Featured image: John Keating, Dead Poets Society (1989).
By James Clark Ross
This is the third article of a three-part series on human ego (Part I and Part II can be found here and here). While ego shouldn’t be treated as a wholly-negative human trait, it should be tamed if we actually want to reach personal goals.
In the first article of this three-part series I discussed how ego is an inherent human trait—an integral part of human nature which fuels aspiration and drives us to succeed as individuals.
If we are to believe popular opinion, however, ego is a vice and a stain on human existence. Society thus encourages us to exile ego from our psychologies. This entirely-negative approach to ego ring-fences us from potential happiness. Extinguishing its fire disregards our innate desires to feel important and denies us from rightly being proud of our achievements.
Peter Higgs, proud, cries as the Higgs boson, the particle he theorised in the 1960s, is announced to the world in 2012.
However, although ego can instil pride and joy, the process is subjective: how important we think we are to society is conceived in our own heads. Therein lies the danger of delusion, for we could be blinded to the fact we’re not actually making the differences to people’s lives we thought we were.
It’s not part of human nature to be comfortable with living a lie. Like Truman Burbank in The Truman Show (1998) and Neo in The Matrix (1999), our fulfilment is rooted in living what we perceive to be authentic experiences: to be happy we have to believe that our roles in life’s play are genuine—built on our terms and free from external control.
To be sure that we’re enacting genuine changes we must break down the barriers of uncertainty and find the truth for ourselves. We must tame our egos.
It’s our source of hunger, manifesting as what we think we can achieve relative to where we are now: our potential. It’s taking ownership over projects which are ours and working to see the fruits of our labour. It’s the brooding desire to make change, to create, to innovate, to implement, to impart, and to be felt. It’s the urge to set ourselves apart from others through what we offer.
It’s also why we feel dissatisfied when we feel too capable—why we envision futures when life becomes humdrum. It’s why simply operating under instruction, feeling like a cog, isn’t enough. It’s why we seek new challenges, progression, and personal evolution.
It’s why I think I can make a difference in my particular way—me and not anybody else.
Ego also explains why we’re drawn to role models, the people we relate and look up to on individual levels. What we’re actually doing, however, is escaping and visualising who we could have become through our heroes (we’re fundamentally always rooting for ourselves). We feel their success, in real life or fiction, because they enable us to imagine our accomplishments.
The same idea applies to us and our children, who we’re inherently related to. We’re not only protecting the longevity of our own genes when we hanker for their success: we’re projecting ourselves onto them.
However we conceptualise ‘success’, though, we define ‘value’ within the frameworks of our own worldviews: ‘I want to help improve peoples’ lives as a nurse’, ‘I am going to be a big deal on the Stock Market’, ‘I am going to be the best player at my football club’, ‘my business will flourish’. We are pulled by the force of self-importance toward the idea that we’ll be valuable to society in our own ways.
But we have to be realistic else we fall prey to negative consequences in our lives. For one, untested and self-conceived notions of talent will fester inside our doubtful heads, representing insecurity of thought—the kind that leads us to proclaiming we’re stable geniuses or professing we’re ‘like, really smart’. If we actively choose to seek such highly-favourable representations of ourselves in lieu of proportionality, we’ll inevitably end up miserable. Humbled and defeated, depleted and exasperated, we’ll be knocked back time and time again by unattainable yet self-imposed expectations. We’ll increasingly lose faith in our motivations.
Look at various social media services, which act as outlets for people to exaggerate, distort, and even sell ideas of themselves. On these platforms we rate each other through the number of artificial interactions recorded, even though these ‘encounters’ are remote and are with sometimes-distant people.
Instagram, for instance, is a hotbed of insecurity. Photos are exquisitely executed and posts are contrived to be superficially perfect, which leads us to comparing ourselves ‘against unrealistic, largely curated, filtered and Photoshopped versions of reality’. What part of us is being satisfied? And by whom are we being valued? The answers are sometimes troubling. Deep down we know who we are yet we’re still willing to sell belied versions of perfection as we give in to the pressures of idealised expectation.
