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At a local seminar on Ego & the Workplace, the host speaker chose to break the ice by getting the audience to add or complete the phrase: ‘Save me from …’ Each participant had to come up with some response, not necessarily funny because, as we all know, seminars are serious, not frequented by stand-ups and their ilk. One attendee’s response was, ‘Save me from … people who can’t stop talking about themselves.’

Young career-seekers are often advised (by older, wiser heads who’ve been there and seen it all) to, ‘Leave your ego outside the door, then enter the workplace.’ As advice goes, it’s top class. But as advice also goes, it promptly gets ignored, according to my mate Barney, ‘because egos are older than mobile phones, and who can do without either?’ Now Barney, as regular readers will be aware of, knows a thing or two about ego and how it might be watered, fertilised and nourished. Yet, Barney himself was telling me just the other day that he’d run into a former classmate he hadn’t seen for nearly four decades. ‘I’d happily have waited another twenty years,’ was his dismissive summary of that encounter.

‘Talk, talk, talk and never listen.’ (Which must have seriously challenged Barney’s listening capacities, I thought privately, for it is Barney who loves to prattle on about things, disseminating endless pieces of trivia (interesting no doubt) to anyone showing the slightest interest. Trivia that not many are going to find really useful in the next five minutes, let alone five years. For example: baby hares, called leverets, are precocial. That is, they are able to fend for themselves straight after birth unlike baby rabbits that are born blind and need time to ‘set eyes on the world’.

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Anyhow, Barney’s assessment of this ‘four-decade missing’ classmate is that, in the intervening years, he has developed an ego ‘as massive as a hot-air balloon’. ‘He wouldn’t let me get a word in edgewise. He had to finish what he was trying to say first, in the most roundabout manner, before he even allowed me to speak. Even then, I’m sure he didn’t hear a word I said because he was ready to launch into his next tirade.’ And here we are this day, me sitting quietly, receptively, sipping coffee while Barney raves on about his egocentric former classmate. ‘You’re a good sounding board, Kev,’ he once said to me, in a rare fit of compliment-giving. Many years ago, as a young man, I had the good fortune to run into ‘a sage’, one of those elders who’d ‘been there, done that’ in the work industry. I was only just embarking on a career in the workforce, filled with nervous trepidation. ‘You’ll encounter many, many people before you retire,’ he said, ‘and a lot of them will be intolerable, haughty, snobbish. They’ll be the ones most avoided.

‘People will catch sight of them in a corridor or a room, turn quickly and walk the other way. But you know what? Cultivate them, if you can. Get close. If you’re going to be a writer, you’ll have no better resource material for ideas, issues. They will give these away, free of charge. They are always keen to air their opinions. All you’ll have to do is keep an ear open, ask a question or two, and listen out. And you’ll never be short of something to write about.’ Of course, I cannot tell Barney that. So I continue to sit silently, sipping coffee and listening to him. He has been my ‘source’ for a long, long time and like a miner, I am not about to abandon the mine.

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.