“A bad day for your ego is a great day for your soul.” ~Jillian Michaels
A few weeks ago, when I was feeling a bit down on life, I was surfing through Facebook and found myself getting more and more upset.
There were weddings and vacation photos and posts about promotions and new purchases and all the great things that happen in people’s lives.
These were my friends, and I couldn’t understand why I felt so unhappy. Why did I feel a pit in my stomach that I wasn’t good enough when I heard about someone getting the job of their dreams? Why was I so thrown by other people’s lives going well?
That’s when an idea that has been bumbling around my mind for a few months hit me like a ton of bricks. I realized something I’ve always known but never had words for.
I realized the evil of my own ego.
Ever since I was young, I was that kid in school who needed to be the best, who needed all the awards.
I took something I was good at (academic achievement) and created an identity around it, visualizing myself as the Best. And I succeeded. I was valedictorian. I graduated Summa Cum Laude.
I got the awards, the grades, the standardized test scores, the recognition, all of which was meant make me happier. It never did.
With an identity centered around being the top dog in my field, I became obsessed with the people who were better.
There was always someone who achieved more than me, or someone else who got an award I wanted. Even if I was number one in the class, there were always those points that I missed or the looming fear that I couldn’t do as well on the next test.
I made myself miserable trying to placate the beast inside me, a beast that was never content, could never relax in the glory of what I had accomplished. It always wanted more, more, more.
I walked away from that academic life almost a year ago and started writing books. Right away, I realized I had to fight that ego, suppress the beast inside me that still wanted to be the best.
Writing has always been my joy in life and I didn’t want to do it for money, fame, or success. I wanted to do it because it was something I’d always wanted to do.
For months I fought down my ego and tried to focus on the simple joy of creating stories and playing with characters.
I certainly slipped up a number of times and I still compare myself to others on bad days (like the one described above), especially other writers my age. But on the days I can put that self-image aside and just be, those are times of true bliss, the days I’m happier than I’ve been since I got my first A.
Perhaps you won’t agree, but I’m starting to believe that a significant portion of the bad things in life stem from our own gluttonous egos.
We want to be the best, be recognized, be validated and put on a pedestal, but years of research and eons of evidence tell us that those are not the things that make human beings happy.
Ironically, it’s selflessness that tends to make us most content.
Doing work for no other reason than because you love it; giving time to your family or a cause that matters to you; luxuriating in the simple pleasures of a good meal, exercise, a book you love, or a beautiful view—these are the things that matter, the things that make our experience on Earth worthwhile.
Money, fame, glory, accolades, recognition are like heroin to the human brain. Some deep and intrinsic part of our nature wants them, and when we get them it sure is a rush to the system.
But the rush is fleeting, empty, and immediately requires more.
Focusing on these material, external things and structuring our lives around them can be just as unhealthy as destructive drugs.
The trap of vanity can capture a soul and mutilate it beyond recognition. Relationships fail, passions are lost, and years later we find ourselves wondering how we spiraled down to such a point.
I know because I’ve been there.
I compared myself to my peers in school. I’ve compared myself to my friends on Facebook. I let competition run my life for years. And never once did it make me happy.
I’m not perfect and I still fall into the trap of wanting to impress everyone. But I’m fighting that instinct day by day, trying to do what all the sages and wise men advise: Don’t give an owl’s hoot about what others think of you.
So kill your ego. Don’t compare yourself to others (a truthful cliché) and do things just because you enjoy them.
Create work you love. Spend time with people who make you happy, make you better. Enjoy the views, climb the mountains, swim in the oceans, and do all the things you’ll be happy to remember when you’re old.
I can personally guarantee fighting to “win” the game of life isn’t going to be one of them.
Happy man silhouette via Shutterstock