Happiness and the Ego Monster

Posted 03.01.2010

Egomonster Every so often, I’ll read something that makes an impression on me and then a day or two later read something entirely different that somehow connects to the first thing I read. This morning was one of those times.

Last night, I was skimming the Sunday New York Times (after watching a thrilling gold medal hockey match between Canada and the U.S. Have to say I’ve never been so moved by another country’s national anthem as I was when listening to an arena full of Canadians in red jerseys singing “O Canada” with all their hearts after the gold medal ceremony. Way to go Canada. Really happy for you.). But, I digress. The article that caught my eye was a profile on Gretchen Rubin, the author of the bestselling book,  The Happiness Project. In case you’re not familiar with the book, Rubin spent a year researching literature on what it takes to be happy, tried a bunch of things, blogged about her experiences and ended up with a book. I haven’t read it, but have read a lot of the reviews, seen Rubin interviewed several times and looked through her blog. She has a lot of good advice including her number one tip which is to make your bed every day.

The Times article on Rubin struck me as subversively snarky. It went on at length about her perfect townhouse on the Upper East Side of New York, her marriage to a wealthy investment banker, her Yale law school education, her clerkship for Sandra Day O’Connor and the fact that her father-in-law is former Treasury Secretary and Citigroup chairman, Robert Rubin. The subtext seemed to be, “No wonder this woman’s happy. She’s got it all.”

I’ve learned the hard way that you never know what’s going to get quoted when you give an interview and I’m guessing that Rubin might be thinking a bit about that herself this morning. Here’s the quote from the article that hit me in a rather weird way:

What makes the author, 44, happy these days? “Hitting No. 1 on the list!” she said without hesitation… she writes in the book that she still craves applause, which she calls a “gold star.” She sipped a Diet Coke in the library of her Manhattan triplex, a gas fire glowing in the fireplace. “The ultimate professional gold star!” Ms. Rubin said of the No. 1 ranking (the book has since slipped to No. 4).

I said at the outset of this post that this morning was one of those times when the dots seemed to connect between two disparate pieces of reading.  Here’s the connection. As my day started today, I spent a few minutes reading a short section of Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth. He talks a lot in that book about ego and its impact. Here’s a brief excerpt of what I read this morning:

“… the unconscious drive behind ego is to strengthen the image of who I think I am… Whatever behavior the ego manifests, the hidden motivating force is always the same:  the need to stand out, be special, be in control; the need for power, for attention, for more… (With the ego) there is always a hidden agenda, always a sense of ‘not enough yet,’ of insufficiency and lack that needs to be filled.”

That passage made a strong impression on me because it feels so true. Like most of us, I struggle with the ego monster and the demons it can bring forth. When you think about a lot of the inexplicable behavior from people in the public eye that makes us say, “What in the heck were they thinking?” you can probably track most of that back to the ego monster at work.

When you think about it, the ego causes us to look to extrinsic measures – “the gold stars”, as a source of happiness. In the end, it’s a pointless quest because it’s never enough. Too bad, though, that we need to keep getting whacked up the side of the head on a regular basis to remember that lesson. 

Towards the end of the Times article on Gretchen Rubin, there was a sentence that probably sums up what it really takes to be happy. It seems to speak much more to intrinsic rather than extrinsic measures of happiness. Here it is:

She still keeps in touch with Justice O’Connor. who retired in 2006. “I asked her what she thought it took to have a happy life,” Ms. Rubin said. “And she replied, ‘Work worth doing.’ ”

Work worth doing. I knew there was a reason I admired Sandra Day O’Connor. Her answer about what it takes to have a happy life pretty much sums it up.

So, a few questions for you as we start the week together. What’s making you happy these days? What are you doing to keep the ego monster at bay? How do your answers to either of those questions affect how you show up as a leader? What’s your work that’s worth doing?