Apply own oxygen mask before helping others (part 2)

A couple of weeks ago I offered some advice to Tim in Apply Own Oxygen Mask before Helping Others. And I wouldn’t change anything that I wrote in the article.

But I’ve just finished reading How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams (creator of the classic Dilbert cartoons) and I think it’s worth adding a couple of points from that book.

The points are about how, if we get our own act together first, we end up being capable of giving more help to others.

To make the journey to financial independence, you have to take a decision to put yourself and your immediate family first.  That means before the interests of advertisers, companies, salespeople, bosses, colleagues, neighbours and dinner party acquaintances.

As my wife will confirm, The Escape Artist knows a thing or two about when to focus on yourself.  For years, we’ve arguedahem…discussed where the line should be drawn between rational selfishness versus naïve martyrdom.

Here’s what Scott Adams says on this:

During your journey to success you will find yourself continually trying to balance your own needs with the needs of others. You will always wonder if you are being too selfish or not selfish enough…When it comes to the topic of generosity, there are three kinds of people in the world:

  1. Selfish
  2. Stupid
  3. Burden on others

That’s the entire list. Your best option is to be selfish, because being stupid or a burden on society won’t help anyone. Society hopes you will handle your selfishness with some grace and compassion.  If you do selfishness right, you automatically become a net benefit to society.

OK, so let’s remind ourselves of Tim’s situation. Tim has 2 children and a wife, none of whom are working.  So Tim is supporting his whole family. Plus, as a lawyer and (I assume) a higher rate taxpayer, he’s paying a load of tax to the government.

So we can rule out option 3 “Burden on others” for now.  Although, if Tim doesn’t make any changes he’s a prime candidate for a breakdown, at which point he’ll become a burden on others.

I think we can also rule out option 1 “Selfish”.  In his letter, Tim explains that his job is slowly killing him, but continues to do it for his wife.  Some of the commenters on the original article accused The Escape Artist of being harsh on Tim.  But I wouldn’t describe Tim as selfish.

So, according to Scott Adams, that leaves only one option when classifying Tim’s behaviour. Which is “Stupid”.

Now, I don’t think name calling is helpful when dealing with people.   Firstly, Tim is a well paid lawyer and presumably intelligent. Secondly, Tim is only going to take advice from someone that he feels is on his side (as I am).  But intelligent people often do stupid things…especially when they’re run down or under pressure.

If I was giving coaching to Tim, I’d need to be patient and kind…no matter how dumb Tim’s actions might have been.  We are all flawed beings with blind spots.  Some have even suggested that The Escape Artist himself is not perfect!  I know!

So it’s not just Tim. I see people being unselfish all the time.  But, often, its not constructive. Here are a few examples of people that would benefit from being more selfish:

The Escape Artist would like to see the world become a better place.  So I am going to propose a deal.  I give you permission to be more selfish in life on the basis that, once you have focused on yourself and taken care of all of your genuine needs, you will then be kinder and more generous to other people and to the environment.

I think you are going to stick to this deal because you’ll find that after you truly put yourself first for 10 – 20 years, you’ll then have enough to stop worrying about stuff and can relax and help others.  When you have financial security and peace of mind, you can start to raise your horizons.

Here’s Scott Adams again:

One of the more interesting surprises for me when I started making more money than I would ever spend is that it automatically changed my priorities. I could afford any car I wanted, but suddenly I didn’t care so much about my possessions beyond the utility they provided.

Once all of my personal needs were met, my thoughts automatically turned to how I could make the world a better place. I didn’t plan the transformation. It wasn’t something I thought about and decided to do. It just happened on its own.  Apparently humans are wired to take care of their own needs first, then family, tribe, country and the world, roughly in that order.

There are plenty of angry people out there who will tell you that all rich people are selfish and unhappy and other stuff like its easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.   But, if you ask me, that’s all camelshit. There are happy rich people and there are unhappy rich people.  Personally I aim to be rich and happy rather than poor and happy…but either can work.

