Insight, delusion, and the ego


Insight is the ability to gain an accurate and deep understanding of something. Lack of insight therefore suggests we have only vague, surface-level understanding. We see the mountain in the distance, but it looks fuzzy; we know it is a mountain, but we don’t know which one. But the opposite of insight isn’t simply lack of clarity – it is delusion. Delusion implies that instead of seeing the object of our perception, we are seeing something else entirely. That is, not only are we are failing to see it fully, we misperceive it in a way that distorts the truth of it. Delusion suggests false perception, not poor perception. We aren’t even seeing a fuzzy mountain, but a crouching monster on the horizon.

But only crazy people have delusions, right? Well, yes and no. Pathological delusions of grandeur or delusions of persecution maybe. But we all suffer from delusions to some extent. And unfortunately, it is a functional aspect of our personality that drives them: the ego. The ego is basically that aspect of our consciousness which allows us to understand ourselves as coherent entities. It is what organizes our personal histories and secures healthy boundaries between ourselves and other people. But the ego takes its job very seriously and can be a bit over-protective. The ego is the original helicopter parent, protecting its special snowflake from the least threat, including criticism of any kind. Delusional misperceptions are often held despite good evidence to the contrary, usually because there is some strong motivation in place to preserve them. The ego is happy to supply those motivations.

Those of us who are in leadership positions need to be especially careful that our particular vantage point doesn’t contribute to delusional misperception. Leaders don’t get where they are by being especially low-ego. As we have discussed before, often people rise through the ranks in organizations, not because they are imminently more capable, but because they believe themselves to be more capable and project this to others. Therefore it is crucial that you be aware of the risk that your ego is hiding something from you.

We are so easily fooled into thinking we are more perceptive and rational than we really are. We cherry pick evidence to support what we have elected to believe. Our minds are expert at arranging the facts to create a story, and when it comes to our self-perceptions, we are always the protagonist. We are also subject to the “Lake Woebegone Effect, ” stubbornly believing that we are above average at, well, pretty much everything. But is it true? Is it possible that you alone possess the deep appreciation of the competitive environment and therefore have the best strategic plans? Are you really listening to your staff, or do they think that you are going through the motions without fully considering their ideas? Do you really come off as knowledgeable and approachable, or do you seem arrogant and closed-minded? Do you mistakenly construe the glazed eyes in meetings as rapt attention versus painful boredom? In conflict, are you really the only one seeing the situation correctly? Are you really the only voice of reason?

We need to cultivate insight so that we can successfully navigate the complexities of our lives and work. We need our egos, too, because life is even more confusing without them. We have to learn to establish a checks-and-balances system. We need to second-guess our ego, especially when it comes to areas that have the ability to make or break our careers. Because our ego is so strong, and because we have spent our lifetime exercising it, we have to work hard to peel back the layers to find the truth – especially about ourselves.


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