When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.
That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: And that is…everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you, and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.
Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.
- Steve Jobs, 1995
You might enjoy reading that quote again and again. You might marvel at the elementary, yet deeply empowering words. You will be struck with a feeling that you can do anything! Perhaps you will like the quote so much that you will find it on YouTube and watch it several times, progressively feeling your confidence build as you prepare to do whatever you set your mind to.
And then…you might return to the same exact life you had before. You may go from “once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again,” to…being the same, again.
Why? What secret lies in those powerful words that touch you but might not succeed in emancipating you from the shackles of your current existence?
Jobs is describing part of his own experience taming the self-critical part of his psyche that is sometimes termed the superego. Recognizing and learning to cultivate this powerful aspect of your brain can be a lifelong challenge. (Although Jobs might seem to portray it as a quick recognition, it was likely a process for him.)
Many of your earliest experiences can foster a strong belief that you are the Little Engine That Couldn’t. Early criticism and parental interactions can mold part of your mind into a critical, self-denying naysayer that repetitively tells you that many things you might want are beyond your reach. As you mature, you become accustomed to seeing that deeply judicious part of your mind as your trusted advisor and protector. It allows you to navigate life, society, and decision making. Yet its deeply critical bend often serves to distort and refract your perspective instead of clarifying it.
Part of your superego’s sharply disapproving nature is to create a mirage that others are better than you. They are more intelligent, wealthy, or beautiful. They are more knowledgeable about the world and understand life greater than you do. They are gifted, and they can accomplish more than you ever could. Sometimes that is technically true, but the superego capitalizes on and exaggerates the facts. It also creates a corollary: If others have those talents or gifts, then you are deficient.
A strong superego can also create an arena phenomenon. Life can seem like a circular stadium, with everyone else positioned around, and higher than you. Your mind can be so sensitive to noticing ways in which others are better that it utilizes the perceived advantages that others have to paint that morose portrait.
Often, a superego is a resilient force to wrestle with. It can take many years of insight and self-understanding to be in touch with the power it can hold over you and your happiness, success, and fulfillment.
Is there a way to jumpstart the process? There are two points that might be meaningful for you to keep in mind when you are struggling with the tight grip your superego has over you.
Firstly, acknowledging its existence and power and then talking about it might be very helpful. Monsters that are named and discussed can lose some of their strength. As Elihu ben Berachel said while contemplating the deep suffering of his friend Iyov, (Iyov 32, 20), “I speak that I might find relief.”
Secondly, it might be helpful to see yourself in a partial vacuum. If you meet a threshold for skills, insight, or wisdom to accomplish certain tasks, then you might do well if you permit yourself to pursue them. Even if others might be more suited or have better skills, it does not lessen your own abilities or efficacy. Steve Jobs intimates that when he says that others “are no smarter than you.” There is no way of knowing that empirically. For most people, probably including Jobs, it isn’t true either. But it is largely irrelevant. What they are does not say anything about who you are.
The Torah seems to hint to this perspective in the beginning of Sefer Vayikra. The Chumash opens describing the process of bringing a sacrifice and uses the term “Adam” to describe a person. There are several Hebrew terms throughout Scripture to mean “person,” and one of them is Adam, since we all originate from him. Yet, the Sages were sensitive to that word selection here. Some commentators (Kli Yakar) explain the intent of the Torah is to highlight that the ideal way for a person to bring a sacrifice is to follow the example of Adam. On the first day of creation, Adam brought a korban. Adam acted unilaterally and of his own aspiration. He did not compare himself to others.
According to Jewish law, the world was created in the beginning of this month, Nisan. (See Talmud Rosh Hashanah 27a and Tos. d.h. Kman.) Consequently, Adam brought the first sacrifice 5777 years ago this past Tuesday. Rationally, other humans did not exist. But the Torah is encouraging us to incorporate that perspective even when we are surrounded by other people. Rather than adopt the pernicious superego-motivated approach of comparison and criticism, the Torah advises each person to allow himself the freedom to capitalize on his own existence and intrinsic capabilities.
Steve Jobs was not necessarily the most talented, brightest or most insightful individual. Yet, he noticed his capabilities and reported that he was able to subdue his critical, self-effacing superego. The Apple did not fall far from the Steve.
You might encounter and struggle with your superego’s critical eye, during Nisan or throughout the year. Perhaps you will begin to tame it with a simple realization, like Steve Jobs reports he did. Perhaps it will be a long journey with growth and setbacks along the path. Maybe it will even be both – an aha! moment followed by a long trek. It might be a discussion worth having with yourself, following in the footsteps of your earliest ancestor, Adam.