An Ode to Selfishness

I am a woman in my early twenties, the beginning of what I have heard referred to many times as my “selfish years.” I am currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in what many individuals consider to be a “dying” discipline. I love philosophy; I love reading the 19th century existentialists, I love immersing myself in feminist theory, and I’m excited to develop a more in-depth understanding of phenomenology this year. Despite my love for this subject matter, however, my justification for pursuing this so-called “dying” field of study was purely practical: my undergraduate philosophy degree would best prepare me for law school. 

My desire to go into law felt like the right step to take; it would help me pay off my student debts faster after graduation,  make me appear successful in the eyes of my parents, peers and overall community, and I would be in one of the best positions to do advocacy work for women’s rights and sexual assault survivors, which is something I’m extremely passionate about. Furthermore, as a young individual who both then and now very much wants to make a positive change in the world, going into law seemed like the best career to pursue. While I ultimately chose to major in philosophy because I knew it would help me with my law school applications, this concentration of study was also my way of appeasing my own selfish indulgences early in my adult life, since I had planned on pursuing a high-intensity career immediately upon graduating from my undergrad. 

Fast forward to three years later, to me entering my fourth year of my undergraduate degree, with substantially more life experience than I had at 18 years old, a lot of which I did not anticipate having. Since beginning my undergrad, I have gained a much better understanding of myself; what causes me stress, how to best take care of myself and what makes me happy. After living through an especially difficult period, I have taken time to myself, travelled through Europe alone for a few weeks, found new things I am passionate about, rekindled my love for philosophy, and have gained a better overall grasp on how I’m able to best take care of myself and my life as happily as I can. This new focus on pursuing other interests is, for the time being, causing me to stray away from my steadfast pursuit of a “selfless” and fully-committed legal career, and into a more selfish way of living. 

Despite the word’s negative connotation, the term “selfish” is not inherently damaging. As a young person in my twenties, it’s normal for me to find myself predominantly concerned with making myself the best person I can be; how to foster relationships that help me thrive, what actions I can be pursuing that will set me on the right path for my career, and how I can ultimately make myself the happiest version of myself. It’s easy, however, to feel guilty for wanting to break away from a certain plan and pursue things that make me happy, yet don’t necessarily contribute to my career in law.

It’s helpful to discern two distinct types of selfishness—an existential type of selfishness, where we feel compelled to make our personal existence impactful in one way or another—and a type of selfishness where we invest in ourselves, striving for own personal happiness and fulfillment. I feel these two types of selfishness often conflict with each other for many undergraduate students; we feel compelled to pursue careers that will best allow us to give back to our communities, that will help us pay off our debts, and will make us appear successful in the eyes of our parents, peers and society, despite not feeling completely fulfilled by this course of action. By negating other goals and interests we may have, just because they don’t complement the career paths we are so intensely pursuing, it often happens that we forget to take care of ourselves and make the overall investment in ourselves that will help us flourish. We restrict ourselves in learning things that could help further shape ourselves, which ultimately curb our own sense of fulfillment.

I’ve often felt conflicted by these two types of selfishness. In the last two years of my undergrad, I’ve been overwhelmed and sometimes even discouraged in my pursuit towards a legal career—overwhelmed by the uncertainty of whether my efforts were taking me in the right direction, discouraged at the setbacks I have experienced in my undergrad, and discouraged because I felt like I was only putting time and effort into one thing when I had other things I wanted to do. I’ve been lucky enough this past year to have been able to take time for myself, travel completely on my own for three weeks, and discover new interests, none of which in any way is related to my career plan. By taking time to explore other things I’m passionate about, I’m fully investing in myself and contributing to my overall wellbeing. I am selfishly taking care of myself, however I am also setting myself up with a sense of fulfillment I’ll carry with me for years to come, which I am forever grateful for.