Are You Selfish Enough to Succeed?

  • August 11, 2011 by Corbett Barr
  • 38 Comments

When you’re trying to change your life or pursue a dream, what you don’t do is often as important as what you do.

We’re all given the same 24 hours each day. It’s easy to feel like there’s not enough time to do what you really want to be doing.

After all the “have to do’s” there’s barely any time left for the “want to do’s.”

But how many of those things that you take for granted as being requirements each day actually don’t have to be done at all?

When you actually think about your list of things you’re planning to do today or this week, how many of them could be excluded without much consequence?

Life is a giant series of decisions. Who you are today is the sum of the decisions you’ve made in your life. Every decision you make has an effect on other decisions. By choosing to spend your time as you do today, you’re deciding not to spend time doing the other things you’d really like to be doing.

The things you don’t do free up time for other opportunities.

To make progress toward your goals, you’re going to have to get comfortable with not doing some of the things you do today. That means you’ll have to get comfortable with letting some negative consequences happen in favor of other positive consequences.

As I heard Tim Ferriss say in San Francisco last year, you have to get comfortable with “letting lots of little bad things happen.”

What consumes most of your days right now?

What if you didn’t do some of those things?

What would the actual consequences be?

Just because an action (or lack of action) creates some negative consequences doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it (or not do it). You have to weigh the negative consequences against the potential greater positive consequences to decide what’s really best.

This is why most people can’t change their lives in any major way. People get consumed with minimizing all negative consequences of their decisions instead of maximizing the positive ones.

For example, what will happen if you don’t spend an hour meeting with someone you had on your calendar today? That person might be a little disappointed with you. But what could you do with that hour that would outweigh the downside of skipping the meeting?

Your time is precious. You have to ruthlessly decide how to spend it, otherwise the path of least resistance (avoiding all negative consequences) will naturally fill your days.

You have to learn to say “no” and get a little selfish if you want to make better things happen in your life.

Two Ways to Reclaim Your Days

Here are two exercises that will help you start reclaiming your days so you can maximize positive consequences.

1) Look at your calendar for the coming week.

Evaluate every appointment on your schedule. For each appointment, ask yourself this: “if I skipped this appointment, what would the consequences be?” Then, ask yourself “could I do something else with that time that would lead to positive consequences that outweigh the negative consequences of not attending?”

2) Create a “stop doing list.”

Repetitive tasks need to be scrutinized just like on-off appointments. You might not be able to quit your repetitive tasks cold turkey, but you can stop having to do a lot of things if you plan ahead.

Think about all the things you have to do on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Identify the ones that are not helping you make progress towards living the life you really want to live. What if you just stopped doing them today?

If you can’t stop doing them right now, could you create a plan for cessation and make it happen in a week or month or three months?

Don’t be afraid to disappoint.

Trying to please everyone around you is an impossible task that will only keep you from getting what you want from life. Get comfortable with letting some negative consequences happen in favor of bigger better things.

A little selfishness might be just what you need to make a breakthrough.

Written by . Corbett is cofounder of Fizzle, a place for creative entrepreneurs, writers, makers, coders and artists, all working to support themselves doing what they love independently on the Internet. Follow Corbett on on Twitter.


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TrafficColeman August 11, 2011 at 6:11 am

Some people have what we call the drive juice in their blood. No matter what they are going to make the best of their time and energy.

“Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

Patricia Troyer August 11, 2011 at 8:35 am

Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard. Made me feel better just reading it. This one definitely gets passed on. Thanks.

Corbett August 16, 2011 at 10:36 pm

Thanks Patricia!

Shane August 11, 2011 at 9:37 am

Corbett – this is some great stuff here…and you know what? People forget that letting little bad things happen in order to stay focused and on task is often a hard transition to make but it’s critical for success (not just personal success but your business).

Corbett August 16, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Right, maybe I didn’t specify, but really by “success” I meant business as well as personal.

Bob August 11, 2011 at 9:59 am

Great article. I think the part about trying to please everybody is what gets me every time. It’s something I can’t shake off. In fact, I’ve get so used to it that I don’t know what I want or what I like anymore.

I’m not complaining: I’m aware of it and I’m trying to fix it. But it’s being hard. To know what you really want you have to make a very sincere assessment of what you’re currently doing, and that could mean getting rid of things that defined you to yourself and the rest of people until now. You could have been doing something all your life (and that’s a long time) thinking that you liked it, but finding in the end that you only wanted other people to like you for that.

And that’s tough. Feels like half of your life has been a lie, and then it’s not even a guarantee that you’ll find something that you really like and fulfills you to replace it. It’s only a start.

Well, sorry for the rant. Guess I wanted to get it out of my chest and it happened here :-)

Corbett August 16, 2011 at 10:39 pm

It’s cool Bob, glad to connect deeply enough to make you rant ;)

Cordelia August 11, 2011 at 10:33 am

This is exactly the philosophy behind my site. There are so many better things to do with our lives than waste them doing tasks just because we think we should, we’re worried we’ll disappoint someone, we don’t want to stand out.

