Spiritual Growth 101 with Mike Tyson: “The Virtue of Selfishness”

Mike Tyson, former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion

Mike Tyson

Ayn Rand, author of The Virtue of Selfishness

Ayn Rand

Who woulda thought Mike Tyson was a devotee of Ayn Rand?

Before the rumors start flying . . . as far as I know, he isn’t.

But he could be.

In 2009 Mike Tyson appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show for a major interview. In response to Oprah’s questions, Tyson spoke about his struggle to leave behind his life of anger, addiction, violence, and infidelity.

In a follow-up interview later that week, Oprah asked Tyson, “How do you stop yourself from going to the dark place? Is it a battle with you all the time? I sense that you’re still in the struggle.”

The moment occurs almost nine minutes into this video of the interview:

Tyson replied:

I want to say . . . that my children stop me, but it’s not. My children can’t—my love for my children’s not stronger than my addiction. But, I want a better life for myself. . . . And it’s so funny because we say selfishness is bad, but without a form of selfishness we’re gonna die out here. And it’s just for my own self-aggrandizement I want to live a better life. I want to live the life I was on the path to live before I . . . it’s . . . diverted to different kind of agendas for my own self-benefit.

It may not be perfect prose, but the meaning is clear. Tyson is saying that the driving force behind his efforts to reform himself is not anything noble like his often-expressed love for his children. Rather, he is driven by an elemental desire to acquire a better life for himself.

Is Mike Tyson more selfish than the average person?

I doubt it. But on this point he’s certainly more honest than the average person. Looking into his own soul he has recognized—and unlike most of us, is willing to state publicly—that he is driven by selfishness.

And that’s an excellent place to start on the path toward spiritual growth.

The virtue of selfishness

The Virtue of Selfishness, by Ayn Rand, Signet Edition book cover

The Virtue of Selfishness, by Ayn Rand

In 1964, Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand published a collection of essays titled The Virtue of Selfishness. In these essays she and co-author Nathaniel Branden pressed forward the view that altruism, so often praised by society, is in fact a destructive motivation, while egoism, so often condemned by society, is the most solid foundation for a rational and constructive code of ethics.

In other words, Rand believed that if we humans would stop trying to be selfless and benevolent, and instead live our lives based on rational self-interest, the world would be a much better place.

Not surprisingly, traditional philosophers, academics, and religious leaders have roundly criticized Rand’s iconoclastic philosophy for its elevation of egoism and selfishness to the top of the pyramid of human virtues.

And yet . . . she does have a point.

No, I don’t believe selfishness is the ultimate human virtue. But I do believe selfishness has its uses—especially in the early stages of our process of spiritual growth, or “regeneration.” It’s all summed up in the old (?) saying:

Get thee behind me Satan! You push, I’ll steer!


The Devil makes a good engine, but for goodness sake don’t let him get behind the wheel!

Let’s see what Mike Tyson can teach us about selfishness as an engine for spiritual growth.

Spiritual Growth 101 with Mike Tyson:
Lesson 1: Selfishness and the survival instinct

First, it helps to understand that selfishness is tied to our survival instinct. In nature, the survival instinct is right up there with the reproductive drive as a driving force for animal life. Yes, we humans are spiritual beings. But as long as we are living on this earth we are also animals, with the same animal drives that rule the rest of the animal kingdom.

In the earlier interview, Oprah was asking Tyson questions about his previous life of drugs, violence, and sexual promiscuity. The exchange starts near the 28 minute mark in this video of the first Oprah interview. In the course of conversation Oprah asked Tyson whether his current, more disciplined, monogamous life is boring compared to his earlier life.

Tyson: Um . . . No. I . . . I . . . This is what I know. I know the size [?] might be exciting, but I know I don’t have two more years to live if I live this life [meaning his former wild life].

Oprah: (nodding her head yes) Got it.

Tyson: (continuing) And I realized that I was just gonna die. If I didn’t settle down with my wife, this “Iron Mike” guy was gonna be finished.

Most of the time, when we are presented with a stark choice between surviving or dying, we will choose to survive. Mike Tyson had reached a point in his life where he realized that if he continued to live in the wild, undisciplined, and self-indulgent way he had been living, he would soon be dead.

And so, not from any noble motives, not from some blinding “Saul on the road to Tarsus” conversion experience, but from the simple selfishness of the survival instinct, Tyson realized that he had to leave behind his old exciting but self-destructive life and begin a more disciplined, honorable, and stable life.

