What is Selfishness?
Play • 25 min

Much of the work that we do in this podcast centers around defining our needs and desires — living into our own self interest, while loving it and trusting it as good. This can conflict with some of the programming that we have gotten from parents and society, which tells us that we should strive for selflessness and avoid selfishness. But what if self interest has the power to lead us to a more refined understanding of what makes us happy? In this episode, we will dive into the distinction between healthy self interest and what society calls selfishness.

"All self-interest it seems leads, if you allow it to, a more refined understanding of what makes us happy." 

Brett: A lot of the work we do in these courses has been around finding our wants, finding our needs and our wants, and asking for what we want, and getting what we want, and just really living into our own self-interest, loving it and trusting it is good. A lot of this seems to conflict with a lot of the programming we have gotten from parenting or from society around selfishness and not being selfish and being selfless. 

I am curious to dive into in this episode the line, if there is a line, between healthy self-interest and what we call selfishness. How do you define selfishness?

Joe: I have probably a pretty ludicrous definition of it, but it is what your parents told you you were when they wanted you to do something else. I think that’s really what selfishness is. Every time I have watched a parent call somebody selfish and then they become adults, and then they think they are selfish, it is always because the parent wants them to do something else or they are not doing what they want. It is almost a projection of selfishness from the parent. 

To even call your kid selfish is a selfish act if you are defining it the same way because a kid’s whole job is to learn how to assert their will and to get their wants and needs met. Of course, there is no two-year-old who is like let me think about world peace. The two year is like cookie, I want it. That’s the job of a two-year-old. It seems to be that that’s what selfishness is. It’s the thing that your parents wanted you to do for them that you didn’t do. That’s my definition of it in the more ludicrous sense. 

Another way to look at it, all self-interest it seems leads, if you allow it to, a more refined understanding of what makes us happy. If you allow yourself to explore your wants and your desires without a whole bunch of guilt, without a whole bunch of I have made a mistake, just simply like I explored that desire and that didn’t actually feel as good as other ways of interacting. What it actually leads to you is a deep level of altruism, which also has its own selfishness in it, meaning that altruism feels good. There is a great feeling, physical, in helping other people. There’s a great emotional, mental feeling of being selfless. 

I don’t really see a difference. I see it more as an evolution and the more that we allow ourselves to follow our wants, the more we become selfless in the standard way of looking at it. But it is just really refining how to be really good at being selfish. 

Brett: I am thinking about this idea of becoming really good at being selfish, and a thing that comes to mind is just some ways that people are really successful at getting what they want but often at the expense of other people. In the parenting example, I can imagine a parent who calls their child selfish is a way to teach them how to operate in a group. This is something society labels as selfish. If you are going to eat all of the cookies, you aren’t going to have any friends. 

Also, it might just be a way to help somebody. Let’s say there are multiple children playing today, and one of them is five years old than the other one and is just way more capable in terms of their nervous system, their size and their sophistication at getting what they want, even subtly manipulating the other one. It could also be used, I imagine, by a parent to try to find harmony in a group with an increased awareness of what’s going on with the kids. 

Joe: You are pointing out something really beautiful. I think it is kind of the same thing that the Buddhists are in some way pointing out, when they say craving and aversion. The root of all pain is desire, yet a Buddhist monk gets up and walks. There must be some desire there. Or eats, there must be some desire there. Or meditates, there must be some desire there. 

What’s the distinction? The question is: What’s the distinction we are making? What we want to be able to do is have some moralistic response to that, which is don’t eat all the cookies. In any situation, don’t eat all the cookies. We can all construct some idea where the best thing to do for the group is to eat all the cookies, or the best thing for the group is actually deep self-interest because if you can’t take care of yourself, then how does your community take care of itself? 

It’s this constant thing, and that’s, I think, the evolutionary journey we are talking about. If we allow ourselves to constantly find out what our deepest want is and explore that deepest want, then it leads us to a deeper and deeper altruism. It leads us to deeper and deeper care of other people. It leads us to greater and great compassion. I am saying the mechanism to teach compassion, empathy, and altruism is to support somebody’s want, to allow them to explore them and to find the faults in them so they can find the deeper want instead of the shallow want that feels like crap. The heroin addict wants to do heroin, but it feels like crap. You want to gorge yourself on cookies, but it feels like crap. 

