Beware the man who claims himself selfless; for often, he is the most selfish of all.
Recently I found myself listening to the audio book The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. It’s truly an enlightening work, and the historians’ thoughts on human nature and their level of non-judgment of the human organism and civilization as a whole are, I think, quite refreshing.
One of the things the book refers to at one point is the profit motive, and how it influences man’s dealings with man.
If you haven’t heard of the profit motive, I’ll define it for you: simply put, it’s an economics concept that states that people only do things in which they feel there is some sort of incentive.
Makes sense, right? You’re not going to run around spending a lot of time and effort on things that won’t benefit you much in the end.
Except, many people out there claim to be selfless. Many more even think of themselves as selfless.
All this raises the question then… who’s right?
A Question of Self Interest
Long ago I learned a very powerful tool for making decisions in life that involve others: figure out what it is they want and stand to gain out of working with you, and plan accordingly.
Here are some oft-cited examples of selflessness:
- Giving money to the homeless
- Helping out a friend in need
- Doing favors for a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse
- A mother’s love for her child
Yet, how many of these are truly selfless?
- Several studies have established that when someone gives money to the homeless, he gets a “boost” of elevated dopamine and oxytocin – feel good hormones – that reassure him that in fact he’s a good person. There’s also speculation that individuals may see a testosterone boost – that giving money to someone in need can be a way of asserting a degree of dominance over others and making oneself feel more powerful
- Helping a friend in need becomes a lot less selfless-feeling when you recognize the long term benefit to the individual of retaining good, loyal friends who feel a strong degree of obligation for previous goodwill
- Doing nice things for a lover is probably the clearest of all of these to explain the self-interested aspect of: by doing nice things, the individual is making an effort to strengthen the bond with a partner, necessary for reproduction and passing on genes
- A mother’s love: if you can believe that the purpose of life is producing offspring and passing on your genes – and even if you’re a religious person, the greatest offer Yahweh makes to Abraham is that he will make his house strong and with as many descendants as there are stars in the sky – then a mother wanting to love and take care of her children becomes a lot less selfless, and a lot more self-interested: ensuring that they survive and thrive is the purpose of her life, and ensures the survival of her genes through them
Now, before anyone becomes upset at being called selfish for helping a friend or taking care of a child, stop for a second and breathe – I’m not saying selfishness is a bad thing. It’s what makes the world go round – everybody is selfish.
If we weren’t selfish:
- No one would work hard in industry, science, or even agriculture – we wouldn’t have computers, books, cars, or even fire, clothing, food, or the wheel
- Nobody would bother maintaining friendships or romances because they just wouldn’t care
- Children would be abandoned and forgotten because the parents would have no reason to respond to their cries and pleas – why do extra work if there’s no motivation?
The idealist would reply, “Surely, some selfless person would step in!”
But the thing is, no one’s truly selfless. Everyone’s operating on the level of the profit motive: whether short term or long term, the ultimate, unconscious, deeply rooted question is, “What’s in it for me?“
How You Know We Live in a Selfish World
Here’s a test I use for determining if any argument or viewpoint holds its salt.
Take one argument, and assume that that argument is totally correct, and imagine how the world would be. Then take the other argument, and assume that that argument is totally correct, and imagine how the world would be.
Now, when I say imagine a selfish world, I don’t mean imagine a world where people are stabbing each other in the back to get a payout right here and now. I mean imagine a world where, yes, some people are doing that, but others are thinking to themselves, “If I can build up enough good, loyal friends, I’ll be happy and successful forever!” and, “I just need to do enough good deeds, and life will recognize it and reward me back.”
If you imagine a selfish world like that, you quickly find it looks just like the world looks today.
But if you imagine a selfless world, where people do things for selfless reasons, you see things very different.
No one accepts pay at work – they work for free, for the good of society.
No one would ever get upset at someone lying to them, stealing from them, betraying them, or cheating on them, because they want others to be happy. Of course, no one would ever do these things because they’re self-interested actions in the first place.
No one would care if his child came in first place or anyone else’s did, because there was no self-interest in which child won. And none of the children would mind that their parents didn’t care who won or who lost either, nor would any of the children care which of them won and which of them lost.
Business could not function as it functions, because businesses would not compete for customers or market. They’d just exist and do whatever people asked of them, because they didn’t care if they turned a profit or not. Of course, no one would ever ask anything of them, because that would just be self-interested.
Pretty soon, everything would cease working. People would stop asking for things; that’s self-interested. No one would ever fight again, but no one would ever have a reason to fight again because no one would ever try to do anything for any reason other than helping others.
A selfless world does not exist because a selfless world couldn’t exist. It would fall to pieces.
In other words… thank god for the profit motive.
