It is okay to be selfish

Published April 10, 2017   Posted in How to Think

I’ll say it: Selfishness is good. It means we put ourselves above everyone else. We focus on what is best for us before we think about those around us. Although I may sound like a jackass, prioritizing ourselves over others is good. It’s natural. It’s how we improve.

I would not be retired right now if I thought of others first. There are people who believe that I’m living off of the fat of the land by retiring in my 30s. I’ve been called virtually every name in the book. People hate early retirees for the choices they make. To swim against the tide of conventional wisdom. There is no way that I’d let myself retire if I didn’t put myself first.

And that’s okay. I don’t care about them. I care about me. My focus is doing what is in the best interest of my wife and me first and foremost. Always. We come first. Our needs are paramount. And, I make no apologies for it.

The truth of the matter is:

If you don’t look out for yourself, nobody else will either

The difference between selfishness and being an asshole

I never set out to intentionally screw people over. Ever. I still hold the door for people – even though I personally believe that ritual to be an inconvenience to both parties. I will go out of my way to ensure those around me are taken care of. I do a LOT of work for people…for free.

Selfishness and being an asshole are two entirely different things. I am definitely the former. And depending on who you ask, I may or may not be the latter.  🙂

I have to return to the oft-recited phrase we hear on airplanes: “Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping the person next to you”.

Why? Because you won’t be of much help to your neighbor if you’re dead. Don’t let yourself feel guilty or politically incorrect because you think of yourself first. You should focus on yourself. Your interests come before the interests of your neighbors. Always.

The reason is remarkably simple:

Thinking about number one first puts us in a position to not only help ourselves, but also those around us – if we choose to do so. You can’t be much help to others if your emotional, mental, physical or financial position in life is compromised. I don’t care how selfless that you think you are. Your influence and ability to help will grow when you stand upon a solid foundation of rock. Dishing out pieces of bread to the congregation while sinking in quick sand isn’t helping anyone, for long.

Being selfish isn’t a negative. Don’t let society tell you that thinking of yourself first is, well, “selfish”.

Work on being less nice

I’m sure most of us believe that we are nice people. And frankly, there’s nothing “wrong” with being nice. Being nice is, well, nice. We gain friends that way. Being nice also has a way of making us feel good about ourselves. Seeing a smile on another person’s face, due to the help that we provided, is a feeling unlike any other.

But what happens when we feel an obligation to help others? Where do we draw the line? How far do we let people take advantage of our generosity before we finally say, “Wish I could!”? After all, we can’t give our spare change to every homeless person we see on the street. Eventually, we run out of change.

I am talking about things like:

  • Dropping everything to help out anyone who asks (aka: Always saying “Yes”)
  • Sugar-coating your true feelings
  • Celebrating the successes of others while ignoring your own
  • Forgoing time for yourself to be with others
  • Letting others take advantage of you to avoid conflict

These traits are all far too easy to fall into, and they are tough to recognize in our own lives. How do we know if we’re being “too nice”? How do we draw a line between being a genuinely good person and one who simply rolls over at virtually anyone’s request?

If you do “nice” things for people out of obligation or guilt, then you might be too nice. Only you can determine whether or not you fall into this criteria. And yes, sometimes it is tough to admit this to ourselves. If someone asks you for help, and you say no, do you feel guilty?

This is something that I’m working on.

If you value yourself, be selfish

People will often call you selfish when you’re not conforming to their expectations. But, the fact is we can’t possibly make everybody happy. The key, though, is we shouldn’t even attempt to please everyone. While we never set out to fuck people over, we similarly cannot possibly strive towards a state of perpetual love from everyone.

It just won’t happen, and we’ll end up frustrated and in a self imposed position of weakness.

Being selfish (not an asshole) is a position of power. I never ask for (or accept) help from those who don’t help themselves.


It is okay to say “No”
It is okay to end friendships
It is okay to think of yourself first
It is okay to do something just for you
It is okay to help yourself before helping others

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51 responses to “It is okay to be selfish”

  1. Steve – I feel like if we ever met in person, it would be a struggle for the first 10-15 minutes because we have the same thoughts on being nice/selfish. Then after 15 minutes, we’d probably hit it off.

    When I was in college, I swore off saying sorry to people unless I truly meant it. I probably say sorry less than 5 times a year now.

    Now that I’m building a brand and a company, I don’t have time for such petty BS – some people like the politeness and think it helps… it doesn’t. I get emails at work with “Hey, hope this doesn’t come as an inconvenience sorry… can you do this for me?” JUST COME OUT AND SAY IT. It’s my job to do work for you.. ugh

    Anyway, thanks for sharing Steve 🙂

  2. I definitely agree with Steve how can you help others if you’re neglecting yourself. You have to maintain a healthy relationship between making sure your needs are met and trying to help others. I feel like all too often you see parents that are completely exhausted and make poor decisions because they put their needs last. It doesn’t help anyone and is normally detrimental to the whole family at some point. So I’m definitely on board!!!

