WHEN WE WANT to remember something difficult, we often put the thing we need to recall into a song. That’s why it’s easy to remember things like the alphabet, the periodic table (if you were one of those kids) and a pizza delivery number from 1992.
Pulitzer Prize-winning musician Kendrick Lamar is no stranger to this concept, and he has made it easy for all of us to remember one of life’s most vital lessons: “Be humble, sit down”.
Despite the weight and power of this message, it’s something I still need to remind myself of every damn day. Like anyone, I have an ego. Yet staying humble and keeping my ego in a healthy space is a daily practice, because for a large part of my life my ego was not very healthy at all.
The signs of an unhealthy ego read like a list of regrettable things I did as younger man, and some things I still struggle with today. For a start, I was overly competitive. I couldn’t stand someone else getting something I wanted and I was the worst at team sports. I’d gnash my teeth when people I admired won awards or got shows I wished I was hosting. It was so bad that I had to stop playing pool at the pub because I transformed into an absolute prick of a person.
An unhealthy ego makes it difficult to accept criticism, and that has always been rough for me. To be clear, I’m only where I am in life because smarter people than I have told me that what I’m doing isn’t good enough, and I’ve been lucky enough to then adjust in the direction they guide me. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that when I get given notes or critique on my performance, I have a petulant version of me who can’t bear to be told what to do, struggling to escape a headlock as I attempt to stop him from using my mouth to say something.
My unhealthy ego can give me a sense of superiority. I discovered this when I was walking some of the steps I take to stay sober. I discovered that so many of my problems were caused by a sense of being better than others, a feeling that’s dominated my life. It was horrible.
This unfortunately extended to frequently failing to consider the feelings of others. Yeah, I know. It was what I knew at the time. Now I know better. I try to do better and I do my best to remember that I’m not better than anyone else and nobody else is better than me.
One of the worst aspects of having an unhealthy ego is that you need external validation or approval to feel okay. I didn’t have the sense of worth inside me to feel okay. This put me in relationships with romantic partners and even colleagues that left a lot to be desired. I’ve been told I could be icky, clingy and not great to be around. Every now and then that trait still pops up—especially when I’m stressed out—so staying on top of it is super-important.
That leads to dealing with failure. There was a time when failure would utterly destroy me. The failure would then prevent me from trying anything new. Thank goodness I learned how to get a hold of that one, because I’m now able to feel the disappointment of failure, and then take the time to learn what I did wrong. To take the time to appreciate the things that I learned from the failure.
An example of this would be when I met a beautiful, fascinating woman at a party in Venice Beach. We hit it off really well then made a date to see each other again. After the first dinner, she never texted me again. Totally ghosted. I was disappointed for sure, and yet instead of making it mean “I’m worthless” I was able to see it as “good intel”. After all, I didn’t want to pursue someone or be involved with someone that wasn’t as interested as I am. That reframe got me back out the door, and off to get out among the single people once again.
So, what’s a healthy ego look like? What am I working towards?
A healthy ego looks like measured self-confidence. The ability to hold boundaries, a solid sense of self-worth, the ability to handle criticism, and the power to not only set realistic goals and achieve them but also to enjoy the success of those goals in a healthy way. Knowing where you’re going is vital with anything we do.
Coming home from our summer break, we drove from the Sunshine Coast to Sydney. One thousand kilometres in the same direction, sure, but probably 10,000 minor adjustments to lane position and speed along the way. Achieving meaningful change like cultivating a healthy ego isn’t a quick fix. It’s about constantly catching the old patterns and adjusting before you run yourself and your family off the road.
To come back to the words of Kendrick Lamar, this is where humility comes in.
David, the incredibly wise man that guides me on my journey of sobriety told me soon after I stopped drinking, “Find humility before humility finds you”.
And let me tell you I did not want to be found. After I got divorced, humility found me cowering under the coffee table in my one-bedroom rental apartment and dragged me out into the street in front of my neighbours, me kicking and screaming “why is this happening to me?” the whole way. For me, humility is the way out of awful situations just like that.
As soon as I feel the flood of rejection when someone’s offering a critique of my work in the hopes of making me better, I know to take a big breath in and suck that feedback down into my lungs like a humble pie-flavoured vape. By the time I’ve breathed back out, I’m on a path to being better at a job that I already thought I was pretty good at. Not a bad result.
This morning at the gym, after warming up I got under the barbell and tried to squat the same weight I did before a week off for the aforementioned holiday. You may already know where this is going.
Unfortunately, I had to hurt myself too many times trying to lift things I just can’t lift safely to know that I have to be humble about what my body can do today.
So, I swapped out the plates on the bar for some lighter ones, even doing less reps than last time. But I did my sets safely with a full range of motion, with the humility that those sets will signal my body to adapt and soon enough I’ll be back where I was.
I wouldn’t want to be inauthentic with you, so I have to point out that most of these things are pretty simple to adjust for me—except for when it comes to my wife Audrey. She gets a version of me that’s more intimate and vulnerable than I am with anyone else on the planet, and for whatever reason she also gets a version of me who struggles to keep his unhealthy ego at bay sometimes. It’s not great, it’s not all the time, but it does happen.
I have hope, though, because life is about progress not perfection. I learned how to play guitar. I learned how to snowboard (backwards), and I even learned how to roller skate. With practice I know I can learn how to do this too. And once I catch my unhealthy ego in the act, I just try to do the same as before.
Breathe, apologise if needed, be humble, and sit down.