People write for different reasons. Recently I joined Medium’s Partnership Program. I have heard that some writers make thousands of dollars a month publishing on Medium. For me, however, money is not the motivator. I write primarily for my own enjoyment. I am not a “bestselling author.” But I am known internationally and my book, “The Zen Teachings of Jesus,” has been translated into German, Spanish, Korean and Chinese. It has also won a book award. My book has not made me rich. But when I visit professors in the theology department, I can often find my own book on their bookshelves. I may not be good in making money. But writing is something I can do relatively well. I have no problem writing on a wide variety of topics — spirituality, religion, finance, science, math, health and sexuality. I am curious about everything under the sun. I also enjoy getting feedback from people. Publishing a piece of writing is like speaking to the universe and the universe speaks back to me. It is a kind of dialogue. The responses I get from my readers often generates additional insights on the topic and give me new inspiration. It is an infinite feedback loop. Writing always makes me feel like being on top of the world. I agree with Aldous Huxley that “an intellectual is one who found something more interesting than sex.” In my writing, I often play the role of the contrarian or a “devil’s advocate.” It is fun to exercise one’s critical thinking skills to contradict conventional wisdom. I love taking down people on their high horses. But more importantly, I write to learn, reflect and organize my thoughts. Sometimes I think that I know something. But I discover that it is not so when I try to put my ideas down on paper. Writing is a great learning tool. It externalizes thoughts. Once externalized, these thoughts can be organized, scrutinized, revised and played with.
One needs a healthy ego in order to be a writer. The ego has been so unfairly bashed and vilified. It is as if people can only see its dark side but not its bright side. It is a kind of cherry-picking. Being a writer is a good example of putting the ego into good use. Why do writers write? Yes, some writers write for a living. The ones who manage to write bestsellers certainly enjoy the monetary payoff. I have a good friend who is a New York Times bestselling author. He is retiring and enjoying his life in an Asian country right now. One of his books has been made into a blockbuster movie. I am not like him. But I think that most writers are not so “successful.” When I look at the lives of the writers I admire, I come to the conclusion that their main motivation is not money. Rather, they write because they think they have some important ideas or messages to share with the world. Is this ego? You can say that. But there is nothing wrong with it. In fact, I would contend that the world will be impoverished if writers don’t have egos, or if writers think that their ideas are not worth sharing.
I certainly believe that I have ideas which are worth sharing when I publish. Do I have an ego? Certainly. But why is it a problem? I understand that my writing will be scrutinized by critics. I know that I tend to write on controversial issues and I love debunking beloved myths. This is part of the fun of writing for me. My ego pushes me to do thorough research and thinking lest I would be caught saying something silly or plainly wrong. I publish in both English and Chinese. When I work on an article in our Chinese Buddhist magazine, it takes me at least two days. I need to check my logic, verify sources, and make sure that I do not misquote. Further, even though I am one of the people who could not care less about political correctness, I know not to make enemies unnecessarily. As a writer, I want to be heard. Why word things in such a way that I would alienate people instead of increasing my readership? My reputation as a writer is important to me.
There is much nonsensical talk about the evil of ego. The notion that the ego is bad for you is typically subscribed by people who are religious or those who not critical thinkers. The ego CAN be put into good and healthy use. It serves a protective function. It prevents one from being suicidal. It also motivates one to do hard work, work that will be paid off in terms of reader reception and the author’s credibility. A sense of pride can be healthy too. As a teacher, I have always encouraged my students to take pride in their own work. There is a destructive kind of pride and there is a constructive kind. A healthy sense of pride drives the writer to adopt higher standards, endure numerous revisions, fight the lowest common denominator, venture out of the beaten path, say something that no one has ever said before. I believe that writers should take risks. The tendency to stay safe and conform to “common sense” and popular ideas is fatal to a writer’s soul. Why be a writer if you want to be a mouse?
I spent almost twenty years on Wall Street, as a financial engineer and a risk manager for big financial institutions. Wall Street is a place full of big egos. Big ego is not frowned upon on Wall Street. Yes, egotism can lead to one’s downfall and this happens frequently. But we need a decent size ego in order to achieve great things. Our ego makes us aim high and take risks. Instead of trashing your ego, you should befriend it. It is not your enemy. It can be a crucial ally. This is especially true if you are a writer or someone with certain public visibility.