Note: This essay is included in the anthology Rational Egoism: The Morality for Human Flourishing, which makes an excellent gift and is available at Amazon.com.
Author’s note: This essay is an edited version of a lecture I’ve delivered to various Objectivist community groups. It assumes some understanding of and agreement with the philosophy of Objectivism.
That we live only once is not speculation. This is it. This life is all we have. This fact, however, is not cause for despair; it is cause for action.
To quote a favorite ad, “It’s not that life’s too short, it’s just that you’re dead for so long.” Our time in life is substantial—we might live to eighty, ninety, or even a hundred years old—and we can do a great deal in the decades we have. But we are going to die. And when we do, that’s it. We’re done. So: What to do?
As rational egoists—as people who know that the moral purpose of life is to maximize our personal happiness—we want to fill our days and years with accomplishments and joy. We want to wake up every morning and pursue our values with vigor. We want to thrive in a career we love, in romance, in our recreational pursuits, in our friendships, and so on. In short, we want to make our lives the best they can be.
That’s easy to say. And, in a sense, it’s easy to do: Just think rationally and act accordingly. In another sense, however, it is the single most difficult thing in the world.
Making our life the best it can be is the only project that requires the harmonious use of all of our resources and capacities—physical and mental, personal and social—toward a highly complex goal for the span of our entire life. No other project comes even close to this in terms of its demands. In fact, all of our other egoistic endeavors are subsumed under this one. Whether we are performing brain surgery, or composing a symphony, or building a semiconductor company, or raising children, or learning to hang glide—all such endeavors are only projects within the broader goal of making the most of our life. Everything we do is but an aspect of this grand, all-encompassing goal.
To achieve the greatest happiness possible, we have to unify all of our choices, values, and goals into a single harmonious whole. This requires a great deal of thinking, selecting, planning, prioritizing, coordinating, reviewing, reevaluating, and so on. At every turn, we must gain or apply the necessary knowledge, use our best judgment, and act accordingly—with respect to the full context of our values and goals.
This is a huge subject, and, in keeping with the opening point, we have limited time. So I want to be clear about the scope of my talk. My goal tonight is to indicate the nature and importance of purpose (and related matters) in good living. My overarching point is that understanding and upholding the concept, value, and principle of purpose is essential to making your life the best it can be.
What is a purpose? It’s a kind of goal—specifically, a conscious, intentional goal, a goal chosen and pursued for a desired outcome. Not all goals are purposes. For example, although plants have goals, in that they act to gain or keep things (e.g., sunlight and water), plants are not conscious and thus cannot engage in intentional action. Only certain conscious animals can act purposefully. Nor are all purposes equal in significance or scope. Although dolphins are conscious and may act intentionally or purposefully in a certain respect (e.g., they try to catch fish and may even help people or other animals in trouble in water), such intentions or purposes are orders of magnitude different from the kinds of long-range, wide-range, conceptual goals that human beings choose and pursue—such as, “I’m going to create an institute for the study of the cognitive capacities of sea life.” A purpose in the sense that we are talking about here is a volitional and conceptual goal.
Although the concept of purpose is narrower than that of goal (in that all purposes are goals but not vice versa), purpose is nevertheless a very broad concept—broader than some egoists or Objectivists might think. And grasping its breadth is essential to employing this cardinal value toward maximizing our personal happiness.
Importantly, purpose is not the equivalent of central purpose. A central purpose is a kind of purpose, namely, a primary long-range productive goal, the central goal around which one integrates all of one’s other projects and goals.1 Depending on one’s age and circumstances, one’s central purpose might be completing school, building a business, advancing one’s career, raising one’s children—or working toward selecting a central purpose. But such goals do not exhaust the meaning of purpose. Purpose is much broader and much deeper than that, and, if we want to think clearly about how to live selfishly, we need to understand and employ the concept and value of purpose in all its breadth and depth.
To treat central purpose as the equivalent of purpose is to commit the fallacy of the frozen abstraction. It is to freeze the concept of purpose at the level of one of the narrower abstractions that is subsumed under it, and thus to omit from the broader concept all of the other crucially important kinds of purposes—purposes we need to conceptualize, embrace, and pursue if we are to live fully. Among the many purposes that are omitted from the concept of purpose by the commission of this fallacy is the moral purpose of life, which is the achievement of your personal happiness. That is not something you want to omit from your thinking!
