What I Learned About Ego When I Meant to Practice Something Else

Photo: Alessio Lin

Imagine the next scenario: 33 talented people, meeting together at Karlskrona, Sweden, to co-facilitate a training around the Art of Hosting Capacity Building. All of them have experience with content design and facilitation — ranging from a few years to a few dozen of years; all are passionate about learning and teaching; all are good team players, yet have enough capacity to facilitate a session by themselves. Sitting there, in a round room with huge glass windows that invite the beautiful Baltic coast line indoors, they need to decide who takes each section during the training, who’s mentoring whom (some are far more experienced than others), and what exactly does co-hosting mean. Sure, it’s a matter of the self-organizing process; but in fact it’s much more than that. It’s also a question which taps into EGO, and how to manage the ego for the sake of the learning journey, as well as the entire training experience.

I can use the Oxford dictionary definition of ego: A person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance, or Freud’s observation that the ego is a set of functions such as judgment, tolerance, reality testing, control, planning, defense, synthesis of information, intellectual functioning, and memory — which separate out what is real and help us organize our thoughts and make sense of them. But I can also use my own words and say that ego is our inner mechanism to stay in control in a situation — realistic or imaginary — and that it serves our survival instinct, by letting ourselves and others be aware that we’re still relevant.

And there I did it — I let my ego sneak in here and set my own definition, both to make sense of my thoughts (like Freud explains) and not to lose control within my own text.

My conclusion, based on observing everyday situations, interactions, relationships and people from all walks of life — is that we all do it, all of the time. We let the ego take over way more often than we let go of our judgements, assumptions and fears.

Is that wrong?

Let’s go back to the example of the large team of facilitators working together to pull together a professional training. If there wasn’t any ego involved in the first place — meaning each facilitator possessed the inner sense that they are qualified and fit to take part in this team — there would be no participation. People progress because they want to learn and grow, but also because they have a certain self-esteem which they want to re-affirm. So ego can be good, as a motivator, can’t it?

At the same time, if all 33 facilitators are not willing to suspend the ego during co-designing and co-hosting this training, you could only imagine the mess. The un-professional manner it would be held in, would be disorganized and ineffective, as well as give a poor example for the participants. So ego is a bad thing?

What if we take a different perspective rather than a “bad ego” and/or a “good ego”, and try to ask it as a question:

How does the ego serve me and in which ways does it hinder me?

In Jalaja Bonheim’s book, The Sacred Ego: Making Peace with Ourselves and Our World, she describes an interesting way to overcome the common conflict between having a “bad ego” and being open hearted. “We all have both an ego that wants us to survive and thrive and a heart who wants to be open in love. This should not be a problem, but somehow we made it into one. We’ve been told that the ego and the heart can’t co-exist…” writes Bonheim. Her conclusion is that not only are the ego and the open heart not enemies, but that they are both needed. If we show respect to the ego and explore how it can serve us well in a certain situation, then we can actually avoid violent conflicts which many times are the result of an egocentric world view or behavior.

i pastori dell’arcadia / et in arcadia ego. Nicolas Poussin

When trying to be honest with myself, I discover that my ego can usually serve me when I’m too afraid to show up, to be my authentic self or to mobilize a new crazy-against-the-current-almost-rude-social-environmental project. And my ego usually hinders me when I think I came to learn something new — projecting my old views, comparing the new data with my existing knowledge, or simply holding the belief that that I know better than this person.

When working in teams, ego almost always hinders a rich team process, since working together might be seen as contradicting the natural survival instinct. Yet a good leader can be aware of this tendency and use the team members’ ego in a way that will make them thrive. They can use the ego to cultivate other’s strengths, encourage openness to different ideas, skills and mind-sets, and reduce competition engaging all of the team members in the process. If that sounds un-realistic or naive, please pay attention to the following story:

In 2014 I had the pleasure of hearing a keynote address given in Norway by world champion adventure racer, Robyn Benincasa. Using inspiring stories from 10 days of adventure races in a team of four, Benincasa shared some powerful lessons about team work and collaboration towards a shared goal; but there’s one sentence I will always carry with me from her speech, that sometimes, the best way to propel your team to the finish line, is by leaving your ego at the starting line.

I remember thinking to myself that it sounds strange coming from an adventure sports racer, who receives her recognition by competing with others. But it’s also why it was so powerful: there’s time to let the ego lead your steps and guide your survival or growing process, and there’s time to suspend the ego and leave it at the entrance, and within a team is a powerful place to practice that.

When coming to host that training with the other 32 facilitators, I thought I will be learning how to facilitate better. In fact, my biggest learning was around playing with my ego, confronting it, understand it better and investigating where it comes from. Do I want to learn now or do I want to demonstrate my abilities? Do I want to improve my practices or to prove myself? And when I began to honestly ask myself those questions, the deep learning has emerged.

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