Ingrid, played by Aubrey Plaza in Ingrid Goes West (2017), like many of us, has an unhealthy relationship with social media. In the midst of delusion we have to be honest with our self-conceived notions of talent, potential, and beauty. Out of sync with reality, brimming insecurity will only unravel to reveal signs of deep-seated unhappiness—anxiety, depression, and inability to stick to goals, to name but a few symptoms.
By manufacturing idealistic ideas of ourselves we foster internal dissonances, wherein vast chasms open up between imagination and observation; where floods of unreliable human intuition sweep away opportunities to learn from real interactions with people and our environments. Dreaming within the scope of reality, instead, drives us forward productively toward goals, avoiding pernicious self-destruction.
Aren’t we much more likely to find success we’re comfortably happy with when we’re in touch with reality? Haven’t you, yourself, felt the dismay from the futility of attempting to achieve lofty goals; felt them slip away, somehow further, the more desperately you wanted it? Haven’t you also felt the contentment and pride from achieving goals that were within your reach, that were attained through hard work?
Bloated egos are blinding and even obstructive to the success we covet. We shouldn’t invest too much pride into being right: we should concern ourselves with finding means to reach the right answer by humbly approaching all tasks with curiosity and inquisitiveness. We should open our minds to new ideas, welcome new information, and learn from both criticism and praise.
While it’s important to dream, it’s auspicious to fulfilment of those dreams to ground ourselves first. Scrutinising results is easier and more fruitful than time-consuming, self-centred persistence. Social media-born or not, the false impressions we create of ourselves do little for our happiness whereas our lives are nourished when self-belief and reality coalesce. We should, therefore, ask ourselves some provocative questions: Are my personal goals achievable? Am I as successful as I think I am? Or am I delusional?
Validation is the teacher of us all
What is success if only we believe in it? A notion. A fabrication. A charade.
Success unwitnessed isn’t enough to make us happy: we need to prove, externally to our minds, that our impact on the world is genuine. Only then is ego satisfied. With this proof in tow, when uncertainty shakes our self-belief, we can cling onto the certitude of objectivity.
To be fulfilled we have to see our visions materialise. This isn’t to say we can’t be aspirational in the first instance; rather, we must, at some tangible point, be able to prove the integrity of our claims. If we’re able to translate our fantasies into realities, no matter how mountainous our ambitions are, our pride cannot be judged as excessive to the point of vanity.
The American Dream: Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather Jr. was boxing’s first billionaire and arguably one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters of all time. The idea of being an elite boxer who accrued riches long provided him with a sense of self-worth. During his illustrious career he won 50 professional boxing fights, not losing a single one, winning world titles across five weight divisions and critical acclaim, entertaining millions in the process. Mayweather probably fantasised of being able to flaunt this status for most of his life. Although his immodest self-belief was vulgar, his belief in himself was justified because he was able to continually prove his worth, albeit probably at the cost of being a terrible human being.
This is a process which amounts to graciously seeking validation in small doses, to simply authenticating our potentials: wait to see the lights of our success before basking in them! When we know what success looks like we’ll know where we’re headed next.
But how can we tell what success looks like? Success is oftentimes shrouded in dishonesty: the fortuitousness of one’s circumstances is too frequently forgotten about and the chances of emulating them are incredibly slim. The ones who preach to millions from their fortune-plated pulpits still tell us, though, that we will eventually make it too if we work as hard as they did. But this is a flawed philosophy, for they don’t account for luck. In an example of observer bias, we preferentially hear the success stories of public figures. Statistically speaking, only few are ever able to escape society’s net to replicate the likes of Lionel Messi, Rihanna, and Bill Gates in their quests for success. We can dream of being special, sure, but there’s usually a price. Ask the tens of thousands who apply to talent shows each year only to end up no closer to their goals. When it comes to dreaming big, the overwhelming majority of us are set to fail.
Watch: What is privilege?
Abundant talent can be found in those who do succeed, of course, but it’s also frequently found in those who don’t because life is unfair and society doesn’t always reward merit. I wouldn’t deny that Kanye West and Donald Trump, for example, were talented in multiple ways. But, instead of consuming their empty words, which are designed to praise their dedication to their own causes, we need to be proactive in finding ways of practically increasing own chances of success—that’s if we want to follow similarly-upward paths.
