Selfishness Versus Selflessness

Many people face tremendous difficulty with the issue of selfishness vs. selflessness. Deep down they want to live lives of greater service to others (STO), but they note that their current lives are designed almost entirely around service to self (STS). This in turn often leads to feelings of guilt, but usually the guilt isn’t enough to spur action.

There are abundant belief systems which set STS and STO in conflict with each other, usually favoring one over the other.

First there’s the STO-favoring side. Serving others requires the “death of the self.” The ego is seen as something which must be transcended. In order to become enlightened, one must sacrifice one’s own needs to serve the greater good. Many societies hold people who seem to fit this model in high esteem.

On the other hand, we have the STS side. People are inherently selfish and cannot be expected to act against their own self interest. Selfishness is rooted in our biology, even encoded into our genes. We’re ultimately Pavlovian stimulus-response machines driven by pleasure and pain. Those who seem to serve the greater good only do so because on some level it gives them pleasure, or they’d feel pain if they didn’t.

I think both viewpoints are dysfunctional. They assume STS and STO are in conflict. But are they really?

Where does STS ultimately lead?

What would happen if you were to fully embrace the STS path and take it as far as you possibly could? What would be the most selfish life you could possible imagine? What’s the greatest pleasure you can think of?

Would you become like Hitler and want to conquer the world and put everyone and everything under your control? Ok, so imagine you’ve just become the supreme leader of the planet. Then what? What would you do with all that power? If you didn’t have to keep struggling to maintain it, you’d probably get bored after a while.

For many people the STS path is rooted in fear. The more money, control, and power you achieve, the more fearful you become of losing it. The pursuit of greater power is endless. Your situation is never totally secure.

But what if you could somehow master this path and achieve total, absolute security? What would you do then? What would you do if you had no fear?

Perhaps you’d want to contribute something… make some kind of difference… leave a legacy. If fear and security ceased to motivate you, then what would step in to take its place?

I think the pursuit of STS, if you think it through far enough and imagine yourself succeeding at every step, will eventually lead you to some form of STO.

Where does STO ultimately lead?

But what if you start from STO? What if you put others entirely above yourself? What if you aspire to make the greatest possible contribution you can, whatever the cost to you personally? Where will that lead you?

Imagine you succeed massively at serving others. You’ve cured every known disease, rebalanced the ecosystem, ended poverty and suffering, and maxed out everyone’s self-esteem. You’ve solved all the problems of humanity. No one even needs your help anymore.
What will you do then? Enjoy it? Work on yourself for a while? Won’t this eventually lead you back to STS?

Synergy between STS and STO

Now I’m well aware that you’re not going to be able to max out the STS or the STO path within the span of a human lifetime. There will always be more to do on either side. But this line of thinking got me curious — if maxing out one side leads you back around to the other side, then what does that mean?

To me this indicated that STS and STO both lie on the same path. When you travel to the end of one, you hit the beginning of the other. Perhaps STS and STO are far more twisted together, like a giant Mobius strip.

Biologically this made sense to me. In order for humans to survive, STS and STO must be in balance. If we became totally STS but not STO, we wouldn’t care for our young (among other problems), and we’d eventually die off. If we became totally STO but not STS, we’d fail to take care of our basic needs and would probably die from neglecting our health.

In order to be optimally STS, you must be at least partially STO. And in order to be optimally STO, you must be at least partially STS. Sometimes being selfish is the most selfless thing you can do, and vice versa.

If you want to serve the greater good, you have to serve your own needs. You have to take care of your health, your financial needs, your education, etc.

If you want to serve your own interests, you need to support the community around you which will help you succeed. At the very least you may do this financially, by buying products and services from other people.

Diagnosing congruency problems

STS and STO must remain in balance. It isn’t a matter of choosing one path over the other. You need both.

But what about situations when they’re in conflict? Certainly I don’t deny such situations exist. But rather than spending lots of time trying to figure out when to choose STS and when to choose STO, I suggest trying to work on your life path itself to bring STS and STO into greater harmony.

For example, suppose you’re in a situation where your job is almost entirely STS. You do it for the money or for other perks or for a feeling of security, but your work doesn’t serve the greater good in any meaningful way. Suppose your company manufactures junk food, the kinds of products that are only going to harm people’s health in the long run. But your company (and you) get paid to do it.

Then in your off time, you do volunteer work, spend lots of time with your family, and so on. In your personal life you try to be a lot more STO.

STS and STO are in conflict. They’re not in balance.

How many companies do you know like this? The work they do is almost entirely STS, serving the needs of the company and its investors, but then they also dabble in community service projects and slap a cutesy mission statement over the whole thing. Internally they’re driven by one set of values (mostly greed), while externally they project a different set of values (mostly service).

This is pure schizophrenia.

If you find yourself in a situation like this, you can start by getting clear about where you’re overly STS and where you’re overly STO. Where are you being driven too much by self-interest and damaging others in the process? And where are you sacrificing too much and hurting yourself?

No cheating

When many people find themselves in an unbalanced situation, they try to cheat.

They attempt to redefine STS or STO to fit their current situation. For example, a greed-driven corporation may try to come up with a cutesy mission statement that casts an STO light on its business goals. But no one buys it. It’s nothing but a whitewash and has no real power to motivate people. Most of the corporate mission statements I’ve seen from Fortune 500 companies fall into this pattern. They’re written with such fuzzy, imprecise language so as to say nothing of substance. I’d give them more credit if their mission statements began with, “Our mission is to make our investors filthy rich and to squash our competition.” I think that would be a more accurate statement of purpose than what makes it through the PR filter.

What happens to individuals who find themselves in an overly STS situation is that they try to rationalize some STO components. They try to find the good in what they do. Hey, at least I’m paying my taxes. If I don’t do this job, then someone else will. I’m just being a good provider.

Don’t lie to yourself. You know the truth.

Finding the path where STS and STO are congruent

It’s not easy to find a path where STS and STO are congruent. But it is possible. On such a path, greed and service are both pointing you in the same direction. While you’ll still need to manage minor conflicts between them, the big picture is balanced. You’ll be able to see that pursuing STS and STO will take you down the same path.

What is the greediest path you can take? I think if you answer this question deeply enough, you’ll find that it’s also a path filled with service. What is the path of greatest service? Is it not also a path marked by great pleasure?

Ongoing conflict resolution

When you work on a task where STS and STO are both aligned, motivation skyrockets.

There’s a good chance you find yourself in a situation where STS and STO are in conflict. Maybe it’s your work, your relationship, or your family. Take some time to think about how you could set these two powerful forces in harmony. Instead of having them work against each other, set them both after the same goal. Allow your greed to fuel your service and your service to fuel your greed. Accept and integrate both the selfish and the selfless parts of you. Learn to use both the dark and the light sides of your nature.