Then, the deepest level, what is it actually? Does it feel better in the moment to eat all the cookies, or does it feel better in the moment to share? If you are doing it out of a moralistic sense, if you are doing it because you are trying not to be selfish, then it is worthless. Then you don’t actually get the benefit of it, and you don’t learn to do it because of the pure love of it. You are doing it out of a form of self-preservation. It’s just a horrible way to teach it. That’s what I am pointing to. 

Brett: This is something that comes up in a lot of the group dynamics in the courses. If you have some desire from your self-interest and then from this moralistic standpoint, you are withholding that desire, then it actually builds some form of resentment towards others. Another thing that can happen then is in groups, imagine there is a plate of cookies and so frequently in groups the last cookie will just go uneaten because everybody will not allow themselves to have the want for the last cookie and assume the cookie is for everyone else. Therefore, the cookie goes uneaten. 

This kind of thing is a metaphor for something that happens so frequently in groups and in leadership and companies where everybody is thinking something that they want the group to have, some wisdom they want to bring in, and they are afraid it will hurt feelings or just be as soon as selfish even if it is just their own want. I want this meeting to end. I am bored. That might be something everybody is about to say but nobody wants to be rocking the boat or offending. 

Joe: Exactly. That exact example has happened with me so many times. When people start to realize their wants are the company’s wants, their needs are the company’s needs, the needs of the individual parts of the organism is the need of the organism, that exactly happens. You will see it. You will see somebody go wow, okay, this meeting is boring. I really want to be more interested in this meeting. All of a sudden ten people smile, and they are like yeah. All of a sudden the meeting can shift into something else. That would be a selfish thing to say so people don’t say it. That would be rude, so people don’t say it. That would be self-interested, so people won’t say it. But it is actually the thing everybody wants to hear, or at least a good portion of people want to hear it. 

That’s the example on everything. Oftentimes, in a marriage and they are in trouble is they stop telling each other what they actually want. They are constantly trying to accommodate each other, so their wants aren’t being met. The other thing about that that you pointed to subtly is whatever the want is that you have, if you sublimate it, it comes out in different ways. What you start seeing is there are a whole bunch of wants that have been subjugated in an organization, and then it becomes very political. 

Brett: And gossipy. 

Joe: And gossipy. One of the things you see that creates that political culture is people don’t know how to succeed. They don’t know what it is that means they have succeeded. They think the only way to move up through the ranks is to please the people above them, but the other way it happens if people aren’t clear about what they want. It is seen as selfish or greedy, and so it becomes a lot more critical, especially at the leadership level. If the leaders can’t be clear about what they want, then wow, it gets really funky really quickly inside of an organization. 

Brett: An example here would be if there is a leader of an organization who is owning what they want, but their wants are coming from a place of fear. What they really just want is for everybody to do what they say because they are afraid of how things are going to go, and they are afraid of trusting other people’s intuition and other people making decisions. From that position of power, they can want everybody to listen to them and not recognize maybe that they have a deeper want, which is I think all of our deeper want is to be in a group where everybody is getting their needs met and getting what they want. But we don’t see that when we are in fear. 

When we have a group where there is a power imbalance or a hierarchy, how would you approach this as either the person in the position of power or a person not in a position of power with regards to getting needs met without having this concept of selfishness as a form of control?

Joe: That’s a great real-life example. It actually happens in two ways. Let’s take the one you explained. Someone who has fear, what they actually want on some level, they probably can’t even recognize, is they just want everyone to do what they say. First of all, if they can recognize it and they can say it, everybody is going to feel calmer. This is an organization where I just want people to do what I tell them to do. If you are down for that, stay. If you are not, go, but that’s what I want. There are definitely CEOs who run their companies that way. There are definitely people who want to be in companies like that. It is efficient. One guy tells me what to do. I succeed, boom. 

I was talking to somebody on the plane the other day who said exactly that. I love working for this person because everything is efficient. They just tell you what to do. That’s one thing, but if they can’t say it or they can’t own it in themselves, it will get really weird and wonky inside the organization. 

The other side of that is you have a CEO who wants collaborative, or she wants collaborative. They are completely not owning the things they want to just say, do it this way. That creates a whole bunch of weirdness, too. Let’s say 80% they want collaboration but 20% they just want it done their way, but they won’t say I just want it done this way on this one for me. They are always trying to be collaborative. That creates a tremendous amount of guck in the system, too, all sorts of politics. 

