Playing Small is Selfish: Why Focusing and Working on Your Success Helps Build a Better World

July 19, 2018

Playing Small is Selfish: Why Focusing and Working on Your Success Helps Build a Better World

By Hina Khan

How often do we live out narratives of self-sacrifice for the greater good? How often do we put our own goals and ambitions on hold in order to enable someone else’s wellbeing?

The story of self-sacrifice practically writes itself, and it’s an easy prophecy to fulfill.

Maybe our grandparents traversed great obstacles to migrate from one place to another in order to facilitate the success of future generations.

Maybe our parents put aside a promising future in athletics in order to raise us.

Maybe we remember our mother toiling over a hot stove to feed a large family, spending days on-end without leaving the house, all in order to make sure we had what we needed to succeed.

We rightly look at the sacrifice of others and recognize how the high cost paid by someone else now enables us to enjoy a comfortable quality of life.

We allow the guilt derived from having received without giving in the same proportion to tell us that we should be happy with what we have.

Then we tell ourselves we shouldn’t be greedy.

Then we tell ourselves we should honour our enablers by replicating their sacrifice with our own children, siblings, or other people we care about.

Most damningly of all, we tell ourselves that we can’t have it all, and therefore should be content with the role we have been asked to play in this never-ending intergenerational project.

If you see yourself putting your own goals on hold in order to enable the goals of someone else, it’s time to re-think our role in the story we tell ourselves.

Think about it for a moment: part of why the self-sacrificing narrative is attractive is because it enables us to forgo the success we truly seek. Instead of having the courage to build a plan to achieve our goals, we pass the buck. Like a snow-storm that keeps us locked inside, we shrug our shoulders and wonder “what if?”. We have the perfect excuse for inaction.

But if we are honest with ourselves we know that we can’t be truly happy if we have unfulfilled dreams, and that sacrifice will often cause us to resent the people for whom we are making the sacrifice.

Any human relationship that is based entirely on one-person giving and another-person receiving will not be mutually fulfilling. Carrying on as if such a one-sided relationship is normal can lead to all kinds of unintended consequences: after all, can there be anything worse than resenting and loving someone at the same time, and blaming someone else for our own decisions? We, after all, are proof of the guilt-driven cycle: one generation can feel low-level resentment for having forgone self-actualization in order to enable the next generation. The next-generation eventually feels so much guilt that they sell themselves short.

The reason we have to break the cycle of sacrifice-resentment-guilt is because we are allowing our fear of success to hold us back.

After all, what will happen if we start our own business?

What will happen to our career if we take time off to explore an unexploited artistic talent?

What about the time we won’t have with our kids due to travel if we take that promotion? What about the missed soccer practice? Will our children be scarred?

Then, what will our family / community say if we take those steps towards what they might consider a selfish ambition at the expense of hard-earned stability?

When we find ourselves asking these questions we realize that the fear of success is as paralyzing as the fear of failure.

So how do we find that balance between pursuing our own goals and ensuring we are fulfilling our responsibilities?

The first step towards self-fulfillment is to convert our individual goals into a collective goal.

For example, the other night I was spending time with my 10-year old son and we were playing a game to test how much we know about each other. At one point I asked him, “do you know what my professional goal is?”, and he told it to me. The moment was validating. My son understands what I am trying to do, and he understands that sometimes I travel and work strange hours. Like any parent, I could feel guilty about missing certain moments with him, and I could worry that I am pursuing my own personal objectives at the cost of a quality relationship with my children.

The reason why I don’t feel that guilt is because I am working hard to make sure my children know they are my priority. When I am home we have time together that is sacred. We have activities and rituals we repeat that are free of devices and other interruptions. We play games. We quiz each other. We snuggle. In other words, we ensure that our time together is based on quality interactions rather than quantity of interactions, and we both understand exactly why I am sometimes absent.

My children are young, and yet they know and understand that they are helping enable my success. I, in turn, am doing the best I can to set an example for them so that they view their future as a limitless horizon. Having said that, we’re not waiting for the future to get started on feeding our mutually beneficial relationship: I also know what their goals are, and I help them fulfill them.

Part of taking the first steps towards our own self-fulfillment is to rid ourselves of certain paradigms that have been handed down to us, including the idea that you can either be a successful professional or a good parent. That dichotomy is simply false. Then we need to understand that prioritizing our own success may mean suffering the judgement of people close to us who feel that our lives should fit into the tidy box of their value-systems.

Like any pioneer attempting to carve a new path from a well-trodden intergenerational road, it takes courage to write new stories. Nonetheless, by seeking our own success, making that success a collective rather than an individual goal, and being willing to find ways so that each person within a family unit is both giving and receiving, we not only deliver the effort we owe to ourselves to pursue self-fulfillment, but we also create the pattern that will truly enable the success of the next generation.


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