Tuesday, May 26, 2009


So, I've been talking with my friend Ben today about himself, his life and his breakup with his girlfriend Wendy (the breakup initiated by Wendy).

As we've been talking, it's become clear that a potential root cause of the breakup may have been Ben making pretty much everything about, well... Ben. By making all things about himself, Ben has effectively lost the ability to be curious about or interested in other people. The breakup with Wendy has been a bit of a wake-up call. But even that is still, well, all about Ben and wanting to get back with Wendy.

So, as we were talked we ran into the truism that there's no such thing as an unselfish act. You know, even when I'm doing things for other people, I'm still always doing them for my own reasons, e.g., my sense of satisfaction of having helped someone, my need to be accepted, my feeling good about who I am, and so on.

As we talked about this, it occurred to me that, the concept of everything I do is really based on my motivations and not the motivations of others is a bit academic once you get it. It's useful to understand the concept as it lets me avoid the pitfalls of deciding that I did something for someone else, but beyond that it might be more useful to understand the finer nuances of my selfishness.

For example, I can be authentically selfish (i.e., my stated motivations are exactly my unstated motivations) or in-authentically selfish (i.e., my stated motivations have little to do with my unstated motivations). I can be selfishly motivated by my sense of satisfaction in having helped someone, or, selfishly motivated by the sense of indebtedness that is incumbent upon the people whom I've helped. I can be selfishly motivated to help someone because helping them indirectly helps me accomplish a broader set of goals (e.g., donating to the school that my child attends because it will indirectly help my child), or selfishly motivated simply because I want the immediate benefit to occur (e.g., taking a meal to someone simply because they're hungry).

The list could go on and on, but the main thing is this: since everything we do is selfishly motivated, pointing something out as selfish or not is kind of intellectually masturbatory. What's more useful is understanding the nature of the selfishness, not the fact of selfishness.

So... as Ben and I talked, we came to the conclusion that our understanding of these things is based on our experiences of unselfish acts. Ben recalled walking into Grand Central Station and seeing a woman sitting next to the station, her knees hugged tightly to her chest. He remembers running back up to talk with her and see if he could help. For him, this experience felt fundamentally different than other acts of unselfishness.

As we talked, we came to the conclusion that there are some acts of selfishness based on just feeling good about having helped someone, and others in which we have ulterior motives (e.g., being accepted by the person, being held in high regard, expectations of repayment or indebtedness, garnering favor, and so on). So, we decided that, the I feel good even if no one else knows about it types of motivation are fundamentally different than the other ones.

All that said, in order to help Ben become more adept at the former, we came up with a little exercise: every day, I will help five people in a manner where the only reward is the satisfaction of having helped them (and perhaps inadvertently from their thanking you). For example, I might leave a parking spot because I see someone else looking for a parking spot. I might double my tip at a restaurant I never plan to visit again. I might pick up trash as I walk down the street and deposit it in the nearest waste basket.

Why is this useful? Ultimately, it may not be. But, my thought is that the simple rudiment of helping five people a day independent of return could dramatically increase one's awareness of people. It could lead to greater curiosity and genuine interest. It could change pretty much everything.

So, what do you think?


  1. Like the explorations.
    I embrace that all motivation is self(ish)motivated.

    What determines the action, to do or to not do the 5 things,-(anything) depends on awareness at some level, of what one wants, (self-aware.)

  2. Teflon,

    I wanted to thank you for this post and the topics of discussion that lead to its creation. I've decided to create my own blog as a result. The content is really for me (selfish?) to help clarify the different things I'm going through, but might be interesting for other people to see?

    The address for my new blog is:

    // BLB


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