Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie and the Virtue of Selfishness

When self-interests align, it's good for everyone

There could be no harsher description of a person coming from my family, while growing up. It was a loaded word with no redeeming qualities for many years in my life, and then just like that, it became a much sought-after virtue that I began chasing, in both my career and in life. Of course, I wasn't the first to figure this out. Neither were Kenny Rogers or Lionel Richie, but let's use these men to explain what I'm talking about. 

Kenny and Lionel had similar but different paths to success. They both were in bands for years on their way up, but really shone later on as soloists. Kenny wore an earring and performed psychedelic music earlier in his career, while Lionel meddled in funk, but they were both destined for something bigger, better and more gratifying, by way of '80s power ballads. 

They discovered a crossover from R&B and country that found its way to the pop charts and gave both their careers a spike. Lionel wrote "Lady" specifically for his band at the time, the Commodores, who passed on the song. At this same time, Lionel and Kenny had recently met; Kenny had mentioned the possibility of the two collaborating. Lionel now found a new home for this song. It was a gift to Kenny, and it became a monster hit.

This is where selfish behavior becomes a virtue. It's paying attention to you, your value, your prospects and your ambitions. Then finding overlapping self-interests from someone, something or many things outside of yourself. Where these interests line up is the intersection we should all be looking for.

In most careers there can be a temptation to sit back and do the work that lands on your desk, pack up, go home, then follow it up the next week doing the same thing. Avoiding taking on more than you have to may sound like "selfish" behavior, but a more accurate term would be "lazy" behavior. 

Think ahead, like Lionel and Kenny. And sure, some of these considerations may have been pondering whether they go with the powder-blue or salmon colored T-shirt to pair with their white blazer for tomorrow's meeting with their agent at Spago, but not all decisions were so easy (powder blue, of course). Kenny also seemed to be perpetually planning a wedding or divorce, and for Lionel, keeping stocked up on the insane amount of hair product he must have required probably felt like a full-time job on its own. 

Beyond that, they were both constantly looking for collaborations with songwriters and producers, potential duets, and new ways to make 60-year old women swoon to the local arena when either of them hit town. 

None of those things happen on their own. Your life has to be aligned with a steady stream of people and opportunities that give you something, that give them something, all while keeping your millions of fans satiated. 

In a marketing career, that could look like attempting to make a splash with a new project for a brand. In this scenario, as the steward of the brand you might be looking to take a chance on this particular project, but not willing or able to pay too much for it. If you're the creative, you might be interested in taking on a lower paying project with the promise of doing something that has creative potential. For vendors, creating relationships with brand and agency while adding an intriguing project that might even make their reel add up to enough reason for them to partake as well. 

All three parties have identified their selfish motive, and better yet, no one feels like they're getting away with anything or hiding information. This is a beautiful partnership, where all cards are on the table, and the aim is the same for everyone—create something that's worth it. 

This same sort of synergy can happen within an office while building a team, or maybe it's through networking outside the office, or maybe it's happening in ways beyond work altogether, when you're looking to find more enjoyment and fulfillment through your relationships with friends and family. 

Selfishness wins.

After "Lady" was released in 1980, both Kenny and Lionel took a big step forward in their careers, but they never lost touch. In fact, they became very close friends, and Lionel thought of Kenny like an older brother. Kenny was a helpful mentor to Lionel, navigating a transition into the solo world and superstardom. They remained close up until Kenny's death earlier this year. 

Their legacy lives on as a part of our lives, serenading us within the walls of Applebee's as we take down a plate of riblets, when we see our perm in the mirror of a glam salon for the first time, or rolling around on our waterbed late into the evening, all the while thinking, "It's time to be a little more selfish."

Thank you, gents. You've set the bar. 

RIP, Kenny. 

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Jeffrey Butterworth
Jeffrey Butterworth is a creative director and founder of Butterworth Collective.

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