Trapped By Your Ego?

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The most radical, pervasive, and earth-shaking transformation would occur simply if everybody truly evolved to a mature, rational, and responsible ego, capable of freely participating in the open exchange of mutual self-esteem. There is the ‘edge of history.’ There would be a real New Age.  – Ken Wilber –

It’s a gorgeous Spring Saturday in 1997…

I’m out in Central Park as the mid-afternoon sun-beams down on me and my personal-training client, Sam.  I’m dressed for action.  Sneakers, black tights, a t-Shirt and a cap.  I’ve just finished running 6-miles with Sam and now I’m busy guiding him through a fierce bout of core work on a corner patch of the Sheep’s Meadow.  We’re both having the time our lives.

Well, actually, he’s hating my guts in a loving, slightly masochistic way.

And then, it happens.

Strolling slowly by, a woman glances over and then double-takes.  It’s a former colleague.  A seventh-year associate at the firm where, days ago, I was an attorney.  Needing confirmation, she ambles over dressed to the casual-weekend nines.  I imagine what’s going through her mind.

“What a shame.”

My spirit crashes.  I’m mortified.  Ego obliterated.

Only the judgment isn’t coming from her, but from me.

Fact is, even though I loved my new life after leaving the law, it look me years to fully morn the loss of power and prestige that accompanied my former life.  In fact, well into owning my first fitness-center, I still introduced myself as a fitness-entrepreneur and former big-firm securities lawyer and often dreaded running into people from my past professional life.

Getting over this perceived hit to my societal status and ego, though, wasn’t so much about time as it was about attitude.

As I began to succeed in the lifestyle business, more and more of my former friends and colleagues took an interest in the path I was creating.

Rather than asking “why,” they began asking “how.”

And that made me feel great.

But, until I truly took a step back and began to reflect regularly on what mattered to me most in life, I couldn’t get completely comfortable with the path I had chosen.

There’s no doubt, even though I consider myself a very giving and compassionate person, I am still human and have a very real ego, so attaining some level of outward success and recognition helped.  And receiving notes, e-mails and letters from people all over the world whose lives have, in some way, been touched by the actions I’ve taken, businesses I created or words I’ve shared makes me feel great.

Do these reminders help keep me doing what I’m doing?  Sure.

But, they are the icing, not the cake.

Some 800 years ago, physician to the sultan of Egypt and rabbinical scholar Moses ben Maimonades or Rambam as he was known, laid out a description of the levels of giving and their relative merit.  This came to be known as Rambam’s ladder and the top rung on that ladder was giving anonymously without desire for recognition or thanks.

I am a believer in Rambam’s Ladder and actually have felt the purest sense of fulfillment in giving, even the smallest things, without recognition.  Because, in the end, adulation is nice, but it just doesn’t get you all the way there.

So, where does that resolve come from?

Where do we find the ability to weather the raised eyebrows and perceived loss of status?  Three words.

Strength – In – Meaning.

The more strongly what I do resonates with who I am, the more able I am to look at and be in the world with a sense of purpose, self-assured radiance that somehow tells me and those around me I am doing what I am here to do and there’s no greater professional grace than that.

It buffers you from those would detract from that journey. It’s not a complete solution…but, man does it help!

So, I’m curious, ever experience anything similar?

How’d you handle it?

Let’s discuss…

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21 responses

21 responses to “Trapped By Your Ego?”

  1. Hi Jonathan – Authentic and raw truth for all of us – even those who won’t admit. In order to vanquish the ego, we have to be working on and believe in something we deem bigger than ourselves. Even then, ego will seek to clash and vanquish. But the purely larger than (my) life, painfully sweet causes and reasons not only make work seem less like work, but dispense with the ego-rific handily. Purpose trumps ego. Every time.

  2. Rudolf says:

    I know the feeling you had in 1997. Some people still judge me that I threw away promising career at Accenture in Prague for a job in smaller town few years ago. When they ask I always tell them that life balance is worth it (and finding life purpose as well). I usually get blank faces, I bet they think that I turned new-agey guy or got scared of big corporate world. Their opinions do not matter much. It is also sort of filter, if people respond well I know there might be interesting person to talk about. My ego still lets me know sometimes that it is there but it seems to be getting weaker and weaker. 🙂 Maybe it can see that I have my resolve, that I am much happier, that I know what it means to have a life purpose and to enjoy the journey. 🙂

  3. Judy Martin says:


    First, great WIlberian quote – I’m a fan.

    I feel what you wrote about is the single most important topic to be addressed in any kind of career transition. It is the most intimidating obstacle.

    Our egoic-self is that little voice that questions asking, “the nerve of you to think that your decision to go against the grain of our traditional 9-5 role is the higher path for your life, that you can impact your little part in the world – and still be successful outside societal mandates.”

    Which then leads to monkey-mind central, a spiraling of doubt, and the need for acceptance by our peers. It all impedes progress and creativity.

