This is a text I started working on about half a year ago which I was finally able to finish. It has a slightly somber tone and is oriented more towards self-improvement than intellectual discussion as my previous posts. That is because I am writing about a topic I went through myself and it was a post of this style that started my disillusionment. I hope it can add some value to you and that you can learn a thing or two about yourself.
The tendency towards grandiosity
How much value do you give to truth? We often like to think that truth is paramount to us, but how do we react when we encounter its sharpness, when truth starts to cut through the lies we believe, and more specifically through the lies we believe about ourselves? Do we welcome truth or run away from it?
Blissful ignorance is always easier than facing truth. Truth can be painful, it cuts deep, it demands reflection, it demands a change. How many of us are willing to undergo the pains of disillusionment? We have to decide what is more valuable, a blissful lie or possibly uncomfortable reality. The choice is ours, a red pill or a blue pill.
One red pill I would like you to consider already rests deep inside us, in the abyss of the inner self, of the true self. And I want to emphasize the word true because it is in the nature of this conversation to be easily fooled about the depth of the issue.
To start, I would like to pose a few questions, to you and me. Do you consider yourself to be a competent person (at your job, sport, hobby, etc.)? Do you consider yourself to be intelligent? Do you consider yourself to be at least moderately attractive, humble, caring, honest, or patient? Now is the time, to be honest. Do not hide behind false humility. Do you see yourself as a person to whom these attributes can be at least partly applied? The vast majority of the answers are probably yes (If I had any audience, haha. Sorry, I just wanted to break up the somber tone. Keep on reading.), and I will take this as the basis of our conversation. If you are a person who has a negative image of yourself you can still follow along and observe what danger might await you someday when things get better.
Assuming that most of us have a relatively positive self-image we can now proceed to the red pill I am offering. It is pill we all dearly know, but some of us, with me at the front, are reluctant to acknowledge. The truth is that often we are not as competent, intelligent, skilled, attractive, humble, caring, honest, patient, as we think we are. We have an inflated image of ourselves. If we drew a line segment of our abilities and then were shown how far the line segment truly reaches we would be surprised to find a significant gap between the two, our assessment constantly stretching farther than our true competence. (If you want to see some studies check: 1,2)
In our minds, we create a positively exaggerated image of ourselves and then plug into this illusion whenever we need to recharge our inner well-being after confronting an internal or external doubt about our competence. We keep telling ourselves a pleasant, heroic lie, a story so attractive and satisfying that we intentionally avoid dangerous skeptical opposition to protect the wellbeing we acquire thanks to it. We run away from criticism, and when there is no place to run, forced to listen we dismiss the criticism, we ignore it, we laugh at it on the inside, all the while the gap between our true self and our self-image widens. It is just a story, but a story powerful enough to tint our perception of the world.
I experienced this wake-up call when after almost three years of preparation to apply to Oxford University for a bachelor degree, I did not even get invited for an interview. In my mind, I was already sitting with the professors in a leather chair near a fireplace discussing philosophy while showcasing my intellectual abilities. I even thought through such bombastic scenarios such as that they would give me an offer to study straight away after the interview without asking me to meet any conditions, which all other applicants had to meet.
Little did I know, I did not even get invited for an interview, even though everything was playing out well so far, I felt confident about the test (After seeing my mark that was probably the only thing that left a good impression.), I had a solid reference, a solid personal statement, and a good essay. And yet I failed right at the beginning. In the Oxbridge application process, this is the first selection phase and I was stopped there. (To be fair the interview rate for EU students was 29%.)
“Unfortunately, your application is no longer under consideration by Oriel College or any other colleges at Oxford University”, the email read. Had I not come in terms with the possibility that I would not go further than the application alone I likely would have been devastated. I was lucky to rediscover my problem with inflated ego before this hit came. And by pure chance, I was listening to podcasts about stoicism a few days before I received the decision, and thus I was much better equipped to come in terms with the outcome. I had the chance to apply the stoic ideas right away, and they were very effective. However, luckily that did not detract from the reflections this situation offered. I was not as good as I thought. I could not deny the results. Naturally, a rationalization crept in to protect my ego, but I was aware of what it was, a rationalization, that could but did not have to have a fair basis.
Humbled and newly motivated I tried to learn from this situation, not knowing how much would this failure help me.
The thought that I am not as good as I see myself to be abruptly introduced me back to reality. However, it was a freeing and motivating reintroduction. The truth I needed to realize was that I was not such a good writer, such a clear thinker, such a good candidate for the best university in the world in my eyes, I simply was not. There was a significant gap between my true abilities and the perception I had of myself. This lit a fire in me. I suddenly wanted to at least reach the perception I used to have of myself before and I dropped this fragile, internal, ego-led judgment altogether. It was extremely motivating because I realized there is a lot more work to be done.
