A gripe I have with social entrepreneurship and the social sector more broadly is that ego often rears its head and interferes with the primary purpose of these areas; to do good. Much of the time the two are aligned; doing good meets our more philanthropic urges and can also give us the status and praise that our ego needs. But there are inevitably moments when what is best for our ego is not what is best for the greater good, and this is where you see people taking ownership, getting competitive and allowing the cause to take a back seat.

I decided a while ago that I didn’t want ego to my motive for doing the work I do – as there would inevitably be times when it bumped in to the more philanthropic motives and indeed that’s proven the case on a number of occasions. There’s no place for ego in a line of work that is dedicated to helping others right? So I made a great decision – I’m going to ignore my ego/beat it into submission until it buggers off. Yeah, because that’s really going to work.

I was faced with a big decision recently, one that really challenged my ego. And my initial reaction when faced with this decision was unquestionably ego-dominated. This was a confusing moment for me, as I hadn’t I decided that my ego wasn’t allowed to influence me? Hmm…obviously it’s not quite that simple.

And then an insight came to me. That it’s futile to try to ignore your ego. Unfortunately having an ego is a symptom of a larger condition called ‘being human’, and I’m going to put my neck on the line and say that all of us share this condition, and therefore all of us have some ego. It’s human nature. We are naturally driven to survive and procreate, so being successful and having status facilitates that. Ego is a strong adaptive mechanism for humans and is an incredibly powerful tool for achieving success and status. Every human has it. Yes, even Ghandi did (sorry Ghandi).

So rather than turning your back on that little creature in the corner of your room called ego, it’s best to look it in the eye (quiet – it’s my blog, and I’ve decided it has eyes. Yeah it’s got ears and a nose too, get over it) and say, ‘Hey, I just met you, and this is craaaaazy, but you’re my ego, and I’ll do what I choose’. Or words to a similar effect. Acknowledge its existence, its potential value in helping you to achieve your goals, but then when it comes in to conflict with your more philanthropic motives then send that ego to the corner of the room. Again, it comes down to first accepting that it exists, and then taking action based on this knowledge. You can use ego to help you, but don’t let it rule you. And don’t pretend it’s not there, as it always will be.

In the bigger picture, for the reasons I’ve stated around human nature I don’t believe pure altruism exists. Although I do recall reading a psychological debate about it that went back and forth with research for 20 years, eventually descending in to semantics and even mocking, snide remarks in the research publications (which were hilariously petty – these are supposedly adults…). Ironically, whilst debating altruism, the two main protagonists were motivated by the need to prove themselves right – their own egos. But I digress…

I believe we are influenced by many motives, which play in to the hundreds of decisions, big or small, that we each make every day. Altruism/philanthropy is one motive, ego is another and then there are more basic motives such as food, safety, sex and the more complex motives such as love, social, growth that are more associated with humans than other animals. The respective strengths of these motives varies depending on situation, context, how well they are being met etc. And there’s overlap between them and so on and oh no…this is in danger of descending in to psychological theory so I’m not going to explore this in more depth for now.

What I will say is that I’m yet to figure out how or why altruism/philanthropy fits in this complex picture of human motives. Although there is an interesting line of research-led thought that this suggests that this is the direction the human brain is evolving towards. I’ll leave that for another blog I’m writing.

I’ve come across some social entrepreneurs who I’m still waiting to really meet, as thus far I feel I’ve only conversed with their ego. Yet, these are people who dedicate their time and efforts to doing good. They’re driven by their ego, but they’ve decided to pursue the success of status that comes with creating social change, rather than just making money. That’s great, and I’m glad the social sector has them rather than the corporate sector. But I think ego as a dominant motive will only take you so far. Perhaps it will come through in small daily decisions, or culminate in one massive decision, but ego will make it harder to put your own desires aside in the favour of the ‘greater good’. It’s also fragile and needs regular feeding in order to be happy.

Ego is an incredibly powerful driving force. But I think those of us working within the social sector need to be aware of the role it plays within each of us so that when push comes to shove, and we have to choose between doing something that benefits us or that benefits the cause we’re trying to help, the hammer comes down on the latter. Every time.

I’ll end with a quote from Jack Sim, the founder of the World Toilet Organisaton:

“Ego and money make for good slaves, but poor masters.”

 

Is ego your slave, or your master?

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