The Crucial Difference Between Confidence and Ego: One Is Earned, the Other Is Imagined

The advertising legend Ryan Holiday, who maintains a humble profile, speaks to the difference between confidence and ego, exposing the latter as a thin veneer concealing weakness.

Ryan Holiday:  One of the things that psychologists talk about is threatened egotism, what happens with someone who has a very strong sense of ego is challenged in some fundamental way. So you can take – one of the stories I tell in the book that I think is interesting is there's this famous encounter between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin. And in an attempt to intimidate her in a state meeting he had heard that she was afraid of dogs. So he lets a dog come into the room in an attempt at basically to intimidate and to scare her. And so if Angela Merkel had been coming from a place of ego and obviously from fear she's going to react to this sort of petty attempt at intimidation with perhaps an attempt of her own with some saber rattling with any number of these things.

But instead she's got a sense of confidence I would say instead of ego that she's not going to react emotionally to this. She's not going to take it as a threat to her honor. It's not going to escalate into being more than what it is, in fact she ends up making a joke about it and it makes Putin look like the weaker bully in this case. But you can see how a different leader when this is revealed, when this attempt to do something is revealed would react in a dangerous way. You could think of one of the examples they use when they talk about threatened egotism is like a gang member whose honor is impugned, the way that they respond is obviously terrible for both parties involved. They escalate a verbal wound into violence and makes a non-serious situation into a serious one. And so what I'm trying to talk about then is if we have this sensitive ego and we're able to be wounded and instead of looking at that wound and sort of seeing it for what it is, we have to react emotionally. We have to react to compensate for the way that we feel that we've been harmed. It can create really dangerous situations very quickly. And often we think ego is supposed to be strength, but in fact it's a just a sort of veneer for a profound weakness and it's the compensation for that that creates bad situations.

There's a wonderful Bill Walsh quote about ego he says, "Ego is when self confidence becomes arrogance, self-assertiveness becomes reckless abandon and so forth." He saying it's sort of passed the point of any reasonable utility. Confidence is great, arrogance is not great. Or Sero Connolly is saying ego like cancer is sort of an over assertion of cells and that's sort of what I see ego is. It's great to believe in yourself, the problem is when your belief in yourself is not based on anything real. And so that's the enemy of trying to do basically anything that requires interacting with other people.

If you're creative and you're not able to take feedback because your ego is either so strong or you're not able to take feedback because you don't care what anyone thinks your work is not going to get any better. If you don't care about your audience, you don't understand who they are and what's going on in their life because you lack empathy, which is another symptom of ego, your work is going to suffer. If you can't work with other people because you're selfish and you have to be the center of attention at all times you're not going to have a team around you. So it basically makes anything that we're trying to do harder than it already is.

The ability to believe in oneself is great, but when that belief is over-asserted or based on delusions, ego, or "the enemy" as author and media strategist Ryan Holiday calls it, arises. Holiday's newest book Ego is the Enemy is an anthropology of the ego, and it shows that while confidence enables one to strive forward and reach new heights, ego can be detrimental and stunt accomplishment.


Ego can cause people to react emotionally and with reckless abandon when challenged even slightly. Being so arrogant to the point of being unable to receive any feedback, or lacking the empathy needed to care about doing a great job, puts that person at a severe disadvantage; nobody wants to work with someone like that, and when interactions with peers become nearly impossible, the quality of the work decreases.

Take a famous egotist like Steve Jobs. There’s no doubt that Jobs was a genius, but his need for control and compulsion for everything to be exactly the way he wanted it led to his tumultuous relationship with Apple. While Jobs revolutionized personal computing and created an iconic brand, his ego made him so impossible to work with that he was eventually forced out of the Macintosh department, his pride and joy. Apple is a huge success thanks to Jobs' genius, but his humiliation came at the hands of his ego. Perhaps the common conception is true, that Jobs only succeeded because he was so controlling and aggressive in his vision, but imagine what more he may have achieved had he been an open and pleasant person to work with.

Holiday also points out that this inability to process information rationally leaves caverns of room for dangerous situations. To an egotist, something as simple as an insult can trigger a compulsion for retribution that could quickly spiral out of control, and in a world where arrogance is often mistaken for strength, an egotist in power could have some detrimental ramifications.

Ryan Holiday’s most recent book is Ego is the Enemy.

