The Self-Help industry is enormous. In the US alone, this industry is estimated at over US$10 billion, with life coaching taking about a billion of this. In addition to personal services provided by life/leadership coaches and fitness trainers, we are inundated by self-help books, online courses, and seminars.
What makes this entire industry possible is a set of beliefs about human nature that we accept as common sense right now in the affluent West. Foremost, we understand ourselves as independent individuals, with unique personalities and talents that come entirely from within. We understand and judge one another’s decisions and actions in terms of the rational pursuit of personal goals. We believe we can each do better in our lives by independently pursuing our personal development.
We believe these things as if they are biological certainties, not cultural assumptions. But what if they are cultural rather than biological? What if we challenged this common sense, as we will in this book? We might begin to see the humor in shelves full of self-help books inviting us to look exclusively inward. We might suspect that personality tests are a comical waste of everyone’s time, even though US employers and individuals are spending over US$2 billion on them each year.
In short, we may come to question the extent and dominance of our self-focus. We may even shift our understanding of what self-knowledge is and what authenticity means.
I trained as a structural engineer and spent the first fifteen years of my career applying my technical understanding and problem-solving skills. Like many who train in a professional vocation, I self-identified as a technical type. We technical types often think about the value we bring to a situation in terms of our expert knowledge and our intellectual capacity to rationally solve problems.
We’re also skeptics. We don’t trust opinions pushed on us as truth or knowledge without backup. We like to see the hard science validation built on the methodical analysis of quantitative data. We’re dismissive of non-technical approaches to just about anything. Consider interpersonal skills: many of us still call these soft skills, and you can’t get much more dismissive than that.
We believe that our technical approaches and our rational ways of being have been overwhelmingly successful. We simply point to the affluence of our Western society built on the innovations of science and engineering. We celebrate private enterprise and the visionary entrepreneurs who enable and realize these innovations. We elevate and defend the free-market climate that makes private enterprise possible. We’re grateful for stable democratic governments that nurture and support our free-market economies.
We recognize all the technical types in this chain: from researchers to engineers to venture capitalists, countless MBAs, lawyers, accountants, and business consultants. We claim other professionals – academics, architects, and doctors, for example – as our kind of people.
Given our dominance in the affluent West, we technical types could be forgiven for our conceit that our rational way is best. Yet, despite our success and material affluence, we also live in a disturbing time.
Whether we see ourselves as technical types or not, we notice and experience individual discontent, relationship disconnection, workplace disengagement, and community disenfranchisement. Many of us are disenchanted with our business and political leaders and their organizations. We fear that global disaster may be unfolding before us.
When we rationally reflect on the complex challenges we face in this world, we are dismayed and left without a clear way forward. I argue that our lack of headway on these challenges is due to our Western mindsets and over-reliance market metaphors. Approaching our situations as if we are anonymous suppliers or consumers in a free market, we rationally pursue our self-interests and narrow our sense of fairness to a self-focused caveat emptor (buyer beware!). From our work relationships to online-dating, we apply these mindsets to more of our situations as if they’re the only sensible ways open to us.
Independent individualism has become so pervasive and unquestioned in the West that it eclipses any other approach. We are quick to dismiss any alternative ways and label them irrational.
As an adult male in this world, I bought into the set of personal beliefs and cultural assumptions I’ll call selfish. By selfish, I don’t mean the narcissism that many describe as an epidemic in our culture. I don’t narrowly mean the rational self-interest that economists invoke. I don’t only mean mid-20th century attempts by Ayn Rand and other pop-philosophers to reimagine and elevate self-interest as a moral imperative.
What I do mean by selfish is that common and subtler form of egocentrism in which we understand ourselves as independent and autonomous. An understanding that sets us up to see our obligations within relationships and groups in potential conflict with our personal goals and life choices. An understanding that invites us as individuals to see such obligations of belonging as constraints to be minimized, renegotiated, and revoked.
Our default approaches in this culture seem to exclude serious and sustained consideration of more collaborative and relational approaches. For example, we might talk about teamwork, but we dread the potential for conflict between individuals. We might act as participants, but we notice our discomfort as we surrender personal control to the unpredictability of group dynamics.
In this book, we rebuild a perspective that casts collaborative and relational approaches in a new light that invites our authentic participation. We don’t need to abandon Western rationality, but I argue that we do need to challenge our underlying cultural assumptions and common metaphors for understanding the world.
That is what this book is about: exploring what we might label as common sense and presenting an alternative set of assumptions. With our cultural assumptions revealed, we see new possibilities for who we can be within this culture. As we play with the possibilities through our relationships, conversations, and collaborations, we influence how our culture evolves.
The cultural context we find ourselves in deeply influences the questions we ask around how to live well. In our Western world, some of the deepest beliefs and rarely questioned assumptions we share and recognize as common sense center around what it is to be a person.
As we frame our situations using the language of individualism and rationality, we obscure unselfish ways in which we could participate. Such an alternative view embraces a person’s uniqueness as a co-creation through relationships with others and belonging to groups.
An Unselfish Perspective invites us to surrender some of our fiercely defended individuality. As we challenge our common sense assumptions, we may come to recognize that our thoughts, our hopes and dreams, our decisions and actions always emerge from prior and ongoing collaborations with countless others.
This book makes three key assumptions about human nature. The first is that you and I are not static or consistent across situations. The second is that you and I can’t understand ourselves by looking exclusively within. The third is that we’re not independent of one another or separate from the world. These assumptions are interconnected and support each other.
I invite you to experiment with these ideas as you question some of the underlying assumptions of our individualistic consumer culture. Our old assumptions can act as barriers in our pursuits of more meaningful and satisfying lives.
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