Ego Death

2 minute read

Have you ever used the icebreaker question: “What’s your deepest, darkest, fear?”


Well, it’s a good one. Try it out. You’ll get weird looks, and deep thoughts. The ice won’t just break; it’ll sublime.

But that’s not the point of this post. The point is to share what I’m most afraid of: Ego death. The complete loss of subjective self-identity.

You see, there’s a little reaper that follows each and every one of us around - familiarity. It’s an insidious one. Here’s what I see playing out around me. Young folks come into Stanford with dreams. They want to cure cancer, solve food insecurity, build a better mousetrap. They study Slavic history, environmental science, and chemical engineering. They switch to computer science. They intern at Facebook, go full-time to Google. They work 9 to 5. Ok, 10 to 4. Buy a car, pay off a mortgage, and grow old. They die.

This is all well and good, but I have to ask: where are those dreams? Did they get drowned out by immediate gratification - a comfortable Silicon Valley lifestyle? Was the old you - the dreamer, the doer, your real identity; and if so, who are you now? Has your starry-eyed self died a gruesome ego death? Who is looking back at me from inside those eyes?

When I was in elementary school, Smencils - scented pencils, were cool. Everyone collected Smencils, sniffed Smencils, wrote with Smencils. Now, I look back, and I think “Wow, it’s sort funny that Smencils were so interesting.” I wonder if this is the same feeling that older folks have, when they turn their minds to the goals, dreams, and aspirations of their 20s. I sure hope not.

It’s not just big value drifts - Ego death happens at an extremely granular level too. Certain habits get locked in by intense repetition, and, at some point, we forget to grow. Have you ever met someone who just has a bank of a couple generic sayings? Who tells the exact same stories over and over?

You’ll see this all over industry - something about work sucks the personality out of folks. Every doctor and nurse I’ve met has a canned, 30 second spiel, that gets popped whenever a patient asks “How dangerous is an MRI? Why do you need to draw blood?”. If you work in a fast food drive-thru long enough, you can wire your “How can I help you today? Want fries with that?” directly to the buttons you press, and just…run on autopilot. It’s scary how robotic it all becomes. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism, but when this robotic automation comes to all conversations, well, at that point, are we still alive? Autonomous? Conscious?

I’d argue: No.

How do we escape this? The obvious thing: don’t ever get too comfortable. The less obvious thing: don’t ever forget to not let yourself get too comfortable. In some ways, this is a note to myself - a record of my past, and a warning to my future.


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