Why Being Selfless Wasn’t Getting The Job Done

I’ve always found “Self” to be a perplexing word.  It’s not that it’s particularly challenging to define.  At its essence, self is simply a way to designate one person as an individual, apart from anyone else.  That’s pretty clear, not much to argue about there.  Instead, it’s the attachments that go along with self, the hyphenated word, the second syllable that make it strange, tricky and confusing.

Here’s what I mean.  On one hand, as a society, we tend to react positively to certain self-leading descriptions or attributes while we vilify others.  For example, self-motivated, self-assured, and, of course, selfless (don’t even need a hyphen for that one) are attributes we universally admire in ourselves and others.  These are self-attracting self-words.  We love introductions, performance reviews and eulogies (for others more than our own, of course) that mention our selflessness, our willingness to help others before we think about helping ourselves.   These are self-attracting self-words.  The belief is that selfless people care what others think about them. We want to follow and be around these people.

And then there’s the other hand.  The bad selfs.  The ones we don’t admire.  These include self-absorbed, self-obsessed, self-centered and the dreaded “selfish.”  These are the people we follow or keep around because we must.  They’re the boss or the people with huge egos who get us into the places we want to be (that’s the only part we like), or maybe family members we can’t not be around.  They’re the ones we love to hate, the people who don’t care what you think about them.

I’m probably a lot like you.  When I have the choice, my preference is always to be liked, rather than disliked.  Sure, I’ve towed the ‘I don’t care if you like me as long as you respect me’ line once or twice (or maybe a dozen times, or more) in my career, but that was more me saying what I thought I should, rather then what I believed.  Sure, there have been some people I just haven’t gotten along with, but I always wanted the reasons for that to be about them, instead of about me (which is easy to do when I’m the one making all the judgments).  By and large, though, my style is to play the safe self cards.

Turns out, though, that being a safe self could drain my energy, creativity, and productivity.

Quickly and frequently.

How much was I benefiting from being selfless?  Not much it tuned out.  When I was modeling all the ‘want to be liked’ self behaviors, everyone else’s needs were more important than mine.  I thought that attending to their needs was the most important thing I should be doing.  If I took care of them, they’d take care of me.  That was my mindset.  It’s what I told myself worked.  And it was mostly wrong.

Here’s why.  The reality was that putting everyone else’s need before mine turned out to be a not so clever, but easy to execute, leadership flaw.  It allowed me to feel busy and useful, like I was a great big help, like I was able to ‘fix’ stuff, like I was needed.  Operating this way was leading me into a self-constructed trap of spoogehood, a technical term for a sticky goo-like state in which it becomes easy to get stuck and difficult to escape.  It was like quicksand, the more effort I put into escaping, the stickier the spooge became.  It conditioned me to stop trying.  It drained my energy and kept me focused on being the ‘in the moment’ hero.  It gave me something to do and something to avoid.  The present was more important to me than the future.  I had no time to future think.  Worst of all, I didn’t realize, and couldn’t see what was happening to me.  I was too close to it, too locked in the spooge.  It was the only normal I knew.

Until I decided to be selfish.  I know, it sounds horrible.  But I concluded that there was no other option.  I had to get selfish.  With my ideas, with my time, with my focus and with my attention.  I had to know what I wanted, and I had to design a structure in which I could operate selfishly.  There was no other way.  After all, my number one job was to create a future and guide the entire organization into a future that is effectively an idea, a construct, a figment, an illusion in/of my imagination.  I had to be operating at the top of my game.  I had to know what I want.  My thoughts, habits, health, influences, and relationships had to support the most optimal operation of me.  I needed to be as fine-tuned as I could be.  If I wasn’t selfishly working on that, knowing what I want, I knew I’d be doomed (and our whole team and company would as well) to sub-excellence.  That just wasn’t an option.

I don’t think that becoming selfish made me a d**k or an as***le.  I suppose it could have, but I didn’t change who I was (I still wanted to be liked), I just changed how I operated.  Not overnight.  It took time, as all worthwhile things do.

What becoming selfish did do was give me clarity.  It made things that had been murky and spoogey, instead clear and obvious.  It made me understand my role as the entrepreneur, as the leader.  It made me realize that my role wasn’t to do things, it was to make things happen.  If I didn’t know what I wanted, how could anyone on the team know how they could best support me, and the company, in making sure we figured out a way to achieve that want.  If they knew I wasn’t going to be there to help, to fix or to otherwise get into their business, how much faster would they develop, how much better would their ideas and execution become.  How much more valuable would they be to our company and, more importantly, to themselves.

Since I had my “I need to be selfish” epiphany fifteen years ago, I’ve remained devoutly selfish.  I know it sounds weird, but I’m proud of my selfishness.  Without it, I wouldn’t be where I am.  I wouldn’t have had the understanding, the clearness of thought, that it takes to create a future and build a team that could make that future a reality.  A team with skill sets different from, and complementary to, mine.  The necessary skill sets.  I wouldn’t have allowed mistakes to happen, failures to occur.  I would have spent all my time trying to prevent those.  Making prevention the lesson instead of failure the education.  I would have missed the teaching moments.  The progress.  The reward.

Try it.  Take a chance on selfish (in a good way).

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One thought on “Why Being Selfless Wasn’t Getting The Job Done

  1. I like the article. One point in particular: “there have been some people I just haven’t gotten along with, but I always wanted the reasons for that to be about them, instead of about me,” I never thought about it that way before. Good article.

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