Self-Seeking Versus Unselfishness

“The world is so full of people who are grabbing and self-seeking. So the rare individual who unselfishly tries to serve others has an enormous advantage.”

 

Dale Carnegie wrote that line in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. The line comes right after he describes a day where he encountered two life insurance salesmen. The first mentioned a new life insurance option, but because he didn’t have much information, didn’t press the sale and make much of an effort. The second salesman also didn’t have much information, but showed a lot of enthusiasm, encouraged setting up an additional appointment with someone from the company who knew more, and offered to help handle some of the paperwork to get the sign up process started more quickly. The second salesman got the sale.

 

When I read the quote in isolation I thought about people hording supplies during our current social distancing efforts to limit the spread of the Coronavirus. I thought about how tempting it can be to try to make a quick buck, even if the couple hundred dollars the hoarders might make by selling marked-up toilet paper won’t really make much of a difference in the lives of most of them. I also thought about a conversation from the Ezra Klein Show, where Klein, the host, interviewed Jane McAlevey, a union organizer who discussed the way that employees could instinctive tell if you actually care about them when you show up on the job-site, or if you look down on them and think that they are not as smart and deserving as you think of yourself. To live in a world that doesn’t price gouge during a crisis, and to be effective in working with other people requires an unselfishness that recognizes that you are not better than other people, no matter what your degree, your bank account, or the social status of your job says. Being truly unselfish means that you view everyone as having at least the capacity for having the virtues that you prize in yourself, and being willing to help them express those virtues.

 

There is a difference between the way I thought about unselfishness when reading the quote in isolation versus the way that Carnegie thought while writing the quote in his book. For Carnegie, the idea is that you can use your selfish impulses and personal desires to improve the lives of others, at least if you can step into the other person’s shoes, see what they need, and fulfill that need in a way that is deserving of compensation on your end. It is a capitalistic view of selflessness, and while it is not a terrible thing on its own, it requires the possibility for Pareto efficiency, for the world to be in a state where an action can be taken that would improve the world for both you and everyone else. It requires that our actions have only positive externalities. This is the view the inspired the entire book How Stella Saved the Farm, in which a brave sheep steps us to lead a farm and creates prosperity for everyone working on and depending on the farm through an embrace of good management in a capitalistic system.

 

The other view of selflessness is a much more social form. It doesn’t ask if there is a Pareto efficiency that can be met, but instead asks if our goals and desires are really necessary. It asks if the resources we have can be better used by people who are in need. It is part of a bigger question of whether we can do things that will improve the lives of not just us and the person in front of us, but of the entire society.

 

I don’t think that either view is necessarily wrong, but I do think that both views can easily be overstretched. Thinking of selflessness in purely the context of capitalism, as Carnegie was and as is presented in How Stella Saved the Farm can be good, but it can also create a system where our core societal value is what you contribute and produce in an economic sense. As we are not Homo Economicus, this can put many of us who are not great market thinkers and are not inspired business efficiency and productivity in a tough place where we are viewed as undeserving.

 

The second view sees us as valuable and deserving simply by being human beings, but it does raise question about how we reach economic development. An argument can be made that big business and technological development are crucial for improving living standards and actually improving lives more than just social do-gooding. Indeed, Tyler Cowen has made these arguments, and while I’m not sure he fully considers how damaging many of the negative externalities can be, I think he is broadly correct.

 

In the end, I fall back on what both perspectives have in common, which is captured in another line from Carnegie’s book just a few sentences later than the line that opened this post, “If out of reading this book you get just on thing – an increased tendency to think always in terms of other people’s point of view, and see things from their angle – if you get that one thing out of this book, it may easily prove to be one of the building blocks of your career.” I would switch the final word career to life, but the idea is there. Thinking about the world and others from other people’s perspectives is crucial for avoiding selfishness and for making a positive impact on the world. Whether you chose to do so through business and capitalism, through direct work with those who need it the most, or a combination of both approaches, you must first be able to see beyond your own wants and desires and understand the way that others see the world.

How to Influence People

“The only way on earth to influence other people,” writes Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it.”

