"Good selfishness is where I benefit but you benefit more. Raising your children, and working your passion, are good examples of good selfishness. Bad selfishness on the other hand is where I benefit but everyone else pays a price for it. Drug dealing and predatory subprime lending are good examples of bad selfishness."
Let me make this plain: giving is also in your own enlightened self-interest.
In my new book LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World, I call the concept good selfishness. When you want to help others, they want to help you. When you want to do good, the universe wants you to do well. But if you want to use people, they will feel used. It's all about intent.
Intent matters. That's why I don't say "self-interest"; I say "enlightened self-interest." I don't say "selfishness"; I say "good selfishness." I don't say "capitalism"; I say "good capitalism." The intent is to do good.
Former president Bill Clinton explains it this way:
The act of giving is an example of good selfishness because it will almost always make you feel good, or in the case of businesses, it will result in positive things for your bottom line. I think the work of my foundation is a wonderful example of this. We now have 1.4 million people accessing AIDS medicines under agreements that we've negotiated with dozens of pharmaceutical companies -- but the companies that give us this medicine make money. We insist that they do. They just make money in a different way. Instead of making a higher margin on a lower volume, they make money selling a higher volume with a lower margin, and they keep more people alive. We try to show people and companies that doing good and doing well can be one and the same. In the end, the wise person comes to understand that selfishness and enlightened selfishness are one and the same.
The fourteenth-century German philosopher Heinrich Seuse says that your quality of life is closely linked to your ethics in life. In other words, when you make ethically sound decisions, you actually improve your life quality.
Or as Prince Haakon of Norway put it to me, "When you grant someone else dignity and lift them, that's when you feel better yourself. You actually increase your own dignity." The heir to the Norwegian throne lives a life of privilege, and he rides around the world's capitals in a motorcade that rivals that of any head of state. But he's motivated in life by giving.
HRH Prince Jaime de Bourbon-Parma is another member of royalty whose history of giving and social responsibility goes back a long way. Bourbon-Parma is a member of the extended Dutch royal family, and currently works as a Dutch diplomat who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has fond memories of his grandfather, who died when the prince was young. His grandfather knew war for most of his life. He fought in World War I, the Spanish Civil War and World War II, when he joined the French Resistance and consequently ended up as a prisoner in the concentration camps in Natzweiler and Dachau, Germany.
My grandfather survived the concentration camps. He did not choose to survive by taking, for instance the little food there was, from others. Instead, he would sit with prisoners and talk to them about the meaning of life. For one person, he wanted to survive to see his wife and children. For the next it was because he wanted to finish his life work. For another his faith gave him strength.
Everyone has something makes them tick, in the most horrible circumstances, something to help rebuild their lives. And he reminded them of it so there would be no despair. You needed to be mentally strong to have a chance of surviving the concentration camps. For my grandfather, giving to others gave him strength to survive.
Proventus CEO Daniel Sachs agrees, but puts it slightly differently.
There's a lot of talk of responsibility and of ethics. All those things are good, and I respect and cherish those values. But I think we need to get back to a discussion about self-interest. I have to contribute to building a better society because it's good for all of us, and it's good for me, as well.
We're all selfish, and we're all imperfect. I agree with Bishop Ulmer that a saint is a sinner who got up. We're bums sometimes, but we're trying to be good people. Trying to be good is the intent. That's the amazing part. We don't love because of, we love in spite of -- in spite of the fact that we do stupid things.
And why should you love someone else in spite of? Because you're loved in spite of. Don't assume that because you're not Nelson Mandela, you can't do good. Don't assume that because you don't have the wisdom of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., you've got to be a bum. Don't assume that because you can't be Mahatma Gandhi, you've got to be a robber baron. We shouldn't leave saving the world to saints, and we should 't leave capitalism to sinners.
Why don't you accept your humanness and admit that you're imperfect and you make mistakes, but that you're trying to be the best person you can be? What we truly want to practice is good selfishness. Don't be ashamed to admit that you want to benefit. But you want others to benefit more.
Admit that you like raising your children. You like seeing them grow up, admire you, seeing them excel, you like helping them with their problems. These things make you feel good.
Admit that you like running that nonprofit, as I do. It helps you feel that you're making a difference and changing the world.
Admit that you like nurturing and mentoring your employees. It makes you feel that your life has meaning and that you're not just working to pay your bills. You're giving more than you're getting, and your life will leave a legacy.
Admit that volunteering makes you feel good. You feel that your life, what you've learned, and what you have to give are valuable to someone else. You're seeing that person's life transformed because of you.
Let's admit that we're selfish. And then we should differentiate that feeling from bad selfishness. Our purpose is love, is giving, is goodness, is service. To quote my friend and political hero former president Bill Clinton from his best-selling book GIVING, "it just makes you feel good."
John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, vice chairman of the U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Literacy as well as chairman of the Council Committee on the Under-Served, financial literacy advisor to the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council, a Young Global Leaders for the World Economic Forum, and author of LOVE LEADERSHIP; A New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), which debuted in August, 2009, on the CEO Reads Top 10 Best Seller List and is now available in digital audio book format.