I was brought up in Britain in the 1980s when class divisions that had been fixed for generations were breaking down.  The economy was also changing and these changes were moving quicker than people’s ingrained political views and tribal loyalties.

The great strength of working class communities was camaraderie and loyalty.  But peer pressure can sometimes be the downside of community spirit.

When the economy and social mobility started to free up, some people from working class communities were reluctant to be selfish. This sometimes stopped them moving on and leaving unpleasant jobs like coal mining.

It’s not selfish to follow your father, uncles and your mates down the pit where you work for the rest of your life in the dark until you get emphysema or the roof falls in on you.  But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

One of the fascinating things about Britain is that the distance between those towns and London is so small geographically (you could literally walk from any former coal mining village / town to London) and yet so vast in terms of economic prospects and mindset. How many people have stayed too long in economically depressed regions for fear of seeming selfish rather than escaping to better prospects?

I’ve noticed that journalists, politicians, bureaucrats and social commentators etc talk a great game when it comes to helping other people and the environment.  But they seem to imagine that they can talk the world into being a better place. Or that if they pretend to feel enough of other people’s pain, the problems will be fixed. Sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way.

The Escape Artist suggests that Bill Gates has, via The Gates Foundation, done more to fight world poverty than any of those professional talkers. And Gates was able to do that because:

  • He focussed on himself and his business for the first half of his life
  • He created a huge amount of value for the rest of the world and got rich in the process
  • He realised it would be pointless to try to spend all his money on himself

Its not just Bill Gates. Other billionaire benefactors like Peter Diamandis, Elon Musk and even that master of self-publicity Richard Branson have a strange compulsion to help the world once they’ve bought their own islands with volcano HQs and then asked themselves: now what?

Now, The Escape Artist is not a tech billionaire, nor a globally renowned cartoonist.  But the good news is that you don’t have to be super rich to help others. These principles also work on a small scale.  And it’s not just about money, it’s your wellbeing and mental state as well. So if you are well rested, eating well and optimistic, you will be more capable of helping the people around you.

But for those people that want to be generous on a larger scale, there’s a bit of a paradox here: its sometimes the people that are selfish in the first half of their life that are able to be the most generous over their whole lifespan. This is not just my opinion, it follows logically from the maths of compounding.

Apply own mask first

So I think everyone should occasionally stop and ask themselves whether they are being selfish in the right ways.

I don’t mean being an asshole. I just mean getting your own shit together, getting better at whatever it is you do and focusing on what you can control.

Like I said before:

Apply own oxygen mask before helping others.

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  1. Matt @ Optimize Your Life · · Reply

    I also really enjoyed How to Fail at Everything. I found it to be a cool mix of memoir, self-help, and humor.

    There’s definitely something to the fact that a lot of the most charitable people spent the first half of their lives focusing on themselves. The book Doing Good Better by William MacAskill discusses effective altruism and how you can impact the world most. He argues that you’re going to do more good by choosing a career path that pays a ton of money and donating that money back to efficient charities than by filling your time with volunteer work.

    1. Thanks….I can see the logic there

  2. ianeholliday · · Reply

    Last summer I went on a business course on music education in the US, and one of the things we were encouraged to do was read several Ayn Rand books, including ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’. I was unfamiliar with Rand, and mostly remain so as I found her books inpenetrably dull, but I wonder how much the parable of the oxygen mask draws on this philosophy. Rand’s position in ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’, as far as I understand it, rests on redefining (or perhaps clarifying) the meaning of ‘selfishness’ as virtuous self-interest – the giveaway is in the title I guess, so I’ve saved you the bother of reading the book :-). Getting one’s own stuff in order before attempting to help others is no doubt good advice. There is also the benefit to the position of acting out of selfishness that it makes decisions clearer – you only have to satisfy one parameter: is this good for me. And it clarifies the responsibilities in transactions: each person is responsible only for their own side of a transaction or agreement, the idea (hope?) being that if each person acts solely in their own self interest the transaction will be the best that can be achieved. It doesn’t sound that contentious really, phrased that way.