 

Carnegie’s book is one that I have heard recommended over and over by successful guests on the various podcasts that I listen to. I was excited to read it to get real insight into how to be a more likable person and how to be a more influential person in the groups and organizations that I participate with. The book, however, doesn’t provide you with any hacks to trick people into being your friend or to slyly convince people to do what you want them to do. The book focuses on relationships and the importance of being sincere and present in your relationships with others in order to develop meaningful connections with the people around you. The quote above is part of that advice.

 

We don’t influence other people’s decisions by preaching at them, by constantly yelling at them when they do something we consider to be wrong, or by nagging them to do things the way we want. We influence other people by connecting their actions, behaviors, and beliefs to larger outcomes that the other person is aiming for. In the ultimate sense, we show how the other person’s behaviors, actions, and beliefs are either in or out of alignment with their personal values.

 

In 2016 I started the Masters in Public Administration program at the University of Nevada, Reno. For years I had heard my sister tell me about the benefits of universal health care. I had heard my parents and uncles talk about the ways that welfare lead to people staying home to play video games instead of working. I had listened to people talk about trickle down economics and the values of federalism, and I wanted to enter a masters program where I could learn how to sort out all the arguments people discussed regarding public policy and governance. I wanted concrete facts so I could make rational decisions on all these topics and tell my family members who was empirically correct and who was wrong.

 

What I learned, however, is that all of these policy discussions hinge on something deeper than the cold hard rational facts. They hinge on values. As I learned what the scientific research showed about universal healthcare, tax rates, and social welfare programs, I told my family members where their ideas seemed to make sense and where they seemed to be in conflict with the actual data. My empirical evidence has meant nothing to my family members and has not changed any minds. The data is only useful when it supports the position that people want to hold based on their values. Changing minds and influencing people, therefore has to be connected to the values they already hold or that they aspire to.

 

Carnegie’s quote at the start of this post is all about connecting to values. You have to talk to people about what they want to see in life, why they want to see those things, and what values are driving the ways they hope the world turns out to be. Then you need to show them how the things you support, the ideas you think the other person should hold, and how the actions that you hope they will take help get the other person and society closer to those values.

 

For whatever reason we don’t like to talk about our values openly. Partly this is because for many of us our number one value is our own self-interest, and we don’t want to say that directly. But we also make up excuses around issues of abortion, healthcare, and taxes where we claim that economics or good health are the values we care about, but really we care much more about identity, self-interest, and whether the world is fair to us. If we could discuss those values directly, rather than hiding behind economic BS, then maybe we could actually compromise or be less hateful of those who don’t agree with us. In the end, we should remember that it is our values which underlay everything we say or due (that includes me, you, and that person on social media you hate). If we want to try to shape the world for the better, we better understand what values are driving us, what values drive others, and how we communicate our values in terms of how we think the world should operate. We won’t influence people to live better if we are not up front about our values and can’t connect other people’s actions back to the values question.

Generational Changes and How Millenials React to a New World

I’m a Millennial, and my generation often gets a bad rap for many of the ways we eschew traditions. We are often seen as lazy, wanting instant gratification, and as the “participation trophy” generation. However, like any branding of a particular generation, I think these views on Millennials are undeserved. My generation is responding to a lot of new pressures from changing globalized economies to social media connectedness, to global warming. In a world of quick and often chaotic change, it seems reasonable that my generation would develop new values and abandon longstanding traditions that feel irrelevant.

 

A harmless example of this, one instances I can remember from high school where my generation killed off a tradition that didn’t fit us anymore, was when my school chose a dorky nerd as prom king. In a  world of social media, popularity contests were held each day in online friend counts. Our school dances were often closely monitored by teachers, the lights were on, and no one knew how to dance anyway. Prom didn’t really hold a special place in anyone’s mind, and rather than taking the idea of prom king seriously, as I had seen in movies growing up, we laughed it off as an irrelevant relic of the past, as prom itself felt to me and many of my friends at that point.

