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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

This may seem like an odd blog entry, but it has been the topic of conversation over many dinners recently.

Although we are taught from a young age that being self-centered is a bad thing, I think that more people would benefit from being this way. Let me explain.

To start off, I am not suggesting that people should be selfish. I think of selfish as being “exclusively concerned with oneself.”

Being self-centered – in my opinion – is entirely different.

Centering is what you base your life on.

My parents are children-centered. For them, my sister and I are the most important part of their life. They live vicariously through us.

I have friends who are spouse-centered. They do everything in their power to please their partner.

Too many of my friends are work-centered. Their job is the most important aspect in their life. They get meaning from their career. It is no surprise that men are twice as likely to die during their first five years of retirement, than they are prior to retirement.

Others are service-centered. They give their lives to charity and others. They sacrifice their own well-being in the name of contribution. Oprah may fall into this category. One of the reasons she claims she put on all of her weight is that she did not spend enough time taking care of herself.

Which leads us to the benefits of self-centering.

Throughout your life, there is only one constant. You. Your children may pass away before you do. Your spouse may, in spite of all of your loving, leave you. Your job (as many people are finding out) is only temporary. Even service to others can be fraught with challenges.  If you center on someone or something else, you may be giving up control of your life.

Only YOU will be around for as long as you live.

Therefore, instead of centering your life on someone or something that may not be around as long as you, maybe you should try being self-centered. This gives you some level of stability in an unpredictable world. Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition – “independent of outside force or influence” – supports this notion.

Anyone who has flown on a plane has heard the flight attendant say, “If the plane loses oxygen pressure for any reason, the oxygen masks will drop down out of the small overhead compartment. If you are seated next to someone who might need some assistance, you should put your own mask on first, and then breathe normally as you assist the other person.”

Take care of yourself first. Be centered. Be grounded. Take control of your life and don’t get derailed by circumstances around you.

Being self-centered is NOT the same as being selfish. Those who are self-centered are NOT narcissistic, hedonistic, or self-absorbed. Because self-centered individuals are more grounded, they are able to give even more to others.  They have the potential to be even more generous and to make even greater contributions.

In some respects, this is in line with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Self-actualization (which is where I put self-centering) is the highest level, higher than esteem, love/belonging, safety and physiological needs.  Interestingly, creativity is listed under self-actualization.

What do you think?

P.S. I wrote this blog entry back in 2009 yet is appears to be my most popular blog post of all time. Thank you for taking the time to read this article. While here, please take a look at the work I do with innovation and problem-solving. 

P.P.S. Some may argue a more theological perspective. For example, Stephen Covey (of the 7 Habits fame) authored, “The Divine Center: Why We Need a Life Centered on God and Christ and How We Attain It.” As I try to avoid religion and politics in this blog, I’ll leave this discussion for another time.

  1. Stephen

    Good post. I suspect that the majority of people would agree with this argument (myself included) at a rational or conscious level but would in reality struggle to internalise this at a deeper day-to-day subconscious level.

    Before ‘Self-Centred’ comes ‘Self Acceptance’ and I believe most people in their adult lives struggle with the latter after a lifetime of knock-backs etc which are recalled to mind more readily than past positive experiences culminating in a dominant negative ‘mind chatter’.

    This is why most people attach themselves to jobs, families, communities, causes etc – anything that points the focus and attention away from having to rely on themselves.

    As they say: “The biggest resource in life is resourcefulness” – disappointingly most people go through a lifetime never getting close to tapping a fraction of their own.



    • Like my dad said he rather be selfish than self centered I totally agree what is being said
      Self centered is a good thing but people think being self centered is a bad thing so therefore am not selfish am self centered so to me it’s a good thing as well

  2. Steve

    Thanks for the great insights. Interestingly, I did not make the connection to “attachments” when I wrote this article. I have an entire chapter on the topic in my “Goal-Free Living” book.

    What you say seems to be in line with Maslow. Self-acceptance/esteem come before self-actualization. Love and belonging are below that. Hence it is easier to become attached to love and belonging, because you don’t need self-acceptance.

    As an aside, I do think there is a flaw in Maslow’s thinking. For TRUE love to exist, I think that you need self-actualization. Most love is superficial and self-serving. When love comes after self-actualization, it is less about “fixing yourself” and about creating something bigger than you.

    Thanks again.


