Let’s talk about ego for a minute. I have one. YOU have one. In fact we ALL do, to one degree or another. From a young age, we start developing a sense of self, an identity of our own construction which is based on our beliefs about our abilities, appearances, personalities, talents and other external factors.
The ego is this notion ( a mental construct) we have about what our “real self” is. But the ego exists in our own heads, and is just that: a mental construct. You can’t touch it, you can’t see it, but you can definitely feel it when it’s hurt.
Egos are fragile, and are easily bruised.
Sometimes they grow in proportion to accomplishments, such as when someone gets their 15 minutes of fame and finds themselves acting with a sense of self-importance that incites people to refer to them as “you know, the guy with the hair and the inflated ego…”
And then there are those egomaniacs we all know who walk around thinking (and acting) as if they’re god’s gift to the world without having necessarily ever accomplished anything of note that could justify their douche-baggery.
While I wouldn’t put myself in the above categories, I WILL confess that for as long as I can remember, I too have had an ego. And as I entered the workforce in my youth, first in retail and then in the hospitality industry, I quickly learned that as long as you are providing a service, you and your ego are a prime target for the people you are “serving”, aka your customers.
I’ve had plenty of practice getting my ego bruised when being yelled at by the lady who can’t fit in the same sized jeans that she did in her teens, or when Joe Schmoe’s fries are cold because he was so busy talking, he forgot to eat them in time.
My ego and I go way back. As I grew older I caught on that making money was correlated with keeping my ego in check. And so, while I never got used to the fact that taking the occasional shit from customers was part of the perks of getting tips while waitressing or comission while working in retail, I did learn to smile, nod, curse in my head while not letting on how personally me and my ego were taking these unwarranted attacks.
I took comfort in dreaming that when I grew up and got a “real” job, I’d never have to put up with miserable customers again.
And then, ironically, I ended up in advertizing, which is an industry dominated by egos.
For one, you have the creatives (like me) whose egos are particularly vulnerable to criticism of their craft, yet who sell their creativity to the highest bidder. We have an artistic temperament, yet we also have to deal with clients, who are (unfortunately) the people with money who we must convince that our blood, sweat and creative tears are the best solutions to their problems. These clients, in turn, also have egos, and because they hold all the cards (aka money), they don’t like NOT getting their way.
Us creatives are judged ALL the time on our work and on our talents: by our coworkers, our bosses, and then, once our work makes it through endless rounds of modifications, changes and adjustments, the clients .
Our work (which is an extension of ourselves and takes a bit of our soul with it with each project we deeply invest in), gets prodded, pried, picked over, judged, evaluated, remarked upon, and endlessly modified every minute of every day.
Then, the days, weeks or even months of our work is seen in less than 2 seconds by the client, who will usually make comments that leave you scratching your head in confusion and go back to the drawing board to try and figure out how to change everything without actually changing everything.
Because everyone has eyes and our industry is subjective, this opens up the floodgates of EVERYONE, including their mother, their dog or their secretary giving their 2 cents and never ending comments on our work. 75% of our time is spent trying to come up with intelligent counter-arguments to client comments such as:
“We really like it, but can you change everything?”
“I know we said we wanted to represent a globe, but does it have to be ROUND”?
“We’re selling cat food, that’s true. But my daughter really likes puppies, so can we add a few in the ad?”
Or how about:
“I’d like to see the same thing, but prettier”. “I don’t like it, it doesn’t POP enough”. “This one’s a little too PUNCHY, can you make it less so?”
“Can you make the sun look colder?
“I know she’s the face of the brand, but can we put someone else’s face in? You know, like a Kardashian. Only blonder. She has to look intelligent though. But we can’t spend any extra budget on a new shoot. Can you MAKE a Kardashian in Photoshop? And then just put her in our pictures?”
Or how about: “We appreciate all the months of work you and your team put in, and I know we approved it all last week. But my babysitter had a look at it, and she thinks we should change everything. I agree. Can you present us a new campaign please? You have two days. Go.”
And so on….
Despite what my mother thinks, I CAN take criticism, IF it’s intelligent, argument-based and rational. What neither me nor my ego can handle are ridiculous, subjective, uneducated remarks that come from people with money to spend but no clue what they mean, and an inability to form rational, succinct arguments to back their whimsy. That’s when I can’t help but take it personally, and it’s what makes my ego want to cry each and every single time, even after years of dealing with it.
Of course I CAN’T help but take it personally when someone invalidates my profession, experience and work by assuming that they could do it too, just because they’ve heard of Photoshop and because they have eyes, a mouth from which they make sounds, and company money to waste.
I would never dream of telling a plumber, a teacher, an architect, or a doctor that their pipes should be laid a little to the left, or that their diagnosis is probably wrong because Dr. Seuss made a comment once that proved my real doctor wrong.
Sorry Doc, can I have a different diagnosis? I’m not really “feeling” yours…
So, I hope you understand why my ego and I sometimes go mental. Or at least DID, up until recently. Let me rewind.
During my yoga teacher training in India, one of the most important principles that was drilled into our heads was the notion that as a teacher, you must take yourself completely OUT of the equation when you are guiding your students through their practice.