If you think you already reached the destination you have no reason to walk any further. If you think you are good enough writer now, you are less motivated to write more tomorrow. If you think you are fast enough now you are less motivated to practice your sprints tomorrow. If you think you are knowledgeable enough in your field of expertise now, you are less likely to put in the work tomorrow.
I am not at the destination yet and never will be. As Matthew McConaughey put it in his Oscar acceptance speech (paraphrasing), the man I am chasing is me in ten years and when the ten years pass, the man I am chasing is me in ten years again. I will never catch him, and thus hopefully I will never stop growing.
Months later, when I read the transformative book Ego is the enemy, about which I want to write at some point, I also realized that the idea that you have made it, is a poisonous influence that should be eliminated as soon as it starts to creep into your mind again. It is steroids to ego and kryptonite to improvement.
That would be enough from my story. The reason why I decided to write this ramble is to help you to free yourself from the deceptive story your ego might be holding you in as I had the chance. The prompt comes from the outside but it is only us that can do the internal housekeeping. It was also helpful to put my thoughts down and relive the past year of struggle against my ego, because as Ryan Holiday, the author of Ego is the enemy, put it, the struggle against ego is like sweeping the floor, the floor gets dirty after a few days and you have to sweep the floor again, and again after a few more days, and again, and again. You must sweep the floor every minute of every day. It is a lifelong struggle.
Now let’s address how this illusory perception of ourselves often arises. The question that will lead us to a reasonable answer is the following; thanks to whom or what do we possess our attributes and abilities? Is it us who should be praised? Yes, seems to be the intuitive answer. Naturally, we might say that the patience we have was built through delayed gratification over years of work, or our intelligence can be attributed to the thousands of hours we spent studying, or that we are a collected person can be attributed to our intentional exposure to stressful situations. And in many cases, this explanation of our abilities would not be far from the truth. However, the key to correctly answering the question of to whom or what we should be thankful is to honestly assess what external influences have helped us to become better versions of ourselves and what is that has laid the foundation upon which we were and now are able to build ourselves on in the first place.
Let’s take a very common factor to all and that is family. Some were very fortunate to have a stable family life with attentive parents who encouraged creative and critical thought, fostering great open-mindedness in their children. If we fast forward twenty years from now and look at these people we will probably find them in respectable positions, in many cases possessing great leadership abilities, emotional maturity, financial stability and all the things you would expect to find in an adult that grew up in an emotionally healthy family.
Now, imagine the opposite, think of all the detriments an abusive environment can bring to the life of a child and its later development.
We do not choose our families, and thus have no control over all the positive and negative outcomes our nest brings. So, now you can ask yourself, what are the things that have helped you become who you are today and can be attributed to your family. Be it your abilities, motivation, social networks, resources, or lack there off, all things that ultimately lead to the things you value about yourself, or to the things you possess and value.
To your family you can now add all your present and past friends, all the movies you have seen, all the books you have read, all the late-night conversations with a wise older person you had, all the wisdom you were able to collect from observing people, plus a number of other things, and you are left with a largely outsourced you, you that lead to all the things that you value. I do not want to rush this point so I will rephrase it. All the things that you value about yourself today can be traced back to external causes that helped to bring them about. Our influence is small, and yet self-praise is enormous.
How should then our responses to receiving credit change upon realizing this truth? Well, it is natural that we at least lose the I did it all attitude. You have not done it all. You received tremendous help from your environment even if you fail to be able to point to specific faces, specific books, specific words, specific movies, you are still indebted to them.
The next time you reach some form of success, try to reflect on all the things that have helped you to be in place you are at the time. It can be an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. And it is this gratitude that we should foster because it is the antidote to ego and megalomania.
So to put it all together, the reality is that not only we are not as good as we consider ourselves to be, but also that the parts of us that are admirable and praiseworthy are a consequence of a chain of influences that were in most of the cases outside of our control. And yet our ego wants us to believe that all should be attributed to us, a sweet lie that fills us with unnoticed destructive smugness.
That is not to say we should give ourselves no credit. Of course, it is you who wakes up in the morning and chooses to do good, to excel, to love, etc. which is admirable, but we have more than enough of unseen, seemingly innocuous self-praise, so much so that is about time we give praise where it is really due. And you, you know where exactly that is. If you disagree, think back to your earlier years, and think of all the people that helped to shape the good that is inside of you today, then return, and take a moment to say your thanks. It is a moment of gratitude that encompasses almost all there is, a strangely profound experience. It also is a practice that can keep us safeguarded from the deceptive powers of our ego. Ego is quick to push our inner perception of our abilities farther than where we stand, so quick that we fail to notice. Ego seizes on every opportunity to spread the illusion it emits. If we value truth we have to be on guard, and the truth will set us free, free to start to actually work towards our goals instead of thinking we are already past the finish line. We have not even begun.
I hope this post, although a tad uncomfortable to write and maybe to read, had helped to discover something about yourself and has empowered you to walk the necessary steps towards disillusionment. Please comment if you have anything to add. Until next time, Andrej.