Will Your Ego Be the Death of Your Career?

In just a few short years, as machines displace human workers, egoists, individualists, and aggressive types will be replaced by those with quiet egos. The new book Humility Is the New Smart reveals the surprising new criteria for career success in the upcoming tech era.

This may be good news or bad news, depending on who you are: The day of the aggressive know-it-all who steamrolls over colleagues is drawing to a close. In the future, success will belong to those who can quiet their egos, collaborate, and empathize with others.

Why are inflated egos going out of vogue? Simply put, it's because technology advancements are set to drive massive unemployment—researchers from Oxford University predict that 47 percent of all jobs in the United States may be lost to smart robots over the next five to fifteen years—and to redefine "smart" and "successful."

"After the machines take over, any remaining jobs still available for humans will be those requiring critical, innovative, and creative thinking as well as high emotional engagement with customers, patients, or clients," says Ed Hess, coauthor along with Katherine Ludwig of Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age.

Obviously, this criteria is starkly different from our culture's current markers of success. In the automated age, the authors say humility will be the golden ticket to getting a job. And by humility they don't mean meekness, submissiveness, or thinking less of oneself.

In a nutshell, say the authors, what humility really means is being able to recognize one's own weaknesses, mistakes, and knowledge gaps, being open to new ideas, and being able to "forget the self" and appreciate what other people and things contribute to the world.

According to Ludwig and Hess, living by this definition of humility—a vital component of what they call "NewSmart"—opens our hearts to others in a way that enables the empathy, compassion, and trust necessary for effective teamwork and collaboration.

Here are a few of their insights:

To master the ego, you must first overcome inhibiting cultural mindsets. Culturally, we seem to value highly competitive individuals who appear to be strong, self-confident, extroverted, and all knowing, and who are good at self-promotion. In the future, a very different approach will be needed for success in the workplace. The chart below shows the stark contrast:


Embracing humility may not be easy. Many "successful" people believe humility runs counter to their being perceived as strong. They were raised, educated, and trained in an era where higher-order thinking and emotional skills were not emphasized. In fact, most of today's adults have no formal training in how to think, how to listen, how to learn through inquiry, how to emotionally engage, how to collaborate, or how to embrace mistakes as learning opportunities.

"You may be thinking, I am a good listener, I already relate well to others, I'm not self-centered," Hess says. "You may be good enough, but good enough won't cut it anymore. Now you have to be better—which means toning down your ego's power over your life."

Human beings have a tendency to emotionally react and seek confirmation. "Cognitive science clearly shows that we are all reflexive, cognitive thinkers," asserts Ludwig. "We seek to confirm what we believe, we crave affirmation, and we naturally become emotionally defensive when someone disagrees with us. Those are profound impediments to the skill sets we'll need to thrive in the future. It takes daily effort to overcome these responses."

Meditation and gratitude are surprisingly powerful tools for quieting the ego. Recent neuroscience and psychological research strongly suggests two ways in which we can effectively practice quieting our egos and focusing on others. The first is through rigorous mindfulness meditation. The second is through daily gratitude exercises—for example, thinking about people who have played a positive role in your life.

"I can attest I needed a lot of work on these skills and that these practices over the years have quieted my ego, enabling me to be more open-minded and less emotionally defensive," says Hess. "They've helped me listen better to others by not rushing to judge or disagree but taking the time to understand and reflect on what people are saying."

"It may seem counterintuitive, but without a 'quiet ego' we are suboptimal thinkers and collaborators," concludes Ludwig. "And mastering your ego is lifelong work. It's a daily task to avoid regressing to your hardwired proclivity to 'look out for me.' Those able to rise above that tendency and develop the traits associated with humility will truly have the advantage as technology continues to change the career landscape of tomorrow."

Seven Ways to Hone Your Humility 

A giant ego will be a liability in the future, says Hess. The jobs that will be "safe" once smart robots displace many human roles will involve higher-order cognitive and emotional skills that technology can't replicate: critical thinking, innovation, creativity, and the ability to emotionally engage with others.

