Subtraction, Not Addition
Why you'll want less ego, not more
“Mo money mo problems.” - Biggie Smalls
One reason why you may feel like shit is you’ve been trying to make your life better by adding in stuff when you should be subtracting stuff.
It’s not your fault. It’s the fault of the world around you.
We’ve conditioned ourselves to seek more. More money, more square footage, more horsepower, more followers, more promotions and we’ll be happy. That’s been the case for nearly a century, at least.
So, we pursued more. But it seems that we’re learning that, in some cases, more stuff leads to more problems. We have more debt, more obesity, more chronic disease, more isolation, more mental illness.
The good news is it feels like we are starting to change course on some of those beliefs. People are talking about smaller homes, less processed food, and fewer hours and years grinding away in the office.
But there’s something else we need a hell of a lot less of…
Although we’re starting to learn that less = more when it comes to many material aspects of life, I don’t see a lot of folks discussing how important it is that we also work on having less ego. Much, much less ego.
By ego, I mean the complex superstructure of our beliefs that constitute who we think we are. It’s the thing that runs our lives and that often gets in the way when we start turning inwards to better understand and attempt to heal our emotional pain.
The late great Alan Watts has a wonderful explanation of ego if you want to dive into the philosophy of ego more.
To best explain why less ego = more in the world of emotional healing, I’ll turn to a familiar metaphor.
We are Hardware and Software
Our hardware is our biological makeup that comes out of the box. For example, my hardware (genetics) determined my height, eye color, skin complexion, and so on.
Our software is the beliefs and behaviors that are programmed into our minds through the experience of living.
Programming begins before we even leave the womb, as Gabor Mate and others elegantly express in this brief clip.
How Our Software Harms Us
The issue with our software (the collection of beliefs that defines who we think ourselves to be) is twofold.
(1) Most beliefs are programmed into us. They are not our own. Therefore we live according to others’ beliefs.
(2) Our software tends to become outdated, complex, and harder to change. That makes us more susceptible to external attacks.
Living According to Other’s Beliefs
Here’s an example most over-achievers can relate to.
Many of us were programmed to believe that if we get bad grades we will struggle through the difficulties we face later in life having not achieved early on. As a result, we adapt our behaviors to achieve good grades based on the belief that bad grades = bad life. It’s bullshit because it assumes the only definition of a good life is one that’s defined by achievement. But that programming is commonplace so it’s an easy example to pick on.
The difficult question to ask ourselves is, “How much of my own beliefs are truly what I believe as opposed to mimicking the beliefs of others?”
Without asking that question, you’re a zombie living in the matrix. You may find yourself someday deep down a path that you never really wanted to go down.
For example, when I first became an executive, it was a rush. It was an honor. It was something that my friends and family congratulated me on. And then I became the President at Wealthfront and was on a path to become CEO someday. It felt amazing. My ego was overjoyed.
But the reality is that the job of an executive fucking sucks most of the time. The higher up the ladder you climb, the more time you spend fixing problems and the bigger those problems become. Also, your work becomes your life. You get more money for giving away more of your time and freedom. Most execs I know tell me the same thing, yet they keep doing the job. Why?
I didn’t enjoy most of it. What I truly enjoyed was sitting next to a designer and an engineer and drafting up plans to make a really cool product or feature. The reason behind why I mindlessly pursued the executive ranks is because 10-year old Andy that lives in my brain rent-free was conditioned to believe that if I wasn’t climbing, I wasn’t worth a damn. So, I kept climbing. Until I woke up.
That’s the truth.
Beliefs as a Vector of Attack
As we grow older and continue to be programmed, our software (the mind-made sense of who we are) expands in complexity. We develop large software around how to interact with others, our interests and hobbies, beliefs on subjects such as politics and religion, and a huge list of cultural affiliations that bind us together with other people through shared beliefs. Over time, our identity (i.e. our software) becomes big and bloated.
We don’t construct our software in a vacuum. As the world around us becomes more complex, more abstract, and more interwoven, our mental software becomes more labyrinthian to match our surroundings.
A simple test of this concept would be to compare the sense of identity you had at the beginning of life versus where you are at today. My software didn’t have a notion of my role as a worker within the American economy when I was 5. But by the time I was 25, that bit of my software, my sense of self as a professional, was much more elaborate.
The footprint of our ego is much smaller earlier in life than when we become adults.
This test can be conducted in other ways as well. Imagine comparing the software of a 30-year old that grew up in Hollywood versus that of an Amazonian tribesman that’s had very limited exposure to the developed world. The kid from Hollywood may develop beliefs regarding the role of fame and celebrity while the tribesman could care less about it. That piece of “hollywood software” hasn’t been programmed into the tribesman. In that way, his software is simpler than the software of the child born into the world of Hollywood.
Who we believe ourselves to be increases in complexity as a function of time and socialization. The longer we participate in societal programming and the larger and more elaborate society becomes, the more complex our software becomes. And, unfortunately, it becomes much harder to change.
