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The Difference Between Vanity and Ego

Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves; vanity, to what we would have others think of us.


When I was on one of my first voice-over jobs in London back in the early '90s, I was approached by a man half-hidden in a cloud of Cuban cigar smoke and dressed entirely in black.

'Are you new?' the man asked in a voice so deep that it rumbled the sofa behind me.

'I guess I am' I answered, hoping to match the timbre of his voice but coming in about two octaves higher.

We chatted back and forth for a while, and I was impressed that someone who was a legend in the voice-over industry (he was the voice of the Odeon for those of you in the UK) was taking the time to talk to 'the new guy' and show me a few of the ropes. When it was time for him to step back into the studio, he left me with one final piece of advice:

'Kid,' he rumbled, 'if you want to succeed in this business you've got to let go of every ounce of vanity. But if you want to last in this business, never let 'em take away your ego.'

It took me a few years to decide if what he said was really deep or completely meaningless, but over time I have come to realize both its brilliance and its relevance to life outside the world of showbusiness. For me, it comes down to the difference between self-importance and self-worth. Self-importance (aka 'pretension') is pure vanity - imagining in some way that you merit a different set of rules because of your birth family, wealth, position or achievements. Self-worth, on the other hand, is a recognition that you have an inalienable right to be here (or there, or pretty much anywhere else), simply by virtue of being alive.

Let's take a closer look at each one in turn...

1. Self-Importance (Vanity)

'The surest cure for vanity is loneliness.'

-Thomas Wolfe

I was traveling with a friend once who was having a problem getting the hotel we were checking into to acknowledge his reservation. He was getting more and more frustrated, winding himself tighter and tighter until finally he exploded in anger. 'You'd better sort this out', he began shouting, 'or I'll tell you who I am!'

While the hotelier was less than impressed (he actually laughed, which diffused the situation), many of us go through life like my friend, feeling outraged, self-righteous or hard done by and finding personal slights at the slightest provocation. Self-importance is continually asking 'Do you know who I am?', overcoming its fear that the answer might be 'no' by shouting the question louder and louder.

Which reminds me of a story... (It's not a horrible story, but if you're easily offended you might want to skip ahead to after the line of asterisks...)

Once upon a time there was a famous supermodel who found herself stranded on a desert island with a young and not unattractive man. After a time, it became apparent that a quick rescue from the island was not forthcoming. Because the man went hunting and provided them with food and shelter, (and because he was not unattractive and truth be told she was feeling a bit lonely), the supermodel decided to give the man 'a reward' and deign to sleep with him. To her surprise, in the middle of their passionate love-making, the man stopped suddenly and asked her if she would mind if he called her 'Dave'.

Well, she was totally outraged. Did he know how many men would have killed to be in his position? She refused to have anything to do with him for awhile, but eventually she began to feel sorry for him (and his not unattractive body had become muscular and tan from his daily exertions on the island). She told him that she would 'give him a bit of a treat' and have sex with him again and that yes, he could call her 'Dave' if he really wanted to. Everything seems to be going well until the man once again interrupted their lovemaking to ask if she would mind if he drew a small mustache on her upper lip.

'How dare you!' shrieked the supermodel. 'Do you know who I am? I've had millionaires and movie stars begging me for what you were geting!'

Once again, she refused to have anything to do with him for a time, but eventually the combination of her loneliness and his increasingly handsome face led her to swallow her pride and come to him in the night, wearing nothing but a pencil-thin mustache she had drawn in across her upper lip.

He took a long hard look at her standing naked and silhouetted in the moonlight. When he noticed the mustache, a broad smile broke out across his face.

'Dave!' he exclaimed. 'You'll never guess who I've been shagging...'
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The problem with self-importance (vanity) is that whatever you're basing it on can't be sustained indefinitely. Wealth disappears, fame fades, beauty wilts, power wanes, the world keeps on spinning and eventually all you're left with is you. And if you've been living on a diet of self-importance, where your sense of value and worth in the world is based on external circumstances, being left alone with yourself can be a pretty frightening prospect.

2. Self-Worth (ego)

'Why is it that whenever women begin behaving like human beings, they are accused of attempting to behave like men?'

-Simone de Beauvoir

While the word 'ego' tends to have a negative connotation in modern culture, for me it is just another way of saying 'the individual self'. Self-worth, therefore, is literally the value or worth of the individual self. Far too often I see people accused of being 'egotistical' as a subtle way of putting them below the person doing the accusing. Worse still is when an individual puts themselves down, refusing to stand up for themselves or even the most basic tenets of dignity, pride and respect for fear of being 'too big for their boots'.

When you take on the idea that at a fundamental level no one individual is worth more or less than any other, you are able to see yourself and others as we generally are - fairly well-meaning creatures who engage in an extraordinary array of activities centered primarily around the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure, satisfaction and greater meaning in our lives. Self-worth encourages us to be more internally referenced, finding our sense of self not in the reflected glory of other people's eyes but in the gentle glow of our own. It too may lead us to ask 'do you know who I am?' - only this time, we will ask it of ourselves.

Bonus Tip: Beyond the Self

In many Eastern religions, the highest state is believed to be a state of 'no-self', where neither self-worth nor self-importance have any real meaning. If you've ever 'lost yourself' in the splendor of a sunset, the rapture of a piece of music, the ecstasy of an orgasm or the all-encompassing smile of a baby, you already have a taste of this highest state. It is the state which consciously or unconsciously drives most spiritual seeking - the quest for enlightenment, religion, transcendence, and bliss, where your 'individual self' dissolves into the collective mind of God or spirit or love or humanity or whatever name you prefer to use.

Ironically it is only when we step beyond the limited sense of self we normally carry with us that we can value the self for what it really is - the most human part of our being.

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Today's Experiment:
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1. Be on the lookout for self-importance in your life this week. You'll generally notice it first by the feeling - generally one of excessive pride or righteous indignation. If you can, diffuse your self-importance by laughing at yourself and reminding yourself of your essential humanity. (A good trick is to actually begin your day by looking in the mirror and laughing at what you see - regardless of how wonderful or hideous you think it looks, it will look considerably different 100 years from now... :-)

2. Increase your self-worth this week by claiming the right to be who you are, do what you do and want what you want. If you have my book or are a member of the Solutions Cafe, read the story called 'Sixth-form Rabbit'.

3. Take a few minutes to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at http://www.unhchr.ch/udhr/lang/eng.htm While I would inevitably language it differently, it is nonetheless an impressive attempt at delineating the essential human rights which are yours simply for being alive.

4. Everyone has their own favorite ways of accessing 'no-self'. For some, it comes most easily through inspirational reading; for others through prayer or meditation or even just walking in nature. Some people find it most easily in the moment when they first wake up in the morning, before they remind themselves of who 'they' are by reviewing the problems and goals of the day. However you like to nurture your spirit, turn up the volume on that part of your life this week and reap the benefits of living with an expanded perspective.

If you feel you have no reference experience for 'no-self', just spend time hanging out with anything you find beautiful this week. It's not quite the same thing, but it's one of the most accessible gateways!

Have fun, learn heaps, and if you notice yourself struggling a bit this week, don't worry about it - it's really not that important! :-)

With love,
michael

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love and thanks,
Michael