A few days ago, after eight months of slowly growing my reader base on Medium, I deleted my account. No, it was not some kind of exercise in detachment. It was purely accidental. The result of a series of unfortunate events as Lemony Snicket would say.
After making the fatal mistake a few interesting things happened:
1. Blank-faced denial: When you've just committed a fatal mistake and you haven't fully absorbed the consequences of it. So, instead of reacting immediately you spend a good five minutes staring at the wall. Pale faced and empty eyed. 2. Anxious-ridden glimmer of hope: The immensity of what you have just done hits you like a truck but you are still holding on to a thread of hope. So you hit that refresh button like your life depended on it, and believe in the power of second chances like Jesus rising back up from the dead. 3. Pragmatic meltdown: The refresh button is not working. BUT. You decide to approach things with a cool and calm demeanour. You hit up Medium customer service and manage to get your account back up and running, only to realize that your entire content has been wiped off the platform. Screams internally.
Since the meltdown, and I've had some time to reflect on the experience. I've come to the conclusion that I just suffered a small ego death. The undoing of an activity that was the basis of my identity as a writer has brought me back to ground zero. It's led me to ask myself some interesting writing-related questions such as:
Why does the loss of followers and claps hurt so much?
Why do we latch on to objects or activities for a sense of validation?
And how can I make writing less about ego and more about compassion?
Without further ado, here's an exploration on the genesis of ego—how it went from a useful tool for social cooperation, to a thorn in your foot.
"The behaviour of other social animals is determined to a large extent by their genes and environmental factors" says Yuval Noah Harari in his best-selling book HomoSapiens. Unlike our earthly co-residents though, "The ability to create an imagined reality out of words" is particular to human beings, and it has given us an extraordinary evolutionary advantage.
In other words, the fact that we developed the cognitive capacity to distinguish 'I' from 'the rest of them', has allowed our species to create amazing stories about human exceptionalism— 'human being, the steward of the animal kingdom'. These stories have been codified in religious scripts, constitutions and the law, and have allowed millions of people to cooperate in order to thrive as a species.
Cooperative narcissism is the binding thread of our culture, and it has allowed us to create complex social systems. We have developed tribes, and then feudal systems, which snowballed into Kingdoms, and finally—every megalomaniac's dream— Empires.
Our cultural ego trip has allowed us to change the world around us to our own liking. Sounds great right? But wait.
The Original Sour Lemon
Animals don't carry the weight of the self — Ekhart Tolle
Our evolved cognitive capacity gave us the ability to tell stories about the world and our place in it. This allowed for incredible levels of social cooperation, but also planted the seed of the self— a.k.a 'me'. Self has become such an incredible burden that we've had to come up with psychology and a bunch of odd medical diagnoses just to contain it (unsuccessfully if I may add).
No other living being in the animal kingdom has such a developed sense of identity as Homo sapiens. The ability to associate a story to a physical body (name, species, address, familial ties and possessions) is what forms identity (Joey, human being, 22 Sesame Street, member of the cricket clan and owner of five cows).
"Identity works thanks to the exclusion principle, other people don't have it." Ekhart Tolle said during an interview with Russel Brandt. "When identity seeks to assert its exclusiveness relative to those around it, Ego is born."
The ego is in fact a very fragile thing, because it lacks any sort of physical existence beyond the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Ego has to latch on to a combination of objects, physical traits and achievements in order to assert its existence. Not only do we determine our own worth by weighing our possessions (good looks, intellect, money) relative to others, we also depend on them to keep our ego alive and well.
So when you lose something that your ego considers to be fundamental to its narrative (ie. Earning money on medium because obviously you're a great writer), you experience it like an existential threat.
That's the reason why losing something we deeply care about can be so painful. It literally feels like you are starving your ego. You invested time and energy in having a bountiful harvest to feed your ego during winter time, and suddenly a drought comes.
Ego: I earn money on Medium and therefor I am a great writer.
Not ego: This mind and body complex writes on a tiny segment of cyberspace called Medium.
Turning Lemons Into Lemonade
Losing all my content and followers (not to mention all those claps) has left me feeling pretty empty. But it has also forced me to think about why I choose to publish my writing in the first place.
I started writing because it was fun. As simple as that. I loved the feeling of letting my mind go blank, and letting the ink flow from my pen— drenching notebooks with words which somehow made sense when read together. It was an unfiltered way for me to explore my feelings and assumptions.
But why do I share my writing on the internet?
Here's where things get a little tricky. I believe in the value of communication, and I believe that my content has a purpose beyond entertainment. I write because I believe in people and the power of conscious imagination.
But ego is like a sneaky little sister walking into your closet when you least expect and walking away in your high heels. If you get distracted, it will quickly take ownership of anything you are striving towards — regardless of the cause itself. Hence, somewhere along the way, writing became about claps, followers and money.
So now, I get a second chance at choosing what I want to focus on as a writer— authenticity, compassion, light-hearted humour and a love for communication in all its forms.
Ego: I write for external validation and to earn money.
Not Ego: I write for the love of communication and to encourage mindful living. Success is a by-product of authenticity.
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” — Maya Angelou