Several years ago, I was looking for places to live in Madison. I was in no hurry to move because I was living with some friends at the time. I must have looked at a hundred places throughout the greater Madison area. All the usual considerations played their parts; price, location amenities, to name a few.

At one particular showing, the realtor was walking me through the apartment and performing the typical sales technique which had become all too familiar to me. The construct of which is as follows.

As I enter the room, he mentions one or two positive things about the space. “Don’t you love that window? It lets in so much light and makes the room seem much larger than it actually is.”

Devoid of any positive commentary, he’ll mention something about the entire unit. He’ll use body-blocking to misdirect your attention from that crack on the wall, which clearly indicates the structure was constructed poorly or perhaps not allowed to settle before the drywall was put up.

If he needs to fill some time, he might downshift into small talk. Asking if you’re new to the area, or perhaps ask a few potentially personal questions. He’ll later refer to your answer and relate them somehow to the apartment if he can. It’s another way to get you to see yourself living there. Making breakfast in the kitchen, inviting friends over. Pointing out obvious locations for your TV. Picturing it is one step closer to living it. And for the realtor, that means a sale.

If your disinterest is obvious, he might reach beyond the space, and start to accentuate the surrounding neighborhood, schools, churches, etc. All good realtors do this effortlessly.

On this particular occasion, I was ready to leave almost the moment I walked in. I can’t say exactly why I just wasn’t interested. Aware of my disinterest, as the tour ended, the realtor followed me outside. After locking up the door to the unit, he accompanied me to my car. He paused, turned and offered his last pitch. “You know, this is the second-highest elevation in all of Dane County.”

This, my friends, is what’s called “playing to the ego.”

The Oxford American Dictionary describes ego as “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.” It continues “…the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity.”

I often describe ego as our own sense of elevation. Since, after all, we all try to be high. Not in the illegal-drug sense of the word, but in the literal elevation sense that my friend, the realtor, tried to tap into with his sales pitch.

We’ve always seen higher elevation as an advantage and a clear statement of importance over those who cannot achieve such height. Houses that reside on higher elevation typically sell for more. Taller people tend to be respected and often have a leadership advantage over shorter people. Vehicles and buildings have gotten taller and bigger and are considered a statement of one’s wealth and importance. After the advent of the elevator, buildings grew taller and taller as we sought to close the gap between ourselves and what’s found above.

Clearly, there are exceptions to our allure of elevation, but let’s put aside Napoleon and sports cars for a moment.

What’s our deal with height?

Height is an extension of our ego. It’s the part of our personality that tells us to look up for the important things and step on and disregard what lies beneath us. It’s why throughout the course of time we began to stand upright. It’s why we keep the larger bills on the outside of the fold.

People who are discouraged, saddened or humiliated, often hang their head in shame, as if they were unworthy to even look up in the general direction of aspiration and positiveness.

People with inflated egos are often figuratively and literally described as turning up their noses. As if the pure elevation of a person’s nostrils states clearly their stature amongst the lesser of the species.

Ego, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, nor do I claim it should be defined as such. But like anything of varying size it can get inflated and distort our inner balance accordingly.

My introduction to my own ego happened over lunch a few years ago. I was visiting with one of my best friends in Madison. She recently started working at her new job, where she was in charge of hiring her staff. She was seeking some advice about employing her team, allocating salaries, etc. Over lunch, she abruptly stopped herself in mid-sentence and said: “Oh my god, I forgot to mention, I was interviewing this person and they totally name-dropped you!”

I remember my reaction was that of surprise and curiosity. Of course, this was after my friend and I laughed uncontrollably for some time about the idea of my new found status.

After the details of the conversation had been shared, I began to realize that things were changing for me, whether I liked it or not. I no longer had the full grasp of the anonymity to which had given me comfort in the past. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with the added attention, but I knew I had some time to figure it all out, after all, this was only one mention of my name, let’s not blow things out of proportion.

For the next few years, I pushed myself even further, professionally. I tried to involve myself in as many activities and organizations I could. Simply put, I self-promoted. As the circles of the town we live in shrank, inevitably my ego grew in an indirectly proportionate manner. I remained unaware.

