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Acting in One's Own Best Interests

 (This is an extract from my book “How To Make Your Dreams Come True”)

If we need our lives to be integrated, then what is the guiding principle that we should follow which will give that integrity – which will stop us being at war with ourselves?

I would suggest that it is to act always in our own best interests. This is a very difficult concept for most people to deal with. Most of us are brought up to think of acting in our own best interests as selfish. By the word ‘selfish’ they mean a mean-spirited, ungenerous attitude which grabs what it wants at the expense of other people and doesn’t care less what other people think or feel. In fact this is the very reverse of acting in one’s own best interests, since it can hardly be thought to be in anyone’s best interests to alienate other people so that they will not cooperate.

The results of confusing acting in one’s own best interests with a narrow mean-spiritedness are disastrous. In the effort not to appear ‘selfish’ people often become completely cut off from their own wants and desires. And since it is very difficult to give what one doesn’t have, they become insensitive to the wants and desires of those who are close to them too.

Another result of this confusion is to cut people off from reality. As children we are usually discouraged from exploring what our own best interests really are in favour of conforming to other people’s vision of what we should be doing. This usually means that instead of doing what we really believe is best for us we end up either doing what other people want us to do or rebelling against it, neither of which brings us any nearer to following our own vision for our lives.

At its most basic the brain is an instrument for achieving the best interests of the organism. The higher the organism the more sophisti­cated the brain and the more sophisticated the strategies it follows. However, this sophisticated functioning will revert to lower levels of functioning when faced with contradictions it cannot resolve.

The message that is given to us when we are young and that comes over loud and clear is that what is in our best interests is not in our best interests. Faced with having to integrate the contradictions implicit in a message such as this the brain tends to close down whole areas of experience.

Let us look at how someone would act who follows their own best interests consistently. People who act consistently in their own best interests would be likely to:


be clear about what is important in their lives and pursue those things single-mindedly;

cooperate with others to achieve results;

look after their own health and fitness;

refuse to engage in self-destructive behaviours;

select their friends carefully and maintain those friendships;

stay in touch with the reality of situations;

refuse to take on commitments that are not consistent with their own vision;

continually expand their comfort zones;

ensure that they have the education and training to do what is important to them;

build on the experience and wisdom of other people;

be prepared to pay the price for what they want;

regard the selection of a life partner as the single most important decision they will probably ever make;

keep everything in their lives well maintained;

be sensitive to their own feelings and needs;

be aware of the likely consequences of their actions;

think about long-term results rather than short-term ones.


This list is illustrative rather than exhaustive. But if we contrast the above behaviours with their opposites we can see more clearly how common it is for people not to act in their own best interests. People who don’t act in their own best interests may:


have no clear vision for what they want to achieve;

see themselves in competition with other people;

be overweight, unfit or otherwise not be taking care of their health;

have self-destructive behaviours such as drug-taking, self-sabo­tage, workaholism etc.;

neglect their friendships;

do anything rather than face up to the reality of situations;

be loaded with commitments that they resent;

be stuck in a rut;

fail to keep learning, either formally or informally;

be reluctant to ask other people for help;

not be prepared to put in the effort or cost needed to achieve what they want;

select a life partner on the basis of the whim of the moment;

live poorly maintained lives which are constantly in a state of crisis or breakdown;

be anaesthetised to their own feelings and needs;

ignore the likely consequences of their actions or lack of action;

think purely in terms of short-term advantage.


So we can see that far from being ‘selfish’ in the pejorative sense of the word, acting in our own best interests results in highly desirable behaviour both from our own point of view and the point of view of other people. In fact an accusation that someone who is acting in their own best interests is ‘selfish’ usually means that the accuser wants the ‘selfish’ person to sacrifice himself or herself for the accuser’s benefit.

Again I would stress the point that what we think of as typically selfish behaviour, such as grabbing everything for oneself at the expense of other people, is hardly ever in one’s own best interests. But the way to discourage such behaviour is not to teach children that they should sacrifice their own interests for the interests of others, but to show them why this type of behaviour is not really in their interests at all.


Ask yourself the question: ‘If I were consistently to act in my own best interests, what would I do differently?’ List as many things as you can, both large and small. These are some of the items, out of a very long list, which one of my clients wrote in answer to this question:


I would only say yes when I was able to say it whole­heartedly, otherwise I would say no.

