What is “Ego” and How to Have Less of Whatever Makes It Bad

The goal of “no ego” is professed as all-important in the jiu jitsu community. And yet, in contrast to how often the goal is stated, detailed discussion of this concept is much rarer (at least in my experience).

Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

“Ego” as a standalone term is usually used to mean an inflated sense of self-worth. It’s our need to compare ourselves to others, and in the process exaggerate the things we’re better at, and ignore or justify away the things we’re worse at. Unfortunately, such comparison moves you away from enjoying the moment itself. Neither winning nor losing can be good enough. Also, in the context of jiu jitsu, comparing yourself to others is counter-productive to learning, because you have very little incentive to try things at 100% that you’re not good at. If you do, you are likely to “fail”, and evaluate the failure in a negative way for your development.

I think the best way to avoid the negative effects of ego is to go against human nature and resist comparing yourself to others.

Better Than Yesterday

In judo, I’ve often heard the quote: “It’s not important to be better than someone else, but to be better than yesterday.” The quote implies that it’s good to compare yourself to the you of yesterday. In general, that’s true in that your goal should always be to grow, improve, learn. But the “yesterday” part leaves the door open to ego. Because how do you know if you improve? Well the usual way is: “yesterday I rolled with person X and he tapped me and today I rolled with him and I tapped him”. I improved! You are again forced to make that counter-productive comparison.

Two Things to Learn From Failure

When you step on the mat, even among friends and long-time training partners, comparisons are abound. It’s human nature, and is very difficult to stop. I know there will be times that people will make judgements about my training, and I will do the same of theirs. For example, I know that it’s sometimes the case that a person who hasn’t passed my guard the last few times we rolled and passes it easily today several times will feel good about their jiu jitsu, and visa versa. Sometimes I can’t help making that comparison even when I know it’s not good for my jiu jitsu growth.

Here are two things I try to do to fight the ego when I fail at the main task of stopping the comparison before it even enters my brain:

  1. When I get smashed, I try not to justify it as “well he’s been doing it much longer” or “he’s much bigger” or “he’s much smaller so I wasn’t really trying” or “he’s a higher rank” or “my rib is hurt, so i couldn’t really defend”.
  2. When I roll with people that I feel I wouldn’t want to “lose” to, I start playing at 100% a new game I’ve been working on or one that I’m not yet comfortable with. It often fails, and I end up doing poorly, and have to deal with the stress of being smashed and take the hit to my bloated self-esteem. That’s the point: Force yourself to experience defeat as a way to re-calibrate the ego.

By the way, on that second point, it’s important to try the new techniques at 100% not 70% nor 20% and to not make any excuses or justifications, otherwise the bitter reality of the lesson will not be internalized quite as well.

It Never Gets Easier

The prescriptive goal, in the end, is: don’t compare yourself to others. I believe that this is something that has to be practiced actively every day. It’s not like once you hit black belt, you’ve suddenly been liberated of the chains of ego. In many ways, it becomes more challenging to remain humble at that point. Not just acting humble, but living humbleThat’s so damn hard to do. But if anything can make that process easier, it’s jiu jitsu!

I usually don’t like Eckhart Tolle because of the overly-spiritual hand-wavy pseudoscience he teaches, but this short video of his I saw a while ago I think is a nice comment about the place of ego in our life:

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