97. Egotistical Utilitarianism
How what's best for you is best for the whole.
Last weekend, I was invited to sign copies of MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS at a new bookstore in Santa Monica called Zibby’s Bookshop. A dozen or so other authors, including my writing mentor, were signing at the event as well. Afterwards, we all gathered in the lobby of a fancy hotel to drink wine, eat cheese, and bitch about the disaster that is publishing books. Everyone had a horror story, from “my Gen Z publicist will no longer talk on the phone because she says the phone is too stressful” to “my book came out two days before Covid shut the world down” to “my former agent stole my royalties and fled town in a Winnebago.” (I get to take credit for that last one.)
As nurturing and fulfilling as the evening was, I was exhausted from the intensity of it all. As a few of the ladies were transitioning from the party to the after party, I declined, instead deciding it was time to head back to my AirBnB.
“Brooke’s got strong boundaries,” my mentor said, her eyes scanning me like I was some sort of curious, alien species. “I need to work on that.”
This observation stuck with me because it butted up against a series of recent encounters where my “boundaries” caused confusion, discontent, or outright pain in other people. I put boundaries in quotes because to me, it doesn’t feel like a boundary. It feels like the most obvious thing in the world. By doing what’s best for me—in this case, getting a good night’s sleep—I guarantee that I won’t be exhausted in the morning. I’m nicer and more patient when I’m rested, which leads to more pleasant encounters with others, which means my day and everyone else’s is going to be easier. A win for me, a win for the world.
This is called egotistical utilitarianism, a phrase I first heard coined by Matthew McConaghy in an interview with Tim Ferris.
It’s a counterintuitive concept. An egoist does whatever is best for them. A utilitarian does whatever is best for others. How can such opposition fit together?
Because when we take action based on what benefits us the most, it also benefits those around us.
As McConaghy put it, “The decisions we make for the I, for ourselves, the selfish decisions are actually what’s best for the most amount of people — utilitarian — they are where the ‘I’ meets the ‘we’, where the selfish is the selfless.”
Don’t get confused by the “egotistical” part of this. Our negative connotation of the word, in the sense that people who are egotistical operate as if they’re the only mattering person on Earth, disappears when egotistical utilitarianism is fully understood. In this sense, it is about the reason for the action, not the action itself.
As an example, a fireman spends hours at the gym lifting weights, running on the treadmill, and staring at himself in the mirror. His friends and family are chuffy because he isn’t around that much or comes off too rigid in his adherence to the gym schedule. They want him to spend time with them. To tend to their emotional needs. But what’s really happening is the fireman’s inner drive to be in the best shape possible also allows him to have the physical ability and confidence to carry heavy firehoses, pull people out of burning buildings, and trust in his body’s carbon dioxide capacity. His usefulness as an individual, in this specific area where he excels, benefits the collective every time he goes out on a call. And when he is able to do his job to the best of his ability, he is more fulfilled in his life. The more fulfilled his life, the better and more present he can be with the people around him during the time he makes for them.
In my life, it plays out like this:
My work on antidepressant withdrawal is my priority. Full stop. It takes a tremendous amount of energetic effort to navigate a topic this heavy, leaving little energy in the tank to manage the needs of other people. It’s why I’m not married and don’t have kids. I simply don’t have the bandwidth.
As a result, most of my day to day choices are based on what’s best for me and my energy conservation. That means I’m often non-committal, have zero issues cancelling social plans, and don’t express a natural interest in other people’s lives. This comes off as flaky and uncaring, especially to the people in my inner circle who feel they deserve to be put ahead.
But the reality is I can’t do this work and impact the collective if I’m constantly shifting my focus because someone wants attention or pat on the back. If they’re dying or in a real crisis, then of course I’ll drop everything and show up. And I make a conscious effort to speak their love language and spend time with them when I do have the bandwidth. The folks who understand this balance—and more importantly, practice it themselves and manage their own feelings around it—are the people who have staying power.
To harness our drive and use it for the good of the whole is a powerful strategy for both individual and collective happiness. It’s doesn’t mean there won’t be times where you are called to perform an entirely selfless or selfish act, or where obligations and ethics won’t trump individual wants. But it’s worth exploring what exactly is best for you, and to watch what happens around you when to act upon it.
🎙 Latest podcast appearance:
Recovery (Sort Of)—Episode 171: Antidepressants may cause side effects.
📘 Books I picked up at the opening of Zibby’s Bookshop:
Drinking Games by Sarah L. Levy
Lost and Found in Paris by Lian Dolan
Anxious People by Frederik Backman
💡 Quote I’m pondering:
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” -Kurt Vonnegut