What’s the value of being selfish?

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If I had to sit down and make a list of the biggest changes between age 25 and age 35, I think I’d only be 3–4 items into the list before I arrived at “Meeting more selfish people, daily.” Now, there are a lot of arguments you can make before we even talk about being selfish — for example, the nine years between me turning 25 and me turning 34 also had the advent of social media and more digital communications. You can make an argument — a legitimate argument that those have helped people become more selfish. (I mean, fuck, isn’t the point honestly to talk about yourself?) You could also argue, as you could with anyone, that I’m a pretty unique person and maybe, because of my own issues, I tend to view others as selfish. That’s also entirely possible/plausible. But recently I’ve been thinking about it more. Here’s what I found out.

I guess, on surface, that the idea of being selfish as an evolutionary advantage makes sense. After all, aren’t we hard-wired to protect ourselves and our interests? And essentially, wouldn’t selfishness be an off-shoot of that? That was argued in a 2012 study.

Later studies have contradicted that notion, essentially saying, “If we were completely selfish beings — humans, that is — we never would have survived this far.” Rather than selfishness, that study argues that cooperation is the true key to human success (and even happiness), which ties into one of the greatest ironies of modern business interaction.

I don’t personally believe pure altruism is possible. I think at some level, everything you do has a tie back to yourself. I don’t think most people, for example, give money to a homeless person simply to make that person’s life better. I think one aspect of it, however small it may be, is to make you feel better about yourself. We very rarely do things 100 percent for another person; when we do, I would auger that it’s called “love” or “best friends.”

This Michigan State University study talks about evolution punishing those who are selfish and mean, and that seems, logically, to make sense. If someone is a total dick and can’t work with others, wouldn’t they get herded out of society? It would be a sheer challenge for them to reproduce, right? Because finding a partner might be a challenge?

Yes and no on that. As you see with “The Paradox Of The Brilliant Jerk,” oftentimes total assholes — who are probably inherently selfish — can get into companies and make a lot of money (and be hard to remove from said company, because their production is so strong). Money is a lust-driver. If you have it, you can probably go ahead and reproduce. So I’m not sure evolution totally punishes those who are selfish and mean; on surface, that makes sense. But I think the way we conceptualize work changes that — remember, we view wealth as aspirational. Not other things.

Maybe I’m phrasing this discussion wrong, because “evolution” as a term involves the broader changes in a species over time. Even if humans, as a whole, are mostly-altruistic and cooperate with each other (which happens in probably most places on Earth), there are still going to be selfish outliers. It happens. Having an entire world of one type of person would be fairly boring — and in a small way, isn’t that what Hitler was going for? That’s one of humanity’s all-time lows (and, oddly, it happened less than 100 years ago).

I started thinking about all this, because, like I said above, I feel like I encounter more and more selfish people as I get older. That could be me, that could be social media — as I said above — or it could be that as you get older, you have more responsibilities (I somewhat do), and responsibilities tend to lead you to more dialogues with higher-up people, and higher-up people have a desire to protect their own shit and move up their own chain (generalization, but somewhat true). All this could be true, sure.

One specific reason I’ve been thinking about it more is my family — both my actual one (born into) and my in-laws (married into).

In my own family, my uncle got divorced a few months ago. They had been married 35 years, and had three kids (one of whom got married this summer), and from my perspective, the whole thing is weird — but I wouldn’t say I’m extremely close with them, so I don’t expect to know answers about why it happened or anything. Plus, it’s their marriage. It’s not mine. So why do I deserve to know anything? That’s how I think about it. My mom, on the other hand, seems to want to know more about it, and seems to want to understand if it ties back to her or her broader family in some way. I look at that sometimes and I think it’s selfish. People want to live their own lives and control their own flow of information; at some juncture, you just need to let them.

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Same deal with my in-laws. Again, great people — like my own mom/dad — but my mother-in-law has a tendency to get depressed, but present that depression in different ways to each of her children (three in total). She’ll call my sister-in-law and talk about how she lost a tennis match (which seems like a small thing), then call my wife and ask “Why do people love me?” (a bigger thing). As a result, my wife is thrown into a tizzy thinking her mom is really unraveling, and my wife’s sister is talking about tennis. The presentation seems selfish, honestly. Maybe I’m naive.

Here’s what I think overall — and bear in mind, I’m not any type of researcher or scientist or intellect.

I think compassion is at a premium right now, as in — we all get very busy with our own lives and what we need to accomplish. We forget about others and what they need; hell, we honestly forget about some of the people closest to us.

As a result, I think selfishness is a “guard-up” type of mentality in the modern age. We spend so much time with everyone running around trying to accomplish stuff — instead of stopping and thinking about what might be important — that everyone feels they need to protect their own neck (i.e. be selfish) to make sure that, at some point, they get what they want.

Of course this is a generalization.

The ironic thing is that the way you connect to other human beings is actually through vulnerability. It’s not through chasing what you need — it’s through exposing your flaws to another and saying, “I trust that you will run with this in the correct way.” That almost never happens at work. It’s rare in personal existence, too — my own family only very rarely ever discusses true vulnerability, and I’m not sure my dad ever has — but it probably happens more there than in an office.

So in sum, I do think selfishness has some value in the modern canon. We’ve all become so busy, and so lacking in true/real time for one another, that people need to be selfish to assure that, at some small level, their own needs/their own bullshit is being met head-on. It’s the sociocultural equivalent of raising one’s fur, almost.

I sometimes say, “I fucking hate selfish people,” although admittedly, probably 60 percent of the decisions/actions I undertake are inherently selfish anyway. I protect my own shit just like the next person. But that’s something I want to start doing less.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and I’m a member of the BlogPoets network. My deal: I try to think differently about work, the future of work, leadership, management, marketing, organizational development, customer experience, and more. I’m out here trying to chase real professional connection and collaboration, not just 200K page views. Anyone want to talk? (I also do freelance and ghostwriting work, if anyone’s into that.)

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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