How much ego is enough?
I’ve often been told that I have a huge … ego … and until recently, I‘ve always assumed that was high praise. I was raised as the only son of a con man, then spent a career in carrier based fighter squadrons; I learned early that large watches and larger egos are the true measure of manhood.
In Navy fighter squadrons we were taught that there are two kinds of airplanes in the sky; fighters and targets. We were underpaid to work in the dangerous world of carrier aviation but they made movies about guys like us and our egos were well fed. Con men believe that they are smarter than everyone else in the room and therefore deserve anything they can talk you out of but the real payoff is proving how smart they are.
When you mix these two cultures together in the formative years of a youngster’s life you’re likely to end up with a swaggering smart aleck who is more than happy to work for ego strokes. A guy who is less interested in being good at his job than he is in being told he’s good at his job; a guy who looks a lot like me.
Once during an argument, my wife told me that my ego made me a cross between Popeye the Sailor and Robert Redford’s character in The Sting. I choked up a bit then hugged her and we both walked away feeling good; she thought she had finally gotten through to me and I thought I had finally won my first argument with her. Of course, we were both wrong.
Over the years I noticed more and more people were using the word ‘ego” with a negative connotation. At first I assumed that these were people who resented ego strokes because they never got any, much like ugly virgins preaching the virtues of abstinence, but when Bill Clinton and Lance Armstrong (the Grand Pubahs of all ego-maniacs) fell from grace for aggressively feeding their already inflated egos I had to re-examine what I really knew about the ego.
For the first time I acknowledged the possibility that being ego-driven might have some drawbacks. After being validated by the votes of hundreds of millions of people during consecutive landslide election victories, Clinton still felt the need to seek additional ego strokes from the inappropriate attention of a young intern. Even after beating cancer and winning the Tour de France, Armstrong’s ego compelled him to cheat rather than step away from the attention trough. Yikes!
The very idea that the pursuit of ego strokes could be a bad thing shook my core beliefs and could cause me to take a good hard look at what is truly important in life and, let’s be honest, nobody wants to do that! Thankfully, I realized that I was smarter and better than those two losers and confirmed to myself that a good healthy ego is what is important in life. Perspective is key to maintaining your ego.
It wasn’t until my own ego’s ravenous appetite for strokes subsequently wrecked my life that I take a closer look at my life choices. The New Oxford American Dictionary first defines the ego as a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance. Well that’s important; low self-esteem is a bad thing, right? It goes on to state that the ego is the part of the mind that’s responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity. Wait, this is all good stuff! A person with no ego would have no self-esteem, no ability to determine reality and no sense of personal identity. That can’t be good; without an ego a guy could end up being a real loser … maybe even a lawyer or a game show host!
On the other hand, too much ego could result in too much self-esteem, a distorted sense or reality and an inflated personal identity. That’s not so great either; with too much ego a guy could end up being a politician or an underachieving humor columnist. Whoa!
That could mean that you can get too much of a good thing! Is it possible that you can actually watch too much football, drink too much beer or eat too much pizza? That could even mean that too much ice cream might actually be bad for you … OK, that’s just crazy talk.
Ego is like pizza and beer: Some is always good, but too much is bad for you. Who knew?
Rick Seley is an award-winning humor columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.