For Developers, Ego Is the Enemy
The ability to admit and learn from your mistakes is critical for your success
I read the book “Ego is the Enemy” by Ryan Holiday, came up with valuable advice, and decided to write this article.
When you hear the word enemy, you probably think about regular expressions, bugs, deployments, meetings, and deadlines. Actually, in our quest to reach our goals and become the software developers we want to be, we are usually our own worst enemies. Ego is what prevents us from asking for help, learning, collaborating, and working hard.
By ego, we are referring to the unhealthy belief in our own importance: our arrogance and our self-centered ambition — that petulant child in every person who chooses to win all the time and at the expense of others.
Ego leads us to think that we’re special, that we know a lot more than we actually know, and that we do not need to collaborate with others, as we are self-sufficient. It prevents the real mastery of programming. From working well and building good relationships with other fellow developers or other people in general. From recognizing opportunities, or creating them, simply because we live inside our own fantasy of greatness.
Ego is a constant threat at every moment of our lives. It prevents us from building more great products, maintaining and progressing towards higher objectives, and recovering from our failed projects.
If we really want to protect ourselves from ego, we should be aware of its techniques at every stage of our life.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. “ — Sun Tzu
To Whatever You Aspire to, Ego Is Your Enemy
You may have a really good GPA, or many of your family members and close friends may have called you a prodigy.
In these cases, your ego tends to make you feel that the world owes you the success you want. That you must get employed and climb up the corporate ladder in record time. That you are supposed to be employed without needing to go through the formal recruiting stages.
You may think that you don’t need to have any repository on GitHub, as you have already surpassed your peers with your GPA. Your ego leads you to think that you don’t need to work hard.
If we look back in history, people who amaze us with the work that they have done are really hard workers.
WordPress is one of the most famous content management systems in the world: it powers-up more than 27% of the web. Its founder, Matt Mullenweg, slept only fours a day and worked really hard while developing WordPress.
The co-founder of Microsoft and the richest man in the world, Bill Gates, used to work every day. “I worked weekends, I didn’t really believe in vacations,” he recalls during an interview.
Back in the days when Mark Zuckerberg was a developer at Facebook, he had to work hard. “The last six years have been a lot of coding and focus and hard work. But maybe it would be fun to remember it as partying and all this crazy drama.”
During the time he used to be a software developer, the co-founder of PayPal, Elon Musk, worked from early morning until late evening, despite being considered as a prodigy. He now works up to 100 hours per week.
You should not overestimate your abilities and get trapped into thinking that you are a lot better than you actually are. You should be very committed and dedicate a lot of time and effort to programming if you really want to excel at it.
Your ego may even prevent you from collaborating with other people. It can make you feel that you are smart enough and sufficient in your own skills so that you don’t need to collaborate with other colleagues in your project. In reality, big projects that have made breakthroughs and have helped millions of users are usually developed as a result of collaborative work.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin started Google together after meeting each other at the computer science department at Stanford. Bill Gates started Microsoft with Paul Allen, who came up with the name Micro-Soft. With his brother Kimbal, Elon Musk created his first IT company Zip2, which was acquired by AltaVista for $307 million in cash and $34 million in securities. Brian Acton collaborated with Jan Koum and founded WhatsApp.
You should work really hard, be humble, and collaborate with others. You should not even think about starting and finishing something of a large scale on your own. You should be part of a team that you work with.
To Whatever Success You Have Achieved, Ego Is the Enemy
You may think that since you now have a job and a few years of experience, you already have a solid castle that should last until you retire. You managed to learn React in only a few weeks and got employed within a few months, without a college degree. You got employed at a top tech company or became a team lead of many other experienced developers. You developed the application that reached thousands of downloads on iTunes.
You might have gotten a job offer from a top tech company in Silicon Valley and brag about it all the time, forgetting that this type of attitude was not the one that brought you up to this point.
Reaching a certain level of success comes with the territory. These types of successes can be very impressive, but also devastating for our own future selves. They may boost our egos and prevent us from deliberately committing to the principles, routines, and hard work that brought us to this level. We forget how much work we had to do to come to this stage.
