Provision #407: Avoid Selfish Thinking

Laser Provision

This Provision will challenge your thinking. If you are like most people, you think more about your own welfare than the welfare of others. You may even have developed an elaborate justification for such selfish thinking. But what if the way to self-care was not through making self-care your goal? What if it was not the product of selfish living, but the byproduct of generosity, justice, peace, and love? This Provision invites you to consider such a turning of the tables.

LifeTrek Provision

Before we get into this week’s Provision I want to celebrate the birth of a new member of the LifeTrek family. On Thursday morning, after less than 10 hours of labor and delivery, Elek Sol Aslan Jackson was born to Coach Erika Jackson and her husband, Theo. A healthy baby boy, weighing in at 7 lbs 14 oz (3.6 kg), Elek will no doubt find other ways on other days to make it into the pages of our Provisions and Pathways. Welcome Elek and congratulations Erika and Theo!

We come, then, to the conclusion of the first half of our series on spiritual wellness by challenging a generally accepted principal in the coaching industry, namely, that selfishness is a good thing. None other than the dean of the modern coaching movement himself, Thomas J. Leonard, made this clear in chapter one of his book, The Portable Coach: 28 Surefire Strategies for Business and Personal Success.

“Become incredibly selfish,” he writes. “Adopt the concept of extreme self-care. Put yourself first. Embrace the notion that, ‘If it’s good for me, it’s probably going to benefit others.’ Feel more independent and less pulled by your roles. Get a lot more of what you want, more often, and then build a reserve. Answer to the callings of your heart and mind before you answer to the callings of the tribe. Take what you feel you need, even if it seems that others won’t get as much.”

“Stop hanging around people who abhor selfishness,” he urges. “People who build their identity on trying to ‘do good’ all of the time, or who try to ‘evolve’ beyond their ‘ego,’ are usually drainers. Why? Because it takes a lot of ego to pretend you’re above having an ego • and a lot of energy to keep up that kind of pretense. If you spend time with such people, you’ll find yourself paying for their tickets.”

This self-described “incredibly selfish” man, whose extreme self-care routines included support by no fewer than ten health-care professionals (e.g., a physician, a coach, a nutritionist, a therapist, and a deep-tissue massage specialist), died in 2003 of a massive heart attack at the age of 47. All that self-care could not save him from a premature death. And he may have even reached the point where all that self-care became counterproductive.

In his defense, Thomas Leonard had much to say about his brand of selfishness that was on target and wholesome. He clearly states that “being selfish does not mean being a jerk. It doesn’t mean being pitiless, cold-hearted, and unwilling to help lift less fortunate people out of their circumstances.” He also states the coaching principle that we can ill-afford to take care of others at the expense of ourselves. And he repeatedly makes the connection between extreme self-care and the care of others.

“Tremendous numbers of people in this world are struggling and drowning in adversities of many kinds,” he writes. “You can help them by being a lighthouse on a solid foundation; you can help them by jumping into the waves with a buoyancy vest and lifeline to the shore. But you can’t help them if you yourself go under.”

“They say that when one is totally taken care of, his or her ‘cup runneth over.’ When this becomes true of you and your life, you’ll have extra resources, super reserves, that others can freely take advantage of without any risk to you. And you’ll have clear, solid boundaries that won’t allow anyone to take too much.”

Leonard, in other words, was not urging selfishness in the customary sense of the word. He was not urging people to care for themselves at the expense of others; he was urging people to care for themselves in order to “build a base that will give them the power to be generous • without the burnout syndrome that plagues so many people with good-hearted intentions.”

As much as I celebrate the notion of building a base for generosity, I don’t think it helps to frame that in terms of being “incredibly selfish.” Such language can turn self-care into an entitlement and its practitioners into demanding, Type-A personalities. That’s because self-care is not an end in itself, a goal to be pursued, or a product to be obtained. Doing so too often leads to excessive self-concern. Self-care is better generated as a byproduct of generosity itself.

Allow me to illustrate. In eight days I will be running the Boston Marathon. That means, among other things, that I have spent countless hours taking care of myself in training. It means I have paid attention to how I eat, rest, breathe, stretch, and work out. Those things alone count for at least 12 hours per day. It also means, this past week, that I scheduled an extra deep-tissue massage since my right hip was starting to hurt. I wanted to nip that in the bud.

For many people, including Leonard, all this time and all these activities would be viewed as “extreme self-care.” But that’s neither how I experience nor describe them. I rather enjoy these rhythms as part of how I reach out in the world. They enable me to share in the dreams of others and provide grist for the mill of Provisions. They make me happy because I don’t just do them for myself.