I’m actually working on an ebook on the “Quitterly” philosophy, and I think I’m going to include a section now on how to get past the guilt of feeling “selfish” for standing up for how you use your own time. Thanks for the idea–and the message. This is a concept close to my heart that I really believe more people need to hear.

Corbett August 16, 2011 at 10:41 pm

Awesome Cordelia! Can’t wait to see how “Quitterly” turns out. It’s definitely a topic worth exploring.

marianney August 11, 2011 at 10:54 am

as always, very timely advice Corbett, this is why i keep coming back here :)

Corbett August 16, 2011 at 10:43 pm

Then I’ll keep dishing it out ;)

Joshua Cary August 11, 2011 at 11:14 am

This is the part I love the most:

“Trying to please everyone around you is an impossible task that will only keep you from getting what you want from life.”

It took me a long while to not only understand that concept, but more importantly, to become comfortable with that concept.

Trying to constantly please others is a sure way to hurt yourself.

Thanks for the article, Corbett.

cashflowmantra August 11, 2011 at 11:46 am

Incredibly insightful and not common advice. It really is something that I hadn’t really thought about, but you do have to have some measure of ‘selfishness’ to accomplish goals.

Tony Dimmock August 11, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Corbett, one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time! Time is such a precious commodity and using it wisely (and sometimes selfishly) can be a tough call with so many other “important” commitments to fulfill. Thanks for sharing :-)

Corbett August 16, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Awesome Tony, thanks for commenting!

Lewis LaLanne aka Nerd #2 August 11, 2011 at 1:11 pm

One of my favorite books that points out all the ways we cheat ourselves by not engaging in “enlightened self-interest” is Robert Ringer’s “Looking Out For #1″.

I love this book!!!

Actually I love all of his writing. In general, all of Robert’s books have a heavy slant against letting yourself get pushed around by the status quo or the industry norms. He’s been an invaluable resource to me.

Corbett August 16, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Cool, I haven’t heard of Robert Ringer before, but I’ll check him out. Thanks!

Denise August 11, 2011 at 6:04 pm

The key is definitely “getting comfortable” with disappointing people. I can say ‘no’ all day, but if I allow myself to feel guilty afterwards that will quickly zap my energy and I may not be as effective. So, I feel your message in this post is right on point- utilizing a little selfishness, but also being 100% comfortable in doing so.

Frank Dickinson August 12, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Love the “to stop doing list” Corbett. I have so much on my plate right now that i believe this is going to be the only way to get through it successfully.

Kayla August 12, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Epic post – love it!

Conor Neill August 14, 2011 at 1:42 am

I have a post-it on my desktop on which I have written “Say NO more”. I fail too often. I don’t understand why I have this little bug inside of me that has a desire to say yes so often… which is in reality saying No to my own priorities. This continues to be a mission for me… to be conscious in my priorities and not live based on other’s expectations or because my calendar says so. Thanks for the reminder.

Kristinn Maree August 19, 2011 at 5:58 am

Seriously, I love the post. This isn’t just a philosophy in blogging or in online marketing business, but as well as in life.
Especially this line, “Who you are today is the sum of the decisions you’ve made in your life.”
Bookmarked it and shared it in Facebook.

Lucy August 20, 2011 at 10:34 am

I find it extremely hard to get advice from Tim Ferriss, he’s a little bitch… OOO language, well too freaking bad, that’s exactly what I think.

The philosopher Ayn Rand named her view on the world as Objectivism. I very much agree with point of view. She champions capitalism and what she calls “rational self interest”, she says it’s alright to be selfish that our first and most important value should be ourselves. Her entire philosophy is set on moral values and ethics.

Objectivists get a bad rep because they miss the point. Free enterprise, taking care of yourself first (aka selfishness), actually using your brain…these people (like Tim Ferris) forget that the entire philosophy is based on moral and ethical values. Having little to no respect for other people is just plain old being a narcissist douche. Tim Ferris says in his book how he won the big martial art competition via a loop hole, what is ethical about exploiting a loop hole that robs people of years of hard work? This wasnt a survival issue, he didnt need it to keep from starving so essentially he had NO RESPECT for the competitors or the craft. Bravo.

My whole point is, Tim Ferris’ advice, while not entirely wrong, comes from a bad place. In a more Objectivist point of view …

Get your values in order – This makes it so that you have to THINK about the things you truly want.

Put yourself as the first value – When you’re on a plane they ask that you put the oxygen mask on yourself before you do it on a child, you need to be at your best if you expect to help anyone.

Realize that self esteem comes from accomplishment – If you become a billionaire and you never have to work again, not working, not accomplishing anything else, being still will kill your mind and soul. “Traveling” is not an accomplishment. You need to plan on how you will keep your brain alive ALWAYS.

If you take care of yourself, if you use your brain, if you are constantly achieving to be better you will be happy even in a 9-5 job because you will have self respect. Work is not the enemy, the enemy is the value structure where you dont take care of yourself and you let your mind die.

