The Value of Selfishness
on embracing hidden motivations
Ever since I started running trips for teenagers, I used them for my selfish purposes.
I wanted to spend more time in Argentina, so I took a group to Argentina. I wanted to visit Australia, so I designed an Australia trip. I wanted an excuse to write a novel, so I created a Writing Retreat. I wanted to improve my tango; I offered a tango trip. In 2023 alone, Unschool Adventures subsidized my time in Patagonia and Berlin, two places I’ve long drooled over.
In the beginning, I felt guilty about this selfishness. Because I wasn’t being customer-focused. Because I wasn’t running trips in the places teens clamored for. (If I did, I would have run a Japan trip long ago.) Because I was doing this in large part for myself, rather than focusing exclusively on others.
Then I realized: this selfishness may actually be serving the world. Because I am not offering generic trips. Because I am offering trips that reflect my idiosyncratic personality, values, and talents. Trips that still keep teens safe and still receive overwhelmingly positive feedback. And by only leading trips that moved me, I became a more vibrant adult role model, rather than a checked-out or resigned one.
If this version of selfishness was okay—which others might be?
In my mid-twenties, I went through an Ayn Rand phase. I read The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and much of her non-fiction, including The Virtue of Selfishness. Some of my friends rolled their eyes, saying “those are books for teenagers.” But I found them full of serious ideas.
I discovered much to like in Rand’s full-throated defense of rational self-interest. Eventually, I found plenty to dislike. As with Kerouac, reading a few biographies is what shifted the tide. (If you want to dislodge an idol from a pedestal, read their biography, and beware those whose lives end in isolated misery.)
In the end, Ayn Rand did convince me that each of us, in our own ways, is indeed selfish. Some of us choose to admit this; many do not. And instead of acting high-minded and altruistic, why not just get it out in the open?1 Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
This is when I stopped feeling so bad about my selfish impulses, started openly discussing them, and began to better distinguish between pro-social and anti-social versions of selfishness.2
What if I want to selfishly enjoy the perks of indoor living without housework or maintenance? While I am delighted to clean a kitchen, I have zero interest in scrubbing bathtubs or emptying gutters. Most of my adult life, I’ve dealt with this reality by remaining a short-term renter or a houseguest who leaves before I’m requested to do any serious chores. The few times I have been a primary renter, I didn’t live in filth—but I did outsource all the maintenance and hired a professional cleaner before moving out, someone to deal with the dirt and dust that irks a landlord but hardly appears on my radar. This seems like one way to navigate selfish desires: to first, do no harm.
Next year, I want to stay in Europe. I selfishly want to focus on everything I love: biking, dancing, and visiting friends old and new. I want to offer my dance connection workshop series again in other countries, very much out of self-interest, because I want to create more dancers who value play over performance and tenderness over technicality. I want to have more mornings like the one I am currently enjoying: zipping north on a train through the Rhein valley, Black Forest hills and church towers silhouetted by a dawn light, surrounded by sleepy commuters, typing these words as tarraxo beats pound my eardrums.
Next year I want to start an online coaching program for teens who are undertaking real-world challenges, a program I can run from anywhere. I want to do this, not only for the dollar-dollar bills that keep the brown bread and butter flowing, but because I crave purpose, usefulness, freedom, and flexibility. For my self. Also, because I don’t want to personally run any teen trips in 2024—one a year is enough! (I ran two in 2023; time to balance the scales.) But I also want more travel opportunities like Unschool Adventures to exist, because I feel personally invested in the lives of teens I meet at alternative schools and places like Not Back to School Camp: sweet, community-minded teenagers who enjoy few options for group travel with like-minded peers. So I’ve decided to train my future competition this weekend—which, somehow, still feels selfish.
I write this post because I want people to care what I think. Because I want my plans and motivations to be known. Because I want to matter. Because I am neither impartial nor disinterested, never have been, and never will be.
I write this for you, but really, for me.
How I think about this:
Pro-social selfishness leaves the world a little better off. When I have too much squash, and you have too much bread, and we selfishly want to enjoy each others products, and we trade with each other—everyone wins. A non-zero-sum game.
Anti-social selfishness makes the world a little worse. When I want to burn trash in my backyard (because taking it to the dump is expensive and inconvenient), and my neighbors want to enjoy clean air, I create an anti-social “negative externality.” I win, you lose. Zero-sum game.