Photography by Jean Pigozzi from ‘Jean Pigozzi: ME + CO, The Selfies: 1972–2016’ (Damiani : 2017)

(Above : ‘Me + Lady Gaga’, 2012)

Jean Pigozzi (born 1952)—Italian businessman, art collector, philanthropist, and photographer—has been taking selfies for more than 40 years. Before the advent of the ‘selfie age,’ Pigozzi turned the lens on himself capturing his encounters with socialites, musicians, and Hollywood’s elite. This strangely contemporary collection includes dozens of famous faces, such as those of Mick Jagger, Faye Dunaway, Mel Brooks, Andy Warhol and Lady Gaga, all pressed against Pigozzi’s grinning face.

X-Ray Spex, 'I am a Poseur'

Exhibition is the name / Voyeurism is the game /Stereoscopic is the show/ Viewing time makes it grow

We are living in the age of the individual and the culture of microcelebrity. In a place where anybody armed with a selfie stick can become a brand, and any story can be sold to the highest bidder, we are the stars of our very own show. With the advent of this new lifestyle and the perpetual feed of abs, cash and perpetual paradise, this has ushered in a new era of the self and a virile brand of selfishness. Selfishness in itself is not a radical new concept. It is a behavioral trait that has evolved over the decades, painted first as a sin, and now as a modern day lifestyle.




In the era defined by the ‘greed is good’ slogan of the Wall Street trader, selfishness and the ruthless preservation of self-interest, was touted as a weapon that wielded power. A long time before millennials took centre stage, the journalist Tom Wolfe coined the phrase ‘The Me Generation’ to describe the generation of baby boomers who were finding their feet in the age of the self. Selfishness was understood as a way of living for yourself, presumably as a way of getting ahead.

Our contemporary understanding of the self has evolved, placing great value on the self-image. In recent times, it has become a way of earning validation and digital ‘likes’. The self-professed selfie queen, Kim Kardashian admitted: “I do rely on having a full face on”. With the rise of the selfie, this brand of self-image has facilitated a new channel for self-promotion and validation. As a by-product, it has also encouraged a rise in the associative traits – narcissism and self-centeredness.

(Above Left: Jean Pigozzi. ‘Faye Dunaway + Me’, 1974)


For better or worse, selfishness is a means of relating to oneself. It isn’t a radical, new concept, but it is undoubtedly more visible in our current times. It is a practice that places ourselves at the centre of our personal narrative. This in itself, could suggest there is more to explore in selfishness as a concept. Another way of thinking about selfishness and its inward looking nature, is that selfishness could serve as a way of nurturing a more empowering relationship with yourself. Speaking to Sarah Stein Lubrano from the The School of Life, we explore the motivations of human selfishness and how it can be understood as a tool that allows us to live with more meaning and intentionality.

does being ‘the nice guy’ get you to the top?

Beyoncé, 'Formation'

I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it

Faced with the Gordon Gekko characters and the financial moguls that stalk the rich list, the question we have to ask is – does being ‘the nice guy’ get you to the top? The stereotype dogging the big money makers is that they are, more often than not, entitled and heartless sociopaths with a knack for exploiting others. This golden formula has often been documented in the cannibalistic arenas of economics and politics, where the ruthless pursuit of personal gain is often rewarded with an upgrade in career and status.

In other arenas such as dating for instance, infamous sex-addict and pick-up artist Neil Strauss drafted his opus The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists as a manual for the modern day playboy. It taught millions how to become manipulative, self-aggrandizing narcissists as a means of tricking women into bed. His book skyrocketed to the bestsellers list and became a noxious bible for ‘players’ around the world. Many of its converts revered the book’s author for divulging his secrets. Strauss was a man who proudly described himself as “a selfish prick…a hot, rich, pampered intellectual with a big dick and a marathon tongue”.

Studies have suggested that rather than being an inherent trait, selfishness is a learned behaviour based on our experiences of the world. People could acquire selfishness through serial conditioning and consistent practice. Ultimately, despite Strauss’s psychologically disturbed profile, his method of The Game garnered overnight success because it tapped into the human desire for quick results. 


We are applauded for reaching our goals faster and smarter than anyone that preceded us. With a perpetual diet of sex, glamour, wealth, and influence just a button’s click away, we are taught that power is ours for the taking…if only we could just reach out and take it. The proclaimed ‘Queen of Pop’ Beyoncé, is celebrated as being the most successful and hardest working woman in music. Her image plays on the idea that her success is the simple result of her ruthless ambition and uncompromising work ethic. As the chiding meme reminds us, ‘you have the same amount of hours in a day as Beyoncé’, so, surely, success should come to us if we simply work harder at it? The answer is, not necessarily. This statement oversimplifies and undermines the true complex nature of success as a confluence of many shifting parts. These include many variables such as luck, life circumstance, and opportunity. With this in mind, we’ve all been fooled to believe that it is solely through a self-centred, unrelenting pursuit of personal gain that we can live the life of our desires.

(Above Right : Jean Pigozzi, ‘Andy Warhol + Me’ , 1986)


Misguided selfishness can grow out of the internalised pressure to be the best version of ourselves. Sarah comments, “People have this idea that they are going to do everything at once – find the perfect guy, whilst they are also running a start-up, writing a novel, going to the gym and getting enough sleep”. With this narrative running on repeat, it is difficult to hone in and focus on the potential for selfishness to instill a deeper sense of self and satisfaction.