By the time you’re 50, your software mimics that of Yahoo’s tech stack. It’s bloated and outdated, making it incredibly hard to edit and improve.
Outdated software also makes it easier to exploit via nefarious hacks.
A single line of code is less susceptible to external attack than a codebase containing millions of lines of code, especially if the technology is an outdated, jumbled mess, much like most of our beliefs are.
A VP of Engineering once said to me, “The only way to make our product 100% safe from attacks is to unplug the servers.”
The same is true for us.
An unplugged server = no vulnerability to exploit. No ego = no “person” to attack.
That’s the benefit of reducing our egos. The less ego we have the more secure we feel and the freer we become.
If someone said to me 5 years ago “I hate techies” I would have felt offended by that since I held a belief that I was largely defined as a person by my position in tech. But if someone said that to me today, I could care less. I’ve removed most of my identity software that would have been offended by that statement. I still work in tech but I’m not attached to the belief that “I am me because I work in tech”.
The late great Ram Dass did a beautiful job of describing the freedom of being nobody.
If you still think I’m speaking nonsense, then turn to ancient wisdom. Take it from Buddha.
His most essential teaching is derived from the action he took to leave everything behind. He ejected himself from the world he was brought up in. With that act, he eliminated his attachment to his worldly possessions, to the people and culture he knew, and most importantly he rejected the beliefs he was conditioned to accept.
Buddha burned it all down to find the peace he was seeking, including his sense of self. By shedding that software (the ego) he removed vectors of attack. That’s why incoming Buddhist monks begin by shaving their heads and eyebrows — it’s a symbolic act of identity destruction and leaving the old “you” behind. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.
How to Reduce and Rewrite Your Ego
Editing our software can be tricky.
Some pockets of belief have been hardened for years or decades. Others are easier to let go of because we view them as less crucial to our sense of who we are.
As a result, some tools we use to eradicate or rewrite the ego are gentle while others are crude. A cut will require the precise use of a needle and sutures. A triple bypass requires a bone saw through the chest plate.
Psychedelics as Ego Destroyers
Thanks to positive trends in psychedelic research, and with the softening of 50-year-old laws that got things completely ass-backward, we’re on the cusp of having many more tools legally available that can be used to explore our consciousness.
From my personal experiences (which I’ll write about in detail in future posts), I view psychedelics as a tool more akin to a bone saw when taking a large dose for therapeutic purposes.
My first Heroic Does of psilocybin cut straight into memories I had of child abuse. One particular memory was when Child Protective Services were called to do a wellness check on me after an especially hard day. It ended up being a deeply healing experience once I got through it, but it wasn’t gentle.
I’m not saying everyone will have the same experience as I did, but I have made the biggest breakthroughs in the exploration of my consciousness, the rewriting and eradication of old limiting beliefs, and a fundamental change to how I view the world and myself with the assistance of expertly administered breakthrough doses of various psychedelics.
Michael Pollan has done us all a wonderful service by writing his book How to Change Your Mind and by speaking about his experiences with psychedelics as well.
What I appreciate about it are its simplicity and precision. All it requires is pen and paper and an earnest search for what is true.
Sit down, write down anything that you believe to be true about yourself or the world, and then dissect it until you discover the fundamental truth behind it. By doing so, you end up "unbelieving what you previously believed to be true”, which is most of the process — stripping away the junk that you used to hold as true until only truth remains.
As Jed states, “Something is true if it is true under all circumstances and above all it is identical for everyone and everything. That which is true cannot be ‘this’ now and ‘that’ later on, not ‘so’ to you and ‘such’ to me.”
The ego (your software) is a massive bundle of untruths. You have to unwind the hairball one strand at a time using Spiritual Autolysis.
Let me provide a personal example.
I used to believe that I was only loveable and valuable as a human being so long as I was achieving. How I felt on the inside was predicated on how I was performing on the outside.
As I dove into my childhood with the use of talk therapy and Spiritual Autolysis, I realized the untruth of that belief and how it came to be so deeply rooted in my ego based on my experiences growing up and the broader societal programming we’re all exposed to. As a result, I let that belief go. And since then, I’ve been freer from the constraints of childhood trauma than I was for over 20 years prior to that.
When Addition is a Good Thing
Not all forms of addition are bad. After all, there is no denying that our culture’s push for economic growth and consumerism has led to an economy and nation that’s developed enough to provide broad access to fundamental goods and services like free public education.
In 1820, 94% of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty. By 1910, it had fallen to 82%, and by 1950 the rate dropped to 72%. However, the largest and fastest decline occurred between 1981 (44.3%) and 2015 (9.6%).1More societal wealth comes with clear benefits.
But what else is good for the average person to add into their lives in service of emotional healing?
More time connecting with nature, more time in healthy relationships, more time spent caring for yourself, and more seeking the Truth are all good things.
And if there is a belief that I would argue is a good one to add to the superstructure of beliefs we call the ego, it would be the belief that you are not and have never been the person you’ve always believed yourself to be.
The rest of your beliefs you can safely toss in the trash. But for now, believe in the power of unbelieving.