Doing You: The Difference between Self-Interest and Selfishness



The word selfish gets thrown around a lot, especially when it comes to hot topics in politics and modern culture. Wealthy people are selfish for making so much money when there are so many people in poverty; a woman is selfish for wanting to continue her career after having children, or for getting an abortion of a baby she can’t care for.

The things is, though, that there is a major difference between having self-interest and being selfish. Let’s look at the actual definitions of the words (taken from the Cambridge Dictionary).


                   Self-Interest is the consideration of advantages for yourself in making a decision, usually without worrying about its effect on others.

                   Selfishness is caring only about what you want or need without any thought for the needs or wishes of other people.


Self-Interest is something we all have, and rightly so. We have to take care of ourselves first, because how can we help others if we are falling apart?

This past year I made some major changes in my life. I had come to realize that the lifestyle I was living was leading to a person that I had no desire to become. It wasn’t a few little corrections; I’m talking a full 180 degree change of who I was and what I wanted, my direction for my life.

Oh, the nerve! How dare she want something different for her life than everyone else!

I met a lot of resistance. The top accusations I received were that I was either crazy or extremely selfish, and sometimes both. Apparently there is a huge misconception within the people who surround us that we should fit into the tiny little defining box that they provide for us. If we decide to grow, to change, or to change boxes, well, there is all hell to pay.

You’re so selfish! You have no regard for how your decisions affect the people around you!

But if you think about it, what obligation do we have to act the way people expect of us? Is there an outstanding debt that exists there? Even when it comes to our families, although of course our parents raised us and gave us everything growing up, does that mean we owe it to them to live the life they expect of us?

Let’s go back to the difference between self-interest and selfishness. Selfish people care only for their own wellbeing, to an extreme fault at times. They have no regard for the feelings or desires of others. Self interest, however, is taking everything into account and, in the end, making the decision that is best for you.

Whereas selfishness is proceeding with no consideration for others, self-interest is listening to everyone’s side and making a well-informed decision based on self-knowledge and careful consideration.

Sometimes we tend to expect that listening to be synonymous with agreeing, and that if someone doesn’t do what we say it must mean they didn’t listen. It’s important to understand that it’s perfectly okay to listen, respectfully disagree, and decide to go another way. Both sides need to understand and find peace with this.

When faced with a major decision in our lives, it is vital to retain our self-interest. If we make a choice based on what will benefit or please others and deny our own needs, down the road it is much more likely to lead to regret, anger, and bitterness.

Maybe your family expects you to be a doctor, but you want to be a musician. If you follow their wishes and completely disregard your own dreams, probably you will always image what it would have been like if you chose differently. The burden of not being able to go back in time and choose differently can be a heavy one.

I had a substitute teacher once who told our class his story of fulfilling others’ expectations. As a kid he was very intelligent and was encouraged by his teachers and family to go to college, and eventually business school. From there he went on to work on Wall Street, working a nine to five, six-figure corporate job.

He never really wanted any of it, but felt that it was expected of him due to his exceptional intelligence. Even though he was miserable, it took him a long time to figure out how he could fix the situation. Eventually, after his kids had grown, he decided to quit his job and become a teacher, which was always his dream. He said he had never been happier, because he was finally doing what he loved.

His lesson was: “you’re never too old to do that which you wish you could have done.”

Even those people who are considered selfless retain a certain level of self-interest. Before we can give of ourselves, we must first take care of our own needs. It’s just like on airplanes, where you need to put your own mask on first before helping someone else.

In The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho comments that “everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.”

If everyone had a little more self-interest rather than interest in others’ lives, probably we would all be happier. After all, the only person who knows what’s best for you is yourself. So why do we pretend to know what’s best for others?

Here’s my three step call to action, which I hope will help everyone embrace their own decisions and those of the people around them a little more.

1. When faced with big decisions, value yourself above all.

People can chip in their opinions all day long, but at the end of the day YOU are the one who has to live with the consequences. Make sure you can handle them, and above all, make sure you’re headed in the direction of your happiness. When it comes to lifetime happiness, yours is the most important.

2. Before judging another’s decisions or giving advice, put yourself in their shoes.

Everyone works differently, and what’s best for you is almost never what’s best for the person next to you. Listen more than you speak, and you might even gain some insights that you can apply to your own life. Remember, it’s their life, and they have a right to choose.

3. Keep an open mind, a loving heart, and know yourself

You never know when your perspective might shift, so don’t shut yourself off from change. Having self-interest doesn’t mean you can’t act selflessly at times; it’s all about balance. In fact, giving of yourself is a wonderfully rewarding experience, and maybe you can inspire someone else to find their way. Finally, “know thyself.” You can’t make educated decisions for yourself if you don’t know what you want. Take some time to reflect, to appreciate yourself, and to grow.

The next time someone calls you selfish, just smile back. You will be able to tell the difference, and hopefully one day they will too. For now, though, just keep doing you.


Share This

Inspired? Spread it around!