The thing I’m about to say now is generally not received very well. We don’t like to hear it. I don’t like to hear it:
Most of us are quite selfish, quite a lot of the time.
Yeah. We don’t like that.
But it’s getting in the way of our potential – as individuals and as a collective.
Quite possibly, it’s ruining our lives – professionally and personally.
You just might not know, or be aware of it yet.
It is quite a loaded premise to open isn’t it? Sorry.
A bit presumptuous? Yes.
“Speak for yourself, idiot. I’m not selfish”
But. But! If it has stirred a bit of a reaction in you – if you’ve uttered any words in defence, who or what are you defending?
“I’m defending me – myself”
I reckon it’s your ego. Hear me out.
So we’re all nasty and selfish?
Not nasty. Likely selfish.
Apart from being all contrary, my intention is to provoke a realisation of just how much energy we exert thinking about ourselves. And just how detrimental that is to our performance and happiness every day.
It’s not necessarily malicious or intentionally harmful. I very much doubt it is most of the time. The word selfish is quite provocative, but if you break it down – self- ish – it just means self focused. It’s when your energy or attention is directed on yourself.
Or we could say “selfie” – sounds a little less accusational than “selfish” doesn’t it?
“You’re being selfish” – “Shut-up! No I’m not!”
“You’re being selfie.” Somehow feels easier to make amends with actually – “Oh, but I didn’t mean it!”
Also quite apt given the modern obsession with taking pictures of our own heads.
Anyway, silly semantic diversion aside, someone once shared this exercise with me and I found it quite insightful:
Write down 3 positive adjectives that you would use to describe yourself, and 3 negative adjectives that you would use to describe yourself. Now, preface them with “I am.”
Then work out how much of your energy is consumed, in your daily interactions, either trying to show that you ARE the good things or cover up the bad things. And be brutally honest.
It’s easy to tie ourselves so closely to this mind-made identity that we’re very rarely fully present. We’re in our heads. We’re viewing the world through the prism of self and our actions are directed towards aggrandising this self identity. The ego.
Take the trust equation.
Our credibility and reliability are so important to building trust with the people around us. But if we spend our whole lives trying to demonstrate, rather than just be reliable and credible, it’s very self-orientated. The more self-orientated that we are ie the more that our heads are filled with us, the less space there is for those around us. We put up a barrier to intimacy, and therefore our ability to build deeper, more trusting relationships.
On that note of not being malicious – take nerves before delivering a presentation. Ask yourself WHY you’re nervous. You’ll probably struggle to come up with an answer that isn’t self-focused. Essentially, your ego feels under threat by this situation and triggers the physical fight or flight response within your body even though there is no real physical threat to your actual life. Just your ego. Again, nerves are ultimately selfish. Not nasty or malicious. But still selfish.
So selfishness is making us much worse at our jobs.
Other than it maybe being shocking to discover how selfish we might be, why does it matter on a performance level?
In order to ensure high quality in all of our actions, we need to give those actions all of our alert attention.
Therefore we need to be present – fully attentive to the here and now.
But so much of the time, we’re mostly attentive to the self – the ego. Pulling us from the present. Ah, so ego is making us worse at our jobs? Yes. Definitely.
Take listening, for example. An essential skill for fully understanding the people around you and serving them to the best of your ability. Are we listening with our whole being to fully understand the person opposite us speaking, picking up on all of the signals? Their words, body language, tone, emotions etc. Or are we listening to the words through the filter of self, latching onto the parts that will allow us to demonstrate our credibility in a little bit – listening to speak? Serving ourselves.
No accusations. It’s just good to be mindful. This poor quality listening is so common. So many businesses are characterised by egoic noise. A desire to speak and be heard without an equally strong desire to listen and hear.
Let’s take another example of a racist micro-aggression at work, and how ego gets in the way of truly hearing. Perhaps person A brings up something that person B has done and shares how it makes them feel. Let’s say it wasn’t intentional. It was unconscious behaviour or speak. Person B is so mortified at the “accusation” and exerts all of their energy in defending their firmly held identity as a good person. They stress how that really wasn’t their intention – that they are 100% not racist.
It’s so harmful.
In the process, the energy that should be directed on listening, hearing, understanding and therefore growth is consumed by person B’s ego. To the extent that the person A feels silenced, and that it’s not worth sharing how they feel in the future.
Selfishness really hinders growth – on every count. And the more subtle and unconscious it is, the harder it is to break down.
At The Speakers’ Gym, our philosophy is founded on the principle that healthy action and growth in business only comes from a culture where high quality speaking and listening are given equal weight. Any action that isn’t informed by this is unconscious and detrimental to real growth.
So what do we do about it?
The answer is definitely not to sit, wallow and self-chastise. More selfish behaviour in response to discovering selfishness!
The answer is, in large part, presence.
It’s the balm to a selfish perspective on life with our ego greedily consuming our energy – leaving no room for anyone else – leaving no room for your colleagues and clients.
The ego can’t survive in the present moment because it only exists in the mind. So we need to get out of our heads. We need to get out of our selves.
It’s important to start viewing things like presence and mindfulness not as a nice side-dish to cope with stress and anxiety in the busy modern world, (selfish consumption) but as the very core to being exceptional, generous, high performing humans – on every count.
How do you “do” presence?
- Low stakes practice – Get better at it when you’re alone, not so busy and under time pressure with high stakes. It’s best to cultivate presence first in these relaxed, low stakes environments.
- Mindful Breathing – observe the breath – in through the nose, out through the mouth. Count the breaths from 1-10, several times a day when you’re feeling tense and stressed. Focus entirely on the breath, its movement and where you feel it in your body
- Mindful activity – Use the 5 senses to bring you out of your head and fully into the present moment with an activity – eg a walk, doing the dishes, tidying up. As well as developing better presence, it will also hugely improve the quality of that walk, cleaning or tidying. And if it works in these low stakes environments, why not in a professional context.
- Purpose – You need to have a professional purpose that’s bigger than you – that’s generous and in service to others. What is it for you? What gets you out and keeps you out of bed? Have a good conversation with yourself on this. When you drill down to the truth, write it down. Generous purpose, in combination with great presence will massively lower our selfishness.
A call to action.
So, it requires us to be active about being less active in the mind. Quietening down the noise in our heads that pulls us from the present moment, pulls us from our family, friends, colleagues and clients and lowers the quality of everything that we do.
And remember, we’re not doing it for ourselves, we’re doing it for everyone else.
So what will you do?
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