Enlightened Self-Interest

One attribute of our education/ social system that has always bothered me is the unnecessary competition that schools and parents foster amongst the children. It is not just important to get high marks; it is also important to come first in class and beat other children. The urge to learn is chucked aside and the entire academic year becomes a race to optimize one quantifiable metric.

And my problem is not with a child trying to get a 100 on 100 in a test. That shows a commitment towards a completion-ist attitude – an attempt to master a subject. My problem is when the child also wants to be the only one to get a 100 on 100. Doing well is not the target. Doing better than others is (even if you haven’t done all that well yourself). It doesn’t help that colleges (especially engineering institutes) have relative grading (RG). And this causes some serious problems.

The term RG was used as a noun, a verb and an adjective in my alma mater (IIT Madras) to describe a student who withheld essential academic information from others or acted in a way (directly or indirectly) which resulted in other students scoring a lesser grade than him/ her. Over time, the term has started being used for anyone who is unhelpful on purpose in both academic and non-academic settings. Here are a few examples:

  • Finds out that the date of a lab test has been shifted. Doesn’t inform the rest of the class. He is an RG.
  • Has the only copy of complete notes/ old tests on a particular subject. Doesn’t share it with anyone else. She is an RG.
  • Hides the only copy of an important chemical engineering reference textbook in the college library’s fiction section. He is an RG (this really happened)!
  • Downloads torrents all the time but never seeds. She is an RG.

This behaviour doesn’t just stop in college. It continues into professional life and more and more I’m seeing it trickle into the startup world.

But this post is about the reverse behaviour. This is about the student who not only aces her tests, but also leads a study circle in the evenings for her fellow students. This is about the cricketer who is on top of his game, but who will still give pointers to an upcoming player from the opposition team during net sessions. This is about the successful entrepreneur who makes time for a fifteen-minute-call with a college student who is figuring out her first startup idea.

In the startup world, these helpful gestures don’t even have to be too big. At times it’s just a well-placed call or an email. Or it’s a conversation over a cup of coffee.

Why are some people incredibly helpful and others not so much? We are all outputs of the same educational and social system. On the outset, helping others doesn’t seem to have a clear, direct reward or benefit. And yet, this urge to help is not out of a sense of altruism or charity. My father describes it as enlightened self-interest: by helping others and acting to further their interests, one ultimately serves one’s own self-interest. This is the opposite of greed.

Most people think of life as a zero-sum game. For one person to win, someone else has to lose. It’s dangerous territory when we start viewing the startup world through this lens, especially in a country like India where the market for any business is still far from saturated and there is enough space for everyone to grow. A helpful attitude will expand the pie – there will be more to go around.

People who understand this intrinsically figure out a way to help and guide others. I am trying to find a way to codify this information. How can we learn/ teach/ acquire this trait at a young age? Leading by example clearly stands out as one way. What are some other ways? What social and educational changes need to be made to foster enlightened self-interest?

Success! You're on the list.

One Reply to “Enlightened Self-Interest”

  1. Adam Grant’s view on this in “Give and take” is just awesome. Really enjoyed reading this 🙂 Thanks for sharing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *