Ego, Ownership & Happiness

Marnie McBean isn’t your normal, average, every-day Canadian. For starters, she’s won several gold medals at the Olympics. She has a healthy ego. She’s proud that she has a healthy ego. And she thinks more Canadians need to embrace their awesomeness.

I had the pleasure of hearing her speak at a recent conference, and she has some unique—and valuable—insights about what it takes to succeed, to thrive and to lead. Starting with building up ego.

To tackle the ego issue head on, McBean delineates ‘ego’ from ‘arrogance’. They are not synonyms, and in her view Canadians do a disservice when they conflate them. Ego is a measure of confidence. Having an ego is about having faith in your abilities and belief that you have the capabilities to do what’s necessary. Arrogance is about entitlement. If you feel success is your due, rather than something you need to work for, then you have an arrogance problem, not an ego problem. Swagger, confidence and ownership that come from ego—from capabilities that you have earned, built and honed over time—is part of the package that enables great performance. That swagger doesn’t come from entitlement; it comes from truly owning and enjoying who you are, where you are and what you are doing.

McBean has channelled her earlier success as an athlete into later success as a mentor to elite athletes, and has some great insights on what it takes to succeed on a sustained basis. Sustainment, in particular, is a challenge. Novices are often the easiest to coach, because they have no expectations. Veterans, particularly ones that have experienced success, have nothing but expectations. The expectations of others are a challenge; the expectations they place on themselves are worse. The consequence of mounting expectations can often be less achievement, as well as less fun and enjoyment.

Interestingly, she would advocate that the solution to this situation isn’t reducing stress. In her view, stress is the spice of life. Stress occurs because we care, because we have ambition and ownership. One could argue that stress is shaped by the disconnect between what exists, and what we know is possible. The challenge therefore is not to eliminate stress. Stress is normal. What is required is managing stress. To manage stress we need to know where it comes from, and how it manifests itself.

For the most part, stress isn’t in the doing. It’s in the anticipation. Stress gets created in advance of performance, as we think about the potential problems and consequences and issues and challenges. The lead up to an event is where your head has the opportunity to mess with itself. Our minds have a phenomenal capacity to be our own worst enemy. This is where the sabotage starts. This is where the doubts are sown. This is where the sneaky and insidious thought that it would be easier not to try becomes a tempting option.

A key insight that McBean offers, and a powerful one, is, “Start happy to finish happy.” It’s a simple statement, but there is a lot going on there. To me, it means that you can’t come out of a situation happy if you don’t go into a situation happy. That means finding a way to talk to the voices that would derail your happiness. You have to be happy with the process, happy with the relationship, happy with what’s at your disposal to perform and get things done. And in particular, you have to be happy with you. You need to be happy with your preparation and your abilities and your skills. You need to be content that you can be all-in in the situation, and give 100% of yourself to realizing your goals.

One of her examples was the situation that Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue found themselves in at the Sochi Olympics. They were in the odd position of sharing a coach with the United States team, who were amongst their closest rivals. The relationship with their coach was going to end, but they were, for the sake of continuity, going through one more Games together. Their goal was to deliver a performance that they were happy with. McBean suggested that if they wanted to be happy at the end, they needed to be happy going in. And that required closure on what had come before, and clarity on what would come next. For them, the advise resonated, and they were able to come to a positive place going in to their final performance that allowed them to be successful, on their own terms.

For the doubters, this isn’t a product of simply thinking positive, happy thoughts or willing yourself into a positive state of mind. It is about strategically developing a mindset for success. You need to have a clear focus on what you need to do, but also an appreciation for what you have already accomplished. You need to give 100% of what you are capable of, in each interaction. You need to have a plan, but you need to recognize that nothing in that plan may go quite as you anticipate it. Above all, you need the preparation, the flexibility and the adaptability to cope as things change.

All of that comes back to ego. To confidence. To clear goals and healthy ambition. And to wearing all of those with pride. Ego needs to be embraced and owned, not apologized for.

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