Feeding the Ego

Copyright (c) 2008 by Kenny Felder

Like so many people, I feel the desire to be famous.

And why not me? I sing as well as those jokers on American Idol. I'm funnier than half the stand-up comedians I see, and almost all of the sitcom writers. (Drake and Josh? puh-leaze.) I write brilliant essays and post them to the Web—you're reading one now, admit it. I've written a great children's book that I can't get published. Also an Advanced Algebra II textbook that is much better than anything on the market. I can play serious or comedy, with an endless variety of voices and accents. I give spiritual talks that leave crowds stunned.

You can probably create a similar list for yourself, if you take a few minutes: it's a pleasantly cathartic experience. But the point is, it doesn't really matter what I get famous for. As Lily Tomlin famously said, "I always wanted to be somebody, but I should have been more specific."

Let's imagine you walk into a room where the Very Important People are discussing The Plan—for the country, or the company, or the team, or the project, or whatever. You recognize everyone at the table because, well, everyone knows those guys. And one of them looks up as you walk in and says, very politely, "Yes? Can I do something for you?" They will help you find wherever you're supposed to be and then resume their conversation after you leave, and you will hear about The Plan later, through the proper channels.

I hate that. I want to walk in and have them say, "Oh, it's Kenny. Come on in and tell us, what do you think?"

In my spiritual traditions, this kind of ambition is referred to as "ego" with much the same tone of voice that Christians use for the word "lust." When you're feeling ego, you should just, well, stop it. The enlightened man lives in the service of something greater than himself. When Gandhi looked back on his life, we'd like to think he said with some satisfaction, "I fought with courage to help a truly worthy cause," as opposed to "See that guy? He thinks I'm a saint too. And that girl? She totally thinks I'm..."

Unfortunately, just like lust, ego doesn't go away when you decide you don't want it around any more. I see it raging in my daughter, whose life's ambition is to be in a real film, ie one that all her friends see in a theater. I know she didn't get it from her mother, and I know how utterly useless it is, and I don't know how to help her.

Here is one technique that I often use with myself, and I have tried to share with Mary to whatever extent I can. Play the fantasy out to the hilt.

You get the starring role in the play. Mary has done this a number of times, actually. The whole play revolved around her, the cast and crew and audience all knew it, and she did wonderfully. Are we "there" yet, ego-wise? Not even close: it's a small local production attended mostly by parents of the cast. If the big names in triangle youth theater had ever heard about it, which they haven't, but if they had, they would have smiled politely and said "Oh, how nice for you" and gone back to their conversation.

So, dream bigger. You are the star of a huge production in Memorial Auditorium. Thousands of people in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill pay $50/seat to see it, and the critics rave. You're the biggest star in North Carolina. Are we there yet? Nah. I mean, right now, someone somewhere is the biggest star in all of Wyoming, right? How nice for him.

...I'll let you take the next few steps for yourself, and jump to the last step...

You might as well be Daniel Radcliffe. The biggest name in the biggest movie series, and meanwhile wowing the critics in Equus. Imagine this as vividly as you can. You're probably terrified that you're going to "age out" of the role of Harry, and someone else is going to play him for the last few movies, and steal all your thunder. And what if people start saying he's better than you ever were?

But that doesn't happen, in this fantasy. You play Harry right through the seventh movie, and the night of the premier, you are the toast of the biggest party Hollywood has ever seen.

You wake up the next day. Now what?

Several years have passed. Now what?

It's just no fun any more looking in the mirror and saying "I'm not Quirrell, I'm not Hagrid, I'm not even Ron, I'm Harry bloomin' Potter! The movies are all named after me!" You haven't had a blockbuster in a few years. You showed up as a celebrity guest on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." A producer is considering putting together a movie that will unite you with Macaulay Culkin and Fred Savage. (He played Kevin freakin' Arnold in...well, never mind.)

The real question to focus on here is: is your hunger for ego gratification sated? Do you feel you have accomplished what you set out to accomplish, and you can relax? Do you have even a little bit less of a need to "be somebody" than you had when you were growing up in Fulham, playing small parts?

If acting isn't your thing, substitute whatever you like. You want to be Gerald Ford? Pete Townsend? Mark Spitz? The real point is, can you imagine anything that would satisfy your yearning for ego gratification, not just for a few minutes, but for any extended period of time?

I absolutely can't. I've gotten some successes and strokes that I certainly never expected, and they felt good, but they didn't at all fill the hole. What's really going on—what I see so clearly in myself, and my daughter—is a deep sense of emptiness, of irrelevance, of being a faceless one of the faceless seven billion. I feel small.

Spiritual teachers, and common sense, say that you can't solve that problem by becoming big. Did I contribute as much as I could? Was I a hard worker? A good neighbor, husband, father, teacher? Have I given enough to the poor? Have I been dedicated in my own spiritual practices? These kinds of questions are how I judge myself, and how I should judge myself—not questions of how much money I earned, or what other people thought of me.

But the desire for admiration never stops, or even slows down. I often wonder if it is the primary reason, or even the only reason, that I write these essays.


From: Michelle Williams
November 12, 2008

I don't have the same manifestation of the problem that you & Mary do. I desire very much NOT to be famous. Being famous involves, from my perspective, people sticking recording devices in your face and asking you questions when you're not ready to answer them. Very uncomfortable. It also involves people taking pictures and commenting on your choice of clothes and weight fluctuations. Very embarrassing. No thank you. No desire to be famous.

