than showing how much we already think we know.

Helping Yourself by Helping Others

In The Ego is the Enemy, author Colin Wright encourages us to get beyond our own selfish thoughts and desires. He encourages us to be aware of our ego and the times that our ego kicks in to run the show and determine what we do. The Ego, Holiday writes, seeks things for our own self-interest, and puts us in situations where it actually becomes harder to achieve what we want or to live the life that we want. Rather than pursuing our ego, Holiday suggests that we work toward or goals by helping others first. He suggest that we practice humility and put in the grunt work, tackling projects that are small and seem unimportant but will help us learn and grow over time.

 

He writes, “Imagine if for every person you met, you thought of some way to help them, something you could do for them? And you looked at it in a way that entirely benefited them and not you. The cumulative effect this would have over time would be profound: You’d learn a great deal by solving diverse problems. You’d develop a reputation for being indispensable. You’d have countless new relationships. You’d have an enormous bank of favors to call upon down the road.”

 

Helping others in this way truly does help ourselves. It puts our short term self-interests aside as we assist other people and show that we care about them. People want help and are more likely to give you opportunities to grow when what you are doing is serving them rather than serving yourself. To pursue this type of strategy, you have to accept that your work may be kept in the background and that other people may get more credit than you for the work you do or the ideas you produce. Holiday encourages us to be confident that this approach will still lead to long term success even if it feels we are being overlooked in the short run.

 

This strategy aims toward is positive results in the world, your company, or in your family. What matters most is that you are part of a successful team and that the world is made better with your actions. Where we can be confident is that in the long run we will be recognized as the source of the great ideas, or as the person who put in the hard work to keep things moving in a positive direction. But even if we are not, we still benefit in the long run by a rising tide that lifts us with the other people in our company, family, or group. Pursuing success and helping others become the best versions of themselves will ultimately help us more and create more cohesion among the groups we belong to than will our selfish attention seeking ego.

The “Learning vs Ego” Clash

Its is not obvious, but our ego prevents us from learning. Our ego is that piece of our brain that thinks we are amazing. It is what drove Kanye West to hang a giant picture of himself in his house so that it is the first thing you see when you walk in. It is the piece of me that put a 1st place plaque in my office at work. And it is the part of our brain that posts “proud mom” photos on Facebook or sticks student of the month stickers on our bumper. Our ego tells us we are amazing, good at everything, and already know it all.

 

This is where the ego clashes with real learning. When we look back at our high school and early college years we all seem to recognize the same thing, that we thought we knew everything when we were younger. As we age and go through new life experiences, we constantly see that we have a lot to learn. Some of my favorite thinkers have often remarked in books or in podcasts that as they have  gotten older, as they have studied a subject more thoroughly, and as they have paid more attention to the world around them, they realize how little they actually do know. When we push aside our ego and look at ourselves truthfully we can see that we really don’t know that much.

 

Ryan Holiday writes about this in his book Ego is the Enemy. Starting with a quote from Epictetus he writes, “It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows,” highlighting the importance of being honest about ones knowledge or lack of knowledge. Holiday continues, “You can’t learn if you think you already know. You will not find the answers if you’re too conceited and self-assured to ask the questions. You cannot get better if you’re convinced you are the best.”

 

Holiday shows that our ego directly interferes with learning and growing. When we are at least slightly humble and can admit that we don’t know everything, we open ourselves up to learning something new about the world. When we admit that we are not the best in the world (or the best we possibly could be) at something, we can begin to see areas where we can improve. Our ego, the piece of us that wants to brag to the world, does not want to admit that there is something we don’t know, that we don’t understand, or that we don’t have everything perfected and we still have areas where we need to get better. The ego makes excuses about all of these things and contorts reality to fit the image that we want to project to the world and see all about us.

 

If we can push past this ego urge and think about the world in a more well-rounded way, we can actually start taking steps to improve ourselves. If we approach the world without a need to validate our ego, we can adopt more perspectives and possibilities that allow us to learn from others and practice things that will allow us to grow in important areas.

