The Creative Ego
Posted on 28 June 2013
We are often exposed to negative examples of ego. We hear of Russell Crowe throwing a phone at someone or Justin Bieber abandoning a pet monkey, and it all looks very ugly. That’s the dark side of ego: the disconnection from humanity and the abuse of status.
When you immerse yourself in life-affirming action such as ladling soup out to the hungry or making a room full of people laugh, you can lose a sense of self. BUT, this is only possible because you have laid down the groundwork to develop a mature ego, which would chose that sort of activity and then let go.
So we have some distinctions: an underdeveloped ego, a bloated ego, and a mature ego.
The Underdeveloped Ego
The word ego just means “I” and was later understood to mean your thinking self as in “I think, therefore I am”. I won’t worry about Freud’s definition that the ego is the mediator between instincts and moral imperatives. I will focus instead on our sense of self.
An under-developed ego does not see itself as an active force in the events surrounding it. A person with an under-developed ego feels that life happens to them, they don’t happen to life. “I don’t really matter, I can’t change anything. It’s probably best to just go along with things and do as I’m told.”
Some people are bright enough to resent this and may act-out, trying to escape what looks to them like a deterministic world. The problem is despite disliking it, they do believe in a deterministic world and have little to no faith in the value of their own actions. Their actions are then calculated to vent and not actually to change anything. Emotionally, they are not in a good place to take longterm sustained effort, which often does make a difference.
A lot of comedy is about metaphorically kicking those we feel are oppressing us. “I can’t change anything, but at least I can laugh at the bastards.” Dilbert is this sort of comedy.
Let’s take someone with an under-developed ego. They seem like a nice person: soft spoken, polite, tidy. Let’s put them in the middle of a media storm because they have just produced the right comedy at the right time, and everyone is talking about it. For once in their life they have had an impact on the world. Their sense of self as the oppressed crumbles and they have nothing else with which to replace it…other than perhaps seeing themselves as a sort of god, because finally they have some power. These are not people prepared to handle the stresses and interactions of being high status. They are barely capable of thinking of anyone else as human, because they have barely looked beyond themselves.
This will appear to all the world like power corrupting. What it is truly, is putting a child in a room alone with a bag full of lollies and telling them they can only have one, or worse, a shiny red button that says “nuclear destruction, do not press”. They aren’t ready to show any self-control.
Sometimes the leap from having little sense of self to a bloated sense of self is quite early, as when someone is spoiled at a young age or lives in a privileged position in society. This would be someone who is rarely denied their desires, is given what they want without effort, and is never in a position to think of the feelings and welfare of others. They can be corrupt before they even get to power.
The Mature Ego
I know many artists who are terrified of appearing or being egotistical. As such they don’t always put themselves forward assertively enough to boost their career. So it is important to know how a mature ego helps and what it looks like.
Part of the point of being an artist is expressing both your shared humanity and your individuality. In celebrating your individuality, you assist others to discover even more shared humanity. More often than not that distinctive part of yourself is a hidden space in many people’s worlds. If you feel the need to be utterly unique, you are back in underdeveloped territory: “I have to be different to be special and only special people have power.”
It’s okay to believe, “I have it in me to perform.” You then need to do the work to back that up. Take classes, practise, perform in front of audiences. Be open to learning and growing.
It’s okay to believe, “It is acceptable for me to pursue a career in the arts. I have it in me to succeed as a performer.” Most of us have parents who may not agree with this, but it’s no less true. This will need to be balanced with “I am a good person whether or not I make a lot of money. I am a good person whether or not I succeed. I have a right to my decisions and the right to try and fail.” There are no guarantees when it comes to the arts. Really there are no guarantees anywhere, but things are just that much more iffy for artists. If you are serious, prepare yourself for the longhaul and emphasize personal successes over popular success.
Not only is it okay to try and fail. It’s also okay to try and succeed. That may sound odd, but some people are terrified of losing their mates if they move on. Not such a ridiculous concern really. You need an ego that says, “I can make friends easily,” then proactively be a friend with the people around you whoever they are: other comedians, hairdressers, lighting assistants, etc. If you ground your sense of self in “I am a decent human being” it will make it easier to accept the belief, “My success neither makes me a more important nor less important person than anyone else.” So long as you are decent, how anyone else feels about you is their responsibility. Just be ready to make new friends.
A mature ego is marked by its flexibility and sense of overall personal value when it comes to certain behaviours. Realise it serves your ego better to accept being wrong upon occasion. If you accept when you have been mistaken, you can learn from the mistake, apologise if need be, and move on. We have to do this in the arts all the time. Otherwise, you can be hopelessly lost in defending yourself and suffer from knowing people think you a fool–even worse, you could cause yourself or others considerable damage. If your ego causes you to assert, “I can handle my liquor”, you are in real danger. Changing your mind on that attitude may feel humiliating at first, but I promise you, you will find yourself again on the other side–only happier and healthier.
Of course sometimes you are right and people still think you are a fool. One of the great things about comedy is that we are meant to be fools. We are meant to be the people who get knocked over and get back up laughing. This is where you rely upon your ego saying, “I have faith in my creative vision.” If your vision involves saying things or doing things that expose the problem areas in society, you will also have to assert, “I have the strength to stand for what is right.” Now many times you may have that strength. Upon occasion you may fail in your own estimation, but if your vision is important enough to you, you will pick yourself up and keep at it. George Carlin is famous for this in defending freedom of speech.
The most important things for avoiding a bloated ego are to stay in touch with your humanity and stay in touch with the humanity of others. Respect and show a genuine generosity of spirit toward the people in your life. When you listen to others, you learn, you make a connection, and for us comedians, you get more material for your shows.
Peace and kindness,