We never get out of sixth grade. As adults, our toys are different and our games have bigger rewards and higher penalties, but we never really move beyond the desires and motivations of the playground. We want to be liked, to be loved, to be accepted and to have what everyone else has. We want to be popular, to stand out, to win. Otherwise, we’re taking our toys and leaving the sandbox. Self-interest rules.
Rather than trying to hide our self-interest, we need to embrace it for what it is — an invitation to join with other, similarly motivated people. It becomes the leader’s job to meld individual self-interests into a kinetic force for good, to advance the overarching goals of the organization, community or even society as a whole. Then self-interest is elevated, even to the point of morphing into selflessness.
The great economist Adam Smith observed that the pursuit of self-interest leads to the best outcome for society as a whole. And yet, we often try to hide our self-interest out of fear that it makes us selfish or self-centered. But they are not the same concepts.
Self-interest is key to our survival and our ability to join with others in similar groups — from the people with whom we work, to the family members and friends with whom we celebrate meaningful times. In this season of thankful and special holidays around the globe, individual and collective self-interests often play out around the dinner table.
First, there is the cook, who may also be the host. Eager to showcase his or her culinary talents (self-interest), the cook works tirelessly in the kitchen to prepare a sumptuous meal. But a selfless cook who spends all her time cooking and serving will never truly enjoy the meal. A happy, contented cook is one who sits down with the guests or, better yet, has a plate in the kitchen. (I always eat as I cook. This way I get the seasonings right and, with five kids at my table, I’m not counting on leftovers.)
Politeness may keep diners from being the first in line at the buffet, but self-interest won’t let them wait too long. Hungry humans are not all that dissimilar from rapacious rabbits that can turn a garden into an all-you-can-eat salad bar, or smug sharks at the top of the food chain, for whom virtually any creature in the ocean can be the next meal. (Sharks are so sure of their dominance that they are complacent when caught by fisherman, because they don’t have the built-in fear of being pursued by predators.) When it comes to our next meal, by obeying our self-interest, we make sure we get fed.
Self-interest is grounded in our basic drive for survival — having food, water, shelter — and extends into the comforts of modern life — to have a home, to provide for ourselves and our families, to pay for college, a car and the occasional vacation. Even deriving personal satisfaction from making a difference, while seemingly higher-minded, is still self-interest. So are enjoyment and engagement in an activity.
I observed this in action recently with my own children. On our last day of vacation at a beautiful beachside condo, as we scrambled to pack — my wife and I and our five children — somebody knocked over a fruit smoothie the color and consistency of pink lava. Of course, it landed on a white rug. Cleanup quickly gave way to chaos as someone grabbed bath towels (white, of course) to sop up the mess, and someone else got the bright idea of squirting shampoo on the rug and then dousing it with water. As kids ran in and out of the room like the Keystone Cops, my daughter, Emily, stayed with the task, even though it wasn’t her drink or her accident. Wondering what had sparked this sudden display of selflessness, I asked her why she was working so hard. She shrugged and smiled. “I’m having fun.” Her self-interest of pursuing enjoyment in the moment spurred her into action that was, on the whole, positive (except when the blow-dryer she used to get the water out of the carpet burned it instead).
Self-interest is intrinsic in everything we do, from the companies we build and operate for profit to the charitable acts that make us feel good about ourselves. By no means is this meant to denigrate any of those activities; rather, it sheds light on what drives human behavior — the need to survive and the desire to thrive, which we all share. Even when those drivers are sixth-grade basic — I want you to like me — when brought together on behalf of the whole, myriad self-interests connect into a web of positive actions, and for all the right reasons. A paradigm shift occurs: Self-interest — aligned and connected with an overarching purpose — transforms into selflessness.
In this issue of Briefings on Talent & Leadership, we look at selfishness, selflessness, science and the mind. One piece of note is an interview with Nick Hanauer, a Seattle-based entrepreneur who’s had a lot of success. His controversial message is that “plutocrats” — his word, not ours — are taking too much of the economic pie, even if they are the ones who created the pie. In Hanauer’s view, first come ideas, followed by new companies, and then comes the greed. What comes after greed? Pitchforks, in Hanauer’s opinion. Hanauer’s points are subject to debate and definitely at the extreme. But they are certainly worth the read.