Opinions, Column

Self-Interest and Selflessness: A Complex Relationship

How much should we prioritize ourselves?

This question is deceptively simple and seemingly impossible to answer.

To be a college student is to grapple with these questions constantly. Should I go to the gym or get lunch with my friend? Should I study or play poker with my roommates? Should I apply for internships or go out with my friends?

Each micro-decision is a balancing act of managing personal care with maintaining relationships. While some decisions allow you to further yourself and your relationships—for example, going to the gym with a friend—even trivial decisions often require sacrifice for one over the other. 

These decisions collectively position us along a spectrum. Visualize a y-axis: at its peak, intense self-interest prevails, and at its trough is profound selflessness.

Individuals at the peak of this spectrum prioritize personal growth. In college, this attitude is sometimes necessary to get a good grade in organic chemistry or grind for a starting spot on a sports team. But high levels of self-preservation and self-interest can put important relationships on the sidelines, and stifle your social life.

At the bottom of the y-axis is the agreeable and selfless person—someone who tirelessly works to uphold many relationships and participates in many extracurriculars, often at the expense of personal development. While this may produce a vibrant and rewarding social life, people who live on this end of the axis often overextend themselves, disregarding grades and personal well-being.

Many aim to find a balance somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, but the reality is that society needs people spanning all points on the spectrum to function and progress.

The advantage of people at the selfless end of the spectrum is widely accepted. Educators, stay-at-home parents, social workers, and first responders are some of the millions of Americans who work selfless professions, often at the expense of potentially higher salaries. These individuals are the backbone of society, shaping future generations while maintaining the security and infrastructure of our country.

At first glance, it can be easy to villainize those on the opposite end of the spectrum. People who embody extreme self-interest often earn a reputation as selfish or even evil. They are painted as people who only care about the bottom line and ignore human costs. These individuals are often our business leaders and entrepreneurs who go to extreme lengths to achieve monetary success.

Yet one of the most significant drivers of societal development and innovation is unapologetic self-interest. This is not to say that selfless people aren’t able to innovate, but if everyone had a perfect work-life balance or constantly tried to appease others rather than themselves, there would be fewer scientific breakthroughs, technological innovations, and affordable products. We wouldn’t have iPhones, social media, electric cars, elite sports competitions, or an endless stream of entertainment. 

Undoubtedly, extreme self-interest is high risk and high reward. There are risks to endless ambition: harmed family relations, crime, labor exploitation, and environmental negligence, to name a few. 

While I do not attempt to justify these harmful byproducts of self-interest, it is irrational to blame self-interest as a root driver of social and economic harm when self-interest is often also the reason for social and economic prosperity.

Self-interest becomes a problem when it causes people to ignore the needs and well-being of those around them.

Balancing the self and others is a challenge all college students must juggle with. It is a harsh reality, but as difficult as it may be, it only becomes more taxing after we graduate. Many of us will work, marry, and have kids within the next ten to fifteen years. Questions like “should I go out or study?” become “should I work more hours to earn a promotion or spend more time with my spouse and kids?” What was once juggling while standing becomes juggling while riding a unicycle.

So consider your place on the spectrum of self-priority. Do you lean toward self-preservation? Do you lean toward selflessness? Do you fall in the middle? If you feel strongly about your place on this spectrum, don’t allow outside perspectives to guilt you into changing yours (albeit, it is sometimes worth letting trusted people steer you in the right direction). If you are not where you would like, strive to make more conscious decisions that guide you in your desired direction. 

While selflessness is often emphasized, remember that it is okay to be self-interested. Harmony among individuals from both ends of the self-priority spectrum is what propels our advancement and maintains our stability.

February 22, 2024