The next time you’re tempted to say yes to sponsoring a club, pursuing a degree, joining a committee, or reading a book, ask yourself: If I couldn’t tell a soul about this, would I still do it?
This Ego Detector is such a useful thinking tool because people like you and me are after usefulness to others versus service of ourselves. We’re not interested in climbing the ladder for the sake of climbing. To use David Brooks’ metaphor, we’re over climbing life’s first mountain of self-service and “success,” and instead we’re interested in the second mountain: leading lives of value to others.
But the thing is, if I sponsor the club or read the book or get the PhD partly so that I can tell people about it or so that people will respect me or so that I won’t feel guilty — in short, if I do things in service of me — then I’m going to make decisions that poorly align with my life’s key objectives, and these decisions will pick away at my soul as they extract whatever hours of labor they cost.
For example, years ago I did this thing where you and your friends share how many books you’re going to read this year, and then you post your progress on social media. Now I love reading, and I particularly love the fruits of good reading. But I found this reading challenge to be soul-sucking. I went and took a naturally good thing — reading — and I attached these artificial, ego-centered contraptions onto it, and made it something less. Reading stopped being about knowledge-building, pleasure, research, or wisdom, and it started being something about pressure and performance.
Or here’s a common situation in American schools: the junior class needs a sponsor; Mrs. Smith, will you do it? From the teachers I’ve spoken to in the [Time Management Course], I hear this dilemma all the time. “Well, if I say no, then who will sponsor the club? What will the junior class do? What will my boss think of me?” And the answers are: I don’t know who will sponsor the club — perhaps someone whose objective at school has something to do with the club. The junior class will persevere — surely some adult in the community will be able to guide them in their quest to plan prom. And your boss will only think poorly of you if he or she views the purpose of school vaguely. People like you and me seek to make our bosses look good by focusing on the core mission of the school while living peaceably with the students, parents, and colleagues we work with.
Do you see how the Ego Detector helps with the club sponsorship dilemma? If I couldn’t tell a soul that I was the sponsor of the Japanese Culture Club — if somehow it was a secret even from the students in the club — then would I still do it? Based on my life priorities right now, no. It’d be too expensive — either my work in the classroom would suffer, or my home life would suffer as I brought work home.
As much as I’m sometimes tempted to think of myself as an omnipotent deity, I’m surely not. I’m no creator of time. It all has to come from somewhere, and a day is coming when it'll run out. Might as well use it on something much bigger than me.