Headshot of Wayne Xiao

Headshot of Wayne Xiao

Photo Courtesy of Matthew Neville

Photo Courtesy of Matthew Neville

Headshot of Wayne Xiao

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Many will say it’s not acceptable to be self-interested. To be self-interested is to be egotistical, arrogant and narcissistic. It only seems natural then, that selfish, self-centered and self-interested are all words that have transgressed into the realm of insults. However, it’s important that we first recognize what these words mean: to be selfish is to be “lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure,” to be self-centered is to be “preoccupied with oneself and one’s affairs,” and to be self-interested is to be “motivated by one’s personal interest or advantage, especially without regard for others.”

But what does being regarded as lacking consideration for others, preoccupied with oneself, and motivated by one’s personal desires truly mean?

When we accuse someone of being selfish, we characterize them as a person who singularly seeks to benefit themselves at the expense of those around them, a vaguely backstabbing (if backstabbing was an adjective) personality trait.
I argue that it isn’t anything quite as malicious as that. In my eyes, to be selfish or self-centered or self-interested is to value your well-being, happiness and security over those of another person, and therefore the practice of being involved with oneself doesn’t deserve the negative connotation that it has.
When you consider it, self-investment seems intuitive, natural. After all, I am me, and you are you. I should have a higher stake in myself since, after all, my mind inhabits my body, granting me a vested interest in protecting that vessel. Therefore, this dictates that my well-being and success should come before yours.
A source of misconception, I feel, is the deceptively absolute nature of definitions. Let me pose an example. Say that I am a selfish person. What does that mean for me? Am I some terrible person who is only concerned with my own personal profit or pleasure? The short answer is, well, yes. To a certain extent I would be lacking in concern for others, and my priority would be myself.

What is not stated, however, is that just because I am primarily concerned with myself does not mean that I could not be concerned with anything else. And therein lies the problem with definitions as they are used today. In attempting to distill the essence of person down to a single term, one inevitably loses sight of the nuances that give people’s lives depth, presenting them as one-dimensional cutouts rather than individuals of boundless complexity.

And that is the crux of the issue. To see the world as black-and-white, is to blindly accept oversimplifications that are misleading in the extreme, disregarding the shades of grey that accompany every decision.
So, what I’m trying to say is that for better or for worse, making the choice to help yourself is not one that defines you. It simply is not selfish to prioritize yourself over the matters of other people.

With the be-all end-all in our lives right now — education — only getting more competitive, it can be easy to fall victim to the other extreme of truly only caring about yourself. And indeed, if those social bonds that hold us together were to be removed, then perhaps we would not see caring for yourself a little more than other selfish. But in today’s society, caring for yourself is considered the worst in such a competitive environment.

The desire to succeed is present in all of us. Yet it seems to be society’s push to force us to internalize that desire — to force it deep inside. Self-concern, it seems, is not something that the caring, compassionate global citizen displays to the world.

At the end of the day, just remember that no one can tell you who you are, or what you are. It’s your life. It’s yours. And no one else’s.

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