    • Edward Stturney says:

      I have just been told I am self centered.. My girlfriend (about to be my wife) is going through a tough time health wise and I do any thing and everything I can I can to help her. I go without just for her. Have told her hoe much I LOVE her how much she means to me. Sometimes I will go without eating. Hardly sleep because she is always on my mind. I know only too well what it is like not being well. I am just finishing the last 2 years for cancer treatment.. Thanks for listening.

      • Stephen Shapiro says:

        Thank you for sharing that. I am not sure why someone would call you self-centered if you are doing all of that for your girlfriend. Having said that, I think centering on oneself is important. When you don’t take care of your self you can’t take care of others. It sounds like you know that all too wall from your past 2 years of cancer treatment.

    • Hi Stephen Shapiro
      I like being self cenetred because I like to be lonely at times and I care about myself and not caring about to other.Its good to be self cenetred I’m loving to get loved people on my own time and thank you so much

  3. Steve,

    Only you could take this stand and make logic out of it!!!
    Seriously, the term “self-centered” has such a negative connotation to me, I find it hard to get past that.
    But your perspective gives us something to really reflect on.
    What I find you are saying is self- centered is an integral part of “wellness” and that is a very positive concept these days.
    You have to take care of yourself first and foremost.
    A mentor of mine taught me “You are the CEO of You!” That really responated.

    Your writing is terriffic. Continued success and thanks for giving us something to really think about.


    • I just wanted to add on and say that when someone says to you that you’re being “self centered”, And you don’t agree, majority of the time; they are only seeing you from ones perspective, and that’s there’s. Often times, we tend to view ourselves in “their” perspectives but realistically, all that matters is how we view ourselves.

      • Stephen Shapiro says:

        Sorry for the delay in replying! I love your point of view. How we view ourselves is critical. If we are self-sacrificing, others may see that as positive (“hey, this person is so helpful”). But in the long-run it can lead to burn-out and worse. So over time a self-sacrificing person may not be able to help anyone – including themself. Thanks!

  4. Thank you Steve!! I’ve been saying this to my close friends for the past year!! We’ve equated (particularly women) being self-centered as being selfish. Giving our last dollar, energy, time so as not to appear “self-centered.” Thank you for giving voice to this.

    • Bob, I love the idea of self-mastery. I suspect that is the highest level of being self-centered.

      Ramona, you are so right. Women have a tendency to give too much – especially when families are involved. Only by taking care of yourself – and making you a priority – can you truly give to others.

      Fran, thanks for the kind words. Being self-centered is not only about wellness and taking care of yourself. It is about centering. Like in karate, you need to be centered to be powerful. If you force too much, you lose power. And if you are like a feather you have no power. Centering is what gives you power with minimal exertion of energy.

  5. “Self centered” – I like it. I had some guidance once that suggested I need to focus on me a little bit more instead of giving my all to others first. I pushed back saying “I don’t want to be selfish”. Their repsonse: “think of it not as selfish, but as ‘self-caring’.” That did the trick!

  6. I’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of employees building a personal brand that they leverage to benefit their employer, instead of allowing themselves to only be part of their employee’s brand. This trend I refered to as ‘personal innovation’ in article from January 2008 which you can find here:


    I hope it is useful in this down economy.


  7. I agree with you on self-centredness. You spoke about leaving out religion. But all religions began with self-centredness. The great prophets received their revelations when they meditate alone, totally self-centred. That’s where they began to ask questions about life’s purpose and their destinies after death. Their ephipanies then served as the basis of their teachings. Isn’t it all about self-centredness?
    Dr.YKK (Yew Kam Keong)

  8. . Being self-centered may imply, above all, the conscience of self-being, as a conscious living been, who, above all, deeply feels alive and find it good. Then, we leave through core values and beliefs. Ah, and affections. Not to mention impulses and instincts, regarding the efforts and some degree of welcomed sacrifices to protect our family. Children become an intrinsic part or us, of our self-being, and anything that happens to them will impact on our state of being. Then, being self-centered implies, also, an acquired sense of increased self-responsibility for others, meaning we, voluntarily, give up of some “self” to extend ourselves, instinctively, to reinforce the life of others. In the end, not all cultures are equally born from the affiliation point of view, nor in the way of what is seen as acceptable or not, regarding how we feel better with our selves and with the ohters.

  9. Alice, my pleasure! Thanks for the kind words.

    Dr. YKK (I am a fan of yours), I love your perspective. I never thought of it that way, but you are SO right.

