I am not a statistician, but I would bet that you’d be hard-pressed to find any college student who has not heard the cliché “your college years are the best four years of your life.” Even though this advice seems easily ignorable given the relative circumstances of individual life, it is still indicative of how people — especially older generations — view the late-teenage to the early-20s phase of life. 

Connected to this is another cliché common in cultural discourse: “your 20s are your time to be selfish.” Society socially mandates the self-interest of your 20s and gives you the freedom to be selfish. Naturally, this leads to the conclusion that your 20s are a time to put yourself above all else. 

The question then becomes: if selfishness is linked to success and personal wellbeing, why should we ever stop being selfish?

The Socially Mandated Selfishness of Your 20s

Primarily, it is worth delving into what is meant by the advice that your 20s are about selfishness. This can certainly be good-natured and genuinely helpful advice when applied to concepts like relationships and exploration of passions. You should explore your passions and put yourself first without changing your plans to maintain a relationship or the benefit of another person (See: Topanga not going to Yale because of Cory).

However, there is a cultural expiration date on this — there traditionally comes a point at which you are supposed to become more focused on things like financial stability, providing for others, et cetera. 

However, this “expiration date” is wildly inconsistent. Some people are born into or placed into circumstances where this period of selfishness is never granted. Others, often due to their socioeconomic status, are given the chance to think exclusively about themselves for the entirety of their lives (See: Donald Trump).

Selfishness, Gender, and Socioeconomic Status

Several factors play into whether or not it is permissible for a person outside of their 20s (or even in/before their 20s) to behave selfishly. These factors are both hypocritical and unsurprising. For example, stories like “The Wolf of Wall Street” are held (by some) to an iconic status for their depictions of ruthless economic pursuit. 

Therefore, while being selfish is taboo for some people, others are celebrated for being selfish, not only in terms of self-prioritization but also in the vein of exploiting others around them with no regard. While it seems too obvious to even mention, it is worth keeping in mind that stories of grand-scale selfishness like this would not be told, nor would they traditionally occur at such a level, about people who are not men.

It seems to unfold in a sort of paradox culturally: it is good to be selfish to a point…until you are supposed to be responsible for a partner/family/et cetera, in which case you only have to be presently responsible for them if you meet certain criteria of gender/economics/et cetera. From my perspective, even if we were all socially able to be selfish without regard, there is a level of selfishness which steps beyond a threshold of moral permissibility. 

The Difference Between Selfishness and Exploitation

In my opinion, it is beautiful and freeing for a person to follow their own intuitions, seek out their place in the world, and believe in themselves unapologetically. However, this level of selfishness is not the same as exploiting others, occupying the mindset that your experience of the world paramount, and absolving yourself of personal/social responsibility.

With that in mind, attempting to break free of the boundaries of cultural definition, how can we reach a point of selfishness as a healthy method of behavior?

While it might seem strange to negotiate how we feel about ourselves by starting with the external, I believe the first step in reaching a point of healthy selfishness is to self-contextualize. 

Namely, the concept of universal empathy enables us to both love ourselves unabashedly and to love the other people with whom we share the world — to balance between prioritizing ourselves and caring for others.

Selfishness and Universal Empathy

Broadly, universal empathy refers to the practice of recognizing ourselves, or recognizing a familiar humanity, within everyone. Its opposite would be selective empathy, where we reserve our ability to sympathize or our willingness to help for people whose experiences meet certain criteria or are familiar to our own.

As a particularly relevant example, universal empathy reminds us that, while we individually want to move into a post-COVID world, we are not there yet and should not contribute to increasing the likelihood of infecting other people (Wearing a mask is the least you could do). 

For me, the next step deeper into universal empathy is to believe that we are all extensions of the same universe, rather than impositions upon it — thus, we all share the same root. In this view, all of our human consciousnesses are inextricably linked, even though our experiences are different and our lives unfold in radically different ways. Even though, of course, we will all always believe different theories of the universe, carrying some form of this universal empathy allows us to act both selfishly and with care toward everyone else.

We should be able to pursue any paths we want to take. In doing this, we should think that everyone deserves that opportunity. We should be able to spend our time in any way we desire. 

In doing this, we should remember that we are not inherently equipped to control other people’s choices in how they spend their time. We should be able to enjoy our time on this earth to the fullest of our capacity. In doing so, we should not be able to collectively destroy the earth. 

Empathy and Care

As mentioned earlier, I am aware that there are a ton of societal factors which push certain people into positions of power and other people into positions of perpetual discomfort. I am also aware that a mindset change cannot fix that at a macroscopic level and that an infusion of greater empathy into society would also require systemic change.

In short, I do not think it is bad to wake up every morning and think that you are capable of everything you have ever wanted. I do not think it is bad to wake up one day and realize that you are unhappy with your circumstances and set out to change them. If that is selfish behavior, I would say that we should all be selfish every day of our entire lives. 

However, in caring for ourselves in this way, it is integral to keep in mind that we are still individual components of humanity. Making a better world for ourselves involves making a better world for humans (For more, I recommend reading Audre Lorde’s theories of self-care as a radical act).