You are not your popularity or your lack of it.
You are not the number of Likes on your Facebook feed.
You are not your credit score.
You are not the number of dates you went on.
You are not your ability to influence others to do the things you want them to do.
You are not your weight or your body image.
This past weekend, I performed in Lake Forest with a cast of some incredible storytellers. The story I chose to contribute was called "Big Fish and the Von Freeman Takedown" and illustrated (in brief) how I came to Chicago thinking I was some hot shit trumpet god and realized in a most unceremonious way how tiny and guppy-like I truly was. It's a lesson I routinely need reminding of—as I believe most great life lessons tend to be.
I look at young storytellers, improvisers, teachers and a former protege who jammed a few shivs in my spine to get ahead this past year and I see a desperate need for recognition and an almost non-stop creativity bursting forth to get it. A push to grow the successes they have and increase their effectiveness in their chosen professions. The spotlight is something they aggressively seek and the best lamp comes from truly exceptional work and artistry. For me, there is the conflicted emotions of great pleasure in their successes (most are in their thirties at this point) and this odd, niggling sensation poking at me.
And then, like a soft punch in the nutsack, it occurs to me: This isn’t about envy, this is about ego and the creeping feeling that as a man in my fifties, obsolescence is being forced upon me by those looking to occupy the space I have made mine for so long. It is the realization that the rollercoaster I'm on most of the time is the ascension to a place of status to a quick plunge to obscurity to another ride up a certain kind of hill and down again.
I believe (yes, but this isn’t one of those posts) that our job on this Earth is to:
• Do no harm.
• Make stuff.
• Learn from our mistakes.
• Train those who come after to replace us.
It’s that fourth one that suddenly has me looking all constipated. Being replaced is hard for the ego, both in the acknowledging that it is necessary and letting go. Mark my words, though, letting go of your place and moving over to give some room to those coming up from behind is not only the right thing to do but is inevitable.
When my pops retired, he went through a pretty bleak period of depression. He wouldn’t call it that but he’s a whole generation before, and that shit just didn’t fly back then. Nevertheless, he was listless, sat looking out the window all the time. He kind of planted himself and decided not to move. When he and I had one of our "Let’s go drive the trash to the dump” talks over a holiday, I determined that he simply felt useless. Purposeless. In the best way that I could, I suggested that he find new things to do—not hobbies necessarily, but things that felt useful.
Once, a woman complimented me by telling me she thought I was very youthful. I misheard her and thought she said I was very useful. I prefer the second to the first because youth goes away. I’s inevitable. Being useful? If you play it right, you can be useful 'til the day you croak. It takes a certain amount of self–reflection and a rejection of ego to step aside and make space for those who are hungry and ready to prove themselves. But being useful is easy.
You are not the size of your schwantz.
You are not the latest smart phone.
You are not fat free.
You are not your hair (or lack of it.)
You are not your self righteous morality.
You are not your condescending attitudes about pop culture.
At this point in life, I’d wager a guess that a solid 80 percent of any problems I have in my day to day is the fault of my ego and the creation of unrealistic expectations.
• After nearly thirty years of producing events and shows in Chicago, someone questions my choice or suggests an alternative? My ego flares up and both Wrath and Pride come to the fore
• My salty language gets criticized by someone more easily offended than myself. My ego cries out “Who the fuck are YOU?!”
• 95 percent of the fights (of which there really aren’t that many) between my wife and I occur because of my ego—it don’t like no bruising.
When our ego senses a threat—of replacement or loss of status or somehow becoming less important— tends to nudge us into behaving like assholes.
I once had a manager at the Public Radio Mines who was about 16 years younger than I. We worked together creating events and, as my light shined with success, she felt marginalized in some way. It never occurred to me that she was feeling threatened by me, though, and so I blindly continued and was tremendously loyal to her, defending her against detractors and working hard to make her look good. After working with her for five years and doing most of the work on our many events, I was made privy to a series of reports and emails to our Senior Staff that effectively sabotaged me. She had detailed how I was an incompetent project manager and shouldn’t be trusted with any advanced responsibility. She openly took credit for work that we both know I had done. And she lied to my face about it.
I swore, after getting moved to another, far better, manager that I would never treat someone working under me that way. And so far, I haven’t. Those we employ deserve to be trained and then given responsibility and then lauded for their success.
I’m supposed to reject my ego and make space for the new blood. BE REPLACED.
It’s OK. There’s a lot of fucking room to spare (you ever been to Wyoming? It’s like seven people per square mile out there…). There are plenty of things to learn. There are plenty of mistakes to be made.
You can always tell when you encounter someone who refuses to reject their ego—their students are a credit to them and their genius, they trumpet their personal accolades constantly, they remind you in every encounter how real they are. If they have a show, that show is all about them. It’s not narcissism necessarily. It’s fear of obsolescence. That fear of being replaced by someone younger, hungrier, maybe more talented, is the signal for these ego-challenged folks to double down on the self aggrandizement rhetoric.
But it’s better to be useful than youthful and it’s better to move out of the way than fight for that spotlight.
You are not your dog’s fucking mommy.
You are not mentally willing the stoplight to turn green.
You are not secretly a super hero.
You are not doing the work of (a) god.
You are not curing yourself by going to therapy.
You are not the center of any universe but the one between your ears.
You are a minuscule player in a universal narrative that involves billions of characters in which your contributions to the story will likely go unrecognized. You are this and not much more but, for all things you are not, you are the things you do.