A new book came out at the end of 2023 that you may want to read as you think what you want to achieve in the year ahead and beyond: Effective Egoism: An Individualist’s Guide to Pride, Purpose, and the Pursuit of Happiness, by Don Watkins. It’s not a business book but I’m reviewing it here because it is a unique self-help guide for those seeking to build the best life possible, particularly people early in their careers or those who are yet to begin them.
Effective Egoism is unique because it addresses deep philosophical and moral questions and integrates that with actionable, step-by-step guidance.
The book challenges altruism, the conventional view of morality exemplified by the effective altruism movement that teaches self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Watkins calls this “morality without happiness” (happiness for others only). He also challenges the opposite view of “happiness without morality,” or moral pragmatism, doing whatever you feel like, without guidance of any moral code.
Rejecting altruism or moral pragmatism as antithetical to achieving long-term happiness, Watkins makes the case for egoism, the moral code developed by Ayn Rand that guides us to pursue rational self-interest (which excludes sacrificing other people). Effective Egoism shows how to practice egoism effectively in all main areas of life, including career.
The book’s central premise – its first lesson – is that your life matters. Watkins argues that since you have only one life and it’s for you to live, you should make it the best possible: a life in which you pursue your long-term happiness. The six subsequent lessons describe how to do that:
- Take charge. Here Watkins makes the case for free will: you, and not some external forces, control your mind and emotions, and you can therefore direct your life. You must choose to think and act accordingly – if you want to really live and to be happy.
- Pursue happiness. Because of free will, we don’t have automatic knowledge as to what values (from food and shelter to productive careers and social relationships) happiness entails and how to achieve them. Watkins argues we need the guidance of morality – the pro-happiness morality of effective egoism that holds human life and its requirements as the standard that guides our choices and actions.
- Follow reason. Watkins explains that because it is our primary means of survival, reason is the first of the three cardinal values of effective egoism. By using reason – observation and logical thinking – we can discover the values that our survival and happiness require and the virtues by which we obtain them: rationality and its derivatives (such as independence, justice, and pride). Reason, and acting rationally, is the foundation of developing our character and skills for building the best life possible.
- Create values. This is my favorite lesson, by far the longest in the book. In over 60 pages, it delves into how to achieve the second cardinal value of egoism – purpose – through productive work. Watkins identifies the key elements of a fulfilling career and gives detailed guidance on how to develop one and excel in it. He also explains why we need to place our values in a hierarchy if we want to achieve goals and illustrates how to do it.
- Honor the self. This lesson explains that creating “a self and a life that you love” requires the third cardinal value of egoism – self-esteem – earned by practising the virtue of pride. Pride is an attitude or a policy of doing one’s best: consistently striving to practice the virtues that bring us the values happiness entails, such as a career, social relationships, and recreational pursuits. Besides rationality that guides using reason, such virtues include independence and justice that show how to deal rationally with other people – whom an effective egoist values.
- Seek pleasure. The last lesson explains why in the process of ongoing pursuit of values, such as the next career achievement or another goal, it is important to experience enjoyment of life as an end in itself, and how that can be done by seeking pleasure, through art or connection with others.
Despite addressing deep, potentially life-changing philosophical questions, Effective Egoism is written in a lively style and concretized with numerous examples from different contexts, many of them from the author’s own life. Besides its focus on the important question of building the best life for yourself, this makes the book a very engaging read.
I highly recommend Effective Egoism to anyone seeking to build, or to improve, their lives and careers. Its advice applies in any field, including in business – where creating and trading material values is the central purpose and the virtues of rationality, independence, justice, and pride are virtues crucial to long-term success.