Ego is a tricky topic. On the one hand, we need a strong sense of self worth in order to generate the energy we need to succeed. People with low self-esteem tend to have less vital energy which is a problem, especially when times get tough or even when there is a fear that times may get tough. On the other hand, it is easy to get carried away with ego issues to the point that ego becomes a barrier to learning. You get so invested in maintaining your current status that you no longer “play offense”, just defense. This is the old “if I can’t do it, it can’t be done” problem.
The problem of ego in learning comes out very well in a book by Josh Waitzkin called “The Art of Learning”. Tim Ferriss gives it a plug on his blog. If you don’t know the story, Josh is something of a learning wonder. He has proved that he can master skills to an extraordinary level in the chess world and martial arts. But his comment (in the video on Tim’s blog) struck me most. After he was identified as a chess prodigy and became famous, he found that he no longer could play with the same abandon. His ego interfered with his further learning.
So how to manage ego properly? There is a subtle difference between the sense of self-worth one feels in having accomplished something and connecting with something of value. The first is leads one to obsession with status. The second leads one to obsession with participation. It is this second dimension of self-worth that motivates us to risk losing in order to learn.
This is why the old zen saying resonates still – the best place to be is at the beginning. There our ego based on accomplishment has no chance of interfering with our taking in learning.