At the other end of the spectrum, way below
Validation can also be employed to undo self-depreciation and restore self-esteem from subdued levels, where deficits between self-perceptions and self-expectations reap dissatisfaction.
Many people suffer because they feel like they’re imposters. To spite available facts, they struggle to accept their success and they do disservice to their own capabilities. They underestimate and are unfaithful to themselves. Ultimately, they feel like they’ll be exposed as undeserving frauds.
I am one of these people. Studying for physics and master’s degrees, playing semi-professional football, being recruited onto a highly-competitive graduate scheme—I never felt like I belonged in any of these environments. Languishing, I was once my harshest critic. My ego wanted to bring about positive change but was perpetually dissatisfied with the scale of that change in the here and now.
But by equipping myself with more objectivity I’ve been able to appreciate my achievements more and fixate less on what I could have achieved, as if success was a forever-dangling carrot. I now take slower, steadier, and more-objective steps toward more-attainable ambitions and remind myself of how far I’ve come.
What success really looks like in practice
To know the true nature of success we need the systems we partake in, such as work and sports and politics, to confirm measurable impact (e.g. through positive feedback and number of victories and popularity). Can we ever be content with our accomplishments without it? Arguably not if we want to satisfy our egos.
We require some visibility: we depend on recognition as evidence to spur us forward productively. I bet Albert Einstein, for example, would have been pissed off if he didn’t receive any accolades for his pioneering work in physics, which would have acted as some form of motivation. In the same vein, athletes and musicians relish the excitement of performing in front of and engaging thousands of fans and winning awards as assurance of their relevance.
But we mustn’t conflate evidence of success with popularity. Popularity is sold to us by a system that’s rigged. Further, to obsessively seek popularity for validation’s sake is to produce a hollow sense of achievement.
Lance Armstrong said he would choose to use performance-enhancing drugs again. On those who cheat systems for recognition: are they fulfilled? The ambitious person who wants to feel fulfilled by success has to lift the façade and ask themselves: What’s more important: genuine, felt personal achievement; or a perception and celebration of it?
Moreover, by enlisting and entrusting the public, we give away our happiness at the behest of rotten values which impinge on self-worth.
The idea of popularity also conflicts with our desires to feel unique. To radiate mass appeal we are required to water down the essences of who we are. This carries a faux sense of acceptance because, by suppressing individuality, we are merely flogging personas of ourselves. Recognition only engenders fulfilment when public perceptions are moored to our self-reflections.
We shouldn’t have to sacrifice who we are to become popular. We thrive on motivations which are born from serving our interests, not everybody else’s, and when the credentials are our own. How we make ends meet matters, for our own sakes, because success has to be seen as our own. We must figure out what drives us and stubbornly pursue it. We should put forward the best versions of ourselves and hope for them to be validated.
But we have to take external factors on board in order to adapt and learn. We can convert ideas into our own and move them forward how we see fit but we can’t ignore reality if we want our success to exist within its context.
We aren’t quite done yet though: we must also question motivations which only serve unrewarding and overtly-selfish interests. As humans, we don’t do something for nothing; however, we can enrich ourselves with the fulfilment of universal values. Can I connect myself to people? Does it improve someone else’s well-being somewhere?
So we must objectify aims and lay them bare on the examining table to evaluate whether they’ll be helpful to society or not—otherwise we might just be advancing our own self-obsessed ideas for the sake of fleeting good feelings.
Humans rocket-fuelled with ego, whose behaviours are aloof and unattached to people, don’t understand this. They believe in the righteousness of their convictions because they vehemently believe in their own superiority. But, while we can vilify such individuals for being malignant in nature, such good-or-evil portrayals are unhelpful when it comes understanding why humans act the way they do. Surgeons, CEOs, politicians, and pilots can be just as egotistical as people considered evil. Equally, good-spirited actions are meaningless if an individual thinks they’re doing ‘good’ when they’re not.