Sarah Stein Lubrano, The School of Life

It’s a poor interpretation of mindfulness, or poor execution of mindfulness, that makes somebody selfish.

All things considered, we have to ask ourselves, is there any “good” in being selfish? In a culture where self-care is often misinterpreted as self-absorption, it is easy to muddy the water and conflate the two. The reason we have issues tapping into the positive potential of self-centering is that we struggle to recognise that there are two sides to being ‘selfish’. Where “bad” selfishness is a form of self-aggrandisement, “good” selfishness is an act of self-care. It is a private practice that focuses on nurturing internal validation and honouring the impact our actions have on others.

The last few years has seen shift in our understanding of mental wellness and the importance of cultivating more reflective practices. Evolving out of a culture of self-awareness and new discussions around mental health, positive self-rituals such as journalling and meditation, are examples of “good” selfishness in practice. As an emotional practice, this version of selfishness is structural, strategic and relies on specific principles. For this reason, we have broken it down into a series of steps that offer a more constructive take on being selfish.

(Above : Jean Pigozzi, ‘Me + Arnold Schwarzenegger’ , 1977)

The Guide to Good Selfishness

with the School of Life



Setting Intentions


Sarah Stein Lubrano, The School of Life

If we don’t start making decisions about where we’d really like to be, then someone else will decide for us.

The first thing we should consider is intentionality, or as Sarah explains, “we need to learn to be the ambassadors of our own intentions”. Casting aside any judgment about this as a selfish practice, we must learn how to take care of ourselves. By defining what is important and being confident with who we are, we will begin to feel a greater sense of meaning in our choices. By focussing our intentions, we commit to the right projects which will ultimately bring us closer to our #lifegoals. Taking the reins inspires an incredible surge of self-respect, drive and makes sticking to projects much easier. In order to give our full attention to the projects we deem important, we must learn to not to make new commitments without thinking about them properly first.  


Take time to reflect

Part of setting intentions involves actively setting aside time for reflection. Rearranging your calendar to spend an evening in your own company is sometimes exactly what we need. If you find it difficult to find time to do laundry, you’re probably overcommitting. By scheduling in downtime we are able to find clarity and space to consider the important stuff. How you choose to spend this time is completely up to you, just do what feels good. Perhaps it’s a long, hot bath, listening to records splayed out on the living room floor or a spot of morning yoga. These constructive personal rituals, stop us from burning out and losing our temper. When we are in high-dependency situations like parenting, intentional selfishness is an essential part of being a capable caregiver. The School of Life explains “this kind of reflection, is really important in the long run so we are steering, and not just running on autopilot.”


Learn to Say ‘No’

Air Steward Announcement

In the event of the cabin depressurising, secure your own oxygen mask first, before helping others.

Once we are in the driver’s seat, and we have set our intentions, we have to learn how to vocalise our intent. Uncomfortably, this involves saying “no”. Inviting this two-letter word into your vocabulary will have a huge effect on your emotional health. Verbalise it clearly, and keep the reason you have chosen to pass on an offer in mind. Regardless of age or status, you have to learn to believe that no matter how much multitasking and calendar merging trickery you pull off, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

If you have trouble turning people down or aren’t sure where to draw the line, it is a good idea to never say no to things straight away. Whilst there is an understandable impulse to leap to making plans, it lacks intent and can end up causing problems down the line when we have to cancel plans.  Instead, be cautious and try saying, ‘let me check my calendar and get back to you’. With both sides considered, this is an example of ‘good’ selfishness in practice.

Maintaining healthy relationships whilst looking after ourselves also involves being able to teach the people around us why we might need space. Saying ‘no’ is only the first step.  Rather than ghosting, snapping, sulking or hiding from people we are struggling to make time for we have to approach conversations with honesty, empathy, and an open ear.


Recognise that you are not Alone

Sarah Stein Lubrano, The School of Life

One of the kindest things you can do is help someone be selfish when they need to.

Any useful conception of good selfishness relies on this recognition that we are not the only one in the equation. We must understand that we are part of a community and that it’s always more rewarding to be a part of the bigger picture than to try and go it alone. And, to be an effective member of a community, whether it’s a family, a workplace or a romantic partnership, it is essential that we maintain our sense of agency. If we don’t start making decisions about where we would like to be, someone else will end up steering for us.

Beginning to put yourself first will be uncomfortable for a while, particularly if you’re the person who chronically says yes. But, by centreing yourself you are opening the door on a bigger, braver way of living.

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The School of Life is a global organisation dedicated to developing emotional intelligence. They apply psychology, philosophy, and culture to everyday life. They make films, teach classes, work with businesses, provide psychotherapy and much more in branches around the world. Sarah Stein Lubrano began work at The School of Life helping create some of the earliest YouTube videos. She is now the Head of Content, which involves research, writing, and design for everything from films to apps to interactive workshops.

Find out more about there upcoming classes and events here and follow the conversation on @TheSchoolOfLife 

Photography by Jean Pigozzi from ‘Jean Pigozzi: ME + CO, The Selfies: 1972–2016’ (Damiani : 2017)