Can a Humanist Be Self-Centered?

By Ellie Haylund

I recently had to evaluate myself (*shudder*).

My employer issues a survey called a Culture Index to all staff periodically. It is meant to determine how you operate in a professional setting. We use this information so we know how to successfully work together based on our different strengths. If you work best independently and don’t care for meandering conversation, your colleagues can know this, and your leaders can consider it when presenting projects. But it’s clearly defining you as a person, so I take it personally.

Though I don’t like to feel put into a box, I do like the concept. It’s a thoughtful addition to a workplace and an honorable way to cultivate a positive environment. And it’s admittedly fun to compare and contrast your “label” with others.

You might be a Coordinator — loyal, rule-following, and a team player. Or perhaps you’re a Traditionalist —supportive, introspective, and calm. Or the intriguing Daredevil — visionary, competitive, and easily bored. Me? I’m a Persuader. I’m told it means that I am assertive, warm, verbal, creative, inspiring, and that I need help with details (it can’t all be flattering!). While we all contain multitudes and can be a different person from one day to the next, I think those attributes seem relatively accurate. But how did the survey come up with this?

Adjectives. Adjectives, adjectives, adjectives. A big page filled bottom to top, side to side with the obvious (social, thoughtful) and the obscure (fashionable, moody). You simply check the box next to each word that you feel describes you. Maybe some people fly though it — they know exactly who they are and don’t waver on any adjective. But I paused at almost every one. Sometimes it was because I wasn’t sure if a given word truly described me. Am I only 60 percent social? Is that enough? What is the threshold to consider it an attribute of mine? But sometimes I hesitated because I struggled to be honest with myself. Did I only feel inclined to select a word that felt negative because it is something I’m overly self-critical about? And if not, what does it say about me to acknowledge a flaw?

My first hurdle was “pessimistic.” I don’t feel like a Negative Nancy… but I tend to focus on the worst possible outcome. One might argue that pessimism isn’t all bad in all situations. But I want to be an optimist. The humanist in me wants to have a positive outlook for the wellbeing of humanity and the future of our world. But even on a micro scale, my brain tells me it’s smartest and safest to be prepared for the bad and be pleasantly surprised at the good. But a true optimist would probably see that as quite misguided.

The biggest hurdle was tough. “Self-centered.” I’m a humanist! I think of others. I am empathetic. I want to lift up those around me. But I do think about myself. Don’t we all? There’s the common conception that even doing a good deed is selfish because it makes you feel good. Many argue that their purpose for kindness is the impact it has on others — but others argue that it can always be traced back to you. So I had to sit with it for a while. Am I self-centered? Is that a bad thing? Can I devote some of me to… me? And though I strive to do “selfless” things, are they enough? I am a big proponent of living your best life with what you have, and sometimes that means “looking out for number one.”

So I checked the box. But I didn’t feel like I’d just locked myself into perhaps the worst adjective on the survey. I think it’s healthy to admit that I focus on myself, maybe a little more than I want to. But that doesn’t negate my humanistic values and my efforts to practice them. I appreciate the reflection it has brought, which has motivated me to be more intentional with what I do and how I think.

So next time I fill out the survey, maybe I won’t check “self-centered” again. Maybe I will. But hopefully I’ll still end up a warm, inspiring Persuader.

Ellie Haylund is president of HumanistsMN.

Have you taken a similar personality test before? Was it challenging? Did the results surprise you? Share your experience in the comments below.


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