I like to think that I don't have an ego, or at least not a big one, but lately I find myself facing emotions and triggers that make me realize I might be wrong about that. It has also started me thinking about what an ego is, what it is connected to, and why it is largely considered a "man thing."
Pressed to define myself, I would have to say I am a writer who knows a lot about entomology, the study of insects. Many people would reverse the order, saying I am an entomologist who writes. That is flattering, and it is the reputation I have earned through countless hours of volunteering to answer online questions about "bugs," giving public presentations, and writing my other blog, Bug Eric. Oh, and I was principal author of the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Here in Colorado, that seems to matter little, and people frequently credit a retired state entomologist for everything they know and appreciate about insects.
This individual has remained a mystery to me. He has never introduced himself to either welcome me or express regret at my arrival here four years ago. That stings a little when colleagues don't acknowledge you. What hurts more is what I perceive as a fierce loyalty to this person that I will never receive from anyone who has met both of us. Whatever I do will never be as good as what he did.
I find I have a competitive tendency in situations like this, and I really don't like to be competitive. I would rather have a cooperative, equality-based relationship with most people. I don't consider myself superior, and in fact I now get an inferiority complex at the mention of this entomologist's name.
So, our ego wants to cultivate a sense of loyalty among others; and it will become fiercely competitive in order to achieve that. What else is the ego up to that we may or may not be conscious of? The first definition of ego in my handy The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, copyright 1973, is "The self as distinguished from all others." Ah-ha! We literally want to "be somebody." Our ego is a product of everything we have done to achieve our sense of identity, from being kind to strangers to earning a degree, to climbing the ladder of our career. This is where things might come undone. Men in particular often equate their entire identity with their occupation. Suddenly, you seem to slip down a notch in the hierarchy of your field and all emotional hell breaks loose. You are convinced that you are now a "nobody."
Why do we so easily forget that our identity is not just what we do for a living, but who we are as human beings? A good analogy, perhaps, is colleges and universities. The most graphic presentation of these academic institutions is their athletic teams. The football and/or men's basketball program are the public face of the whole school. Measuring the quality of education at a school by the performance of its sports teams is, of course, ludicrous, but we do it every single season. Likewise, our career status is what everyone sees in us, regardless of whether they truly know us. It can be argued persuasively that we put entirely too much effort into career success at the expense of family, friends, and community, maybe even our own physical and mental health.
The other thing about occupation is that it is something tangible, demonstrative, and that is really high on the men's priority list. Guys, try listing less visible qualities about yourself. Hard, isn't it? Somewhere I have filed away a list of my own positive attributes (strengths) and negative personality traits (weaknesses) in case I ever have another job interview. We, myself included, don't seem to devote nearly as much time and energy into becoming better human beings as we do to being better workers, supervisors, or CEOs. This is tragic and ironic when you consider the people you hold in high esteem. They are likely to be people who impacted you directly as friends, mentors, partners. We can admire public figures, but we love family, friends, and colleagues close to us.
I'm feeling better already for having reminded myself that I am not "just" a writer or an entomologist. I am a husband, a friend, a volunteer, and sometimes an activist. So who are you? Take a moment, I can wait. Think about this daily, make it a habit to praise yourself for the intangibles. That is where you earn what is most valuable and irreplaceable of all: true loyalty.