Among the people I admire is a quiet 81-year-old American retiree. Ted Kooser is a distinguished poet and a Pulitzer Prize winner, as well as a life insurance executive. Over 35 years of work at Lincoln Benefit Life, he never strayed from his writing routine from 4.30am to 7am. Regarding the fluidity of his writing, he once said that happens only once a month, adding: “The
rest of the days, I’m an abject failure. I write junk. But I’m writing, and the point is that you show up for work.”
This is a work ethic unfamiliar to the likes of Donald Trump, who’ll never understand the uselessness of ego in attaining success. It pollutes even lauded attributes – passion, for instance. Say, an entrepreneur is all fired-up by an idea; he’s convinced his concept will be the next big thing. Truth is, this enthusiasm is unsustainable and antithetical to the daily grind – ambitions are usually better served by cool heads who can lead rationally.
Just look at the downfall of companies such as Honestbee and WeWork, whose founders (after getting backers) found it easier to spin more stories around their grandiose plans than to get down to serious work. They believed their hype and inflated their self-importance.
Adam Neumann started envisioning a WeGrow, WeBank, WeSail; Joel Sng expanded Honestbee to eight markets in two years.
By blinding an individual to reasonable decisions, the ego can lead to goalodicy, which involves pursuing goals to the point of self-destruction. The term was coined by Christopher Kayes, professor of management at the George Washington University School of Business, who cited the 1996 Mt Everest disaster where eight climbers died as an example. Fixated on summiting the mountain, they disregarded the turnaround time that could have ensured their safety.
This conceit also relates to the Dunning-Kruger effect, when someone is convinced he’s always right. American psychology professor David Dunning pointed out that in over 30 years of research, he’s observed the reluctance of people to say, “I don’t know”. Ignorance is seen as a weakness. Even with evidence to the contrary, they may resist admitting they’re wrong. This is a result of cognitive dissonance – the discomfort that arises from opposing beliefs. To justify one’s position, people will appeal to any basis to support their stance. Wearing masks, for instance, has become politicised in the US.
A superiority complex plays to all of this and the solution is simply to be open-minded. Ego is blinding; you cannot learn if you think you already know. Strike a balance between the strength of your convictions and the humility to listen. The moment you feel entitled because you’ve gained fame or validation, a gulf opens up between you and your goals. Doing great work is really about the burn of continual effort in the winter of the unknown – much like this line from a Kooser poem: “Against the starry cold, one small blue ring of flame”.