“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
-Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate in Physics
You are about to enter a battle of wits with the greatest enemy you have ever faced.
Sure, you’ve slayed dragons in World of Warcraft, you’ve crushed tests in school after pulling an all-nighter, and you survived an encounter with your miserable boss that made you want to set the building on fire like Milton from Office Space.
This enemy is different. It knows you better than you know yourself. It’s been studying every move you make since the day you were born. It’s been whispering subversive messages in your ear every minute of every day. It’s like playing chess against a computer that has tracked every move you’ve ever made.
Luke Skywalker knows what I’m talking about. He couldn’t defeat Vader and the Emperor until he confronted this very same enemy in the swamps of Dagobah.
It’s hard to even SEE this enemy. Fortunately, there’s usually one place you can look…
Is Your Ego Keeping You From Starting?
Have you ever been afraid of trying something for fear of looking stupid? I DEFINITELY have.
Have you ever been in a gym, afraid to try an exercise because the person next to you is lifting 3-4x the amount you are going to attempt?
If you’re a guy, would you be comfortable lifting next to Staci as she pulls 425 lbs (193 kilos)?
If you’re overweight, do you worry everybody is looking at you the whole time as you walk on the treadmill?
This is your Ego telling you “I’m too fragile for this. Let’s get out of here and go back to our safe zone.” I know I constantly struggle with feeling inferior around people in the gym, and I’ve been doing this stuff for a decade. It’s not just the gym either. I once sat in a car for 20 minutes before taking my first Swing Dance lesson, trying to work up the courage to go inside, because my ego wouldn’t let me get started.
You’re not alone. Our egos are fragile creatures, and their feelings get hurt very easily! And damnit we don’t want to feel like crap when we’re looking to better ourselves. If we’re not careful, this can result in us throwing in the towel and giving up on something worthwhile.
Your ego says: “We’ll look foolish and this isn’t for us and look at these other people who are stronger and more fit than we are. They’ll probably make fun of us, so don’t even give them the satisfaction of trying.”
In short: “Screw you guys, I’m going home.”
The reality: Everybody started at level 1. The most popular rap song in history is a rags to riches story. Even our Canadian friend Drake started from THE BOTTOM and now he is HERE.
When you play World of Warcraft you need to pay your dues and go through the crappy levels killing spiders before you can slay dragons. You’re new. Be proud to be new. Be proud to be you.
Henry Rollins loves the church of the Iron, because it never lies to you. Your ego is often times full of shit and can make you feel better or worse than you really are, but the iron never lies – it’s the great equalizer.
200 pounds is always 200 pounds.
So go pick up that bar if you can. If it’s the best you can do, then it’s the best you can do. Let everybody else around you battle themselves for a personal best while you do the same. Headphones in, hardhat on (figuratively, and do work!).
It won’t be easy. Your entitled ego will expect fast results or tell you to quit when things get tough. Your ego will expect you to be rewarded and advance quickly. You might, you might not.
But you have to step in the arena. You can acknowledge your ego, and then pick up that rusty sword and fight.
Your Ego Keeps You From Stopping Something that isn’t working
Your ego is one stubborn son of a biscuit.
I know. I have been dragged into many arguments because I let my ego get the best of me: in relationships, with family members, with coworkers, and with myself. I let my ego get in the way, stubbornly sticking to a losing battle because I was too afraid to admit something wasn’t working (or wasn’t worth it).
Whether it’s continuing even further down a career path that no longer satisfies you (because it was your college major), staying on a team you’re no longer happy with, or being in a relationship everybody else loves, your ego keeps you around longer than you should be there.
This manifests itself in a few ways. We get hooked on the accolades and achievements we’ve collected. Our egos tell us that our parents and friends are proud of what we’ve done and changing that up would be weird… and disappoint them.
We throw good money after bad, chasing dead ends because we’re too embarrassed to admit we were wrong in the first place. When a diet doesn’t work we blame it on our genetics rather than realizing maybe it wasn’t the right strategy for us. Because our egos fool us, we confuse “the strategy didn’t work” for “I’m a failure if this doesn’t work”, and we stick with it instead of searching for a better solution.