Donald Trump’s agenda is himself: like a true populist (akin to Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson in the UK), he whips up storms and surfs the subsequent tsunamis for the advancement of his self. It is true that he achieved popularity but, we should ask, on the back of what? He is a money-obsessed, ostensibly-patriotic, misogynistic demagogue who regularly levels accusations of ‘Fake News’ when he’s challenged. He panders to public insecurities (e.g. on racial tensions) to generate publicity, creating controversy which only leads to more discussions about him. He stands on the shoulders of inheritance. Ever happy to espouse falsehoods, he fills the void with post-fact knowledge (e.g. to dismiss climate change). Does he really believe in his own words? Is he validating himself? Feeding his ego to remain on Centre Stage might achieve wealth and power; but, always wanting something more, is he fulfilled? (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.)
For these reasons we must call to mediation.
Finding the right balance for you
Happiness is the universal goal.
We are taught to steer clear of ego. As a concept we’ve moralised it and treated it as a vice of the conceited: we are worse off for embracing it. I argue that this is wrong.
First, it would be dishonest to deny ego’s innateness. We’re not senseless robots who operate as instructed without dissent. We possess complex inner psychological workings which are self-serving in nature and which desire autonomy and identities. An ego-less life is impossibly bereft of individuality and the character that belongs to it. We’d be husks without ego, unrecognisable shells of existences. The observable truth: we are proud and hungry individuals with purposes and convictions. Self-importance is more than a charm, something we lust for: it sits at the very heart of the human condition and we are all left unnourished by its omission.
Second, it’s unnecessarily limiting to defy ego’s influence. Self-importance absolutely fits within the remit of happiness because it promises to elevate self-esteem. As opportunities for accomplishment latently wait there, formless, we miss opportunities to be proud of ourselves. Ego feeds self-actualisation; growth of self.
How much should we dream? What can one human achieve? What does one human want to achieve? When are they fulfilled? These are good questions. The sky is the limit for some, whose big egos are insatiable: the thirst for more is never quenched and they are hungry but never full. We must question whether the perpetual desire to succeed and grow and succeed again is constructive to happiness. After all: although hunger can be happiness, like it is for me, there are so many more things to value in life which make us happy—family, health, companionship.
Fortunately, we can choose how much we allow ego to dictate matters: as Homo sapiens we are pragmatic and possess a great sense of self-awareness. To become happier and securer in ourselves we can mediate—sense-check—to find the right balance. We can build ways of speaking productively to our egos—frameworks that mediate between self-importance and societal importance and allow us to strive for what’s reasonably ambitious. We need to achieve mental symbioses between irrational ego and rational thought, between the dichotomy of internal fantasy and external reality, to be at peace with ourselves. Divorce isn’t necessary.
Why? We buy into aesthetic ways of thinking, where values are contrived, arbitrary, and unique to single cultures. Meaning is eroded when we peel away the veneer of social constructs to refine and examine what we believe in. One day everything will be pointless, futile, to an end. Nevertheless, we can extend happiness through honesty, pragmatism, and the subscription to more universal well-being, whatever our specific convictions are. Brimming beneath your surface is an ego, producing desire and intent; and along your way you might make yourself and others happier, which is definitely worthwhile.
— Samwise Gamgee, The Lord of the Rings (2002).
So I say: don’t internalise ego to force self-importance to be associated with shame. Locate it; let it be your source of ambition. Find something you’re proud of. Revolt against lowly expectation, rise above mundanity! Acknowledge your talents and interests; find value and purpose in them.
You have one precarious life: one opportunity to leave a profound and indelible mark on society. Embrace your ego; mediate it. You are ready to make genuine difference; to stand and feel your worth.
‘“O me! O life! … of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless … of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here—that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?’
— John Keating, Dead Poets Society (1989)
‘I want to do my share of honest, real work in the world, Anne … add a little to the sum of human knowledge that all the good men have been accumulating since it began. The folks who lived before me have done so much for me that I want to show my gratitude by doing something for the folks who will live after me. It seems to me that is the only way a fellow can get square with his obligations to the race.’
‘I’d like to add some beauty to life,’ said Anne dreamily.
‘I don’t exactly want to make people KNOW more … though I know that IS the noblest ambition … but I’d love to make them have a pleasant time because of me … to have some little joy or happy thought that would never have existed if I hadn’t been born.’
— Gilbert, The Anne of Green Gables Collection (2008)
‘Uncertainty isn’t easy, but its existence is why we continue to push for truth.’
— Ambellina, The Amory Wars: Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV (2017)