The Ego Dilemma

I love meeting engaged people when I’m drunk because it allows me to ask my most drunkly assholish question ever:

“So, are you guys going to sign a pre-nup?”

Roughly two thirds of the time, they give some version of an acceptable answer:

  • Yes
  • No because we have no assets
  • No because, while it minimizes the fallout from a divorce, we feel it increases the chance of one by starting the marriage off on a wrong footing so we’d rather not risk it.

But about one third of the time, I get my absolutely most favorite answer of all which is

  • No because we don’t believe it’s likely we’ll get divorced.

It’s my most favorite answer of all because, after many years of experience, I’ve found that it’s the best way to force people to actually grapple with the ego dilemma.

The ego dilemma goes something like this:

“So, why don’t you think you’re going to get a divorce? Nobody enters a marriage expecting a divorce yet many of them do”

“Well, sure, other people get divorces but we have X & Y and that makes our marriage special”

“Well, yeah, but there were plenty of people who thought they were also X & Y at the start of their marriage but they eventually found out that didn’t help them much in the end”

“OK, but did those people have Z-which-is-so-uniquely-rare-only-we-have-it?”

“You’re right, they didn’t have Z, but when asked a similar line of questioning, they had the same reaction except they put in Z* which was unique only to their marriage, it didn’t help them much”

“Look… we’re just SPECIAL, OK?”

It’s the “Look, we’re just SPECIAL” which is the hallmark of the ego dilemma, it might not ever be as blatantly obvious as that but it’s always hidden in there somewhere.

The ego dilemma is the belief, against reasonable evidence, that there is something unique contained in your ego that challenges previous historical experience. In short, the ego dilemma would be a perfectly reasonable assumption if you lived in a movie where you were the main character but a deeply tricky one in the real world.

Other example ego dilemmas include believing you’re of significantly above average intelligence, setting aside your life so that you can “make it” as a famous actor/musician/sports star/writer, thinking you WILL get the girl with that desperately creepy romantic gesture or, if you’re coming here from Hacker News, assuming that your startup has a reasonable chance of success commensurate with the effort you’re putting into it.

The truly frustrating thing about the ego dilemma is that it tells you nothing of any value. Recognizing that you’re caught in an ego dilemma doesn’t mean that you’re wrong. You could, after all, be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Someone has to be after all. But also likely is that you’re a clueless idiot who’s utterly convinced at your own fallacious arguments. We know this intellectually because we’ve all experienced the ego dilemma from the outside, you’re trying to convince someone that they’re just plain wrong but they keep on returning back to what makes them SPECIAL. And if you’re experienced it from the outside, it’s meant that someone’s experienced it from the outside at you.

When confronted with the ego dilemma, there are two wrong reactions and one right reaction.

The first wrong reaction is to aggressively try and deflect yourself away from an ego dilemma: “Oh, yeah, I probably SUCK at programming but I just don’t know it yet”. STFU: That you can even concieve that you suck at programming is proof positive that you’re above average and your sanctimonious faux-modest attitude isn’t fooling anyone, including yourself. Deep inside, you still think you’re an awesome programmer and so you still have an ego dilemma.

The second wrong reaction is to instantly assume the question is futile and throw your hands up in the air. “Who can ever KNOW if I’m smart or not?”. Obviously, you don’t live in a world where you believe that to be true. You still think and act like a person who believes they are smart.

Unfortunately, the right way to deal with the ego dilemma is tricky and complex and deserves an entire post of it’s own. It really involves revamping your entire belief structure into something deeply probabilistic with a much finer and more nuanced representation of ignorance which I promise to write at a later date when I’ve fully processed what I’m actually doing.

But the absolutly most fascinating thing about the ego dilemma, and the reason why I so love torturing the almost married is that, even if you fully agree with and accept the argument and logic behind the ego dilemma, even if you’re an otherwise intelligent and reasonable person who doesn’t commit the obvious errors against rationality, when confronted with an actual ego dilemma from the inside, knowledge of the ego dilemma helps you barely at all.

The ego dilemma is what I call an unthinkable thought, you can almost see it slip around people’s head, evading capture. It’s so fascinating to me watching otherwise intelligent people utterly unable and unwilling to grapple with the ego dilemma set in front of them.

Back to our married couple:

“So you understand what an ego dilemma is now?”

“Yes, it all seems very logical and well thought out”

“So you see how it applies to you signing a pre-nup?”

“Oh? No, that doesn’t count, our pre-nup is special”

“What? But saying it’s special is how you RECOGNIZE it’s an ego dilemma”

“It is… but this is a special exception to the ego dilemma because of…”