The Tricky Relationship Between Creativity and Ego

Recently, a few discussions with some of my creative friends brought up different aspects of ego. It started with a friend asking me about a writing project. He thought that I’d simply passed on curating it. When I told him I had never been asked, he was shocked. It was gratifying to hear that reaction, because I had felt a bit snubbed. I also realized how much I had taken to heart that I hadn’t been chosen.

The second time ego came up was over coffee. Another friend is helping edit a book. The project had been struggling because the boss had decided they too needed to have a piece in the collection. That decision ultimately has cost them months of waiting around for this person to write their piece. I couldn’t help but laugh: what a waste all because of ego.

It got me thinking, was I any better than her boss? What place does ego have in creativity anyways?

What is ego?

out of focus

I use the term a lot, but realized that I don’t always know what exactly I mean. Google defines ego as “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance”. Most of us would agree that a certain amount of self-esteem and valuing yourself is fundamental for survival. If you don’t matter, why eat or drink water?

Yet ego matters, even in less dire circumstances. It helps you fight for that needed pay raise. It makes you important enough to have personal boundaries. Ego helps you meet your needs and wants.

For creative types, this can mean a variety of things. Ego can help you sell your goods. It can ensure you price them in way that leaves you feeling valued, not resentful. It can be the push you need to buy that delicious looking set of materials. Or perhaps it nudges you to finally open a Vimeo account or Facebook page.

Having no ego can actually undermine your ability to be creative. If you aren’t taking care of your personal needs, how can you have the energy to create?

When ego becomes dangerous

stand off

So why does ego get the bad rap? Sadly, most of us fall in extremes when it comes to ego: too much or too little. We’ve all known someone with too much ego. Maybe they come to the party and never bring something to help, but eat everything. Perhaps it’s your neighbor who never apologizes for stomping around at 2 AM. Ego unchecked doesn’t just value you; it places you over everyone else.

For creative types this is really bad for your work for a few reasons

1. Ego refuses criticism

Criticism hurts. It can make you feel wrong. Instead of being always awesome, criticism can make you feel like you’re not as valuable. Ego would like to avoid these feelings as much as possible. If you only listen to your ego, it will find any excuse to dismiss criticism

Oh that person has no idea what they’re talking about.

They’re just jealous of me because I am more successful.

They’re wrong because they aren’t an example of my audience.

Yet, avoiding criticism can actually make your work weaker over the long run. It can help your write better stories, craft better songs, and sharpen dance moves. If you refuse to take any criticism, it becomes incredibly difficult to improve at all. It leaves you repeating the same mistakes again and again.

2. Ego makes it difficult to work with others

marching ahead

Remember how I wasn’t asked to help with that writing project? My ego was critical of many of those who were chosen. I wanted to know what made them a better choice than me. It was petty. It certainly made it harder to work with and learn from these people, many of whom I like and admire.

When you let your ego run loose, working with others becomes incredibly difficult. It sees an illusion: that there are limited numbers of opportunities to create and have the world see your work. It turns creativity into a competition.

Creativity isn’t a race. With over 7 billion people on this planet, there is enough audience to go around and then some. Your value doesn’t go up or down as a creative person if someone else is talented, even if they’re in the same field as you.  Instead, they could be people to learn from or work with. Who knows? You might find a partner in creative crime helping you go further than you’ve ever dreamed.

3. Ego forgets how it really works

I read an article last year about power and empathy. It turns out that as people often rise through the ranks, brain functions can change, reducing a person’s ability to empathize. The very traits that bring people success are slowly lost as they gain more and more power. These people tend to demand the spotlight. They decide they are the sole decision maker. They don’t readily admit their mistakes.

Funny, sounds a lot like an ego out of check.

When you do reach creative success, ego can be very dangerous. It doesn’t care how it worked. It just wants more value, more importance, more and more and more. It can undermine the very habits or work you’ve done that brought you there. In the hope of acquiring more, your ego can actually undermine you.

For instance, ego might not want to admit that you have to do a few throw away sketches before you paint. Suddenly, you might find yourself skipping the practice that you need to help you get ready to paint. What once may have taken a week or two to paint can now take over a month and with even more revisions. It sounds like a lot of extra work just because you are “too good” to do your prep work.

Staying balanced

coiled upward

So you can’t get rid of ego nor can you let it go rampant. How do you stay balanced? Honestly, I don’t have all the answers. Here’s what I know so far:

A. Acknowledge your ego

When talking with my friend about the project, I admitted I felt a bit snubbed. I also shared that my ego was a part of it. I didn’t do it just for him, I did it to be honest with myself.

Knowing when and where your ego comes up helps you to be aware of it. It’s hard to be in control of something you don’t see.

Not sure about yours? Ask yourself these questions

  • When do I crave recognition?
  • What makes me feel valued?
  • What makes me feel small?
  • What are the qualities about myself that I value most?
  • What value do I give to others?
  • If I lost __ about myself, I would be devastated.
  • My creative dream is ____.

B. Avoid the comparison trap

A surefire way for me to feel crappy about myself creatively? Remembering that Taylor Swift is six months younger than me. Ouch.

Comparing yourself against anyone, whether they are “better” or “worse” than you is a dangerous game. It can make you feel too self-important or totally in the dumps. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Each of us is unique in our creativity. We are supposed to touch different people, do different things, and just be different.

Taylor Swift is a very talented pop star. She works hard and has done very well for herself. But let’s be real: I would be a miserable pop star. It’s not my path and that’s okay.

Focus on yourself, what you want and need creatively. Because someone else’s success and failure? That’s their business.

C. Remember it’s always in flux

yellow surf

Your ego isn’t a constant object. I envision it more like a body of water. It reacts and changes to the environment. Perhaps you see a lot of success, like a lot of rain, it can make your ego larger. Or, perhaps you really try to not have ego in one area of your life. You may notice that area of your life can dry up and no longer be good for you either.

Your ego changing on you isn’t not a bad thing, it just shows your human. Be gentle with yourself and keep working at staying balanced.

At the end of the day, understanding and working with your ego doesn’t seemlike it does anything for your creativity. But keeping your ego in check can help you do better creative work. It will also help you get over the stumbling blocks you put in front of yourself.

What do you think about ego? Does it help or hurt your creativity?

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