I would go to bed at a sensible time every night except for special occasions.

I would make time to spend on my own.

I would stop putting off the decision to change jobs.

I would stop shouting at my children.

I would make it a priority to get out of debt.

I would stop leaving the choice of holiday up to my partner.

I would stop bringing work home in the evenings.

I would plan a family outing at least once a month.

I would check the car tyre pressures regularly.

I would face up to my financial position.

I would work out why I keep losing vital bits of paper.




We can use this concept of enlightened self-interest as a tool to evaluate potential courses of action. Perhaps even more important we can use it as a tool to evaluate our current actions. I will use the word ‘self-ish’ with a hyphen in this context to distinguish it from the pejorative, narrow use of the word ‘selfish’. Is what I am doing at this precise moment properly self-ish (in the sense of being in my own best interest)?

What I am doing at this precise moment is writing this paragraph, which is part of my goal of writing this book, which is part of my wider vision of where I wish to go in my life. So yes, what I am doing at this precise moment is indeed properly self-ish. But note that although my primary motivation for doing it is my own self-interest it is none the less an action which will (I hope) benefit other people as well. There is nothing anti-social or malevolent about being self-ish.

It has often been pointed out by theologians that the biblical injunction is ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’, not ‘Love thy neighbour more than thyself’ or ‘Love thy neighbour instead of thyself’. In fact logically it would be impossible for everyone to love their neighbour instead of themselves because who would do the receiving if that were the case? It would be like the scene in Father Ted where two women come to blows because each one insists that she should pay for tea. However, the idea that we should love other people more than or instead of ourselves is one that is very prevalent in our culture. And since it is a logically untenable position which it is actually impossible to keep to, it results in either guilt, denial or rebellion.

So one of the most important thing we can do in our lives is to give them integrity and unity by having one guiding principle to follow. And the best guiding principle to have is the enlightened pursuit of our own best interests.



Reader Comments (24)

I think the problem with our thinking on this subject is that there are many facets of self. I have a part of my "self" that prefers to web surf for hours at a time, another part that wants to put others first out of desire for their approval, and another part that wishes to achieve my goals. Although I might be able to decide what is in my best self-interest at any given time, doing that is a much different and more challenging task.
June 5, 2009 at 16:35 | Unregistered CommenterMel
This is an extremely helpful and eye-opening post. Thank you for encapsulating so well the different problems which I am struggling with, many of which are listed in the Anti-self-ish life description. I am going to print this out and review it regularly as I try to live more in my own best, long-term, interest. I hope you will write more about this topic.

The book you quoted it from is the only book of yours that I have not been able to get at a reasonable price (check amazon UK and US to see what I mean). It's a real shame that your publishers have let this book go out of print, and that the latest book, Do It Tomorrow, is so hard to find here in the US (my copy was sent from the UK and took six weeks to get to me). I think it would be very much in your own best interest, not to mention the interest of all the people who could benefit from your writings, if you could find a publisher who will give these books the whole-hearted marketing and publicity that they deserve.

June 14, 2009 at 4:13 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Garrett
A great reminder to be self-ish. Thank you so much Mark.
June 14, 2009 at 17:17 | Unregistered CommenterTaraghB
Ayn Rand defined selfishness much as you have. She considered it a virtue, which it is.
June 24, 2009 at 15:03 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Phillips
I'd like to share a quote I found: "Ambition in this sense is always self denying. It is the imposition of a non-manifest image, an idea, onto the present, with a refusal to listen to what is natural in the moment. In other words, goals that are imposed from the outside, cultivated through seduction or social conditioning, bear no relation to truth. "


This seemed to me to be the spiritual aspect of your Autofocus system, which overcomes some of the endless self-flogging to be successful of some goal-achievemnet systems driven entirely by ego-conditioning.
September 13, 2010 at 9:10 | Unregistered CommenterMC
I'd like to add that inner permission to make mistakes or choose the "wrong" goals also seem freeing. As an exercise try the sentence stem: "If I had been given permission to make mistakes ..."
September 14, 2010 at 14:52 | Unregistered CommenterMC
Harry Harrison in one of the Stainless Steel Rat books describes enlightened self-interest. In a nutshell, improving society also improves your own condition. Building a hospital is good for everyone, including yourself when you need it.

