top of page

Chapter 9:

Everyone Is Massively Self-Interested

“Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
—Theodore Roosevelt


If someone shows you a group photo you are in, who do you look at first?

It is perhaps unfortunate but definitely true that we are all massively self-interested. You will often hear business people, especially those in sales, ask, “What’s the WIIFM”—an acronym for What’s in it for me? In my experience, I’ve never seen someone make a decision or take action unless they believed it was in their own interest to do so. That makes evolutionary sense: We are motivated to do what helps us survive and thrive. Even the most charitable, giving people are motivated by self-interest; their self-interest just happens to be different. But they still act in ways that feel personally beneficial, just like the rest of us overtly selfish bastards.


Rather than bemoaning the “social repugnance” of this fact, as David Foster Wallace put it (see below), it makes more sense to internalize it, because it happens to be fundamental to success and happiness, in life and in business.


First, though, I’d like to go back to Wallace, who balefully acknowledged this self-centered worldview in his masterful commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005.


Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute

center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely

think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive.

But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards

at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center

of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of

YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on.


It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural,

hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this

way are often described as being “well-adjusted,” which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.


Look, if I choose to think this way […] fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be

so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s

the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when

I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that

my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

Which is to say that if you are trying to persuade someone, you need to check your own self-centeredness at the door and make it about them. To do that, you need to use language and address topics that make clear what the benefit is to the client/person/whoever you happen to be dealing with. (19)

Back in the mid-1960s, Professor Warren Wittreich did foundational research on factors that maximized client engagement. He examined the topics professional services salespeople led with during client meetings and grouped them into two buckets: client-focused topics that were very much intrinsic to the client, and topics that were extrinsic—typically about the seller, his products, or his firm.

Guess which set of topics was vastly preferred by clients and resulted in more productive meetings, not to mention more sales?

Yet most of us, even salespeople, are more comfortable talking about ourselves and what we have to offer. Why? Because we’ve practiced talking about these topics all of our lives, and we are in control of the narrative and therefore less likely to be challenged. Even salespeople who swear they are talking about benefits intrinsic to their customers are typically wrong. This stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what a benefit is, as opposed to a “feature” or an “advantage.”


Here’s an example that to help you distinguish among features, advantages, and benefits whenever you are trying to convince someone of something.

  • Feature (what is it?):                             I’ve got a big umbrella (so what?)

  • Advantage (what does it mean?):       It easily covers two people (so what?)

  • Benefit (why is it important?):            You and I can walk to the meeting without getting wet


Often, we are so close to the features and advantages of whatever it is we are talking about that we assume the client can figure out the benefit to themselves on their own—that it’s obvious. But failing to make the benefit explicit up front is a big mistake. You don’t want to leave the logical leap from feature to benefit up to your customer, because you don’t want to make them do any work. For one thing, attention spans are tiny and getting tinier. And for all you know, the client might be running on two hours of sleep and no lunch and has just gotten reamed out by his boss.


So always explain the benefit to your client first. People buy into benefits and also the people who deliver them. Not sure if you are speaking in benefit language? As in the example above, ask yourself “So what?” (from the client’s perspective)  again and again, and you’ll end up with the benefit. Lead with that.

If it is of interest to your client, they may ask how that benefit is delivered. That’s when you talk about features and advantages, explaining the feature (what it is) and the advantage (what it means).


(19) I use ”client” as a catch-all for whomever you are sitting across from. It could be a boss, colleague, prospective customer, spouse, or child.

bottom of page