My ego made me do it: life as a musician in Iron On and Disco Nap

After the demands of the ego and its greed surrender, the struggle for fulfilment of personal desires lessens: life takes on a new zest like a breath of fresh air.

—Swami Sivananda Radha

In my early twenties, I started playing music in an indie rock band called Iron On. I had dreamed about playing in a band ever since my best friend introduced me to artists like Weezer and The Smashing Pumpkins when I was 13. So, naturally, when this teenage dream started to become a reality in the form of Iron On, I was excited to the point of giddiness. For the first time in my life I felt like I was doing something I truly loved. Something that was 100% ‘me’.

Within a year, Iron On had become the most important thing in my life. And then—because I didn’t know how to value myself enough to set healthy boundaries—it completely took over. If my life had been a billboard that explained who I was to passers by, ‘Iron On’ would have been written at the very top in giant letters surrounded by neon flashing lights. And much lower down, next to an an asterisk in the fine print section, ‘Ross Hope’ would have been listed, almost as an afterthought.

I lived for Iron On. Every single part of who I thought I was and why I was here linked back to the band in some way. Iron On gave me a creative outlet, an identity as a musician and songwriter, a sense of doing something ‘meaningful’ with my life, and recognition as a minor celebrity in the Brisbane music scene. It also provided me with a quasi family at a time in my life when I didn’t know who I was or where I belonged. We did everything together—drank beer, wrote songs, played shows, recorded albums, and toured the country—like a group of tired, unwashed outlaws. 

The emotional roller-coaster

Being in Iron On was an emotional roller-coaster full of unpredictable twists and turns. Some were disappointing—like when every manager and booking agent in the country turned us down. Some were downright gut-wrenching—like when our drummer, Nicola Phoenix, committed suicide. And others were utterly intoxicating—like performing at the Big Day Out at the Gold Coast, getting our songs played on Triple J, or recording an album with ARIA-award-winning producer, Magoo.

But even when good things happened, I never felt like they were ‘enough’. Why? Because I had decided that Iron On would only be a ‘success’ if we signed a big record deal and I achieved my personal goal of becoming a career musician. In other words, if Iron On became my full-time job and primary source of income (rather than a hobby, and a deep hole I regularly poured money into). I was so fixated on getting to this level that I never really stopped to celebrate the smaller milestones along the way. Instead of seeing them as signs of significant progress, all I saw was where I wasn’t and how far I still had to go to achieve my goals. Nothing was ever good enough, and nothing could happen fast enough. 

I was Iron On and Iron On was me

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I derived my entire identity and sense of self-worth as a human being from Iron On. I was so emotionally invested in the band that I didn’t know where the band ended and I began. For all intents and purposes, I was Iron On and Iron On was me. And so, any time that Iron On was rejected for something, it felt like a personal blow—like someone had rejected me. For example, if we were overlooked for a grant, a support show, or by a potential manager, I was despondent and wounded. And this hurt soon turned to jealousy. One of my favourite pastimes was comparing more successful bands to Iron On and criticising their ‘vacuous’ music.

I knew in my heart that we wrote great songs and were an entertaining live band, but we just never seemed to find the traction in the music industry that I thought we deserved. Even at Iron On’s very first interstate show, I felt like we weren’t taken seriously. Apparently, the fact that we rocked up to the cool inner-city Sydney venue in a dusty old Sedan, towing a domestic trailer full of gear, looking like The Beverly Hillbillies, didn’t help our street cred. Because, as soon as the painfully-hip promotor caught a glimpse of us, our position on the bill suddenly changed—from ‘opening band’ to ‘playing after the headline act’ (in other words, once everyone had left and the cleaners had arrived). It was not a common industry practice to change the lineup on the day of the gig, or for any band to play after the headline act. In fact, it was unheard of. But, in Iron On’s case, they were willing to make an exception.

Whether real or imagined, from that moment on I felt like Iron On had to fight and scrap at every turn to get anywhere in the music industry. Nothing came easy. And because I was Iron On and Iron On was me, my whole life started to feel the same way: like I was being constantly ignored and overlooked. I took everything that happened to Iron On personally, and my default reaction was to overreact. So every time some new hipster band in tight black jeans came along and were given preferential treatment (which was often), I would become irate. Oh the injustice of it all!

I eventually worked out that record labels were more interested in what was fashionable than what was authentic and heartfelt, but I just couldn’t stomach it. Probably because deep down I knew that if this was true it would be almost impossible for us to ever be successful. We were certainly authentic (in the sense that we wrote emotionally honest songs), but we weren’t very cool. And we were miles from hip. Also, the style of music we played (90s-inspired indie rock) was never the industry’s flavour of the month, which didn’t help help our cause either. But I just kept holding out hope that the industry would eventually see things my way and come to value the same things about music that I did: real people writing real songs about real and difficult things in their life in the hope that this might make others feel less alone. Yep, I thought the music industry should behave like an enlightened monk. I’d skipped over the fact that it was an ‘industry’. And, first and foremost, it loved money.

