EGO – A Diver’s Best Friend or Worst Enemy?

I remember a time when tec divers were taught that ego was a good thing. Nobody was implying that we should all be arrogant, but, at a time where most people thought that tec divers were (literally) stupid, that a healthy ego could give you the confidence, desire and determination needed to stay alive in a difficult situation.

Decompressing in the 1990s
Both attitudes and equipment were different in the 1990s – No BOVs, No integral CCR computer, No drygloves, HUGE light batteries and I now only wear cylinders on the left.

Nearly twenty years on and technical divers are no longer seen as foolhardy risk takers (yes that really was what people said to us). Other divers often look up to technical divers, because they understand the skill and discipline required to be a tec diver. With the Guru culture, I think we now all have more than enough ego and it has, in fact, become detrimental to being a better tec diver.

So, what went wrong?

Ok, let’s go back a bit further. It is not that long ago, in human history, that most people lived their lives hand to mouth. People worked all day, almost every day, just to have the basics that they needed for survival. (And let’s not forget that there are millions of people in the world who still live like this, but they are unlikely to have time to read this blog.) There was no place for ego, unless you were part of the ruling elite. The timescales vary depending upon the society you grew up in, but at some point the ordinary man said “Hang on a minute….why should I bust my guts working all day without getting a just reward for my efforts?” Avoiding all the socio-political complications and implications that arose in the interim, the long term benefit is that many of us now enjoy a lifestyle where, as well as working, we have leisure time and the money to enjoy it. Enter diving.

Practising cylinder removal and replacement
Practising cylinder removal and replacement

Of course, with this has come a culture change which includes the belief that we can all achieve great things and we take pride in what we do achieve. There is nothing wrong with this, but one potential result of this is that we tend to feel we are due respect from others. I’m certainly not going to argue against that, I think respect and good manners are something that we can all find the time for. The downside is that with pride in ourselves, there sometimes comes a difficulty in accepting criticism, even when it is constructive.

Leaving our ego out of it.

A Cave Diving instructor once told a story to a group of cave divers sitting around a camp fire at a Florida dive centre. The story was about Jim Bowden:

Jim was planning a world record depth attempt at the time. They were going diving together and Jim asked his friend to let him know if there was anything he could improve. The Cave Instructor telling the story says that he said that he doubted there was anything he could teach Jim, but Jim insisted that he wanted to know about even the smallest improvement that he could make, because his life may depend on it! Jim went on to achieve a world depth record of 282m/925 feet in 1994 as well as many other extremely deep dives and amazing explorations.

I met Jim and his partner Dr Ann Kristovich a year or so after I heard this story (I have never seen my partner so excited!) when they came to speak at a dive show in London. Their modesty in their own achievements was such that they spent most of the evening asking about everyone else, genuinely curious to learn from those with much less experience than them.

I have tried to follow this philosophy ever since, but it isn’t always easy.

A pool or shallow water is the ideal place to practise.
A pool or shallow water is the ideal place to practise.

What can we do?

Like most tec divers I want to be perfect, but I am not. It is hard to keep skills and knowledge up to date with all the equipment types I dive and teach in, not to mention advances in decompression theory and planning, new techniques, new equipment, manufacturer updates and other areas of development.

I read widely and try to stay abreast of the latest developments, but also try not to make judgements too quickly and to keep questioning even things that have been “proven”. There is always rooms for improvement.

When I haven’t dived in one equipment set up or environment for a while I jump back in the shallows, make sure my kit is how I want it and then practise my skills. I make sure I can hover flat and motionless and that I can do all the skills and demonstrate all the skills. It may take more than one dive….

I also continually cross reference what I am telling my students with my own performance. Occasionally, I don’t like the fact that I have to admit to myself that this highlights something I need to improve….then I drop my ego and I am grateful that I know what I can improve.

Practising decompressing - thinking about trim and buoyancy
Sidemount multi-stage practise

I also continue to take courses or do refresher dives and I do this with someone who will be brutally honest with me about what needs improvement (and who has the skills and experience to teach me new things). Does it hurt my ego? Yes, of course. Sometimes I feel upset, sometimes I feel defensive, but, once I have reminded myself that this is just my ego talking and allowed time to process the information, I can recognise that the criticism is just.

If I still don’t think what I’m being told is true, I have to remind myself that sometimes my students don’t think my feedback to them is correct. That usually indicates that they are not aware of the problem; maybe I can see something they can’t. Now I have to remember that I am no different to my students and that my instructor can see a problem I have, so far, been unaware of. Next, I have to acknowledge and accept that learning about this problem is a good thing; now that I know about it I can do something about it. I resolve to increase my awareness of the problem on the next dive and aim to become self-correcting as soon as possible.

Confidence in our abilities is absolutely vital and, when the chips are down, that confidence can help to keep you calm enough to deal with even major problems. But, egotism is a different thing. Believing we are better than we are or letting our skill level slip because we are too proud to accept criticism has the opposite effect.

Practising Rescue Skills
Practising rescue skills on rebreathers

The higher up the tree we go the bigger our egos tend to get, even if we hide that fact from others, so the more important it is to recognise and anticipate the problems and do an “ego check” as often as you can. Remember:

Everyone makes mistakes, gets rusty or out of date, can always improve and I am no different.

Getting defensive or upset about criticism is just my ego talking.

Overcoming my initial reaction means I can address the problem and become a better diver and/or instructor and/or instructor trainer.


2 Replies to “EGO – A Diver’s Best Friend or Worst Enemy?”

  1. Well put Vikki…
    I suppose the question is when to Ego and when not to…its like hitting your children – the connotation is bad as hitting implies blood and gore the same way Ego implies arrogance…but with the correct wordplay ( English is my second language!) it can become ” firm discipline” and “self -confidence” – both of which are admirable traits!
    Taking criticism from a peer can be a hard pill to swallow, much harder if that person was your student 5 years ago and has been applying themselves! Giving criticism I find is the hardest of all – like Mike Batt sang ” I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. O Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood” – and boy, do I get misunderstood !

    1. Thanks Big B, you make a really good point, giving criticism that is effective yet acceptable to the student is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Knowing when to give praise and when to criticise can also be challenging. Some cultures have the attitude that criticism is only given when students are ready to learn something new, so they love to get criticism because they see it as a sign that they have progressed!

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