The Tech Empowered Ego

Ryan Holiday’s book, The Ego Is the Enemy, is a critique and critical evaluation of the way our ego can dominate our lives and create challenges for us that are hard to overcome. In his book, Holiday addresses the ways in which social media technologies fuel our egos and drive self-congratulatory behaviors. The ability to communicate our egos to a wide audience has never been easier, and if we are not aware of it, we can easily begin blasting our ego across the internet and across technology in plain view for anyone who wants to see (and for those who do not want to see).

 

What technology and ego blasting leads to is captured in the following quote from Holiday, “…we’re told to believe in our uniqueness above all else. We’re told to think big, live big, to be memorable and “dare greatly.” we think that success requires a bold vision or some sweeping plan–after all that’s what the founders of this company or that championship team supposedly had. (but did  they? Did they really?) We see risk taking swagger and successful people in the media, and eager for our own successes, try to reverse engineer the right attitude, the right pose.”

 

Our technology doesn’t share everyone’s ego equally. It is used to share the most lavish and extreme egos, or the worlds of those who claim to be the most successful. In a race to increase our status, we share more and more on social media and make ever greater efforts to distinguish ourselves from others by having the biggest goals, being the most unique and creative, and taking the biggest leaps and most daring risks. The problem is that for many of us, this is the wrong approach, and instead incremental growth is what we should focus on. For many of us, success is not as easy to come by as it looks on social media. We are all starting at different places and we all have positive and negative moments in each and every day. The ego blast of social media doesn’t show the advantages that another person had from birth, the challenges that another person has faced to get where they are, and social media hides the incremental changes and steps that lead to the big moments that we all want to share. Furthermore, sharing those big moments and receiving thumbs-up from all our peers tells us that this type of ego inflation is what we should be doing, and it fuels a part of us that wants to live and act for other people, and not for ourselves. This takes away from the value of the present moment and puts more pressure on us to live for others and try to be a virtual person that lives up to an impossible ego.

Distortions of the Ego

Yesterday I wrote about ego. I looked deeply at how we see ego and how ego manifests in our lives. This post is about the ways that ego shapes our understanding and approach to the world. In my previous post I argued that our egos arise when we begin to believe the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. We tell ourselves we are more important than we truly are, that we have more skills and abilities than we actually do, and that we have some intrinsic value that sets us apart from everyone else.

 

Author Ryan Holiday further describes ego in his book, Ego is the Enemy, by writing, “It’s when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us.” The important thing to consider here is that having a big ego gives us a false sense of reality. Rather than taking an objective view of the world around us and our place in that larger world, we risk seeing a distortion that we want to see, and not a reality that truly exists in front of us.

 

It is easy to see how our ego can inflate our view of our position in the world. We make ourselves feel more important than we are and assume that people are truly interested in what we say or do. This leads to us moving through our lives as though we were performing for others, rather than just living for ourselves. An inflated ego also risks the potential of allowing us to believe that what we think is always right, and that we have the world easily sorted out. With a large ego, we can flatten debate and reduce the world the black and white, making it easy for us to cast judgement on the world while praising ourselves for being so smart and insightful.

 

All of this is to say that our ego gives us a false view of the world around us and how we relate to that world. If we let our ego go unchecked, we can easily begin to adopt views and understandings of the world that promote ourselves and our positions in the world at the expenses of others. It is easy to discount the concerns of others when we are focused on ourselves and focused on always obtaining and achieving more personally so that we can continue to feed our hungry ego. This is why it is so important to build self-awareness into our lives and to be aware of the stories we tell ourselves to prop up our ego.

An Unhealthy Belief in Our Own Importance

At the end of the day, we all, somewhere along the way, adopt a belief that we are more important than we really are. A friends mother saves journals as if people are going to one day read them and gain great insight into her life. Average American’s across the country worry that what they post on social media could be viewed negatively by a government security apparatus. And while I tell myself I am writing this for myself, in the back of my mind is a thought about writing something insightful that all my readers will find valuable (my website had exactly 5 hits yesterday).

 

We tell ourselves stories as we go through the day, and eventually we start to believe our own stories and start to build an ego.

 

Ryan Holiday thinks this is a problem. In his book, Ego is the Enemy, Holiday encourages us to take a deep look at ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and how we allow our ego to drive the show. He looks at stoic philosophy on self-awareness, introspection, and honesty with the self to see how our stories and ambitions can get in our own way and ruin our path. Holiday also shares his own stories about ego and the ways in which he has made mistakes out of pride, envy, and unrealistic visions of his own abilities.

 

Early in the book Holiday spends some time drilling in on what he means of ego. After providing some clinical and academic definitions, he writes, “The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition. … The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility–that’s ego. It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent.”

