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Skateboarding accident #2: Every system is inherently selfish.

Fully internalizing the fact that viable external systems are inherently selfish and pursuing their best self-interest is a liberating act towards intentionally leveraging them for your own self-interest.

The pain from falling off my skateboard led me to deduce the emotional pain I had been feeling from realizing that all systems are selfishly optimizing for themselves. A system is trying to improve itself as a selfish gene, choosing what is best for itself, not for its users.

What do I mean by a system? Any institution, a construct, an entity. Almost all we do throughout our daily lives interact with large systems: school/job, government, services, etc.

Naturally, the fact that a certain system exists in most cases means that it has been doing well tailoring its behaviors to its survival. A business is a form of a system that will only exist if it manages to survive and pass on its genes of products/services. So modern society is an evolutionary playground where ideas and businesses compete for survival.

Despite knowing that it is crucial for the system to be selfish to survive, we humans, each a system of our own, often naively rely on the external systems to optimize for us. Coming to Vanderbilt, I was hoping that I can hand off my education to this business. When I come to the hospital, when I use an app, watch Youtube, I am naturally naively buying into the idea that those businesses sell me: it is created for my good. The extreme competition for my attention and money happening on the world’s playground makes me want to become a savvy user of the systems I interact with. That means I must in my heart understand and internalize that each of those systems is selfish and is NOT pursuing my interest.

Although this realization is simple it’s also painful. It hurts to realize that I was fooled by my own desire to feel taken care of and believe in the good. Moreover, it does take a level of canny discrimination to see the truth of things through the noise of what you are told. I will continue to use my Vanderbilt example: as a freshman, you are told things such as “I will be there for you”, “we want you to succeed” and “it is all for you” from various university entities. I took all of those at face value, not realizing that “good for you” means whatever is good for Vanderbilt as a private business to continue building its wealth. To seemingly act in people’s best interest is extremely effective for surviving as a business because of how strong the “your interest” appeal is.

To extrapolate from my example, let’s see the wider picture of this principle: Netflix optimizes for itself as a system (it’s best for them when you choose to watch more), Amazon makes it more convenient to buy (its best when you feel comfy buying more), Instagram/TikTok are engineered by small armies to make it fun to be on the platform (the more time you spend, the more likely the ads are to reach you), etc. But neither of those systems is designed to improve my life. It is designed to continue surviving and scaling. Similarly, each driver on the road is trying to pursue their way and not watching out for my skateboard. My college counselor was optimizing for what would make him survive as a counselor (meaning no graduate is left unplugged into some college). He was not choosing what is best for me as Mariyam.

It is also scary to realize that nobody is watching out for me and trying to give me the life I want. Even my parents are watching out for their self-interest in seeing their child be happy rather than doing the things I want to do. Each of the systems can aid us in achieving our personal goals but at the core, they are driven to survive themselves.

Lastly, this principle is also extremely liberating. Since everyone is pursuing their self-interest, you should too! I mean self-interest in its best sense: it is not necessarily greedily consuming resources but more so actually performing actions that are good for you holistically, making you survive, thrive, and pursue “the best life possible”. Understanding this principle will aid you in carefully leveraging other systems to make them benefit you while pursuing your self-interest.

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