The most common reason why teams or organizations don’t improve is that they are not willing to analyse failures.  The second most common reason is that they halfheartedly agree to a retrospective but avoid talking about the elephant in the room.  The ego blind spot stops them from achieving success and exploring how to find joy.

It takes courage to look at failures.  It’s an advanced practice. It’s much easier to focus on the positive or worse, justify why things didn’t work out as planned.  Finally, It’s so easy to find something or someone to blame that it has become the default option for many teams. They don’t even try to improve or explore how to find joy, because it’s easier to procrastinate and stay within their comfort zones (which isn’t so comfortable if they’re honest with themselves) than to try something new and risk failing.

No one wants to fail intentionally.  Undoubtedly we all want to be part of a winning team.  We all want to look good.  We all want to succeed.

Yet, growth and success come from failures, not from successes.  I’ve never read a biography of someone successful that wasn’t paved with failures.   We just tend to ignore the past and focus on current success.

To believe, however, that luck determines success is not true at all.

Richard Branson struggled at school and his mother pushed the shy little boy far outside his comfort zone. His learning school in dealing with discomfort started much earlier than most.  JK Rowling was homeless while writing her super successful Harry Potter series.  Steve Jobs was an adopted child, his company taken from him, and he had to struggle through cancer.  There was absolutely nothing easy about these people’s journey to success.

The only difference between success and failure is the ability and willingness to deal with discomfort.

It’s the difference between feeding your ego or dissolving it.

Success is a feeling, not a thing

To understand this better, however, we first need to understand success.

I remember walking into a new company and asking about their dreams and desires before embarking on a transformation journey in the wrong direction.  The answer came simply “We want to be successful.”  This didn’t tell me much, except that they haven’t given this much thought.

I prodded more.  “What does success mean to you?  What does it look like?” She looked at me blankly, as if surprised that I didn’t understand what she meant.  Her answer, still vague, focused on money and gaining high-profile customers.  Success to her meant having a bigger bank account and a larger team.  She was comparing the results of other successful agencies to theirs, without giving any thought to what made those other agencies successful in the first place.  It was purely focused on the outcome and how other people would view them.  It came from ego.  Or more commonly known as trying to keep up with the Jones.

Success many times does result in ‘things’ such as money and fame, but never, ever, is it the primary goal.  Success is something much deeper and unique to every person.  A mother might feel successful if she creates a loving and nurturing home for her family.  A father might feel successful if he can provide and protect his brood.

Success is a feeling, not a thing.  Most commonly and more precisely, the feeling of joy.

Joy is the currency of success

A businessman, for example, might experience joy when his company yields enough passive income for him to travel the world and enjoy life with his partner.  Another businessman might, however, experience that same amount of joy when he can pay his rent each month and keep his doors open, satiated by the stable relationships of the community that supports him daily.

Success, and joy, are not the same for anyone.  But there is one commonality.  It feels like it’s enough.

Richard Branson is not the richest man in the world (even though he could be if he set his mind to it), but he has enough.  He enjoys what he has.  More importantly, he enjoys every business venture he is involved in.  He does it for the love of it.  Steve Jobs, similarly, enjoyed the design process and simplifying technology. He produced one really good product rather than ten mediocre ones.  JK Rowling, similarly, wrote the Harry Potter series not to become a number-one bestseller, but because she enjoyed the process of writing.

Success is when what you have or do is enough.  Success satiates.

The hungry ghost

When, on the other hand, you chase the money or the fame, it’s driven by ego.  It’s driven by an attempt to fill a void inside. A deep hunger that you hope will be filled if only you got the money and the fame you’re chasing.  But then you get that and it’s still not enough.  The void is still there and you want more.

And more.

And even more.

Until, like a virus, you consume the living organism that sustains life itself and nothing is left.  Not for you, and not for anyone involved in the venture.

The ego feels empty.  It is always hungry for more.  Even though you have a private yacht and jet, it will not be enough.  You will want a bigger yacht or maybe a catamaran.

It’s only when you realize that you’ll never be able to fill the void ego creates that you can start looking for joy and with that true success.

Finding joy is the process of dissolving your ego.

But you can’t dissolve something you’re not aware of exists.  You first need to remove the blind spot you have related to your ego before you can explore how to find joy.  Most people avoid this process of uncovering though because it means you will have to view yourself as not good. Because everyone knows that ego is bad, right?

Or is it?

Dissolving the ego

Ego in itself is not bad and it is even a necessary and important part of evolution.  The ego is a survival mechanism that keeps you safe when you are vulnerable and weak as a child.   It becomes harmful (rather than bad) only when you hold on to it later in life.

Ego is like the hard shell protecting the vulnerable seed inside while the external conditions are not quite ready for the flower to bloom.

If you don’t have the protective shell the seed will most certainly die.  If you, however, don’t shed the shell when the conditions are right, the seed also dies without ever blooming.  It is thus crucial that you shed the shell when the time is right.

I see ego as the wrapping paper covering your unique expression of joy.  Ego hides the special gift inside. To uncover that gift you first need to remove the wrapping paper. When you don’t access this joy, little by little the fuel that gets you up in the morning starts fading away.  Until depression sets in.

How to spot the ego in the room

Ego comes in many forms and sometimes it can be hard to discern between ego and internal knowing or purpose.

The ego is always selfish and greedy.  It comes from an egocentric perspective.  An “I” rather than “we” mentality.  On the other hand, internal knowing is aligned with your higher good and thus always has a positive impact on the world.  It is a “We” rather than “I” perspective.

In a milder form, the ego is that passive-aggressive behaviour at work where you refuse to do what you’re asked because you have to be right and think you know all the answers.  You’ll process that death claim when you feel like it because you’re only paid so much and thus will do as much in return, disregarding how your decision might impact the family mourning.

In more extreme cases, the ego is the dominant manager who enforces his rules and tools on everyone as if the people were mere pieces on a chessboard.  He doesn’t ask anyone’s input and makes decisions in isolation expecting everyone to follow suit just because he (or she) is the boss.  He is willing to fire a large part of his workforce as long as his (or her) position remains safe, disregarding how it might impact the families left without a breadwinner.

Internal knowing, on the other hand also sometimes refuses to do what they’re told, but because they know there’s a better way to achieve the goal or that the decision is not in line with the vision, not because you have to be right.

The difference between the two is a shared vision.  If there is a vision there can be no disagreement as each decision will be driven by this shared vision.  Work will not be done because of selfish needs, but because it supports the vision (or not).

It all boils down to the intention

Next time ask yourself this one question to determine whether you’re being driven by ego or purpose.  Are you doing something to make you feel better, or are you doing it to have a meaningful impact on the world or to contribute to something bigger than yourself?

Why are you doing what you’re doing?

If the answer includes to win, to make money, to be important, or because you know best, you’re probably operating from an ego perspective.  If, however, you want to connect, learn, have fun, engage, or change the world, you’re most probably operating from a place of joy.

When you’re in love with the process rather than the result, you’ve won the jackpot.

Joy is your jackpot.  So next time your ego threatens to take control of your decisions, ask yourself whether the process fuels you with joy or if are you chasing a result.

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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.