However, I do want to have an impact—as we all do. And I'm able to fantasize that I have/will. Here's how it works: Something I've done or said, probably unbeknownst to me, has made a positive impact on someone's life. Changed the way they thought about a problem and enabled them to solve it; inspired them to do something better than they were before; caused them to commit to something they wouldn't have otherwise. I see it all the time on TV. Oprah had this woman on her show who did nothing more than smile and shake her hand and say something innocuous on her way through town during a political campaign or some such way back in the 60s. Oprah gushes, "What you said made me feel pretty for the first time in my life. It made a world of difference to me." And the lady smiles and says something else innocuous, clearly barely recalling the encounter. Meanwhile, Oprah gets 100s of letters per day from people who say, "Your show on such-and-such saved my life!" And just imagine all the people whose lives were changed but didn't send letters. Similarly, a video chronicling the 99-day life of a baby who wasn't expected to survive his first night made by his parents to honor his life and process their own grief inspired a woman to write that she'd lost her own son to drugs when he was 22 years old and their video inspired her to change her focus. She'd been mourning all that he had not become but now she focuses her memories more on the positive times they had together. Total strangers. Unintended but positive consequences. I could probably fill a few pages with examples.

I have no idea what I could possibly have done or said that would have accomplished anything like that. I'm very likely fooling myself that there has been or will be anything at all. And it's entirely likely I've done as much harm as good via aggressive driving, not keeping my word, an unkind exchange, whatever.

But imagine that someday when you're 80 you read the prologue of a book that is not only #1 on the NYT Best Seller list but also has the whole world engaged in a fascinating and productive conversation. The author notes that he had this terrific math teacher in high school who also was a philosopher whose old essays he stumbled across on the web got him thinking. And now, 30 years later, he'd like to send out a big thank-you to Ken Felder without whose thought-provoking insights he never would have started the path that lead him to write this book. You vaguely recall the guy—he tried hard, but was mediocre at math and you never knew he'd found or read your essays. Does that fantasy help feed your ego? In a way that keeps you doing the things you're good at & enjoy in their own right? ;)

From: Zach
November 12, 2008

Nice thought exercise, and definitely an impulse I can relate to and have struggled with (who hasn't?). I haven't seen your family in years and don't know a thing about parenting, but I can't really see Mary's hunger for admiration as problematic. Maybe it comes down to "transcend and include," as Ken Wilber would say. Yes, the need to please others can get out of control and express itself in unhealthy or anti-social ways, but it also is a natural part of who where are that should not just be denied.

Also it seems to be a stage of development that you need to pass through. When the Buddha or Gandhi acted like they didn't care what anyone thought of them, it was inspiring. When a thirteen-year-old acts like they don't are what anyone thinks, it's anti-social and, if taken to an extreme, cause for real concern.

From: Kenny Felder
November 13, 2008

Interestingly, I think Misha's comment provides the answer to Zach's. The answer is not that you have to care what people think when you are fifteen, and then grow out of it. And the answer is not to find a balance between the extreme poles of caring and not-caring. The answer is that there are healthy kinds of caring what people think, which include caring what impact you make on other people, and using other people as a reality-check on your own self-assessment. And there are unhealthy ways of caring what other people think, which include using other people's admiration as ego-fodder. Like cholesterol, we all need more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff.

From: Richard Felder
November 13, 2008

I get it. I am it. Whether because of my father's emotional insensitivity or my mother's obsessive attention to me and relative neglect of Paul (the positions could one day reverse—you never know) or my bad experiences in elementary school (maybe not as bad as yours, but bad enough) or whatever, I've always had a serious desire for acceptance and admiration coupled with a deep-down sense that I'd never get either one, and while I've been fortunate enough to become much more famous and respected (in highly limited circles) than the average bear, at a deep level the kid is still in there, not believing any of it and always wanting ever more strokes. Maybe if I spent a few decades in psychoanalysis I (whatever "I" means, thinking of your other essays) could finally give him the reassurance he needs, but there's an equally good chance that I never could, and it's more of a gamble of time and money than I'm willing to undertake. So, if approval-seeking is really your and my underlying motivation for everything we do, so be it. I think both of us are managing to do some good things in the world: we're directly responsible for creating some truly wonderful people, and we've had positive influences on the lives of many others. Good results, bad motivation? It's ok—I'll take it.

From: Vanessa Lopez
August 31, 2010

Interesting essay. Two comments I'll make. I find my struggle with the desire to be famous is more about a legacy than anything else. I don't like to be the center of the attention, unless I am prepared for the moment in advance. I would not want to be subject to the scrutiny that most famous people are, but I wish for there to be something in my life that would cause me to be famous after I die. I want my name to be in the history textbooks that children will study in school in the next few decades. Specifically I want to be remembered for having some type of profound impact on society for the better. That my influence brought about the end to world hunger (to go to the extreme). That would be my version of fame, but ultimately it just barrels down to having someone say, hey you did a good job. The thing is though, that even when people say that, I don't really truly believe them; or their comment is negated by the next stupid thing I do. So I guess to answer the question you propose, there really is no scenario I can come up with which would endlessly satisfy my ego.

Secondly I wanted to point out that I think the bible offers a bit more advice about this problem than to just stop as you put it. (Although I know you were speaking more generally about spiritual leaders than just Christianity.) I think God's desire is that as we grow closer to Him, that our hunger to be accepted by people around us would be quenched as we begin to understand the acceptance and love He offers to us. I think naturally when we focus more on His priorities and see ourselves the way He sees us, our ego begins to grow smaller on its own. Of course it never goes away, because we continue to live in this world and struggle with a desire to be God himself. Because ultimately being God is the epitomy of fame, is it not? And the desire to be God or like God is the very thing that led Eve to take the fruit in the first place.

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