1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Twenty-Six: Ego
Posted on September 26, 2018 Posted by John Scalzi 16 Comments
Oooooh, I’ve always been an ego-filled little doofus. I do think at this point the ego may be better justified. And also, I’ve worked to change where my ego is centered.
1998, I will note, was a very important year for my ego. That was the year it took its first major hit, when I got laid off from my job at America Online. Prior to that I went from one ego-gratifyingly high from another. I got hired right out of college to be a movie critic! I was the youngest syndicated film critic in the United States! And then I was the youngest syndicated opinion columnist in the United States! And then when I went to AOL, I was their entire in-house writing and editing staff! (It didn’t occur to me to think that this might have been AOL being cheap — remember, I was looking at it from the point of view of ego.) At AOL I was editing my own humor magazine! And so on!
Then I was laid off and suddenly from the point of view of ego, I was nothing at all.
Why? Because in all that time I was centering my ego in what I was doing (and, to a large extent, how young I was when I started doing it) rather than, say, who I was as a person. So when all that was suddenly taken away from me, well. Let’s just say I didn’t handle it very well at all. There was a short period of time there where Krissy was genuinely worried that, as were were driving somewhere, I would just open the passenger-side door and roll myself out. To be clear, I never actually did plan that. But looking back at how being laid off hit me, I can also see why she had cause to worry about it.
I’ve mentioned here before how in the fullness of time I’ve come to consider being laid off at AOL one of the best things that ever happened to me. One reason among many for that is that it caused me to re-evaluate my own ego, and in what I invested it. I’m not going to say that I came out of being laid off a better person. I will say I came out of it with an at least slightly more balanced ego.
“Ego” is a funny concept in our culture, and I think having an ego is generally regarded negatively or at least somewhat suspiciously. If you say someone “has an ego,” there’s a general hint that the ego in question is undeserved or overinflated. That’s fine but I think ego gets a bad rap. Obviously if your ego is overinflated or unearned that’s not a good thing. But if you understand yourself and you can assess yourself well, then ego can be a good way to backstop yourself when others are pummeling you with negativity, or when you feel uncertain or unsure. I think it’s good to have an ego, if you know yourself and your talents.
Where is my ego centered in 2018? Mostly it’s centered in trying to be a decent person and in creating good work. Both of these concepts are ones that don’t need or require outside verification, although in both cases such verification can come, and be useful in letting you know if your own internal compass for either or both is off. But fundamentally, it’s about what one expects from one’s self as opposed to what you can show off to others.
Which is hard for me. I’m a show-off. I have my moments of vanity and pride and smugness. I like when people like my stuff and I like that people know of me. If left unchecked and unexamined, I run downhill toward pomposity and jerkiness. I can very easily exhibit all the negative things that people think of when they think of the word “ego,” even if it’s something else entirely. I think a part of healthy personal self-assessment is recognizing what parts of yourself aren’t the best parts, and can lead you to do things you’ll regret later. I’m not perfect in dealing with these things — we all work toward being the best version of ourselves rather than wake up every day being that person. But I do put in the effort.
(I should also note that to my mind, being a decent person doesn’t always mean being a nice person. I’m perfectly content to be less-than-pleasant to people who I think deserve it. I mean, sometimes I’m a jerk and it’s unwarranted, and when that happens, I try to back up and apologize. But sometimes, a person warrants me being something other than nice. When that happens, I don’t mind delivering.)
I’m fine with my ego as it is these days. I think it generally serves me well. I’m always looking to better calibrate it, however. I expect that will be the case for years to come.
“I think ego gets a bad rap”
It carries a lot of negative baggage that is difficult to avoid. The term “self worth” is generally less problematic.
Language is weird.
The list of people who AOL laid off is legion. For a good number of years they followed a cycle: Hire people from January till September. Then there’s a hiring freeze, and in December shortly before the holidays there’s a layoff. I dodged it a few years, then got caught along with the rest of my group and my manager.
The thing that AOL was pretty stressful. Confused management, layoffs, poor direction and haphazard project plans all led to developer stress. My doc had told me, “You’re blood pressure is higher than I like, we really need to watch that.” Then I saw him after the layoff, I didn’t have a job yet and was concerned about how to pay the mortgage, buy food, etc. The doc took my BP and said “It’s down to your previous level, good! I don’t know what you did, but it was the right thing.”
I consider getting laid off from AOL as my parting health benefit from them.
A bit of ego can be a good motivator. I’m listening to the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text (thank you, Ms. Rowling), and host Vanessa has said that she approached her mentor concerned that the REASON she worked in ministry was that it made her feel important, it boosted her ego. Her mentor basically said, “If it’s feeds your ego to sit in the chair offering comfort to dying people, whatever. Your butt is still in the chair offering comfort to dying people.”