When I checked this on Wikipedia (since I read the Rat books years ago), it listed Ayn Rand's rational selfishness as a related but not equal concept.

I love how comparing similar concepts helps us explore the all concepts more fully than if we stuck to one.

As for inner permission to choose wrong goals sometimes, I agree. My kids are trying several activities, and sticking with them long enough to get past the first "okay, that was fun but now it's work" phase. After a two years, though, there's no sense keeping them in an activity if they really don't like it. I'd prefer they find one they enjoy. They are learning that everything has it's great moments and it's tough ones.

Some mistakes are harder to recover from than others (degree, spouse, drugs) so you should think more carefully about them, but most things are easy to change.
September 14, 2010 at 17:19 | Unregistered CommenterCricket
Just to expand on my eralier observations...

I tried GTD a while back but found it put me at the slavery of goals and actions without fulfilment. Using AF I feel more of a "stream of consciousness" creativity if you will; it allows more choice based on inclinations and, perhaps, intuition. It also allows more space - even encourages - feel good actions and straightforward pleasures. For me it creates more relaxed activity and achievement.
September 15, 2010 at 21:44 | Unregistered CommenterMC
I have started to ask myself the question: why am I doing this? And if the answer because I want to do it I dont do it. Through self awareness comes freedom.
September 16, 2011 at 18:15 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Crabb

Sorry Alan, I don't understand what you mean by "And if the answer because I want to do it I dont do it".
September 16, 2011 at 22:05 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Different Alan replying. I think this is what he meant to say:

"I have started to ask myself the question, 'Why am I doing this?' And if the answer is 'Because I want to do it', then I dont do it."

Which isn't how I feel about the matter.
September 16, 2011 at 23:04 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Alan B:

That's what I though he'd written - but I wasn't sure it was what he actually meant.
September 16, 2011 at 23:29 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I think we always move in the direction of what we BELIEVE is in our best interests, and away from what we believe is not in our best interests. So if you know intellectually that you are holding on to X and that X is not in your best interests then X must be being defined by you as better for you than any alternative. Or put another way: what you want appears as more fearful than the X that sticks around. Something familiar can feel safer than the thing you want. But if you are not aware of what those beliefs are that create the feelings of fear then you have nothing to work with.
October 24, 2013 at 22:46 | Unregistered Commentermichael

I don't know. Do I really believe that it's in my own best interests to eat that slice of chocolate cake rather than keep to my diet, or to keep putting off writing the report until it's too late for the deadline? In what sense would we ever say that overeating or failing to do something important was in our best interests?
October 24, 2013 at 23:53 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Well, alcoholics know it's in their best interests to be sober.

People often have the information about what is their best choice, but they don't behave that way. So an unemotional appraisal will favour the diet and the promptness of the report writing. At the choice-point the cake is associated with pleasure and the diet with denial, unless that belief has been weakened and the alternative reinforced through visualisation and motivating reasons for a different choice.
October 25, 2013 at 11:34 | Unregistered Commentermichael
Interesting thread. 'Acting in one's own interests', as descrtibed, is an impossible concept to disagree with. But yet by our actions, we so often do so.

This makes me think of congitive dissonance, where we can hold contradictory ideas in our heads; and the withering away of the idea of rational behaviour as an explainer for individual action in economics, because so much behaviour is irrational.

Also the notion of 'parent / adult / child' in transactional analysis... our adult ego-state knows the right thing to do, but our child ego-state couldn't care less about tomorrow and just wants to play today.

Add in some of the thinking on procrastination whcih suggests that it stems in part from an objection to being told what to do; duly season it all with fear of making a wrong decision; and the end result is: no chance of doing what's in your own (my own) self-interest as I'm far too busy with immediate gratification and displacement activities.

Which might be part of the reason why Mark's systems rely not entirely on the rational parts of our minds but also on the intuitive / 'standing out' parts?

I have 2 reports to finish by the end of October, which is 4.5 working days away; both are unstarted, as I've been busy on other stuff, andeach will take me 2 days; and I have 65 unactione demails plus 52 old and 14 new items on my TUTMS list.

Roll on the weekend, where in my own self-interest I will devote myself to making my wife and children happy and let work wait until Monday...

