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Ego is the Enemy

April 14, 2018

Written by Clay Smith.

Ego Is the Enemy

This was a wonderful editorial in Nature Microbiology entitled Ego is the Enemy, Especially for Academics.  Take a moment to read it.  Thanks to LITFL blog for this link.  It is a review and summary of the book, Ego is the Enemy (affiliate link) by Ryan Holiday.  It is written from the perspective of an academic researcher.  There’s been much talk on social media about the Dunning-Kruger Effect since the 2016 US election, and I was just discussing it with a colleague last night.  I have climbed and fallen from Mt. Stupid so many times I have motion sickness and a concussion. Why does this keep happening and how can I stop doing this?


Drawn by the author and adapted from original Dunning-Kruger article, Psychology Today, and several other online depictions of D-K.

Drawn by the author and adapted from original Dunning-Kruger article, Psychology Today, and several other online depictions of D-K.


Is Your Ego Out of Control?

I think a big part of it is ego.  My dad always told me, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (Proverbs 16:18).”  He usually said this after I had done something stupid – which was often.  In this article, the author talks about ways an academic researcher might know he or she has an ego problem.

“Our academic egos are probably spiraling out of control, when we:

  1. stop reading and learning from other’s research
  2. stop seeking input from colleagues and students
  3. can’t tolerate criticism of our research, or take scientific criticism as personal attacks
  4. stop citing others and make our papers mostly about our own work
  5. no longer take the time to meet students and junior colleagues who want advice
  6. attend conferences only when we have a speaking role; or sulk when a meeting is held in our area of expertise and we are not invited
  7. write a negative peer review or tend to reject manuscripts as editor, when our work is not cited
  8. expect all our grants to get funded and all our manuscripts to get accepted; if they don’t, we tend to appeal reject decisions
  9. expect to be a first or senior author on all papers
  10. sulk when we are overlooked for awards and prizes
  11. offer expert opinions on all topics, even topics we have little expertise in
  12. are unable to retire from academia at the appropriate time (i.e. cannot quit when we are ahead); and/or not able to recruit and mentor junior colleagues to take over after us (i.e. no succession planning)”

Being less a physician scientist and more a clinician educator, I thought I would put more of a #FOAMed spin on it.

Ego in #FOAMed

What are the ways we in the #FOAMed world might see our ego spiraling out of control?

  1. We have Twitter envy.
  2. We stop reading other people’s posts and perseverate on our own.
  3. We stop citing and linking other people’s excellent online scholarship.
  4. We obsess and boast about our stats: followers, subscribers, fans, likes, retweets…whatever.
  5. We stop listening to others about ways we can improve our site, user experience, or content delivery.
  6. We stop learning about best practices for presentations or design and care little about learning sound educational techniques.
  7. We spend all our time talking about our blog and are irritated when attention is drawn to others’ work.
  8. We feel jealous of other educators who speak at big conferences.
  9. We feel jealous that other FOAM producers get more traffic and more attention.
  10. We stop generously desiring to help and promote others and only focus on promoting ourselves.

Moving in the Right Direction

I wish I could say this didn’t come so easily from my mind.  I was able to list these ten points way too fast.  But isn’t that the point?  Ego, envy, toxic pride, arrogance, and the ascent of Mt. Stupid are problems that I need to acknowledge that I have.  And that’s where I need to start.  The only way to start up the slope of enlightenment is to develop metacognition – “the ability to know how well one is performing, when one is likely to be accurate in judgment, and when one is likely to be in error.”  As the original paper by Dunning and Kruger describe it, “the same incompetence that leads them [the incompetent person] to make wrong choices also deprives them of the savvy necessary to recognize competence, be it their own or anyone else’s.”

Onto the Slope of Enlightenment

How can we move onto the slope of enlightenment?  Here are several ways.

  1. Learn from and get close to humble people who are inquisitive, who don’t take themselves too seriously, but whom you perceive to be competent.
  2. Get to know people who think differently about things: especially medical things, but also religious, political, financial, racial, etc.
  3. Don’t say, “I’m not impressed.”  Even the most broken person is impressive.  Even the most mundane case has volumes to teach.  In fact, everything around us is impressive if we stop long enough to look.
  4. Don’t put yourself down or become overly introspective.  C.S. Lewis said, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
  5. Assume a humble posture, for example: I could be wrong; others probably are smarter than me; I have room for improvement; this person has something to teach me; I don’t need to draw attention to how much I know.
  6. Listen before speaking to: patients, nurses, physician colleagues, spouse, kids, friends…well, everyone.
  7. Don’t worry about how you compare with others, especially in the realm of social media and medical education.  Just do excellent work that serves people, and the other stuff will sort itself out.

Our ego can make us blind.  I don’t want to be blind.  This post in Nature Microbiology helped me quite a lot.  And it has helped me to write this, because I’m speaking to myself as much as to anyone else.  I hope it helped you too.

See you on the slope of enlightenment.

Another Spoonful

What are your thoughts?