If I relied on my employment to bolster my ego, I would have rolled myself out of a moving car long ago. “Decent” and “productive” are good baselines.
I agree. Ego gets a bad wrap. I happen to think ego is good when one is in control of it. This isn’t always so easy because it feels good to be in one’s ego. Ego has driven me to accomplish great things. It also has gotten me in trouble when I didn’t treat people with more respect. Like all things, you learn from life and from your mistakes along the way. I say, keep that ego going just make sure you check it from time to time.
I think most writers have a tricky relationship with ego. Every literate person on the planet can write, so you have to have the ego to say “This is good. I write well. I write well enough to get paid for writing.” However, if you do actually want to get paid, some outside person — an editor,a publisher, a producer, a boss — also has to think you write well. So in addition to needing an ego, you also need (crave?) outside validation.
Oh sure, you have to write about ego! And who’s ego do you choose? Yours! Everything always has to be about you! ;-)
An apropos song from 1975: ‘Ego is not a dirty word’, written by Greg Macainsh and performed by Skyhooks.
The song and the band are well-known to Australians of a certain age and not known at all by anyone else (which is a small pity).
m hepzibah – Beat me to it! :-)
Ego…is where I go.
—The Phantom (not the Lee Falk character).
As a programmer in the contracting world in DC I’ve been laid off several times. Usually manage to time it for beach season though.
Every morning I shake off the sense of failure and futility, find the smartass attitude that’s kept me going so long, and get out of bed. Holding onto some o’ that ego.
God bless our culture. Somehow I got the idea, maybe from my children’s bible, that I was supposed to have as little ego as possible. Turns out there’s a word for my former belief. A friend who went to Bible College told me the term “worm Christianity.” It is not recommended.
Ah yes, ego. A good bruising once in a while does the mind good. I’ve had a job ousting or two thrown at me that damaged my ego (I’m still recovering from the last one – a doozy to be sure) and each time in retrospect it was a good thing for me that I was ousted. A few people also had the courage to give me a piece of their mind and take me down a notch or two when it was needed. It’s good to have people like that about, even if you don’t like them at the time. I think we call these attitude adjustments…
Tying your ego to a job is sort of like being an airbag in a car. You have an important job. You have your own special notice imprinted into the vinyl “AIRBAG”. You simply scream, “I will protect you!”. The manual has a page dedicated to you and there is a system built right into the car that will stop you from deploying to avoid hurting small people and children. It speaks to your power. You swell with pride.
Then an accident comes, YOU are deployed in microseconds. The person in the car flies toward you, you expand toward them until you both meet and then you slowly release your gas, slowing down the person so they are not seriously inured. Everyone is amazed that the person survived! The first responders praise you. The driver’s loved ones praise you and thank the lord above that you were at the ready.
But one look into the car shows that you, Mr. Airbag, are now out of a job. Your deflation clear to see to all as you hang flaccidly from the steering wheel. You had an important job! Everyone in the car knew that. And now… you’re just sitting there with the rest of the debris waiting for the tow truck to take you to the junk yard. Maybe, if, say, the radio had warned you that there are hundreds of millions of others just like you in the world, it would have been easier to take. Maybe, if you hadn’t ignored the other airbags while you were strutting around racking up frequent driven miles, you’d have know that although you were a powerful airbag, you weren’t unique. But that didn’t happen, and in your grief, you limply hang there lamenting your fate. If only…
You got the ego problem right on the nose. Tying your sense of self-worth and your pride to one particular job or task is a recipe for continual cycles of unhappiness.
And is probably the reason car doors don’t open while in motion any more…
OK, back to work, these websites won’t fix themselves…
I worked for AOL from Jan. 1996 until early 1998 as a remote contract employee (a paid position, not part of the volunteer AOL Community Leaders program). I remember my work largely involved writing script for the Remote Automated Information Manager, or more commonly referred to as RAINMAN. Still have the training manuals. It was a side gig and not my primary job (at a nuclear particle accelerator laboratory) and a heck of a lot of fun. What a great place to be during that heady time in the history of online technology.
A couple of things I thought were horrible at the time turned out to be really great things for me. It is hard to go through but sometimes you just slog on and make the most of it & it works out. Of course it could also have turned to shit – I know I was lucky as well.
Pn ego, you need to have an ego to be a healthy human. The trick is to have just enough to believe in what you are doing and in your own ability. It helps if you have are not a dick but some ego is a good thing