I would turn Leonard’s advice on its head. Don’t pursue self-care in order to practice generosity; practice generosity in order to pursue self-care. By giving ourselves away to others, by pouring ourselves out in service to the world, we will find both the reason and the opportunity for the very self-care Leonard was talking about. But we will do so without the self-absorption that comes from putting the cart before the horse.

Another concern I have about Leonard’s advice is that the great spiritual traditions of the world never urge people to be “incredibly selfish.” That was certainly not what brought so many people to Rome to honor the memory of Pope John Paul II. The great commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” can just as well be translated, “Love your neighbor in order to love yourself.” But it cannot be translated the other way around (“Love yourself in order to love your neighbor.”).

Leonard was quick to dismiss this as old-world, old-school, and old-paradigm thinking. For him, loving yourself • selfishly, lavishly, and with reckless abandon • was the foundation for everything else. But that is not, it seems to me, the way to spiritual wellness. It’s by loving others that good things happen, both for them and for us. It’s by removing ourselves from the denominator of the equation that it can finally be solved. It’s by doing the right thing that we get things right.

The reason it helps to start with generosity, rather than with selfishness, is that we can all too easily rationalize self-care at the expense of others. In the name of laying the foundation for generosity many people never actually get around to being generous. There’s always one more section of the foundation to be poured.

“Once I build up six-months worth of living expenses, then I will help out those less fortunate.” “Once I am not so stressed by my job, then I will have the time to volunteer for others.” “Once I have a full practice, then I will start giving away some of my services.”

Sound familiar? When we make self-care the precondition for generosity, it’s easy to find excuses for why here and now are not the right place and time. But when we make generosity our way of being in the world, we generate the very structures of self-care that Leonard sought and so ably extolled. They develop naturally, as a byproduct of generosity. People don’t help those who help themselves; they help those who help each other.

Finally, it seems to me that Leonard’s advice comes from a privileged and naive understanding of how the world works. Generosity is not the only and often not even the best way to assist others. Justice requires a deeper look at the structures and systems which maintain the status quo. I am reminded of Saul Alinsky’s story of the lifeguard who kept pulling people out of the river.

Exhausted after repeated rescues, he eventually gave up. But he didn’t retire to his trailer for some much-needed rest and “extreme self-care.” Instead, he put on his clothes and went up river to put a stop to whoever or whatever was throwing all these people into the river. In other words, he took action for justice.

Do we really think that the people who changed our world for the better, after millennia of old-world, old-school, and old-paradigm thinking, did so because they thought of themselves as “incredibly selfish?” Do we really think that the changes would ever had happened if Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Mother Jones, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela (to mention only a few) had been focused on practicing “extreme self-care?” The very suggestion appears ludicrous.

These people, like so many others, put generosity and justice above everything else, including their own well-being. They were passionately committed to the pursuit of a better way for one and all, and we stand on their shoulders today even as our world yet cries for continued transformation. That is why I cannot cozy up to the idea that we need to become “incredibly selfish” in order to make our own lives and the world a better place to be. I am too aware of the struggle and of what it takes to set people free.

So avoid selfish thinking. For all I know, if Thomas Leonard were still alive and we could talk face to face, we would find more common ground on this one than I suspect. Perhaps we’re dealing with a semantic issue. But semantics are important, especially when it comes to something as important as the word “selfish.” Perhaps, with enough redefinition, the word can be redeemed. But why bother?

Especially when we know that generosity, justice, peace, and love, are the basis for not only spiritual wellness but for all good things. Seek these things first, and everything else will follow. Seek your own selfish well-being first, and nothing else may follow. At least nothing else that’s worth writing on your tombstone.

Coaching Inquiries: What do you seek first? The welfare of yourself or the welfare of others? Do your values guide your life? How could you become more committed to and experienced with generosity, justice, peace, and love? How could you develop a stronger rhythm of caring for others and caring for yourself? Who could assist you along the way?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..


Thanks for the encouragement to avoid scarcity thinking!


I am very interested in learning more about finding sources for wild game, fish, seafood and eggs! Is it affordable? Is it easily accessible? I would love to be able to prepare pesticide free, antibiotic free, steroid free foods for our family but I have always perceived it as being too expensive. Tell me more. (Ed. Note: It is more expensive per pound, but if you eat modest quantities it is affordable. Fortunately, many organic and even many regular grocery stores have started carrying these products. For a listing on the Internet, Click Here.)


Your words are interesting and grand generalizations, because they do not take into account differences of individual psyches and needs and situations. That is one of the problems of listening to the many e-gurus around, too. Finding oneself coming up short by an unfitting measure. Better to learn which paths you are personally fit to follow rather than continually try to do/be/have what others say “should” make you happy. (Ed. Note: I agree! Consume these Provisions at your own risk. They are but food for thought on the trek of life.)



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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