Updated: Jan 11
There are a number of subconscious influences that impact an artist’s success, from the cultural and sociological, to the personal and psychological. (See my previous blog Exploitation vs. Insecurity.)
But in the process of writing my book on artist development, I discovered one that surpassed them all. It was only when I applied some #ArtsMeetsBiz that I began to get a handle on my competition, the single biggest influence to blame for the loss of so many talented artists. I’m speaking, of course, of ego.
If self-esteem is an artist’s greatest weakness, you can bet that ego is in the driver's seat. We’ve all seen artists with inflated confidence in public, quietly suffering from depression or addiction, privately. Celebrities such as Sinead O’Connor, Selena Gomez, Jared Padalecki, Chester Bennington, and Anthony Bourdain have all spoken publicly about these struggles.
So I started a case study on my own ego, and what unfolded was the unlikeliest of love stories between a girl and her ego. It’s disgusting. But I just can’t quit you ego...
Let me start with some context. The Daoist in me tends to see the world in dualities. And so it appeared to be no different when I began dissecting my own ego. What I discovered was a manifestation of extremes.
Most people understand the ego to be an inflated sense of self, an illusion of grandeur. But it's most defining characteristic, in my point of view, is that it attacks you from both sides of the self-esteem spectrum. That voice inside your head telling you you’re not good enough is the same voice that will, in the same breath, tell you you’re better than everyone else. They are two sides of the same ego.
My love affair began when I finally started to question why after seemingly positive events in my life I would so quickly question or doubt myself, or generally feel...crappy. Now, full disclosure, depression runs in my family. Yet, as I journeyed further along Joseph Campbell’s Hero's Journey in my personal artistic development, I realized there was another culprit. My Ego.
Excerpts from Ego Dossier, Part 3:
I call my Ego ‘he.’ Probably because he feels like the yang to my yin... a fifth limb that can never be severed. He sneaks up on me when I least expect it and squeezes himself into the smallest cracks in my confidence. If I identify him as a magician and pull the curtain back on his tricks, he just transforms into something else. What I learn of this secret agent man today, changes tomorrow.
He is continually evolving just out of my grasp, taking on any voice, yet unknown. He’s the character we all love to hate, the handsome serial killer, the elusive romantic. He’s the bottle of your favorite poison and the burn that comes when the medicine goes down.
But let this not be a love letter to my Ego. I only admire his relentless transformation. That kind of routine adaptation to the present situation is what I’m striving for when I extol the values of living in the moment. Ego has mastered #sustainability.
But if it sounds like I’m glorifying the ego, just remember my attraction is the same I would have for the "bad boy"; despite his handsome allure, he’ll never stop treating me like shit. It's the kind of love that steals your happiness when you're looking the other way. But he always returns for more…
Let this instead be a road map to recognizing ego, and crushing it the way you would your biggest competitor. You don’t need to put them out of business, just stay ahead of the game.
Speaking of which, I’ve been trying to write this blog for months. Not surprisingly, it has been very difficult to get out. That dance we do with ego, it’s not so much a tango. It feels more like a chicken dance: clunky, awkward, and extremely annoying.
Excerpts from Ego Dossier, Part 1:
I turned down many a suitor waiting for a prince. All the while, Ego stood by me, quick to tear down anyone less dedicated. Ego said, "Surely there is a better lover ahead, and this one is not worth losing a future one."
There were hordes of praise for my art, but when the people/institutions who supposedly “support artists” all passed, Ego was there to pass judgement right back. He said, "They don't recognize talent. They are all unworthy of the greatness that lies within you."
Eventually it became evident that no opportunity or person would ever live up to Ego’s exaggerated sense of worth. Ego said: "Flowers mean nothing if they aren’t attached to checks."
When times got tough, Ego convinced me I was a failure. There was no more opportunity, ever. "Your life," Ego said, "is over before it ever began." But even in complete solitude, Ego kept close. He was more like a screaming child than a best friend, but even an echo can be better than nothing when you're in darkness. After all, if a tree falls...
An artist I worked with for years used to fear that if there was no one around to hear his tree falling in the forest, it wouldn’t make a sound. He was referring to his art, and to a larger extent, his life. He was so good at keeping people out that he was afraid he would disappear in his own forest...that his trees, or art, wouldn’t make any noise in the outside world. Which begged the question - did those trees ever really fall at all?
My case study on ego taught me that we spend too much time staring at fallen trees. We're only looking to see who has heard, seeking approval, validations, and judgement. That is ego directing our focus toward outside reactions.
In actuality, we are each surrounded by a forest populated with trees at our disposal. If no one hears one, move on to the next. Why measure a forest by a singular tree?
Excerpts from Ego Dossier, Part 2:
Those flowers Ego told me were worth nothing still whispered inspiration. That inspiration carried seeds that soon sprouted hope. The counterfeit princes and failed business deals were nothing but downed trees...tragic, but dead and gone.
What were the opportunities I was missing by being distracted by all of Ego’s negative arguments? What would happen if I stood up to Ego by being grateful for what is instead of dwelling on what could be? What if...I loved myself instead of loving Ego?
Another artist I worked with once asked me “How do I know if I’ve fallen too far in love with myself?” I was encouraging him to show more of his feathers when he performed, to let loose. He laughed off the thought (ego manifesting as doubt), but it was a good question.
There is no "too" in love with yourself if you are authentic and balanced with humility and gratitude. Lao Tzu said, “When you are content to be simply yourself and don't compare or compete, everyone will respect you.” This is The Mirror Effect.
That only happens when you release judgement. You cannot be too in love with yourself, but then neither can anyone else. There are only shades of ego. And it is never too late to become your authentic self because you already are. It is only ego that clouds the way.
It was in fact ego holding this artist back. And isn’t that ironic? He was afraid of ego taking over...when in fact ego was already winning.
And that’s the tricky thing about ego - it usually takes the form you’re looking away from. It will pick whichever side happens to be vulnerable at the moment. It likes to win. And since ego is my biggest competitor in the business of making sustainable artists, maybe it’s not so bad that I admire its perseverance. It certainly keeps me on my toes!
Excerpts from Ego Dossier, Part 4. Conclusion:
If I recognize everything Ego says as an extreme, I get to experience both “sides.” That makes it easier to find the middle. The middle must be in the moment because it is not confined by the past, nor attached to the future.
The only place I find respite from Ego is in the moment. There Ego's judgements mean nothing, bearing no weight on a past that no longer exists and a future that is unknown. Could remaining in the middle of extremes, in the moment, be a way to harmonize with Ego?
Ego has shown me how to live in the moment, #sustainability...I just might be grateful for Ego after all.
Ego is, in fact, a useful