Enlightened Self-Interest

Jim writes in:

You write all the time about just helping people and that it will somehow help you. I don’t see it. I understand how it’s beneficial to help someone who can obviously help you, but what benefit is there for helping others beyond the idea that it’s the right thing to do?

Before I get started, I will say that I believe the biggest reason to help out others when you can is because it’s, in essence, the right thing to do. I’m a huge believer in the “golden rule” – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If I have the ability to easily help someone, I pretty much always will.

Recently, I’ve been rereading pieces of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and a particular quote stood out to me: “[B]y directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain; and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it.”

In other words, if you can do something that produces a great deal for the time invested, you should do it, even if it’s not directly beneficial to you.

Here’s an example of what I mean. I live next door to a single mother who has two young daughters living at home. Quite often in the evenings – as you can imagine – she’s got a lot on her plate. She needs to get a good meal on the table for her daughters, clean the house, get bills paid, and so on.

A lot of evenings, that means that her daughters are out in the backyard playing while she’s in the house finishing things up.

Since my wife and I are often out there, it takes little to no effort on our part to keep an eye on what those girls are doing and offer a helping hand if they need it. My wife helped one of them remove a splinter. We’ve invited them into our yard countless times to play in the sprinkler.

Now, if I’m looking strictly at my own self-interest, I wouldn’t do this. It’s an insurance risk to deal with that splinter or to have those kids in our yard. I could just not acknowledge them at all and there’d likely be no problem whatsoever.

However, by paying attention – when it really doesn’t take a whole lot of effort on our part – we’ve built a very good relationship with our neighbors. I’ve borrowed items from her regularly and we’ve helped each other with all sorts of other little tasks, no questions asked. This has saved me from buying tools and other items many times.

I invest very little time in an evening keeping an eye out for those two girls – I’m out in the yard anyway with my own kids. But by doing so – taking that little sliver of time here and there – I’ve built a very nice neighborly relationship, one that’s produced measurable financial value.

Here’s another example, perhaps one that’s more tangible. About three years ago, I did some free web consultation for a small nonprofit organization I believe in. I set them up with a custom installation of WordPress and several other tools so they could add and manage content really easily. In all, it took me about twenty hours of work, spread out over about a month.

What did I get directly out of it? Not much. I did learn a lot about designing a blog, which I later applied to The Simple Dollar, but that was about all.

So why bother? Well, that nonprofit survived – and thrived. A few members of the original team left to form a small startup company. After a while, they decided that they wanted to create a site that was well-designed and easy to update, but this time they could pay nicely for it.

Want to guess who they contacted?

I didn’t take the arrangement. However, they agreed to hire a person that I recommended. I was able to pass on several thousand dollars’ worth of work to another person, who now, in his words, “owes me more than [he] can ever say.”

So, for that web design I did three years ago, I now have a web designer friend who owes me a huge favor someday, a nonprofit with which I have a great relationship, a small army of individuals that I have a good relationship with, and a web startup that is still interested in hiring me as a consultant.

All of that came from just wanting to help out and offering the skills I had to something I believed in that needed those skills – in my spare time, of course.

In both of these cases, I could have focused my energy on something relatively trivial that was purely in my own interest. I could just play with my own kids in the backyard and ignore the neighbors. I could have decided not to help that nonprofit group and instead spent that time doing … something else (who actually knows what).

In each case, though, I just gave a bit of time and energy and talent without thinking at all about returns. Over the long run, though, that time and energy and talent has been paid back to me many times over.

Sure, you’ll always find yourself in situations where you’re never “paid back” for what you give. But even in those cases, I find a surprising result – there’s usually a positive payback, but it’s really indirect.

An example: several years ago, I found myself helping a number of researchers with what amounted to technical support. We were starting to roll out a new interface for a large data set and many researchers had a lot of questions about the interface. I devoted a lot of time to helping out many of these researchers – and many of them didn’t even give me a thank you.

What happened next was surprising. I attended a conference with some of those people where I figured I would more or less be hiding in the woodwork, but many, many people didn’t let that happen. I had interacted positively with enough people that my name had spread to many of the attendees as someone worth interacting with. For the entire three day conference, I was constantly talking to someone, meeting with someone, dining with someone, or sharing a drink with someone. By the end of it, I had more connections and job offers than I could possibly deal with (and even a surprising committee assignment or two).

All I had done was spend a little bit of time helping these people without anything in return. It was a gesture that I didn’t have to do – I could have just sent out some stock answers and called it good enough. But little five minute bursts of effort – spread out across a long period – paid enormous dividends.

Here’s the simple rule: if you can help someone out without disadvantaging yourself, do it. That means sharing ideas, making connections, and doing little tasks that don’t eat up tons of your time and energy. Don’t worry about the return – if you do it often enough and with enough quality and value, the return will take care of itself.

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