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.
If we’re not static beings, independent and separate from the world, then self-discovery is not about digging deep to reveal what already is. Forget about excavating your fully-formed authentic self lying buried within you.
Instead, I believe that building knowledge about ourselves is more an ongoing collaborative practice of beginner learning and experimentation. Our culture and relationships always provide the context and the boundaries for this learning.
Becoming more aware of our implicit assumptions, as if you’re a new arrival to this time and place, may make it possible for you to play with the alternatives in your personal reflections and conversations with others. We can learn something new whenever we test the limits of the conversations that are possible within our culture, our communities, and our personal relationships.
Through two decades of development, socialization and education, kids become responsible adults. Free and responsible adults within our culture enjoy a range of life choices. Those choices include self-improvement, supporting the entire self-help industry.
There are no real experts to advise us through our lives. Whether we seek advice or receive uninvited feedback, we weigh what we are given and decide our next steps.
As a leadership coach, I’m inspired by the people I work with. Through our conversations, we explore real challenges, deeply personal aspirations, and possible alternative approaches. In my role as coach, I’m careful not to offer advice as if I’m an expert on someone else’s life. I stay curious and invite others to notice and question their assumptions in the situations they describe.
Through this process, we collaborators gain insights beyond what we might each achieve alone. We use these insights to clarify and commit to our short-term goals, plan our next steps, and honor our ultimate concerns.
If I’m not offering advice as if I’m an expert, what kind of self-help book is this? How can it support you in your pursuit of a good life?
I believe that a life we might ultimately judge as ethically, morally, and aesthetically satisfying – in other words a good life – can only happen in relation with the world, not independent of it. Such a pursuit calls for an unselfish perspective, the kind of perspective we explore in this book. If we want to gain insight into our real selves and lead authentic lives, we first need to notice the context our culture provides.
Answers to the deeply personal questions of who we are and what it means to live a good life can sound banal, obvious, circular, and unsatisfying. When we believe our surroundings are so familiar that there is nothing new to learn, we gaze into the distance. We find ourselves searching for novel and exotic answers outside of our personal experience and knowledge. This can lead us to esoteric sources from distant or historic cultures.
The danger is that we take the answers we find out of context and unreflectively transplant them into our own. It doesn’t make sense to pine over the loss of some admirable qualities of traditional cultures while ignoring the drawbacks of those same cultures.
For example, we see ancient Athens as the model of an effective self-governing democracy. We admire the ancient Athenians’ practices of citizenship and selfless participation. We’re inspired by their elevation of moral education and ethical development in support of such public participation.
We also deplore the chauvinism of these same Athenians. Only native Athenian men were recognized as citizens. Women, slaves, and migrants were excluded from participating in this rich public life. Women and slaves were limited to a dependent life largely within the walls of their masters’ households.
Even if we restrict our search for the good life to contemporary Western sources, noticing our context means navigating an ocean of knowledge. Our accumulation of recorded knowledge is impressive – an estimated 50 million scholarly articles were published between 1665 and 2009.
Every academic discipline subdivides and specializes. Consider papers published in just one small area of psychological research: Subjective Well-Being. In 1980, there were about 130 scientific articles per year. By 2014, the number of Subjective Well-Being scholarly articles had swelled to almost 15,000 per year.
Each field of research lays claim to knowledge viewed through the lens of researcher assumptions, beliefs, and language. Each discipline has its disputed theories and ongoing arguments. Even when knowledge overlaps across fields, experts are often constrained by their discipline’s language to talk past one another.
No wonder so many of us stop short of digging into academic papers ourselves and instead rely on whatever media soundbites filter through to us. When it comes to self-knowledge and self-development, we find ourselves relying on the self-help industry.
The self-help industry is bursting with books by self-help practitioners, narrow-field experts, gurus, and celebrities. I’m both a skeptical consumer and enthusiastic supplier within this industry. While I’ve found insights and inspiration from self-help products and services, I’m also frustrated by the common approaches and general limitations of self-help books.
The narrow-field experts often provide dumbed-down popularized accounts: advice with limited breadth of context. They offer tantalizing glimpses of a single viewpoint through one porthole. But as we move from one popularized account to another, looking through each porthole as we go, we find it difficult to imagine the uninterrupted horizon. We struggle to assimilate all these views into a coherent big-picture approach to our lives.
We are awash in the messages of celebrities and gurus advocating their own personal recipes on leading a well-lived life. These accounts are compelling and borrow from each author’s charisma and name recognition.
While they tell a good story, celebrity and guru accounts don’t often acknowledge the shared cultural beliefs that make their stories sensible to us. They rarely draw through the currents of contemporary philosophy and research within our culture. Often, they are little more than another set of opinions to consider or reject.
In this book series, I respond to my own frustrations with self-help books by exploring and addressing these three questions:
1. What is the context we find ourselves in, and what influence does this context have on how we define and pursue a good life?
2. Given an awareness of our context, what beliefs and assumptions about ourselves and the world are possible and what choices do we have in the ways we approach this life?
3. Given these possibilities, how do we build our conscious recognition of them, and how can we use this recognition in our daily decisions and actions to live better lives?
I begin addressing the first two questions in this book. I provide all my sources in notes at the end of each chapter, with a bibliography and index for anyone ready for a deeper dive into the research that has inspired me.
I hope that you find this book, the first in the series, rewarding for the personal reflection, questioning, and conversations that it invites.
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