Life is not all about work—it is all about achieving happiness. If we want to achieve the greatest happiness possible, we must pursue many purposes in addition to our central purpose. We must pursue romantic relationships, recreational activities, leisure activities, friendships, homes, vacations, adventures, and so on. These are not central purposes, but they are crucial, life-serving purposes. And if we want to make the most of our lives, we must see them as such, conceptualize them as such, and proceed to design our lives accordingly.
Religionists are right about two things: There is a designer, and he is intelligent. But he is not God. He is you. And what he designs is not the universe, but your universe: your life.
Living fully purposefully consists in intelligently designing every aspect of your life that is open to your choice. This means always acting with a specific life-serving purpose in mind—whether in regard to work, play, romance, or rest. Put negatively, it means never acting aimlessly.
Here’s a relevant passage you may recall from Atlas Shrugged:
“I don’t know what sort of motto the d’Anconias have on their family crest,” Mrs. Taggart said once, “but I’m sure that Francisco will change it to ‘What for?’” It was the first question he asked about any activity proposed to him—and nothing would make him act, if he found no valid answer. He flew through the days of his summer months like a rocket, but if one stopped him in midflight, he could always name the purpose of his every random moment. Two things were impossible to him: to stand still or to move aimlessly.2
“What for?” means “For what purpose?”
The question “What’s the purpose?” regarding any given endeavor is the question: “What does this mean for my life?”
Purpose, like reason, is fundamental in the Objectivist ethics because it is fundamental to good living. In a certain respect, purpose is even more fundamental than reason.
Reason is our basic value—but only because it is our basic means of achieving our basic purpose: that of living and loving life. This purpose necessitates reason, not vice versa. This purpose makes reason a value, not vice versa. This purpose is the end; reason is the means.
This means-end relationship holds not only with respect to our most basic purpose, but with respect to all of our purposes. We need to use reason if we want to succeed in our career—if we want to enjoy our recreational activities—if we want to establish and maintain good relationships—if we want to defend our rights—and so on.
Reason is, as Rand put it, “a purposefully directed process of cognition.”3 We think in order to gain knowledge of the world and our needs—so that we can act accordingly—so that we can achieve our chosen goals—so that we can live and love life. Reason is a value because it serves our purposes—and only because it serves them. To put it most starkly: Apart from our purposes, reason wouldn’t even be a value.
This fact in no way diminishes the value of reason. Reason, not purpose, is our means of knowledge. Reason, not purpose, is our basic means of survival. The only way to identify the requirements of life and happiness is by using reason.
The only way to choose or pursue valid, life-serving purposes is by means of reason. Reason is our supreme life-serving value.
So the point of my emphasis here is not to demote reason, but to promote purpose—or, more accurately, to recognize it for what it really is.
Recognizing the full breadth and depth of the concept and value of purpose is essential to understanding and embracing a closely related and crucial tool—the principle of purpose: the fundamental truth that, if you want to make your life the best it can be, you must be consciously goal-directed in every aspect of your life where choice applies.4
To say that this is a demanding principle would be quite an understatement, so, before we consider how to uphold it, let’s be emphatically clear about the answer to “What for?”.
What is the purpose of this principle? Well, it’s not to uphold the categorical imperative that “thou shalt be purposeful!” There is no such thing as a categorical imperative. There are only conditional imperatives, such as: If you want to maximize your happiness in life, then you must embrace the means to that end. The purpose of being fully purposeful is to achieve the greatest happiness possible.
At any time, in regard to any endeavor, without conscious reference to a rational, life-serving purpose, you cannot know what is good for your life or bad for it, whether in regard to crucially important matters or in regard to relatively trivial ones. Consider, for instance, cleaning your house. How clean is clean enough? Should you sterilize the place? Without a purpose in mind, you could waste a lot of time scrubbing tiles.
Consider exercising or working out. How much is enough? Should you make yourself as fit as an Olympian? You wouldn’t get much else done if you did. The question is: Fit for what? What is your purpose here? Are you aiming to win some major athletic competition, or are you just trying to stay healthy, energetic, and attractive? Your proper level of fitness depends on your purposes in life—and you can’t decide on that proper level without reference to those purposes.
Take studying philosophy. Which philosophers should you study? Which branches should you focus on? Which problems or questions should you tackle? How much time—if any—should you spend on this? Assuming you’re not a professional philosopher, if you spent as much time studying philosophy as professional philosophers do, your other values—such as your career, your business, your love life, and your health—would suffer severely. And if you are going to study this vast subject profitably, you need to know what you are trying to get from it so you can guide your studies accordingly.