As a result, we aren’t able to progress further, simply because we can only see what we’ve already done. We shift our focus from the cause of our success to the effects. We skip honing our programming skills and improving our performance as we are indulged in the benefits of our prior success. As the performance artist Marina Abramović puts it, “If you start believing in your greatness, it is the death of your creativity.”
Society praises us and dramatically exaggerates our accomplishments, which fuels up our ego. We are not aware of our real achievements. We greatly overestimate them.
Computer programming is a profession in which you don’t need to get a four-year degree to get a job. You can get employed by learning a programming language with the opportunity to even work remotely. If you do not become better, and learn what is currently valued in the market, chances are that you may easily be replaced by a young and enthusiastic person from the other side of the world. You may not be as special as your ego suggests.
If you want to get better as a programmer and still have the opportunity to develop really cool applications, then you need to always be humble and learn. You need to engage in deliberate practice and constantly challenge your limits.
There is no such thing as a plateau. In physics, there is something called entropy. You are either going down, or you are going up. That’s all there is. There is no stagnation. It’s easy to be successful for a week or a month and get trapped by ego’s stories and fail quickly. I believe true success is sustainable. As 49ers coach Bill Walsh has said, “The toughest thing I ever had to do was get my team to overcome success disease.”
To Whatever Failure and Challenges You Face, Ego Is the Enemy
No matter how hard you try, some failures are inevitable. The startup you worked at that wanted to change the world failed to launch a successful product. The company had a major decrease in sales and had to lay off the majority of its software developers. The enterprise got sunk into big debt, and now you need to find a new job.
These and similar failures may be out of your control. There may be other cases in which you are responsible for some types of failures. In both cases, this does not mean, however, that you should totally surrender and never make an attempt to change your situation.
“It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty. Nothing is so mortifying as to be obliged to expose our distress to the view of the public, and to feel, that though our situation is open to the eyes of all mankind, no mortal conceives for us the half of what we suffer.” — Adam Smith
Your ego may prevent you from being humble and learning from your mistakes. You don’t want to learn a new programming language or a new framework because your ego tells you are already skilled and accomplished enough.
You may hate to ask for help or to try to learn new things to overcome the failure you’re in. You start to blame everybody. You don’t stop to take extreme ownership and responsibility for your own situation. You can, as a result, fail to understand that you actually need to become a better software developer.
Microsoft was not the first company that Bill Gates and Paul Allen started. They had another company called Traf-O-Data in the early 1970s, which they had to shut down because of the losses. The lessons they learned from that experience played a crucial role in Microsoft.
Brian Acton was not accepted by Facebook. He was denied by Twitter HQ as well. He did not give up but collaborated with his partner, Jan Koum, and made WhatsApp. One of the social media companies that rejected Brian bought WhatsApp for 19 billion dollars less than 5 five years later.
Rovio developed 51 unsuccessful games before reaching “overnight” success with Angry Birds.
The likelihood that you’re working on a project that will fail is high. This should not make you feel miserable, however, as long as you use these failures as learning experiences.
As video game designer Will Wright says, “I’m actually more likely to hire someone based on how many failures they’ve experienced. I think it’s the best learning system.”
Humble and strong people do not follow through only during times of success. They use the lessons learned from their failures and manage to overcome and use them as catapulting standpoints.
As Ryan Holiday mentions in his book, “The only real failure is abandoning your principles.” He further adds, “If your reputation can’t absorb a few blows, it wasn’t worth anything in the first place.”
For Everything That Comes Next, Ego Is the Enemy
Now that you have read this article, you have made a serious blow against your ego, but this is not sufficient. We need to apply this advice if we are seriously want to become the best versions of ourselves. As Derek Sivers says regarding the possession of knowledge, “If [more] information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”
We should learn from other people’s experiences with ego and not become its victims that others learn from. We should be humble in our aspirations, gracious in our successes, and resilient in our failures. This does not mean that we are not unique and that we do not possess something valuable to contribute. It simply means that we should not have ourselves always as the main theme of the story. We should focus more on the work and the overall process instead.
We need to identify ego’s silent talk in our heads and suppress it early enough, before it makes us cultivate bad habits. We must suppress its temptations with humility and discipline when we reach a certain level of success. We must be humble, be ready to learn from others, and cultivate strength and fortitude when things don’t go our way.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” — Richard Feynman