How Selfish Should You Be To Succeed In Life?

I see three major types of people. The too selfish (or else, jerks), the selfish givers, and the non-selfish givers (or else, doormats). One of the three groups gets to succeed in life more than others. Take your guess before you read on (it might not be what you think), and then let me show you who “wins” and why.

Do you Have To Be Selfish To Succeed In Life? A Simple Driving Example Shows The Truth.
Typical narrow Greek seaside street. One row of parked cars on each side, leave just enough space for two cars to pass next to each other.

I was driving a car in a typical, picturesque, seaside, narrow Greek street. My family were inside the car with me. At 18, I was still a new driver and getting the hang of driving effortlessly, without thinking about it.

Another car was coming from the opposite direction. I felt that both cars would hardly fit together in those narrow streets. So I pulled my car as close to the parked cars on the right as possible, giving the other car plenty of space to pass.

The other car passed effortlessly, while I was lucky not to have hit the side mirrors of the parked cars!

Immediately, my family started commenting: Why did I leave the other car so much space? Why did I prefer to risk hitting other cars by pulling to the right way too much, than going a little to the side and making the other car go a little to the side too? If I had not given up my space, they said, the other car would have pulled to the side too. I had the right to take more space, but I gave it up.

I thought I was being nice. Heck, I was doing all the work, making it convenient for the other person.

The truth is that yes I was nice. Irrationally nice. Because it is irrational to risk an accident in favor of making things convenient for someone else. I acted as non-selfish giver, or a doormat. Not a recipe to succeed in life – or in safe driving!

Now, I would have acted as a jerk if I didn’t pull to the side at all. In this case I could be endangering the other driver to hit the parked cars on the other side of the street. But making a small compromise, and expecting that the other person will make a small compromise too, would have been the perfect “safe driving” success recipe.

Are You Selfish When You Exercise?

I work a lot with people who feel guilty for NOT exercising.

The weird thing is that some of them, when they do take time to exercise, they feel guilty for doing so. In their eyes, spending time exercising equals not spending time with their kids, volunteering, working, running errands, or whatever seems urgent at the moment.

It’s a double-edged sword. They feel guilty for not exercising, yet they also feel guilty when they do exercise. Instead of owing the time they devote to themselves, they feel bad for it.

We all know how good exercise is for our health. It gives us energy, and that’s exactly why you might feel tired before you exercise, and pumped after you finish your workout. It makes us look great and shine. It’s better than drugs for people with depression. It’s a great tool for anyone who wants to succeed in life.

Just like the airplane safety instructions tell you to put your mask first before you help others, it’s the same thing with exercise. When you exercise, you’re not the only one to benefit. Everyone benefits from your extra energy, your good looks, and better health. From the economy as a whole, all the way down to your kids.

Plus, exercise makes us feel so good with ourselves. Those feelings of self-approval for doing the “right” thing are priceless. What a confidence booster to help us succeed in life!

But then again, how can we have those self-approval feelings when we feel guilty for the seemingly urgent things we didn’t do instead?

So in favor of the urgent, we don’t take care of the important, our bodies. We are not selfish enough to take care of ourselves. And that’s how pounds accumulate. Flabby body parts stick more and more out. Energy levels drop, and the fear of going to the doctor increases.

By skipping exercise we now we have less energy for our kids and our work.

Mentally, we get it. We understand that it’s really important to take care of our bodies. Yet, the urgent – like extra work, or family responsibilities – at the moment seem more important than the actually important stuff. We choose to prioritize other people’s needs higher than ours, missing the immediate and the long-term benefits of exercise for good.

But, you might say, it’s work I need to get done. I’m not trying to please anyone.

Yes, you’re trying to get this work done, but for whom? Your boss maybe? Your investors? Your family? Whose needs are your describing as “work”?

But, you might say, there is no one else to take care of this. If I don’t do it, then no one will.

Maybe, and that’s a risk you might have to take. And yes, it might upset some people too. But does this justify not doing the right thing for you? If you don’t exercise, then no one can exercise for you.

A little selfishness can go a long way. You’re not selfish for exercising, you’re selfish if you’re exclusively concerned with yourself. Taking care of your body will not just give to you, but to your family too.

Now I don’t want to guilt you if you’re not exercising. Exercise is only one of the tools that can help you feel vital, healthy, and happy. In this article, I’m only addressing the people who want to exercise, but feel guilty when they do it, and then feel guilty if they don’t do it. The people who are not selfish enough to make their choice and own it.

So What Group Gets to Succeed In Life The Most?

Contrary to popular wisdom it’s not the jerks who succeed in life the most. Wharton Professor Adam Grant in his book Give and Take demonstrated that it’s the people who give the most and help others succeed that also succeed more in life – including better jobs and more money. The networks, reciprocity, and goodwill they creates a compound effect that only gets bigger with time.

Of course, the jerks succeed in life too. They’ll do anything to get ahead. Yet, they succeed to a lesser extent than the givers. While the givers create friends, the jerks create enemies. Not a good long-term strategy for the jerks. The jerks come second.

And guess who comes last?

The doormats. If you give exclusively and at your expense, if it’s hard to discern when to say “yes” or “no”, then others take advantage of you. They succeed in life while you stay behind.

But if you’re a natural giver, then only think you need is to become selfish enough, and then BAM you belong to the group that statistically gets ahead more than the other two.

Your chances to succeed in life are now much higher – and you’ll be having a good time in the process. You won’t be hurting others like the selfish jerks, and you won’t be letting others take advantage of you like the doormats. And yes, you might be exercising without guilt! Good times!

So now it’s your turn to let me know: Where in life could you become more or less selfish to increase your chances to succeed in life? Leave a comment on Facebook. I read every response.

Photo Credit: Randy Connolly

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