The end of Iron On

When Iron On eventually imploded in 2008, after eight years of constant struggle, my immediate reaction came as a surprise. More than anything, I was relieved. The drama and angst I experienced with every disappointment, and the constant energy required to try to push the band uphill and into the spotlight was finally over.

Then, after the initial feeling of relief subsided, the grief hit me. I was distraught, lost and confused, because I felt like a huge part of me had died along with the band. All this then coalesced in a period of mourning for Iron On and the identity it had provided me. And when the floodwaters finally receded, I realised that I had no idea who I was anymore. I’d been a musician for almost ten years, and suddenly—almost overnight—I was nobody. 

Enter Disco Nap

After Iron On, music was still a really important part of my life. Even though I was no longer part of a band, and had no practical reason to keep playing music, I continued to write songs on my acoustic guitar. Partly because I enjoyed it and partly because I desperately needed a creative outlet for catharsis. I was so used to working through my emotions with music, I didn’t know how else to process what was happening. Writing songs was how I made sense of myself and my life.

Within twelve months I’d written 20 new songs, and I felt like I was ready to share some of them with the world. So I decided to record an album and start another band, Disco Nap. I approached this new musical project with a different energy to Iron On, because the last thing I wanted was another band to completely take over my life. And it worked, to a degree. Instead of Disco Nap merging with my identity, it became an important creative project that was just one part of my life. This time, on the billboard of my life, my own name was right at the top in neon lights, with ‘Disco Nap’ listed further down the billing. But, underneath my resolve for things to be different this time, the same desire to be a career musician was still lurking—and surreptitiously pulling the strings. The truth was, I still derived a large part of my identity and self-worth from being a songwriter and musician. I didn’t know how to be anyone else.

Farewell, music

After three years of writing, recording and touring with Disco Nap, I decided to walk away from the band and the music industry altogether. It was a hard decision, but I knew it was the right one. By 2012 it felt like Disco Nap had served its purpose, and I’d learned what I needed to. When I wasn’t playing shows, writing songs or practicing with Disco Nap, I had made a conscious effort to dedicate some time and space to other areas of my life—so that it didn’t become my whole life. Part of this meant exploring, more deeply, who I was and what was really important to me. This led to a period of significant personal growth where I was able to look at all the things in my life with fresh eyes. And, in doing so, I learned a lot about my ego and how to recognise its manifestations.

When I stood back and looked at Disco Nap, I saw a lot of my ego. I had tried to go into it with a different energy to Iron On, but my underlying motivations for playing music were still the same (fame and recognition). And the way I felt about myself hadn’t changed much either (not good enough). So the manifestations of these things were, in many ways, similar to those in Iron On: my ego was still pushing me to make Disco Nap a big deal in the music industry, and coaxing me to achieve something that would make me feel good enough. Once I recognised that these guiding forces were still at play—and that my ego had tricked me into thinking they weren’t—I knew I had to pull the plug on Disco Nap. It was time for me to find out who I was without music.  

When I called my band mates and ended Disco Nap, and half-jokingly told everyone in the industry that I had ‘retired’ from music, I actually felt pretty good about it. I was nowhere near as distraught or disorientated as I had been after the demise of Iron On. Sure, I felt sad about Disco Nap finishing, but mainly because I knew that a formative chapter of my life was coming to its natural conclusion. Again, there was a sense of loss—a mini death—so there was grief, but it was the kind of grief you feel when something dies peacefully at the end of a long life.

My ego, the wannabe famous musician

Everything I did (and everything I tried to do) in Iron On and Disco Nap was motivated by my ego. Even before I started Iron On, I often experienced thoughts in my head that told me I wasn’t good enough, that I was lacking in some way, and that I needed to do more. So my burning desire to be a famous musician actually stemmed from a subconscious need to fill a void within. Instead of recognising my negative thought patterns as unhelpful manifestations of my ego and mental health, I listened to them and identified with them. I thought they were ‘me’. (Which is how some people define ego—an identification with the thoughts in your head.) Essentially, because I believed the thoughts in my head (my ego) that told me that I wasn’t enough, I felt a strong urge to do something about it.

At first I didn’t know what I would do—I just knew that I couldn’t do something ordinary. It needed to be grand and important—something extraordinary. Eventually I decided I would try to ‘change the world with music’ and ‘help people feel less alone in their pain by writing songs about what I had been through’. This might have looked and sounded like altruism, even to myself, but it wasn’t. It all stemmed from my ego and lack of self-worth. In some dark corner of my brain, I needed confirmation that I had used my god-given talents for good; that I had realised my full potential; and that I hadn’t wasted my life being ordinary. Subconsciously, I believed that if I became a famous musician and wrote songs that helped people cope with their life, I would finally be able to say to myself that I was good enough. And I would finally feel like I had ‘arrived’ as a person, while fulfilling my purpose on this planet. This was the mentality that led me to become a pathological doer. I tried to use the things I did with my life (music) to convince myself of my value. All thanks to my ego, the wannabe famous musician.

