How to be a believer without losing yourself
So the story goes that Kanye West has a life-sized picture of himself in his living room.
Kanye Whip-hopa hip-hop rapper, with a reputation for having a very robust ego. (You know, as compared to all those other humble and considerate hip hop rappers.)
And it’s probably fair to say he’s one of the most successful solo artists of the century so far.
The legend goes that in one of the living rooms in one of his mansions is a life-sized picture of himself, performing at a concert. It takes up an entire wall.
This story is often used by his detractors (‘haters’ is the common parlance I think) to talk about how over the top his ego is.
It also seems to be undeniable proof that he is a total narcissist. I know the people at Who magazine probably aren’t strictly qualified to dish out psychiatric assessments, but put two and two together.
Hip hop celebrity + life-sized photo = narcissist.
I certainly seem to be hearing this term narcissist bandied about a lot these days. Must be some sort of epidemic going round.
(I hope I don’t catch it).
Now if you live in the real world (I’ll come back to what ‘real world’ means in a minute), then it is hard to imagine why on earth you would want a life-sized picture of yourself in your living room.
It’s not a normal thing to do. Therefore, if it’s not ‘normal’, then it must be some sort of psycho-pathology. Narcissism is a pathology that might mean you’d do something like that. Hand meet glove.
But let me give you an alternative hypothesis.
Kanye is engaging in an act of radical self-definition.
He’s not content to let society tell him who he is and what his limits are. He’d prefer to write his own story.
And at the end of the day, our ego is just a story about who we are. It’s a mental construct we carry around that helps us navigate a complex world.
It is a grab-bag of beliefs – about who we are, what we can do, what we like and dislike, who we are attracted and attractive to…
But it’s all just a story.
None of it is real. I mean, in this moment, you are just a collection of atoms smooshed into meat and stuck on a skeleton popsicle. You are not your history. You are not bound by the stories you or anyone else tells about you.
(If this point doesn’t immediately resonate, don’t worry. You’re not alone. You’re fighting eons of evolutionary design that have landed us with the ego.)
This is the reality, but you can’t function with this reality. You can’t operate in the world simply believing that you are just a smooshed-meat popsicle. You’ll never get anything done.
So you need a story. You need your ego. It’s a useful tool.
But here’s the thing. Since that tool lives in your head, you can redesign and repurpose that tool.
That’s what Kanye’s doing.
He is rewriting the story of himself. He is creating a story where he is an international mega-star.
Once that story becomes embedded (having a giant picture in your living room would be a potent way to do that), then that becomes the framework you’re operating in.
So if someone offers Kanye a gig, do you think he thinks twice about charging top-dollar?
Or if he wants to work with a particular musician, do you think he’s shy about reaching out and asking?
Or if his work demands him to rock out 100,000 people with complete confidence, do you think he loses sleep about it?
No way. That’s not part of the mega-star story. That’s not part of his story.
That, my friends, is the million dollar question. Kanye lives in the real world as much as you or I. He’s just conscious about who he lets write his story.
But if you’re pumping yourself up – pictures on your wall and all that – don’t you risk becoming a narcissist?
Perhaps. And perhaps that’s what’s happened to Kanye. I’m not qualified to dish out psychiatric assessments.
But the point I’d make is this. If Kanye has consciously chosen to rewrite his story, do you think he sees that story as a story, or as a reality?
To play this game well, you need to recognise that all your ideas about yourself are just a story and that they’re all up for negotiation.
Nothing is fixed.
If you engage in this process for a prolonged time, you begin to understand their malleable nature.
They stop being your reality, and they become just a story.
And so if haters attack Kanye the rapper, do you think he takes it personally? He probably just sees people attacking the story, and then what does he care? Some people like his story, some people don’t.
It’s got nothing to do with him.
And so, if you were really worried about becoming a self-obsessed narcissist, probably the best way to avoid it is to give yourself fully to radical story-telling and self-definition.
(i.e. stop identifying with your ego)
Or, you could go on worrying about what psychiatric assessment random people at woollies are going to give you.
Up to you.
Kanye: Narcissist or humble hero?