Confidence Without Ego

Published: 20 Feb 2015

When I was young I thought humility was placing yourself below other people. To believe that they were better than me. To subserviate myself to their opinions and requests. I thought of the stereotypical monk who bows his head humbly in the presence of others. So as not to place himself in competition with others. Who goes about his business as directed, without thinking less of anyone. I thought in some ways that humility was the opposite of confidence.

I don’t feel that way now. I believe that humility is confidence in the absence of ego. It is to be teachable. It is the academic ideal of defending one’s case with confidence, but being willing to step aside when proven wrong. Valuing truth enough to accept it even when it runs counter to ideas held before. This makes it an essential attribute for all members of a successful team.

This is why all-star teams in sports often struggle. This is why rockstar developers often leave, and why Jens Voigt continues to impress me. If you don’t know who Jens is, I am sorry... Go read about him. He is a world class athlete who set aside his opportunities to win, to support the careers and aspirations of other members of his team. And that, even more than his talent, is why cycling fans love him.

Finding the balance between confidence and elimination of ego is hard, and will take effort on our parts. It is both deeply personal and essential to the functionality of our teams, families, and selves. I don’t think I know the exact way to do it, but I do know it can happen. If you want your team to succeed in ways you never thought possible it must happen.

It does happen though. Think Michael Jordan.

A while ago I was working on a team building a web app. It had some new technical challenges that we had never tackled, and we were just beginning to gel as a team. We were also all young, smart, talented, confident developers. I still count the other members of the team as some of the best developers I have ever worked with. But none of us cared about that and the result was magical.

To place some context around this, I work for a religious non-profit. In the post-mortem we heard our dev lead share sacred and personal impressions he had as we worked. He talked about how external inspiration had helped him solve problems. Then many of the team members chimed in with their own examples. We all had them. We all recognized that something outside of ourselves had facilitated the product that we had made. Part of that was the team worked for the product not for recognition. Another part of that was what we were working on.

Whatever you feel about God, the lesson here is that recognizing an outside source for our talents and work is important. It takes the focus off of us and allows for thoughtful consideration of others. Because if inspiration comes from us then it is all about us. But if it comes from outside of us then we are able to set our egos aside.

This concept is old... in fact genius used to be outside of us. We spoke of having genius instead of being a genius. Embracing that let’s us make decisions, while just as easily reevaluating the decisions we have made. Brené Brown talks about this better then I can here.

To wrap this up, a few quick thoughts:

  1. It’s not about you, it’s about the team
  2. It’s not about being right, it’s about doing the right thing
  3. The only thing that matters is finding the right thing
  4. Disagreeing is ok, disagreeing in the face of consensus and data is showing off
  5. Listen first