In the car with my 10 yr old daughter the other day, she asked me what Ego meant, one of her vocabulary words for the week.
I laughed. “Good question, I replied. What do you think it is?”
“I wouldn’t ask if I knew, mom.”
“Well, use it in a sentence, in context. You’ve heard the word enough to have an inkling what it means. And an inkling is as close as you’re going to get to defining an abstract like Ego.”
Her brows narrowed and I could see her pondering in the rear view mirror.
“My ego got hurt when Ms Brown told me I was singing flat this morning.” She paused. “And she really said that, mom.”
“Sorry. We’ll get back to that. OK? So Ego is feelings then?”
“Well, sorta, I guess. But not exactly. It’s more like how we see ourselves. To me, I’m a good singer. You can hurt my feelings by being mean to me. But you hurt my ego when you tell me I’m not how I think I am.”
“Do you think you were flat this morning in glee?”
“Well, yeah. When I listened I wasn’t hitting the notes sometimes. I guess I’m not such a good singer.”
“Ah, but you could be, if you practiced singing. And not the perpetual humming you do, but really practiced, daily—sing along with your favorites, or sing the notes when you practice piano.” I glimpsed her rolling her eyes at my suggestions in the rear view mirror. “Being a good singer doesn’t happen inside your head. What is the only way to really get good at anything?” (One of my many canonical refrains.)
“Practice, mom.” She sighed.
I sighed. “My beautiful daughter, I think your explanation for Ego is excellent—it’s how we see ourselves. Ego is an idea, even an ideal—who we want to be, but generally are not. We are what we do, my dear” (another of my refrains). “If you want to be a good singer, you’re going to have to practice becoming one.”
“So you don’t think I’m a good singer,” she asked woefully.
“Were still talking about defining Ego here, right?”
“Yeah. And my ego says I’m a good singer now, mom. So is ego always fake, just pretend inside our heads?”
“You tell me. Do you think our ego ever gives us an accurate depiction—paints a real picture of how we operate, how we act, what we do in the real world?”
“Probably not.” She sighed again, deflated. “Just cuz you think you’re good, or talented, or special doesn’t mean you actually are to anyone besides yourself, except if you’re famous. When you’re famous, it’s not just ego, you know you’re good.”
“Really? So, there’s a famous chef, recognized for his delicious creations. As you noted, it’s not just his ego talking that’s telling him he’s a good chef. He has 1.7 million dedicated followers on Instagram. He decides to create a new dish, and serves it to five friends. And all five hate the meal. The combination of flavors tastes just terrible. So, is the guy delusional that he’s a good chef—it’s just his ego talking—or is he really good?
My daughter considered my little tale carefully before answering. “Well, if he thought of himself as a great chef with everything he made, then his delusion was that he could be good all the time, that everything he created would be a masterpiece.”
“So then, is ego ever an accurate depiction of self?”
“I guess not. Just like there is no such thing as smart, mom.” She quoted another of my canonical refrains. Her bright smile in the rear view mirror lit up my world.
My DH and I NEVER tell our kids they’re smart. In fact, when other people do, we smile politely, turn away and snicker. Our kids are consistently at the top of their classes because they work at it. A lot. There is no such thing as smart, we preach. Smart is an abstract, merely an idea, a concept, like democracy, or potential, or ego. Smart is as smart does.
It is not our potential, or what we believe, or believe in that defines us. Our ego guarantees that none of us are who we imagine ourselves to be—good or bad. Regardless of what your ego tells you, you will never be more then the choices you make and the actions those choices lead you take.
We are what we DO.