Learning From Others vs Being Fearful of Others

Ryan Holiday shares stories from leaders and masters of their craft in his book Ego is the Enemy, and the lessons he shares show us how some people have been able to put their ego aside to become truly great at what they do. One of the people Holiday uses as an example is Kirk Hammett who became the lead guitarist for Metallica when it was still an underground metal group. Hammett had a great opportunity with the band early on, and recognized that there were many areas where he needed to improve if he wanted to help the band truly reach the next level. Despite being successful and in a lead position on an up-and-coming band, Hammett reached out to another man, Joe Satriani, for lessons starting with the most basic fundamentals. The lesson that Holiday shares is a lesson in self-humility. Even when things are going our way and we are in the positions we want to be in, we can still learn a lot from those around us and from those who have also been working in the same or similar areas where we have begun to find success. In order to truly learn from those around us, we have to be open to the idea that other people can teach us something important, and we have to put aside our pride in the accomplishments we have already achieved. We have to accept that we don’t know all there is to know and that someone else (potentially someone who has not had the same level of success as us) can still show us something new.

 

Holiday writes, “We don’t like thinking that someone is better than us. Or that we have a lot left to learn. We want to be done. We want to be ready. We’re busy and overburdened. For this reason, updating your appraisal of your talents in a downward direction is one of the most difficult things to do in life–but it is almost always a component of mastery.”

 

It is always tempting to tell ourselves that we are much more smart, talented, and hard working than everyone else. It is reassuring to say to ourselves that we deserve what we have received (or that we don’t deserve to be passed over for an opportunity) and that we are going to have even more opportunities for greatness and success simply because we are awesome. What is harder to do, and what Holiday shows us is critical to truly be a master at what we do, is to seek out other leaders and other skillful individuals to learn from them. Looking around and seeing that other people are just as skilled, smart, and competent as us often feels threatening, as if they will be recognized for their greatness and we will be left behind, discarded as a fraud. Its tempting to ignore others, or to tell ourselves stories about why we somehow are more deserving or just better than the rest.

 

True greatness, however, looks at our competitors, colleagues, and other people in our space with respect. From this vantage point, there is something we can learn from others as we press forward. If we step back and take a more objective view of ourselves relative to the world, we can see that we are not always as amazing as we would like to be, and that is OK. We can reach out and learn lessons from those who we may otherwise denigrate and we can begin to prepare ourselves for our next opportunity rather than over-inflate our pride only to be terrified when the next challenge rolls around.

Believing in the Self and Achieving Success

Ryan Holiday encourages his readers to be confident in who they are, but to build their confidence through real work and effort and to base their belief in themselves on real achievement. His book Ego is the Enemy is a look at how our egos can ruin our lives and put us in situations where we cannot be successful unless we are honest with ourselves about our abilities. He quotes a biographer of a little known Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman, to help us see what honest and sincere self-confidence looks like. The full passage that he quotes is:

 

“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 shame of insincere self-deprecation but the modest of “moderation,” in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose.”

 

When we believe in ourselves despite having no reason to believe that we can accomplish what we desire, we risk pursuing a goal without being honest about ourselves, our position, our advantages, and our limitations. We put ourselves in a position where we believe we understand more than we truly do and where we believe that we know more about the world than we do. This may help us bulldoze our way to success, but it may also cause us to be brash around colleagues and friends who may be better suited than us for achieving goals to make a true difference in the world. Ultimately, this form of ego reduction requires that we also shift the traditional view of success. If our success is not tied to our own income and to being better than other people, then we can see success as helping improve some aspect of the world, and we can then improve the way we learn from others and achieve success by helping others make a difference. Modesty and a healthy appreciation for ones abilities can aid us in our growth by allowing us to be comfortable in a position where we make a big difference, even if we are not in the spotlight. While keeping us grounded on our true abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, humility helps us grow and learn and so that we can develop the skills necessary to accomplish things that matter most.