 

More seriously, Millennials are also no longer sticking with economic traditions of generations that came before us. The world we live in makes it feel almost impossible to follow the same rout as our grandparents to financial success, and we have to take new routs toward careers and financial stability. This isn’t well understood by many people in older generations, and has created a generational friction that can be seen in things like OK Boomer. The example I want to focus on is Millennials switching jobs regularly and rarely working for a single company for 30 years, let alone more than 5 or 10 years. Job change is very common for Millennials which is not well understood by individuals from generations where it was common for someone to start in a job at the ground floor, and work 30 years to a higher position and salary.

 

In his book When, Dan Pink offers a good explanation of why so much job switching is taking place today. Particularly early in one’s career, switching jobs can make a big difference. Getting a good start in the job market can make a huge difference in where one ends up in the long-run, and that is a pressure that Millennials face and which shapes the decisions they make in terms of where they seek work. Pink writes,

 

“A large portion of one’s lifetime wage growth occurs in the first ten years of a career. Starting with a higher salary puts people on a higher initial trajectory. But that’s only the first advantage. The best way to earn more is to match your particular skills to an employer’s particular needs. That rarely happens in one’s first job. … So people quit jobs and take new ones – often every few years – to get the match right.”

 

When viewed through the lens that Pink uses, changing jobs and not holding to the traditional 30 years with a company followed by retirement makes sense. We have a limited amount of time to make an impact on this planet, and remaining in a position that does not value the particular skills that we have, and does not reward us for building and cultivating those skills, does not make sense. We can find better economic and financial opportunities in other companies, and we have more technology to help match us to those opportunities. In this sense, switching jobs early and often isn’t the historical negative that it was for older generations, but is a reflection of new values and an attempt to make sure we are not wasting the opportunities we have in life.

 

I think that many of the things Millenials are criticized for ultimately fall into this kind of category. I am certainly no fan of helicopter parenting, but I think it is more helpful to look at what is driving Millenial parents to hover over their kids so closely. Just like the example of jobs, I am sure that if you pulled back the surface, you would see how a changing lens of the world is influencing the behaviors that Millenials are so often criticized for in regard to parenting. The take-away is that generational changes reflect broader changes in society, and criticizing an entire generation is less helpful than understanding how the world has changed and how those changes influence the decisions of other generations.

Reflecting Your Inner Self

Without self-awareness I have found that it is easy to fall into a place where my actions do not hold to the values that I profess to live by. Even with self-awareness, I have found that there are still times where my actions fall short of what I think should be my ideal. Occasionally I know what must be done in a situation, but I desire the opposite, am held back by fear, or I am just too lazy to take action. There are times when virtues truly stand out, and times when they don’t shine through. A quick quote from Cory Booker may help explain what is taking place within me during these times. “The wold you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside you.”

My disconnect between my actions and thoughts is an example of my inner self being reflected on the outer world. I think my example branches away from what Booker’s quote truly hits at, but I think it is a useful place to start. Our actions show who we truly are inside, while our words and stories are used to tell ourselves and others what we want to hear. We may have ideals that we strive to live by and we may be able to inspire others with virtuous tales, but it is ultimately our decisions and actions that show who we truly are and what is truly important to us and driving our decisions.

Luckily for us (myself included) we can become more aware of our actions, reactions, thoughts, and habits to begin to change what we do and what it is within us that motivates and drives our behaviors. Focusing inward can show us what operating system has been guiding our lives. We can use reflection to examine our actions and determine whether we have actually been living up to the ideals we believe in. From this point we can begin to create change by first adjusting what is internal, creating an environment for what is external.

My other viewpoint on Booker’s quote, and I think the idea he was driving at more directly in his book United, relates to our perception of the world around us. A simple read of the quote is that if we are insecure in our life, we will see insecurities in the lives of others. If we are kind in our life, we will see kindness throughout the world.

Booker is sharing an idea that we perceive the world as a reflection of our inner character and opinions. We will somehow come to view the world the way we expect it. Our preconceived notions of the world, our biases, our desires, and other beliefs will be projected from inside our head onto the world we see and experience. If we choose to focus not on animosity but on love, we will see not just other people’s actions of love, but we will see where we can step in and be a force of positivity in the world. If we choose instead to be greedy and struggle for power out of hedonistic tendencies, then we will see others as motivated by the same forces, and we will see a word fraught with selfish competition.