How about the vital activity of introspecting? How much time should you spend on this? A few minutes per month? A few hours per week? Days on end? It depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Is your goal to routinely monitor your mental processes, ideas, and emotions so that you can think clearly and act accordingly? Or are you working with a therapist to unearth some deep-rooted psychological problem that is wrecking your life? Or are you doing research for a book you’re writing on the process and value of introspecting? Your purpose makes a difference.
If a person thinks or acts without respect to consciously chosen, life-serving goals, then he is proceeding either “from duty” (like a Kantian robot) or aimlessly (like a Kerouacian hippie). Either way, he is not being selfish—and he will pay the price. He will find himself either strapped by bogus obligations—or awash in a sea of concretes without the abstractions necessary to navigate life.
Your purposes not only guide you; they are you. There is no self apart from one’s purposes; there is no you apart from your chosen goals. What you choose to do and how you choose to do it is who you are.
If you want to make the most of your life, then, no matter what you are doing at any given time, you should know why you are doing it. You should know the purpose of the activity in relation to the full context of your values and goals. Whether you are designing an oil rig, or watching a movie, or receiving a massage, or running a marathon, you should know why—given the full context of your knowledge and values—this is what you should be doing right now. There is no “duty” to know why; there is only the fact that you live only once and that every precious, irretrievable moment of your life is spent either in optimal service of your life and happiness or in some suboptimal way.
Consider what this means in regard to the major areas of life.
The major areas of life include career, romance, recreation, friendship, and, if you have children, parenting. There are essentially two ways to approach each of these areas: fully purposefully or less than fully purposefully. What does it mean to be fully purposeful in one of these areas? It means to rationally determine exactly what you want—and then to selfishly pursue it to the best of your ability.
Take central purpose first. Have you chosen your career or education goals by reference to the full context of your values and options? Have you done due diligence here? Or have you fallen into your job (or, if in college, your major) because it was convenient or expected of you? Are you pursuing your central purpose with passion and rigor; are you thinking through every aspect of this crucial mission and putting forth your best effort at every turn? Or are you occasionally coasting in regard to this vital and defining issue? (Coasting here doesn’t mean doing other important, life-serving things in addition to your central purpose; rather, it means pursuing your central purpose in a less than fully selfish way.) Your central purpose is the main source of your self-esteem and happiness in life. Coasting is not a selfish option.
Take romance. Do you really know what you want in a romantic relationship—and are you making a concerted effort to achieve or maintain it? Or are you loafing on the love front? If you’re single, have you thought out the essential qualities you want in a romantic partner? Or are you relying on unexamined emotional reactions to potential candidates? Are you actively pursuing romance? Or are you waiting for it to knock on your door? If you have a lover, are you treating him or her as the crucial value he or she is to you? Do you express your love openly and justly? Do you work rationally to keep the relationship alive, fresh, exciting, rewarding? Or are you coasting in an emotional auto-mode of some sort?
Our emotions are crucially important—especially in the realm of romance—but they cannot tell us who is good or bad for our life, or how to establish or maintain wonderful, life-enhancing relationships. Only reason can—and only if we choose to apply it with respect to our life-serving purposes.
Take recreation. Have you chosen your recreational activities purposefully? Have you considered the relevant alternatives and zeroed in on the ones that are likely to bring you the greatest joy? Or have you just fallen into something by accident or mere convenience? Playing basketball might be a perfect recreational activity for you—or it might not. It depends on whether you’ve made the determination on the basis of selfish due diligence. If you just happen to play basketball because there’s a court near your house, then you might be (and probably are) missing out on an alternative that you would find more rewarding—perhaps kayaking or ballroom dancing or horseback riding—which you would discover if you were to approach the issue fully purposefully.
Take friendship. Who are your friends? With whom do you spend your precious social time? Who do you dine with, ski with, chat with over a beer? There are a whole lot of people out there. Do you engage with interesting, virtuous ones—people who deserve your company and bring you great joy? Or do you spend your time and energy in mediocre relationships—or worse? Meeting interesting and good people is not always easy, but hanging out with uninteresting or unethical folks is no way to make an effort. You can always visit a new coffeehouse, join a different gym, try a new hobby, or the like and meet new people in the process. If you want wonderful, life-enhancing relationships, you must make a conscious, purposeful effort.
