To be selfish or selfless – that is the question

As I prepare to throw myself into my next life challenge, a year at INSEAD Business School, I plough my way through piles of books on corporate finance, accounting, economics. 100 pages into the graphs and theoretical concepts of microeconomics, I am hit by a thought.

Professors in microeconomics devote their time to study how people like us make decisions, how we interact and how this impacts society as a whole. Basically it is about understanding what motivates an individual, simply how we think. The conclusion is that all people act rationally and try to act so as to gain the most benefit for themselves. Being very selfish, in other words.

This is a familiar thought. Society is set up to incentivize us to work hard so we can earn money, status, recognition and live the life filled with happiness that we have always desired.

On the contrary, we hear all the time about the importance of kindness and generosity in order to feel happy. We desperately desire to feel worthy of human connection and being inclusive in social circles, and the route to get accepted by others, is through our various acts of kindness. “Give to get”, right?

Your heart... to keep or give away?

Your heart… to keep or give away?

On the surface it sounds like we should perform selfless acts, but I can’t help but wonder, are selfless acts based on selfishness?

Having spent the past year and a half working in Africa to “do good” for other people, was this selfish or selfless? I wholeheartedly admit that I have not known a stronger feeling of fulfillment than when I have witnessed one of my students turning his life around, from a place of violence and drugs to responsible fatherhood and flourishing entrepreneurship.

Does the fact that my actions ultimately benefit myself by making me feel better make me a selfish person? If seemingly selfless acts like giving a lost tourist directions and donating money to charity, because it makes you feel good, are selfish, what is a completely selfless act?

Helping youth or helping myself?

Helping youth or helping myself?

Selflessness is doing something for someone even if you know beforehand the act doesn’t make you happy and you don’t expecting anything in return (not even a simple thank you). The closest thing to selflessness is doing something for someone you don’t know or you haven’t met because they ask. The first thing that comes to mind is someone who asks for a light.

So, if we take this further, should we sacrifice our own resources, and ourselves, as far as to take a bullet for a complete stranger?

Him or you?

Him or you?

What is better – to be selfless than selfish?

There are examples of people that are considered by society to have lived a life where they have sacrificed themselves for the greater good of society, like Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Theresa. Undoubtedly, they have done wonderful, courageous things that have changed the lives of millions and continue to inspire to this day.

Yet, there is something importantly different about these people and their acts, and it is that they underwent personal sacrifice without losing the love for themselves. Selflessness, without self-respect, can even be damaging.

Nobody can hurt me without my permission - Mahatma Gandhi

Nobody can hurt me without my permission – Mahatma Gandhi

There are those that believe that selflessness is the key to moral or spiritual growth, but I argue that it is not.

Even religion has selfishness written all over it, there’s no doubt about that. Simply look at the concept of an afterlife in the Christian tradition: one must be good to gain an eternal afterlife. Yet, it does not mean that one can live a life being good to her and at the same time benefit others.

Perhaps in order to be selfless, we need to be selfish?

By putting yourself first, you can actually help others.  When you put yourself first, for the benefit of others, this acts as inspiration and leverage to push you towards your own personal success.

Selfishness is the basis for all human progress throughout history. Driven by the desire to improve the livelihoods for ourselves, we can also benefit other people.

Take for example the man who created the wheel. He did so to ease the burden of moving things over distances. A selfish desire, which benefitted society.

Where would we be today without the wheel?

Where would we be today without the wheel?

“You cannot give, unless you have. You cannot make someone else happy, when you yourself are sad. You cannot love someone else unless you have learnt to love yourself first. How can you forgive someone unless you have learnt to forgive yourself?” – Osho

According to the economists, we should all act in a way that makes society benefit as a whole. This way, each individual will be better off.

For us, caught up on our own stories, it means that we need to lift our heads up and see the world as it is. First then can we truly understand how we are all interconnected, and how our actions affect others.

When we do this, we are in a place where we can make the choices we believe are right in our hearts, selfish or selfless.

Where are you investing your energy?

Where are you investing your energy?

4 thoughts on “To be selfish or selfless – that is the question

  1. I have always felt that the ‘selfish vs. selfless’ dichotomy lays upon flawed definitions. If the selfless is one who consciously acts against his own self-interest, then true selflessness may never consciously be. Moreover, one may suggest that, as soon as you start pondering the possible outcomes of any action, then you are not entirely selfless. We are selves.

    I would rather suggest that negating the selfishness part rather than focusing the selflessness part best describes the state of altruism you seem to seek. In such a way, and to build upon the Christianity relation you mentioned in your text, it has always occurred to me that selflessness was made of (i) disinterested love and, more importantly even, (ii) love for the other as you wished others loved you. It is only your love that confirms others in their freedom – and you in your actions. More than only by their motivations, our engagements must be based upon their finality.

    We are, thus we cannot aim to be purely selfless: we are and we remain our own self. But we must try to do good, and more importantly, to love.

  2. It is such a beautiful article. I truly live by the fact that one needs to be happy to make others happy as they say happiness is when shared. Keep going.

  3. Hi, I’m starting at INSEAD this January and I just want to reach out to you because I love reading all of your blog entries. I’m almost finished with BF and I already feel like challenging my own background and principles that I’ve always believed in. Anyway, you’re an inspiring and truly an inspired person and I wish you well in all your future endeavors.

    • Hi! Thank you for your comment and congratulations on INSEAD! It is a truly life changing experience. It’s a wonderful opportunity to listen to your inner voice and follow your dreams. Best of luck.

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