Ultimately who we are inside is projected on to the world through our perceptions, and who we are inside is manifested in the world through our actions. Our internal values and goals shape the way we come to understand the world, which in tern shapes the way we act. We reflect our inner self through thoughts and actions.

The Friends Around Us

Joshua Fields Millburn wrote the forward for Colin Wright’s book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, and in his forward he looks at the ways in which many of us develop and maintain friendships. To start it off, he writes, “If I could go back in time and give my eighteen-year-old self one nugget of advice, it would be this: You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you.”

Fields Millburn explains that we often fall into a trap where we develop relationships with the people around us simply because they are around us. It is not a bad thing to become friends with neighbors, co-workers, and people in the same geographic locations as ourselves, but in some ways it can be a little limiting. Having positive and meaningful relationships with people around us is important and can make a big impact in our lives and the connections we have with the places we live, work, or go to school, but we can also strive to have greater friendships with people beyond our small geographic region.

Throughout his forward he encourages us to look first inward and understand ourselves and become someone that we can and want to be friends with. After reflecting on ourselves and developing our values, we can align our actions, and begin to develop true relationships based not on proximity, but on values. The trouble, explains Fields Millburn, with the proximity approach to friends and relationships is that we can’t always find people at work or in our neighborhoods who share the same values that we do. We don’t need to share the same beliefs to have the same values, but associating and living with people who don’t share your values in some way puts your actions and habits at odds with the values that you wish to live by. Striving beyond our local constraints to meet people who share our values and focus their lives to advance those values will give us a positive model and sounding board for our own lives, even if they are distant from us physically.

When I first returned to this quote I worried that seeking out people beyond our proximal friends who shared our same values would contribute to the already evident problem of information bubbles that we see across the country. Many people become isolated their media and information streams to only view that which they agree with or that which supports their prior beliefs. But what Fields Millburn explains is that it should be our values, and not our beliefs that align with the people with whom we associate. On a deep level we should make sure that our lives, goals, desires, and actions are in some ways connected with positive values, and we should expect that our beliefs built on top of those values will vary.

At one point, Fields Millburn specifically addresses the idea of bubbles and is critical of the isolationist bubbles that many people live in when restricting their friendships to spatially close people. Looking beyond those people who are immediately present in our lives will allow us to expand beyond the bubble that we live within.

Reasonable Decisions

I am a public administration student at the University of Nevada, Reno, and what my studies this semester have taught me is that there is no true way to separate politics from policy and administration. The way in which we govern, the bureaucrats that we ask or need to govern, and the decisions that are made will always be political because it is not possible to take self-interest out of the decision making process. We can be technical and rational in our approaches to a problem or in our implementation of policy, but ultimately the direction and base of our decision making is a value judgement. Rational thinking can establish the best means by which we can accomplish something but the ends are always value judgements that we make.

 

With that in mind, we can use empirical evidence to shape our decision making and we can base our ultimate goals on evidence and research, but we should recognize that the goals we set are ultimately shaped by value judgements, even if they are reasonable value judgements. This is where Peter Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, comes in. Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, and his recent book focuses on effective altruism and how to live a life that is more impactful and like the title suggests, provides the most good to humanity.

 

At one point in his book, which I read well before my venture into a public administration masters program, he focuses on moral decision making from the point of reason. In synthesizing other philosophers he writes,

 

“A reasonable person seeks to hold beliefs that are in accord with the relevant evidence and values that are not open to reasonable criticism by others. … Sound ethical decisions as those that others cannot reasonably reject. Granted, all this leaves open what values are reasonable, but at a minimum reasonable values are values that are not influenced by biased thinking and hence can be defended to others.”

 

Values and moral judgement can flow from rational thought as an individual expands their perspective and synthesizes more information. Self reflection and moral considerations can help an individual develop a worldview where their ethical frameworks are shaped not by emotion but by empirical evidence and rational thought. We can develop strong arguments that the moral and ethical world views created in this manner support the ultimate well being of all humanity, but first we must establish what we will use as our measure, and in his book Singer suggests that we use suffering as our measuring stick. The more our actions reduce suffering across the globe, the more our actions are in line with rational values that can be empirically measured and rationally defended.