If you are a parent, similar questions apply. Are you doing your best to provide your child with rational guidance, good education, and opportunities to explore his interests? Do you have a rational, purposeful approach to parenting? Or are you just winging it? The rewards of parenting are largely a result of the rationality and purposefulness of one’s parenting program.
Living purposefully means being thoughtful about everything you do. It means being fully intentional at every turn. It means living your life like it’s your only one—which, of course, it is.
It is a simple but profound truth that our time is limited and that every moment that passes is really gone forever. This fact gives rise to what I call the principle of non-neutrality. There is no such thing as a neutral action. Since the hours and days of life are limited and irretrievable, to spend any time doing something that is not good for your life is to act in a manner that is bad for your life. Any action that does not promote your life thereby squanders it.
This means that not only is drifting not pro-life; it is anti-life—and any degree of it is anti-life. To the extent that we are not acting consciously on behalf of chosen life-serving values, we are acting selflessly. And if we do not establish our purposes, organize them rationally, and pursue them accordingly, then we will drift; we will live less than fully purposefully—which means less than fully selfishly—which means less than fully happily.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we should panic if we find ourselves drifting. That would serve no purpose! Rather, it means that we should commit (or recommit) ourselves to living fully purposefully.
Living purposefully means seeing every moment of every day as a precious, irreplaceable part of an integrated whole—and acting accordingly.
What practical steps are necessary to live this way? One crucial step is to explicitly organize and prioritize our values and goals with respect to their relative importance to our life and happiness.
Consider a highly relevant passage from Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Bear in mind here that “telos” means “end” or “goal”; thus “teleological” means “goal-directed.” A teleological measurement is a value calculation made with respect to the relative importance of a number of goals or values.
A moral code is a set of abstract principles; to practice it, an individual must translate it into the appropriate concretes—he must choose the particular goals and values which he is to pursue. This requires that he define his particular hierarchy of values, in the order of their importance, and that he act accordingly. Thus all his actions have to be guided by a process of teleological measurement. (The degree of uncertainty and contradictions in a man’s hierarchy of values is the degree to which he will be unable to perform such measurements and will fail in his attempts at value calculations or at purposeful action.)
Teleological measurement has to be performed in and against an enormous context: it consists of establishing the relationship of a given choice to all the other possible choices and to one’s hierarchy of values.
The simplest example of this process, which all men practice (with various degrees of precision and success), may be seen in the realm of material values—in the (implicit) principles that guide a man’s spending of money. On any level of income, a man’s money is a limited quantity; in spending it, he weighs the value of his purchase against the value of every other purchase open to him for the same amount of money, he weighs it against the hierarchy of all his other goals, desires and needs, then makes the purchase or not accordingly.
The same kind of measurement guides man’s actions in the wider realm of moral or spiritual values. (By “spiritual” I mean “pertaining to consciousness.” I say “wider” because it is man’s hierarchy of values in this realm that determines his hierarchy of values in the material or economic realm.) But the currency or medium of exchange is different. In the spiritual realm, the currency—which exists in limited quantity and must be teleologically measured in the pursuit of any value—is time, i.e., one’s life.5
The crucial points here for our present purpose are: (1) Our fundamental currency in life—the thing we spend one way or another depending on the clarity and consistency of our value hierarchy (or lack thereof)—is our time, which is our life. They’re the same thing. (2) If we don’t have our values organized and prioritized with respect to their relative importance—and thus integrated into a noncontradictory life-serving whole—we can’t even think in a consistently selfish manner, let alone act in a consistently selfish manner.
The first point is relatively obvious: Our time is our life. What we do with our time—and how we do it—is what we make of our life. The second point, although not immediately obvious, is on examination true. “Should I go to the ball game this Saturday? Or should I go to the office and work?” Observe that the question cannot be rationally answered without knowing how these alternatives fit into the hierarchy and network of my other values, needs, goals, purposes. What is the nature of this ball game? Is my son or daughter playing in it? What is my situation at work? Is this Monday the deadline for a major project? What is the context here? What other values and aspects of my life are relevant to my making this decision? And, given that context, what matters most?
