The value of hav­ing an ego


Is it more im­por­tant for you to be right, or to do right? In our en­deav­ours, do we con­sider the dif­fer­ence be­tween what peo­ple want and what peo­ple need? Ba­sic needs like shel­ter, so­cial con­tact, cloth­ing and food can be pro­vided at rel­a­tively in­signif­i­cant cost. And by us­ing in­stinct and sim­ple skills, peo­ple can sur­vive and even thrive.

In con­trast to wants, the mar­ket for ba­sic needs is small.

Mod­ern economies and po­lit­i­cal sys­tems are geared to re­in­forc­ing peo­ple’s de­sires rather than their needs.

So is too much of a good thing ab­so­lutely awe­some?

Not ac­cord­ing to 16th cen­tury physi­cian Theo von Ho­hen­heim, bet­ter known as Paracel­sus. Renowned for his pi­o­neer­ing work on tox­i­col­ogy, Paracel­sus ad­vanced the con­cept of ‘po­ten­tial tox­i­c­ity’, or more sim­ply – the death is in the dose.

For ex­am­ple, trace amounts of ar­senic are an es­sen­tial di­etary ele­ment, but de­pend­ing on its chem­i­cal makeup, in­gest­ing ar­senic is lethal, even at mil­ligrams per kilo­gram of body weight. Life-sus­tain­ing wa­ter can be deadly too. For an av­er­age adult, drink­ing sev­eral litres of wa­ter rapidly leads to a hy­pona­tremia, or wa­ter in­tox­i­ca­tion which is al­most al­ways fa­tal.

And what about our ego – is there a toxic level?

Brain chem­i­cals like dopamine, sero­tonin and nor­ep­i­neph­rine are now un­der­stood to be part of a com­plex chem­i­cal and phys­i­o­log­i­cal sys­tem which de­ter­mines mood and ego.

To suc­ceed and ex­cel, hu­mans re­quire a level of ego. It pro­pels us to heights of achieve­ment, risk-tak­ing and pro­motes com­pe­ti­tion. But power, fi­nan­cial wealth and ego are in­ter­wo­ven. Per­haps it stems from our ear­li­est civil­i­sa­tions when pos­ses­sions be­came sym­bols of sta­tus and power.

Here is an edited ex­cerpt from a re­cent ar­ti­cle pub­lished on Absa’s blog, ti­tled ‘Man­age your ego to re­duce your debt’:

In the past, it was rar­ity and ex­clu­siv­ity that was val­ued whereas mod­ern treasures seem to be, to a large de­gree, cov­eted for their pop­u­lar­ity... In­stead of set­ting us apart, the ma­jor­ity of our daily pos­ses­sions serve the pur­pose of mak­ing us feel that we be­long. And this be­long­ing comes at a cost... is the dif­fer­ence be­tween a Huawei P8 Lite at R2 700 and a Sam­sung Galaxy S8 at R13 000 so sig­nif­i­cant?...

With en­try-level mod­els av­er­ag­ing R130 000 and lux­ury ve­hi­cles reach­ing way past the R1 mil­lion mark... cars are the ul­ti­mate sta­tus sym­bol, and emo­tion, not logic, tends to guide our de­ci­sion-mak­ing... If there is any­thing that could phys­i­cally man­i­fest as our ego, it would be that four-wheeled money pit in your garage.

Pos­ses­sions aside, ego can also af­fect the health and vi­a­bil­ity of an en­ter­prise. Lead- ers who ex­hibit ego­cen­tric be­hav­iour can be­come ob­sessed with their de­ci­sions, of­ten with de­struc­tive re­sults.

Take Wil­liam Orten, Pres­i­dent of the Western Union Com­pany. In the 1870s, Western Union had a mo­nop­oly on the tele­graph, the most ad­vanced com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy at the time.

When Alexan­der Gra­ham Bell ap­proached Western Union to con­sider his novel tele­phone in­ven­tion, Orten re­jected the con­cept stat­ing that it had no com­mer­cial value and sug­gest­ing it was an ‘elec­tri­cal toy’.

When Orten was proven wrong, in­stead of ac­cept­ing de­feat, he spent years in court chal­leng­ing Bell’s pa­tent.

Whether on a lo­cal or na­tional level, South Africa’s nar­ra­tive is rid­dled with ego­centrics who hold so­ci­ety hostage to self-ab­sorbed ar­ro­gance.

An ex­am­ple is ex-State Pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki’s re­fusal to ac­cept sci­en­tific con­sen­sus. He be­lieved Aids was not a virus, but caused by poverty and poor nutri­tion.

Mbeki’s Aids de­nial­ist poli­cies and re­jec­tion of of­fers for free med­i­ca­tion and in­terna- tional grants con­trib­uted to the deaths of over 300 000 peo­ple (Es­ti­mat­ing the Lost ben­e­fits of ARV drug use in South Africa - Har­vard Univer­sity: 2008 Chig­wedere P, Seage GR et al).

And in 2015, Malusi Gi­gaba (as Min­is­ter of Home Af­fairs) gazetted new travel reg­u­la­tions re­quir­ing unabridged birth cer­tifi­cates for chil­dren to­gether with oner­ous visa ap­pli­ca­tion pro­ce­dures.

De­spite wide­spread calls to ease reg­u­la­tions, Gi­gaba held firm and re­sponded to crit­i­cism with anger and right­eous in­dig­na­tion.

Gi­gaba even­tu­ally con­ceded on some of the more ar­du­ous rules, but not be­fore more than R15 bil­lion of losses to the tourism in­dus­try were recorded and thou­sands of po­ten­tial jobs were com­pro­mised.

Gra­ham­stown’s tourism in­dus­try was not im­mune to the fall­out. Gi­gaba is now South Africa’s Min­is­ter of Fi­nance. Re­gret­tably, most ego­cen­tric lead­ers are re­warded by pay­ing no price for be­ing wrong.

For those in po­si­tions of author­ity, ex­cess ego can be toxic and dam­ag­ing to greater soci- ety. We can hold this in check with hu­mil­ity, by un­der­stand­ing our hu­man con­di­tion and nat­u­ral weak­nesses.

One of the best ways of man­ag­ing ego­cen­tric­ity is to ac­cept a se­lect num­ber of in­de­pen­dent ad­vi­sors and men­tors. They can be busi­ness­peo­ple, pro­fes­sion­als, el­ders, re­li­gious prac­ti­tion­ers, or even fam­ily mem­bers.

In South African en­ter­prises, the value of im­par­tial ad­vi­sors and non-ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tors is slowly tak­ing hold. These are trusted guides - in­de­pen­dent peo­ple able to view things from a di­verse and arms-length per­spec­tive. One can­not towel off dry whilst still in the wa­ter.

Good coun­sel will jour­ney with you from ego to re­straint. And a great ad­vi­sor may even be able to moder­ate ego­cen­tric­i­ties.

The value of ego? It’s in the dose.

• Ron Weissenberg is an in­ter­na­tional cit­i­zen and Gra­ham­stown res­i­dent who started his first busi­ness at age 7. He is a Cer­ti­fied Di­rec­tor (SA) and men­tors peo­ple and their en­ter­prises.

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