All of those skills have one thing in common—they are enabled by "humility." Below, Hess shares seven suggestions to help you hone yours:

First, know that you'll have to work against your brain's natural inclinations. Cognitively, we humans are wired to selectively process only information that is confirmatory—and to selectively filter out information that contradicts what we "know" to be "right." In addition, we're lazy, self-serving, and emotionally defensive thinkers who are driven to protect our egos.

"The science is quite clear that high-level and innovative thinking is a team sport," he comments. "We must be willing to look closely at our mistakes and failures, to really listen to people who disagree with us, and to allow the best ideas to rise to the top—which requires humility!"

Seek objective feedback about your ego. Have the courage to get people who know you well at work and in your personal life to fill out a 360-degree review about you—one that focuses on your emotional intelligence, open-mindedness, listening, empathy, humility, etc.

"Emphasize how appreciative you will be if people are honest and that candor will not diminish the relationship," says Hess. "After receiving the data, evaluate it with a trusted other. Reflect on the picture you received and decide what you want to do with that data."

Change your mental model of what "smart" looks like. "Smartness" used to be determined by one's body of knowledge. Today we have instant access to all the knowledge we want, thanks to Google and Siri, for example. The "new smart" means knowing what you don't know and how to learn it, asking the right questions, and examining the answers critically.

"We are all suboptimal thinkers," comments Hess. "Only those of us who can graciously and humbly admit that we don't know it all will succeed in this new world."

Learn to put yourself in others' shoes. Research says one way to become less self-absorbed and more open to the experiences of others is to actively work on being more empathetic and compassionate. Thinking of how others helped you and saying "thank you" on a daily basis is a positive way to begin the process. Reflecting on the people who add joy to your life helps too.

"Active listening has been an important tool in helping me learn to set my ego aside," adds Hess. "When I remind myself to focus all of my attention on what someone else is saying instead of on formulating my own response, I find that my understanding of the situation grows—and often, so does the amount of empathy I feel. This is true even when I don't agree with them."

Quiet your mind to stay in the moment. Hess points to attention-focused meditation as a time-honored method of calming one's inner self-intensity. Fully engaging with your current experience (as opposed to ruminating on the past or worrying about the future) enables you to maintain a balanced, healthy perspective. Staying in and responding to the present moment is also a powerful safeguard against ego-driven misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

Stop letting fear drive your decisions. We often play it safe because we don't want to look dumb, be wrong, or fail in front of our friends and colleagues. In other words, we're afraid of making mistakes and bruising our egos. Hess says being okay with being wrong is a necessary and important part of developing humility. (Plus, mistakes are great learning opportunities.)

"Fear of failure, fear of looking bad, fear of embarrassment, fear of a loss of status, fear of not being liked, and fear of losing one's job all inhibit the kind of learning, innovation, and collaboration that are essential for your long-term job security," Hess asserts.

Grade yourself daily. Create a checklist of reminders about the need to be humble, open-minded, empathetic, a good listener, or any other ego-mitigating quality you wish to work on. Review it before every meeting and grade yourself at the end of each meeting. For example, if you want to work on being a better listener, your list might include the following tasks:

  • Do not interrupt others. 
  • Suspend judgment. 
  • Do not think about your response while the other person is still talking. 
  • Do not automatically advocate your views in your first response. 
  • Ask questions to make sure you understand the other person. 
  • Ask if you can paraphrase what the other person said to make sure you heard correctly. 
  • Really try to understand the reasons the other person believes what they believe.

Becoming a more humble person will take persistent hard work and will be a lifelong endeavor. But Hess firmly believes that you will find the journey to be liberating and fruitful.

"With humility comes more meaningful relationships, better opportunities, and, of course, an increased chance of staying relevant and competitive," says Hess. "You will need others to help you outthink a smart machine! Work on yourself starting now, so they'll want to engage with you tomorrow."

About the authors: Ed Hess, Professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden Graduate School of Business, and Katherine Ludwig are the authors of the new book Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (Berrett-Koehler, 2017), which puts forth a new model called NewSmart, designed to help humans thrive alongside technology in the Smart Machine Age. www.edhltd.com and www.katherineludwig.com.

Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, January 2017, ISBN: 978-1-626-56875-4, $27.95) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.