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Me first

Me first

Earlier this year I read a super cool book. It’s not cool in that Sophia Amoruso #GIRLBOSS kinda way. It’s more of a can’t-put-it-down story with a practical dose of political ideology weaved in. Ok, so maybe cool is not the right word but I digress…

I was initially hesitant to pick up Atlas Shrugged which is based on Ayn Rand‘s philosophy of Objectivism. Her philosophy advocates rational self interest and capitalism as the path to economic and technological progress, and individual self fulfillment (yeah…cool is definitely the wrong word) and is explored through the story of a group of pioneering American capitalists in their battle against the socialist reach of the “boys in Washington”.

I loved it but that’s not to say it will be everyone’s cup of tea. The last third of the book is theory-heavy and definitely a challenge to get through. For me, the captivating first two-thirds were such an enjoyable read and the finale so fitting that it was absolutely worth the effort. Not to mention Dagny Taggart (<3) is a joy to read. I don’t often come across such a strong, accomplished and inspiring female character, especially one with such a never-say-die attitude and drive to succeed in a man’s world.

Now, I’m not all that well versed on politics or philosophy and I don’t necessarily agree with the extreme depictions of a socialist vs. capitalist society presented in the book, but I do find it thought provoking and I think there is certainly merit in some of the underlying ideologies. Especially with respect to the theme of self-interest.  

In the book, Ayn explores two very different takes on self-interest. On the one hand, there are the boys in Washington, the politicians and spin-doctors who do anything for the loosely defined ‘greater good’. Who believe that whoever is better off must prioritise the needs of anyone and everyone who is worse off.

On the other hand, there are the industrialists, the thinkers and the doers – the heroes of Ayn’s story. These are the guys who put their own needs first and only engage in a transactions based on a fair exchange. This self-serving approach, Ayn contends, is the only way civilisation can move forward. That the mortality and survival of humans rests on our ability to make decisions in our own self interest. That anything outside of this, that the charitable efforts of the prior group, will only lead to the complete and utter destruction of society.

I hardly think charity or making decisions with the greater good in mind will destroy society but, when tempered, I think Ayn has a decent point.

So many of us are programmed to put ourselves last. I do it all the time. I forsake sleep in favour of crushing deadlines. I forsake down time in favour of helping out a friend or visiting family. I’m constantly putting my own wants and needs second for many varied reasons.  

But what happens when we have a goal we want to achieve? What happens when there’s something we want for ourselves that doesn’t necessarily align with the values or short term needs of those around us? What then?

Well, if Ayn has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes we need to be selfish. Sometimes we need to embrace a bit of that self-serving attitude her protagonists fought so nobly for. Sometimes we need to put ourselves first and only engage in a given interaction or transaction if it’s a fair trade – if what we’re getting is worth what it will cost us.

You read a lot about how as women we’re socialised to please. How when we don’t it can have damaging effects on how we’re perceived. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how I’ll be perceived in terms of gendered stereotypes but I know that, be it because I’m female or not, I feel pressure to be a people pleaser. To say yes to every request that comes my way. Or worse, to offer before the question is even asked.

So recently I’ve tried to call on a little inner Ayn to make sure my goals aren’t slipping me by.  

This year I’ve been really trying to focus on my career. Working hard to challenge myself, expand my skill set and take on more responsibilities. In order to still fit in some essential me-time (hello Wednesday night Offspring sesh!!) I’ve had to take a bit of an Ayn Rand approach and put myself, and my goals, first.

I’ve started to work from home on occasion when I have a big deliverable due that requires my uninterrupted attention. I switch off my emails and my office communicator tool and it’s amazing how productive I can be. The team know I’m available by phone if they needed me but I’m actively minimising disruptions and it feels good! And you know what else feels good. The work free weekends I have allowed myself by upping my productivity!

But let’s not just stop at work-related goals. This approach can and should be applied to both professional and personal situations.

For example, do you have a demanding corporate career but feel like you don’t have time to do the things that most energise and excite you? Treat yourself to a long weekend. Take next Monday and Friday off and do all those things that make you feel like you. Wear your pyjamas til 3pm and watch daytime tv if that feels good. Or recruit a girlfriend and go on a hike if that’s more your thing.

Have you been dreaming of kicking off a side gig but keep putting it off because you’re overworked as it is? Start thinking about how to work smarter not harder. Put in place some boundaries at work and stick to them. If that means leaving your work laptop at the office three evenings a week so you can focus on your own hustle then do it. All those non-essential work tasks can wait until the next day.

Are you a working professional who wants to work on her fitness but can’t find the time? Block out the first 30 minutes of your day two to three times a week and get your workout in before the workday starts. No one will miss you and I’m sure you more than make up for that time answering late night and weekend emails.

So while I think Ayn may be exaggerating a little when she tells us that self-interest is the cornerstone of a highly functioning society and charity will be the end of us all, I think there’s a lot to be said for knowing when it’s time to put yourself first.

How do you put yourself first? And when do you know it’s time for a little self-interest?

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