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The Duality of Ego

There is much to say about ego; it is a necessary yet dangerously double-edged sword. Ego carried me through much of my career; especially in Facilities. Early on in my time there, the first year in fact, we had a massive electrical event over the Christmas shutdown. We came back to work following the New Year’s holiday to find extensive damage to equipment throughout the facility. My boss stopped into my cubicle and told me they were declaring it to be an Incident – our highest level event – and were meeting in Conference Room A and that I “might as well come along.” 

And so began my journey to becoming solely responsible for the facility’s electrical system. About all I knew of electricity at the time was that it was to be respected and it was vastly mysterious and elusively unfathomable to most.

I read. And I read and I read and I read. I studied, I read, and I observed. And I asked thousands of questions. I took classes and I immersed myself in it. And slowly I learned. But my boss, and my facility, did not have time to wait for me to learn. A huge and varied electrical system, we had equipment that ranged from 1942 up through the present. We distributed 4160V down to 480/277V. There was always something electrically related going on and the system needed constant attention as it had gone through a long period without any significant care or maintenance. And that was up to me.

Certainly my knowledge wasn’t going to get us there! I surrounded myself with experienced and knowledgeable electricians – men of both skill and integrity. But beyond that, my ego carried me. I learned enough to speak authoritatively and confidently. To be the man, you had to believe, know, that you were the man. And that is ego.

We had a major project to execute. It entailed replacing 75 1000W HPS industrial lights with 165 1000W MH lights – all hanging over 100’  in the air – without interrupting production. And then wire those 165 lights with relays and sensors and tie them all back into our energy management system – all in 5 months. And on the day I walked all the bidders through the building to explain the scope of work and show them the myriad of obstacles that faced them, I met a man with whom I am still friends. He walked the building, asked a few questions, nodded his head and said “thanks, looks like something we can do.” They won the job and executed it with great success; no one hurt, on time, on budget. I got to know him and his site superintendent quite well throughout the project as we were together 7 days a week. One day I said something about the day we had done the bidder’s walk-through to the superintendent and he hung his head and chuckled; “you know” he said, “as we walked out of the building that day heading back to our car, I asked Dennis how the hell we were possibly going to figure out how to even start something this big – never mind complete it.” And Dennis replied “I have no idea but we’ll figure it out.” And that is ego. It is not a lie; it is placing a bet with money you don’t yet have.

Don’t get me wrong, ego alone will never get it done. It takes more, far more, than ego. It takes knowing what you can and can’t really do; it takes knowing how to get the knowledge or resources to make up the gap between you talk and your walk. But ego is the only thing during the time between thinking you can pull it off and knowing you can pull it off, that will get you there. It is a mask, a costume – a cape – we wear that gets us through dark holes and over the unbridgeable gaps. It is actually perhaps better stated as self-confidence.

But ego can sink you faster than a pair of lead underwear. It will drag you into places from which you’ll not emerge intact – at least professionally. It can easily lead you to proverbial biting off more than you can chew. But beyond that, it can interrupt, interfere, and impede discussions, meetings, and projects. One of my favorite comments at work is that we’d be infinitely more successful if everyone could check their ego at the gate. This side of ego is perhaps better stated as pride or even hubris. It can make otherwise rational humans become suborn, argumentative, inflexible, and irrational. Often for no other reason than their ego. There are countless paths to success, none of which include lack of compromise. And successful compromise relies extensively on being able to see someone else’s perspective. The demon horned, detractor of forward progress is the inability to see the issue through someone else’s eyes – perspective. Perception filters all we see and commands all we do.

Such complicated machines are we……

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