Re-defining What It Means To Be Selfish

As creative business owners, I think one of the main struggles we encounter is the contrast between a) making things we feel compelled to make -- things that serve our need to create what WE ourselves have in our hearts -- and then b) making something that others need -- something that brings them value that they’re willing to pay for (that’s the business owner part of the equation, right?)

This conflict brings up an interesting question around selfishness. If we choose NOT to create things based on the needs of other people and instead choose to create things based solely on the needs of ourselves... does that make us inherently selfish?

And, this spurs some even bigger questions to ponder...

Is creating art inherently selfish?
Is being a human inherently selfish?

And is the idea being selfish inherently good or bad?

 
 

With these questions swirling around in my head, I ruminated on this word all week long. Even when I say the word “selfish” I immediately feel icky, which is an indication to me that this word has been commandeered by our culture and taught to us to be an inherently negative trait.

But then I think about what it actually means.

To me, being “selfish” just means placing focus on your own needs, your own priorities, your own unique lens with which you see the world.

And what’s confusing about that is if I’ve learned anything these past few years, it’s that shifting focus away from the expectations of others and back on my true self (my needs, my priorities, my unique lens) has brought me immense satisfaction and joy.

So I began to realize that this word, selfish, desperately needs to undergo a massive makeover. (Cue the “I wanna be a supermodel” makeover montage from Clueless, which I’m not embarrassed to admit I watched and thoroughly enjoyed last weekend.)

We need to begin dismantling this idea of what it means to be selfish and reassemble it with the understanding that focusing on one’s self can actually be a very positive thing.

For example, let’s take the artist’s conundrum I mentioned above.

I believe that YES, art in a way is inherently selfish because it comes from the lens of the artist that created it. And great art is usually born out of one person’s deep need to unleash their perspective to the outside world. The response from or benefit to the outside world is usually the effect, not the cause.

The irony then lies in the fact that the MORE a person can focus on their perspective, hone their vision and their identity, the more profound (and impactful) their art can become.

Take the poet David Whyte for example. David Whyte’s poetry is so gorgeous and stirring that at times I wonder how art so beautiful could be created by a mere human just like me.

The answer is that I believe David Whyte is selfish in the very best way. The only way he is able to create art that brings so many people like me around the world joy and meaning and wisdom is because he serves his own self -- his own soul. The deeper he dives into the contemplation of his own experiences and perspectives, the more he is able to emerge with universal truths that can serve others.

Get it? Selfishness is a delightfully contradictory concept because the more you focus on yourself -- the more self-actualized you become -- the more you are able to give to others. And the circle goes on.

And it doesn’t just apply to art. Anyone who has ever taken a “me” day can attest that this rings true in our lives as well. When we take a moment to focus on our own needs, to check in and make sure that our buckets are filled, that is when we can bring our best selves to our spouses, our families, our friends, and even strangers.

So here’s my conclusion.

There is nothing wrong with being selfish if selfish means fully realizing the potential of one’s self (and I choose to believe it does.)

The issue is that we, being the scarcity-minded culture we are, have chosen to believe that when a person leans more fully into their own wholeness that it somehow distracts and detracts from the needs of everyone else. That is the myth that I want to bust with this letter.

Because there’s a difference between being selfish at the expense of others and being selfish so that we can benefit others.

The distinction is in the intent.

I think it’s time that we re-define what it means to be selfish and reclaim that word for good in this context, because deep in my bones I believe that humanity benefits when we all focus on showing up as our brightest, best selves. Everybody wins.

Here’s my new definition of selfishness. See if this is something you might be able to get behind:

Selfishness is realizing that tuning into your own needs first allows you to be more fully present to the needs of others.

Selfishness is realizing that ultimately the only life we have full control over is our own, and that it’s our gift and our charge to be good stewards of that precious life by taking care of ourselves.

Selfishness is focusing on creating things that stir your heart and your soul before molding your vision to the expectations of other people.

Selfishness is being HONEST about what you need when you need it.

Selfishness is being your own advocate.

Selfishness is recognizing that when each of us takes full ownership of living as our brightest selves, humanity’s light as a whole shines brighter too.

What do you think?

Armed with these new definitions, this week I challenge you to be a little more selfish.

Whether it’s in your art and you need encouragement to follow your vision without diluting it with the expectations of others OR whether you need permission to tend to your own needs for a little while, I hope this letter gives you the boost you need.

Remember, there is nothing wrong with taking care of yourself. You only get your one life and it would be a shame to divvy it up piece by piece and sell it off to the highest bidder.

Take care of YOU and good things will follow!

 

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