What’s In It For Me?

Weiss Advice Issue: 176, May, 2018

This question is not as mercenary as it may sound. It’s a legitimate question if you’re asked, for example:

  • To serve on a board
  • To provide pro bono work
  • To extend a payment due date
  • To informally coach someone
  • To spend more time at a client site

“What’s in it for you” might be a sense of accomplishment, or pleasure, or simply a willingness to have helped out—it needn’t be monetary. But too often we’re guided by other values.


The Propensity to Please (PTP) means that we take on obligations for the wrong reasons: We don’t want to be disliked. No matter how much the request is not in our best interests (a demand on our time, lowering a standard, traveling more than required) we accept it in order to please someone else. Later on, we’ll complain mightily about the imposition, but it’s far too late to get out of it.

The Propensity to Help (PTH) is a distorted moral sense that if we can help, we should help. That means that we do our child’s homework while the child plays with a video game; we engage in failure work as a result of a co-worker’s repeated errors; we sacrifice our own objectives in order to help someone else meet theirs (at our expense). That satisfaction from having helped neither lasts very long nor creates much real appreciation.

What about me?

If you simply ask (or demand) what you receive from the transaction you might be able to modify it so that it’s win/win (I’ll do this for you if you sit next to me and learn how and never ask me to help you again) or refuse it without guilt.

I’ve found that asking people, “What are your ideas about this?” stops them from simply asking for your solution. It’s also remarkably effective to simply say, “No, I can’t. It’s your accountability, not mine.” Or, “I can’t help you, I’ve already committed to my limit on contributions and pro bono work.”

I call this “healthy selfishness,” and it’s implemented through the silent question, “What’s in it for me?” Helping someone out may give you a sense of pride and satisfaction, but not if it’s weekly. Volunteering for the charity event may be rewarding, but not if you’re the only one who’s on time and doing the work.

Don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask what’s in it for you. When we don’t, we wind up with a great deal of our time being wasted on others instead of invested in ourselves.