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‘Your Life Matters’: A Lesson from Effective Egoism

A new book from Don Watkins explores self-esteem and rational self-interest from a fresh perspective.

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The editors of New Ideal are delighted to republish, with permission, an excerpt from Effective Egoism: An Individualist’s Guide to Pride, Purpose, and the Pursuit of Happiness, by Don Watkins.

Lesson 1: Your Life Matters

It’s all about you.

Has anyone ever told you that? Probably not. Instead, you’re born into the world without a say in the matter, and from day one people are telling you how unimportant you really are, as if you were an uninvited guest intruding on a party. “Think of others first.” “Don’t be selfish.” “Do as you’re told.” “It’s not all about you.”

And yet the people you’re supposed to serve and sacrifice for? They’re all being told the same thing. Servants serving servants serving servants. None of us has a right to exist for our own sake. It’s servants all the way down.

Few people really believe that, of course. Most parents want their kids to be happy, to find fulfilling jobs, passionate romances—not join a monastery or start a soup kitchen. I’ve yet to meet a parent who thinks of other people’s children first. They say things like “think of others first” because they believe they’re supposed to say it—and because they believe that thinking of yourself is a given. Telling people to value their own happiness is supposed to be as pointless as telling them to breathe. They do that automatically. The real challenge in life is learning to rein in their innate selfishness for the sake of others.


As a parent, coach, mentor, and long-time human being, nothing is more obvious to me than that people do not automatically value their own lives and happiness—and that, even when they do, knowing how to make the most of their lives and actually achieve their happiness is the most daunting challenge a person will ever face.

As I write this, headlines are announcing that drug overdose deaths have reached a record high. Were the addicts hooked on fentanyl treating their lives as if they mattered? What about  the people who stay in abusive relationships? The people who smoke too much, drink too much, and exercise too little? The people who join cults and crusades demanding selfless obedience to the leader or the cause? What about the millions of people sitting in their therapist’s office wrestling with feelings of shame, self-doubt, and self-contempt? Is the problem they value themselves too highly?

Even when people do seek the best for their lives, it’s not as though it’s obvious what to do. Most of the people I know well are active, ambitious, and reasonably self-confident. Yet they, too, struggle. How do I find a career that I love? What do I do when my parents’ values don’t align with mine? How can I restore my self-respect after I’ve taken an action unworthy of me? How should I move forward when what I want and what I think I should want clash?

Sacrifice is easy. You just give up what you want. But knowing what you want? Coming up with a vision of who you want to be and the life you want to live, figuring out how to realize it, staying true to that vision over the course of years and decades while overcoming distractions, obstacles, and outside pressure? There is nothing more difficult, more rare, or more heroic than building a self and a life that you love.

But there’s a science that exists to teach you to do it.


Check Your Assumptions

My dad was a Navy pilot, and when I was nine, his job took us from Virginia to Japan. It was like moving to a different planet. People didn’t shake hands—they bowed. People didn’t drive on the right side of the road—they drove on the left. Wearing shoes in the house was taboo, but openly looking at porn on the train? Just fine.

We take so much of human behavior for granted: this is just the way people do things. We never question many of the assumptions behind our beliefs and behaviors because it doesn’t feel like we’re selecting among alternatives. We’re just believing and doing what comes naturally. But there are alternatives.

Some of the alternatives people face are completely optional conventions. It doesn’t matter what side of the road you drive on, so long as everyone in the area drives on the same side. But other alternatives matter. They can be right or wrong—good or bad. We take it for granted that slavery is evil. Not everyone in history has.

Philosophy is the subject that examines our deepest assumptions about life: about what we are, where we are, how we know, how we should live. In fact, philosophy got its start precisely when different cultures started interacting on a mass scale. The ancient Greeks never questioned that they worshipped the right gods, or that their conceptions of the good, the just, and the noble were correct. But they kept running into cultures that didn’t share their outlook. Cultures that worshipped different gods. That had different conceptions of virtue. That organized society in wildly different ways.

Suddenly, the Greeks faced a real question: how do we know we’re right?

If you’ve studied any philosophy, you’ve probably read some of Plato’s Socratic dialogues. In those dialogues, Socrates goes around Athens asking one very basic question: do you know what the hell you’re talking about? He happens upon Athenians debating whether this or that thing is just, and he says: “Hold on. What is justice? If you don’t know that, you’ll never be able to say for sure whether a particular action is just or not.”

That was the beginning of philosophy. Philosophy doesn’t just identify your most basic assumptions. It allows you to question them. To think about them self-consciously and critically so that you know your most basic assumptions are true. And, once you know they are true, philosophy leaves you with an explicit framework you can use to solve all the particular real-life problems you face.

Why does all this matter? Because if you aren’t aware of the assumptions you’re making, you’re out of control. You’re acting blindly, in the grip of ideas that are invisible to you. Ideas that, all too often, are contributing to your fears, self-doubts, frustrations, conflicts, and regrets.

Here’s one example. Are you in control of your life? Do you have the power to choose—or are you at the mercy of the invisible forces of nature and nurture, your genes and your environment? Even if you’ve never taken a formal position on the issue of free will versus determinism, you can’t escape making certain assumptions about whether you’re in control of your life and responsible for your actions. It’s no accident that even the most uneducated criminal will appeal to determinism to rationalize his crimes and subdue his guilt. “I couldn’t help it, that’s the way I was raised.” (Never mind that his siblings managed to stay out of prison.)

This book is about self-creation. It’s about taking ownership of your life, refusing to bow to routine or conformity or conventional wisdom, and instead making the commitment to actively create your life—and your soul. Here’s how my greatest philosophic influence, Ayn Rand, once put it:

Just as man’s physical survival depends on his own effort, so does his psychological survival. Man faces two corollary, interdependent fields of action in which a constant exercise of choice and a constant creative process are demanded of him: the world around him and his own soul (by “soul,” I mean his consciousness). Just as he has to produce the material values he needs to sustain his life, so he has to acquire the values of character that enable him to sustain it and make his life worth living. He is born without the knowledge of either. He has to discover both—and translate them into reality—and survive by shaping the world and himself in the image of his values.1

My deepest conviction is that each of us is a being of self-made soul. And the only way to make your soul consciously and deliberately is through philosophic inquiry. It’s philosophy that puts you in the driver seat of your life. If you ignore philosophic issues, you will still be in the grip of philosophic ideas—but you’ll take over those ideas blindly and accidentally from the people around you. You will be the product of your environment. To be self-made—to design your life on your own terms—you have to examine your deepest assumptions. And be willing to change them.

You can explore the lessons of Effective Egoism further by purchasing the paperback or Kindle version.


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  1. Ayn Rand, “The Goal of My Writing,” reprinted in The Romantic Manifesto (New York: Signet, 1975),p. 162.
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