I love this website and forum with a deep and profound love. It helps keep me sane in a world which often makes no sense.
October 25, 2013 at 15:06 | Unregistered CommenterDonald
Hi Michael
I'm still reaping benefits from you're 10th step epiphany. Now you offer this gem: "motivating reasons". HOW BRILLIANT! In attempt to make a better choice, I'll often attempt to rattle off the most logical reasons to hopefully impact my decision. I assumed that the facts would create the motivation. Sad to say, it's not always effective for me. Thanks to you, I'll focus on finding reasons that have the motivations that appeal to my emotional and cognitive ecosystem (such as it is.....*blush*)

Mike, you are so insightful! Did you study philosophy or theology? Your thoughts are so nuanced and yet so provocative. Thanks again for helping me understand something that actually helps my thinking. Since you always think that way, you can't possibly understand how others are so appreciative of your sharing thoughts that we could have never arrived at on our own. You are often so BRILLIANT!
October 26, 2013 at 3:38 | Unregistered Commenterlearning as I go
Hi Donald
I concur with your sentiments about Mark's site. He has successfully created a wonderful place to meet with some really intelligent and interesting people. Sometimes it feels somewhat like the coffee houses I'd sneak off to when my folks thought I was asleep. LOL!
October 26, 2013 at 4:00 | Unregistered Commenterlearning as I go
@learning as I go..thank you.

More on motivating reasons...

How do we influence ourselves?

Aristotle's analysis of persuasion into ethos, logos, pathos and kairos might help here.

Logic is not much use in creating motivating reasons for behaviours as it lacks persuasive power.

Pathos is most relevant: the emotional or motivational appeal; vivid language, emotional language and numerous sensory details - an 'appeal to the audience's sympathies and imagination.' An appeal to pathos causes an audience not just to respond emotionally but to identify with that point of view.

Kairos may have a role too. It refers to the elements of a speech that acknowledge and draw support from the particular setting, time, and place that a speech occurs. Maybe when and where we influence ourselves is important.

Maybe think of your motivating reasons as an advertisment directed to yourself; the world of advertising is a rich resources of persuasive methods, as explained by one of my heros:
October 26, 2013 at 10:02 | Unregistered Commentermichael
Hi Mike
You won my heart when you referred to Aristotle. Perhaps my favorite book of all is Nicomachean Ethics. I can't count how many times I've read it or referred to it over the years. It's available to read online for free. It's a great resource.

As a child my dad would refer to those great dead dudes and would make them come alive. My dad also had a wickedly delicious sense of humor. He nicknamed my brother Marcus Aurelius! LOL! My name means victory and peace. He always had a flair for teaching us and encouraging us how to think for ourselves and cherish higher thinking. I was only about 6 when he taught me how to make my schedule by having me write values and the character traits that embraced them onto index cards and match them to my activities. He was a shy guy but I'd goad him to teach me as much possible about how to develop my character, how to lead a meaningful life, etc. He reminded me so much of the old philosophers that he'd quote... Your children will probably cherish you the same way I cherished my dad.
October 26, 2013 at 11:39 | Unregistered Commenterlearning as I go
@learning as I go There seems to be no new wisdom, and yet we need endless reminders to build our understanding and awareness. There is nothing to learn, but much to remember. Which is why wisdom seems familiar. I love Marcus Aurelius too btw.

I found a thought provoking line in the new Neale Donald Walsch book "Home with God" : "Everyone is doing everything for themselves"
October 27, 2013 at 21:52 | Unregistered Commentermichael
“All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience.” ~ von Goethe
October 30, 2013 at 23:13 | Unregistered Commentermichael
Re: the brain acting to achieve the organism's best interests

An interesting nuance to this idea is that rather than "best interests" the brain acts to achieve the self-image programmed into it. So "best-interest" takes on a slightly different meaning. The self-image provides the brain with direction regarding memory, creativity, behaviour etc.

This is the idea behind a book by Maxwell Maltz (a plastic surgeon) who elaborated his idea in a book called "Psycho-cybernetics". He advocates building belief in goals by having a relaxed attitude, building a feeling of it being a realistic possibility, imagining reasons why it could become true.
November 6, 2013 at 13:29 | Unregistered Commentermichael
Learning as I go:

<< My name means victory and peace. >>

Victoria Irene?

Better than Nike Pax!
November 9, 2013 at 12:29 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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