When your ego blocks your progress

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One day, I had to make a withdrawal on an ATM. I entered my PIN and the wrong PIN message appeared on the screen. I entered the same PIN, same message. I got a little pissed off and entered the same PIN the third time. The ATM took my card and I had to go to the bank the next day to get it back. Immediately after entering the wrong number for the last time, I remembered that my card had been renewed a few days ago and my PIN had also been changed.

Here’s another story. I got a creative idea for acquiring traffic by using paid channels for this blog. It should have attracted a lot of visitors for a good price. I executed the idea, but it didn’t drive even nearly as much traffic as expected. So I threw in even more money. “It has to work, it’s such a good idea,” I thought to myself. It still didn’t work, so I threw in even more money. After the third investment with no return, I admitted to myself that the idea was, at the end of the day, not that good.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” as the famous quote goes. But it’s really easy to say that. In both cases, I was so sure of myself, I was 100 % confident that I knew what I’m doing. There was no other option. Even after getting the first feedback showing me that something is not working, my ego overshadowed the facts. I was repeating the same thing and expecting different results.

It’s good to feel alive, but it can also be painful

First of all, wrong assumptions are the mother of all fuckups. That’s why the idea of the Agile and Lean life is not to make big risky bets based only on your assumptions, but to start with small experiments that show you the right way through validated learning. You minimize the risk as much as possible by making small steps and gathering feedback from your environment as soon as possible.

Starting to follow the agile and lean strategy is quite a big mental leap. You don’t fall in love with your idea, person or anything else, and blindly follow it hoping that you’ll get lucky. You see everything you do in life as an experiment that will lead you to the outcome you want. You start small, you test everything and you stay as agile and flexible as possible. You know what you want to experience but you have no assumptions on how it will manifest. You let tests and experiments lead the way.

The problem with staying lean and agile is that it’s extremely boring and difficult. Taking risks, having an idea, falling in love, being right, having a strong opinion… All this brings excitement into your life, makes you feel good about yourself and feel worthy. It’s fuel for your ego. But if you’re wrong and blindly follow your ego, disappointments may come sooner or later; and usually they do. All the highs become deep lows.

Thus a much better strategy is to wait for an opportunity where the risk is low, but there are a great possibilities for a big gain. To do that, you need a different approach. You need knowledge, patience, stamina, insights, to be surrounded with the right people etc. To gain all that, you need to scientifically test, experiment, learn, understand and be committed to real progress while staying flexible. You have to do all the boring and hard stuff day by day. You have to admit to yourself that you were wrong almost after every experiment.

Egocentric person

Never let your ego block your progress

The first big challenge for your ego is changing how you act in life. You should switch from acting out of your ego, meaning your assumptions, beliefs and convictions, to acting out of feedback that you regularly gather from your environment by performing experiments. It’s the best way to stay flexible.

The second challenge is facing the results when data disprove your ego assumptions. The feedback you get from your environment is different from what you expected. It hurts. It seems impossible. It lowers your feeling of self-worth. You don’t feel so smart anymore.

You entered the wrong PIN. Period. The campaign is not delivering any results. Period. She does not share your feelings. Period.

It’s hard to face the fact that you’re wrong. It’s so hard to admit that the objective reality is different from your subjective reality, just because your subjective reality feels so real. That’s why you build illusions in your head. You also have a tendency to finish things that you begin. For example, you usually watch a movie until the end, even if it’s bad. Those are all reasons why you want to persist at things that don’t work. It’s hard to stop doing something that you’re so sure of and on top of that you want to finish what you have started. That’s why you need the search mode in your life – to start small, to gather feedback from day one, to fail fast and stop doing things that are not working.

Here are some additional tips on how to deal with your ego:

  • Make sure you see validated learning as progress. Make sure learning feeds your ego, simply because you’re following a superior life strategy, you are gathering insights how to live a better life, more suitable for you, independent of your interpretation of the world.
  • Don’t get stuck in analysis-paralysis. Just write down experiments you’ll make and start gathering feedback from your environment.
  • Always question everything. Follow your curiosity more than your ego. Don’t ever let your ego prevent you from learning something new.
  • Have a system for when to persist at something and when to stop and try new things. Make sure you follow your system, and that your ego and your emotions don’t distract you.

Tough decision

When to persist

The tough question is when to persist and when to admit to yourself that something isn’t working and you should leave it behind. It’s more art than science, but there are some indicators that can help you identify what the optimal thing to do is.

In lean start-up, there is a rule that you don’t fall in love with your business idea, but you become passionate about finding the right solution for the problem your business idea is solving. By experimenting and gaining customer insight, you may find out that your idea was not that good, but you may also find a much better solution to the problem. You have a vision, you’re passionate about the problem to fix, but you stay totally flexible about how to fix it. It’s the same in your personal life.

  • Don’t fall in love with the idea that you’ll meet one person who will stay with you forever, be loyal to you no matter what, and everything will be perfect all the time; like in Hollywood movies. Fall in love with the idea that you’ll have honest and loving relationships with superior communication and extra contribution. The right people will come into your life.
  • Don’t fall in love with the idea of having a magazine cover body in three months. Fall in love with the idea that your body is a temple you must take care of. A temple that needs healthy food to function, regular stretching and exercising, and so on. Fall in love with the idea that you’ll take care of your body, and stay flexible about what it needs and when.
  • Don’t fall in love with the idea of an ideally paid job. Fall in love with an industry you really know you can contribute to, fall in love with the idea of developing your competences to the full and providing as much value as possible to the market. Stay flexible about how things will manifest. Maybe you can contribute much more value by being an entrepreneur or a freelancer.

It goes the same for all other areas of life.

Another rule in lean startup is to make a pivot when each additional experiment leads to less progress. In such a case, you hit a local maximum. Pivot refers to a fundamental change in your business strategy. You change direction but you stay grounded in your vision and learned facts.

After knowing that and applying it to your personal life, there really is no more dilemma of when to persist at something and when not. It’s not about letting something go, but about redefining your strategy based on what you’ve you learned along the way. You still follow your heart, your vision, the things you want to experience in life, you just take different steps, manifesting it in a different way. You should fall in love with what you want to experience in life, not how it should manifest. Then there is no question of whether you should persist or not, just what your next step is.

Here are some examples of that kind of thinking and their healthier alternatives:

  • The relationship didn’t work out, I’m never going to find the right partner. And I was so in love. I don’t want to fall in love anymore.
  • I had a great experience with a person, but we aren’t the right fit. I tried many things to improve the relationship, but everything led to the same result – fighting. Still, I’m grateful for the experience and I’ve learned that it’s not acceptable for me if my intimate partner smokes. It just bothers me too much and I become passive aggressive. I am keeping my heart open and my love capacity full for the next person I’ll spend a part of my life with. After my sadness of breaking up passes, I’m going to start making new acquaintances.
  • I’ll never find a job I really love. I sent so many applications, but I didn’t get any interviews. I guess I have to send out another fifty.
  • Sending out CVs doesn’t work. But I know I’m really good at marketing. I’m going to read one book about marketing each week, I’m going to go to all marketing meetups. I’m going to start a blog about marketing, I will send personalized creative presentations of myself and my skills to a few companies I really want to work for.

But if you don’t stay flexible and you let your ego ground you in your subjective reality, you have a great chance of becoming a zombie and living a zombie life – where being a zombie means you invest a lot of energy into something with no or little progress. You get more and more depressed after each CV you send out. You hope that your partner will magically change, just because you’re in love. On the one hand, there is no growth and progress, and on the other, you’re consuming your resources and draining your energy. But that is a big waste of your precious life.

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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