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.