Compassionate Selfishness

Ever heard this story?

A man is walking along a beach where thousands of starfish have been washed onto the sand. He sees another man, scooping and bending, then hurling something out to sea again and again. When he catches up, he sees that the man is throwing marooned starfish into the water.

“There are too many to save,” said the first man. “What you’re doing is meaningless.”

The second man flings another starfish into the water, looks at the first man, and smiles. “It certainly meant a great deal to that one.”

If that seems entirely too New Age and hippie-dippie to you, maybe you’ll like this story better:

Two guys are hiking and they see a grizzly bear, who starts to chase them. The first guy starts running.

“What are you doing?” shouts the second guy. “You can’t outrun a grizzly.”

“I don’t have to outrun the grizzly,” the first guy yells over his shoulder. “I just have to outrun you.”

It amuses me that these are essentially the same story.

Despite our earnest do-gooder yearnings, sometimes not everyone makes it. That’s not a reason to give up.

If you want to save the world, paralysis and inaction are completely unhelpful. You’ve got to just start somewhere. And you might as well start with yourself.

Survivor guilt

So many are having a brutally tough time finding a job, or they’re consumed by anxiety about keeping the job they have. I have many friends in those ranks.

A few have more work than they can handle. They’d be pretty relaxed except they have an awful lot to do. But they’re smiling. I have friends in those ranks, too.

One of the most pernicious barriers to success is avoiding moving from the first group to the second, because you feel bad for for surviving, or even thriving.

You feel bad for the guy closer to the bear.

The answer, however, is not to lie down and let the bear maul you too.

No one benefits if you fail

The bear doesn’t even actually want to eat you. It just feels that way, with his hot breath at the back of your neck and the graze of his claws against your shoulder blade.

You may run a business, or be employed in one. You may be trying to put your dreams into action and start a business. You may be among the ranks of the newly unemployed, trying to figure out how you’re going to stay afloat.

You may feel a lot like a stranded starfish, with no compassionate philosopher to fling you back into the comfortable sea.

Please know that no one benefits if you fail. You collect no karma points by standing idly by while the economic meltdown engulfs you. You have to get strong before you can help anyone else.

We all feel like sitting down and giving up sometimes. Then we stand up again and keep working. It’s what human beings do. It’s how we’ve come this far.

You have every right to survive. You have every right to rescue yourself.

Teach yourself. If you can’t afford the expensive guru classes, create your own class using the amazing amount of free information we have now. Write your own success map.

(You can start with one of these, if you like. They’re free, and honest-to-goodness, I won’t spam you or sell your email address to a Romanian meth lab.)

Keep going

Your success is going to be a lumpy, funny-looking little thing at first. Keep at it. Your first eBook, your first consulting client, your first blog posts, your first podcast might not be thrilling successes.

What other people call failures, you’ll learn to call fascinating experiments.

Learn from everything you do. Keep doing projects that are a little bigger. Keep figuring things out.

Quit talking to people who tell you it’s a pipe dream, or too risky. Or that it’s pointless, the starfish are too many and there’s only one of you. Right now, you can’t afford the luxury of pessimism and whining.

Learn to fling yourself back into the sea.

People who can help

There are thousands more fantastic resources for each one of these that sprang to mind this morning. Can you do me a favor and let us all know about your favorite survival tactic in the comments?

(More about the real starfish story here.)

Flickr Creative Commons image by Misserion

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  1. Joely Black says:

    You know, it’s always reassuring to have somebody say “It’s OK to be successful.” And that it benefits others to continue to be successful. Thank you – and thanks for the great resources.

    Joely Blacks last blog post..What you can’t see, they certainly can

  2. Naomi Niles says:

    So true. And if you really want to help other people, you have to get yourself in a position to be able to do that first.

    Naomi Niless last blog post..Crowdsourcing and Spec Work – My Thoughts

  3. Joanna Young says:

    I swear you get more brilliant with every piece you write.

    I love this:

    “Learn to fling yourself back into the sea.”

    Thanks for giving so many of us so much confidence to do just that.

    Joanna Youngs last blog post..Writing With Rapport on the Web: Spider Plant Babies and Sticky Writing

  4. And do what you can to speak to yourself kindly – like you would a dear friend – and comfort yourself in healthy ways so you can know, at least some of the time, that you really are okay and you really do have what it takes to be successful.

    It’s so easy to skip doing the things that make you feel better when you are freaking out but those are when you need them most.

    Anxiety and fear want you to believe their bullshit – they are lying. But you have to keep remind yourself they are!

  5. Hey, thanks for this. Seriously. I’m doing well, and I feel guilty frequently because others aren’t.

    Recently a good friend of mine faced homelessness – like, he didn’t even have bus fare. I felt horrible. I was scared *for* him. And I did what I could, and I sent him money.

