I spent most of my adult life working in film and television, so using acting as a metaphor for life is very natural. In this case I’ll be using different types of actors as examples of how to live in a state of ego versus a state of being. I realize both “ego” and “being” might seem like nebulous terms, but hopefully this metaphor will resolve that in a way that is helpful to you.
The ego actor is a performer. He needs the audience’s approval. For him rehearsal is waiting, the ego actor is alive only in front of others. Acceptance, support and applause are very important to the process. This actor may be very, very talented through careful and dedicated study, but there will still be an important difference between them and the true artist.
I’ve known a lot of actors and like in most jobs, a small percentage were truly stellar. And not surprisingly, those actors were all very similar. They weren’t just super-talented, extremely authentic performers, but they also treat crews extremely well, and they’re generous with other cast members (whereas the ego actor wants to steal scenes). They’re in my experience generally loving, smart, supportive parents and I would rank them among some of the most compassionate and aware people I’ve met.
When I teach film I’ll often point my students to my friend Shaun as an excellent example of a true artist. I’ve used him before when talking about authenticity because his life demonstrates to students the most artful, skilled and sensitive approach to acting they could hope to have. Every time I’ve worked with him he is all about the work. He has so much personal character he would recommend his character come across worse if he felt it helped the production. He’s a team-player that comes up with excellent ideas and he makes everyone around him better.
So how does he actually do that? It’s because he’s completely about the performance itself. There is no Shaun in there. Shaun’s needs and agendas are gone and the production and the character’s needs prevail completely. This singular and powerful focus strips away all of his busy personal thinking in favour of him using every useful input to contribute to his being of the character. He’s not striving to be impressive, or seen as talented, or even just to be accepted, but all of that and more happens anyway because his performances are so wonderfully authentic.
So while the ego actor is trying to win over an audience the true actor is trying to most authentically realize a character and story and then whatever happens happens. Except one to his brother, Van Gogh didn’t sell a painting in his life. So why didn’t he change styles? Because he wasn’t painting for us. He wasn’t painting to sell. He was painting to explore. To delve. To know. And as Shaun’s strong career demonstrates, audiences can sense that focus on the work itself. They find the generosity of the performance to be magnetic. Meanwhile the clown has changed clothes and faces so many times no one can figure out who he is to see if they might possible like that person without all of his makeup and costuming on.
No matter what your job is, don’t perform through your life. It’s what egos do and we’ll all do it sometimes, but if you’re vigilant you can easily ensure you don’t do it often or for long. Then eventually it’ll just be your nature to be more natural.
So don’t put on clown makeup and try to make people laugh. Don’t trip and fall for applause and don’t repaint yourself to be who the audience wants you to be. Don’t try to fit into what people want. Be more like the creative archaeologist. Uncover a brilliant example of what you’re doing and take your pleasure from the experience itself rather than from people’s approval. We’ll all love that.
Real artists don’t just make art. Some are lawyers and doctors and concrete workers and teachers. You can do anything authentically. And that’s always better. When the agenda is to achieve good ends for others we’re all okay. We get into trouble when we’re not focused on good ends but rather on struggling to ensure we’re acceptable to others. One is exhausting and the other is enriching.
Be an authentic actor in your life. Be true to yourself, trust that you’re always ending up in the perfect place and then don’t ruminate on the alternatives. You don’t need sequels or re-takes. You just need to leave your ego behind so that you can be fully and completely present for your all-too-brief time here on the stage of life.
Have yourself a wonderful, artful day.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.