Biggest impediment to learning: Ego

Posted on August 08, 2017 in: Articles

By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus points out that all of us “have an ego problem” and a choice to make. We can either Edge God Out or Exalt God Only.

When we Edge God Out, we are driven by pride or fear – and in either case, our efforts to exert influence generally do not end well.

Now we read that ego-driven attitudes and behaviors also impede our ability to learn.

“The biggest barrier to learning is not your lack of time or resources, it’s your ego,” says Marlene Chism, author of Stop Workplace Drama and No-Drama Leadership.

“We live in a sea of opportunity for learning through other people, yet we fail to see the opportunity due to three mental barriers:

  1. The belief that you already know;
  2. The assumption that you are the smartest;
  3. The need to be right.”

All of these self-assertive behaviors impede both our ability to take in information and to build coalitions for effective action.

The belief that we already know all there is to know can manifest itself in two ways. We can assume we already know all we need to know about the content of the conversation, or we can assume we already know what the other person is going to say.

Relationship alert

Both assumptions are toxic – and the second can be especially dangerous in the context of marriage and other long-term relationships because, among other things, it can undermine communications. After all, why bother to bring up something for discussion when you are already certain what the other person will say?

That question recalls the day when a classmate of mine in college was visibly upset that her father wouldn’t let her apply for a summer job working for the poor in the inner city. She was so angry.

“What did he tell you?” one of our classmates asked her. “Oh, I haven’t talked to him about it, but I’m sure he wouldn’t let me do it,” she replied.

We all laughed. But the situation wasn’t funny. She had found her dad guilty – and deserving of punishment -- without benefit of the most basic trial.

I wondered how that would affect the development of an adult relationship between father and daughter going forward. Obviously, they needed to talk it out – no matter how her dad responded or what the final outcome would turn out to be.

The underlying fear

Chism notes that the need to be right is really just a fear of being wrong.

While it certainly is an ego-driven behavior, it is not an indication of someone has a big ego. Instead, it’s really a case of someone having a pathetic tiny ego with a big appetite.

Whatever we do, we shouldn’t feed that appetite because -- coming as it does from a place of scarcity -- it’s insatiable. The more it is indulged, the bigger the appetite gets.

Our advice is to work hard to root our self-worth in the unconditional love of God so that these sort of ego-driven attitudes and behaviors begin to strike us as silly and sad. Wrapped in God’s loving embrace, we can move forward, focusing on how to serve others rather than being a slave to our own insatiable appetites.