  3. Go Finance Yourself says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Steve. There can be a fine line between being selfish and being an asshole. I’ve always been selfish with my time. Not that I’m unwilling to help others when they need it. I have no problem with helping a friend when they need an extra set of hands. But I have a lot of my own pursuits that give me fulfillment. If I don’t set time aside for myself, then those pursuits go unfulfilled, leaving me less happy overall.

  4. brian503 says:

    I’m right there with you Steve. No one wants to be a selfish asshole, but we certainly benefit from prioritizing ourselves first. It’s a topic that’s been on my mind the last few weeks. I’ve felt a little bit over extended and feel I need to be a little more selfish, and say no to some things, end some things, etc.

    • Steve says:

      Amen to that, Brian. And yup, nothing wrong with saying “No” every now and then. It’s easy to over-extend ourselves, isn’t it?

  5. Arrgo says:

    I feel the same way and have been doing this over the last few years. You cant always be running around trying to please everyone else’s needs and expectations. Your boss, the corporation, family, friends, society etc. Now, I give “less fucks” and have cut out a lot of bullshit. I’ve cut off relationships with family and friends. It seems harsh but you have to do it. Ultimately, its your life. I don’t want to waste my mental and physical energy on someone else’s nonsense. That said, im still willing to help someone in the right situation. But something to take note of is all these charities and people needing “help”. Take a closer look and ask yourself what the “root-cause” is of why they need help. Poor decisions and habits in their life, lazy, etc. But then they have a good sob story of why they need “help” and think everyone else should bail them out. In certain cases its justified and for them we should do everything we can to help them out. Lastly, this is why getting to FI and having FU money is so important. You don’t have to tolerate as many bullshit situations anymore and can walk away if you need to.

    • Steve says:

      “I don’t want to waste my mental and physical energy on someone else’s nonsense.” – bingo! If the other person is a drag on your mental or physical energy, ditch ’em. Life is too short to be around those who aren’t a positive influence in our lives.

  6. Yellow says:

    Loved this Steve, and thank you for the reminder. I started 2017 by making the decision to cut out an extremely negative friend/acquaintance, and it was difficult in the beginning because I’m naturally a giver and a peacemaker – I love making new friends, trust people until I’m given a reason not to, want everyone to get along, etc. So it was hard to feel like I was being “mean” despite the fact that this person is cruel and mistreats others (and myself). Almost 4 months later and I am beginning to realize I should have done it sooner – I should have put myself first the second I saw this person’s true colors. It has been a lesson not only in “selfishness” as you describe above, but also in trusting my instincts above other people’s opinions.

    Thank you for the reminder that it’s OK to say no.

    • Steve says:

      You’re very welcome and thanks for taking the time to comment. I think a lot of us have a story similar to yours, and most of us are definitely thankful that we made the decision to move on with our lives. 🙂

  7. Thanks for the reminder. I fully admit I’m a weenie when it comes to sticking up for myself, so it’s a constant exercise in self-improvement for me. I think it’s bizarre that early retirees are so hated. It’s not like you’re stealing money from a bank to fund retirement; you worked hard for the right. People are wondrous creatures full of anger.

    • Yellow says:

      Isn’t it astounding how we, as humans, react out of feelings of jealousy? This is something I have learned to constantly gut-check myself on, personally.

    • Steve says:

      “People are wondrous creatures full of anger.” It’s amazing how true that statement really is. There is a LOT of hate in the world based on nothing legitimate. It seems that some of us take personal offense if someone does something differently than the way we’d do it – especially *life*. If it makes them feel better to hate, that’s cool I guess. It doesn’t for me…and therefore, I don’t!

  8. Am I the only one who immediately thought of Gordon Gecko? 🙂 The wording is how I would have phrased it, but I agree with the concept. You need a strong “why” and you need “ruthless prioritization” to achieve big goals – financial or otherwise. Quite often that means a “me” mindset for at least a period of time… and that’s okay.

  9. I think it’s comical that people pass judgment on early retirees. That’s just a reflection on their inability to do proper math. In fact failing at math explains why so many can’t exercise the type of selfish behavior you just covered, and are instead dependent on the system. It really is a mindset, either you believe things happen to you, or you believe you can control what happens in your life. When you believe you’re in control, and exercise that ability, sometimes people see you as selfish…or perhaps an asshole.

    • Steve says:

      Yeah, it’s no longer any concern of mine what people think of the decisions I make. Selfish…asshole…smart…dumb…

      Whatever. I’m happy with what we’re doing and that’s all that matters to me.

