You’re Selfish, Scared And Stupid… And It’s A Good Thing


OK, on the surface of it, this may not sound like a compliment. And in truth, these words are typically used to hurt or at least insult. But regardless, these are not only the central characteristics of human nature, they are also the reason we survived and thrived as a species. And, it is in working with these characteristics that we enjoy greater engagement, performance, and success.

Of course, whenever this observation is made, people occasionally admit to being selfish, they may even confess to feeling fear, but what really makes them bristle is the idea that they might be considered stupid.

However, all three have been essential in shaping human achievement and still drive our judgment and actions today.

The reason this occurs is that our survival brain still calls dibs on our decision-making. It doesn’t have time for the higher cognitive functions that can entertain dialectical arguments and switch from one opinion to another; its job is survival, its methodology a heuristic bias and it acts quickly and instinctively.

Studies published in the American Journal of Psychology bear witness to this when they revealed that human beings, when reversing out of a parking space, reverse out more slowly if another person waiting to take the space. Even though this fights against our primary goal of leaving the parking lot and getting on with our lives. The issue is, our unconscious survival brain takes over and becomes territorial out of a fear of loss.

So why did we become selfish, scared and stupid?

These mental filters are actually critical to our survival. Being selfish made us look out for number one, being scared taught us to mitigate risks and improve our judgment, whilst being stupid created an unconscious bias towards the simplest and easiest solutions.

The truth is, this desire for ease and simplicity sits at the root of all human ingenuity and innovation, and so if you want to make the world a better place, it pays to understand your lazy, stupid side as well as your individual brilliance.

However, this is not an exhortation to act in a selfish, scared and stupid way, but rather, an assertion that working with our essential natures and understanding what’s driving our behavior contains the ingredients of success.

In other words, if we want to engage others with our ideas, to become more self-aware or to be more persuasive and influential as leaders, we need to work with the things that pull our strings, not against them.

Learn To Think Selfish

There is a huge, yawning chasm between thinking selfish and acting selfishly. The former is, in fact, a capacity to do the opposite – to place ourselves in the shoes of the other and to come from a position of “What’s in it for them,” not just our objectives and personal selfishness.

In other words, our ability to engage is less a function of our charisma or compelling arguments and far more linked to framing our goals and objectives in terms of their values.

Learn To Think Scared

Thinking scared requires an understanding that fear lies on either side of a decision and despite its poor reputation, fear is possibly the most motivating (and sometimes useful) emotion a human being can experience.

Obviously, we’re not discussing the kind of paralyzing fear that ruins lives and costs us happiness, but rather understanding that a healthy amount of fear can drive positive action. Indeed, many of the more common phobias have their roots in survival – fear of falling from a great height, of dark unlit areas, of spiders, or even dogs (man’s best friend hasn’t always been so friendly).

More than this, it requires seeing fear as a natural response to change, competition, and more abstract concepts like success and failure.

So rather than suppressing the fear or pretending it doesn’t exist, we do far better to work with it and transform it into an asset.

This includes strategies such as social reinforcement – in other words, demonstrating that we are not alone, anchoring expertise in past behavior – or linking to the known. And critically, we need to learn to see fear as an occasional asset and flip the fear of action to the fear of inaction. There’s a reason very little happens without a deadline!

Learn To Think Stupid

This is not quite the oxymoron it first appears to be. In fact, thinking stupid is a terribly smart thing to do. What it means is, we should work with our own, and our teams’, unconscious biases towards the least taxing and resource consuming solutions.

This requires an ability to simplify – to make things clear, to drive understanding without the need to delve into layers of inquiry.

It also means we need to make the correct or preferred choice or response easy, but most critically, it also means we need to design non-preferred actions to be more difficult.

The reason for this is that design is more powerful than discipline and motivation.

Obviously discipline and motivation are characteristics to be lauded and admired, but unfortunately, they’re mostly short-term strategies. No one is disciplined all of the time, and certainly, no one is motivated in every area of their lives.

Thinking stupid in process and environment design requires a more strategic model of leadership that supports a successful outcome independent of motivation or engagement.

In the end, this is all about lifting the understanding of what drives those around us and of course, ourselves. Too often we make people wrong for acting out of self-interest, for not being as bold as we like to idealize and for avoiding complexity and effort, when the truth is, these are the ingredients of our success as a species, and we would do well to include them in ours also.