The Profit Motive Lens
Now, if you start to view the world as inherently self-interested, you can start to ask yourself with everyone and everything: “What do they want?”
Some people want things right now. They’re working for the short term.
Other people want to build things for the future. They’re working for the long term.
Some people want your money. Some people want your appreciation. Some people want your knowledge. Some people want your advice. Some people want your friendship. Some people want your love. Some people want your sex. Some people want you to make them feel better.
But everyone around you wants something.
If you’ve never sat and looked at the world this way, at first it can be bewildering.
“How on Earth can I know what anybody wants?” you might ask yourself.
Like anything, identifying what anyone’s individual profit motives are is a skill that takes time to develop. The best way is by just spending time around people and talking to them and learning what makes them tick and what they’re most interested in.
Some examples of how this plays out:
- The man who wants to be highly esteemed might not have time for friendship, and might be insulted if you offer him money for something he wants esteem for
- The man who wants money, on the other hand, might also not have time for friendship, but he’ll gladly take money from you any time you offer it no matter what he says to the contrary
- Meanwhile, the man who wants friendship cares little for praise and is not much interested in your money. Instead, he’s most concerned with building loyalty, a bond, and trust
The strange thing is, people often aren’t fully aware of their motives themselves, and may even hide them from others if they are. Many people won’t tell you they want to be praised, or that they want to get paid. Instead, they’ll try to hide it – but this leads to problems further on down the road.
That’s because when people don’t get what they want and what they thought they would get and expected they would get, they blow up.
Viewed without the lens of the profit motive, these blow ups can seem unexpected and inexplicable. “Why’s he behaving like that?” one might ask, or, “Why’s she saying those things?” It can be confusing and alarming.
If you’re looking at things in light of the profit motive though, you know: it’s because the person had something he wanted and expected to get, that he didn’t get.
It could’ve been money.
It could’ve been praise.
It could’ve been friendship.
But until you figure it out, you won’t be able to understand his actions – or to fix the disconnect.
Using the Profit Motive
Stop taking people at face value. No one is ever as confident and experienced – or as innocent and naïve – as he or she seems at first glance. Instead, start questioning people’s motives – and try and figure out what it is they want.
The instant you start doing this, your life gets better in the following ways:
- The fog of uncertainty lifts. You figure out what other people want, and their actions begin to make a lot more sense. You also begin to develop an almost uncanny ability to predict the future – because you know what people want, you’re aware of if they’re getting it or not, and you predict smooth sailing or a blow up depending on whatever the case may be.
- Your businesses and relationships improve. Now that you know what people want, you also can figure out something else – how to give it to them. And as soon as you do that, things get a lot better. That customer service problem you kept having – gone. You know now that it’s because customers weren’t always aware there was going to be an additional charge. Their motive was to not be surprised or taken advantage of. So, you make that a lot clearer at the beginning… and the problem disappears. A little more communication and the problem that had been bugging you for two years is solved.
- You make better decisions about who to work with, hire, be friends with, and date. Hires have a habit of not working out? Relationships don’t seem to make it past the 90 day mark? You’re snaring the wrong people. Figure out what the primary motives have been of the people you’ve snagged before – maybe you were dating people who needed an emotional crutch to lean on, and that became a burden on you; or maybe you were hiring people who needed a very structured environment, and your company was too much of a free-for-all for them. Figure out what people need, how it serves their interests, and what kind of people need what you can offer, and find the right people – instead of the wrong ones.
- And best of all… you get yourself a lot better, too. Maybe you’ve been frustrated with yourself because you just can’t seem to do that thing you really want to do. You’d like to have a great body, except… you just never seem to make it to the gym. Well, understand what motivates you, and you may realize you’ve been going about it all wrong – you don’t actually care that much about how you look. But if instead you start thinking about how much your dating life will improve, or how much your energy levels and ability to get things done will improve, or how much more respect you’ll command with those around you… one of those might just be the ticket.
Using the profit motive as a lens through which to see the world – a world populated with self-interested people doing things for selfish reasons – isn’t about being jaded over how selfish the world we live in is. It’s selfish, yes – but it’s still every bit as wonderful as it’s always been. You’re just getting an underlying picture of the mechanics of how things work, how people work, and how the way it all actually is – and absolutely, positively, nothing has changed.
Except you. Because now, you know about the profit motive – and you know how to help those around you get what they want most, and in so doing help yourself to get what you want most too.
Anyway, that does it for this post. Have you checked out Yamjac yet? It’s not up and running right now, but it’s only a few months away – you can head here and get on the waiting list to be among the first people to get invited in. It’s going to change the way the world does business, shares ideas, forms teams, and interacts – this is one boat you’re not going to want to miss. Check it out here if you haven’t already:
See you next time.