How to Succeed in Business Without Falling Prey to the ‘Ego Trap’

The risks of an excessive focus on career success are well-documented.

In my twenties, I was groomed by my company, a multinational leader in its field, as part of the next generation of top management. With 23 I led international teams of >50 people with budget responsibility of several million dollars. By 27, a company-sponsored MBA and a Ph.D. under my belt, I was living comfortably on an executive expat salary in beautiful Brazil, working my way up to my first “Head of” title (a goal of mine since I joined the company straight out of high school). I got it when I turned 29. Strangely enough, on that day, I set my heart on the next career milestone and started chasing again what I hoped would give me the status and recognition I desired.

I know for a fact I’m not a singular case. The women I talk to daily in my current profession as a holistic health coach, are similarly pursuing the next big career move. From first responsibility for a major account, via leading a team, to the first Directorship, the chase never ends. Because for them stagnation means career death, often epitomized by an (at least perceived) company policy of “up or out”.

However, I call it the ‘Ego Trap’. Truth is, most people seek their next career achievement not out of necessity, for the extra money or to keep their jobs, but for the recognition that comes with it. Titles, a seat at the table, and big-ticket budget responsibility have become prevalent measures of self-worth, and ultimately our main sources of confidence.

The risks of an excessive focus on career success are well-known and -documented: cardiovascular diseases are on the rise, and so are diabetes and risk of cancer, as hard-working powerhouses tend to neglect their nutrition, exercise too little and worry too much. They also skip annual check-ups and self-medicate to continue working when they’re sick instead of getting professional treatment, leading to complications down the road.

Medical research in the 90’s focused on the hypothesis that men had a higher chance of falling ill with these life-threatening diseases because they work harder as their careers serve as their main source of recognition. Women, on the other hand, were found to be more varied in their interests, getting their needed appreciation from other sources like a social network.

Nowadays research focuses on men and women alike, as more women fall into the ego trap, feeling like they have no other choice than being as ambitious as their male counterparts. Equally, women increasingly postpone starting a family, which enforces a natural (though not necessarily well-received) shift in focus on goals other than professional achievement.

Is it all worth it?

I don’t think so. Nor do I think it’s smart.

Of course, it feels great to tell your friends you got promoted, or put your new title on your LinkedIn profile. To have suppliers or team members report to you, and finally take real credit for your hard work. And the extra money doesn’t hurt either.

But is this really worth risking your most valuable asset for: your health?

I believe it’s time for new measures of self-worth, and thus sources of confidence. Such as how meaningful the relationships are that we have in our lives (A huge contributing factor to happiness!). Or how well we feel at the end of each day. Or how energized we are on Monday mornings. Or how satisfied we are that the different areas in our lives are in balance (measured, for example, by our “Wheel of Life”).

The “Wheel of Life” Source: Start of Happiness

Changing our measures of self-worth doesn’t mean that we’re throwing in the towel in the rat race of life, as many women I talk to fear. Instead, it means that we’re smarter than other people. That we’ve “figured out” what life is all about: living it for the joy it brings us. And sharing the joy with others.

What to do with this realization is up to you. Not always a career change is the necessary outcome. I’ve seen women transition successfully to a lateral career in their current companies, giving them more time for self-care, by at the same time guaranteeing their income and status. In my former job, I negotiated working from home one day a week, which made a huge difference to my well-being. Or if you’re an entrepreneur, you can find ways to outsource, and work smarter not harder. Tim Ferris’ “The 4-Hour Workweek”, for example, offers some fresh perspectives on career decisions that follow lifestyle choices. The first step, however, is to work on your personal measure of success — on what makes you feel accomplished.

But brace yourself. Most likely you’re going to find you’re the only one of your friends with this mindset. Stepping away from comparison with others, creating your own compass and set of values for your life requires a huge deal of inner strength and confidence. And not even your partner might share it, nor understand it, at least in the beginning.

However from personal experience: it’s worth it. When I eventually switched careers, after almost a year of freeing myself from the ego trap (through working on my own definition of success and self-worth), I was rewarded with a new overwhelming feeling of well-being and fulfillment, as well as the time to finally care for myself and my passions. And thus with a new appreciation of life.