Lesson 3.8

Understanding Ego & Minimizing Its Control Over Us

Dive into this topic by watching the video, followed by key explanations below.


Key Concepts:


Element #2 of intellectual humility is the ability to separate our ego from our intellect.

To understand how that works, it’ll be helpful to first tease apart the different ways people define ego itself:

  • Colloquial definition of ego: “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.” E.g. “a boost to my ego.”

  • Psychological definition of ego: “the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity.”

  • Philosophy / metaphysics definition of ego: “a conscious thinking subject.”

  • What we mean when we talk about the “bad” kind of ego: I think psychologist Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman’s puts it well when he says ego is “that aspect of the self that has the incessant need to see itself in a positive light.”

  • Ego is the thing that makes you think you are you, separate from other things. It is inherently self-focused. And though your ego isn’t necessarily smarmy or counterproductive, it often is.

A healthy ego has a sense of balance between oneself, other people, and reality:

  • An “ego maniac” is someone whose sense of themself is disproportionately large compared to their sense of others’ importance—which distorts their sense of truth and reality.

  • Someone with an underdeveloped ego is someone whose sense of themself is disproportionately small; they’re likely to let other people’s needs and ideas bowl them over—which also distorts their sense of truth and reality.

  • A person with a balanced ego is someone who recognizes their own worth—including the cognitive diversity and character strengths they can bring to the world—as well as the worth of other people. This is the kind of person who can use Wisdom to suss out the merits of ideas—and stay in touch with truth and reality. (It’s not easy to do this, but think about anyone who you know as “wise,” and you’ll surely recognize this balance in them.)


Separating Ego from Intellect is about not making ideas about you. It’s about not feeling threatened by disagreements, dissonance, or ambiguity. It means not making ideas personal.

  • One of the hardest things about this is how often other people make things personal when we disagree. Being able to recognize when this happens and not reflect the personal-ness back is a difficult but valuable skill.

  • Research shows that not only are we good at finding arguments that support our existing beliefs, but we actually tend to form our beliefs first and then justify them post-hoc.

  • We do this for many reasons. But one of the big ones is because we tend to attach our beliefs to our identity (ego), which means it’s psychologically painful to reconsider them. Questioning something that is core to your identity is like questioning your identity yourself. And that’s the worst.

  • So we invent our justifications to support the things we hold close and personal. Separating Ego from Intellect is about making ideas about ideas, and not about us. Easier said than done!

Though mastering our ego is a big topic and a lifelong journey, there are 3 habits we can work into conversations that can help us separate ego from intellect in a given situation:

  1. Don’t invoke identity when you are talking about ideas

  2. Add a layer of abstraction between you and your ideas

  3. Separate what you think from how you feel

We practiced the first two of these earlier in the “That’s Personal” exercise in Module 2.

Now, we’re going to practice number 3 in the next exercise…