Stop Trying to Be Selfless

This ties into software development, I swear, but you'll need to bear with me for a hot minute, so let me explain what I meant by this clickbait-y title.

From a young age we're told to be selfless. We're told that selfish people have it all wrong, and that they may get what they want in the short-term, but they'll get what's coming to them one day. Yet, we look around and see wealthy people who give only small portions of their income to charitable causes, and live lavish lifestyles off-camera. They're selfish, but their worlds aren't crumbling. This is enough to make many question the childhood lessons we learned about sharing, giving, putting others before ourselves...if others can benefit from being selfish, why shouldn't we? Nobody wants to be Mother Theresa if it means never getting to have a comfortable lifestyle.

But this is a problem, too. Many people go about being selfish the wrong way and end up paying dearly for it socially and financially. These same people learned what it means to be selfish by listening to the same purveyors of cultural wisdom who probably misunderstand how to be healthily selfless. Throwing your resources to others until you're left with nothing and trying to take resources from other people unapologetically are both ways to live a miserable life. So what happened? Why are there so many bad examples of selfishness and selflessness in the mainstream? Shouldn't the best ideas bubble up to the surface?

No, because the best way to be selfish is to give your most valuable resources away for free, and this makes no sense to most people who haven't found success yet. What do we value the most? Our time, our energy, our money, our connections, our friends? Whatever it is that we value, we usually try to guard it closely and amass more of it, and we're afraid that giving too much of it away will leave us feeling poor. We don't want to feel poor, so we will offer it in small amounts and call it generosity. We believe that these resources are finite, and that for every bit of energy we give away, we have to work to get more energy to replace what we gave. We may try to appear generous on the surface, but we will feel poor inside as long as we view our resources this way.

So how does giving things away for free help us? Simply put, it feels awesome to see people benefit from our resources. We can't only give to others, though. We have to have something to give in the first place, right? So we need to ensure we take great care of ourselves and nurture a growth mindset, and stop worrying that we're going to somehow harm ourselves by giving to others what we have gathered from the world.

The selfish thing here is that we can do this entirely for the good feelings. Assuming we are taking care of ourselves, we needn't worry that our well will one day run dry. We will always have plenty to give as long as we treat our mind and body with care and uphold healthy work-life boundaries. If we don't take care of ourselves, we end up feeling worn-out and therefore less valuable to others, and people will perceive us that way too. If we hoard our acquired resources, we are valuable only to ourselves. People are selfish, so they will see us not giving and only taking, and they will not want to associate with that kind of energy.

I promised I would tie this back into software development. We all know there's a toxic side to the developer culture:

  • The senior developer who doesn't believe in mentoring because they didn't get any help on their way up, so why should this newbie?

  • The developer who makes you feel bad for asking "beginner" questions

  • The junior developer who feels insecure and makes sure people know who is and isn't a "real developer"

There are other examples, of course. These behavior patterns are examples of the "hoarders" mentioned earlier. What they hoard is different, but the content doesn't matter because it's still unhelpful to all involved.

#1 is hoarding experience and industry knowledge.

#2 is hoarding technical knowledge and mere minutes of their time.

#3 is hoarding validation

Arguably, they're all hoarding the same things to varying degrees, but imagine if they didn't. I wonder, what is the worst thing that could happen to each of these people if they instead decided to give these resources freely?

We know what happens. When we see people give these things freely, we appreciate it. We raise them up to be examples for the community. I'm talking about the content creators who make free learning resources, speakers at conferences who share their wisdom, mentors to new developers who highlight their progress instead of their inexperience.

These are the leaders of the developer community that we know and love. They aren't worse off because of their actions, because they love giving what they have, and people repay them in various ways even if it's not always with money. For them, it's a guiltless pleasure to give all they've learned and acquired, and for us, it's a guilty pleasure to enjoy it all free of cost. We don't realize that by accepting their gift, we give them energy. By sharing the free gift with others, we are doing their marketing for them. Everyone wins!

I'll say this, though. While it's not wrong to ask for money for what we give to the community, we should never expect it. If we provide enough value, people will pay. If people don't want to pay, it either isn't that valuable or it's available elsewhere for free. We should look inwards if people don't want to pay us for what we can give, and we should also keep an open mind about the form that payment will take. Besides, if we ensure we are taking care of ourselves first, our giving is not something we need to be compensated for anyway.

That's the key here. True generosity is a result of our feeling inspired to give back, and is not something we depend on compensation in order to do. We can expect to be rewarded with the good feelings that come with giving freely, and after that we should not feel attached to what else we get out of it. What we have seen, though, is that people tend to be compensated for bringing enormous value to the community, one way or another.

Giving feels good. What do you want to give to the developer community?