    PRLdom, fascinating point of view. I like the concept of “extending the self” to include more than just your own physical being, the idea of “increased self responsibility for others.” The one challenge I have with this is the concept of “control.” We have control (to some degree) over our own actions and responses. We don’t have the ability (or even desire) to control others; they have their own self interests to look after. Regardless, your perspective is thought provoking and appreciated.


  10. Thks so much Steve, was just wondering if bin self center is same as bin selfish…
    Guess people need to learn to be self centered, to be able to have any substance to give to others.

  11. Hi Kemi…

    From my point of view, selfish is NOT the same as self-centered. They are often used interchangeably.

    Selfish, from my definition, means that your actions are truly coming from the point of view of your own self interest.

    Self-centered means using your life as the “grounding” to help you then play full out in life, making contributions.

    When you “center” or “ground” yourself on something other than your own life, you run the risk of losing that center if something goes wrong.

    Thanks for asking.

  12. thanks for the information on self-centered. family and friends thing that i am self-centered. but i am not. i am a late bloomer, but now i stand up for my self. individuals are not use to this behavior. oh well. i am enjoying it because i can be myself.

    thanks again,


  13. Nathaniel Drake says:

    I just recently got into a debate with my co-worker who is extremely alturistic. She feels that I am ego-eccentric and selfish. I am not however, I care about those who exist in my circle and for the general public in a certain aspects. I’ve always said, “That I have to care and do for myself in order to do for anyone else.” This has been my philosophy on life. I understand it better now that I have read this. I feel better now, I was being attacked by my co-worker and was told that I was a bad person. I now know that there is a balance between being self-centered and alturistic.

    • Stephen Shapiro says:

      Thank you for your comment. To some, this concept could be considered negative. But I think the key is to recognize that in our lives, the only possible constants will be ourselves or our beliefs (eg God). Parents age. Children go their own way. We lose our jobs. Relationships can end due to the passage of time, changes in feelings towards one another, or death. Looks fade. Our bodies give out. Our minds can also wither. But our soul will stay with us until we die. I am not advocating that we don’t put our love and devotion into others. But in the end we need to recognize that our self is the only constant. Thanks again.

  14. I’m thankful to you for clarifying and making a marked distinction between selfishness and self-centered behavior. I actually prefer the idea of self-caring! As a wife of 32 years and mother of five children I chose to lay aside career, personal goals, any and all selfish desires to dedicate myself whole heartedly to the life of my family. Though well intentioned, I now realize the error of my thinking. I almost lost myself! That would have been a terrible loss for all of us! There have been times when I had to pull away, nurture myself, get alone with God, I’m a Believer, and then return to my family so that I could continue to be of some worth and value in order to move forward to fulfill my commitments and obligations. Now, as a recent widow, having to come to grips with the unexpected death of my eldest child within four months of my husband’s demise, in addition to still having one more child to finish high school, I find myself in the position to release myself to self caring without the idea in the back of my mind that I’m being selfish in any form or fashion. I’m thankful that my son, Nathaniel Drake, shared this blog with me! He’s so far from being a ‘bad’ person. He may be a bit more altruistic than what he or others may think. The information and comments have been very helpful. What a paradigm shift this has been for me!

    • Stephen Shapiro says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your story. I am touched that you took the time to write and I am glad that my article helped clarify some thoughts you’ve had. It is a touchy subject as society tells us we need to be self sacrificing and give everything to everyone else. But in doing this we rob ourselves of our power – and our ability to contribute. Thanks again.

  15. Basant Mudgil says:

    Firstly Bravo Stephen for such a wonderful insight…

    What I think about self-centeredness is that people who seem self centered are those who have some well defined aims in life. These aims require their energy as well as continuous attention. They have several centers of focus in their life that keep them engaged. Such people, though they mix socially, seems aloof and absorbed. This internal busyiness of their makes them look self consumed that is often taken for selfishness. I myself have experienced this state of mind and seen people who take it wrong.

    • Stephen Shapiro says:

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. It is a tricky thing to call oneself “self-centered.” I hope that I make it clear that I am not referring to being selfish or self-absorbed. It also does not mean that you are not interested in the well-being of others. Exactly the opposite. The point of taking care of one’s self first is that it allows you to take care of others. If you stay in the “I’m the only one that matters” frame of mind, then that will certainly lead people to seem aloof or self-absorbed. I believe that if you take care of your physical, mental and spiritual well-being first, then you are in the best position to support others powerful. Being self-centered can be the greatest gift you can give others. Thanks again!