 

Our ego is our idea that we have somehow risen above other people and become more important in the world than we actually are. It is a belief that what we tell ourselves about what people think of us, about our ability to shape the world around us, and about what we are capable of is actually the reality of the world. Our ego pushes us to find ever greater status and have ever greater things in our life so that we can demonstrate some superiority over others (or at least appear to have such superiority). Ego puts us at the center of not just our own universe, but of the universe for everyone else, even when we have no reason to believe that we are who we tell ourselves we are. None of us want to believe that we allow our ego to run our lives in this way (as I write this I have convinced myself that my ego really isn’t that bad), but our ego always has a potential to grab the reins if we are not careful, and it always impacts our decisions in ways we don’t want to admit.

 

Even small things in our life can become driven by our ego. We often think that what we do in a given day is more important than it truly is. When we step back, pull our ego away, we see that what happens to us on a daily basis really isn’t very important or consequential. We are likely not being watched by the people we imagine to be watching us and we probably don’t get noticed as often as it feels that we do. After all, everyone else is probably living inside their head and worried about themselves and what everyone else thinks of them. I find this reassuring because it means that I don’t have to live my life as a performance. I can allow my life to play out and try my best without worrying about a pressure to do or to be anything specific and I don’t have to ascribe great meaning to random moments of my life. This opens the possibility for me to enjoy a small moment, to tolerate dull moments, and to do my best without an inordinate pressure to impress anyone.

Jefferson on the Constitution

Joseph Ellis, in his book The Quartet argues that many of our founding fathers who actively participated in bringing us our constitution were not focused on creating an ever binding document that would hold in place the nation’s laws forever. They sought, Ellis argues, to build a constitution that would serve as a guiding document for the political thought and ideals of the time. They understood that the Constitution would have to change, and while thy hoped that it would be endearing enough to be well respected and to not be scrapped within ten years, they did not believe the Constitution to be beyond the scope of political discussion and change.

 

This sentiment is capture by Thomas Jefferson, who was not active in the process of writing the constitution and developing its ideas since he was in France during the Constitutional Convention of 1787:

 

“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it. It deserved well of its country…. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered…institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regime of their barbarous ancestors.”

 

In my mind, the most clear modern example of what Jefferson described in the quote above is the debate in our country over the Second Amendment. In 1787 our founding fathers found it important enough for the nation to be able to be build a militia when needed and for citizens to be able to bear arms to for their protection from tyrannical governments both internal and external to the United States. But the firearms of the Revolution were unlike the weapons of today’s world. The original intent doctrine suggests that we should not limit people’s ability to own and use firearms. This seems very clear with the inclusion of the the Second Amendment, but it also feels to me, that we are forcing the nation to wear its boyhood jacket when we force the modern problems with guns into the framework of the Second Amendment. It is clear that the founding fathers did not write the Second Amendment with handguns in mind. The guns of the time were bulky, slow to reload, and inaccurate. A modern handgun is easily concealable, can be fired rapidly, and is deadly accurate.

 

Jefferson, it appears based on this quote from the end of his life, would argue that the Second Amendment needed to change, that there was not a superhuman view of firearms and democratic preservation written into the Constitution to which we should affix ourselves today. The technology of the world has advanced in unpredictable ways since 1787, and Jefferson would argue that our institutions for governing the nation should change as well.

Paradoxes Within Our Constitution

The Constitution of the United States is over 230 years old. With many amendments added through the years, and with new interpretations of the Constitution, our country is still guided by a founding document written in 1787. What has made this document so enduring, argues Joseph Ellis in his book The Quartet, is not that it was written with the divine influence of providence or that it held unique support among men, but that it understood and adapted a paradoxical framework about government. Writing on our founders and the endurance of the constitution Ellis states,

 

“It has endured not because it embodies timeless truths that the founders fathomed as tongues of fire danced over the heads, but because it manages to combine the two time-bound truths of its own time: namely, that any legitimate government must rest on a popular foundation, and that popular majorities cannot be trusted to act responsibly, a paradox that has aged remarkably well.”

 

The ideas of our Constitution were not universally accepted and clear to everyone at the time of its adoption, and even today the paradox of our constitution is not well understood. Government does not rely on complete power and authority in the United States. A leading political figure, an agency, and the legitimacy of our government only persist because they can react (at least to some extent) to the popular demands of our citizens. At the same time, we have a slow process that in recent years seems to frequently grind to a gridlocked halt when a minority opposes the actions of a popular majority. This limits the ability of government or popular majority to  run roughshod over the rights and liberties of a minority. While politically frustrating, this limitation of the majorities power, and the the divestiture of the majority’s power in a politically elected representative or government creates a system of government that is reactive to its citizens and simultaneously constrained from tyrannical tendencies. It may not be perfect and often does not work as well as we would hope, but through time it has evolved to allow citizens to enjoy liberty and has moved in a direction where minority factions have been preserved and protected (thought often times not well) and gained greater influence over time.

