Writing for The Daily Princetonian, Freshman Coy Ozias recently declared: “I’m a selfish person.” The piece, quite aptly titled “The Selfishness of Success,” came out in support of selfish living. This is quite surprising coming from a young person in today’s intellectual environment.
Western society decries the selfish individual. Everywhere we turn, we’re faced with scores of talking heads—authority figures, even—who reinforce with gusto the selfishness taboo. Such was the spirit of Warren Buffett’s famous quip that “[i]f you’re in the luckiest 1 percent of humanity, you owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99 percent.” Pope Francis—the “people’s pope”—blames a “culture of selfishness and individualism” for perpetuating “social injustices” and holding us back from creating “a more habitable world.” As recently as the State of the Union Address, President Obama stressed that our promise as “one people” lies in the “generosity of the American[s] . . . who, every day, live the idea that we are our brother’s keeper, and our sister’s keeper.”
And yet, despite the seeming entrenchment of selflessness as a preferred moral norm (to say nothing of its greater sway in the academic world), Ozias breaks free from the mold to give selfishness a surprising degree of praise. Why?
Ozias recognizes the very essence of selfishness: “put[ting] yourself first.” He then invokes Michael Jordan’s aphorism that, “[t]o be successful, you have to be selfish or else you never achieve.” He agrees with Jordan, noting that in order to earn his place at an ultra-competitive Ivy League school like Princeton, he and his peers “had to be selfish.” He explains that he had to devote hours of studying and personal development to making the Princeton cut, even though some of that time could have been devoted to serving others.
Success in any worthy endeavor requires selfishness. The track runner who wants to make Olympic Trials in his event must exhibit the mental toughness required for a total dedication to his health and fitness. Everything from the food he eats, to the sleep he gets, to the more casual hobbies he allots time for, must serve his dream. The engineering student who wants to work at a top firm must be completely devoted to her studies. Too much recreation will compromise her goal. The classical guitarist who wants to master that tricky arpeggio for his next performance must put in the hours of concentrated effort that hone such a skill. He doesn’t have the time to binge on Netflix—or to work shifts in a soup kitchen.
Goal-achievement demands mental effort, by a rational mind. What the track runner, the engineer, and the guitarist each have in common is a steadfast devotion to their goals. A frenzied, emotional approach to athletics or engineering or music clearly won’t do. Rather, achievers in these fields must focus their minds intensely—they must take into account all the relevant facts, plan a proper course, and exhibit fidelity to it.
What’s surprising is that Ozias realizes that selfish action is productive action. The “self” isn’t merely some puppet whose strings are pulled by chance whims and fleeting desires. Nor is it just some mechanical vessel for achieving. The self, for its capacity to look outward at the world—to perceive, to conceptualize, and to decide—is the very thing that directs achievement. The self is the purposeful, rational mind.
Ozias is also right to say that “selfish people put themselves first and their goals first without taking advantage of those around them.” This is because other people aren’t the primary concern of the selfish individual, whose first concern is self-improvement. The engineering student, for instance, dedicates her time in school to studying and mastering her field. She knows that while the professor lectures, she must actively listen—that while the textbook is a help guide to her assignments, she must grasp and apply its contents to the problems at hand—that when a project demands that she build for herself, she must be the one to muster her creative energy, in order to produce something truly great. She knows that she can reach her goals, and that others will be willing to assist her, but only when she puts forth her best efforts in return. So Ozias is correct to distinguish those who are just plain “mean”—who exploit others on their way to the top— from those who are truly selfish.
Unfortunately, Ozias also adopts the remainder of Michael Jordan’s aphorism: that “once you get to your highest level, then you have to be unselfish.” But if it’s true, as he claims, that selfish living really makes “success” possible to us, while requiring none of the misanthropic back-stabbing so often attributed to it, then it’s difficult to reckon with his conclusion that selfishness is “largely justified so that we can become better at being unselfish later.” Just why does selfishness require us to “give back” to others? Have we stolen our success from them?
Of course it’s true that many individuals will play a part in our ultimate success—we choose to live among others for a reason. But the role that others play in our life stories is a function of our importance to them. Sure, students need teachers to learn—but teachers need students in order to teach. Yes, children need parents to grow and mature—but parents have children to love and nurture them. And neither teachers nor parents do what they do so that one day the young will “give back” to them—teachers receive paychecks and professional fulfillment, and parents receive emotional and spiritual gain. We aren’t forced upon one another in this world. We can choose to associate with, hold dear, and help others, all for what they’ll do to better our lives.
One should not apologize or seek forgiveness for the pursuit of one’s own well-being or for the achievement of personal goals. A life of achievement is precisely what ought to inspire others to achieve as well. Achievers such as Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, and even Michael Jordan make everyone else’s lives inestimably better. Their light bulbs, iPhones, and game-changing play were the products of brilliant minds fueled, not by guilt and the desire to “give back,” but by a selfish desire to see their dreams made real.
Because the ideal of selflessness is so pervasive, it’s not surprising that Ozias would couch his portrayal of the nature of selfishness within the framework of that ideal. But to do so compromises the whole point of his discovery. If it’s true that selfishness is about “put[ting] yourself first,” how could it be selfish to pursue your dreams just so that others will be made better for it? Selfishness is about production—for you; it’s about achievement—for you; it’s about running track, or studying engineering, or playing guitar—for you. The point is that your life is yours to live, that your dreams are yours to dream, and that their achievement demands, not your guilt, but your inviolate pride.
Selfish living makes possible to us all the ends that make life worth living. Ozias rightly recognizes that, and deserves praise for his achievement. But to embrace his discovery to the fullest—to truly embrace it—demands rejecting guilt and the whole selfishness taboo that fosters it. And if Ozias and his generation can do just that, their lives (and ours as well) would be so much the better for it.
Creative commons-licensed image from Wikimedia.