This week I finished up the school drop offs for Wellington Shoebox Christmas 2016, this is the part where I share pictures, stories, and thank you smiles from the awesome little kids that the project has delivered Christmas presents to. Every year I try to connect the volunteers to the outcome, and every year as a result there’s a lot of focus on me, and recognition or praise for the part I played in making that result happen. This is the part where people literally bless me, or call me all sorts of crazy things from angel to amazing, while I concentrate on ignoring them completely. it comes around like Christmas every year.
I ignore them because I’ve seen what believing your own hype can do to an ego and it’s not pretty.
In the hip hop lane of my life I’ve watched people go from promising musicians focused on their craft, to empty shells made up of ego, swagger and just enough music to stick the edges together.
In another lane I’ve ran alongside talented leaders before they slowly turned off and took the exit toward self entitlement and the belief that their job title and achievements yesterday make them a leader today, instead of focusing on their actions. A lot of the time these people end up in validation-dependant happiness, when someone feeds their ego, they’re happy. When someone doesn’t, they’re not.
I get it though, it’s nice to dwell on that recognition, listen to it, and believe the hype. It feels good. And it’s easy to mistake doing something really cool and good, with being really cool and good. Especially if that’s what people are telling you. The thing is most people aren’t really qualified to make an assessment of how you’re doing as a person.
“You’re never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you’re never as bad as they say when you lose.” – Lou Holtz (American Football coach).
But just because something is easy doesn’t mean you should do it. I wrote you this letter to help you avoid that turn off to self-entitlement and validation-dependant happiness. It applies to whatever success or achievements you see in your so-far-little life, however you choose to define those two words.
I wrote about self-talk and processing negative situations in a way that means you believe you’ve done something bad rather than you are something bad and the effect of that here. I see people close to me every day in need of that understanding, and statistically your genes put you at risk of being one of them. But sometimes (for me, it’s the month of December), the same approach is needed for positive situations and achievements too.
Too much pride in the things you’ve done can slow down the results you’re after. That’s when confidence inflates the ego past it’s recommended size, us becomes me, and your reasons and motivations change from outward to inward. The ego gets pumped up, and you listen when it tells you you’ve achieved so much last year, you shouldn’t need to put in the work to achieve the same this year. Or you stop focusing on the things you are doing, and think the person you were being should be enough.
Who you are, is a reflection of what you do. One without the other isn’t sustainable.
We’ve all got egos, and we all need them. Being self-centred to some extent isn’t a bad thing, it’s an evolutionary advantage and you probably wouldn’t survive long without it. Your ego is you – right now it’s building your 2 year old sense of identity. It’s when we stop being able to consider others’ as well as our own identity or view, or start letting others’ comments prop-up or build the bricks of our identity that self-centredness (or being egocentric) becomes dangerous.
Believing that you are capable of achieving something is important in getting stuff done and being happy. It can keep you moving forward toward your goals, but confidence and ego are two different voices.
Confidence is goal-important, it helps reminds you what you’re capable of today. Ego is self-important and will waste time reminding you what you did yesterday. Make sure you know which one you’re listening to.
Confidence lets you push through when the world is telling you that you can’t, you’ll usually need it to even start.
Ego will convince you that you should carry on, when even common sense is telling you to stop. Ego is motivated by making you feel good about yourself, and while it might fool you into thinking that feeling is about the results, it’s a thin link, and is for the most part really centred around you. That also means that when you fail (and you will, but so does everyone else), that result is often still entirely centred around you, and that can be a dangerous step toward depression.
Confidence says you can do good. Ego says you are good. Value and difference comes from what people do, not what they are.
This morning you climbed down from your change mat, which is actually pretty impressive. You had the confidence to do it (with a bit of encouragement from me), but you still did it slowly and felt your way down with a pair of chubby little feet. Tomorrow your ego might tell you not to bother listening to me when I suggest going slowly, you’ve done it before. You’ll probably fall.
Beating ego up with value
It helps when the goals and the achievements you’re chasing are about others or about adding value to the world – ignoring the other societal, community or team advancing reasons – it’s easier to be happy about the result, and proud that the result is now a thing, a state, or an improvement in another or in a system, as opposed to being proud of yourself, and what you now are.
I’m not just talking about charity. New technology adds value to the world. An inspirational athlete or professional reminding others from her background that they can achieve the same, adds value to the world. So does a friendly check out girl who makes the day brighter for every customer she serves.
A few years back as I wound down chasing my (then) dream of being a full-time rapper, one of the last remaining motivations I had in pushing myself beyond doing just enough musically to be happy for me, was knowing that there were kids in Otaki growing up like I had, that saw me perform or saw my videos, and were reassured by them that they could chase the same dream, or any dream. It made humility in the face of any praise for songs etc I got, much easier than it was back when I first started out and my self-centred goals were about being a rapper because it looked like something that I would enjoy.
When your goals are something you believe in, and that you think add value to the world – you can be happy that value is there and that the world is now better off, and confident that you’ve got the ability to do it again, without pride feeding your ego because you happened to be the one to do it, or help do it. That happiness is the same end-result ego is trying to bring you, it just lasts longer and you get to skip an-often slippery-ego-covered-step between.
That’s what I do when I see the comments on Social Media or news articles about value that I’ve played a part in creating. I keep the part of me that’s proud of what I’ve done behind the part of me that’s happy about the value that has been created.
Don’t hold on to what others say about you, it will either lift you further than your legs can reach, or push you deeper into the ground than your neck can stretch.
I’m happy that people have seen the story, and that they’ve shared the pictures, because that helps add more of that value. More empathy, more inspiration to give more or help others to give more, and as a result more opportunities for smiles from those kids in the pictures, and those kids we won’t ever see on any Facebook pages.
If my goals were about money, or things that only benefited me – it would be harder to find that value. Ego aside, I hope you want to add value to the world, that’s the kind of addition to the planet me and your mum are trying to help you be. That’s a whole other letter and conversation though.
I’m lucky that my personality puts a really low value on recognition, my last Hogans personality profile from these guys put recognition somewhere like 8 or 12 out of 100, which means my natural default is to avoid calling attention to myself, and to be pretty un-responsive to recognition overall. In my day job as a leader that means I have to proactively remind myself to keep praising and recognising others, which is fine because I know it’s not something that comes naturally to me. It also means I have to work harder at promoting and sharing the Shoebox Christmas story than I would otherwise, and I cringe a little bit every time I do, but just because something doesn’t come naturally, or you don’t like doing it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, and it also doesn’t mean you can’t be confident in your competence.
Keep in mind you can definitely exist closer to the middle of the recognition spectrum, and it’s probably healthier. I know I don’t stop, breathe, and reflect enough on the things I have done, and while that helps me keep moving, I’m probably also missing some pretty cool moments in time.
I’m writing this knowing that you could be exactly the opposite, you might be 98% on the recognition scale. You’re 2 years old right now and most of the time you’re pretty ego-centric, which just means you think your perspective and view is the view of the world. That will probably change once you’ve figured out more of the world around you and understand you are one tiny piece of it, not the centre. I’m pretty sure a Hogan’s test would turn into a giant colouring book in about 30 seconds, so I guess we’ll find out later.
Till then, add value, be happy that you’ve done so, and skip over the ego step.
Me and your mum will hold your hand for the jump.
PS who knows if Facebook will even exist by the time you read this, but just in case here’s the Facebook page for the Shoebox Christmas project. Have a look.
Books to read
Ego Is the Enemy – Ryan Holiday’s personal recount of how ego nearly wrecked his life and career.