Don’t even get me started on relationships! It might be us, or we might know somebody in a relationship which stopped being healthy 6+ months ago… and yet, they stay in it! Our egos say “If we break it off, our mother will say ‘I told you so.’” Or our egos tell us, “Hey, it’s better than being alone. Only losers are alone!” Which we know isn’t true. No wonder half of all marriages end in divorce – many people don’t want to ruffle any feathers and end up waiting years too long to have the tough conversation.
It works for Nerd Stuff too! We read a whole book or play a game in its entirety that we don’t actually like because our ego tells us we need to finish everything because we already bought it. Our egos tell us “you bought it, you have to use it or you’re wasting money,” not understanding the concept of a ‘sunk cost’ fallacy: once you’ve bought it, it doesn’t matter!
In fact, you’re worse off if you spend a single minute more on something you don’t enjoy just because you bought it. That’s a minute you could have spent on something else that you’ll never get back!
If something really isn’t for you, STOP DOING IT. If you have a shitty job and there’s another path you’ve always wanted to pursue, QUIT. If you are in a bad relationship, make the hard choice and move on.
Your ego is making this wayyyy more complicated than you need it to be. Your friends will support you, your family will still love you, nobody freaking cares about your job status or financial worth other than people who are trapped by their own egos.
Your ego won’t let you ask for help
There’s a cliche that often felt true in my life: guys don’t like to ask for help. Or directions.
We’re afraid to ask for help in the gym on how to do an exercise because we want to look knowledgeable and strong. We’re afraid to ask for help on a project at work because we want to prove we can do it ourselves.
We’re afraid to ask for directions because we don’t want to admit that we made a wrong turn 20 minutes ago when we should have gone left at Albuquerque instead of right.
In probably a far more important example, we see mental challenges like anxiety or depression as a battle we must face alone, because admitting that we are having problems is to admit that we’re broken or weird. And our egos don’t allow that. If this sounds like you, PLEASE read this.
Fun fact: I’ve seen different therapists in the past seven or so years (as I’ve moved around the country), not including the hundreds of hours I’ve talked to my friend Lindsay (you’ve read her articles) who has served as my relationship/life therapist and good friend throughout. I remember first talking to Lindsay about this 8 years ago and she said something that forever changed my thoughts on it:
“Steve, people that are in shape go to the gym to work on things and get better. Talking through things with somebody is the same: you can work on mental things and improve.”
I really struggled with my ego to accept the fact that I needed help on some things that I just couldn’t wrap my brain around, and speaking with a qualified therapist and arming myself with exercises and mental models to work through those struggles was so freaking helpful.
Your ego tells you that asking for help is stupid and to keep doing what you’re doing. To hide your struggles because you need to get over them yourself.
Reality shows us that asking for help is no big deal. Sometimes it’s the fastest way to get results and get back on the right track!
Your fragile ego needs a wake up call.
Last month, I had an opportunity to go see best selling author Ryan Holiday speak at Google HQ about his newest book, Ego is the Enemy.
I made it through the book in a single day, and felt compelled to immediately write this post after. It’s also the only time I wrote a review for a book on Amazon, because I felt compelled to spread the word.
It perfectly illustrated how:e
- Our egos can keep us from starting something.
- Our egos can keep us from STOPPING something that isn’t working.
- Our egos can keep us from asking for help when we desperately need it.
If we fail to see our egos for what they are, they can consume us and force us against our will to make unhealthy or time-wasting decisions.
Whether people are talking shit about me (hey, it’s the internet), or saying nice things (hey, it’s the internet), my ego seems like it’s got a mind of its own. The worst part is, sometimes I start to believe my ego! It’s quite loud, it’s needy, and it never goes away.
So I have to acknowledge my ego in certain situations, and then act how I would if it wasn’t there. It makes me feel like Westley in The Princess Bride, tasked with defeating Vizzini in a mental battle. By understanding how my ego works, I can beat him at his own game:
I want to hear from you!