I was asked to speak at some of the local colleges, then other companies in other towns and other states asked me to speak as well. Self-importance was at an all time high. My ego was validated with every future occurrence of recognition. Going to the coffee shop, recognized by the Barista. Out on the town, approached by the cute girl who knew me as a president, vice president or just “that guy.” I was fitting in and standing out. I won’t lie it felt great.

Then, as life often does, it came full circle for me. Again, over lunch. (What can I say, I get a lot done over the lunch hour). This time, I was the advice seeker. The friend and the location had changed, but ego, unchecked, was helping itself to the side-order of fries on my plate as it sat next to me. Bloated. Indifferent. Oozing of saturated fat.

I was explaining the plights of life, as my friend sat soaking it all in. There was the sense that a good exchange of ideas would soon follow. Anticipating this, I found my interest peaking as I provided the parameters of the conversation to follow.

He sat, sipping his beer, incrementally, as I filled the discussion by mapping out what — at the time — seemed to be a maze of complicated details. After I had felt comfortable that the merit of my message was communicated properly, I sat in silence and awaited a response.

He took a deep breath, tilted his head to the side. Bobbing it back and forth a few times as if he was literally bouncing his reply within his mind to rattle off any inaccuracies. He then clutched his hands together, extended his two index fingers and covered his lips, as if to withhold the words from escaping from his mouth prematurely. He looked downward avoiding eye contact as not to be influenced by outside forces as he compiled what would be his final thoughts.

I began to worry.

You see, my friend is two things, blunt and intelligent. When he speaks, his tone is absolute, concise, complete and backed in an intellectual foundation. You can ask him to expound on his responses, but he rarely does. Typically, he’ll reiterate the same simplistic response, perhaps elevating the strength in his voice, but not deviating from the original words at all. I often liken him to one of that fortune telling machines found at the carnival. No one can say for sure what’s going to get spat out, but when it does, you just take what you get, It’s absolute, and the mystery of the message does not often come with the explanation.

After the bobbing and clicking had subsided, he looked up. He said one-word “ego.” He continued. “…Dan, you’ve got an ego, and it’s getting in the way of you discovering the answer to your problem.”

My ego — surprised at the accusation to its existence — dropped the half-eaten fry, looked at me and shrugged its shoulders innocently.

Ouch! I didn’t expect that. Where did that come from?

I resisted the temptation to deny the bluntly stated infraction. I fell back in my chair, dropped my head and thought truthfully of the accusation. You see, my friend is smarter than me. When he speaks, I listen. He is also honest and tells me things I need to hear, not the things I want to hear, as all good friends should do.

Removing the instinctual and automatic shield from which such comments usually bounce off of, I continued to sit and think about what he suggested.

Crap! I concluded, he’s right. It was ego that kept me from really approaching this particular problem with clarity.

How, I thought, could I have let it get this far?

Originally when I decided to write about this topic, I thought of sighting the actions of another friend of mine. I had the usually long blog post ready to go. Then, before I could post it, I had that lunch with my friend. Completely unbeknownst to me, the aforementioned discussion made me aware that I have some work to do on my own ego before I can offer advice to anyone else on the topic.

A rewrite was required.

I’ll leave you with these final thoughts…

Ego isn’t evil, greed is not good, and yes it’s okay to consider yourself important. It’s not an easily obtained dichotomy. Know what you contribute, your strengths, bolster them within yourself, but don’t hold on to the idea you’re without fault and be aware that, in some ways, you’re insignificant.

Balance is found in the weight of an empty glass that everyone has had an opportunity to drink from.

Importance, leadership, respect, these things are obtained, not self-declared. I certainly cannot suggest to you, the reader, what my friend suggested to me. I don’t know you as well as I know myself. Only you can ask such things of yourself. But don’t be surprised if, one day, you’re eating lunch and notice a few fries missing. It could be your inflated ego that’s to blame. If nothing else, I’ve learned that egos love fries.

Take it down a notch.

About TheoryThree Interactive
TheoryThree Interactive is an Interactive Studio based in Madison, WI 
We design and develop digital products — mobile and web

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