when the world was young: “looking out for number one”

The latest in a series about influences from my earlier days

All of the books and movies that I’ve discussed so far in this series have been works of fiction that have influenced my writing.  Looking Out for Number One, by Robert J. Ringer, is non-fiction, and it had a profound effect on my philosophy.

I first read it as an early teenager, after my father gave me his copy, and I loaned it to my wife and both my daughters to read.  It became a bestseller shortly after it was published in 1977, but it’s seemingly forgotten today.  A shame, methinks, because though parts of it are dated, it nevertheless shares many nuggets of wisdom.




Part motivational book, part autobiography, Looking Out posits that true, lasting happiness comes from taking control of your life and doing what’s best for “Number One”—you.  Many of the book’s critics can’t get past its title, but Ringer doesn’t advocate hedonism or sociopathy.  As he explains in the first chapter:

Looking out for Number One adds a rational, civilized tag: man’s primary moral duty lies in the pursuit of pleasure so long as he does not forcibly interfere with the rights of others.  If you picked up this book in the hope that it might explain how to get ahead in life by trampling on the rights of your fellow man, I’m afraid you’ve made a bad choice.  I suggest instead that you read Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, The Communist Manifesto, or the U.S. Internal Revenue Code.

Ringer calls this pursuit of happiness without hurting others, “rational selfishness.”  But that’s not to say that one should never do something nice for others; indeed, he insists on “value-for-value” relationships where people give in proportion to what they receive.

Similarly, if one wants to do good deeds for others, one certainly should, provided that it’s one’s choice to do so (and to what extent), and that one receives something—even if it’s just satisfaction—in return.  “Helping others” who hate you, doing something because you feel forced to, and/or getting no happiness from your efforts are anathema to Ringer.

The Hurdles to Looking Out for Number One

Looking Out urges readers to rationally, objectively rethink assumptions and long-held beliefs.  Ringer postulates that there are several hurdles one most overcome.  Those hurdles are:

  • Perspective– (i.e., getting a handle on the scope of one’s problems)
  • Reality– (being aware of what is actually happening vis-à-vis what one wishes would happen)
  • People– (how others’ irrationality and attempts to intimidate you can trip you up)
  • Crusade– (resisting engaging in others’ quixotic struggles at the price of one’s pursuit of happiness)
  • Financial– (making money and fending off lawyers and the government as best one can)
  • Friendship– (forging genuine relationships with people by giving and receiving of one’s self)
  • Love– (overcoming illusions and other obstacles that keep one from true love)

Once you get past these hurdles, you’re not done: you’ve only then arrived at the starting line for pursuing your happiness.  But now you know what you’re up against, and can do so with confidence and a good attitude.

Ringer’s Many, Many Theories

In discussing and explaining how to deal with these hurdles, Ringer presents many short “theories” (some quite humorous) on life.  My favorites:

  • Anti-Neurotic Theory:  Ignore all neurotic remarks and actions of normal people and all remarks and actions of neurotic people.
  • Boyfriend Theory:  To maintain one’s composure and perspective upon meeting an intriguing woman, assume the following: 1) she has a boyfriend, fiancé, or husband; 2) he’s big, hairy, and mean.
  • Boy-Girl Theory:  The basic human tendency to want what one can’t have, and not want what is right there in front of them.
  • Crummy Friendship Theory:  A crummy friendship is one in which you consistently give more than you receive.  Also applicable to love.
  • I’m Crazy/You’re Sane Theory:  If you spend too much time in a relationship with an irrational person, you’ll begin to think that you’re the one who’s neurotic.
  • “Is’s” versus “Ought To’s” Theory:  A person’s life is more and more complicated depending on how much one dwells on the way one thinks the world ought to be rather than the way it actually is.
  • One-To-A-Box Theory:  Regardless of who you are and what you do, you will go out of this world by yourself.
  • Plastic Glass Theory: One doesn’t have to follow custom and traditions when it doesn’t make sense to
  • Touchies and No-Touchies Theory:  It’s wise to separate your money into two piles: “Touchies” that you use for fun, goodies, and risky investments; and “No-Touchies” that you don’t use for luxuries and with which, you don’t take chances.
  • Volcanic Ash Theory:  Don’t let an emotional whim convince you to give up something good you have to go chasing after an illusion.
  • World-Owes-Me-a-Living Theory:  Actually, no one owes you squat.
  • You-Won’t Get-Credit-For-It Theory:  Don’t do things that aren’t going to benefit you in some way, just because someone else thinks you should.
  • Zip-the-Lip Theory:  When you have something good going, SHUT UP!

The Folks to Look Out for as You Look Out for Number One

Ringer warns that there are several individuals who are not happy to see you—or anyone else—looking out for Number One.  “Legalman” (i.e., lawyers) will try to trip you up for fun and profit (their profit, that is).  The government will intrude on your rights and confiscate a portion of your earnings as taxes (legalized theft, as far as Ringer is concerned), backed up with guns.

You can’t stop Legalman and the feds, you can only hope to contain them and minimize the damage they do.  Similarly, The Ghost of Murphy (drafter of the infamous law) must always be contended with.

Ringer says there are three types of people: “Roses”, “Weeds”, and “Neurotics”.  Roses are the good folks who enhance your life; Weeds drag you down; Neurotics are out of control, and their chaos will spill into your life if you let them.

If the Absolute Moralist isn’t a fourth type of person, perhaps it’s a sub-species of Weed. The Absolute Moralist can come from the left- or right wings, but regardless, they know what’s best for you: how you should live, what you should eat, what car you should drive, whom you should associate with, what opinions you should have.  And they never pass up an opportunity to tell you so.

Given power, an Absolute Moralist will force you to adopt what they say, “for your own good.”  It’s been nearly 40 years since Ringer wrote Looking Out for Number One, but Absolute Moralists are still with us.  Worse, it seems as if they’ve even grown in strength and numbers.

What I Learned From Looking Out

Ringer doesn’t expect anyone to agree with everything he says, and, of course, I don’t.  But after reading Looking Out almost 30 years ago, I’ve tried—with varying degrees of success at times—to follow Ringer’s precept of “rational selfishness” and:

  • Develop a healthy skepticism of “experts,” the media, and “authorities”;
  • Rely on myself for my own emotional support (this one took quite a while to accomplish);
  • Invest in “value-for-value” relationships where I try to give as much as I receive;
  • See the world and people in it for what it is and what they are, not as I would like them to be; and,
  • Cut Weeds and Neurotics out of my life as soon as I recognize them.

Take a look at Looking Out for Number One.

Kenton Kilgore is the author of Lost Dogs, the story of a German Shepherd and a Beagle-mix who survive the end of the human world, only to find that their struggles have just begun. Kenton also wrote Dragontamer’s Daughters, a two-part young adult fantasy novel based on Navajo culture and belief.  With Patrick Eibel, he created Our Wild Place, a children’s book about the joy to be found in exploring Nature.  Follow Kenton on Facebook for daily posts on sci-fi, fantasy, and other speculative fiction. 

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