Lesson 2: Self-love often works when love of the neighbor doesn’t

As quoted earlier, when Oprah asked Tyson how he stops himself from backsliding into his old ways, Tyson was brutally honest: his love for his children is not stronger than his addiction. What is stronger—for him at this point in his life, at least—is his desire for a better life for himself.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all were motivated by an unselfish love for others to become better, more thoughtful, more honest, more disciplined people?

Alas! Whether we admit it or not, most of us start out in our adult life thinking, “What’s in it for me?”

For example, how many of us in our younger years—or even as we head into middle age—would really go out and get a job if we didn’t need money to put a roof over our head, clothes on our back, and food in our stomach? It’s nice to think we’d do the work anyway to serve humanity . . . but let’s be honest!

Yes, the “Devil” of selfishness provides the engine for many, if not most of us to keep ourselves on the strait and narrow path of life. If we don’t get up in the morning and get ourselves to work, we’ll get fired. If we don’t control our alcohol and drug use, we’ll destroy ourselves mentally and physically. If we sleep with many partners we’ll end out with an STD . . . and a whole lot of angry exes who want a piece of us.

This is how God harnesses our selfishness as an engine to drive us forward on our path of spiritual rebirth. Like Tyson, based purely on a desire for self-preservation and a better life for ourselves, we are often induced to steer our life in a better, more constructive, and more useful direction.

Lesson 3: Selfishness as a starting point for life

In line with all of this, in the section quoted earlier from the second Oprah interview, Mike Tyson briefly turns into an Ayn Rand style philosopher:

We say selfishness is bad, but without a form of selfishness we’re gonna die out here.

There’s more truth to this than we may at first realize.

Consider a newborn baby. Maybe she’s got loving, stable, and attentive parents, and maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she’s in the care of a parent who would rather sleep than take care of a baby, or who is catatonic half the time from drugs and alcohol.

What’s a baby to do?

Simple: CRY!

Let’s face it: if infants didn’t cry, even the best parents might sometimes not notice that their baby needs to be taken care of. And the worst parents would likely neglect their infants to the point that many babies would die. The simple self-preservation response of infants to cry when they are hungry or wet or otherwise uncomfortable is a baseline form of “selfishness” without which many of us would not even make it out of infancy.

That baseline desire for self-preservation continues throughout childhood and into adult life. It is necessary for our survival. If we didn’t make our wants and needs known, and increasingly take care of them ourselves as we get older and enter adulthood, we would simply waste away until we died.

So as Tyson says, “Without a form of selfishness, we’re gonna die out here.”

We may argue idealistically that it shouldn’t be that way. But the fact of the matter is that it is that way. And God has arranged it so that even though we humans are driven largely by self-preservation and ego throughout much of our lives, those base-level motives are what keep us ticking until we can graduate to higher motives such as genuine concern for our fellow human beings.

All three of these lessons from Mike Tyson point to the same conclusion: Our ego and selfishness is usually the only motive strong enough to get us going on a path toward higher and better things.

So if you’ve looked into your own soul and seen the ego and selfishness there, don’t despair, and don’t beat yourself up about it. You’re still in the driver’s seat. And now you’ve gained the insight into your own self that you need in order to harness that engine of selfishness and use it to power yourself toward a new and more spiritual life.

Better motives will come in due time. But until then, let your own selfish desire for a better life power you toward it.

Mike Tyson: From the gutter to greatness and back . . . and forth

In earlier days Mike Tyson was in the news a lot. Yes, he was in the news for winning a lot of big boxing matches. But he was also in the news for violence and drug abuse. He spent three years in prison after he was convicted of raping 18-year-old beauty queen Desiree Washington.

These days Mike Tyson is in the news again. But it’s not for anything bad. He recently went on the road with a one man show, “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth.” In it, he chronicles his rise from juvenile delinquent on the streets of Brooklyn to champion boxer and multimillionaire . . . and his fall from those heights to bankruptcy, prison, and entanglement in drug abuse and abusive relationships.

Of course, in the show Tyson is going for crowd appeal, and using his celebrity status to make a living after his retirement from professional boxing. Some have criticized his performance because he is openly not apologetic for many of the things he has done. And perhaps the show does engage in some self-justification. Yet if nothing else, Tyson takes a hard look at his own life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and puts it out there for others and himself to see.

The end of Mike Tyson’s story has not yet been written. No one, not even Tyson himself, can say for sure whether it will have a happy ending. Yet from the outside, it does appear that he is engaging in some of the self-examination and self-correction required to turn away from his stormy, abusive, and unpredictable past, and put his life on a better and more stable course.