It has nothing to do with YOU, and everything to do with THEM. There’s no place for your ego.
I eventually shifted my mindset from one of: “I hope I teach well today” to “How can I help?” As time went on and the training progressed, my ego stopped being a factor in how the classes were going, and my view of what was happening around me became less focused on MY role and MY performance, and more on what was actually in front of me: the students and their well-being.
I began to look at people less as obstacles to what I wanted to achieve (a flawless class) and more as individuals who were there to learn and grow. And over time, I began to feel this deep connection with everything and everyone around me, which in the dog-eat-dog, us-against-them mentality in my regular work-life simply did not exist.
After having experienced a whole lot of zen and being free of my ego, far from the world of daily psychological standoffs with clients and critics, I must admit I was terrified that as soon as I got back to work, “real-life” would take over and undo the sense of harmony and detachment I had tapped into in India. I was scared of coming back to a universe of ego cock-fights, after having been immersed in the ego-less world of yoga.
But then I DID come back, and things were different. Not because the clients or the industry had changed, but because I had.
The frantic pace with which I had previously approached my job, and watching people running around like chickens with their heads cut off just didn’t make sense anymore. I found myself calm in situations where I would have previously felt my blood boiling. I found myself not reacting to ridiculous client requests, but instead explaining calmly why they didn’t work, without becoming emotionally invested in the outcome.
I simply took myself out of the equation, and realized that these requests, these comments on the work, and these sometimes stupid questions had absolutely NOTHING to do with me. They have more to do with the person uttering them than the work itself or even what is being said.
Because once you stop taking everything personally and listen to what people are saying without making it all about you, something interesting happens.
You start looking beyond the words people are using, and start seeing what they are actually trying to say. People will tell you a lot about themselves if you can just look past your ego and listen.
That lady in Starbucks yelling at the barista because the café doesn’t carry gluten-free muffins? It has nothing to do with the coffee girl, and everything to do with the screaming lady. Maybe she’s sad. Maybe nobody listens to her in her life, or maybe she’s deflecting the loss of a loved one and projecting her grief onto muffins and someone getting paid minimum wage, because it’s the only thing she CAN take her problems out on.
The guy on the plane who keeps calling summoning the flight attendant every five minutes to ask for things he’s capable of getting on his own? He’s not actively out to piss her off, and most likely has no idea that she wants to shove the call button up his ass. Maybe he’s going through a divorce, and misses being taken care of. Or maybe no one has ever been so nice to him as her, and he simply likes the sound of her voice.
People are all different, and we all have our own stories. Once you stop imagining that all these stories revolve around YOU, both you and your ego will breathe easier coast through life in a much more peaceful state of mind.
And so, let me tell you about the day I knew I had lost my ego.
We were presenting to a very large retail client we had been working with for almost a year. By now I had understood that this client will never ever approve anything in the first round, he doesn’t like it when people disagree with him, and he’s rarely capable of backing up his “opinion” with rational explanations. Coincidentally, he’s also 25 and has one of the most inflated egos I’ve ever seen.
Near the end of the presentation, having run out of things to pick apart, he found himself face-to-face with the very last image in the proposed layouts. It was a picture of shrimp: beautiful, juicy, delicious looking shrimp. I was getting hungry just looking at it.
And then he said:
“Yeeeeah…. I’m not sure about this image. Not feeling it”.
“Okay, no problem. Can you tell us what you don’t like about it?”
“Errr, I don’t know. I’m just not that into it. I can’t give you a specific reason”.
“Okay, but having a reason would help us a lot when we look for a new shrimp image. We need to understand what’s not working in it”.
“Errrr. It’s just that…ummmm. The shrimp doesn’t…. it isn’t…. you know.”
“No, not really. Is it the perspective you don’t like? Is it too bright? Too cropped? Do you want to see MORE shrimp? Or maybe fewer?”
“No. I know! I know what it is!”
And as we waited with bated breath to find out what’s “wrong” with the shrimp, we got our answer:
The shrimp looks too… 80s.
Where once upon a time my ego would have wanted to commit suicide at the sheer absurdity of this comment, this time, my ego tried really hard not to burst out laughing. So, biting down on my tongue to prevent from doing just that, I put my most serious face on and said: “Yes, I see”.
Because you see, this kid wasn’t even ALIVE in the 80s, and I’m pretty sure he’s never even eaten shrimp. His comment had nothing to do with my shrimp image, and everything to do with him trying to make himself appear relevant. Maybe he’s just insecure about his young age, or whatever other issue he felt the “shrimp is too 80′s” comment would resolve for him.
So, I’ll leave you with this: whether you’re a flight attendant, a barista, a waitress, a writer, photographer, teacher, designer, or have a job in any field where you are providing a service to others, you will inevitably be faced with the guy who is yelling at YOU because he spilled his mocha grande latte on his brand new shirt and he has an important meeting he has to face with a stain.
But his stain, or the retro shrimp, or the absentee gluten free muffins you’re taking shit for have nothing to do with YOU.
So the next time your ego wants to rise up to defend itself against such affronts, take a breath and ask yourself if it’s really necessary, then drop it. Or, at least, learn to put it aside for the moment, and then go ahead and have a good, long laugh. Or maybe just eat some shrimp.