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The Learning Curve

How to deal with the egotistical people in your life

Frank Lloyd Wright captured serenity in his masterpiece, Fallingwater, but his egotistical tendencies made life for others anything but serene.
Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural masterpiece, Fallingwater.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright captured serenity in his masterpiece Fallingwater, but his egotistical tendencies made life for others anything but. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Key Takeaways
  • An egotist’s exaggerated sense of self-importance can make work and life difficult.
  • When confronted by an egotist, many try to fight ego with ego. But this strategy leads to escalation.
  • Instead, flow around their egotistical tendencies.

Fallingwater is a crown jewel of American architecture. The Pennsylvania home brandishes rough stone walls, bold cantilevers, and a waterfall-straddling foundation that makes it one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. Its design is so esteemed that it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019. It also ranks 29th on the American Institute of Architects’ “America’s Favorite Architecture” list.

And it’s not the only cultural zenith reached by its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright also stands among America’s most elite egotists of all time. Given the stiff competition for that honor, one wonders which is the more impressive achievement.

Here’s a telling story: In the 1930s, Wright designed the Johnson Wax Administration building for S.C. Johnson & Son, a project that went well over budget at just under $3 million (or $50 million relative to today). One night, while the president was hosting a dinner party for distinguished guests, the roof sprung a leak right over the table. The president called Wright to report the problem; Wright told him to move his chair.

It’s a typical anecdote in a biography replete with scorned spouses, extravagant spending, self-aggrandizing fabrications, and attempts to control the lives of others down to their romantic partners.“Wright beautifully illustrates many features of egotism, including an inflated sense of self-importance, a great need for attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and little empathy for the suffering of others,” writes Richard Gunderman, Chancellor’s professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, for Psychology Today.

Many consider it a given, even acceptable, that a man of Wright’s talents and successes should be so conceited. But egotism isn’t just the patrimony of the rich and famous. We can encounter egotistical people anywhere — whether at work, in our families, or through our social networks. Unfortunately, the way we’re inclined to handle such people doesn’t work and, in fact, only escalates the problem.

The anatomy of egotistical people

Essentially, egotistical people are victims of a kind of self-hypnosis. Through an intense focus on themselves, they’ve pushed their weaknesses and regards for others to their mental periphery, buying their frail assurance beneath a stage-ready act of overconfidence.

For example, in a survey published in Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation, researchers asked the relatives of narcissists* to describe their relationships. The traits Gunderman outlined in Wright were all present, but the researchers also discovered an undercurrent of vulnerability. Participants portrayed relatives who were angry, insecure, hypersensitive, and empty — their sense of worth contingent on the admiration of others.

As Ryan Holiday, author of the book Ego Is the Enemy, told us in an interview: “We think ego is supposed to be a strength. In fact, it’s just a veneer for a profound weakness, and it’s the [egotist’s] compensation for that which creates bad situations.”

Because egotists see validation as a social zero-sum game, living and working with them harmoniously becomes a challenge. Any validation that goes to others, their thinking goes, is validation that isn’t going to them. That makes cooperation impossible as their ego becomes a barrier to your fulfillment.

Things become more challenging if you try to break their spell. At that point, you become a threat, and the egotistical drive is to protect their ego, either through regression or lashing out. They may insult you, disregard you, or work actively to your detriment. They may not be physically swinging away at the source of their discomfort, but they are still trying to knock you down so they can rise up.

That mental assault becomes a stressor in your life, one that can generate a powerful fight-or-flight response. Encounters with egotistical people can get your adrenaline pumping. As far as your body is concerned, this is a fight, and you must protect yourself. It’s ego vs. ego, a street brawl of wills. 

And this physiological response leads you to an unhelpful solution: You need to knock them down before they can do the same to you.

A picture from a 2007 meeting between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin.
Vladimir Putin once tried to scare former German chancellor Angela Merkel with his black lab. The move backfired on Russia’s egotist-in-chief. (Photo: Presidential Press and Information Office/Wikimedia Commons)

How to deal with egotistical people? Pragmatically.

