Self-interest and your small business

Mark Forster has an interesting post on acting in one’s self-interest. As he correctly points out, this is often taken to mean “do unto others, before they do unto you.” But as Mark explains:

In fact this is the very reverse of acting in one’s own best interests, since it can hardly be thought to be in anyone’s best interests to alienate other people so that they will not cooperate.

The results of confusing acting in one’s own best interests with a narrow mean-spiritedness are disastrous.

Business is a perfect example of this principle. We own a business with the goal of making a profit—we are pursuing our own self-interest. But we cannot achieve this if we charge outrageous rates, attempt to underpay employees and treat them poorly, cheat customers, and engage in other activities that might seem to have short-term “benefits.” The result of such actions is that we will have difficulty getting customers and keeping employees, which ultimately is not in our self-interest.

Acting in our self-interest means looking at the big picture and the long term implications of our actions.  A classic example is a college student who faces a choice between studying for an important exam or going out with his buddies. Hitting the town for a night of partying can certainly seem appealing, but if he fails the exam it would harm his grades and could ultimately impact his career.

In business we must often choose between the short-term and the long-term. If we want to truly act in our self-interest–to achieve our long-term goals–then we must recognize when the two might conflict. And we must act accordingly.

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