Coaching is About Curiosity

One of the final paragraphs from Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit  reads, “But the real secret sauce here is building a habit of curiosity. The change of behavior that’s going to serve you most powerfully is simply this: a little less advice, a little more curiosity. Find your own questions, find your own voice. And above all, build your own coaching habit.”

 

The crux of Bungay Stanier’s thoughts on coaching is that being a good coach requires asking questions in a process of discovery as opposed to providing answers in the form of advice giving. Contrary to the typical American version of coaches or the sports movie version of coaches, an effective coach doesn’t just bark orders and doesn’t just automatically give everyone answers, advice, and life lessons. True coaches, in real life, help individuals find answers themselves.

 

When we think about coaches, we often imagine someone who has years of experience, who has been in every situation, and who can decipher exactly what needs to be done at any moment. This imagined coach, however, does not exist. No matter how long someone has been coaching and no matter how insightful they are, no one can truly understand the pressures, challenges, and specifics of the situations and needs of another person. By focusing on asking questions, the coach discovers what is happening and what the other person needs. The individual being coached gets more help from questions than advice because the questions drive them to think more deeply about themselves, other people, and the where they are at in life. Questions can shift their perspective, encourage deeper thought, and lead to discoveries that advice cannot produce.

 

For almost all of us, we do less listening than we do speaking. When another person is talking, we spend a lot of our free brain space trying to anticipate where the conversation is going so that we can have a perfect response. Knowing this about ourselves can help us understand why advice simply doesn’t land. The other person, while we are giving them advice, is thinking ahead of where our advice is going. Asking a question instead of giving advice gets the other person talking and thinking through what they are saying and describing. It allows them to put pieces together in a constructive form of discovery in a way that advice simply doesn’t.

 

Ultimately, by remembering that coaching is a form of discovery, we enter our coaching opportunities willing to be more flexible, and willing to be more responsive to the needs of the person we are coaching. Rather than walking into the coaching opportunity feeling pressured to have brilliant insights and to give the other person some magnificent piece of advice, we can enter the opportunity knowing that we can both co-discover a solution that is not yet apparent. This takes a lot of pressure off of both the coach and the person being coached.

Advice Doesn’t Help Us Generate Knowledge

As you would expect, Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit is all about how to be a more effective coach. Part of becoming a more effective coach involves understanding how the brain works so that you can understand how the people you coach are going to learn and react in certain situations. To help demonstrate the importance of knowing how the brain works, Bungay Stanier references Josh Davis and his colleagues from the NeuroLeeadership Institute and their model known as “AGES”. Specifically, Bungay Stanier focuses on the “G” from AGES.

 

G stands for Generation, and commenting on knowledge generation, Bungay Stanier writes, “Advice is overrated. I can tell you something, and it’s got a limited chance of making its way into your brain’s hippocampus, the region  that encodes memory. If I can ask you a question and you generate the answer yourself, the odds increase substantially.” What is important here is understanding that we create memories and generate our knowledge in an active process. Learning and creating knowledge are not passive processes. We don’t sit in a sea of information and passively absorb new lessons and knowledge as tides of information wash into our brains. Instead, we hunt down the specific information we need or want (or sometimes we inadvertently pursue it) and emotion and engagement pull the knowledge into our minds.

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Quoting the NeuroLeadership Institute, Bungay Stanier writes, “When we take time and effort to generate knowledge and find an answer rather than just reading it, our memory retention is increased.” The chance of us remembering something a professor says, or something we hear on TV, or the advice our parents give us is not great when it is just verbally directed toward us. If we truly seek out the information, if the information is presented to us in a way that forces us to be more engaged to get the answer we need, and if we have to truly use the faculties of our mind to find meaning, reason, and truth, then we will have a more powerful connection to the knowledge. We will generate new information in our brain and become more knowledgeable than we would if the information was simply presented to (or at) us.