To think rationally—to think selfishly—we must organize our values hierarchically and refer to them regularly. Some of the elements of the hierarchy are relatively straightforward. Our career (or our need to choose one) is certainly going to be one of our top values, as are our health, our romantic interests, and, if we have children, our children. And each of these top values entails or implies many related values, elements, and aspects. Plus there are all of our other values—recreation, friendships, art, fitness, home improvements, travel, and so on—along with all of the aspects of these values and goals. If we want to think clearly about our choices, goals, and actions in life, we need to know how our values relate to one another. We need a value hierarchy that includes and accounts for the many things that matter to our happiness.
If I want to lose my gut or strengthen my quads or the like but don’t include this goal in my value hierarchy in a way that integrates with my other values, then I will not put sufficient mental attention toward this goal to generate the kind of physical effort required to achieve it. Likewise, if I want to travel but don’t include travel goals in my value hierarchy in a way that integrates with my other values, then I won’t be able to think clearly about travel or related matters; thus, among other problems, I may only fantasize about travel, rather than actually do it.
To make objective calculations and decisions about what is best for our life and happiness, we must establish and maintain a personal and rational value hierarchy; and we must refer to it regularly, review it periodically, and revise it as necessary over the course of our life. I discuss this process and related matters in detail in my forthcoming book, Thinking in Principles: The Science of Selfishness, but I’ll touch on a few essentials here.
The first thing to note is that mere desires are not the same thing as values. Values are not just things we dream about or long for; rather, they are things we act to gain or keep. The key word here is: act. If we dream about someday starting our own business but never take action toward making that a reality, then we don’t truly value it. Values are objects of actions.
The second and related thing to note is that we have a value hierarchy of some sort already, whether or not we’re conscious of it. Our existing value hierarchy consists of whatever we recently have been and currently are acting to gain or keep. This may or may not be the value hierarchy we want; it may not be consistent with our genuinely self-interested needs and desires. But if we have been taking action at all—which, of course, we have—then we’ve been allotting time to the corresponding goals and thereby assigning them relative value. Toward establishing and pursuing the hierarchy we want, the starting point is to identify the one we have and then compare it to the one we want so that we can see the changes we need to make.
To identify your actual value hierarchy, look back at the past few months of your life, observe how you have actually spent your time, and write down all the major time expenditures on paper or on your preferred electronic device. (Omit normal, healthy sleep hours, but include extra sleep necessitated by heavy drinking or the like.) Writing down these items is crucial because there will be too many units to retain otherwise, and because you’ll need to be able to see the big picture and all of its parts in order to make selfish use of the hierarchy.
What have you been doing with your time? If you’ve been working fifty hours per week at a job you love, then you’ve been valuing that job that much. If you’ve been working fifty hours per week at a job you loathe, you’ve been valuing that job that much. If you’ve been watching television for two hours per night, then you’ve been valuing the shows you’ve been watching—and valuing them above all other possible uses of that time. If you’ve been taking ballroom dancing lessons for a few hours per week, then you’ve been valuing those lessons above all other possible uses of that time. If you’ve been engaging with your lover in the evenings, then you’ve been valuing him or her accordingly. If you’ve been building an addition onto your house during the weekends, or going sailing on Sunday afternoons, or taking aikido lessons on Thursday evenings, or hanging out with friends on Friday nights, or sleeping all day on Saturdays—then you’ve been valuing that particular engagement to that extent. And so on.
Once you have accounted for all of the major time expenditures in your recent past, simply arrange the items with respect to the amount of time you’ve spent on each, and there, roughly, is your hierarchy of values. (There is also the matter of the quality of the effort exerted in these areas, but I’m setting this aside here, as our time is limited.) This value hierarchy may or may not portray the life you want to be living. But it provides an enormous value toward making change, if that is what you want to do.
(It is important to note here that although we may spend the majority of our waking hours working, one of the reasons we do this is that our work enables us to pursue all of our other values. Our work provides us with money for food, homes, and countless other material values; it provides us with self-confidence and self-respect, which improve all aspects of our life; and it buys us time to spend on recreation, leisure, and—most importantly—with the people we love. So bear in mind that the fact that we spend more time working than we do with our loved ones does not mean that we value work more than we value them; rather, it means that we recognize, implicitly if not explicitly, the integrated nature of our values and the causal relationships involved.)
With your actual value hierarchy in hand, you can fruitfully turn to your desired hierarchy. Here the overarching question is: What do you want to do with your time?, which means: What do you want to make of your life? The goal is to write down what you want in each major or significant area of your life, and to begin arranging these potential goals in an integrated, noncontradictory way—prioritizing the things you want most, subordinating the things that matter less, and eliminating or postponing the things that can’t be integrated at this time. (If you want to move to Denver and go surfing every day, something has to give.)