  10. Bill Martin says:

    The best gifts come from the truly selfish

  11. Amy Blacklock says:

    Agreed. The oxygen mask rule is so fitting. And the word No, is sometimes the most powerful and best word you can use. Thanks for reminding us, Steve.

  12. caren magill says:

    Oh heck ya! I agree 100% because the opposite of putting yourself first is to put everyone else first and that strategy usually leads to unmet expectations and bitterness. Martyrdom isn’t cute. My motto is to do my best to be kind and respectful, but put myself at the top of that list of people to be kind and respectful to!

    PS – I’m still very new to the FIRE community and I’m shocked to see how commonly hated people are for retiring early. As though it’s unamerican to want to opt out of the rat race early. This is such a head scratcher for me.

    • Steve says:

      You and me both, Caren. People see the choices we make as radically different from their own. Living small. Being happy with less. And, I suppose that when you’re sitting on mountains of stuff, ass-deep in debt and commute into a status-symbol job 5 times a week, you gotta make the most of it by criticizing those who have chosen a better way for themselves.

  13. Mr. Tako says:

    It is OK to be selfish, but altruism also has it’s place.

    Imagine what life would be like if Bill Gates and Warren Buffett didn’t decide to donate their fortunes to charity. Many of those people they helped might already be dead.

    Or imagine the world without open source projects like Linux or open hardware projects like Arduino. The world wouldn’t be as good a place.

    Definitely, I believe in looking out for #1, but I also think donating time, money, or other assistance to good causes makes the world a better place. There can be room for both schools of thought in life.

  14. Just healthy to be this way, and the major point is that once we take care of ourselves first, we can help others more and in more meaningful ways and since our own needs are met, we don’t expect anything in return. I have a dear friend who always prides herself in putting others first, before her own needs and yet she has resentment about others not helping her when she may need it. It’s just classic codependent type behavior. Good post!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks! The “putting others first” thing sounds really nice in theory, but can easily be taken too far. I don’t put others first. I put me first, and I’m proud to say that. It puts me in a much better position to help those around me. 🙂

  15. I get what you’re saying and I’m not sure if you are trying to champion true selfishness or just make a point about taking care of yourself … fair enough. But what you are describing as the opposite of selfishness (pleasing everyone, sugar coating, always saying yes) is kind of a straw man. That’s not unselfishness, it’s being a doormat.

    I’m not sure what to make of all the “amens” in the comments either. True selfishness is a fairly unsavory quality. I think there’s a natural instinct in the FIRE community to agree with the blog poster, and I bet another blog could extol the virtues of giving and get just as many agreements. At any rate, being selfish is less about what you do and more about how you do it.

    My personal take is that being selfish is easy and natural, and it takes quite a bit of work to be unselfish in a healthy way (i.e not a doormat way). For me, being unselfish is a virtue to work toward, whether retiring early or opening an orphanage or whatever. Because here’s the thing. If you’ve ever really needed help to get out of trouble, or if you’ve ever spent time with a person born into a bad situation through no fault of their own (a slum, a drug infested home, etc), you may be struck by how many people can only get by with the help of others, and how much of your own good fortune is due to circumstances and good fortune. I’m not saying you’d disagree with this, just processing my own thoughts. Selfishness isn’t a trait I want to be remembered for.

    • Steve says:

      What I’m trying to do is question the negative stigmatism that the word “selfish” gets. Thinking of yourself first – which is generally the agreed-upon definition of “selfish”, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Of course, that can be taken to the extreme where we wind up thinking about *nobody but ourselves*. That, most definitely, isn’t a trait that I’d want to be remembered for either.

      And certainly, going out of your way to help others is a fantastic quality. 🙂

  16. The problem with putting everyone in front of you is logically there is no end. You could make just as reasonable logical argument that you give 10K to someone as you could giving to charity every dime you have and starting over. The reality is the true reason to give to charity or help others is at its root just as selfish as not. Its about making you feel good about helping others. If you don’t feel better by giving to charity or helping others then you shouldn’t do it out of guilt. I give to charity and help others but I do so because I enjoy seeing the impact on others. I also enjoy being financially independent. A proper approach is to balance those things financially according to my personal values.

  17. Mrs Groovy says:

    Another word that comes to mind here is “boundaries”. Too many people like to cross them including those who call you an asshole for retiring early. Is it any of their business? To have a healthy sense of self I believe you absolutely must put yourself first. And not only is it OK to say no, but no, followed by a period is a complete sentence. We need to learn how to say it and then be silent. In most situations explanations aren’t necessary.

    • Steve says:

      “To have a healthy sense of self I believe you absolutely must put yourself first.” – Yup, you and me both. Put yourself in the position to help others by helping yourself first. The better positioned you are, the more substantial and meaningful your ability to help others becomes.

  18. Kay says:

    I don’t see this as selfish. It is our duty as adults to take care of our own needs and not to be a burden on others. Congratulations!

