Everybody Is Self-Centered

In a Midwestern town, a half dozen years before the Second World War, the most popular and talented college athlete married a beautiful and efficient nurse. Great publicity accompanied the union of these two outstanding people.

As the years passed, the husband’s real-estate business prospered, and he became a recognized leader in his field. He provided his wife with every comfort and many luxuries. He asked nothing in return; neither did he ask her advice or her help in any matter. He was the typical vigorous, self-sufficient business executive.

One night he returned from a meeting to find his wife gone. She left a letter saying she was going to live with old-time friends and intended to sue for divorce. The husband was dumb founded. But it turned out the wife meant exactly what she said.

After the divorce she married another man. The other man was an invalid.

This woman’s life as a nurse had been planned and directed toward helping the sick. She felt the need of having people depend on her; but instead, her husband had placed her in the position of being dependent upon him, of living in the reflection of his importance. She felt she had ceased to exist as an individual, that she was not appreciated for her own personal worth, and she found the situation intolerable. Finally, she found satisfaction in her attachment to a man who was an in valid, who needed her.

It is a simple fact that people will go far to get appreciation, to satisfy their craving to be important to and needed by some one.

Let’s get down to fundamentals: What are people like, any how?

The basic fact is: Each person is the center of his own universe.

That’s true of every person we know. And the implication it holds that every person is necessarily self-centered, in actual fact, is true, too.

Of course we all know people who are generous and self-sacrificing. They live for other people—not only for their children but for other youngsters, for the sick, helpless, and needy. They sacrifice not only luxuries, but ordinary comforts, for other people. They are completely selfless.

Such wonderful people, whom we love and admire, are not self-centered in the ordinary usage of the word. But the reason they do for others is that they obtain greater happiness in doing for others than for themselves. Most of such people do these things for others naturally, unconsciously, but they do so because it brings them satisfaction. People are self-centered by nature.

They can’t help it. No one can help it. It’s a fact to be understood, to be accepted, that a person is interested in things only as they relate to himself.

People want to be recognized. Even your loving mother, your devoted wife, your most generous friend, want most keenly to be recognized, not taken for granted. Just think about yourself and you will see how true that is.

William James, the Harvard psychologist, declared, “. . . the deepest principle of human nature is the desire to be appreciated.

Now, this is an emotional matter, and to illustrate just how delicate and keen such emotional matters are, let’s take this story, told by a member of a conference on human relations, about his home-town baseball team.

A few years ago this team was leading the league by seven teen games. A certain player, formerly hero of World Series fame whom we shall call Jimmy Jones, was the outstanding star. The team’s lead seemed safe, since the season was more than half over. The people of this middle-sized community were jubilant: never before had they been in so favored a spot in the baseball world.

They arranged a “Jimmy Jones Night” to pay homage to the man who had brought them so much glory. The good citizens of the town responded in style. They came to the baseball park that night loaded with gifts for Jones, among them an auto mobile, golf clubs, shotguns, fishing tackle, and a bird dog.

But the citizenry forgot the other players who were contributing to the team’s success. They failed to realize that each person feels a deep need for appreciation as an individual.

Beginning that night, the players failed to respond in the usual form. Their spirit, their enthusiasm, their old “zing” were gone. The team lost that game and continued to lose games in the few remaining weeks, so that it finally wound up in third place.

Sometimes when we think of the little bits of personal recognition we withhold from other people—recognition that costs us nothing but means so much to others—we may well feel ashamed. Here is a little story carried by Reuters news agency and published in several American newspapers several years ago. It is typical of how deeply such acts of kindness may be appreciated:


Groningen, Holland, Dec. 4 (Reuters)—The newspaper Dagblad said today a farmer who lived three years ago at the Drenthe village of Ide was so disfigured of face that neighbours shunned him. Of all the faces he saw, just one, a girl’s, had a friendly smile. He has died and left the girl $40,000. The man was not an exception and he was self-centered also. However, only that girl’s smile was able to make the man feel important.

In the very earliest periods of human life people demand recognition. Babies cry for it. This craving continues through life. So strong is it that people will often do things to gain attention that are not in keeping with good judgement and common sense. To take a homely example, think of the people who tell all the details of their operations—in spite of the fact they must know the listeners are bored or perhaps repulsed by what they hear.