And if Mike Tyson, with his past life, can do it, so can you and I and everyone else.

For further reading:


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in Popular Culture, Spiritual Growth
6 comments on “Spiritual Growth 101 with Mike Tyson: “The Virtue of Selfishness”
  1. rob says:

    Its so hard to change. Especially when one has a skewed view of life, as I do. Sometimes I just hang my head and say “God help me.”

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rob,

      Yes, change is hard. That’s why we have a lifetime to do it.

      And according to Jesus himself, “God help me” is a pretty good prayer:

      “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:13-14)

  2. Tori says:

    But what is self-love and confident and high self esteem to a, for lack of a better term, healthy extent? What is “okay” self love? Does God expect us to not care about ourselves at all?

    I want to love myself, I want to enjoy my life, but often times when I think about myself, I feel a bit of guilt because I somehow convinced myself that caring and loving yourself = being selfish. I want to know when self esteem doesn’t cross the line into selfishness. I do a lot of things that are more for my personal enjoyment but don’t exactly benefit others (although if you want to be technical, many hobbies include purchases, like if you like to play video games you will probably buy a lot of them, and you’re helping the developers and the staff of the store you’re buying from put food on the table, but you get what I mean). Thats not saying I don’t do anything for others and I don’t feel joy in others feeling happy, but sadness and fear isn’t a nice feeling and I tend to cope with it by distracting myself with my pleasures because I would rather live a life where I’m happy than a life where I’m not.

    But I don’t want to live a life where I’m known as an awful, selfish person or end up in hell either.

    So perhaps you can explain this to me and maybe use a couple of examples so I can get a better idea on this topic?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Tori,

      From what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think you’re in too much danger of being known as an awful, selfish person and ending up in hell. 🙂

      But it’s a good question.

      Basically, we should take care of ourselves and provide for ourselves (and our family, if we have one) so that we’ll have a healthy mind in a healthy body, which makes it possible for us to love and serve God and our neighbor. If we don’t take care of ourselves first, and care for our own needs—physical, mental, and emotional—we’ll become less and less healthy and sound in mind and body, and soon we’ll be of no use to anyone because we’re too worn out and sick to do anything, but need to be cared for by others instead of being able to care for others ourselves.

      If we think of ourselves as being like a house, taking care of ourselves is like the foundation. We have to build that foundation first, but it would be foolish to think that the foundation is the purpose of the house. Taking care of ourselves—including taking regular time off for some R&R—lays the foundation for us to be able to build the superstructure, which is our life of love and service to our fellow human beings.

      For Swedenborg’s own take on this see my translation The Heavenly City: A Spiritual Guidebook at this link, scroll down to #97, and start reading from there. Some of what I just said, including the house analogy, is taken from what Swedenborg says there.

      The Bible itself says that we’re supposed to work for six days, then rest on the seventh day. And that’s not just a suggestion. It’s a commandment. We’re not supposed to work, work, work all the time. We humans need regular breaks from our physical and mental labors.

      So playing video games (assuming they’re not the really awful ones), getting out for some fun and relaxation in whatever activities you like to do, enjoying music, taking a vacation, having fun with friends, and of course, following your own interests, are all good. They help to build that foundation of a healthy mind in a healthy body that makes you fit for service to your fellow human beings. It only gets out of hand if you think that having fun and getting pleasure for yourself is the main purpose of life. It’s not. But regularly relaxing and enjoying yourself is a necessary and good part of living a well-rounded life that fits you for service both here on earth and in heaven after your life here on earth is over.

      • Luna says:

        But what if our main purpose in life is getting a better and more pleasurable life (not at the expense of others)? In the Asian Culture, we are taught that our main goal in life is to strive for a more pleasurable life then are parents had, and that our happiness is what comes first.

        Note: We are not told to do whatever it takes to get there, we are told to work hard and that is also why Asian parents put such an emphasis on getting a good education.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Luna,

          I am aware that this is a major component of Asian culture. But Asian culture also includes Asian religions, which inculcate higher values than merely striving for worldly success.

          Meanwhile, if a person strives for worldly success, but in an honest and honorable manner, while it is limited, it is not evil. The business world can be, and should be, a forum for providing needed goods and services to other people. If a businessman focuses on that as well as on becoming rich, then he is still engaged in good work, and it still provides a pathway toward heaven.

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