Your life is yours to design, and you can design it intelligently or otherwise. As an egoist, you want to design it intelligently. And your only limitation is the law of causality. You know the proverb that Rand said captures the essence of the Objectivist ethics—“God said: ‘Take what you want, and pay for it’”—that’s what this is all about. What do you want? And what must you do to get it?
The goal here is to put down on paper a blueprint of your ideal life—all the things you want to do during this one, limited, precious life you have—so that you can begin taking specific actions to design your life in the image of your selfish desires. Once you have both your actual and your desired value hierarchies in front of your eyes, you can begin to identify the changes you need to enact (if any) toward making your life the best it can be.
(For more on value hierarchies and related matters, including principles and techniques for breaking down complex goals into subgoals and ultimately into specific action steps, see Thinking in Principles.)
Of course, in addition to organizing and hierarchizing our desired values, we have to commit ourselves to doing our very best in pursuing and enjoying them. Given our time restraints, I can’t say much on this subject tonight, but I want to touch briefly on the essence of the matter and mention a few helpful principles and standing orders.
The essence of the issue here is that we have to commit ourselves to the virtue of pride—the virtue of upholding all of the virtues all of the time—the virtue of moral ambitiousness.6 Contrary to the tenets of fantasy philosophies (such as religion and Kantianism), moral perfection is not only possible, it is also necessary if you want to make your life the best it can be. Moral perfection does not mean never making an innocent mistake or an error of knowledge. Rather it means always using your best judgment given your knowledge. If your values are in selfish order, and if you keep them that way by adjusting your value hierarchy in accordance with your rational desires as a matter of course, then you can act in a consistently selfish manner—and thereby (literally) make your life the best it can be.
I assume that you are familiar with the major Objectivist virtues—rationality, honesty, integrity, and the like—so I’m not going to say much about them here. But I do want to point out the necessity and beauty of converting these highly abstract principles into more specific guides to thought and action—guides that take into account your personal needs, your personal context, your personal strengths and weaknesses, your particular purposes.
The precepts to always go by reason, never fake reality, always uphold rational principles, be morally ambitious, and the like are so abstract that if we don’t convert them into more specific principles of action, we are not likely to succeed in our efforts at upholding them. We need personal techniques, standing orders, and principles of action that work for us, given our specific circumstances.
I have developed several that I find very helpful, and I’ll present a few here just to indicate what I have in mind and how they work.
One standing order I use is “Go about your business.” I’m sure you are familiar with various “business and life” analogies, but this one—in conjunction with the Objectivist ethics—is particularly profound. Just as the saying “Time is life” is cliché but true, so too for “Life is business.”
Living consists in producing, consuming, and trading values—both material and spiritual. We produce goods and services, whether cattle or automobiles or medical care or the like; and we produce spiritual values, such as ideas, moral character, and self-esteem. All of this is currency in the business of life. As egoists, we are constantly producing and trading. We live by “doing business.”
Take “your business” here to mean your well-thought-out hierarchy of values, the full context of your circumstances, and the causes necessary to achieve your goals. This standing order—“Go about your business”—helps you to remain selfish when your immediate desires or emotions might distract you from the actual, considered hierarchy of your values and your plans to achieve them. For instance, suppose there is a party tonight that you would love to attend, but you have a crucial deadline tomorrow—such as a term paper or a business proposal—and you must work tonight to make it. Depending on the state of your subconscious, the thought of the party might be distracting—even seductive. It could even make you feel as though going to the party would really be in your best interest. The standing order “Go about your business” reminds you that you’ve already established what is in your best interest; you already have a plan. It reminds you that you’ve already thought this through, already established what matters most, already made the selfish decision. Thus, it frees you of the shortsighted temptation to commit what would in this context be a sacrifice.
“Go about your business” can also be helpful when the next task you need to do in some endeavor is unpleasant or infuriating—say, cleaning out your chaotic closet or having to attend a “diversity” training class where you work. Likewise, it can be helpful when the going gets tough—say, you lose a major customer or get fired or break up with your lover. Such losses can feel like the end of the world, but if you remind yourself of the full context of your values—of the master plan of which these are aspects—then you can refocus your energy on the positive and move forward.
