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How To Spot Your Next Big Opportunity With Humility Exercises
Winning Your Inner Battles With Aspiration, Success & Failure
I’ve blown business relationships by acting cocky. I’ve invested money in things I was sure of — because of overconfidence from my previous good investments — and lost big. These are mistakes I might have avoided with more humility.
Our ego can get in the way of our success. Constantly. Whether you’re hoping to achieve a goal, trying to preserve previous accomplishments, or recovering from failure, it’s all much easier when you’re humble.
Ego takes many shapes, but essentially it clouds your understanding. When your ego is in charge, it severs your direct and honest connection to the real world. Remove ego and you’re left with reality and a healthy sense of respect for what’s next, which helps you understand what’s possible and how to move forward.
Today, I’ll give you three exercises to develop the humility you need to spot where the next opportunity lies. First, we’ll explore why your ego causes so much trouble.
The Endless Triangle of Ego
The concept of ego isn’t exactly hard science, but research suggests it might be useful to piece together the structure neuroscientists find in our brains: the conscious, unconscious, and metacognition. Metacognition is how “you know what you know”— a sort of self-monitoring that allows you to ask, “How sure am I of what I think I know?”
This trinity resembles what Sigmund Freud suggested in his 1923 paper The Ego and the Id. Freud’s model included the id, the ego, and the super-ego.
The id operates on instinctual desires: pleasure and survival. It wants to eat, sleep, and have sex — right now, please.
The super-ego relates to our moral consciousness, aspirations, and our awareness of ourselves as part of a society. It asks, “How sure am I that I’m right?” Or, “Was I rude?” and “Should I tell her she gave me too much change?”
The ego mediates between these two. Freud saw our ego as an operating system for reality, with the id and the super-ego influencing its decisions like the metaphorical devil and angel on our shoulder.
Problems arise not from the ego itself, but from the tension between it and the id and super-ego it negotiates with. This constant inner battle dominates our entire life, reminding us of Ryan Holiday in Ego is the Enemy. Holiday divides life into three modes, which cover all of our time spent: aspiration, success, and failure.
We’re always either winning, losing, or moving towards one or the other.
In this endless triangle, unconscious influences can trap you at every corner. Here’s how you can win the battle in each stage.
Aspiration: The Passion Trap
According to science, there are two kinds of passion. First, there’s harmonious passion, in which “the activity occupies a significant but not overpowering space in the person’s identity and is in harmony with other aspects of the person’s life.” (Robert J. Vallerand) It results from competence, relatedness, and autonomy with what you do. But that’s not the kind of passion we usually start projects with.
Obsessive passion “originates from intra and/or interpersonal pressure typically because certain contingencies are attached to the activity such as feelings of social acceptance or self-esteem.” (Vallerand)
Bingo. This is what happens when we attach our identity to a goal, which we often do before we’ve even begun the work.
It’s this obsessive passion that’s sold to us as a quality of greatness. But what we miss is that history’s greatest failures had it too. Howard Hughes was passionate about aviation, Nixon about his country, and Miley Cyrus about music, yet that is precisely why they all imploded.
The egoistic identity focus of obsessive passion is a big problem, Ryan Holiday suggests. Obsessive passion is its own show, not a tool in service of something greater. With it come side effects like early pride, bold proclamations, and lots of dreaming. None of which move things forward.
Obsessive passion has no patience. The damper it needs is a healthy dose of respect for the monumental feat you want to accomplish. That puts some objective distance between you and your work.
Here’s that damper.
Exercise #1: The Sacrifice Scoreboard
Everything has a price. But once it’s paid, few success stories mention it. With the Sacrifice Scoreboard, you’ll reveal those prices. “Oh, so… that’s what it takes.” That’s what we’re shooting for here.
To set up your Sacrifice Scoreboard, create a simple spreadsheet with four columns: the person, their achievement, their sacrifices, and how painful those sacrifices were. Or, just copy mine.
There are three kinds of people whose achievements you should look at:
- Famous people you admire.
- People you know and admire.
Try to think of at least 3–5 examples for the first two, and if you can’t Google your way to their actual sacrifices, make some educated guesses.
With this perspective, you’ll likely see that you’re still early on the curve. For example, even if I publish my first book at 50-years-old I’ll still beat Steven Pressfield by two years. Huh.
That kind of understanding makes it a lot easier to be patient and keep putting the work in.
Extension: Finding Your Unsung Heroes
We like to fantasize about ‘being’ things— that identity piece again. We want to “be” a writer, a CEO, an artist. But these labels are preceded by a long time of “doing” the required work. In fact, there are millions of people who “do” for years, yet never get the label.
If you want to make this exercise even more powerful, extend your search to the people who wanted to achieve the same thing as you, but failed along the way. These are harder to find, but they too paid the price — and they never even got their label. Does that change the value of their work?
Probably not. The real value in what we do doesn’t come from those labels; they are fool’s gold.