Denise August 22, 2011 at 9:29 am

Lucy, your comment made me smile.
I checked out the 4-hour work week from the library a while back and was thankful I read that book for free.

Ana | how to build a list August 20, 2011 at 11:54 am

This is a great post, thank you Corbett. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed and then completely freeze up, but these techniques will help us not to go down that road.

Jeff - Digital Nomad Journey August 24, 2011 at 10:06 am

“But how many of those things that you take for granted as being requirements each day actually don’t have to be done at all?”

This is my favorite part.

When you actually ask throughout the day “Is what I’m doing right now helping me reach my goal”, a lot of light is shed on your actions. Even little things like eating habits, batch cooking meals at once all help free up time.

In the long run you can’t please everyone, nor should you have to. The more you cut out “stuff and tasks” the more you begin to see how much better you feel in those 24 available hours.

Andy Crichton August 24, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Be careful what you wish for! Sorry to stand out from the general concensus, but it sounds to me like you guys who subscribe to the selfish idea are copping out or deluded. Nobody is a saint, but why not promise yourself to not make promises you can’t keep, or why not set out to treat others like you would like to be treated?

There have been riots in UK caused by people who think number one above all else is OK. Just saying.

Missing appointments like son’s birthday party is OK for your greater good, or letting down good folks so you can get ahead is acceptable? Give me a break. Wheres the line in the sand end after that. Bit of embezzlement is OK?…

You better accumulate plenty of wealth on the path described above, because you will need to spend a good chunk trying to rebuild bridges that should never have been broken in the first place. Thinking ahead and doing the right thing by others is a far more cost efficient and sustainable approach for all parties than that selfish route. But then, to achieve that outcome requires more smarts and bravery than the misguided notion of the article.

simonds August 27, 2011 at 2:36 am

thanks for this excellent post…really appreciate your writing..

Michael Said August 27, 2011 at 2:45 am

Very sound advice here Corbett. It is sad that with so much technology at our disposal, we still seem to have insufficient time to do the things that we want to do.

Marya | Writing Happiness August 29, 2011 at 4:55 am

Corbett, its not always a matter of being selfish, often its the matter of a sacrifice. What can you sacrifice in order to achieve your dreams?

Rencetly I read a life changing quote somewhere .. it goes something like this ..

it’s not how much you want something, its how much you are willing to give up to have it.

That basically sums up everything I wanted to say on the subject. :)
Cheers. Marya

Jeff - Digital Nomad Journey August 29, 2011 at 7:52 am

I love this quote Marya – exactly what I am learning now. Looking around at all the stuff and apartment space that can be “given up” to move closer to a goal.

Trevor Mauch August 31, 2011 at 8:05 am

Corbett, I love it man.

One of the things I’ve had to be really selfish about is not taking most phone calls anymore… I used to answer every call that came in… but now, I’ve just had to say “no”… and it feels great! Been doing it about a year… and I’ve learned that people will leave a message if its truly important… they won’t leave a message if its not important… and I spend 90% less time on the phone now because most of my calls are scheduled.

At first it felt really selfish, but then I realized how much it freed me up.

Another thing we’ve cut out recently is cable TV… we don’t watch a ton of TV anyway…. but this week I called up the cable company, cancelled… and the gal was baffled that why I wouldn’t take a deeply discounted rate to keep TV… she just couldn’t comprehend that we were cancelling not for the money… but so we wouldn’t have the temptation of having TV around to use as a crutch to fill time.

Great article again man!

– Trevor

PS – You may have written about this before… not sure, but whats your best way to combat writers block on your blog? I run several successful online companies… love talking and teaching about things I’m doing in business and life to get better results… lol, but it seems when I sit down to write it, its a struggle. Any tips man? I love your style and how you drill down on a simple idea for each article… I think I try to make every article an epic end all be all novel… which is part of my problem. Thanks!

Wade | Freelance Writer September 5, 2011 at 10:50 am

Good advice Corbett, and while many of us may not be selfish enough to succeed, it might be worth looking at this in order to improve the quality of our lives.

Ana September 5, 2011 at 12:39 pm

These thoughts have been going through my mind in the past week. It seems that saying “no” is the key to getting things done.

Don September 5, 2011 at 6:16 pm

This is probably the best article concerning entrepreneurship that I have ever read!!!! Seriously!!!

I’ve always practiced this but never realize it or thought about what it is I am actually doing until I read this. My friends always call me to go out but I always want to stay home and work on my business. I never really knew how to describe why I reject my friends every now and then. I also never realize that I am being “selfish” (in a good way). It is definitely a sacrifice to give up some time for other things, but this is all for the greater good of course. Its one of those things where if you don’t try, you’re always going to wonder “what if”.

Again, great, great, great stuff!

LR December 29, 2011 at 12:02 pm

But for the average female, they are expected to do things all the time for others rather than themselves, including their families. If they step out a bit, they get abuse and insults.

Jill August 29, 2012 at 4:48 am

Good advice – we may not all succeed but surely some theory enables and assists productivity. I’d hate to look back and think ‘what if?’.

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