Because of my underlying motivations for making music, there was a certain desperation to Iron On and Disco Nap. I wanted, more than anything, for these projects to give me something that I didn’t have; I wanted them to make me feel like a worthwhile human being. What I didn’t realise, of course, was that no matter what I achieved in Iron On or Disco Nap—even if it was the ultimate goal of becoming a career musician—it never would have felt like it was enough. And I never would have felt like I was enough. Why? Because I was searching for something outside of myself that could only be found internally. I was looking for some ‘thing’ in my life to give me a sense of worth, when what I really needed was to learn how to give this to myself. 

You are not your ego

As I learned from life as a musician in Iron On and Disco Nap, your ego wants you to think that ‘you’ and ‘it’ are the same thing—but you are not. You are not the thoughts in your head; you are not the emotions in your body; and you are not even the things that you do. The ‘you’ that I’m referring to is entirely separate from your ego, and lies much deeper than superficial identifiers like thoughts and emotions that can change as quickly as the weather. Some people like to call this your ‘true self’ or ‘authentic self’, but I see it as your spiritual dimension—and it is constant.

I never really believed in or understood this spiritual dimension until I started meditating. Sometimes, in the middle of a meditation, I would experience a momentary state of no-mind (no thought and no emotion), where my mind was completely empty. And I’d become aware of something within me I hadn’t felt before: a stillness and a presence. In these moments, I connected with the part of ‘me’ that transcended my finite identity and the superficial desires of my ego. And, for a split-second, I caught a glimpse of myself in the infinite.

Your ego doesn’t know your worth

Your ego doesn’t recognise your inherent value and worth. As a result, it thinks it has to continuously lobby you to create value and worth. Your ego wants you to be important and valued. It wants you to leave a legacy when you die. A simple life won’t do, because the ego knows that you’d be quickly forgotten.

To start you on the path of pathological doing, your ego might ask you questions like, “What can I do that will make my life important? What can I do that will make sure I’m remembered after I die?” If your ego asks you questions that push you towards personal achievement, just be aware that any ‘rewards’ the ego promises will be illusory. Even if you go on to achieve something amazing in the material world, your joy will be superficial and short-lived. And, soon enough, after the fanfare has died down, your egoic thought patterns will start up all over again. Your ego will say things to you like, “What are you going to do now? Yeah you did something successful, but everyone has forgotten about it already. Now it’s time for something bigger and better!” The constant subtext being: you are still not good enough; you are never going to be good enough; but, if you just keep pushing, one day you might be.

Alternatively, your ego might take a more indirect approach and pretend to be altruistic: “What can I do to help people? How can I use what I have learned in life and leverage the pain I have experienced to do some good in the world—to make it seem like what I went through wasn’t all for nothing?” These were the types of questions my ego used to ask me. Which is why I always felt like I needed to do something amazing that would change the world for the better. I wanted my pain to mean something—to have been for some grander purpose other than just a catalyst for personal growth. I felt that if I didn’t find a way to use my pain to help people, I would have somehow failed as a person.

You might be thinking, “But what’s wrong with wanting to help people and do good in the world?” To which I say: on the surface, nothing. But, at a deeper level, whether someone wants to do ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the world isn’t as important as where their motivation comes from. Because, any goals that you set yourself that flow from egoism will only reinforce an identification with your thoughts and fortify your false self. And, because your false self is blind to the real needs of others and only wants to help them for its own end, you can actually end up causing more problems for people that you are ‘trying to help’.

Being ordinary

Ever since I realised the significant influence my ego was having on my life, there have been many times that I’ve wanted to unplug it from the mainframe. To delete it; to kill it altogether. But I’ve come to accept that the best I hope for is to manage it. Until I become some enlightened deity and float off the planet, I’m stuck with my ego. So I might as well get comfortable. But there are things I can do to manage it: I can see my ego as a separate entity to ‘me’; I can recognise it when it attempts to influence my life; and I can diminish it to the point that I don’t let it guide my decision-making processes. Interestingly, the most effective way I have found to diminish my ego is to accept that it’s OK to be ordinary. To live a simple life. To be invisible. That there is no need to try to become someone extraordinary. Or live in the spotlight. Or do things that my ego thinks history will deem meaningful.

I wanted Iron On and Disco Nap to be the vehicles that helped me become a famous musician, because I thought that would make me happy. But nothing about these projects ever made me truly happy, because I always felt like I was ‘on the way to becoming something great’ and never arriving.

Ironically, now that I am a husband and father with a full-time job, a house, and a car, living the definition of ‘the suburban dream’ (something I used to detest), I am happier than I have ever been. Not necessarily because of any of these aforementioned things (the details aren’t important), or because I have reached some magical level of success (I haven’t). I’m happier simply because I learned how to give myself the love and acceptance I needed. That meant giving myself permission to be an imperfect human being—a perpetual student of the human condition. And allowing myself to be an ordinary person. It also required me to swallow a difficult truth: that nothing I achieved in the future could make me feel whole if I couldn’t feel that on my own right now.

My ego drove me to do a lot of things earlier on in my life, convincing me to strive for fame and recognition. But I have since discovered the beauty, peace and stillness in being ordinary. I have accepted the fact that I will never be a famous musician or world-renowned songwriter. In fact, it’s highly likely that I will never be known for anything of note outside of my family and circle of friends. Of course, my ego absolutely hates this idea. But I love it.

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