 

Where I see an ultimate breakdown is that the ultimate decision, that humans should act to reduce all suffering on the planet, is still a value judgement. It is one that can be reached through rational thought and relative to other goals can be defended through reason, but it is still a value judgement that we put forward. I agree with Singer and find his arguments for effective altruism incredibly motivational, but I think we must accept that our rational thought process is only establishing rational means to achieve a value based end, and we should develop a more open and honest forum for discussing the ends that we aim for.

Satisfaction in a Good Act

As a stoic, Marcus Aurelius believed in self-awareness and growth through a deep reflection and understanding of ones thoughts. His book Meditations in many ways serves as a manual for how to think about and approach the world as a stoic. His book was originally a place for him to collect the lessons of his life so that he could continually return to thoughts of how he could live better.  He stresses a sense of contentedness with the present moment, and provides examples where we can shift our thoughts to be more fulfilled with the experiences, and lives that we live.

 

Regarding doing good acts and how we should view our actions when we are doing something positive Aurelius wrote, “When thou hast done a good act and another has received it, why dost thou still look for a third thing besides these, as fools do, either to have the reputation of having done a good act or to obtain a return?”  What the Emperor was expressing in this section is our desire to have others recognize our positive actions and praise us for them, and our desire to benefit from our good deeds.  He is challenging this desire of ours and suggesting that we should simply be happy knowing that we have done something positive for another person.  Building this sense of contentedness requires self-reflection and awareness to recognize our thoughts and desires for good karma or recognition.  His passage seems to say that doing good should always be enough to satisfy ourselves and our desires. Seeking out a return on our good deeds will not decrease the positivity that we provided to the world, but it will put an undue stress and burden on ourselves, and may cause us to be looked upon by others less favorably.

 

This quote aligns with the thoughts and recommendations that Aurelius presents throughout Meditations. He encourages us to be content with ourselves and not strive to take action for the purpose of impressing people who are alive or will be alive in the future.  Staying present and focusing on the moment in which we live will help us be more genuine in our actions, and will help us maximize our decisions.  Building in a sense of self-awareness and abandoning our need for reward or recognition in social settings can allow us to better align our actions with our values.  I think that Aurelius would agree with the idea that we would see more positivity in our own lives grow from our good deeds when we do not look for reward or take action with the hopes of receiving reward or recognition.

Self-Aware

To write his book Return on Character author Fred Kiel studied the character traits and habits of business leaders from large to small businesses across the country.  He spoke with the leaders themselves, their teams, and the employees within the company to get a sense of which leaders truly valued and displayed strong moral character while running their business. What Kiel founds is that those CEOs who had the strongest moral character were more respected by their employees, produced greater value for their companies, and brought people together in powerful ways.  One of the cornerstone principles of the leaders with strong character that Kiel spoke with was an idea of self-awareness, and Kiel addresses how that trait can help CEOs have such positive impacts on their companies.

 

Regarding self-awareness Kiel wrote, “Among our research participants, those CEOs with the strongest character and strongest business results—were self-aware. They spent time reflecting on their life journey. They have some understanding of its milestones, how they’re connected, and where they continue to lead. They know where they are going, in part because they know where they’ve been.”

 

Kiel shows that self-awareness helps the CEOs make better decisions in the work place which can help guide themselves, the company, and all of the individuals within the company when difficult situations arise. Building a strong sense of self-awareness allows the individual to reflect and learn from their past, helps them stay humble, and allows them to share their experiences with others in meaningful ways.  By providing a base line to evaluate our decisions and morals, self-awareness helps us better understand the outcomes of our choices, and helps us stay motivated to make good decisions.

 

When describing those CEOs who did not have a cohesive grasp on their life story and background Kiel wrote, “The least principled CEOs in the research, on the other hand, those whose behavior demonstrates little in the way of strong character and whose business results tend to be weak, were more likely to be running blind through their life journey.” He suggest that those who have not reflected on themselves and what has shaped them are unable to view the world in a truly profound way to make positive decisions for not just their own life, but for the life of the company and for the lives of those who work as part of the company, from the leadership team all the way down to the interns.”