The delicate balance between ego and humility

Icarus is a figure in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun and perished.

In an attempt to escape from Crete Icarus’ father, Daedalus, crafts wings made from feathers and wax.  His father warns Icarus of complacency and hubris, suggesting that he fly neither too low, where the dampness of the sea will weigh him down, nor too high, where the sun’s heat will melt the wax.

Overcome by the giddiness of flight, Icarus ignores his father’s warnings and soars toward the heavens.  The wax melts and Icarus falls into the sea, where he drowns.

Usually told as a cautionary tale of failed ambition, the flight of Icarus can also be seen as an illustration of the fine balancing act between ego and humility. 

Ego is your sense of self-esteem or self-importance.

Too much, and you are considered egotistical, arrogant or, at the extreme, narcissistic.  Too little, and you lack self-worth, are insecure, or suffer from servility, defined as an excessive willingness to serve or please others.

Thus ego moves along a broad spectrum.  At different times in our life, and depending upon our circumstances at any given moment, our ego may be very strong, very weak, or somewhere in between.

Over time, though, we seem to settle in a relatively narrow range that defines the regard in which we hold ourselves, how we see ourselves in relation to others, and how others react to us based on our behavior as a result of our ego.

Like Icarus and Daedalus, we can either successfully navigate our life’s journey through managing our ego, or we can stumble and fall victim to hubris or meekness.

And that’s where humility enters the picture.  Humility is often equated with modesty, which can carry a negative connotation, and which many see as a weakness.

But I see humility as a strength.

Humility provides the equilibrium required to keep us within the healthy range of the ego spectrum – balancing humbleness with confidence, modesty with pride.

I once had a woman who worked for me whose ego was definitely on the arrogant side of the spectrum.  Her ego required that she always be right.  No matter the situation or who might be involved, her opinion and judgment was all that mattered.

She also had a habit of making sure that everyone around her knew whenever she was right, which, in her mind, was always.  Ultimately her ego and the way she treated others in this regard affected performance.  Basically, no one else wanted to work with her.

So I sat down with her one day to discuss ego.  Not hers specifically, although that message came through, but egos in general.

What I said was that, whether as a manager or as a friend, there are times when, for the sake of others, we need to subjugate our egos.  In other words, in the interest of the greater good, we occasionally need to subordinate our own ego in order to boost someone else’s.

It’s okay to acknowledge that someone else may be right, I said.  Or that you may not know the answer.  Or that you made a mistake.  It’s called being human.

By admitting these things, by being vulnerable in this way, we help keep our ego in check.  We don’t fly too close to the sun.  And our well-earned pride, our confidence, likewise keeps our humility in check so that we aren’t weighted down by false modesty, and therefore tumble into the sea.

Mark Sichel, in an article for Psychology Today about using your ego wisely, talks of the role humility can play in our lives:

If … we define humility in a positive manner, we can call it the virtue of knowing your own limitations, the strength of admitting you’re not always right, the knowledge that you are not God and that other people have something to teach you…. Without humility it is impossible to feel and express gratitude, appreciation, hope, or empathy for others.  In a narcissistic world where so many people crave admiration, practicing humility can be elusive.

Humility is at the heart of teamwork and collaboration.  It inspires successful relationships.

Think of humility in terms of successful sports teams.  In basketball, soccer, and football you will often see a lone player make a run away from the ball.  She exerts tremendous effort and sacrifices her own chance at stardom so that opposing players follow her, thus freeing someone else to receive the pass and make the score.

Because of her sacrifice, her humility, the entire team succeeds.  And because of that success the egos of all the team members are boosted.

The gunners on the team, those who always want the ball and crave all the attention and all the accolades, are the ones who, ultimately, bring the entire team down.

You will be well served by balancing your ego with humility.  It is through your well earned pride and accomplishments that you will earn the respect of those around you.  And it is through your acknowledgement that you don’t have all the answers, that you can always learn from those you interact with, that you will encourage your peers and friends and family.

Perfect balance is probably impossible.  But by seeking that balance, by being both confident and humble, modest and proud, you will become someone whom others look up to and seek to emulate.

You will become a leader, regardless of the size of your sphere of influence.


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