    In your last paragraph you write about professional grace being fed by an inner sense of purpose, and the outward glow of self-assured radiance. It was beautifully put.

    Many stories of ego-death, here’s one anecdote.

    Shortly before 9/11, I took a break from being on local TV – to doing radio. Many – and I mean many of my TV peers thought this a step down. But for god’s sake – I was a NYC reporter for a national show that ran on NPR. Rarely did I fail to get that line in when people asked me why I hadn’t been on the tube.

    Why did it bother me not to be on TV – insecurity – vanity – attachment to image and being seen. National radio was more difficult – small fish in a big sea. It was humbling.

    How did I handle it?
    I had to work harder, but I was finally reporting on business, human capital in the workplace and work life issues – my passions. I read tomes on work life everything, dove deeper into self-contemplation and meditation, and was volunteering on a regular basis. The later had me thinking more of others (instead of my junk) and simply made me feel good.

    Eventually I came to realized that I was living my passion. Nothing was more important than that. Now my elevator speech doesn’t focus so much on who I have been – but what I’m passionately doing now – and BTW – “how can I support you?”

  4. It’s taken years for me to get my ego under control…not that it doesn’t pop up from time to time! It’s a matter of being aware, looking for and finding fulfillment inside myself; there always seems to be trouble looking for fulfillment outside. When I step back at look at whatever it is I’m doing and it feels good, that feeling outweighs any ego conflict every time.

  5. Hey Jonathan

    Great post! I can still remember a life changing event when my daughter helped me to realize that my ego was actually way bigger than I knew. It wasn’t until that moment in time that I saw that side of myself the others did. I’ve been grateful ever since.

  6. Chef Keem says:

    Thanks for this post (and your blog), Jonathan.

    Three years ago, I had a successful small food business and I got married to a lovely woman. Then I struck a bad business deal, and my new wife became very ill. The stress over mounting debts and the ongoing deterioration of my wife’s health brought me often to the brink of giving up and saying to myself, “I can’t take anymore of this!”. But then there was this inner voice asking, “Really? Are you sure?” And I realized that I’m allowing that “story” of “how much I can take” to limit my capabilities of giving and loving. When I let go of this story, there’s still much more energy left for compassion and hope. I find myself surprised at how much more I “can take” and how this new energy transmutes by frustrations into a heightened sense of purpose in my life: I am supposed to learn to love better.

    Who am I to limit my loving and giving abilities? These are qualities given to me by a higher authority, spirit, or whatever one wants to call it. It seems like the more I recognize (and dismiss) the “stories” coming from my ego – the stronger, happier and more resourceful I get.

    I think the subconscious yearning to love more and better is the cause for our life-changing decisions. Other people see only the surface – they wonder why we give up a great career or stay in a relationship that seems to destroy everything we’ve worked for. They say, “What a shame!”, but they don’t know how profoundly rewarding our experiences are – until they have their own breakthroughs.

    I often think that the “story of my life” is nothing but bad pulp fiction in desperate need of rewriting. (Your SXSW talk lingers in my mind…)

  7. Norman Dacanay says:


    Excellent on introspection…and finding motivation/inspiration through ones own experiences

    On a technical note, your RSS feed for this site seems to have a glitch in it as I am not receiving any feeds from your channel

  8. Hi Johnathan,

    This is the first time I’m commenting on your blog, but it’s actually the first time I’m commenting on any blog at all. And I do read a lot of blogs (yours being a favourite).

    This post of yours has truly moved me to share a brief account of my experience. Thanks for writing this, and thanks for your blog in general.

    Unlike many career renegades, I’ve never been in a 9-5 corporate anything. I guess I’m relatively still quite young. A couple of years ago, I decided to apply for medical school. It took me a year’s worth of effort and mental preparation – a 7 hour long entrance exam; GPA and portfolio submissions; and a gruelling series of 10 (mini) interviews.

    I still maintain that I didn’t work nearly as hard as I should have, but I was successful. I moved to a different city, out of home for the first time, and I thought I was on the way to becoming a doctor. I had a countless number of well-wishes, congratulations, and hands patting my back. I also thought I was on the way to fulfilling a real dream of my father’s.

    Six months into the course, everything started falling apart. Beyond some devastating personal circumstances, I landed up in hospital because of an illness and surgery-gone-wrong, and as the cliche goes, my short little life flashed before my eyes. It took a long time for me to come to terms with my circumstances, and I finally made the decision to drop out of medical school, as opposed to starting again this year.

    For me, medicine had become about diving into a career that would ultimately give me an identity, as opposed to me forging my own identity and bringing it forth into a career. Or life in general.

    I’ve had my highs and lows since, but I’m not too afraid to admit that my ego still throws me around A LOT. I feel the exact punches-in-the-gut that you allude to in your post. Whilst I didn’t have to downsize a lifestyle or anything like that, there were a massive number of people who had great expectations from me, and put me on a pedestal because of the career I had stepped into.