    Then I realized, what if next month he needs more? What if another friend needs money? What if a whole bunch of people start looking to me for help? Is this just the beginning? How bad will it get? What will I do?

    I thought about it long and hard, and it was difficult. I can’t help everyone. I wish I could, but I really can’t. It does no one any good if I go under trying to save everyone who needs help. I have the right to keep myself afloat and look to my family first. It was hard – very hard – to accept that.

    I do help who I can. I use the blog to give info that helps people earn money. I help hopefuls build businesses. I give pro bono consults and mentor many. I do what I can.

    So… Thanks for telling me it’s okay to keep on this way.

    James Chartrand – Men with Penss last blog post..The Magical Whiteboard and the Fruits of Labor

  6. Conor says:

    Brilliant post. Pure refreshment :)

    Thank you.


  7. Judy Dunn says:


    This is absolutely wonderful advice. As usual, you have decosnstructed this issue nicely for us.

    I, too, especially coming from a teaching/social service/humanism background, have had these feelings. But what I notice lately is that the more I succeed and the more positive encouragement I give to others, the more it pulls them up and motivates them to keep on keeping on.

    I have struggled with the same feelings James has so eloquently communicated.

    I had heard the starfish story before but had completely forgotten it. What a terrific analogy. Thanks for all you do, Sonia, to keep us anchored in hope and optimism.

    Judy Dunns last blog post..Twitter in a Sound Bite World: How a Single Tweet Can Offend a Follower

  8. Karyn Romeis says:

    During the Rwandan crisis, at a time when Ethiopia’s famine was also big new, I was living in Cape Town. I would watch the news reports and whimper. I couldn’t stop watching because I felt that this would be a callous betrayal of those in desperate straits. I felt utterly helpless.

    Then, like James, I had something of an epiphany. I realised that it was in power to change the lives of a few people. I needed to bloom where I had been planted.

    So I ‘adopted’ a prostitute who used to tout for business/beg on a corner I passed regularly, with her baby on her hip. I used to take her fresh food and clothes for the baby.

    I also lobbied for a very poor school near my home, getting donations from local businesses. Not money, but school supplies. It was such a drop in the bucket, but if we all take care of our drop, pretty soon we fill the bucket.

    The thing is, in Africa, where the disparity between have and have not is so wide, one person can make such a difference. Since we moved to the UK, where people who are called poor have indoor plumbing, electricity and several mod cons, I feel less useful.

    Here, I feel as if all I can do is keep working, keep earning, keep paying my taxes and my tithe to the church and hopefully, this will constitute my drop. But it is easy to feel survivor guilt.

    Karyn Romeiss last blog post..pic of the day – mallard

  9. Jon says:

    My favorite survival tactic is imagining the worst case scenario… and then accepting it. Here’s an example:

    When I was in college, I went through an extremely rough patch for about six months. Both my mother and father lost their jobs, and we didn’t have ANY money. I managed to get a few odd jobs designing websites, but it wasn’t much money. After paying for gas to get back and forth to school, I had about $.33 per day left for food, which is actually enough, if you’re willing to get creative.

    Professors and friends started asking me if I was going to drop out, and although I considered it, I never did. You know what kept me going? The idea of grilled goose. We lived next door to a small park, and they were all of these geese walking around. People came and fed them, so they were pretty domesticated. You could walk right up to one, and it wouldn’t run away. There were also these free charcoal grills anyone could use for a picnic.

    It sounds awful, but I figured if the ABSOLUTE worst happened, we could sneak over and start killing the geese at night, and then grill them right there in the park. Then I could use public transportation for school. It would take two hours each way, but it didn’t really matter. I was an English major, and I could always read on the bus. Either way, that would take care of my food and transportation, so in my mind, everything would be okay.

    It never happened, of course. But just knowing that if absolute WORST happened, that I could still move forward, it gave me peace. I ended up graduating with a 3.96 GPA and getting a six-figure job straight out of college.

    For others, maybe it’s something different. Maybe your worst-case scenario is living with your mother, going on food stamps, or having to accept some dead-end job. If you can accept that, and realize that you’ll survive, even if the worst-case scenario happens, then I think it’s a lot easier to keep moving forward. It’ll clear your head of all of the fear and allow you to come up with a plan. It also shows is that you NEVER have to move backward. All you’re doing is trudging down a rockier path for a while.

    Whatever happens, there’s always the geese in the park (or whatever your safety net may be). If you can accept that, and I mean TRULY accept that, then I believe you can find the courage to do anything.

  10. Lovely use of this story. In shifting tides like this, especially if they are ebbing in spots for the moment, there’s lots of exposure, bare rocks, anemones, captured crabs, or urchins. Starfish. Oh they were all there before, but without the water, the flow is not so easy going. The ease of capturing dinner requires a little more effort, or perhaps some fasting, or you have to know where to go to feed. So go there. Feed. And let it trickle down and up and over.
    I try to look for success stories. For the other part of the curve. Wish the media would do the same.