As an egoist, “your business” is to be true to the full context of your selfish values by respecting their hierarchy and enacting the causes necessary to achieve them. Do you ever find yourself procrastinating? “Go about your business!” Watching too much television? “Go about your business!” Avoiding the gym? Dwelling on losses or misfortunes of the past? Spending too much time on Facebook? “Go about your business!”
Just as angel investors are looking for return on investment, so too are we ego investors. Our investment in life is our time and effort. The return we are seeking is a life filled with values and happiness. Where we choose to put our time and effort largely determines our success or failure.
Decide what you want, organize your values accordingly, and “Go about your business.”
Another business-oriented standing order I use is “Focus on the benefits.” This one helps with motivation—specifically, motivation by values or love as against motivation by pain or fear, the carrot as against the stick.
Why do advertising and marketing specialists recommend to businessmen that they “sell the benefits, not the features” of their products? The reason is that the general (and correct) assumption of the marketplace is that people are largely motivated by their selfish values, that they want to know “What’s in it for me?”. As Objectivists, we recognize the deeper truth that the only legitimate reason why we (or anyone) should do anything is because we can see what is in it for us. As Francisco insists, “What for?”
Do you need to wake up at 4 a.m. in order to work on that business plan before going to work so you can start your own company this year? Getting out of bed that early can be difficult. But if, when the alarm goes off, you immediately enact the standing order to “Focus on the benefits” of getting this thing done, you can draw yourself out of bed with relative ease. The trick is to picture the benefits as vividly as possible: that beautiful restaurant with the bougainvillea-covered pergola, your happy customers sitting at linen-topped tables ordering your best bottles of wine to go with your melt-in-the-mouth duck breast, the glowing reviews on Yelp and Urban Spoon, the financial security for you and your family . . . The aim is to focus not on the feature—in this case, the writing of the business plan—but on the reason you are writing it: the “What for?”. Once you are out of bed and have had some coffee, you can turn your attention to the feature, at which time you’ll find yourself pleasantly eager to write it.
Likewise if you need to motivate yourself to go to the gym at the end of an exhausting workday, “Focus on the benefits”: Think about the wonderful things that being fit enables you to do—and that you will do—from feeling healthy and being energetic when you wake in the mornings, to looking great in your suit or dress or swimwear, to skiing with your children when you’re eighty.
This technique does not make every effort a breeze; that’s not the point. The point is that when we have to do difficult things that are good for our lives, we need to use the best tools we have to motivate ourselves to act. One of the best tools we have toward this end is our love of our values. Motivating ourselves by appealing to them works. The secret to making this technique work is to visualize the benefits as vividly as possible. Try it. You’ll be surprised how well it works.
One more vital principle I use is what I call the 100 percent rule: One hundred percent of the shots you don’t take won’t go in. (This is adapted from hockey player Wayne Gretzky’s great line, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”)
I discovered this gem when I was single, and I applied it, among other ways, to various aspects of the process of seeking a great girl—and it worked. One hundred percent of the girls you don’t ask out won’t go out with you. But the principle applies to pretty much everything: One hundred percent of the schools you don’t apply to won’t accept you. One hundred percent of the business plans you don’t create won’t be funded. One hundred percent of the articles you don’t write won’t be published. One hundred percent of the scuba lessons you don’t take won’t move you closer to swimming through underwater worlds of wonder. One hundred percent of the flights you don’t book won’t take you to Italy. And so on. In every case, although taking action might not guarantee that you will get the value, it markedly increases your chances—and not taking action guarantees that you won’t get the value.
(For more of these kinds of highly practical principles and standing orders, see Thinking in Principles.)
Living fully purposefully means deciding what you truly selfishly want in each of the major areas of your life—and all of the lesser areas, too—figuring out what you need to do to get them, and going after them as if you live only once, because you do. It means filling every moment of your life with the pursuit of conscious, intentional, self-serving goals. It means being fully selfish as a matter of unwavering principle.
Is this easy? No. But you now have a few more vital tools toward that end—and the incentive couldn’t be better. Get busy living.
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1. Cf. Ayn Rand, interview by Alvin Toffler, Playboy, March 1964.
2. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Signet, 1992), pp. 92–93.
3. Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed., edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff (New York: Penguin, 1990), p. 32.
4. Cf. Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991), p. 298.
5. Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pp. 33–34.
6. See Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), p. 29.