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. What do you think it means?”
“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 rearview 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 a feeling 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.” I glimpsed her rolling her eyes in the rearview 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 definition of 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,” I repeat 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.
“We’re still 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 a thriving restaurant and 1.7 million dedicated Instagram followers. He decides to create a new dish. And his customers hate the meal. The combination of flavors tastes just terrible. So, is the guy delusional that he’s a great chef, that’s just his ego talking?
My daughter considered my little tale carefully before answering. “Well, if he thought of himself as a great chef with everything he made, then that’s his ego thinking he’s good all the time, that everything he creates will be a masterpiece.”
“So then, is our ego ever an accurate depiction of ourselves?”
“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 rearview mirror lit up my world.
(My DH and I praise our kids for doing something smart but we never tell them they are smart, as in a state of being. In fact, when other people do, we smile politely, turn away and roll our eyes. 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 tell them. Smart is an abstract, merely an idea, a concept, like democracy, or potential, or ego. Smart is as smart does, yet another refrain we preach to our kids.)
“It is not our potential, or what we believe, or believe in that defines us,” I said to my daughter as I pulled into our garage. “Regardless of what your ego tells you, you will never be more than the choices you make and the actions those choices led you to take.”
We ARE what we DO.