“As Goethe once observed, the great failing is ‘to see yourself as more than you are and to value yourself at less than your true worth.’” — Ego is the Enemy
Have you ever been so caught up in your ideas and dreams and belief in yourself that suddenly you realized you were being obnoxious? That you were talking and no one was listening? Or that people had heard you the first time but now, the fifth time around, maybe not so much? Or maybe you didn’t notice… and therein lies the problem. There is a fine line between self-belief, which is having security and belief in and for yourself, and self involvement, where you perhaps have too high an opinion of yourself. How does this happen? Where do we go wrong?
I finished reading a book this week that explores this idea, this slippery slope of self-esteem and the subject of the self. The book, entitled Ego is the Enemy, by Ryan Holiday, investigates the many ways we can go awry when we drink our own Kool-Aid, so to speak. Holiday is a strategist and writer who has achieved many successes and garnered many accolades in his relatively short life. But he is also a human being, like we all are, who has experienced failures and missteps and made the kind of mistakes that we all do. The difference between Holiday and many other successful people is that he discusses his own failures rather than glosses over them. He also watched firsthand how the ego can demolish our dreams by rendering them unrecognizable.
We often start out small when we set out to achieve our goals, knowing that in order to climb a mountain we have to start at the bottom, to take the first step. We must learn to crawl before we learn how to walk. So when we do get lucky and perhaps get a taste of the “high life,” it often goes to our head. We got to the top because of our own hard work and nothing else, right? Or did we get to the top because of the love and support of our friends and family? Because of the variables of luck or education or connections? Or perhaps all of the aforementioned?
Regardless of how we make our way through this world, we must make our way maintaining our sense of self. Our true self, the self that yes, is unique and special, but is also like that of every other person on this globe. Our fingerprints are not like anyone else’s, that is true, but we are also all just fragile beings living on a planet in a universe that is beyond our comprehension. We are special but we are not the end-all-be-all. To think so would be ludicrous. But in this age of the internet and reality TV, anyone can be famous. It seems that the goal these days is to be famous, no matter the price.
Our success should not be measured by how many people follow us on Instagram or if we are on TV, but if we carry ourselves with integrity, humility, and respect for others. Our success should be measured not in our supposed “failures,” but how we transcend these failures or use them for good. As Holiday says in his book, “The only real failure is abandoning your principles.” When we abandon our principles, when we get caught up in the glitz and the glamour and the delusions of grandeur, you know what happens? We fail. And fail drastically.
We don’t just fail ourselves when we let our egos get out of hand, when our visions of ourselves and the future are allowed to run rampant. As Holiday illuminates, this failure of character can have catastrophic effects. It can sink entire companies, ruin marriages, lose games, destroy relationships, even cause death. The death of innocent people, of happiness, of innocence, of creativity. The ego is the enemy because the ego has no care for the outside world or for other people. The ego is only concerned with looking out for numero uno. Which could be seen as a self-preservation tactic. But you know what? Just looking out for yourself and making sure you get yours is not a good feeling. As the saying goes, it’s lonely at the top. Sure, you got fame and wealth, but where is your family? They walked out the door.
These examples from Holiday’s book can seem pretty extreme (though they are all culled from history), but I believe he uses them with a purpose. Because no one sets out to be a colossal a-hole. Success can get to our heads, tricking us into believing that we’re better than others. Success can cause us to ignore humanity in favor of profit margins, of enterprise and capitalism. But guess what? You can’t take it with you. That’s what I always think when someone is flashing their wealth or talking louder than everyone else: you can’t take it with you.
When we transcend to the next phase, when we are on our deathbeds, will we be comforted by piles of cash or a huge mansion? No. Will we be comforted by our family or friends, by knowing that we endeavored to do our best and be of service? I wholeheartedly say yes. Because this life is not about who can amass the most wealth, prestige, fame, titles. I may not know very much about what it all means, but I do know that this life is about connection. Connecting with others, with our planet, with ourselves. Finding out who we are so we may cultivate a kind of self-awareness that nurtures compassion, empathy, love.
Self-awareness, not self-absorption. Yes, we must love ourselves and treat our bodies and minds with care and respect. But loving ourselves is different from loving the ego’s projections of ourselves. The ego is not fueled by respect or love. The ego is fueled by fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of discomfort. Which is understandable. The unknown is scary, failure hurts, no one wants to be uncomfortable. But when we venture out into the unknown, when we are unafraid to fail, when we are okay with being uncomfortable? That’s when the magic happens. That’s when we forge true connections with ourselves and others.
Reading Holiday’s book this week was instrumental in my own self-inquiry and growth, for acknowledging my own fears and my own ego. It’s important to be aware of how we operate in this world. When we are aware, we can do our best, we can improve, we can endeavor to do and be better. And though I have grown more than I ever thought I could this past year, I still have a lot of growing to do. We all do. And when you think you don’t, that’s when you know it’s time to check your ego. Check yourself before you wreck yourself.
This life is a constantly shifting experience, a mysterious encounter with ourselves and others, which is pretty wicked awesome when you think about it. The growing is never done. We will never have it all figured out. All we have to do is come from a place of dignity and respect, of care and curiosity. All we have to do is be unafraid to make mistakes, because mistakes make us human. We are not the coolest things since sliced bread. We are just people, people who are capable of love and honor and beauty. So let’s refrain from deluding ourselves into thinking we are better than we are. Let’s have love and faith in and for ourselves, but, as writer and speaker Gabrielle Bernstein says, “Don’t get high on your own supply.” I love that.
I wish you a wild, (ego-)free life.