Ego, n. “A person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance”
Want to do something big with your life? Think you can write a novel, start a successful company, travel the world, retire early, bring down a totalitarian regime, cure a disease, end a famine?
There will be plenty of people around you who resist you. They will question you. They will give you other advice. They will think that you’re foolish. They may even resent you. The lucky ones are ready for this and have moved past caring about these opinions, but most of us get tripped up when we encounter this resistance.
We really get to second-guessing ourselves when people tell us we’re being proud or arrogant. We can only satisfy these critics when we adopt the humility of not doing what we want to do, or at least not doing it with so much happiness, boldness, and self-assurance. We defer. We speak half-heartedly. We avoid rocking the boat. We suggest, but we do not act. We never write our novel, start our company, travel broadly, retire early, or save the world.
All of this is easy enough to do, and we will never be accused of arrogance for it. It’s also a trap.
Our desire to avoid being seen as proud or arrogant has overwhelmed our desire to speak our truths or follow our highest potentials. To avoid the blow to our egos of being seen as proud or arrogant, we sacrifice the most precious callings we have. Our “humility” has, ironically, been turned to the purpose of protecting egos invested primarily in the opinions of other people.
In other words, our desire to avoid being seen as egotistical is a profoundly egotistical one. And our egotism – our self-comparison to others and our constant self-image maintenance – is the worst self-destructive behavior we can inflict on ourselves.
The irony of the accusation of arrogance is that it counts on the accused’s moral sense that arrogance is unwise. It succeeds by making the accused defensive of their own relative social ranking as a “nice, non-arrogant person.” That defensiveness keeps them where they are, and they don’t end up doing anything.
It’s a trap. Don’t fall for it.
The kind of humility that matters is the kind that has already ceased to compare. It has already ceased to care about social status and the opinions of others because it cares about absolute things, not relative things. It cares about truth and fulfillment and meaning and virtue. All of these important, absolute things don’t give a damn about how others perceive you. You can be seen as an arrogant fool and still succeed in living virtuously, speaking truthfully, and rising to your own challenges. In fact, you might be required to do just that.
If you find yourself constantly deferring, avoiding conflict, or avoiding hard stances which would earn you the brand of “arrogance,” or “pride,” or “egotism,” I’d urge you to re-examine the criticism and your own motives. If you want to live humbly, stop worrying about the perceptions of others and focus on what you can find to be independently true and valuable. Consider the wisdom of others but ignore their attempts to manage you through your own ego. Then damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead into whatever you want to accomplish. To hell with your ego – your life in the world is of utmost importance.
Ironically, your single-minded, unilateral choice to act at the risk of being disliked is often the most humble choice you can make. And it will give you something far more important than the self-importance of ego: the satisfaction of self-efficacy and truthful living. No one can give that to you, and no one can take that away.
“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
– C.S. Lewis