01/25/2014 09:38 am ET Updated Mar 27, 2014

Sitting Tall: Letting Go of Ego to Get Ahead

We have altogether too much ego in our world these days. And before you nod sagely about that colleague or neighbor who is such a diva, let me point out that I'm including you. And me. In fact, the problem is fairly widespread: most people think too much about themselves. Whether it's the inevitable consequence of the self-esteem movement, or the narcissistic end-game of boomer self-expression, we have reached a point at which our egos are actually getting in our way.

How can thinking about yourself not be good for your self? We tend to treat the things we value the most with the greatest care. We might not even use them much, or we might shield them in special cases or under glass. But if you want to be more assertive, or if you want to be a stronger leader, you need to take risks. You need to take your ego out from beneath its protective cover and let it get knocked around.

If you're thinking too much about your ego, you're going to be too careful of your self. You might not ask for a raise for fear of looking silly. You might not ask for a promotion for fear of being rejected or looking greedy. You might ease off your running pace for fear of feeling pain. For most of us, even the knowledge that the pain will stop soon after we cross the finish line, perhaps with a personal best -- even that isn't enough to keep us from slowing down just that tiny bit so that we don't feel the desperation of truly going all out.

We now have a new way of talking about risk-taking: leaning in. But it's an idea at least as old as the poet John Keats who, in 1817 wrote a letter to a friend in which he described a concept he called "Negative Capability." Almost 200 years ago, Keats wondered:

What quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously -- I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. (1)

Being in uncertainty and doubt. Easing up on reason and rationality. Keats's Negative Capability expresses exactly that letting go of ego that we need if we're going to have the best chance at personal success.

I've seen both sides of the ego paradox in my own experience. I'm a writer and a competitive masters rower. Some years ago, inspired by a wise coach, I learned how to stop protecting myself during training rows and races -- and I got faster. I learned that I could row even if I was hungry, or thirsty, or in pain from the effort. When I was an ego-valuer, I would take steps to protect myself because, of course, fatigue, pain, and hunger are bad. But once I learned to be an ego-relinquisher -- a person "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts"--pain didn't matter (well, it mattered less). Was I -- my ego, my self -- so valuable that I couldn't get banged around a bit in the course of training?

Reason tells us to stay safe, but we need to be a little irrational, a little counter-intuitive, in order to get ahead. Even our bodies confirm this idea. Our instinct tells us to protect our internal organs and our jugular veins. That's why we bring our shoulders up around our ears, and that's why we curl up and bring our knees up to our chests when we're feeling vulnerable.

But if you want to get ahead, you need to adopt a posture that exudes confidence: you need to stand up straight, with your belly exposed and your shoulders down. It's a pose of defiance, really; it signals that you are so confident that you don't need to protect your self. In rowing, good technique requires you to adopt a similar posture -- except that you do it while sitting down in the boat. To row well and go fast, you must keep your shoulders down, your chin up, and your back straight -- even when all you really want to do in that tippy, skinny hull of a rowing shell is curl up and crouch down.

And there's one more thing.

There's a phrase that a coach or a coxswain will say from time to time that's not quite a command, but that does have the force of an imperative. Every time I've been in a boat and someone has said it or have said it myself as a coach, the effect on the rowers is immediate: Sit tall. It seems impossible, doesn't it? How can you be tall while in a chair? And we now know that you can take 20 minutes off your life for every hour you stay sitting down. But just because most of us spend our careers sitting, that doesn't mean we have to sit back or sit out from the full reach of our abilities. So, let go of your ego. Expose those vital organs. It's good to lean in. But we can also sit tall.

1. The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats, Cambridge Edition. Houghton, Mifflin and Company. p. 277.