  19. I agree that deep down, we are selfish with everything. We have an instinct to stay alive and feel good. Even altruistic activities give us pleasure, because it makes us feel good. However, we are a species that evolved on high levels of cooperation… i.e. what is good for the group is good for the individual. So, we need to be able to assist others in ways that make for a happy group. I just started reading “Happy City”, as recommended by MMM, and the author mentioned that the Roman Empire was doing well when it focused on the greater public good, and then the downfall started when hoarding and greed started. Again, we can’t give away our oxygen, but once we have enough, it is good to help others, which will make most of us happier in the long run. However, we also have to practice ‘tough love’ and make sure we aren’t enabling those who have the means, but won’t help themselves.

    • Steve says:

      Yup – these are tough questions to answer, too. How much is too much? Is helping someone who refuses to help themselves a wise move? Is just writing a check to someone or something really helping? Big topic! 😉

  20. Hey Steve! I love your blog, and I appreciate your thoughts, but I disagree with you on this one. It is important for an adult to be financially self-sufficient because if you give every cent away, then you become a burden on society who can no longer support yourself. Conflict resolution is the same way: you have to be able to say no, otherwise people around you will take advantage of you. But beyond those aspects, a selfish outlook is dangerous and destructive to a society. For me, financial independence isn’t the ultimate goal. If I somehow manage to save $10 million and retire as a 30-year-old, spending the rest of my life fulfilling all of my selfish desires, then what’s the point? My life would be in vain.

    I want to work hard and manage my finances well so that I am not in a position where I have to take a job strictly for the paycheck. I want to be financially independent so that I can spend my time serving the people around me and making a positive change in my community. Once I’ve achieved financial independence, maybe I’ll choose to stop working in an official capacity for a few years so that I can spend more time with my kids before they leave the house. Maybe I’ll use the opportunity to take a teaching job with a low salary so that I can be a mentor to the students. Maybe when I’m financially independent I will keep working but use the paycheck to donate generously to some of the charities I love, helping people who weren’t fortunate enough to grow up in America with a great education.

    If it takes me an extra 10 years to save enough for retirement because I’m giving money away during my working career, then I’m fine with that. I would rather retire at 55 living generously than retire at 45 keeping every dollar for myself. I understand that some of the language you used was probably exaggerated in order to make a point, and I would never judge someone who is able to retire early – I think early retirement is awesome. But, If you truly believe that it’s a good idea to live a selfish life for financial gain, then I couldn’t disagree more.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Declassified Dollar! I totally respect your opinion and your position. There is a lot of gray area in this discussion where “to each their own” comes into play I think. On one hand, working more to earn additional resources to give away is admirable, but then again, retiring early and spending time volunteering and mentoring might be another way to give back – something that a full-time job might lessen the impact of.

      Our own personal sense of ethics will dictate how “generous” we are. The larger point that I was trying to make was rejecting the notion that thinking of yourself first is automatically “selfish” in a negative sense. We all need to take care of ourselves first. Only then can we offer a positive impact to our communities.

  21. I’ve been working on being less nice, Steve. Thanks for the reminder! I’ve definitely learned the hard way that you have to put yourself first. Like you said, if you don’t put yourself first, no one else will. Also, it’s ok as long as you’re not intentionally trying to screw someone else over. It was great that you mentioned being “selfish” is actually better for everyone. I don’t have any children nor do I want any, but I’ve noticed when parents are too nice and make life too easy for their children, the kids end up being overly reliant on others. They end up being more ungrateful as well as less productive employees. I think the concept of being less nice for a persons own betterment applies to this as well. Thanks again for sharing!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for the comment, Graham. Your point about coddling kids is a very good one. What happens when that child, who’s been granted their every wish throughout their lives, sets out into the real world were they now have to *provide for themselves*?

  22. Great post, Steve. I agree… there is a distinction between being selfish and being an asshole. I also think you can be nice while being selfish… nice without being an asshole takes a bit more skill.

    As physicians, we sometimes put others ahead of ourselves, sometimes to the detriment of our health and family life. It’s definitely a tough balance, but like you said it’s hard to help others if we don’t help ourselves first.

    • Steve says:

      Appreciate the comment. I agree, it can be a fine line to walk. But in the end, we gotta be on solid footage to be able to help those around us. 🙂

  23. Somewhere I heard the line “I don’t care about what other people think, but I do care about their feelings.” I find that to align with my everyday life.

  24. zeejaythorne says:

    I’m so glad you included that is okay to end friendships. If we are all growing that means we are all changing. Some people no longer fit together in the same ways. It’s okay to move on from things that no longer serve you.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for the comment, ZeeJay! It’s a little more emotional to end friendships…it’s not like ditching an old t-shirt for another one. But then again, sometimes it’s gotta be done if that “friendship” is more destructive than helpful.

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