The Bill of Rights, Factions, and the Power of the Government

One of the debates that took place before the 1788 ratification of our Constitution was whether or not the constitution should include a Bill of Rights, guarantees of freedoms that limit the power of government over the states and citizens. As written, Madison thought the Constitution was complete, and did not see the need for a Bill of Rights. The majority of delegates to the Constitution Convention, however, approved of amendments to the Constitution, and in the end, our founders added 10 amendments to create the Bill of Rights we know today.

In his book The Quartet, Joseph Ellis describes Madison’s thoughts regarding the Bill of Rights, an area where Madison and his political mentor, Thomas Jefferson differed in their opinions. Madison believed that a Bill of Rights would not be effective in stopping government from overstepping its authority, and he felt the amendments to be irrelevant. Ellis wrote the following about Madison:

“Jefferson’s problem, as Madison saw it, was that he believed that the primary threat to personal rights came from government. That might be true in Europe, “but in our Governments the real power lies in the majority of the community.” So the real threat came “from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.”

This is consistent with Madison’s thoughts as written in the Federalist Papers #10 and #51, in which Madison wrote about the dangers of factions and majoritarian groups of citizens. Madison did not see power as flowing from the government and did not see our political rights and stemming from government. He was developing a constitution and a framework of governance where “the people,” as ambiguous as the term is, held authority and power and a written bill of rights, he argued, was not sufficient to dissuade a majority of citizens from violating the rights of others. His suggestion was not to tie the hands of government with a bill of rights, but instead to ensure that power was divided among many factions so that a tyrannical few could not dominate the interests of the many.

What I find interesting here is that Madison is in effect arguing for what we today would call identity politics. The most basic definition of politics is “who gets what and when?” We will always lack the resources to make sure that everyone’s self interest and desires are entirely fulfilled, and some resources, such as status and prestige, cannot be evenly separated among men, women, and differing groups. Politics is about how we decide to distribute what we have, and it is inherently unequal and identity based. The term identity politics now refers to the distribution of resources based entirely on individual characteristics of certain groups rather than on the good of the majority, but as Madison may argue, operating on the basis of the good of the whole is impractical because you cannot give the whole the same opinion, and what you instead have is a tyrannical majority dominating the few. A bill of rights, paper barriers to liberty, are easily ignored when a powerful majority can silence the voice of a minority. Giving minorities more power and influence is a Madisonian idea that was formed in the founding documents of the nation, well before our current tussle of identity politics.

Thoughts on the Federalist Papers

I have read about half of the Federalist Papers, a collection of over 80 papers written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay under the pseudonym Publius. The articles ran in New York newspapers and were intended to influence the key decision makers in New York to vote in favor of the proposed constitution for the United States. The authors included arguments for a strong central government, examples of the pitfalls of the Articles of Confederation, and stories of the necessity of a strong centralized government to protect the people and help the newly formed states establish themselves in a world of entrenched political powers across the Atlantic.

 

Like our vision of “original intent” the meaning of the Federalist Papers has shifted over time and they have come to represent something greater than what they originally were. Many people look back at the Federalist Papers as a type of manual outlining the thoughts, intentions, and goals of our founding fathers when writing the constitution. We see them as incredibly influential articles that shaped the understanding of the constitution and the direction our nation would move. Joseph Ellis, author of The Quartet sees this view of the federalist papers as troubling. He states, “It is highly likely the Federalist Papers have exercised a larger effect on our later perceptions of the debate over ratification than they did over the debate itself.” Ellis argues that in some ways, the Federalist Papers can be viewed as advocacy propaganda saved from the winning side of an argument and distorted by a victorious view of history.

 

“Even our modern inclination to see the Federalist Papers as the seminal statement of “the original intentions” of the framers is historically incorrect, since Publius represented only one side of the ratification debate–the winning side, to be sure, but a wholly partisan perspective. Finally, the Federalist Papers were aimed not at posterity but at a limited audience of the moment. As Madison later explained, Publius was intended “to promote the ratification of the new Constitution by the State of N. York, where it was powerfully opposed, and where success was deemed of critical importance.””

 

When we look back at the Federalist Papers we read into them what we want to see today and we find support for the ideas we already have. The articles themselves are brilliant and insightful when thinking about government and governance today, but in many ways they cannot be thought of as technical blueprint of the Constitution. They are powerful justifications for the decisions made in adopting the Constitution, but they are just another argument that we can learn from when thinking about how to structure government and the decisions made 230 years ago.