“The belief that unhappiness is selfless and happiness is selfish is misguided. It’s more selfless to act happy. It takes energy, generosity, and discipline to be unfailingly lighthearted, yet everyone takes the happy person for granted.” — Gretchen Rubin
I know a lot of people who struggle with the balance of being selfish vs. being selfless, and they forget to take care of themselves.
And when you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others.
And, the better you take care of yourself, the better you can take care of others.
In the book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, Scott Adams shares his insight and philosophy on what it means to be selfish and why it’s a good thing for you, and for society .
3 Kinds of Generosity
According to Scott Adams, there are three kinds of generous people in this world:
- Burden on others
“That’s the entire list. Your best option is to be selfish, because being stupid or a burden on society won’t help anyone. Society hopes you will handle your selfishness with some grace and compassion. If you do selfishness right, you automatically become a net benefit to society.“
Successful People Don’t Burden the World
When you can take care of yourself, other people don’t have to.
“Successful people generally don’t burden the world. Corporate raiders, overpaid CEOs, and tyrannical dictators are the exception. Most successful people give more than they personally consume, in the form of taxes, charity work, job creation, and so on. My best estimate is that I will personally consume about 10 percent of the total wealth that I create over my career. The rest goes to taxes, future generations, start up investments, charity, and stimulating the economy.”
Avoid Petty Selfishness
Don’t be petty. You know better.
“By ‘selfishness’ I don’t mean the kind where you grab the last doughnut so your coworker doesn’t get it. That wouldn’t be enlightened selfishness because that sort of pettiness can bite you in the arse later. And it might rob you of some energy if you feel guilty about it or you get caught.”
Seek Enlightened Selfishness
Take care of your basic needs so that you can move up Maslow’s stack.
“The most important form of selfishness involves spending time on your fitness, eating right, pursuing your career, and still spending quality time with your family and friends. If you neglect your health or your career, you slip into the second category — stupid — which is a short slide to becoming a burden on society.
I blame society for the sad state of adult fitness in the Western world. We’re raised to believe that giving of ourselves is noble and good. if you’re religious, you might have twice as much pressure to be unselfish. All our lives we are told it’s better to give than to receive. We’re programmed for unselfish behavior by society, our parents, and even our genes to some extent. The problem is that our obsession with generosity causes people to think in the short term. We skip exercise to spend an extra hour helping at home. We buy fast food to save time to help a coworker with a problem. At every turn, we cheat our own future to appear generous today.”
You Have Permission to Take Care of Yourself First
Scott Adams is giving you the power of permission to take care of yourself first.
“So how can you make the right long-term choices for yourself, thus being a benefit to others in the long run, without looking like a selfish turd in your daily choices? There’s no instant cure, but a step in the right direction involves the power of permission. I’m giving you permission to take care of yourself first, so you can do a better job of being generous in the long run.
You might be wondering how a cartoonist’s permission to be selfish can help you in any way. The surprising answer is that it can, in my opinion. If you’ve read this far, we have a relationship of sorts. It’s an author-readership relationship, but that’s good enough. We humans are wired to be easily influenced by the people who are in relationships with us, no matter what those relationships are. Sometimes we call that influence peer pressure. Sometimes it’s called modeling or imitating. Sometimes it’s learning by example. And most of the time it’s just something we do automatically, without thinking.”
Being Selfish Means Take the Long View
The best thing we can do for ourselves is help others.
“I should pause here for more literal readers and explain that being selfish doesn’t mean you should let a runaway baby carriage roll into traffic if you think stopping it will make you ten seconds late for work. Humans are so emotionally and societally connected with one another that often the best thing we can do for ourselves is to help others. I’ll trust you to recognize those situations. Being selfish doesn’t mean being a sociopath. If just means you take the long view of things.”
Success Changes Your Priorities
Success shifts your priorities to those around you, and the bigger picture.
“One of the most interesting surprises for me when I started making more money than I would ever spend is that it automatically changed my priorities. I could afford any car I wanted, but suddenly I didn’t care so much about my possessions beyond the utility they provided. Once all of my personal needs were met, my thoughts automatically turned to how I could make the world a better place. I didn’t plan the transformation. It wasn’t something I thought about and decided to do. It just happened on its own. Apparently humans are wired to take care of their own needs first, then family, tribe, country, and the world, roughly in that order.
I’m sure there are plenty of selfish turds who make billions and spend it all on helicopters and mansions with never a thought given to the well-being of others. I meet a lot of super successful people in my line of work, especially living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and my observation is that it’s rare to find a selfish successful person. I assume some or even most successful people started out selfishly, but success changes you. It’s not a coincident that Brad Pitt is helping to build homes after the Hurricane Katrina disaster or that Bill gates is one of the most important philanthropists of all time. Success does that.”
Selfishness is a Necessary Strategy When You’re Struggling
When your survival and well-being is at stake, selfishness is a key strategy.
“The healthiest way to look at selfishness is that it’s a necessary strategy when you’re struggling. In hard times, or even presuccess times, society and at least one cartoonist want you to take care of yourself first. If you pursue your selfish objectives, and you do it well, someday your focus will turn outward. It’s an extraordinary feeling and I hope you can experience it.”
If you don’t take care of yourself, who will?
We want you to take care of yourself.
Do you know what you need and do you have what it takes to do so?
It’s O.K. to be selfish. It helps everybody in the long run.
You Might Also Like
Image by Lauren Hammond.