I will actually do work with CEOs and their team. I will say just tell them exactly what you want in a complete asshole way and then do it in a not asshole way, and then do it when you are hedging. You don’t want to tell them, but you are telling them. You see the CEO recognize at that moment how much of a relief it is to their people when he or she is just telling them what to do or when she is being clear that this is one of those places where we collaborate. I don’t want to tell you what to do. That clarity of want is so useful for the people who are working with you. They can say no. Hopefully you can trust your leadership team to say no, I don’t want to do it that way.  I hear you want me to do it. 

When all of the people are owning their wants, it is super functional. That self interest is what drives really good collaboration. If everybody has got their roles and they have self interest in their roles and the roles are well defined and they are the right roles, then that’s what makes a great company happen. 

Brett: Something that brings up is if let’s say there is a company, or a community and I step into a group of people and let’s say that group has a stable dynamic where people are actually anticipating each other’s needs. They are doing this fairly well. Maybe they are not owning their needs fully, and then I step into the group, and I am like I know what I want. I know how to say it. I know how to ask for it. I trust people to ask for what they want. It just turns out that I am projecting that everyone else in the group is as comfortable with their wants as I am. It takes some time for me to realize that actually people are starting to give up what they want. They are hiding their wants. They are giving me more than they actually want to give, and that’s building resentment. 

I can imagine it goes the other way, too. If I don’t feel comfortable in my own wants, I might just project that if I were to assert my wants, everybody else would give in when they don’t want to. That wouldn’t be what I want. There seems to be some space in here for our own projections to lead our behavior and also be incorrect. 

Joe: In all those ways I have seen it happen. Somebody thinks everybody should handle directness, and either people give in, or people think you are an asshole for asking directly for what you want. Oppositely, some people think they would be an asshole for asking directly and people get really pissed at them for being uncertain or for not being direct or straightforward or being political. You see it in every way. There are just signs that are really good. If someone feels resentful, it means they are not following what they want. They are not holding their boundaries. They are not saying the things they want. They are not getting their needs met. Resentfulness is a really good way to find that indicator, the indicator of one of the sides of it where people are giving in. 

Then the other side of it is you will get dismissed if you start to really ask for what you want and people get resentful, you will see their anger dismissal from them. That’s another good indicator. But what you are basically asking on some level is something to the effect of: If there is an organism that’s operating in a healthy way and they get into a bunch of other organisms that are operating in an unhealthy way, there is going to be some friction. I am going to say yes, there is going to be some friction. But it doesn’t change the fact that everybody being clear about their wants is a healthy way for an organization to exist, particularly if they are owning their wants and they are also constantly refining their wants. 

That’s part of the evolution. If you are not refining your wants, then the evolution isn’t going to happen. Maybe the first thing you say is what I want is this lover that has the perfect body. That’s the thing you think you want. Maybe television has taught you that. You go off and follow that want, and you might find out the perfect body is not all that. That’s really cool for the first couple times of love making, but after that I actually just want someone who is really sensual in their body. I really want somebody who can accept pleasure and who loves pleasure. Then that might become the new thing you want, and then you follow that road down until wow, actually I need real love connection for my love life to be great. You are refining your wants. 

Through those things, you are refining your wants. For us to jump away from a want like the body to a want like love and connection, then you are just constantly going to be still wanting the body and you are never going to be able to fully dive into just the connection. It is really important to just move through the wants. It is just like you watch a little kid. All of the time, you see these kids and they don’t say anything, but they want to walk. They want to talk. These wants drive their evolution. It is the same thing all of the way through life. 

Our evolution slows because we start questioning our wants, because we start feeling guilty about our wants, because we are selfish in our wants, or we stop refining them. We are like okay, we are just going after money, money, money until all of a sudden we are 60 years old, and we are like holy crap, this doesn’t make me happy. I guess I want something else. 

Brett: I think what you are speaking to here is there is this stair stepping down deeper and deeper into our wants. The process you just described, it is not trivial. That’s some major life challenges to be hey, I am going to try dating a partner. I am going to search and find the person with the hottest body and then go through the period of a relationship with someone when I actually discover that I want something else, which then involves being honest and vulnerable, moving on or just being messy and avoidant, whatever that is. Then moving into the next deeper want, so this process you are describing is a transformational process that is scary, especially if you are bringing it into a community, a family, or a company that you feel very attached to. 