    Janice Cartiers last blog post..Oranges Go Here

  11. Terry Heath says:

    I don’t usually quote Marianne Williamson, but I previously heard the hippie-starfish story in the same context as I came across her writing. Your post reminded me of A Return to Love where she wrote:

    “We ask ourselves, who am I to be -
    brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
    Actually, who are you not to be?”

    Terry Heaths last blog post..Synergy and Three Little Maids From School

  12. Charlie says:

    Thanks so much for writing this, Sonia. I’ve been struggling for the last little bit because things are starting to look up for us, and there are many people who haven’t made it and probably won’t. And I sometimes feel especially guilty about doing so well after my deployment when others are still troubled by what they went through.

    “Please know that no one benefits if you fail. You collect no karma points by standing idly by while the economic meltdown engulfs you. You have to get strong before you can help anyone else.”

    I needed to hear this today – and I’m so glad you linked to me and I saw the link before I would’ve started reading for the day. Thank you for throwing me back to the sea.

    Charlies last blog post..Illuminated Mind: The Lie of The Four Hour Work Week

  13. Sonia Simone says:

    Thank you all for such beautiful responses.

    @Joanna, of course you found my favorite line.

    @Jennifer, such a good point. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, trying to be gentler with myself. Some days it works, some days less so.

    @James, you’re doing great. It is scary to help sometimes, you get that gnawing worry that there will be too many hands held out, that you’ll be overwhelmed.

    @Karyn, I love “if we all take care of our drop, pretty soon we fill the bucket.” I donate 10% of my income to charities that do work in the poorest parts of the world precisely for that reason–a relatively small amount of money can make huge changes. But also, just being kind and giving people a hand when they are stuck can make a world of difference. Just keep taking care of our drop.

    @Jon, I am going to give you such a hug. I love that. Amazing.

    @Terry, I thought about that quote quite a lot as I was writing this. It’s kind of a self-help cliche, but it’s also spot-on true IMO.

    @Charlie, you , also, I am going to give such a hug. xoxoxox

  14. Karyn Romeis says:

    That quote that Jon uses was cited in full by Nelson Mandela at his inaugural speech. It didn’t sound even slightly cliched when he spoke those lines, simply because of the deep sincerity and unequalled grace of the man himself. Many South Africans think he originated those lines.

    Karyn Romeiss last blog post..pic of the day – mallard

  15. I would totally agree that you can only help others if you are in a state to do so. It reminded me of a scientific theory about evolution, so I blogged a little about it…

    James | Dancing Geeks last blog post..Selfish compassion

  16. nice sentiments here, I totally agree that the best way to help others is to help yourself first (but not by exploiting them).
    If you truly want the world to be a better place, take care of your own problems, get into a comfortable place where you are not consumed with your own problems…

    Darren Daz Coxs last blog post..Yea! an exclamation of joy

  17. Candice says:

    This post is amazing, it has given me much needed inspiration this morning so I’m going to go out there and fling myself back into the sea!!!

    Thanks again!!

    Candices last blog post..Running Strategy

  18. This is also a good lesson for those of us who have seller’s guilt – you know the whole “I feel icky charging money for this” thing. It’s okay to earn a living off our expertise.

    Alex Fayle | Someday Syndromes last blog post..Avoiding overwhelm and moving foward: Lab Rats Week 3

  19. JLibbey says:

    I love that you point out “no one benefits if you fail”. We are trying to do our bit to help out local non-profits by offering them free Spanish translations. Non-profits are really getting squeezed and we don’t want them to stop providing important information in Spanish to their Latino clients. We can’t fail because other people need our help.

  20. You have brought me memories of Romania. Working with street kids, the ones who, in some way, “chose” to be rescued felt quite a lot of survivor guilt.

    Miguel de Luiss last blog post..Thursday Haiku: Circle of spears

  21. Evan says:

    My survival tactic: have I done what I can?

    Evans last blog post..Valuing Suffering

  22. Auntie M says:

    This is a breath of fresh spring air!
    I’m a writer and the publishing business is in the pits, as you all well know. I’ve found inspiration from a web site called Screw; their section called Pub Crawl keeps the news coming in and the encouragement going out!

    Auntie Ms last blog post..In My Spare Time

  23. Vinodh says:

    Sonia, I got here from Rockyourday. I love your writing. I’ll be another regular reader here… Thanks for the post. I always tell myself – ‘every lil thing helps..’

    Vinodhs last blog post..Waiting Game.

  24. karma following :) you do good, you get good ;)

    Write a Writings last blog post..How and Why to Write a Book


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