Fear and Ego

By Erik Bergrud, ASPA Past President

More than 1,200 individuals from throughout the world descended upon Las Vegas in March to attend what ASPA billed as the most comprehensive public administration professional development conference of the year.

In preparing to travel to Las Vegas, I finalized my daily schedule, resigning myself to the reality that I would not be able to garner many pearls of wisdom in conference sessions since I was obliged as then ASPA President to attend meeting after meeting, sometimes simultaneously.

Little did I know at the time that I would learn two powerful life lessons before I left Las Vegas.

In the lead up to and throughout the first days of the conference, much was made about my planned 855-foot jump off the Stratosphere Tower to raise donations for an endowed ASPA student scholarship.

I actually recorded the event and my employer, Park University, was gracious enough to post the video on its YouTube channel – ASPA Past President Takes Plunge.

When you watch the video, you’ll likely conclude that I remained calm, cool and collected throughout the experience.   The camera failed to record the inner conflict I felt at the time.   Even though I was secured by two well-trained staff members, I still harbored fears about my safety.

As I stood on the platform unwilling to look directly downward but gazing at the Las Vegas lights in the distance, I willed myself to take the first step.

The camera did accurately capture the euphoria I felt as I soared through the sky, a combination of the experience itself as well as the realization that I was safe.  What a rush!

The following morning, some conference attendees seemed a bit relieved to see me alive. It’s nice to be loved!

Lesson #1 – Move beyond your fears, take the first step, and you can make an extraordinary accomplishment!

One of the joys of the ASPA presidency during the conference is taking photos with students and international attendees.  Let me be clear – I enjoyed this very much, perhaps too much.

As the conference neared its end, I felt some sadness and emptiness inside.  My tenure as ASPA president had run its course.  This brings me to the “ego” dimension in the title.

In reviewing the title, one might conclude that I should pay tribute to the late Hunter S. Thompson for his inspiration.  I actually need to acknowledge a trusted friend and former ASPA National Council colleague who made possible my Las Vegas learning experiences.

Randy Robinson dared me, on Facebook of all places, to take the literal plunge off the Stratosphere.  When I returned home to Kansas City, I reflected on Randy and my Las Vegas experience, and I suddenly recalled a conversation which took place more than a decade ago while I served on the ASPA staff.

He told me that, by the time the annual conference rolls around, other ASPA leaders are more interested in connecting with the president-elect than with the president, who is a lame duck at that point.

After being continually sought after for more than two years, I did feel like a lame duck on the conference’s final afternoon and, in retrospect, even though I successfully avoided using the term “my conference” to refer to the Las Vegas Conference, my ego defined my conference experience.

If my jump reflected a battle between reason and fear, my tenure as ASPA president involved a struggle between good intentions and ego.

Lesson #2 – When taking on any assignment, check your ego at the door, then recheck it again and again!

My former boss and mentor, the late Dr. Jerzy Hauptmann, told me on many occasions that there has to be more to life than serving yourself.  As I approach post-presidential opportunities to serve my community, nonprofit organizations and ASPA, I will do so by first facing my fears and acknowledging my ego.   In the end, service exists for the greater good.

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