"If I were only a little more humble I'd be perfect."
- Ted Turner
One of my pet peeves is false modesty. So when I saw the Ted Turner quote in Business Week, I had to tip my cap to him. You certainly can't accuse that guy of false modesty!
Ego is a wonderful thing. I was blessed with a relatively healthy one (although some might say too healthy). For entrepreneurs, a healthy ego is essential. If you get discouraged easily or start listening to the naysayers, you'll never make it. It takes a thick skin and genuine belief in yourself to take the risk to start something new - and stick with it.
Yet, even the Ted Turners of the world realize that ego - at least too much of it - is not a good thing. I've known people who offer great advice to other people. But for some reason, they don't seem to be able to give that kind of advice to themselves. I attribute their failings to ego, rather than lack of judgment. When egos are not involved, it's easier to be objective and realistic. However, when egos get in the way, judgment gets cloudy.
The ego's influence is insidious. Even the most well adjusted people I know - people of good character and judgment - can get tricked and manipulated by their egos. A healthy ego can be a great asset but it can also be a huge liability. Egos can be so fragile and debilitating at times.
Recently, someone referred me to a book called Egonomics. The book is not finished but their website offers a preview. Some early warning signs of ego getting in the way are - being comparative/competitive, being defensive, showcasing brilliance, and seeking acceptance. The book's outline also provides some hints of ways to combat ego - curiosity, humility, and veracity.
For me, I try to keep it simple. I will always remember the advice I got from John Gardner from my days as a student. He said, "be interested." He observed that, at settings like cocktail parties, everyone wants to be interesting. But it's more important to be interested.
In the technology industry, we often come across people who are not so interested. Perhaps, that's why the term NIH (Not Invented Here) is used. Some entrepreneurs who start believing their own press clippings may also suffer from this syndrome. But it's not just about curiosity - being interested also helps with humility and veracity.
For instance, if you think that you know it all, you won't listen. I've observed certain people in conversations and wondered if they were really listening or just trying to figure out when to jump in, thinking about how they will respond in brilliant fashion. It's easy to be interested if you're more humble - if you genuinely believe that you have something to learn.
There is a funny story that Jim Collins likes to tell about Sam Walton. Years ago, Sam Walton was sitting at a diner in Bentonville when a guy walks in. He points over and says (and I paraphrase) "That's Joe. I really admire Joe. Joe used to be a truck driver. And then, Joe went into business for himself and now raises chickens. Joe is really successful. I'd like to learn from Joe." At the time, Sam Walton was worth eight billion dollars (on his way to creating the largest fortune in the world). To listen to this story (Jim tells it much better), click on this audio file.
Sam Walton certainly had a healthy ego. People underestimated him for years - but he believed in himself and persevered for decades. He didn't open the first Walmart until he was in his forties and the company didn't go public (at a very modest valuation) until he was in his fifties. Yet, even as he became successful beyond anyone's wildest dreams, he always looked for ways to learn from others.
Being interested also helps with veracity. If you don't want to hear the truth, you won't be interested in finding out what is really going on. The truth can hurt. It can be ugly and unpleasant at times. Unfortunately, ego can get in the way of facing brutal realities - which is suicidal for entrepreneurs (as well as venture capitalists). Being genuinely interested in facing the truth will help combat ego from getting in the way. If you have the stomach for it, it simplifies life as well as business.
As is often the case, our greatest strength can also be our greatest weakness. In the case of ego, I'm all for turning it into a strength. But it's important to work hard to make sure that it doesn't also become a weakness. I've learned to leggo my ego - but I also know that it will keep coming back, rearing its ugly head at unexpected moments. So I have to keep letting it go...until it becomes habit.