In a recent post, I wrote about creating an alter ego to take on big challenges in your life. That’s the theory behind Todd Herman’s book The Alter Ego Effect: The Power of Secret Identities to Transform Your Life. You may have had an alter ego when you were a child; Herman writes that alter egos have been part of the human existence for millennia.
The first-century BC Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero was the first documented person to talk about the Alter Ego, in his philosophical works, although the term he used was “a second self, a trusted friend.” Its actual Latin meaning is “the other I.”
Herman admits to the creation of his own alter ego when he started his coaching business. He writes, “I was having success through the referrals I was getting, but it wasn’t enough to sustain it. I knew I could help people, but to actually get out there and market myself tied me up inside. I was insecure about how young I was and worried no one would take me seriously. After all, you need to be at least forty to be taken seriously. (That was actually a rule I had in my head, that forty equals respect. Don’t ask me how it got there, because it was absurd.) It didn’t help that I thought I looked like I was twelve.”
Herman had it in his head from a young age that smart people wear glasses. He decided that putting on a pair of eyeglasses would make him look serious, mature, older, and smart. So he bought a pair with non-corrective lenses and starting wearing them for sales calls. He also called this smarter person “Richard,” his actual first name that he never uses, preferring to be called Todd. Richard had the confidence to go out and find coaching clients, something that was very intimidating for Todd.
Part of the value of your alter ego is that it puts distance between you and what you’re attempting to do. The challenge might be big and scary for you; the stakes are high. If your very identity is threatened by failure, you’re not very likely to enjoy attempting something big. You might stay locked where you are forever.
Allowing your alter ego to take the risk puts all the pressure on your other self. And you know your other self can handle the pressure, because you created her for that very purpose.
Shep Gordon was a famous Hollywood agent who worked with some of the biggest stars of his time, people like Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper, Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross, Raquel Welch, and Groucho Marx. He singlehandedly created the category of Celebrity Chef by working to make Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck long before the Food Network was imagined. Here’s the advice he gave to all his famous clients.
“I think there’s just one general rule that I used to try and give to every artist, whether they were chefs or they were entertainers. It’s that if you allow the public figure to actually be you, you’re never going to be happy. And you’re never going to be confident, because if you take the traits of who you are and develop that into a character that you understand, you’ll always know what that character should do, so when you’re in a press conference, you always know how to answer a question.
If it’s you personally, you never have the answers. It’s really tough, and when you take it personally, that’s when you start scarring. If a bad review is about that person, you change that person. If a bad review is about you, sometimes that wound can be very deep.”
It occurs to me that celebrities who break under the pressure of constant scrutiny and no privacy might have benefitted from the creation of an alter ego.
My alter ego is a character I call the Queen. I grew up in a small town where I was not particularly noticeable. I knew my outside didn’t match my inside; I had talent and big ambitions, but not a lot of confidence. I developed the Queen to give me confidence when I entered a room full of people that intimidated me. The Queen commanded attention with her regal bearing and calm demeanor. She knows she’s wise and important and beautiful, and I let her take the lead until I feel comfortable in my own skin.
The Queen has been a good friend and a great help to me. Your own alter ego may be a superhero or just a more confident and better version of yourself. Both will work.