When I got really famous and started to hang out with people at the top of the game in computer science and other fields, one of the first things I noticed is that the real A-list types almost never have a major territorial/ego thing going on in their behavior. The B-list people, the bright second-raters, may be all sharp elbows and ego assertion, but there’s a calm space at the top that the absolutely most capable ones get to and tend to stay in.
I’m going to be specific about what I mean by “ego” now, because otherwise much of this essay may seem vague or wrongheaded. I specifically mean psychologial egotism, not (for example) ethical egoism as a philosophical position. The main indicators of egotism as I intend it here are are loud self-display, insecurity, constant approval-seeking, overinflating one’s accomplishments, touchiness about slights, and territorial twitchiness about one’s expertise. My claim is that egotism is a disease of the incapable, and vanishes or nearly vanishes among the super-capable.
It’s not only scientific fields where this is true. For various reasons (none of which, fortunately, have been legal troubles of my own) I’ve had to work with a lot of lawyers. I’m legally literate, so a pattern I quickly noticed is this: the B-list lawyers are the ones who get all huffy about a non-attorney expressing opinions and judgments about the law. The one time I worked with a stratospherically supercompetent A-list firm (I won’t name them, but I will note they have their own skyscraper in New York City) they were so relaxed about recognizing capability in a non-lawyer that some language I wrote went straight into their court filings in a lawsuit with multibillion-dollar stakes.
This sort of thing has been noted before by other people and is almost a commonplace. I’m bringing it up to note why that’s true, speaking from my own experience. It’s not that people at the top of their fields are more virtuous. Well…actually I think people at the top of their fields do tend to be more virtuous, for the same reason they tend to be be more intelligent, less neurotic, longer-lived, better-looking, and physically healthier than the B-listers and below. Human capability does not come in nearly divisible chunks; almost every individual way that humans can excel is tangled up with other ways at a purely physiological level, with immune-system capability lurking behind a surprisingly large chunk of the surface measures. But I don’t think the mean difference in “virtue”, however you think that can actually be defined, explains what I’m pointing at.
No. It’s more that ego games have a diminishing return. The farther you are up the ability and achievement bell curve, the less psychological gain you get from asserting or demonstrating your superiority over the merely average, and the more prone you are to welcome discovering new peers because there are so damn few of them that it gets lonely. There comes a point past which winning more ego contests becomes so pointless that even the most ambitious, suspicious, external-validation-fixated strivers tend to notice that it’s no fun any more and stop.
I’m not speaking abstractly here. I’ve always been more interested in doing the right thing than doing what would make me popular, to the point where I generally figure that if I’m not routinely pissing off a sizable minority of people I should be pushing harder. In the language of psychology, my need for external validation is low; the standards I try hardest to live up to are those I’ve set for myself. But one of the differences I can see between myself at 25 and myself at 52 is that my limited need for external validation has decreased. And it’s not age or maturity or virtue that shrunk it; it’s having nothing left to prove.
I’m going to use myself as an example now, mainly because I don’t know anyone else’s story well enough to make the point I want to with it. I’m the crippled kid who became a black-belt martial artist and teacher of martial artists. I’ve made the New York Times bestseller list as a writer. You can hardly use a browser, a cellphone, or a game console without relying on my code. I’ve been a session musician on two records. I’ve blown up the software industry once, reinvented the hacker culture twice, and am without doubt one of the dozen most famous geeks alive. Investment bankers pay me $300 an hour to yak at them because I have a track record as a shrewd business analyst. I don’t even have a BS, yet there’s been an entire academic cottage industry devoted to writing exegeses of my work. I could do nothing but speaking tours for the rest of my life and still be overbooked. Earnest people have struggled their whole lives to change the world less than I routinely do when I’m not even really trying. Here’s the point: In what way would it make sense for me to be in ego or status competition with anybody?
And yet, there are people out there who are going to read the previous paragraph and think “Oh, that’s Eric’s ego again. The blowhard.” I’ve had a lot of time to get used to such reactions over the last decade, but it’s still hard for me not to collapse in helpless laughter at the implied degree of Not Getting It. Now (limiting myself to a small random sample of the A-listers I’ve actually met and taken the measure of) Alan Kay or Terry Pratchett or David Friedman or Freeman Dyson…they would understand why I was laughing. Because real A-listers are sui generis, and usually polymaths; they tend to have constellations of talent so extreme and idiosyncratic that they couldn’t even really be in ego competition with each other, let alone with those much less capable. That’s supposing they wanted to be.
