Intelligent Self-Interest Defined

The Power of Selfishness (Intelligent Self-Interest)


“The test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time, and still maintain the ability to function.”

–F. Scott Fitzgerald


We are going to discuss some ideas that, at first glance, appear to oppose each other: selfishness as intelligent. The foundation for success comes from defining selfishness as intelligent self-interest. Please keep an open mind as you read this chapter before you judge this as something to either embrace or discard.


The exercise of getting clear on your intelligent self-interest (ISI) keeps your mind in order and attracts to you the things you need to make life more enjoyable. When you train yourself in the practice of deliberately staying focused on your selfishness, you will find that your thoughts and actions proceed in a more orderly procession than ever before. In other words, when you understand your selfishness and hold it with your mind, it makes decisions easier and action clearer.


Before we go too far let’s define selfishness as intelligent self-interest (ISI) and define intelligent and self-interest. Words change in meaning over time and I want to look at the words as they were introduced into the English language.


We can begin to understand that we are talking about an important and significant issue that can change our lives in a positive and meaningful way. Please understand dear reader that I am using intelligent self-interest and selfishness interchangeably. Before I can discuss the eight other principles, we must fully understand the power of intelligent self-interest.


To start building a good foundation we must define some terms so we are on the same page (no pun intended). By doing this we will clarify some issues and avoid the confusion that happens without a clear understanding of the words we use.



The word intelligent, according to the website, means a “faculty of understanding,” from L. intelligentia “understanding,” from intelligentem (nom. intelligens) “discerning,” prp. of intelligere “to understand, comprehend,” from inter- “between” + legere “choose, pick out, read.”



The work selfish comes from the word self. Self, according to the same website, means “one’s own person, same.” Synonyms include self-seeking (1628), self-ended and self-ful.



The word interest comes from interresse, “to concern, make a difference, be of importance.” Interesting meant “important” (1711).


If we put these definitions together we can see that intelligent self-interest simply means: intelligent – to understand, comprehend and choose; self – self-ended or for our own self; and interest – “what’s important.” For our purposes, let’s define intelligent self-interest as meaning that we understand, comprehend and choose what is important to us. From this definition we are to define what is important to us and choose how this is important to others.


But we can’t stop there. It is too easy to abuse this concept and use it for selfish, non-intelligent purposes. Selfish indeed has come to invoke the word “outcast,” when the act of denoting a person to be an outcast is in itself an act of selfishness by putting your own values above those of someone else. A conundrum to be sure; it is the “Us Versus THEM” concept.


In this book, we are attempting to define useful principles for the businessperson, or any person, in their quest for success and happiness that make sense of the life we have chosen by the goals we have defined. We use postulated derivatives of a word, “selfish,” which is in itself full of dichotomies that do not allow it to become a useful principle.


Are we using the term “self-interest” to mitigate the pejorative point of view? When we add the word “intelligent” to “self-interest,” are we in fact simply attempting to water down the connotation of the word “selfish” as used in today’s society? I don’t think so and let me tell you why.


We use the word “intelligent” in the sense of capacity to reason, to plan, to solve problems, to think abstractly, to comprehend ideas, to use language, and to learn (Wikipedia), and in so doing we assign the context of that word a less emotional or sinister import.


There is a term we CAN in fact use to do a “Ya Know What I Mean?” on the entire concept of “Intelligent Self-interest”: Intent. We could in fact define Intelligent Self-Interest as: “Selfishness without the intent of being selfish.” We could talk about Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Henry Ford, and Martin Luther King as prime examples of selfishness without the intent of being selfish. Mother Theresa devoted her whole life to working with the poor and indigent of Calcutta. Gandhi freed a nation through nonviolence. Henry Ford was successful in putting a car in every garage. Martin Luther King wanted to correct injustice. Each of these individuals showed intelligent self-interest (by our definition). They accomplished great things through selfishness that otherwise would not have been possible. Through their intelligent self-interest they were selfless by accomplishing great things for others.


Our use of “intelligent self-interest” is this: “Selfishness without the intent of being selfish.” In this we also assume that there is an observer who can and will evaluate and judge INTENT. If the intent is malicious, the self-interest becomes selfish. If the intent is “with good will” then it becomes “intelligent” (rational, good intent). We are neither “just out for ourselves,” nor are we “just out for you.”


Now that we have “justified” selfishness as intelligent self-interest, we are now allowed to focus on achievements without worrying about what you may be doing to others.


Let’s bring this discussion down to earth. This book is not designed to be a treatise on intelligent self-interest, but it is designed to help you understand that it is ok and desirable for you to focus on your intelligent self-interest.


Getting clear on your intelligent self-interest is so very important. If we use our intelligent self-interest as inspiration to accomplish great things, we have some major constraints to deal with. The first is to understand what the words “inspiration” and “great” mean. Not all of us are destined to achieve greatness, if we identify greatness as being like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, or Presidents Kennedy, Lincoln, Washington; some would call that notoriety. And that is not a bad thing. Does that mean we cannot do great things if we are not famous? Of course not. It simply means we must understand what inspires greatness.



Inspire in this sense is c.1340, from O.Fr. enspirer, from L. inspirare, a loan-transl. of Gk. pnein in the Bible. The general sense of “influence or animate with an idea or purpose” is from 1390.



(1538) This is from the similar use of Fr. grand, itself used as the equivalent of L. magnus, in the sense of “excellent, wonderful.”


Since we now know that inspired means “influenced or animated with an idea or purpose” and greatness means “excellent, wonderful,” we can begin to see why our intelligent self-interest is so important. We become inspired to greatness (and we inspire others to greatness) by our intelligent self-interest.


By greatness I am talking about the individual who takes inspired action, overcomes his fear, and reaches beyond what is expected or perceived possible. This may include starting a business, having children, overcoming cancer, or starting over in a new career. Each individual who takes inspired action has the potential for greatness and to understand their greatness.


Please notice I am talking about greatness as taking action to achieve our intelligent self-interest, nothing more or nothing less. We often confuse notoriety with greatness. They are not the same. Being famous is not the same as doing great things.


To accomplish our greatness we have to understand we have limitations. These limitations might be time, money, or other resources specific to our situation. Because it is impossible to accomplish our greatness unless we use our limited resources wisely, we must know what we want to achieve. We need to be intelligent in our use of these resources to accomplish our intelligent self-interest. Because we have so many people asking us to spend our hard-earned money, limited time and precious resources, we must be very clear on what is important to us and be very selfish about using our resources to achieve this greatness.


Stated differently, I am asking you to be focused on your intelligent self-interest. I am asking you to express this intelligent self-interest through the effective use of your of limited time, energy and money. I am asking you to take action. Your ISI will allow you to focus your time, energy and money on what you want to achieve by taking inspired action.


This article was taken from my next book, Taking Inspired Action: 9 Proven Secrets to Business Success. This book will be available in January of 2009. To order your copy now send an email to You investment is only 14.95 (pplus shipping and handling) and you will learn three things when you read this book: You will Think Differently, You will Grow Personally and Professionally, and You Will Understand You are Not Alone. To learn more about the 9 secrets go to If you have questons please post a comment or call me Ron Finklestein at 330-990-0788 and I will answer your questions.

Ronald Finklestein, President of AKRIS, INC, is a small business success expert, business coach, consultant, speaker, author, and trainer, and has published three books, 49 Marketing Secrets (THAT WORK) to Grow Sales (, Celebrating Success! Fourteen Ways to a Successful Company ( and The Platinum Rule to Small Business Mastery (

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