Ben Hecht, in his philosophical “A Guide for the Bedeviled,” says with passion and rare insight:

“God knows what the Ego is—and so do I. The Ego is a ferocity for identification that exists in all of us. Deeper than our lusts and all our other good and bad hungers, is this obsession we have to be Some One. . . . We clamor to acquire a meaning, to participate, however humbly, in the world of ideas and events; to hold opinions that will make us significant; to lift ourselves out of a herd-loneliness that eternally engulfs us.”

People want companionship. They want to join with their fellow men, to be recognized as belonging, to feel that they are “on the team.” This is supported by the industrial studies of Elton Mayo, formerly Professor of Industrial Research at Harvard, going so far as to indicate that “the desire to stand well with one’s fellows, the so-called human instinct of association, easily outweighs merely individual interest and logic of reasoning.” t It is also this deep urge “to belong” with other people that leads people to join lodges, clubs, societies, often churches. This is a way by which a person may gain individual recognition through identification with a group.

Back of it, too, is the human desire for a feeling of security. Thus, children need to be handled by their parents in a way that gives them a feeling of belonging to the family; a sense of contributing to the family and of having the family’s support and protection. The urge to join with other people goes back to the very beginnings of the race when belonging to the clan was vital protection against physical dangers of war, enemies, wild beasts, or the elements. The development of civilization has increased rather than decreased the urgent desire and need of the individual to be recognized individually and as belonging to a group.

It is plain that the first approach to good human relations is to see clearly that the craving of people for personal recognition and their desire to join with other human beings are deep and fundamental needs. The second vital step is to realize that our attitude toward other people is the most powerful influence we can bring into play in controlling their attitude toward us.

It takes some self—restraint to recognize the importance of the other person instead of acting to get our own importance recognized. But it develops strength of character in us. As to the other fellow: it makes him feel good, it opens his mind to our opinions, and it makes for cooperation—good, easy human relations.

“But,” you may object, “aren’t efforts to make people feel important obviously insincere?”

Not necessarily; not if what you say to them is true, You can find a good quality in anyone. Look for it and recognize it. Wendell White, in his “Psychology in Living,” gives ample justification for such efforts. He says:

“To put at ease those whom we excel in certain traits, especially persons with whom we are constantly associated, we must concede their superiority in other traits; we must live the attitude, ‘1 never met a person that wasn’t superior to me in some respect.’ ”

Here’s an example of how the rule worked in reverse; what may happen when you do something to make people feel unimportant:

An advertising agency was soliciting the account of one of California’s largest wineries. It was a big account, greatly desired. The agency took its exhibits and principal executives out to the winery headquarters for a meeting with its chief officers. The agency had every reason to expect to get the business.

During the sales talk a man in overalls in the back of the room asked a question. The agency executive then holding forth gave the man a cold look, ignored his question. The man in overalls said nothing. It turned out he was a principal officer with a controlling voice in the affairs of the winery. He had been made to appear unimportant. The agency failed to get the contract.

Some say, mistakenly, “Make people feel important.” But that is a selfish move and it may backfire. Let’s say, “Just recognize the other person, his importance as an individual—and he will repay you manyfold.”

With these facts in mind, we come to the basic rule for dealing with people to get them to respond as we desire:

Think, act, and speak in terms of the other person’s interests.

By adopting this rule one does not give up his own interests; he advances them. Consciously or unconsciously the master salesman always thinks, acts, and speaks in terms of the other person’s interests. He always sells in terms of what the product will do for his customer. The leaders in business and the professions are guided by the same rule.

Now it may appear that we are suggesting two opposite courses of action: one to be considerate of others and the other to seek our own self-interest.

It may seem a little confusing, at first, but we are talking about a philosophy not only of “live and let live,” but of helping yourself by helping the other fellow. It is a mutual-benefit principle. Another way of saying it is “Seek what you want within the framework of what others want and think.” This philosophy holds that there need be no irreconcilable conflict of interests between buyer and seller, employer and employee, nor between the sexes. You don’t necessarily have to obtain something by taking it away from another. It’s not unlike the advice Edward L. Bernays, the public relations counselor, gives businessmen: “Find a coincidence of your private interest with the public interest.” It’s the spirit of teamwork, of cooperation, of finding areas of common good with other people.

More positively, it is the principle that you get back what you give with interest; also, as in giving love, the more you give, the more you have. It is the principle of the golden rule and that, in a material as well as a spiritual way, it is more blessed to give than to receive.

The socially successful always think, speak, and act in terms of others’ interests. Think of the most agreeable person you know. Why is he the most agreeable? We’ll gamble that it’s because he is interested in you, your family, your hobbies, the things you do.