The problem with this approach is escalation. Because an egotist has difficulty admitting their mistakes and desire to be seen as flawless, they leave little room for compromise. If you try to dominate such a personality, they’ll keep raising the stakes until mutually assured destruction. Or more likely, given your more balanced sensibilities, you give in.

Because of this, the best strategy for combating an egotist is quite simple: Don’t. Avoid them or ignore their attempts at one-upmanship.

Holiday sees Angela Merkel as an exemplar of this strategy. He cites a 2007 meeting she had with Russia’s egotist-in-chief, Vladimir Putin, in which Putin let his black lab into the room. Putin knew Merkel was afraid of dogs and used the opportunity as an intimidation tactic. But Merkel didn’t respond with a petty intimidation attempt of her own. Despite her discomfort, she managed to joke about the situation and came out looking like the stronger leader.

If you must deal with an egotistical person directly, Holiday recommends finding ways to use their ego to your advantage. “Ego can be played with in a lot of ways. It’s so transparently self-motivated that you just stop using the levers or the persuasive techniques that you would use on a normal person,” he says.

For example, when trying to gain buy-in for a project at work, you’d normally convince coworkers by demonstrating how the plan helps the team or accomplishes a team goal. But for the office egotist, you need to show them how the project can raise their profile. 

You can also convince them that they share a stake in your idea or that it was, in some part, theirs. This strategy ties the egotist’s success directly to the project and motivates them to work with you because their success and self-worth are now tied to it. When their self-worth is on the line, egotists can be incredibly dedicated workers.

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In many ways, you can think of Holiday’s advice as prosocial Aikido. In this Japanese martial arts, the goal is to redirect an attacker’s momentum to overcome their aggression without injuring anyone. Similarly, Holiday wants you to flow around their ego and redirect their efforts toward communally beneficial projects.

We think ego is supposed to be a strength. In fact, it’s a veneer for a profound weakness.

– Ryan Holiday

The egotist who broke Fallingwater

That brings us back to Fallingwater. Wright’s crowning achievement is without question a stunning work of art. But its beauty is pockmarked by serious flaws. Humidity from the waterfall creates mildew. Its skylight is leaky (a motif in Wright’s projects). Engineers had to secretly incorporate extra steel into Wright’s designs just to get the building to stand. And that still wasn’t enough to prevent cracks in the parapets, sagging cantilevers, and a near-catastrophic collapse in 2002.

“Considering Wright’s history of building design failures, if his work were produced in today’s market, he may not experience the same level of historical prominence,” writes Jim Atkins, FAIA, for the American Institute of Architects.

None of which is to say that Fallingwater, or any of Wright’s works, shouldn’t be admired. Just that, stunning though they are, they aren’t the result of a single, unrivaled genius. Countless engineers and workers had to adjust for Wright’s egotistical methods to complete these projects. More have been fixing his mistakes in the decades since.

Had Wright kept his ego in check, could he have still conceived of such wonders? Certainly. His skill and talent came from dedication, hard work, and inspiration. Not arrogance and audacity. Had he been able to deflate his ego and work with others, the associated personal and financial costs would have been far less demanding.

This brings us to Holiday’s last bit of advice: Your ego can be a greater enemy than anyone else’s. 

“We’re going to be most effective when we’re trying to strip ego from our own lives, rather than getting bogged down and trying to cure other people,” Holiday told us.

Watch more of this expert on Big Think+

Our Big Think+ lessons with Ryan Holiday teach you and your team how to avoid ego traps and develop a balanced sense of self at work and in life.

  • Ego 101: How to Develop a Balanced Sense of Self
  • Bring Humility to a New Role: Open Yourself Up to Learning
  • How to Deal with Egotistical People: Strategies for Avoiding Escalation
  • Study Ego in Yourself and Others: Learn How to Distinguish Causation from Correlation

Learn more about Big Think+ or request a demo for your organization today.

* There are important differences between an egotist and a narcissist. The first is that an egotist has a personality type, while a narcissist has a personality disorder. There is also a significant difference in degree in their self-centered behavior. However, you likely won’t have the advantage of a clinically trained therapist to distinguish the difference, so for the purposes of work and life, this article treats the two similarly.

We want to see ourselves in a positive light so we see our own ideas as more important than the ideas of others. 

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