Beware the Self-Proclaimed Selfless

Beware the Self-Proclaimed Selfless

In an Ayahuasca vision, I saw a dragon made of grey smoke. In mythology, dragons represent beings of immense power, and he opened with a question true to form: “Do you want power?” I said yes. He asked why and I replied, “Because I want to help people.” The dragon countered, “Are you sure?” Flashing before my eyes I saw all the ways that I personally benefitted from the positive influence that I’ve had on people since founding Onnit and entering the public eye. I saw all the ways that my platform was helping people, and I took pride in it. The dragon made his point. I wanted influence both to help people, and because I enjoyed the recognition and resources that came with it. 

“...anyone who tells you they are completely selfless and 100% altruistic is full of shit...”

 But admitting to that duality opens you up for a lot of criticism. We love to hold people to impossible standards. We want someone to be successful and solely motivated by philanthropy. But let’s dispel that myth: anyone who tells you they are completely selfless and 100% altruistic is full of shit, and probably trying to take advantage of you. That’s just not how we are built. This is why capitalism, with all its inequities, has yielded a consistently better standard of living for more people than socialism. It is congruent with human nature.

Our inherent desire to take pride in ourselves is also, I think, why we are fascinated by boastful anti-hero figures like the UFC’s Conor McGregor and boxing legend Floyd Mayweather. We all have a little bit of Floyd and Conor inside us. We all want to shine a light on our achievements, including the shiny ones.

People run into real problems when they try to deny their true nature. If you believe that you should only be motivated by service to others then you will feel guilty about the selfish feelings you’ll inevitably have. Guilt is a form of pain, and as a way to avoid that pain, you might trick yourself into thinking that you actually don’t have any selfish motivations, and that’s dangerous.

I’ve seen this happen too many times among people on a decidedly spiritual path. By denying a very natural desire for money and power they create a starving monster growing inside them. Without acknowledgement, that monster begins to control their decisions, turning them greedy or dishonest when given the opportunity to seize influence. 

“By denying a very natural desire for money and power they create a starving monster growing inside them.”

Failure to acknowledge personal pleasure doesn’t just result in greed for money and power. During a trip to the poorest slums of Africa, I saw a lot of volunteers genuinely trying to help. Justin Wren, author of Fight for the Forgotten is that kind of guy. But I also witnessed some other Westerners reveling in a Messiah complex. They walked into the slums, handed out food or money to throngs of poor Africans, and then fattened their ego off the servile gratitude from those they had patronized. They were all too careful to hide their self-satisfaction behind a veneer of service.

On the other hand, if you’re honest with yourself and acknowledge your desires up front, you can reconcile your intentions and work to create win-win scenarios. Look at the example Tom’s shoes sets. They make profits off of every pair of shoes or glasses sold, and then use some of those profits to put shoes and glasses on kids in need. Tesla motors is financially successful and pushes environmental change. Take away the selfishness necessary to keep the business growing and there wouldn’t be a Tom’s shoes or Tesla motors. It’s hard to summon the energy to do great things under any circumstances. When you remove the personal pleasure that helps drive us it’s virtually impossible.

We are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. If we are unable to step back and observe the ego, we will become the ego. Having an ego and desiring pleasure doesn’t make us bad people, it just makes us people. By recognizing our humanity we have a chance to limit our depravity, and make a more beautiful world for us all. 


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