  16. Might be a self centered individual is more capable to give others but He/she ll never give anything to others bcz they cant realise nd understand others situation due to they love their goals nd they are limited in thmslf… to see the things bfully U must hv a bful heart , appreciating good things makes u bettr person ….live for others else no mattr you are dead or alive…

    • Stephen Shapiro says:

      Thank you for your comment. Please do not misunderstand my intention. I never suggesting that one’s own goals are more important than anyone else’s. I am only suggesting that when you take care of yourself, you are able to take care of others. “Centering” is what you base your life on. People who are “other” centered often burn out and lack an internal compass. Without this, they can not serve the world at their highest potential. I always look to make an impact on the world. And I want to be grounded when I do that so I can make the largest impact possible. Thank you again.

  17. Fabian Cardenas Sr. says:

    No matter how you twist it, self centeredness and selfishness are the same thing; focus on self, and that isn’t the answer to our problems…it is the source of our problems.

    • Stephen Shapiro says:

      Thank you for your comment. I believe that you are misunderstanding the point of this article. My greatest joy comes from helping others and being of service. But if your health, finances, or other aspects of your life aren’t working, you can’t be there to support anyone else.

  18. Robyn Robinson says:

    Thank you Stephen for your article; which is incredibly comforting and reassuring at an extraordinarily difficult time in my life. I am having to minimise contact with my grieving, narcissistic, abusive mother who has just lost her husband (second time in her life); as my support for her so far has left me a nervous, shamed, wretched wreck, with family members turning on me as well. Unfortunately society does frown on looking after yourself, especially in these circumstances. This article gives me some peace that looking after myself in the last half of my life (I am over 50), after an extremely abusive childhood, is a good purpose to have. I have always thought that the desire to contribute to others comes from this place of self care first, and finding the joy in life. And I would like to have joy and peace in my life after 50. Thank you so much!!!!

    • Stephen Shapiro says:

      I’m glad you found the article comforting. Taking care of yourself is critical. It is the key to being able to help others. I hope that you find peace and joy you so deserve.

  19. Urwashi Gupta says:

    Thank you Stephen,

    My father always taught me to think for others before thinking about yourself and he also practiced the same for his lifetime till now, but nobody else do so. I could never be self centered till now. I get derailed of my life many times or say I don’t like to be in my real life. All of my friends only comes to me when they are in trouble because they knew that I am the only stupid who will always there for them else they keep a distance from me. My friends say that I have not learnt anything from life. I am lazy. Can you suggest me something……

    • Stephen Shapiro says:

      It is important to distinguish being self-centered from being selfish. It doesn’t mean putting your needs above others. But it does mean taking care of yourself – and not putting everyone else’s needs above yours. If friends only take from you, I am not sure I would call them friends. To be clear, this is not my area of expertise. In this article, I was only sharing a personal perspective – one that works for me. You need to find what works for you – and maybe find an expert who can help. Good luck with this.

  20. I was so upset when my boss told me I’m self -center assuming I’m selfish.. I was heartbroken .why would anyone just judge me like that

    • Stephen Shapiro says:

      I am glad you enjoyed the article. You ask a good question. My experience tells me that those who are empathetic tend to be other-centric more often. They feel the pains of others and want take care of them. So the self-centeredness concept is probably more difficult for them. To be clear, that’s an opinion and not a fact. I do believe that when one takes care of their own needs, they are better equipped to help others. Whether the help others is then a choice. Thanks!

  21. You’ve got this all wrong. It’s self-absorbed that is OK. Self-centred is the one that is aligned to being selfish and self-serving. Self-absorbed is where you are currently pre-occupied with yourself and this does not have to be a negative thing – unless you spend too much of your time and life, being self-absorbed. You are trying to create a new meaning from an existing word / adjective. This is confusing.

    • Stephen Shapiro says:

      According to Webster, self-centered has two definitions: : 1) independent of outside force or influence : SELF-SUFFICIENT, and 2) concerned solely with one’s own desires, needs, or interests. My focus is more on #1. The old expression of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others is really what I mean. If you center your life around your work and you lose your job, you have no purpose. If you center your life around your spouse and your relationship ends, you again have no purpose. This does not mean you don’t give yourself to others. But in order to take care of others you must first take care of yourself. I look at self-centering as the opposite of self-sacrificing. It is not the same as selfish or self-serving. Having said that, all of these are words where definitions can be debated. My point is less about the specific words and more about the concepts. Thanks.

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