Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

It’s OK to Be Selfish at Certain Times. Here’s When and Why

What research on the most moral people in the world reveals
By William Fleeson — August 31, 2022 1 min read
How do I help students think about being selfish versus helping others?
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This is the first in a two-part series on morals.

How do I help students think about being selfish versus helping others?

I’ve had many conversations with students who feel confused about how to do the right thing—for themselves and for others. Here’s something I wrote about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

A student once told me he wanted to be a doctor so that he could help others. But getting into medical school meant being ultracompetitive in college, and he didn’t want to hurt others in the process.

How could he become a generous doctor without first being a selfish careerist, he wondered.

You might expect that the most moral people in the world (think Gandhi or Mother Teresa) are strongly motivated by helping others and not at all self-serving. Such a lopsided motivational profile is what makes them moral, right?

Not so, it turns out. A study of the most influential people of the 20th century found that the most moral people have an integrated motivational profile.

An integrated motivational profile is one that includes both self-serving and other-serving impulses. Neither is dominant nor atrophied. People with an integrated profile are highly motivated to take care of others, but they are also highly motivated to acquire power and resources.

In an integrated profile, these two motives work together in a particular way: The self-advancing ones help the person get power and resources, so that the power and resources can be used to help others. The ultimate goal is to serve a larger purpose, but the person recognizes that they can better help others by getting power first and then applying that power in the service of others.

When I explained this to my student, his shoulders relaxed with relief and his face brightened with excitement. He realized at that moment that pushing hard to succeed in medical school was not antithetical to doing good, but perhaps even essential to his higher purpose in life.

Don’t believe that doing things that make you happy is always a bad thing.

Do pursue self-advancing goals so you can use your power to help others. When the larger purpose is the benefit of all, what’s good for you is good for everyone.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Cellphone Headaches in Middle Schools: Why Policies Aren't Enough
Middle schoolers' developmental stage makes them uniquely vulnerable to the negative aspects of cellphones. Policies alone won't help.
6 min read
A student holds a cell phone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
A student holds a cellphone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Student Well-Being Teachers Want Parents to Step Up to Curb Cellphone Misuse. Are They Ready?
A program from the National PTA aims to partner with schools to give parents resources on teaching their children healthy tech habits.
5 min read
Elementary students standing in line against a brick wall using cellphones and not interacting.
Student Well-Being Schools Feel Less Equipped to Meet Students' Mental Health Needs Than a Few Years Ago
Less than half of public schools report that they can effectively meet students’ mental health needs.
4 min read
Image of a student with their head down on their arms, at a desk.
Olga Beliaeva/iStock/Getty
Student Well-Being Download How to Spot and Combat Student Apathy: A Teacher Resource
A guide to help teachers recognize and address apathy in the classroom.
1 min read
Student reading at a desk with their head on their hand.