My Say: Ego is kryptonite to knowledge

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 3, 2019 - June 09, 2019.
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Since my article “Knowledge is the sustainable security of a future” appeared in these pages last month, many people have asked me for more on this concept of knowledge. As this is the holy month of Ramadan, I feel it apt to continue with the subject from the perspective of humility, a trait all of us should have in order to rise above our ego.

I once asked my son, “Are you smart or do you think you are smart?” His immediate and reactive response was, “I’m smart.” He then paused and pondered for a while over his answer and realised soon enough that the question had been rhetorical.

As much as I believe that exuding confidence is a positive trait, there is a need to balance it with humility. I shared with my son that while it was good for him to know that he was competent at whatever he did, humility would help him improve as it would open up more opportunities to gain more knowledge. That confidence needs to be moulded so that it does not mutate into arrogance and a false sense of being.

When we thirst for people to say we are good, then we are not good enough. We must know the difference between someone who is really smart and someone who only thinks he is smart. It is important to have a real sense of inner confidence as opposed to beating our chest when the inside is actually empty.

As human beings, and even as a company, we have to understand that there is an infinite amount of knowledge out there. No matter how educated one is, there is always something new to learn. Acknowledging this is an important step in our continuous journey to improve ourselves.

I believe there are various levels of knowledge where man is concerned. For ease of understanding, let us break it down to three. The first level is when a person thinks he is smart. Because of his ego, he is oblivious to the fact that he is, in reality, not so smart. The second level is when a person thinks he is smart but realises that there is a vast amount of knowledge out there that he needs to acquire to continuously improve himself. The third level is when a person fully understands that the knowledge of all mankind is only a drop in the ocean, and that the amount of knowledge available is infinite. I think this may be the ultimate for humankind — because of that person’s humility, he understands that he knows nothing based on the fact that human intellect has a limited capacity.

Clearly, philosopher Socrates believed this because he once said, wisely, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

What differentiates between these three levels is the presence or absence of ego. I believe that the true enemy of knowledge is ego, which is the result of arrogance. I personally experienced this when I met a friend who needed my help some time ago. Listening to his problems I thought I was sent to him to teach him. Thus, I started to offer solutions to his every issue, thinking that I had the power to solve each one of them.

My ego made me think that I had the power to change his fortune. However, I slowly realised that I was mistaken and it was the other way around. The Creator actually sent my friend to me to teach me that I knew nothing, that I could merely share my experience and that if I was guided by ego, that knowledge would not have come to me.

Only the Creator could help him, and I was merely a conduit.

We may think that with our knowledge, we are in a position of power to help or change someone — that is ego. While I believe that knowledge is a very important commodity for any person or company to prosper, I also think that this commodity is very dynamic. Knowledge can be as equally bestowed as it can be taken away. Whatever knowledge we have could abandon us when we let ego overcome our being.

How can this be so? I have seen it happen to some people. When they see someone less knowledgeable or experienced than them, they belittle the person. This causes their knowledge to stagnate, especially when they refuse to keep up with the times or absorb new ideas. Eventually, even things that they already know may be forgotten or become obsolete and useless.

If we go to a lecture or talk, some of us can listen and learn with high absorbency while others do not understand or absorb anything. Why? Because some of the audience come in with their own conceptions about a topic, and a big ego about what they know. It is their ego that hinders them from listening and accepting new knowledge or perspectives. They, therefore, deny themselves of understanding something that they may not know. The ability to unlearn what we previously know is critical to relearn and acquire new knowledge.

Whether or not we like it, knowledge of new has disrupted knowledge of old. If we do not evolve, change and embrace the new, we will be left behind.

In the context of business and industry, arrogance and rejecting new knowledge can render a product or even a company redundant. Kodak, for example, pioneered digital photography but the company’s top management refused to give the technology the support it needed to grow because they saw it as conflicting with their lucrative core business of selling camera film. Kodak’s refusal to accept change and move ahead with the new technology caused its downfall. Otherwise, Instagram may not have been born and we could still be using Kodakgram!

Successful people always acquire new knowledge, update themselves and evolve with the times. Thumbing your nose at new ideas borders on arrogance and stops the acquisition of new knowledge. The solution to stop this from happening lies in humility, which is kryptonite to ego.

There is a Malay proverb that goes, “Biar ikut resmi padi, makin berisi makin tunduk”. It means, “Be like the rice stalk, it bends lower as it gets laden with ripening grains” — a piece of advice to those who have knowledge and power to display humility. Self-esteem and confidence will come naturally to someone who is truly knowledgeable. A high level of self-esteem can only come with having knowledge. Those who are truly knowledgeable are often very humble, to the point that others respect them even more but still feel comfortable in their presence because of their humility.

We have to stop saying to our young, “I have eaten more salt than the rice that you have had”. This is a Chinese saying, equivalent to the Malay expression “Aku lebih makan garam dari kamu” (I have eaten more salt than you). If we continue with such a condescending attitude, we could end up like the dinosaurs.


Sedania Group founder Datuk Azrin Mohd Noor is an innovator, author and IP expert

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