Everyone is trying to do something.
Try start a company or write a book.
To be a good dad or a good employee.
To get in better shape, or help a friend.
To pick up the pieces after a divorce,
or to get picked for a new project.
Whatever it is, whatever we’re doing, ego is the enemy.
It has to be.
Because what is ego? It’s not confidence—which is properly defined as evidence of our strengths and abilities. Ego is something different, something less earned, a kind of unhealthy belief in our own importance. The idea that we have unlimited strengths and no weaknesses. It’s the voice whispering in our ear that we’re better than other people, that our needs matter more, that the rules don’t apply to someone as exceptional as we are. It’s the sense that we are special and therefore need this success or that piece of recognition to prove it (or rather, we deserve it because well, because). It’s the belief that everyone else is watching us, that we’re destined for greatness.
I’m talking about ego in the colloquial sense, of course. Freud was fond of explaining the ego by way of analogy—our ego was the rider on a horse, with our unconscious drives representing the animal while the ego tried to direct them. Modern psychologists, on the other hand, use the word “egotist” to refer to someone pathologically focused on themselves and with disregard for anyone else.
All these definitions are true enough but there is a more common form of ego. The one I was just talking about. It’s that petulant child inside every person, the one that must get their way. The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility—that’s ego. It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent. It’s when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us. When, as the football coach Bill Walsh explained, “self-confidence becomes arrogance, assertiveness becomes obstinacy, and self-assurance becomes reckless abandon.”
We all have that. We’ve all been guilty of it at one time or another.
The thing about ego is not just that it’s unattractive. It’s that it is much less effective as a lifestyle and professional strategy than humility and confidence are.
Ego pushes away feedback.
Ego pushes away realism.
Ego pushes away potential friends and allies.
Ego pushes away an accurate picture of risk or failure.
Ego pushes away opportunities that don’t come gift wrapped.
Ego pushes away understand and self-reflection.
Ego pushes away the desire to improve--the essence of mastery.
How can we make things for other people if all we’re thinking about is ourselves? How can we motivate or lead other people if we have no ability to care or see what is happening inside them? As the performance artist Marina Abramović put it, “If you start believing in your greatness, it is the death of your creativity.”
It might very well be the death of you...as many generals on the battlefield and athletes and addicts who plunged ahead despite all the warnings soon found out.
So what keeps ego around then? If it is so dangerous and deleterious to our self-interest? It’s simple: Comfort. Pursuing great work—whether it is in sports or art or business—is often terrifying. Ego soothes that fear. It’s a salve to that insecurity. Replacing the rational and aware parts of our psyche with bluster and self-absorption, ego tells us what we want to hear, when we want to hear it.
But it is a short-term fix with a long-term consequence.
So whatever you’re doing. Whether you’re young and brimming with ambition or you’ve made that first couple million, signed your first deal, been selected to some elite group, or you’re already accomplished enough to last a lifetime. Whether you’re stunned to find out how empty it is at the top or you’re charged with leading others through a crisis. Whether you just got fired or hit rock bottom, beware.
Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, your worst enemy already lives inside you: your ego. “Not me,” you think. “No one would ever call me an egomaniac.” Ah, but there it is. That’s ego already! Like the devil, it’s trick is to convince you it doesn’t exist—that you don’t have one.
Look, nobody wants to go through hard times. We’d prefer that things go according to plan, that what could go wrong doesn’t, so that we might enjoy our lives without being challenged or tested beyond our limits.
Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen. Which leaves us then with the question of what good there is in such difficulty and how we might—either in the moment or after the fact—come to understand what it is that we’re going through...today, tomorrow, and always.
Clementine was not cut out from birth for the part history handed her. Adversity, combined with sheer willpower, burnished a timorous, self-doubting bundle of nerves and emotion into a wartime consort of unparalleled composure, wisdom, and courage. The flames of many hardships in early life forged the inner core of steel she needed for her biggest test of all. By the Second World War the young child terrified of her father...had transmogrified into a woman cowed by no one.”
Familiarity with exposure to danger will give contempt for danger. So the bodies of sailors are hardy from buffeting the sea, the hands of farmers are callous, the soldier’s muscles have the strength to hurl weapons, and the legs of a runner are nimble. In each, his staunchest member is the one that he has exercised. By enduring ills the mind attains contempt for the endurance of them; you will know what this can accomplish in our own case, if you will observe how much the peoples that are destitute and, by reason of their want, more sturdy, secure by toil.”
Basically, he was describing the same phenomenon that transformed Clementine Churchill from a timid young girl into the brave woman who inspired millions of Britons and Europeans through one of the darkest ordeals in the history of the modern world. The difficulty she went through early in life forged for her a backbone upon which she and countless others came to depend.
And so the same can be true for you and whatever it is that you’re going through right now. Yes, it would probably be preferable if everything went your way and if you could count on smooth sailing for the rest of your life. But you can’t. You’re stuck with this present moment instead.
So use it. Be hardened and improved by it. Be transformed by it. The world needs more Clementines. And you can be one of them.
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