James Stewart

Selfish to be selfless


What if I told you that if you were just that wee bit more selfish it would actually result in you being more generous, more gregarious, well, more selfless.

It’s a contradiction right? Like how a minus times a minus results in a positive. How can that be? Go with me on this. It’s a phrase I use often in a work context, but it applies pretty much to the athlete life too.

Often we are compelled to do ‘please others’ type actions, usually for fear of offending someone or letting them down. Think about the times where you have felt pressured into taking a drink at a night out, or taking on a task you don’t really want to do feel you have to. Or going to meetings of no interest. And so it goes.

Social etiquette is that great big uncodified book of rules that is guaranteed to cause you to do something wrong, sometime, somewhere, to someone, with no idea why!

When it comes to your running, prioritising yourself could be just the thing you need to do in order to be able to serve, play and have fun with others better.

I have an underlying mantra that we can do anything we want, but we likely have to give something else up in order to do that thing we want so badly. When I started to get serious about running I pretty much stopped writing, stopped playing music and really pared back on gig going and social life.

By selfishly focusing on being a better athlete I started to eat better, which meant that instead of pizza for every night out meal, Louise and I ended up being able to go to a whole bunch of new places for food. Until Caelan came along. Back to pizza huh?

By selfishly focusing on getting fitter I have become a much better role model for my kids by getting fit, getting active and getting out. To them my selfish hobby is a vicarious influence that I hope will inspire them to be active as they get older.

By selfishly spending time to become a better athlete I am much happier and stronger from a mental health point of view, which means I hope this translates into being a better husband, father and friend. I’ll let others judge that on.

By selfishly focusing on becoming a better athlete I found myself widening my social circle that has enriched not only my life, but those of my family too. Take Andy being part of the GB crew the last few years as a case in point. That experience doesn’t happen otherwise.

By selfishly focusing on becoming a better athlete, the research, the confidence, the drive and the enjoyment I got from it bled into my work life, and lo I became much more successful in that field too. In fact, I learnt that it wasn’t hours that mattered, it was impact and engagement.

Sometimes we look at what we do as a zero sum game. An either / or choice. That prioritising ourself is an act of selfishness. But what if we looked at the bigger picture and realised that an act of seeming self interest in a moment is exactly what we need to be selfless longer term.

If we are not happy, content and balanced with our own health and wellbeing, the chances are the people we want to make happy and content, and help be balanced, won’t get the best of us. Think about that. A blunted you, one lacking energy and vitality, is not the best person to be around. But you, with pride, confidence, contentment and a deep sense of self-efficacy, well, I am pretty sure that is someone everyone would benefit from being around.

Yep, sometimes it selfless to be selfish.

6 replies to “Selfish to be selfless

  1. James, I read your recent article about taking time to be selfish and found it to be a very fresh take on something we often overlook. The idea of doing something for oneself that benefits your health and well-being is also beneficial for those around us.

    Thank you for sharing and I plan to write a business article using some of the same principles, crediting you with the root of the inspiration.

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