And generally they don’t want to be. If you’re the kind of person who can make it to the top even in a single field (law or CS or whatever) you may not have started out with better things to do than compete for attention and glory, but by the time you make the A-list you’ve almost certainly discovered subtler games to play that are much more fun. You’ll maintain a reputation because a reputation is a useful tool, but it’s not the point any more. If it ever was. In my experience this is even more true of polymaths, possibly because their self-images as competent people.have broader and more stable bases.
I think there are a couple of different reasons people tend to falsely attribute pathological, oversensitive egos to A-listers. Each reason is in its own way worth taking a look at.
The first and most obvious reason is projection. “Wow, if I were as talented as Terry Pratchett, I know I’d have a huge ego about it, so I guess he must.” Heh. Trust me on this; he doesn’t. This kind of thinking reveals a a lot about somebody’s ego and insecurity, alright, but not Terry’s.
There’s a flip side to projection that I think of as the “Asimov game”. I met Isaac Asimov just a few months before he died. Isaac had long been notorious for broadly egotistical behavior and a kind of cheerful bombast that got up a lot of peoples’ noses. But if you ever met him, and you were at all perceptive, you might see that it was all a sort of joke. Isaac was laughing inside at everyone who took his “egotism” seriously – and, at the same time, watching hungrily for people who could see through the self-parody, because they might – might – actually be among the vanishingly tiny minority that constituted his actual peers. The Asimov game is a constant temptation to extroverted A-listers; I’ve been known to fall into it myself. It’s not really anybody’s fault that a lot of people are fooled by it.
Another confusing fact is that though A-listers may not be about ego or status competition, they will often play such games ruthlessly and effectively when that gets them something they actually want. The something might be more money from a gig, or a night in the hay with an attractive wench, or whatever; the point is, if you catch an A-lister in that mode, you might well mistake for egotism some kinds of display behavior that actually serve much more immediate and instrumental purposes. Your typical A-lister in that situation (and this includes me, now) is blithely unconcerned that a bystander might think he’s egotistical; the money or the wench or the whatever is the goal, not the approval or disapproval of bystanders.
Finally, a lot of people confuse arrogance with ego. A-listers (and I am including myself, again, this time) are, as a rule, colossally arrogant. That is, they have utter confidence in their ability to meet challenges that would humble or break most people. Do not be fooled by the self-deprecating manner that many A-listers cultivate; it is a mask adopted for social purposes, mostly to avoid freaking out the normal monkeys. But this arrogance is not the same as egotism; in fact, in many ways it is the opposite. It is possible to be arrogant about one’s abilities compared to the statistically average human being and the range of challenges one is likely to encounter, but deeply and genuinely humble when dealing with peers or contemplating the vastness of one’s own ignorance and incapability relative to what one could imagine being. In fact, this combination of attitudes is completely typical of the A-listers I have known.
The behaviors most people think of as “egotism” tend to be driven out by arrogance rather than motivated by it. If you really believe bone-deep that you are superior, you don’t act insecure and twitchy and approval-seeking, because you just aren’t! Arrogance doesn’t even have to be justified to drive out egotism – it just has to be there. It’s all the more powerful an egotism-banisher when the arrogance is actually well-justified by the A-lister’s track record. Thus, egotists are usually people who have not yet established their capability to themselves, or who had that confidence in the past but are beginning to doubt it.
Finally, I think a lot of people need to believe that A-listers invariably have flaws in proportion to their capabilities in order not to feel dwarfed by them. Thus the widely cherished belief that geniuses are commonly mentally unstable; it’s not true (admissions to mental hospitals per thousand drop with increasing IQ and in professions that select for intelligence, with the lowest numbers among mathematicians and theoretical physicists) but if you don’t happen to be a genius yourself it’s very comforting. Similarly, a dullard who believes A-listers are all flaky temperamental egotists can console himself that, though he may not be smarter than them, he is better. And so it goes.
Ego is for little people. I wish I could finish by saying something anodyne about how we’re all little when you come down to it, but I’d be fibbing. Yeah, we’re all little compared to a supernova, but that’s beside the point. And yeah, the most capable people in the world are routinely humbled by what they don’t know and can’t do, but that is beside the point too. If you look at how humans relate to other humans – and in particular, how they manage self-image and “ego” and evaluate their status with respect to others…it really is different near the top end of the human capability range. Better. Calmer. Sorry, but it’ s true.