Last week, I was sitting in a nice restaurant with my partner. I’m smiling even now as I write this remembering how sweet the time was. The lights were just right, we had the coziest spot in the whole place, the food was delicious—you get the idea. Somewhere around three quarters of the way through the meal, she looked at me and said, “I just realized, there is no music playing!” I set my fork and knife down and paused to listen. Sure enough, almost silence.
I can’t remember the last time I sat in a restaurant with no music. It just doesn’t happen. But it was so very refreshing to be able to hear her, to be able to speak and be heard. Somehow we had stumbled into a few moments with no noise.
Surely there are many sources of noise in our lives. Reminders always dinging, text messages constantly chirping, Slack, email, social media, you name it—all trying to pull our attention to something “important.” But there’s another kind of noise that doesn’t make it into these lists, one that’s internal but often louder than all the others. Let’s talk about the noise of our egos.
I understand that ego is important in many ways. Without a prioritized sense of self, it’s unlikely that we would have lasted as a species. Ego is what helps us fight for survival, so I’m not one who is looking for a world with no ego. However, I absolutely believe my life (and the life of those around me) would be much better if I could turn the volume of my ego down a bit—if I could quiet my ego.
The term “quiet ego” is not new. I discovered the phrase while doing some research on our entry level value of “humility.” Here’s an excerpt from a 2008 piece by Heidi Wayment that explains the concept by contrasting it with a “loud ego”:
The relatively quieter ego listens to others as part of a psychosocial harmony, whereas the noisier ego tunes others out as one would tune out background noise. The quieter ego is attuned to the internal rhythms of people’s (including the self’s) psychological dynamics, whereas the noisier ego is attuned more to the clamoring boom of people’s external appearances. The quieter ego, compared with the noisier ego, has more balance and integration of the self and others in one’s concept of the self, a balanced recognition of one’s strengths and weaknesses that paves the way for personal growth, and a greater compassion for the self and others.
If you read more about the “quiet ego” you’ll find the practical application of the idea is seen in characteristics—things like mindfulness and compassion. The most helpful explanation I could find is that turning the volume of my ego down, means I can hear what others are saying. The act of quieting my ego is making space for others in the conversation. It’s leaving my assumptions about someone’s ability to contribute behind and being open to new and different ideas. And this is what I’ve been trying to express for 13 years with Sparkbox’s entry level value of humility. From our company handbook:
We look for people who are humble, people who recognize they will be better when they crave and welcome the contribution of others. Sparkboxers believe every interaction is an opportunity to learn.
In a lot of ways, my understanding of the word “humility” has changed over the years. From my early days, I took it to mean the prioritization of others over myself at almost all costs. This is clearly an unhealthy perspective on the word, ignoring the needed boundaries for a sustainably productive life. These days, I know it’s possible to be genuinely humble in a way that doesn’t sacrifice our health and mental wellness.
And all of this relates beautifully to the conversation around quiet ego. In those early years, I would have reacted negatively to the idea that ego can be a good thing. Now, I know it’s necessary for valuable collaboration. When I tell our employees I want them to bring their whole selves to work, I mean that. All of their life’s experiences and perspectives, their world view, their hobbies—those things make us who we are. To expect people to leave them at home is to ask them to silence their ego, to become someone else entirely. While that might create less friction in the short term, it would not be healthy for them and it would not result in the quality of work we promise our clients. Instead, this concept of humility requires us to quiet our egos, not silence them. To turn the volume down just enough that we can hear what others have to say. Enough that we can see when we are not right. After all, if you’re reading this, it’s very likely that we’re on the same team, you and I. We’re working toward the same goal. We want to make ourselves a little better, and in doing so, make the world a little better. And that requires a lot of humility, and just enough ego.