    I’m still finding (or creating) my purpose with enough clarity to believe in myself a bit more consistently. It’s been tough, and it still is. Your post, however, has infused a very subtle but timely sense of hope in me that I can still find my “strength in meaning”.

    Thank you,


  9. Norman Dacanay says:

    just checked my berry…the whole RSS thing has cleared up

    keep up the great posts

  10. Ann says:

    I follow a lot of blogs for a lot of different reasons. Yours always beg reflection and I like that. While it is pleasant to hear cute stories about other people’s lives, play voyeur into their world, they do nothing to move my own life forward. Yours does. Where is my ego? Am I kind, deep and companionate? What is my contribution to the world? Thank you for giving me a starting block to progress in small measure each time I read your blog.

  11. Duff says:

    Great stuff, Jonathan. The quote by Wilber just highlights how difficult the transformation to a mature ego is (having worked for the man and seen his shadow as big as his light). But every bit helps. And recently I’ve been struggling with this exact thing, in that my path is pointing in the opposite direction of worldly success. Keep on keepin’ on I guess….

  12. David Cain says:

    “Only the judgment isn’t coming from her, but from me.”

    That right there is huge.

    I used to be so afraid of what people would think of me, but what I was really afraid of was what I thought about what they were thinking.

    You can’t really experience someone else’s thoughts, so they can’t cause a bad experience for you. It’s always your own judgments that hurt.

    Great post Jonathan.

  13. Great post Jonathan! I can really relate to your story as I too struggled with the head-games for a very long time in deciding whether to leave the corporate world to go out on my own.

    For one thing, over the years I (being mild-mannered, female and blonde…yes, that stereotype still exists) found that people were often dismissive of me until they discovered I had a degree in physics and was an engineer. In my mind, my engineering title was my ticket to being taken seriously as a professional and being seen as “intellectually relevant.”

    Another issue was my fear that people would think that I had been forced out…not that I left of my own volition. Who in their right mind would voluntarily leave a secure engineering career with a prestigious high-tech firm to start from scratch, right? “They” would surely assume that my calling myself a consultant/life coach was just a cover-up for being unemployed. What the hell is a “life coach” anyway?

    What helped me come to terms with these ego issues was when I finally realized that helping others improve their lives was far more important to me than what label I used to describe myself professionally or how others might be judging me.

    I’m really glad you wrote this post because this topic is rarely discussed in books on career change or starting a business, yet these ego issues can be serious obstacles to creating the life and work that our souls yearn for.

  14. This is so important.

    My career is about six years strong at this point. The most recent four years were spent working hard at the rat race and rewarded me with solid perks, nice compensation, bigger challenges and impressive-sounding titles.

    Capturing those trophies felt good and fed my ego. Still, I noticed I was spending a huge portion of my life in the service of my bosses’ imaginations. I’m much more enamored of my own imagination.

    Solution? Quit my job, be my new boss, serve my imagination as my full time job. I don’t think I would have been able to take that plunge at earlier phases of my development either because of lack of preparedness financially and creatively or simple attachment to ego-driving fluff. The evolution takes time and it’s important: I know more, I’m not a starving student any longer and I’ve had time to put the ego stuff into perspective relative to what I truly want.

  15. Joe Hughes says:

    Put simply, “What other people think about me is none of my business.” Repeat it to yourself and think about it…It makes a tremendous amount of sense.

  16. Judy Martin says:


    Great piece of advice.

    Put simply, “What other people think about me is none of my business.”

    Jonathan this has been a great thread.

  17. Jonathan,
    We were introduced to this idea a few years back by a rabbi, this idea of the top rung on the ladder as giving anonymously without desire for recognition or thanks, and it has changed our lives. It’s really hard to practice sometimes because it really makes you feel the presence of your ego. But on a practical level, it solves many problems, and has changed our life.
    Warmest Regards,
    Mary Louise Penaz

  18. Jordans says:

    loved the usage of the WIlberian quote =)

  19. Mike says:

    Nice article but your ego will always be there… it just becomes better at hiding.

    e.g. “I’ll be more evolved and not tell people I’m giving to charity”… well hate to tell you but that is the ego even more so than ever!

    The reality is that trying to reduce one’s ego is a ever more subtle trick.

    The next step most people make is to then say “OK, I admit I have an ego after all this work on removing my ego” (however secretly their ego is craving being “evolved”).

    The best thing to do is to just be yourself and forget this ego trickery! The ego is brilliant at making us think it has reduced itself but in reality it just becomes ever more subtle.

    To admit one is egotistical is egotisitical in itself… their is no winning in this sense.

  20. Mike says:

    Ego: “Hurray, I’m at the top of Rambam’s ladder”… oops!

  21. Sneakers says:

    Thats a pretty creepy pic lol