By contrast with those who believe in working with people, Dr. Alfred Adler points out,

“The individual who is not interested in his fellow men has the greatest difficulties in life and provides the greatest injury to others.”

In considering the three basic drives of human beings—for survival, for reproduction, and for personal recognition—this should be noted: While these are so common to all mankind that the exceptions, if any, need not be considered, yet we should realize that in character and personality each individual is different from all the rest. This is due to the fact that each person is the product (1) of hereditary influences that go back to millions of ancestors and (2) of environment that is unique in the case of any given person, even one twin being subject to certain influences that the other does not experience.

So the practical point is that, people are different. They should be studied individually and treated as individuals according to their peculiar traits and viewpoints.

You can win other people by being interested in them as individuals. How people of high or low estate respond to personal recognition is illustrated by this incident:

Some years ago, seated alone in the diner of an eastbound train was A. R. Bishop, prominent car company executive. He was returning to Detroit after having completed his first visit to the ‘West coast in four years.

The dining-car waiter assigned to his table glanced at him, then retired briefly to the kitchen. A few moments later he reappeared, smiled, and said, “It’s good to have you back with us, Mr. Bishop. Would you like another T-bone steak, medium rare?”

Bishop was momentarily flabbergasted. Then he stood up, shook hands with the waiter, and thanked him for remembering his name and preference. After the meal he left a dollar tip.

The waiter was Joe Seldon, who is neither a magician nor a long-distance memory expert. Joe Seldon merely realized the value of remembering people’s names and developed a system to help him. Out in the kitchen he has a small card file with the names, facial characteristics, and food preferences of the out standing people he has served.

Let us repeat this fact, it is important: Making it a habit to think, act, and speak in terms of the other person’s interests does not mean that we give up our own personalities or lessen our personal stature. Through this habit we add personal strength and the respect of other people.

Adoption of the rule of thinking, speaking, and acting in terms of others’ interests does mean that we abandon the dog- eat-dog philosophy of life. It means we abandon the theory that we can gain only at the expense of other people. It means positively that we believe through cooperative attitudes and actions we can advance our own interests while we advance those of other people.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the wisest of men, said, “I early found that when I worked for myself alone, myself alone worked for me; but when I worked also for others, others worked also for me.”

If, as we believe you will agree, people make or break us, we ought to make consideration of other human beings the first order of business every day.

Obviously, too few people have done that. That’s the reason there are so many unhappy, frustrated individuals in the world, so much clash and conflict everywhere among groups, races, and nations. Humankind has made great progress in new machines and inventions of every sort in recent years, but little progress in human relations.

It is a sad fact that people do not always act in their own best interests. Progress depends on thinking out the long-time good; sacrificing immediate impulsive action. Savages stuff themselves like wolves; but civilized man, remembering past mistakes, stores up food for the future. Yet civilized man has thus far largely concentrated his thinking on things and has hardly be gun to understand his past mistakes in dealing with other men so that he may take corrective action. Garrett Mattingly, head of the Division of Social Philosophy at Cooper Union, declares that the “medieval” state of human relations threatens the whole world with catastrophe.

It is easy to see that in a cooperative civilization such as ours people must work together. They must give due consideration to others’ desires, rights, and needs. But this cooperative spirit has to begin with individuals.

The habit of thinking, speaking, and acting in terms of others’ interests is easy to acquire; and it must be a habit. You establish a habit by doing it again and again. Think constantly of the other person. In pursuing our own aims, let’s act and speak in terms of the other person’s interests. Let’s practice it. If we establish the habit, more of the good things of life—happiness and influence—will be ours as the new habit grows.

On the other hand, we must remember that man is a combative animal. Sometimes people are criminal, you can’t appease them. If you compromise, they move in on you, destroy you. Sometimes a man has to fight in self-defense. Don’t forget that everybody is self-centered somehow.

From the discussion thus far, these basic truths begin to emerge:

1. Each person is the center of his own universe.

2. People have three basic drives: to survive, to reproduce, to be recognized as individuals.

3. William James:

“The deepest principle of human nature is the desire to be appreciated.”

4. People want to join with their fellow men, to be identified with a group.

5. Basic rule: Think, act, and speak in terms of the other person’s interests.

6. There need he no irreconcilable conflict between buyer and seller, employee and employer, or between the sexes.

7. Recognize the interests of others, and work out your destiny within the framework of their needs and desires.

8. Benjamin Franklin: “When I worked for myself alone, myself alone worked for me; but when I worked also for others, others worked also for me.”

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