Essays on Technology and Culture

On Cultivating a Superego

Recently, I had a conversation–pillow talk, really–with my girlfriend of many years, where I stated something that had been bouncing around in my head for some time about us. Well, actually, it was mostly about myself and her in contrast. I told her: “I’m a great big ball of id, and you’re my superego.” She agreed. A few weeks later, at a birthday dinner for a good friend, I made a similar observation about him and his relationship with his wife. Both of them were quite quick to agree.

For anyone not familiar with the concepts of id, ego, and superego, I will put forth the best explanation I have ever heard. It came via another good friend, the wonderful and hilarious Batya Wittenberg. It is very simple, is written in script form, and involves cheesecake.

Id: Hungry…
Ego: There’s some cheesecake in the fridge.
Id: Cheesecake…
Superego: We can’t have that cheesecake. It’s not ours.
Id: Cheesecake!
Ego: Well, we have money. We can buy some cheesecake.
Id: Cheesecake!
Superego: Cheesecake is not a healthy lunch!
Id: Cheesecake!
Ego: Cheesecake!
Superego: Fine… Cheesecake. Ya happy?

Essentially, the id is your base desires or the lizard brain [1], the superego is the conscience, and the ego sort of balances the two out. In the above example, it leans towards the id’s side of things, but that’s not a requirement.

So, to wrench this back from Freudian Psychology 101 to something more grounded, I describe myself as a “big ball of id” because it is true. When left to my own devices–and as an adult living alone, I am left to my own devices almost all the time–I will often choose the option that is best going to satisfy my id. When the alarm clock goes off in the morning, I hit the snooze button and curl back under the covers for a few more precious minutes. [2] If there’s a sink full of dirty dishes and I can’t make something for dinner, I order out. If I order out, I order a pizza instead of something moderately healthy. Instead of saving money, I sometimes make rash, impulse buys. [3]

I’m not exactly happy about this sort of thing–my own failures at self-control, not the external balance of my girlfriend as superego–and that is why I’ve been seeking to develop a superego in myself. This is a gradual process to be sure, like all forms of self-improvement. It’s also a process prone to failure. All it takes, one thinks, is one misstep, one moment of weakness, and you’ll have to start over from scratch–so why even bother? In other words: fear of imperfection leads to paralysis. The expectation of perfection is, in many ways, a built in escape clause. This quote from The Paleo Solution puts it succinctly.

When I’m faced with the understanding that my superego has failed me, I’ve taken to repeating a rather Buddhist statement: “The path is always there.” To go into Buddhism 101, The Path, aka The Noble Eightfold Path, is a series of life choices that will lead towards enlightenment. I’m no Buddhist, so I use “the path”–lower case intentional–in a more general sense, the execution of any sort of long-term, high-impact choice one makes in life. The path is always there. You can step off the path, you can go miles off, get hopelessly lost, and wander barefoot in the desert for forty years, but the path will remain, and you can always find your way back.

This is a hard, hard, hard concept to grasp. Failure is seen by many to be a permanent state. I blame report cards. That F you got in first quarter English goes on your Permanent Record, or so they say. [4] You failed, and therefore you shall be forever branded as “The Failure,” right? Guaranteed, inside of a decade, or less, nobody will remember your failure except you, much as nobody will remember you getting a boner when standing in front of Ms. Grundy’s classroom in 5th Grade. But, that path is still there. It’s always there, and what happens when you step off the path will affect the journey once you return. It can keep you from going off the path again, or at least from going off the path in the same way. [5] As long as you keep getting back on the path, you’ll find it easier and easier to stay on it, and staying on the path allows you to make it through The Gap.

Ira Glass, of This American Life fame, coined the term The Gap to describe the difference between an artist’s work, and the quality the artist wants it to be. Glass explains it a lot better himself. The only way to bridge the gap is to keep doing the work, until it really is good enough. There’s an excellent book I am reading called Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell, which discusses the factors around success. One of the key factors is experience. The more time you spend doing a thing, eventually, the better you will be at the thing. Gladwell pegs the amount of time needed to become an expert at any particular thing at 10,000 hours. That is a lot of time. But, if you put the work in, and rack up those hours like so much Exp, you really can level up.

Ira Glass’s Gap, however, is often not bridged by the artist because they don’t put in the hours. They don’t put in the hours because they get frustrated at their lack of accomplishment. It doesn’t take a huge mental leap to see how that could happen. Artistry in anything is a skill, and skill acquisition works in a pretty standard way, expressed well via the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. The leap from Novice to Advanced Beginner doesn’t take much work. From Advanced Beginner to Competent is a bit more. To move further up, though, it’s going to take a lot of time investment and effort, and if you’re expecting immediate gratification, disappointment is inevitable–and the id wants immediate gratification. Which brings us back around to the superego. Without the superego, without that better self that inspires us to get back on the path and start walking the line again, we sink back into the mode of the id and the lizard brain, and we know where that leads.

As an artist, and as a person stuggling for self-improvement, it’s important to take my mistakes, my failures in context. Those five simple words: “The path is always there,” are grounding, refocusing, and put my mind back on the task at hand–I think the technical term for this is “centering”. What is best about those words is that they’re non-judgmental. There’s no anger behind it. “Hey! Dumbass! The path is back that way!” wouldn’t quite have the same effect, after all. Why be angry? Why rage at the inevitable? With this, I can pick myself up, set myself to rights, and get on my way back down the path, strengthening my nacent superego as I go.

  1. Apologies to Seth Godin.

  2. That I even do that is an improvement. For a time I would simply turn the damn thing off, and then go back to sleep. You can imagine how that worked out.

  3. Here, I cast a wary eye at the five DEVO Energy Domes and other related merchandise sitting on top of my bookshelf.

  4. For what it’s worth, apparently there is no such thing as a Permanent Record, at least of your primary education.

  5. One hopes. My own personal experience has shown that it takes making the same stupid mistake several times before it sinks in. Your Mileage May Vary, I Am Not A Lawyer, Objects In Rear View Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.