Success: The Immortality Trap
Building partially on Freud’s work, Ernest Becker shares two central ideas in The Denial of Death:
- Our fear of dying is so existential that it underlies everything we do.
- Out of this fear we construct a conceptual self, which we hope to remain immortal once our physical self dies.
He suggested that civilization is, at its core, one giant immortality project — an act of defiance against our mortality. With each of our successes comes a taste of this immortality and it poisons our next move.
My biggest obstacle to finishing this article is that I want it to succeed, because I’ve had successful articles in the past. What if this one doesn’t do well? What if it destroys some of the reputation I’ve built?
‘A great destiny is great slavery,’ Seneca remarked. Perfectionism, procrastination, self-doubt, and fear of criticism can be consequences of a drive for success. That’s how our id blocks us from moving along on what we’ve worked so hard for.
Science confirms this in various ways. For example:
- When we consider negative feedback as threats to our identity, we fail to learn from our mistakes.
- We form a bias that our mode of living — our conceptual self — is the ideal everyone else should strive for.
- We may even subjugate ourselves to stereotypes, as long as they line up with our grand destiny.
Of course, no one controls their legacy. A guy like Trump hopes that if he puts his name on enough buildings, we’ll remember him forever. That part may be true, but it won’t affect how we remember him in the slightest.
True heroes don’t build their own monuments. No matter how far we’ve come, we must always continue to take small steps. It helps to remind ourselves that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants.
Exercise #2: Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants
In August, I took a trip to the Hall of Liberation and Walhalla Memorial near Regensburg. They’re huge, towering giants in the sky. It’s impossible not to feel small. And that’s exactly the point of this exercise.
Take some of that money you’re so proud you made and spend it on a trip down history lane. The reminder you need may even be just down the street, because history is everywhere. Here’s what you can do specifically:
- Visit a landmark. The taller the better.
- Stroll through a museum.
- Learn about your town’s founding history.
- Trace the tech you use back to its roots. And their roots. And so on.
In each case, consider the threads and interactions that culminated in these achievements. If Gutenberg hadn’t invented the printing press in 1440, you couldn’t read this. If Tim Berners-Lee hadn’t pestered his boss at CERN, you couldn’t read this. If Ev hadn’t left Twitter, you couldn’t read this.
Your hands are only two of millions that contribute to your success. When you remind yourself that you’re not that significant in the grand scheme of things— yet the work that you do matters in building those complex histories— it gives you the freedom to focus on using your skills to help others. And to quit focusing on your own reputation.
Maybe you’ll win a Pulitzer Prize, maybe not. Ernest Becker did. In 1974, one year after his death.
Failure: The Entitlement Trap
Another term Freud coined is narcissisic injury. It’s when we take offense at events we have no control over. After your super-ego pushes you so hard to play by society’s rules, it wants to be treated fairly, too.
But life’s not fair. Sometimes the audience won’t clap, no matter how much you deserve the applause. In The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, Mark Manson points to the self-esteem movement as part of the problem:
The true measurement of self-worth is not how a person feels about her positive experiences, but rather how she feels about her negative experiences. A person who actually has a high self-worth is able to look at the negative parts of his character frankly and then acts to improve upon them. But entitled people, because they are incapable of acknowledging their own problems openly and honestly, are incapable of improving their lives in any lasting or meaningful way.
Grade inflation, helicopter parents, participation trophies, and survivorship bias in the media have given us a skewed sense of what our self-esteem should be based upon. The result of this entitlement mentality is that we live in a constant state of disappointment. We don’t win— or even get a medal— every time. We don’t hit a home-run every time we’re up to bat.
But that’s okay. We need to learn how to let making our best effort be enough. John Wooden’s definition of success comes to mind:
“Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
But how do you remember that when it feels like life sucks and you’re a failure?
Exercise #3: Turning The Spotlight
Here’s an example of this exercise in practice: when you get a terrible hand at poker night, fold and get snacks for everyone else.
I call this ‘turning the spotlight.’
The spotlight effect is our tendency to think our every move is being watched by the whole world. So when we fail, we feel like Janet Jackson at the 2004 Super Bowl. But really, no one cares— because they’re busy dancing in their spotlight.
The quickest way to recover from failure of any size, I’ve found, is to turn that spotlight away from yourself for a bit. Get out of your own head. When you’re down, think of the people around you. Answer one question:
“How can I help?”
- Taking household chores off your family’s hands.
- Helping a friend with an issue that’s easy for you to solve, but not for them.
- Offering whatever you do at work for free to someone who needs it.
Even the smallest gesture can reaffirm your value and help you see that failure does not define you.
There’s no way to completely get rid of the little devil and angel on your shoulder. That’s a good thing, as your super-ego and id serve a purpose in helping you do good self-care and function well in society with others.
Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, put it best: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
Move your ego to the side to be respectful of your goals, supportive of your long-term success, and adaptable in your failures.
Even the notoriously depressed Freud arrived at the conclusion that, “One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”