One birthday, I had dinner at a restaurant with some friends. I did the inviting and reserving, and we were all still recovering from major MBA student debt, so when the check came, we shared an awkward moment. It was my birthday, but I had also chosen the restaurant and invited everyone. The appropriate payor was unclear, and everyone sort of subtly averted their gaze from the bill. I decided just to fall on the grenade and treat despite the healthy 3 figure price tag.
But what started as a spontaneous measure to avoid social discomfort turned into a habit. Every birthday I've celebrated since was either my treat or involved me giving gifts to others.
This year I took five of my closest friends out to a really expensive dinner with wine. There was an awkward moment with the check again – but this time because not everyone had been informed that I would be paying and we had to fight over it briefly. “NO way! You’re not paying!” – you know this scene, I am sure. “You’re so generous,” they conceded when they realized they weren’t going to win.
But they’re wrong. I am a completely selfish A**hole. Just as we all are. Because all human endeavor – even supposed generosity – is fundamentally self-serving.
Just ask this Nobel Prize Winner
When I was in business school at the University of Chicago, I was allowed the chance to take Gary Becker’s PhD-level Human Capital Economics class. Week after week, he blanketed the ceiling-high chalk boards with calculus and complex mathematical proofs that reduced some of the finest human qualities and experiences to a series of equations. I sat starry eyed and tried not to let on that I had forgotten most of the calculus I hadn’t studied since high school.
This class, more than any of my MBA, gave me a clearer understanding of how the world works and – perhaps surprisingly – made me more compassionate.
Because I realized that each of us is a snowflake – of individual preferences.
According to Becker – and really the whole field of economics – rational decision-making agents (AKA, humans) can be reduced to an equation that will predict their behavior perfectly under any circumstance. We each have individual preferences and different weighted coefficients ascribed to each preference. This kind of stuff is usually used to predict consumer behavior, pricing, market movements, and the like. But as a philosopher at heart, I saw through all this to a much deeper point about the human condition.
Here’s a more real life example that governs a daily choice I make: I might place higher value on watching an episode of the Simpsons than on a 20 minute walk by the lake. You might be more of a Family Guy kind of person, like one of my mentors, so for you, a walk beats the Simpsons every time. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s 5:00 right now, and if I don’t walk during the day, then I can’t sleep well at night. Insomnia has a very strong negative coefficient attached to it that ultimately balances the entire equation in favor of the walk.
Everything is interconnected, and everything can be mapped to this utility function. Of course, no one has ever done this – no one has ever attempted to diagram every possible variable in the universe onto their own utility function. The point is, theoretically they could.
Sidebar about compassion because I can’t help myself
We can’t ever see someone’s equation, but the choices we make are a clear outward manifestation of the values that make us who we are. And we are all just trying to maximize our individual utility (happiness) as well as we can with the information we have.
We are all the same in this regard.
Here’s where the compassion comes in. When you understand that everyone else is just doing their very best with what they have, just like you, it’s easier to see them as comrades than as the antagonists they may otherwise seem to be.
That micromanaging boss of yours? He’s just trying to minimize the likelihood he’ll take the negative utility hit of a mistake presented to the client.
That difficult client who won’t give you the data you need to do your analysis? She’s just trying to reduce the likelihood that her utility will go through the floor if your work leads to her downsizing.
Those people who do unspeakable things to masses of strangers in the name of some ideology? They are just trying to maximize the utility they get from respecting their personal sense of justice and restoring a sense of individual power in a world that feels out of their control.
You don’t have to agree with them, like them, or condone what they do. But the utility function should at least help you understand it. To understand their perspective.
Back to being selfish
Even altruism is fundamentally selfish.
Remember, everything is on that equation. Gary Becker was the first person to introduce alpha – the altruism coefficient – into the individual utility function. It’s right there next to TV shows and ice cream. It’s only logical – if you didn’t derive utility (AKA happiness) from something, why would you choose to do it?
So….How much utility do you get from helping others?
That is your altruism coefficient, your alpha. The bigger it is, the more “generous” you are.
Whether your alpha is big or not (hopefully it is)…
You have to show your preferences in job interviews
Human beings are pretty smart. Whether we admit it or not, we all know that this is how things are. We know that motivation stems from personal wanting, and that we're all basically like this baby, just greedily stuffing our individual faces in the delicious cake of life.
There has to be something you want that would make you do something absurd like wake up before 8 AM, put on a tie, commute to an office building, and sit in front a computer all day.
For you to do all of that in the first place – never mind do it well – it needs to be correlated with something on your utility function that has a high positive coefficient. Because let’s face it, few of us like waking up early, wearing ties, or commuting.
In the old days, money was frequently enough. We traded tie-wearing and commuting for money, which we then traded for ice cream and bigger and bigger TV sets. And while all of us still derive positive utility from this kind of transaction, for a lot of us, it’s not enough anymore.
With developed economies enjoying multiple generations of humans who haven’t really had to worry about their personal safety or where their next meal was coming from, our collective utility functions have expanded to include stuff like personal growth, creative self-expression, having an impact, and fulfilling our individual sense of purpose in life.
No one can ever really know your equation, but ultimately…
Your utility function is what employers want to know when they interview you.
Because if they knew that, they could predict your behavior under any circumstance. Although behavioral interviews focus on your past experiences, what they are really designed to uncover are the choices you made.
Employers know you have selfish personal goals, and the more aware of and honest about them you are, the more you will be able to show fit with the company. Here’s an example.
Why do you want to work for our company?
Your answer to this question had better be selfish, because otherwise, the interviewer won’t buy it.
What you say had better include some of your personal preferences in detail. It had better connect those preferences to the specific demands and experiences of the job. And it had better do all of that in a way that the interviewer can understand.
Why do you want to work for this company?
I love the product you make and I want to help it be successful.
Boo. This is dishonest. I mean, really? Your one precious life’s greatest purpose is pushing more shampoo/dog food/cell phones/cloud computing space/whatever?
Maybe you like the product, but that’s still only part of the story.
Why do you want to work for this company?
The next phase of my professional growth will enable me to manage a specific product so that I can work my way up to P&L ownership. Your company not only produces a really compelling product for a customer base I am familiar with, but this role will also give me the chance to gain a much better understanding of how product innovations and marketing decisions influence customer behavior. I can’t wait to…
Something more like this is a winning answer. Because it shows specifically how the company and job aligns with your personal preferences and desires.
This is the secret to presenting yourself as the ideal hire: show them that your utility function is highly correlated with the experiences, benefits, and challenges the job provides.
Because we’re all essentially selfish, the hiring manager knows you will do a great job if what you want requires you to do so. And as my friends at this year’s birthday party experienced, it’s much more enjoyable for everyone when you do good (work) because it makes you happy, not simply because it’s awkward not to.