A couple years ago, I wrote of an Ego Death I was experiencing, which was precipitated by the sale of the company I’d founded, my relinquishment of the CEO role inside a publicly traded company and subsequent retirement from business at age 37. As is the way of the internet, thousands of people loved the post, while another set of people hated it and thought I was being a privileged, egotistical, tone deaf dick. They’re at least right that I’m privileged (white, male, American, wealthy, cis-gendered, english speaking, etc.), but that’s a full topic for another day. Perhaps everyone is right because that’s just how they feel. That’s fine by me.
What was important for me though, was to see my own reaction to the readers of the post, which I took as a way to see how my mind was still clinging to this or that. When former employees responded with vitriol that I was tone deaf, I was hurt. If my ego had died how could it hurt? And if the responses were in praise, how could someone who’s ego had died enjoy such praise?
Well it turns out one commenter, David, who is a buddhist practitioner as I am, was seeing my journey most clearly now that I look back. While there were was much wisdom in what he said — the following cuts to the chase:
Your ego didn’t die. What you did was make your ego healthy. You found a different self to replace your old self.
Perhaps that is what all of us are endeavoring to do who are “doing the work” as they say. Engaging in “self actualization” and “self improvement” activities are all inherently processes that says “my current self isn’t good enough/there are bad parts to it and I’d like to improve/replace those parts”. Perhaps one should wonder whether there is any fixed inherent “self” of ours anyway. Perhaps instead of improving or replacing, we should talk about stripping the self down a bit to something more simple, which it seems I’ve been doing.
Fast forward two years from that ego death experience to today, and I can see a lot more than I did before. Over these two years, I’ve spent much of it practicing Zen, training in hospice and have enjoyed/endured collectively over a month in total silent meditation. During this period there’s been no ego death feeling — it’s been a time of “becoming nobody” (side note: Ram Dass’ last book before his death bears this name).
I can see that David was right.
I find that a ‘new self’ has in fact been constructed — though, it feels more like a lot of ‘selfness’ has been stripped back to something more spartan, revealing something simpler, less fragile and less nuanced. It feels more like this self was already inside me and the process I’ve gone through was a chipping away of the bullshit/shell/cocoon/scraps that surrounded my idea of me which built up through early childhood trauma, boarding school, college and my career. What has been revealed seems to be a simpler, healthier, and more crystalline self.
If you’re curious as to who that is — first here are some things I’ve been shedding that don’t really feel a part of me anymore: the need for fame, gain, leadership of people; being in the hustle, being well networked, being on top of new technology; gaining social media followers, ensuring my opinions are heard widely (yes this post is ironic in that regard), and traveling to re-energize.
In their place, there aren’t necessary new things, but prior ways of being that have come back, like: spending days on end in nature, gardening, building things with my hands, reading, bird watching, and doing DIY around the house until exhaustion (the pic above is post-gutter cleaning!).
My world has gotten a lot smaller through this retirement and self simplification. No more ~100 employees. No more dozens of clients. No more press interviews or conference speaking slots. Perhaps it’s true for all of us during COVID that our worlds have gotten smaller — but for me it’s welcome. I don’t feel compelled to jet set. I don’t fear losing relevance. I don’t fear not having a career. I don’t judge myself for working in the yard with the landscaping crew when instead I could build a crypto empire. And I don’t find technology innovation to be inherently good anymore, as I can see that we cannot improve nature — but must be more careful not to destroy it. We are nature by the way. And the selves we choose to construct around this nature can be devastating…for us and the world.
For now — my self improvement will remain a self simplification so that I can do less harm in this world, as this grasping for fame, fortune and “special-self-stuff” can be the most toxic activity I (and we as a culture) engage in.
Thank you for reading. If you interested in more nuance around any of these points feel free to comment and I’ll respond.