    I remain uneasy about Rand though, and as I say her books are a bit crazy – many of the arguments in the Selfishness tome derive from the prounouncements of a character in her principal work the novel Atlas Shrugged, which seems a very strange rhetorical device to me (i.e. mad), even though that book may be a statement of her philosophical ideas. Her redefinition of selfishness is a bit of a difficult maneuver to swallow too, as there is surely something in the everyday meaning of the word, which I think speaks to the unvirtuousness of taking for yourself a larger share of a scare resource than you can use whilst ones neighbours must endure scarcity.

    Just today in fact there is an acticle in the Guardian reminding us that 6000 people own 2/3 of the land in the UK, being largely inherited wealth protected in trusts and remaining untaxed in perpituity, while the rest of us are taxed heavily on our work and pay council tax to boot. [] To be fair to Rand I don’t think she’d approve of inherited wealth and power on this scale either – her heroes were more the Philip Greens of this world. Lovely.

    So I’m not sure if Rand has clarified or clouded discussion about ‘selfishness’.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I don’t think my “Apply Own Oxygen Mask before helping Others” approach is influenced by Ayn Rand….I haven’t read any of her books.

      So I can’t claim to know anything about Ayn Rand’s philosophy. But from what you and others have said about her, it seems like Rand’s version might be more like “Apply own oxygen mask…and then don’t worry about helping anyone else“(!)

      My point (or Scott Adam’s point) was simply that we are in a better position to help others if we are not broke / overwhelmed / stressed out. And I think we should then actually try to help others…that’s kind of the point of this blog.

  3. old_eyes · · Reply

    Whilst I have a lot of sympathy with the idea of putting your oxygen mask on first before helping others, I have some problems with the rest of the argument.

    Whilst I love the Dilbert cartoons, some of Scott Adams’ pronouncement are distinctly weird:

    “When it comes to the topic of generosity, there are three kinds of people in the world:

    Burden on others”

    On no evidence at all it defines not being selfish out of choice as stupid. Sorry, playing linguistic games like that does not count as an argument.

    There is excellent evidence going back to the work of Robert Axelrod and beyond on the Evolution of Cooperation, that altruism has been and continues to play a key role in the development of human society. More recent apnthropological studies suggest that in many societies altrusim is a key route to survival, and has distinct evolutionary benefits. At least some level of altruism seems to be hardwired into us, and we react to the absence of it.

    The idea that you should nurture yourself to enable you to nurture others makes sense; hence the instruction to fit your oxygen mask first. But the implicit assumption is that we want the maximum number of people possible to get oxygen, and this is the best way to do it.

    Ayn Rand’s kind of selfishness would not do that. It would first ask, having put on your oxygen mask, how productive a member of society do I consider my neighbour to be, and/or what is this person able to trade with me in the future that is to my benefit?

    Rand’s Objectivism has been honey to a large number of right-wing extreme libertarians, but it is a philosophy that ignores how the human mind works, is logically inconsistent itself, and was not adhered to by the person who created it. Ayn Rand was famously not remotely objective in her personal and professional life.

    So I think that there is an important thought in there about the way our own psyche and peer and societal pressure can lead us not to take enough care of ourselves, and that family, friends and socsiety would benefit if we took more care of ourselves first. However, this argument is easily hijacked by the greedy to justify taking everything they can from the economic system whilst explaining that they may give something back later because they will be in a better position to do so. Maybe. If I feel like it.

    In the developed world we depend on a whole infrastructure to create the wealth that we live off, and that infrastrucutre is collectively created and owned. Opting out of supporting that infrastructure by the wealthy is one of the major challenges we face today.

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