Selfishness: A Virtue

Nothing gets me more pissed off than seeing someone blatantly flaunt their own self interest. It doesn’t matter the context: someone asking me for a job, someone getting in my way on the sidewalk, someone giving me a dirty stare because my kids are…being kids. The list goes on and on.

Selfishness is my trigger. The reasons for this are complicated but fairly easy to explain. My family constantly reminded me that I had “selfish points”: do this activity and you’re not selfish, do that and you are. Consequently, I’ve relentlessly judged others as being selfish, and I work my hardest to shame them out of these behaviors. And the person I’ve judged the hardest? You guessed it: me.

Deep inside my psyche is a belief that no matter what I do, I’m a selfish piece of crap. This was instilled in me and reinforced over and over in my childhood when I had no defenses to say “no I’m not!” Nothing that I do can ever dig me out of the selfish hole that was dug for me a long time ago. I’m desperate for people to say to me “Jon — you are very giving. I recognize this in you and I admire you for it.” This yearning desire to fill and cover up the hole of selfishness with selflessness is something that I must actively work to correct, because it’s been detrimental in my quest for self-actualization.

Interestingly, my quest to deny my selfishness has only led to…more selfishness. By acting in “selfless” ways and denying the actual selfish motives behind these actions, I’ve failed to recognize my full self, warts and all. And then, I would do these selfless acts just so that I could get upset at people for not recognizing my selflessness and judge them for their own selfishness! Twisted!

This all sounds confusing, I know, but let me give you an example. I used to offer LinkedIn office hours — for free — so that I could help out students with job related advice and questions. What a selfless act! What a nice guy I am! Inevitably, none of the people I helped would ever return the favor. I could be the selfless martyr and the people I helped were the selfish jerks. I could complain about how terrible everyone is while exonerating myself from being terrible.

Yeah, not great behavior. But there’s been a major shift in my behavior in the past couple of weeks due to the realization that I’m just as much of a selfish piece of shit like everyone else. None of my actions are selfless — they’re all done with some expectation that I want something and that I have my own needs and desires that these actions are fulfilling. No point in denying this, and no one else cares much either as long as they’re benefiting. Other people are way cooler with selfishness than I could have expected.

So how’s this playing out? Well, let’s start with my consulting business. You want my time for me to solve your problems? Pay me. I’m not here to help you unless there’s some benefit to me. And no, it doesn’t make me “feel good” to help others. My LinkedIn posts are enough help for you (and no, those aren’t selfless either — they’re great marketing for me and my brand, which helps me get clients who pay me. Yup, there’s selfish motives behind everything I do!)

Want a video chat with me? Well, I want some fun in my life away from the drudgery of children and work. If you’re prepared to shoot the shit and mess around for thirty minutes to an hour, then we’ll talk. If you want me to solve your problems or talk about your boring work — sorry, not interested. Bring the fun or go home. It’s my time so I need to get something out of it.

Mentorship? I’ve already talked about how that’s selfish for me in another blog post. My mentees are supposed to accept and approve of me as a person. Yeah, they get my guidance, but ain’t nothing in life is free — I ask a LOT of them (and they come through because if they didn’t? I ain’t got time for that either). The number of people who reach out to me and want “free mentorship” is pretty incredible. I used to begrudge them but not anymore: I either say “pay up” or “not interested.” And then I move on.

Family? My kids annoy me and I leave the room. Better to be selfish and regain control of my emotions than be “selfless” by sticking around and blowing up at them. Right now I’m taking a break because I could feel myself getting irritated by their behavior.

Yesterday on LinkedIn I wrote posts for about 15 people without asking for anything in return. Selfless? Far from it. It was a brilliant marketing scheme. Nearly all of them were interested in my content services after they saw what I could do for them. And their posts acted as marketing for me and my brand. I’m glad they’re happy with the results, but so am I.

This is freeing, and is a major development in integrating sides of myself that are shameful and hateful. I’ll still get pissed off at others for being selfish pieces of shit because I still hate that behavior, and I always will. But hopefully with time I’ll be quicker to forgive their behavior as I work to forgive myself for acting with selfish motives. Onward and upwards!


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Jon Tesser

I use data to understand people. I also help early career professionals find career happiness.