What are ego traps? How can ego trap you in the same place and prevent you from progressing further in your quest for success?
Ego traps are beliefs and attitudes that cause us to behave in an impulsive, short-sighted, and self-aggrandizing way. People tend to develop these beliefs when they achieve some important milestone of success such as being granted a promotion, winning a competition, or receiving a reward.
Read about the three most common ego traps and how to avoid them.
What Are Ego Traps?
When people reach a certain level of success, they often become blinded by it and fall prey to ego traps—self-aggrandizing beliefs and tendencies that can sabotage everything they’ve attained if they are not kept in check. Here are three common ego traps you should avoid.
1. Wanting to Be the Boss of Everything
Your ego wants you to be the boss of everything. It feels good to make decisions, and you feel important when everyone relies on you to put out fires. Unfortunately, while the little things are fun to deal with, they’ll distract you from the big things, which are the important things that will determine your continued success (or lack thereof).
Relinquishing control doesn’t mean letting other people run your business or make your choices for you. Rather, it means properly delegating and focusing your efforts on big-picture issues.
An example of someone who micromanaged his success to death was John DeLorean, who left his position as an executive at General Motors in order to build his own car company. He envisioned his new company as one that would shake off the yoke of stifling order and discipline that he had felt himself under at GM, and would be filled instead with innovation and creativity. Unfortunately, DeLorean proved to be a terrible manager—micromanaging certain projects while not giving enough instruction on others. Unable to effectively delegate responsibilities or assign accountability, he led his company into chaotic disorder; it produced mediocre cars and soon folded.
In contrast, an example of someone who successfully delegated and maintained an effective, orderly operation was Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose first priority as President was to organize the executive branch into a smoothly functioning unit. He refused to do duties that could better be done by others, not because he was lazy, but because it would have been less efficient. For example, when he first assumed office, his chief usher handed him letters marked “Confidential and Secret,” thinking that Eisenhower would want to open such letters himself. However, Eisenhower refused, insisting his staff open his letters for him. This was not snobbishness; this was simply an acknowledgment of the correct chain of command, and the proper hierarchy of responsibilities for a well-run office.
2. Wanting too Much
Over-ambition is one of the most common ego traps. It’s difficult to stay sober when your life keeps getting better as you become more successful. It’s easy to give in to the star treatment you might be offered and to be awed by your own importance. But people who stay sober have long-lasting success, while those who don’t, don’t.
The best way to prevent your ego from destroying your success is to stay sober and maintain a balance between too much and too little ambition. Staying sober means resisting the intoxicating pull of success. Maintaining a balance means not moving too fast or too slowly.
It’s also difficult to maintain a balance. It’s easy to stay endlessly ambitious: Simply keep going at a relentless pace—until you burn out or are stopped by outside forces. It’s also easy to be complacent: Simply stop moving forward—until the world overtakes you and your good fortune. But both of these paths will lead to ruin. It’s harder to find the middle ground, where you are moving ahead at a proper pace, not too quickly and not too slowly, but this is the path you must find in order to maintain long-term success.
Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, is an example of a sober leader who maintains balance. She took her time getting into politics: She was 35 and working as a physicist when the Berlin Wall fell. It wasn’t until a few years later that she entered politics, and she was in her fifties when she became chancellor. She has maintained her position of power for many years due to her pragmatic, clear-headed approach to politics, through which she is willing to compromise with her opposition on a variety of practical matters as long as those compromises don’t violate her guiding vision for Germany.
As a counter-example, Napoleon Bonaparte was not a sober leader and didn’t stick to the middle ground. He was obsessed with his own fame and couldn’t stop trying to gain more power through bigger expansion, until eventually he was met with failure. Further, critics have noted that for all of Napoleon’s ephemeral successes, after the fall of his rule, Europe reverted to the status it had been before his rise. He made no lasting contribution to the world.
3. Not Seeing the Bigger Picture
Ego often destroys our success by focusing our attention on the material aspects of the here-and-now, narrowing our perspective so that we miss the truly important things that are happening beyond our peripheral vision. It is probably the most insidious one of all ego traps because when we lose sight of the big picture, success feels empty and purposeless.
When we forget that we are small pieces of an infinite puzzle that reaches not only outward into the universe but also reaches backward into time and forward into the future, we lose a piece of our humanity. In contrast, when we remember how we fit into the world, we realize not only how small we are, but also how important we are, despite our tiny size.
Keeping these realizations in mind can keep us grounded and keep us focused on our purpose, making it easier for us to resist the urges of our egos to direct us toward the unimportant minutiae of life. Keeping our eye on the big picture can also help us prepare for when things go wrong, as they always, inevitably, will.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Ego Is the Enemy summary:
- How to resist your emotions so you can keep thinking clearly
- Why your passion may be preventing you from achieving your goals
- How to apply the philosophy of Stoicism for success as a leader