Newsletter week 15: lesson about the ego.
This week’s offering is a little different. No news, no recommendations. Just reflections on my 65th birthday.
That’s right. I’m 65 today so I’m going to retire.
Just kidding. If you know me at all, you know I’m not slowing down.
If you are 65 and you’ve had it with your job, you’re tired, or you are suffering health problems that interfere with your ability to live your life, then by all means retire.
But if you are 65 and you are liking what you’re doing and able to keep doing it, then keep going. Why stop because of an arbitrary number? The only thing that is changing for me today is that my health insurance is a whole lot cheaper.
Two things I built were worth building
At milestone birthdays like this you can’t help but look back at your life. I have accomplished two things that have stood the test of time.
First, I built a career. I applied the talents I had, helped companies build things, and kept learning and moving forward. Although I was trained as a mathematician, the constant in my career has been writing. I have always enjoyed it, and I was fortunate enough to make it a large part of what I spent my time on. I was a technical writer, a startup executive, a publishing executive, an analyst, an author, an editor, and a writing coach. Writing is central to all of those. As long as there are people who want to read what I want to write and I can tap the keys on a keyboard, I will keep going. Building a career in which you do what makes you happiest and most fulfilled is no small accomplishment — whatever you do, I hope you find a way to do that.
The second thing I built was a relationship. I put family second because I have historically put it second, but that doesn’t mean I neglected it. The smartest decision I ever made was to find a woman who I loved and who loved me, and to build a life with her. When you are choosing who to be romantic with, you don’t typically think about hard times, but in the end, you are going to go through some tragedies and challenges, and who you are with and how you support each other will make all the difference in your life. My wife Kimberley and I had a great ride, we have always appreciated each other, and we were there for each other when things got tough, never shying away from the problems. We raised and homeschooled two children who are now making their own lives, and seeing them succeed on their own terms gives me joy. And I still get to share my life with Kimberley in our empty nest as she continues to pursue her own goals and ambitions, which is the sweetest thing I could imagine doing.
The lesson of ego
The fundamental emotional challenge of my life has centered around the idea of ego.
I was a prodigy from a young age and was blessed with outstanding mathematical and writing talent, which caused me to believe I could do anything and that I was smarter than other people. I had the test scores and credentials to prove it.
As a result, I was brimming with confidence even as I was entering worlds like graduate school at MIT, the workplace, and the analyst community, where my lack of experience meant I was not, in fact, better than anybody else.
All that boundless confidence and talent did indeed serve me well, and I was able to make rapid progress in my career and bounce back quickly from setbacks. I was more interested in getting great stuff done than managing people, and most of my employers were happy to have me apply my creativity, hard work, and talent to their problems. It worked out well for all of us.
The challenge, of course, was that not only did I feel I was smarter than everyone, but that I was not shy about telling everyone that I was. If you ever watch “The Big Bang Theory,” you may have some familiarity with that attitude. As might imagine, this self-centered quality did not make me particularly popular with colleagues and coworkers. I would definitely call it a deficiency. But I saw no reason to pretend I was not smart — pretending to be anything but the best was not my style.
In the end, this deficiency did not really get in my way. The reason was that it was accompanied by some other qualities that enabled me to work well with most people.
First, I worked at least as hard as anyone else. People will put up with a driven egotist where they’d reject a lazy egotist. I never felt any task was below me: if it was in my job, I did it and did it extremely well.
Second, I respected my bosses and colleagues. I did not feel I was above them, I felt I was there to fulfill their needs. I was not disdainful of people. I liked getting appreciated for my contributions.
Third, I loved working as part of a team and was effusive in supporting and recognizing the contributions of others. Being an egotist did not prevent me from recognizing when others were achieving great things and saying so.
Fourth, I would readily realize and publicly own up to my own mistakes. When I was wrong, I said I was wrong. I did not imagine myself to be infallible.
Fifth, I was generous. If you asked for my help, I would provide it. If you wanted to learn from me, I would teach you, and without lording it over you. The focus was on the work, not who I was or who you were. Consequently, there are hundreds of people who would likely say, “I learned a lot from Josh”; that is my legacy.
As a result of these qualities, I think most people’s attitudes were, “Sure, he thinks he’s hot stuff, but he’s good to work with and is a good teammate. Just look past the ego and things will go fine.”
(I might mention here that my wife is the world champion at looking past the ego and recognizing the things of value in my psyche. I never thought I was better or smarter than her, and in matters of relationships and parenting and living with other humans, she taught me to be far better. Our relationship was never competitive or even contentious, and we are true equals. And she’s certainly not beyond gently punching a hole in my ego when it needs it. Thank God I found someone who appreciate me despite the huge flaw in my personality.)
Since I became a freelancer, the ego problem has receded. “I am the greatest” isn’t really an effective marketing technique when you’re trying to win clients; it’s too self-centered. I began to focus more on listening and helping, which has been effective. And if I am honest with myself, I still think I have a first-rate and creative mind and many talents, but at this age I am not as fast a thinker as I used to be. So I sort of put the ego on a shelf and concentrated on serving clients, which has been effective.
What to do if you are smart
I write all of this, not just as a catharsis for me, but in the hopes it may help those of you who are greatly talented early in your careers. What should you do about your own egos?
Channeling your ego into high degree of confidence is still a good idea. Do that. If you have talent, believe in yourself.
Be flexible. There are a lot of ways to apply talent. Don’t imagine that the career path you imagine is the only one you will follow, because the world doesn’t work like that.
Work hard. Talent is no substitute for hard work. You owe it to the world to apply your contributions as broadly as possible. Greatness always demands superior effort, regardless of talent.
Concentrate on the needs of others and appreciating their work, as I did. Looking down on people will never get you anywhere. You can’t do it alone, so be a good teammate.
And as for showing your superiority — if you can manage it, don’t do that. I wonder how far I would have gone if I hadn’t been so egotistical. It’s not a good look. But if there is a lesson from my long career, it is that in the end, what you do and how well you do it, as a member of a team, is what matters; people will forgive character flaws for people who contribute a lot, can be trusted, and appreciate and support them.
If you’re reading this, I exist to serve you. Thank you for allowing me to keep doing that. I don’t intend to stop any time soon. Sixty-five is just an arbitrary number.