On the creative ego

November 28 2020 | words: 645 | time to read: 3 min

Creating something new is not a trivial exercise. Our ability to construct order from the formless and chaotic void is perhaps one of the traits that make us uniquely human. It’s one of the most difficult but worthwhile activities we can undertake. We are born to create. Some may explore this drive by creating art, others through building a new product or business. Others may explore this desire in its most elemental form, by giving birth to new human beings for whom they must love and care for. Regardless of how we take creative action, the act of creation always calls us to exhibit those human traits that we deem to be ultimate virtues: courage, determination, love, understanding and so on.

It’s also true that the creative act is primarily an ego-driven exercise. It is generally predicated on believing in, and engaging with the sense of a separate “I” that can influence reality. Three steps of the ego are required in order to meaningfully pursue any creative endeavour:

  1. We must look at the world and imagine a future that involves something that does not exist
  2. We must convince ourselves that this creative vision represents a superior version of reality
  3. We must believe in it to such a degree that we are willing to forego other versions of the future to pursue it

In trivial cases, it’s generally obvious that your creative vision for the future is objectively superior. If you’re hungry and you plan what you’re going to have for dinner, it’s clear that the version of the future where you make and eat dinner is better than the one in which you starve. However, for anything meaningfully complex the idea that any creative vision is objectively better is totally non-obvious. Our world (both natural and human-made) is extraordinarily complex. This complexity guarantees that action you take toward this positive creative vision will have unforeseen and unintended consequences, both positive and negative. When Facebook were building the early versions of their social network, there is no way they could have foreseen how it would be used to erode the informational underpinnings of American democracy in 2016. The creator must either:

  • Be self aware enough of this idea and come to the conclusion that, on balance, their actions will have an outcome in which the positive outweighs the negative, or;
  • Be so overcome by their ego that the thought never occurs to them in the first place.

In either case, the ego has convinced itself that the vision is worth pursuing.

Engagement with our ego is required to effectively navigate the demands of the world. We wouldn’t have lept from the trees and crossed the perilous oceans hundreds of thousands of years ago if it wasn’t for some early human ancestor believing they could craft a better future for themselves. However, if the ego is left unchecked the individual falls into a cycle of suffering caused by the fact that they fixated on the future and failing to recognise and enjoy all that they have - the present moment.

This ultimately leads me to my own struggle. As someone who gets paid to build products and businesses for a living, how do I remain ego driven enough such that I’m effective at putting my creative vision out into the world, while also recognising the limitations of the ego so that I don’t feel like life is constantly passing me by?

I’ll let you know if I figure it out.

“Plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.”

— Alan Watts