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One of the scientists with the Viking missions says yes.

Image source: David Williams/NASA
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  • A former NASA consultant believe his experiments on the Viking 1 and 2 landers proved the existence of living microorganisms on Mars
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Gilbert V. Levin is clearly aggravated with NASA, frustrated by the agency's apparent unwillingness to acknowledge what he considers a fact: That NASA has had dispositive proof of living microorganisms on Mars since 1976, and a great deal of additional evidence since then. Levin is no conspiracy theorist, either. He's an engineer, a respected inventor, founder of scientific-research company Spherix, and a participant in that 1976 NASA mission. He's written an opinion piece in Scientific American that asks why NASA won't follow up on what he believes they should already know.

In 1976

Image source: NASA/JPL

Sunset at the Viking 1 site

As the developer of methods for rapidly detecting and identifying microorganisms, Levin took part in the Labeled Release (LR) experiment landed on Mars by NASA's Viking 1 and 2.

At both landing sites, the Vikings picked up samples of Mars soil, treating each with a drop of a dilute nutrient solution. This solution was tagged with radioactive carbon-14, and so if there were any microorganisms in the samples, they would metabolize it. This would lead to the production of radioactive carbon or radioactive methane. Sensors were positioned above the soil samples to detect the presence of either as signifiers of life.

At both landing sites, four positive indications of life were recorded, backed up by five controls. As a guarantee, the samples were then heated to 160°, hot enough to kill any living organisms in the soil, and then tested again. No further indicators of life were detected.

According to many, including Levin, had this test been performed on Earth, there would have been no doubt that life had been found. In fact, parallel control tests were performed on Earth on two samples known to be lifeless, one from the Moon and one from Iceland's volcanic Surtsey island, and no life was indicated.

However, on Mars, another experiment, a search for organic molecules, had been performed prior to the LR test and found nothing, leaving NASA in doubt regarding the results of the LR experiment, and concluding, according to Levin, that they'd found something imitating life, but not life itself. From there, notes Levin, "Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA's subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results."

Subsequent evidence

Image source: NASA

A thin coating of water ice on the rocks and soil photographed by Viking 2

Levin presents in his opinion piece 17 discoveries by subsequent Mars landers that support the results of the LR experiment. Among these:

  • Surface water sufficient to sustain microorganisms has been found on the red planet by Viking, Pathfinder, Phoenix and Curiosity.
  • The excess of carbon-13 over carbon-12 in the Martian atmosphere indicates biological activity since organisms prefer ingesting carbon-12.
  • Mars' CO2should long ago have been converted to CO by the sun's UV light, but CO2 is being regenerated, possibly by microorganisms as happens on Earth.
  • Ghost-like moving lights, resembling Earth's will-O'-the-wisps produced by spontaneous ignition of methane, have been seen and recorded on the Martian surface.
  • "No factor inimical to life has been found on Mars." This is a direct rebuttal of NASA's claim cited above.

Frustration

Image source: NASA

A technician checks the soil sampler of a Viking lander.

By 1997, Levin was convinced that NASA was wrong and set out to publish followup research supporting his conclusion. It took nearly 20 years to find a venue, he believes due to his controversial certainty that the LR experiment did indeed find life on Mars.

Levin tells phys.org, "Since I first concluded that the LR had detected life (in 1997), major juried journals had refused our publications. I and my co-Experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, then published mainly in the astrobiology section of the SPIE Proceedings, after presenting the papers at the annual SPIE conventions. Though these were invited papers, they were largely ignored by the bulk of astrobiologists in their publications." (Staat is the author of To Mars with Love, about her experience as co-experimenter with Levin for the LR experiments.)

Finally, he and Straat decided to craft a paper that answers every objection anyone ever had to their earlier versions, finally publishing it in Astrobiology's October 2016 issue. "You may not agree with the conclusion," he says, "but you cannot disparage the steps leading there. You can say only that the steps are insufficient. But, to us, that seems a tenuous defense, since no one would refute these results had they been obtained on Earth."

Nonetheless, NASA's seeming reluctance to address the LR experiment's finding remains an issue for Levin. He and Straat have petitioned NASA to send a new LR test to the red planets, but, alas, Levin reports that "NASA has already announced that its 2020 Mars lander will not contain a life-detection test."

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Credit: IBM
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