Ego can be a very good thing. But we’ve all seen, or been, the guy with no ego who seems to constantly get stuck in the friend-zone. We’ve also witnessed the the downfall of many a politician, done in by his own mammoth ego. So, what is the right size ego?
Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation Studios, shares part of the creative process at the best animation studio in the world:
In the process of making the film, we reviewed the material every day. Now this is counter-intuitive for a lot of people. Most people—imagine this: you can’t draw very well, but even if you can draw very well, suppose you come in and you’ve got to put together animation or drawings and show it to a world-class, famous animator. Well, you don’t want to show something that is weak, or poor, so you want to hold off until you get it right. And the trick is to actually stop that behavior. We show it every day, when it’s incomplete. If everybody does it, every day, then you get over the embarrassment. And when you get over the embarrassment, you’re more creative.
As I say, that’s not obvious to people, but starting down that path helped everything we did. Show it in its incomplete form. There’s another advantage and that is, when you’re done, you’re done. That might seem silly, except a lot of people work on something and they want to hold it and want to show it, say two weeks later, to get done. Only it’s never right. So they’re not done. So you need to go through this iterative process, and the trick was to do it more frequently to change the dynamics.
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, shines more light when he discusses how Amazon has been able to win on so many bold bets:
I believe if you don’t have that set of things in your corporate culture, then you can’t do large-scale invention. You can do incremental invention, which is critically important for any company. But it is very difficult — if you are not willing to be misunderstood. People will misunderstand you.
Any time you do something big, that’s disruptive — Kindle, AWS — there will be critics. And there will be at least two kinds of critics. There will be well-meaning critics who genuinely misunderstand what you are doing or genuinely have a different opinion. And there will be the self-interested critics that have a vested interest in not liking what you are doing and they will have reason to misunderstand. And you have to be willing to ignore both types of critics. You listen to them, because you want to see, always testing, is it possible they are right?
So, if you draw at Pixar, you’ve got to get comfortable showing rough, incomplete, or even bad work to others, possibly even your to your heroes. You’ve got to be willing to take criticism and to apply those things that other people think to your work. This requires you to minimize your ego.
On the other hand, Amazon (read: Bezos) has a huge ego. He’s willing to be misunderstood, to looked at as crazy, to be looked at as flat-out wrong. He’s willing to lose $3 BILLION between 1995 and 2003 because he has an outsized belief in himself and his mission.
The guys with the small egos and the guys with the massive egos can both create success. It’s the guys in the middle that perpetually lose. The wafflers, with just enough ego that they “don’t take shit from anybody” but not enough ego to truly believe in themselves, stand up, and say “This can work, and I’m the one that’s going to make it work.”