Human beings have a tendency to act selfishly, even when engaged in acts of unselfishness. This selfishness might not seem flagrant or intentional to the one demonstrating it, but subconsciously, it often is.
Before accusing me of having a pessimistic view of the world, allow me to clarify. I believe that society can be broken up into three classes: the Elite, the Meek and the Masses.
The Elite are composed of the top 10% of society, those that don’t need anyone’s help when it comes to getting what they want. They have the status, the money, the power, and the respect to obtain whatever they need. In spite of the fact that they enjoy the upper hand, people outside of this class will still go to great lengths to help them even further. Why does this happen? Because there is a human tendency to be drawn toward famous or influential people, perhaps because of an underlying hope that, by helping them, we may get something in return.
After all, if your rock star neighbor asked you to water his plants while he was gone, wouldn’t you? Not many of us would pass up the opportunity to hang out in a rock star’s luxurious home, or score some free concert tickets. This example is a hypothetical one, but most of us can recall having gone out of our way to help someone who is better off than ourselves.
The Meek are comprised of the bottom 10% of society, those who need our help, and badly at that. But whereas so many of us are eager to get in good with the Elite, few actually care enough to provide any assistance to the Meek. Of those who do, a large portion are motivated only by the personal, spiritual or egotistical gain to be derived from an act of generosity.
Admit it: When you see a homeless person on the street, your instinct is probably to avoid them altogether. If you do give them some spare change, it’s likely with the knowledge that a couple of quarters won’t really have that much of an impact on their daily life. You probably are aware, however, that doing so will produce a positive sense within yourself, and let you feel that you’re helping the world in your own little way. And you are, although I stress the word “little.” Whether this person spends the money on a warm meal or an eightball is likely of little consequence to you. What you do care about is the fact that, without your assistance, they would not be in a position to get what they want.
There are the haves, the have-nots, then everyone in between…
The Masses are the largest class, making up the middle 80% between the Meek and the Elite. Most of the Masses could use some help getting by, and acquiring it would usually improve their lives considerably, but they rarely get it. For example, take a young, recent graduate who managed to put himself through school. He probably has some debt to repay and is looking to put it behind him and get on with his life. Clearing up this balance would give him the opportunity to excel and improve his fate. But where’s the incentive to help him out?
A colleague of yours, someone who shares your rank, could easily be this recent graduate. Why would you help him out? How would doing so accelerate your own career? You’d probably prefer to help your boss (one of the Elite), knowing that, if he notices, you might get an extra little thank you come Christmastime. Never mind that by helping your poor colleague, your entire department might hit its sales quota, getting everyone a nice bonus. All that you are concerned with is your own well-being in the short term, and sucking up to the boss will help you in this regard.
This view of the world’s social division may not be a utopian one, but it seems to me a fairly accurate portrayal of how things are. No one said life was pretty or fair, life is… well, it just is. You give money to a homeless person knowing that that it will not materially change his life. But, if you really wanted to help society improve, wouldn’t you go out of your way to help the young graduate instead? His personal need may not be as pronounced, but the ripple effect of this act would yield greater results.
Knowing that the greatest output would come from helping out one of the masses, why don’t we do so more frequently? There are three reasons why:
1- What have you done for me lately?
Most people feel the need to rationalize their actions in the short term. They do so by helping the Meek or the Elite, because they are rewarded with instant gratification or the anticipation of future benefits. We rarely help the Masses because there is nothing really in it for us, and this shows humanity’s true colors.
2- Playing keep-up
Speaking of colors, some people are green with envy. People just do not like to see others excel, because it suggests that they, by extension, are not achieving as much. Success strikes the unsuccessful once, and then their lack thereof another time.
3- Better me than him
Another reason why the Masses do not like to facilitate success for each other is that there is the shared sense that the success of others will come at the expense of one’s own success. In reality, this is not the case. The world is not a zero sum game! Two people who perform equally, whether in school or the workplace, will be equally rewarded. This sense of competitiveness remains, however, as so much of life involves a selection process.
If two people apply for the same job, only one will get it, even if a truly great company would hire two deserving applicants. Of course, this is rarely the case, and it is this actuality that turns us off from helping out our peers within the Masses. This is a shame because the true sign of greatness is setting up a platform where others can do more than you; that is a testament to your confidence and your own runway.
So who’s responsible for your fate?
Control your destiny
Once you accept these facts as a reality, you can start to control your own destiny. Waiting for someone to “open the door” for you will always leave you on the outside, in the cold, looking in.
Stephen Covey sold a billion copies (give or take a few million) of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by repeating the mantra that “only you are responsible for your fate.” The book obviously struck a chord with readers, but young professionals still seem oblivious to its lesson.
We all have a tendency to wait for things to fall into place for us. But eventually, we have to come to grips with the fact that life does not work that way. Yes, the sun shall rise tomorrow, but the day will pass you by if you don’t pursue your objectives with the clear understanding that no one will go out of their way to help you reach them.
E-mail of the week:
I really enjoy your articles on AskMen.com. I recently turned 30 and am trying to make my place in the corporate world. Your articles are usually a big help in pointing me in the right direction, so any other advice as to how I can find my place is appreciated.
Part of finding your place in life, let alone the corporate world, is recognizing what makes you. Blandness is out — it always has been and always will be. What makes you who you are? More importantly, what makes others value who you are? Some people are talkers but are condemned to an office cubicle — that ain’t right! Others may have stage fright, but are designated to serve as cheerleaders. For you to find your place in the corporate world, you need to find out who you are, what you have to offer, what makes you unique, and what others prize in you. If you are fortunate enough to uncover and then align all these things, you can consider yourself one of the lucky ones.
Ash Karbasfrooshan is also the author of Course To Success, available at www.CourseToSuccess.com. His new book, The Confessions of Alexander The Great: 33 Lessons in Greatness, is available at www.AlexanderTheBook.com.