I am curious how to facilitate internally this process. If somebody is listening to this episode and they are like I want to move into my wants more deeply, what’s the way to approach this that facilitates this personal transformation in the least damaging way in the groups we are in? I am imagining an example being like approaching my company and saying I realize that for years I haven’t been asking for what I want. I have been really trying to get the group intelligence to bring up what it wants. My wants haven’t actually been present. I am going to experiment with bringing my wants into this more, and also I really want to be able to trust people to say no. 

Joe: That sounds like a pretty cool way to do it. Also, on top of that, you could say things like hey, how do you want to hear my wants. How important are my wants to hear for you? You can actually get the feedback. We have been waiting for you. Please tell us what you want. You can ask them how they want to receive it, how they want you to deliver it. All of that stuff is all flexible and can be something that agreement makes the whole thing easier. 

The principle there is you bring it forward in a conscious way in a meta context first so that people know what’s coming, know how it is coming, and you are listening to them in the process of it and making sure you are finding a way that works for you and for them. That’s the trick. 

Brett: It seems another component is just being prepared for major changes. If you are going through this process, your wants are going to change significantly and that might mean owning it as that occurs and people being disappointed with you. Other people’s wants around you might change. 

Joe: The weird thing is if you ask 20 people, how many of you would want to be with somebody who is doing it because they feel obligated to be with you? 19 out of 20, maybe 20 out of 20 is going to go no, I don’t want it. It is actually really interesting. If you say to somebody I am doing this out of obligation and that’s not fair to you and it’s not fair to me, and this is what I actually want, there is usually a tremendous amount of understanding there. There is a lot of fear to say it. People are very scared to say what they want. It is because we were all told when we were young that our wants were bad, that we were bad to have certain wants. When we had certain wants, the love was removed. I just want your attention, mom. You are needy. You are clingy, whatever. We were taught. 

To own a want is an incredibly vulnerable thing, and we got rejected a lot for our wants. We start shutting them down, but there is an evolutionary pull. It is the way a tree bends to the light. Our wants are that same kind of mechanism. They teach us the next step in our learning process, not the ultimate best step but the next step in our learning process. If it becomes a craving, what I would say the Buddhists describe as desire where you are like a hungry ghost, that’s a pretty indicator that it’s no longer a healthy want. It is an absolute indicator that we are not in a healthy want there anymore. You are in an addictive or obsessive want. There is a deeper want that will satisfy you. 

Brett: I guess my final question for this episode. How can we relate to somebody in our lives who we have been relating to as selfish and relate to them in a different way, recognizing that they are exploring what they want and then helping facilitate or support them in exploring what they want even if what they currently want might be shortsighted and a hungry ghost kind of behavior while having our own boundaries?

Joe: I would say helping them facilitate only if they want that. The best thing is to do it in yourself, and if you do it in yourself, it becomes so clear with everybody. There is this cool little exercise you can do that will really make this whole thing go away from just intellectualizing. Somebody right now is listening to this thing, and they are like actually, wants are this and utilitarian philosophy says blah, blah, blah. All great stuff, don’t get me wrong but if you want to just make it real, just write down the want you have that you don’t want to admit to yourself that you feel most guilty of. Some sexual thing or some money thing will usually be the right thing. 

Whatever it is, some fame thing, something you have guilt about. Then just ask yourself what’s the need behind that want, and whatever you come up with, just ask yourself again what’s the need behind that want. Whatever you come up with, then just ask again what the need behind that want is. You just keep on going down, and you will find that every single one of your wants is based on something essential humans need to thrive. The wants are just strategies. They are a strategy, and we are going and learning our strategies to get to the place where we can be happy, healthy and thrive. 

When you see that inside of yourself, all of a sudden it is really clear with everybody else. Then you can not judge them for their wants, which is the biggest issue. Anybody who is doing those short term wants that don’t feel good and that are self-destructive, they feel guilty about them on some level. You can be with them in that without the judgment, and the judgment keeps that guilt in place. You can be without the judgment, and you can say what’s actually going on here and be with them in that. 

That’s the trick with yourself or with others. Instead of saying this want is bad, it is really saying what does this want really want. How do I really satisfy it? What’s going to make that 100% for me? Then starting to explore and experiment. 

Brett: That’s beautiful. Thank you, Joe. It has been a great talk. 

Joe: Talk to you soon. 

Brett: Here are some integration questions for this episode. How do you limit yourself by calling yourself selfish? How do you view others as selfish when they are taking care of themselves? What actions do you take when you are scared you won’t be able to take care of yourself? All right, everyone, thanks for listening. 

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