Sunday, November 19, 2006


I used to bring my ego to things. To everything, in fact. My ego was a constant companion. It was the third person in a relationship. It was infused in all of my work, accomplisments, etc. Part of the reason for this was because at a certain, naive level, I thought that this was all I had. I worked too hard to get to where I was not to have an ego in tow.

It wasn't that I was ever unkind or unfriendly. To the contrary. My ego enabled my extroversion and popularity. I let it convince me that I was a rock star, and everyone should see me as such. Attention and external affirmation was important to me. And, whether personal or professional, I kept careful track of deposits and deficits in the Favor Bank. There was no line between the two...

Perhaps this was a good thing, my ego. Perhaps it was what I needed at the time to protect me from some of the serious fall-outs that life presented. In some ways it kept me from completely losing it when terrible things happened. In other ways, it prevented me from growing. I started to recognize this in the lives of those around me. Ego prevented a lack of growth. In self-absorbtion, there was a lack of introspection. And there is such a thin line between the two. Ah, the irony. One must have such a sharpened, brutally truthful sense of self without being a self-inflated shell.

It just happens that I work in a world of serious ego, in a place where most folks have spent more time reading and acquiring knowledge than actually doing. This frustrates me. The ivory tower is a place that does not necessarily challenge the ego that we all have. Instead, it inflates, it, allows it to grow. I've stopped being like this. All ego, no substance...

In a recent ego-driven squabble with my professional overseer, I flatly stated, "I'm happy to be here, happy to do what I do. I'm proud of the work that I do, but my ego is not attached to it." If only I could describe the look on his face.

"Your what is not attached to this?", he said.

"My ego", I flatly replied.

He made a twisted face, as if to stop himself from laughing at me. It's unconceivable that someone in my world does not have their ego in tow. Of course, I couldn't go into the personal self-discovery I've experienced in my years of working with him. We are trained to rationalize our approaches to these things much like math theorums, where we can only embrace and hold dear the most antiseptic of approaches in our personal relationships.

Either I've become so jaded that I've stopped caring, or I've actually done a full-speed reversal and rather enjoy the Janus-faced view. Either way, I no longer conflate self-confidence with ego. And I no longer bluster through the self-confidence side of things either. When I don't know the answer, I ask questions. I seek out challenges to my sense of things. It's a weakness not to be honest about our weaknesses. It's a weakness not to ask for help.

The flip side of this, of course, is that either way, I've discovered that I'm not winning friends. A lack of ego is an affront to the system. It's not how things work. God forbid I ask for help or opinion, much less the guidance or expertise of my colleagues. People like us are socially constructed not to work together. We're territorial creatures, and we believe this lie that we tell ourselves to convince ourselves that this sort of behavior is ok and justified. I don't dwell on it or take it personally that many of my colleagues and mentors will never see it like I see it, because there are some that actually do. I manage to carve out a smile and a laugh. I keep my spirits high. It is through warmth and generosity that a good, professional reputation gets built. At the end of the day, these sorts of people have their ego and the lost and frightened voices in their head to go home to, and I actually have people who love, cherish, and help me to silence this costly and extranneous demon of self.

1 comment:

VJ said...

Well now N, that's some might fine description of the academic scene, and one reason why I describe myself as a 'recovering' academic. Happily, I was never too invested in my research, and my prof knew this, and understood it. It's why I liked him. There was simply more to life for him than just study & teaching & learning. His ego was never wrapped up in his work either. If you proved him wrong, he was happy to admit it and incorporate it into his knowledge base. I never had a serious squabble with him either. When I got going, I finished quickly. There was only 1 draft. A few minor corrections, and then they had 2 weeks to read about 300 pages. That was it. The Blitz works. But ego? Not so much involved. But then again I was doing stuff that no one had done before there. Now they do though! And if I had been counting carefully for things in my 'favor bank' it would've kept me from doing much of anything. I give despite getting little or no recognition. Often as not a simple brief smile is the best I can hope for! Cheers & Good Luck, 'VJ'