Practice Perfect 665
Losing the Ego – Healthy Medicine?

Sometimes a little bruising of the ego is a good thing. Many of us walk around day-to-day functioning in ways that protect our ego. We want to feel good about ourselves, and we want others to see how special we are. In reality, though, our self-esteem and sense of self-importance often get in the way of self-improvement.

Does your self-esteem and sense of self-importance get in the way of self-improvement?

I’ve seen a typical example of this throughout my professional life in podiatry. Picture this: you’re a student in a small group of four other students with an attending physician. The attending, after explaining something, says, “Do you understand?” In many cases the students will respond with a “yes,” indicating they understand when in fact they don’t. They don’t want the attending physician or their colleagues to think they are ignorant (even though nine times out of 10 the attending knows exactly how ignorant the students are). This unfortunately too common activity stifles student growth by hiding an unclear piece of knowledge from the attending that really needs to be clarified.

At the risk of making myself look even more ridiculous than I normally am, here’s a situation I experienced recently that highlighted various aspects of bruising our egos. My 14-year-old son, over the past year, became interested in mixed martial arts, watching the Ultimate Fighting Champion and learning about the various martial arts. We finally reached the point where he started taking classes, and like the dutiful father (along with a need to lose weight) I decided to sign up and take some classes with him. My son took an introductory private session with the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) coach and then I joined him for our first class.

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For context let me remind you, fair readers, that in my day-to-day life, I’m a board-certified podiatrist who teaches young podiatrists (both students and residents). Since I’ve been in practice for 13 years and in the field for 20 years, I’ve reached a point where – at least in the eyes of those I teach – I’m the expert, the one who knows what’s going on, the fund of knowledge. I’m the foot and ankle surgeon carrying them through the various patient reconstructions. If that’s not enough ego demonstration for you, recall that the person writing this blog for the past twelve years thinks you might actually want to read about his BJJ class debacle.

Keep that context in mind as I describe this new experience doing a martial art I’ve never done before. My son, who was, until recently, a high-level ballet dancer, is basically an athlete with a strong, young, limber body. Also, keep in mind he has – through many hours of study – an encyclopedic knowledge of all things martial arts. I’m a 46-year-old, overweight male who works 16 hours a day, who has never – ever – been an athlete. Let me say that again. I’ve never been athletic. In fact, anyone looking at me would know that without my stating it. So, obviously I’m the worst candidate to start taking a BJJ class that requires heavy athletics. But that’s ok – because I’m probably the biggest idiot in the world.

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Picture the scene: my son and I are in a class with about six others plus the coach, all of which are about half my age (including the coach). We’re standing on a large 20 x 20 foot mat surrounded by a black fence. We are shoeless, wearing shorts and a tee shirt.

The coach immediately has us begin jogging to warm up, which sounds ok…until he yells out “shoulder rolls.” Yes. You heard correctly. We are supposed to run, then roll onto the ground over our shoulders, get up and begin running again, doing this repeatedly several times. We then do variations of this theme by rolling over the other shoulder and – yes, you guessed it – rolling backwards! Backwards! And this isn’t even the actual martial art part!

Needless to say, I’m already breathing heavily when the coach has us do various drills, all of which are combinations of rolls, tosses, and grappling. This goes on for a full hour – sixty long minutes. 

Half way through the class I recall thinking, “At least I have a reasonable life insurance policy so when I have a heart attack and die my wife and kids will be well cared for.” 

Fortunately for me the end of the class came without my anticipated myocardial infarction. What did come was the coach telling the class he was pleased with our work, but we needed to react faster to his commands. I was being griped at by a twenty-something young man after having just looked like a complete and utter fool, a middle-aged overweight man rolling all over the floor. All I can say is, thank all that is good in the world that no one was videotaping the class! 

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Looking retrospectively on this experience (and with very achy legs) I learned a few lessons about ego from this experience: 

  1. We all walk around with a baseline ego, and we must give up that ego, if only temporarily, to have full experiences outside our expertise.
  2. Ego must also be dispensed with to learn something new.
  3. It may be uncomfortable to function outside of our comfort zone, but it won’t kill us.

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My experience taught me something my wife told me some years ago while teaching our children in school. There’s an old Zen Buddhist phrase that, summed up, says in order to learn something new, you must empty your cup. How can we fill the cup – ie learn and grow – if the cup is full? In essence this old saying is telling us to lose the ego.

Ego must also be dispensed with to learn something new. We need to appear with an empty cup, ready to fill.

Now, I don’t know if I actually learned anything from my BJJ class, but I did have enough ego remaining (and maybe some masochism) to actually go back for a second class. Grit is an entirely different skill to be discussed somewhere else. Until then, don’t laugh too loud the next time you see me limping by, since you’ll know exactly why that limp is there.

Best wishes.

Jarrod Shapiro, DPM
PRESENT Practice Perfect Editor

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