In Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he talks about what he calls the “ego climber.” These are individuals whose energy to pursue goals doesn’t emanate from a core passion aligned with a true sense of self, but, instead, from a desire to prop up a false self—one connected to trying to convince themselves and others that they are smart or successful or worthy of envy. While the ego climber might think that the ascent to wealth or fame or admiration or a remarkable physique is indistinguishable from the growth and achievement that comes from expressing one’s true self and true goals, that isn’t so. Pirsig describes the difference by invoking the metaphor of climbing of an actual mountain:
To the untrained eye ego-climbing and selfless climbing may appear identical. Both kinds of climbers place one foot in front of the other. Both breathe in and out at the same rate. Both stop when tired. Both go forward when rested. But what a difference! The ego-climber is like an instrument that’s out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He’s likely to miss a beautiful passage of sunlight through the trees. He goes on when the sloppiness of his step shows he’s tired. He rests at odd times. He looks up the trail trying to see what’s ahead even when he knows what’s ahead because he just looked a second before. He goes too fast or too slow for the conditions and when he talks his talk is forever about somewhere else, something else. He’s here but he’s not here. He rejects the here, he’s unhappy with it, wants to be farther up the trail but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then “it” will be “here.” What he’s looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn’t want that because it “is” all around him. Every step’s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant.
“An instrument out of adjustment.” Indeed. The only way to move naturally, even when great effort is required to traverse rough terrain, is to move according to the dictates of one’s true, core self. That’s why competing with an entrepreneur who loves his or her work and for whom it is an expression of himSELF or herSELF is a real battle. It’s likely one you won’t be able to win, unless you are drawing on the same reservoir of deep and genuine motivation.
There’s also something infinitely exhausting about ego climbing. That’s because the peak of the mountain keeps receding as you approach it. You can’t ever get that feeling of having reached the pinnacle because that kind of celebration and sense of SELF-satisfaction are reserved for those who climb to meet themselves at the top of the mountain, not to escape themselves.
How can you relax and enjoy yourself after an accomplishment when it wasn’t what you TRULY wanted to accomplish, in the first place. No, you have to go find the next mountain. And fast. Because without the distraction of the climb, you might start to think and feel—for real.
See, ego climbers are on the run. They are trying to outdistance something inside them that makes them uncomfortable. Some inner truth. And only once they stop and turn to face that very thing that makes them scurry up mountains, turning ankles and skinning knees and possibly falling into one tragic accident after another, do they realize there was nothing to fear, to begin with. Why? Because we are, each and every one of us, is greater than that which haunts us—all the second-guessing and self-doubt and past, unresolved traumas and disappointments and embarrassment and grief and seeming defeats. I promise you. In our pain is our power. We just have to turn and face it.
Dr. Keith Ablow
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