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What Is Your Ego Built On?
What happens when you realize you're moving out of Manhattan
Over dinner last night Marisa (my fiancée) decided to drop a bombshell comment that would linger far after the sausage, peppers, and sweet potatoes were finished. In her defense, it was a casual remark that, until reading this, she likely had no idea made such an impact.
“What are we going to do with our last summer in New York?”
First off, it is by no means a forgone conclusion that we are moving out of the city once our lease ends next May. Or maybe it is and I’ll be the last to find out. Either way, the comment caused a rush of panic of all I would lose. The museums, the nightlife, the bodegas, the wild mix of people, the parties, the restaurants… It’s not that I am regularly taking advantage of all these things I just listed. It’s that I could do any of those things if I wanted to. Or even more importantly, people think that I am.
That’s when I started to realize how much a part of me has been built on being a person that lives in New York City. When we were recently traveling around Italy, it felt absolutely fantastic to answer “where do you live?” with “Manhattan”. There was an instant mix of recognition, appreciation, envy, and connection from people half a world away. How could I not love that? How cool am I!
It gets worse. I also lie about where I live in Manhattan itself.
When I talk to people who know the city and they ask “oh nice what part?” I answer: “Tribeca.” I don’t live in Tribeca. I live two blocks west of Tribeca in Battery Park City, but the former is known for celebrities, amazing restaurants, and converted lofts, while the latter is known for baby strollers and designer dogs. Not only do I want to be associated with what I consider to be the best city in the world, but what I consider to be the best part of the best city in the world.
Clearly there’s an issue. With Marisa’s comment, I began to ask: who am I without it? How much of my ego is built upon not only New York City, but other ephemeral, vain, fragile concepts?
There’s a great quote: “no one values your material possessions more than you do.” As an extension: “no one thinks you look cooler than you do.” In this case, no one else values the fact that I live in New York more than I do. I’ve created a world where it’s very likely that the thing I value highly really doesn’t matter much to anyone else. Whether that’s a problem or not depends on how much of my self-worth is built upon me thinking that they do.
Foundations of Sand and Rock
If we have any confidence or self-worth at all, it is most likely built upon a series of accomplishments and experiences that have shown us we are worthy in some degree of the life we lead, the friends we have, and the future we see for ourselves. I would hope most of us are built on solid foundations. But what parts of our ego are actually built on sand, not rock?
As always, it is easier to identify in other people than it is yourself. I was recently walking down the Hudson River path around sunset. For the uninitiated, this is no ordinary strip of pavement. Once the weather gets warm enough, this becomes more of a catwalk than a running route. Between Tribeca and Chelsea every guy seems to have forgotten their shirt and every girl seems to compete on who can wear less fabric. Running: it’s a spectator sport.
On this particular night, within all this madness, walked one man with a strut you would not have believed. Yes, he had skin like raw pizza dough, multiple bald spots, and black New Balance referee shoes. But more importantly he had on a t-shirt that said “Google Engineering: Seal Team 6”. This man wanted you to know that not only was he a developer at Google, but he was the *best* developer at Google. And because he knew that you now knew that, he was the most smug, confident man on a boardwalk screaming with ego.
There are some people that drive a Ferrari and when they pull up to a restaurant they hop out, lock the door, and walk inside. Another Ferrari driver pulls up, slowly gets out, makes eye contact with as many people as possible, stretches a bit, and saunters into the restaurant. One enjoyed the ride from A to B and moved on. The other wishes very badly that they could take their Ferrari into the restaurant with them. It’s a big part of who they are.
Finding your pressure points
Now comes the tough question: who is Google-man without Google? Who is Ferrari-man without his Ferrari? When we talk about finding our weak points, we are not searching for every little inch of vanity in our lives. We are instead looking for aspects of ourselves that make up an undue portion of our self-worth and asking: “who would I be if I didn’t have this?”
Looking for suggestions? Ask people you know if there are topics you manage to bring up a lot. Or when they are brought up, your voice changes, like people who went to great colleges and always seem to pause for two seconds before saying it.
You can also ask yourself these questions. Is your ego overly-built on:
A school you got into based on your accomplishments as a 17 year old?
A certain physical attribute that might fade with age?
A certain physical attribute that has already faded but you are trying to hang onto?
A brand-name company you do/did work for?
The accomplishments of your kids, parents, or siblings?
The fact that you do/don’t make a lot of money?
Accolades collected 5/10/20 years ago?
Where you live?
The size of your house?
The type of car you drive?
Fix it before it breaks
Finding your weak points might seem like asking for trouble. But in doing so, you are actually defending yourself from unexpected shocks and ensuring that who you are is built on solid ground. Because once you do find the sand, you can start filling it in with concrete. What from your past can be a great memory but not the central part of who you are? What new accomplishments can you achieve? How can you age gracefully? How can material possessions improve your life but not be your life?
I certainly don’t have the answer yet, but based on watching people I admire, the best people don’t posture, and they don’t overplay any one part of themselves. There is a core solidity and comfortability no matter what situation they are in. I think these days people call that authenticity.
My New York City problem remains unsolved. If don’t figure it out, there’s a strong chance my time outside of the city will be tinged with longing, or at least a lack of acceptance. Might I be the person who keeps saying “when we lived in the city…” or “this food is good but there’s a Thai place in the East Village…"? I’d officially be intolerable.
I want to get to a point where someone can ask me “where do you live” and I can answer confidently “Moodus, Connecticut. It’s in the middle of nowhere and I’m still interesting dammit!” I also want to uncover the other pockets of sand that underpin the foundations of my self-image. Here’s to the tough questions ahead…