Lately, I’ve been thinking about how often pride stabs my creative process in the back.
This is partly because I’ve been reading Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday: Holiday is a growth marketer and blogger who also has a huge interest in the Stoics. This book draws from a few threads from them, and other success stories through history to show how often ego gets in the way of actual success.
If ego is the voice that tells us we’re better than we really are, we can say ego inhibits true success by preventing a direct and honest connection to the world around us.
One of the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous defined ego as ‘a conscious separation from’. From what? Everything.
However this is not just about thinking your work is better than anyone else thinks it is. It can also work the other way around—thinking that you work is never good enough can also be the work of the ego.
Like a lot of self-help books, it’s a bit of a one tune book with variations on a theme: the ways that ego can devise to slit your own hamstrings before you start, or during your effort, or even after your initial success.
But, it’s also a tune that I needed to hear in all those variations. Because I have an ego problem.
My guess is that most wouldn’t think that to look at me, or hear from me. I’m not loudly spoken, or very often the center of attention. But that’s not the only way that egotism plays out.
The problem for me is that what can actually be behind the thought of “I’m not good enough for that“ is “… but I should be good enough for that.” And so what looks like humility at first is actually pride in disguise. It’s not a pride in what you’ve achieved but a pride in your self-conception. It’s a sort of artistic entitlement—I know I have a gift, so therefore I should be talented, or find this easy, or people should already be acknowledging my success in the New Yorker.
This is not to say that it’s wrong to be ambitious—to have high hopes or good taste for the creative act that you want to put out into the world. One presumes you wouldn’t be trying to make something unless you thought it would put some good into the world of someone somewhere. However this kind of ambition is, Holiday argues, best served by a putting aside of ego, and a dedication to the craft.
There’s just one thing that keeps ego around: 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.
This made me realise last night that I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, and a good one. That’s the fallback position for my ego. The place my ego can go the
handful ofmany times when I feel like I’ve screwed something up and my ego needs a place to go to make itself comfortable: ‘At least you’re a good writer’.
It’s painful to admit but here’s what this has meant time after time: that I’ve failed to actually put blisters on my fingers to hone my craft. That when I see a piece by one of my peers that other people like, that my ego whispers sideways in a Gollum voice, ‘They should be reading yours’, while failing to acknowledge that, actually, I haven’t put any alternative out there for people to read. That actually, maybe they are just better at writing and having written.
So then, here is my public declaration to my ego: I’m not much of a writer. But since I’m not much of a writer, I can get down in the dirt and bleed at the craft for a while.
Here’s a quote from one of my heroes, Ursula K. LeGuin
“If I can keep myself, my ego, my wishes and opinions, my mental junk, out of the way and find the focus of the story, and follow the movement of the story, the story will tell itself.”
So, I have this index card with a Ursula K. Le Guin quote posted up above my writing desk. I think to myself, if she needed this reminder, with all her prodigious gift and imagination and output, then maybe I do too.