Here is the famous McDonald’s problem.

Five people have decided to go out to eat. None of them really wants to go to McDonald’s. But that’s where they end up going anyway.

How does this happen? Well, the question comes up, “Where should we eat?”

Everyone is sort of saying, “I don’t know. Where do you want to go?” “I’m just hungry, you know, where would be good for you?” “I’m really not sure, I’ll go wherever all of you go.” In other words, everyone is trying to be nice. No one is stating their actual preference.

Now Bob really wants to go to California Burrito. But he doesn’t want to be selfish. After all, who wants to be the guy who makes everybody else go where he wants them to go? Who really wants to be that asshole? Not Bob. Besides, the group has never gone to California Burrito.

Bob wants to be nice. He wants everyone to like him. He doesn’t want to stand out as that selfish guy. So Bob thinks about where the group has gone before. He remembers that last week they went to McDonald’s. Now Bob doesn’t really want McDonald’s. He doesn’t really even like McDonald’s all that much. But he wants to be nice. He wants to be unselfish.

He certainly doesn’t want to be the egotistical jerk who makes everyone go to California Burrito, when they’ve never gone there before.

So Bob says, “Well, we went to McDonald’s last week.”

Now Jerome, he really wants a burrito right now. He’s craving it. But the truth is, he hasn’t eaten in a while. He’s hungry. McDonald’s is OK, but he doesn’t love it. It wouldn’t be his tenth choice, let alone his first choice. But he wants the group to make a decision, because he’s freaking hungry.

Jerome says, “You know, McDonald’s is cool. I’ll eat whatever.”

Now we’ve got Jose. Jose definitely wants to go to California Burrito. But Jose doesn’t like confrontation. He doesn’t like to argue. He doesn’t want to be the guy who causes dissension and unhappiness. So even though Jose really, really, really wants to go to California Burrito….

“I guess McDonald’s is fine.”

So now we’ve got Lisa. She hates McDonald’s. She was just about to suggest California Burrito but she didn’t want to be too pushy. She didn’t want to be that aggressive bitch who nobody likes. She always wants to be 100% sure that everyone will be OK with her suggestions before she makes them. She wants to be sure that she isn’t seen as trying to dominate the group. Remember, she hates McDonald’s.

“Oh yeah, we all had a good time at McDonald’s last week. Let’s go.”

Finally we’ve got Rob. His all-time favorite restaurant is California Burrito. But the group is obviously going to McDonald’s. He wants to be a part of the group. I mean really, who wants to be eating all alone? Better to follow along with everyone else.

“Alright McDonald’s it is!”

See, not one of the five people wanted to go to McDonald’s. In fact, if you paid close attention to what they said, not one of them actually said they wanted to go to McDonald’s. Every single person wanted to go to California Burrito. And yet, they are all going somewhere they don’t want to go. If any of the five had actually suggested what they really wanted, all five would have agreed. But no one did that. Everyone wanted to be unselfish, nice, part of the group, not an aggressive bitch who always goes after what she wants…etc.

And as a result, no one gets what they want.

Now of course in real life, it’s highly unlikely that all five people have the same preference for anything. But it doesn’t change the fact that if you never say what your real preference is, you’ll never find out if anyone else has the same preference! If you start out from a position of perceived compromise, then you are trying to read other peoples’ minds. You are trying to guess what they really want instead of asking and listening. And then, to make things worse, you are changing your own preferences to fit a mere guess as to what other people want.

It is absolutely not selfish to go after what you really want.

Selfishness is about how you act if you don’t get it.

If I ask an attractive person out on a date, that is obviously not selfish. But if I get angry when they say no, that is selfish. If I start acting passive-aggressively, if I start talking behind their back, if I start cutting them down to make myself feel better, now I am being selfish. If I try to use a position of power to ask someone on a date, if I pretend I am interviewing them for a job when I really just want to date them, if I am being manipulative or deceitful, then yes, that is selfish.

But if you just ask…well my God. How else are you going to find out whether the other person wants you as much as you want them? Really, how are you going to find out….

Wait. Don’t answer that question.

Anyway, if you pursue the career of your dreams, if you negotiate for a raise, if you talk to your friends about what you’d really like to do when you all get together, you are helping everyone else out. Even if they don’t agree, your willingness to just clearly and honestly say what you really want gives everyone else permission to say what they really want–as long as you can accept that other people don’t want the same things you do.

Speaking of that, you know what I’ve noticed? The people who have the most difficulty hearing the word “no”, the people who get the most jealous of everyone else’s success, the people who are the most passive-aggressive, guess what? They are the same people who either don’t ever go after what they really want, or don’t say it out loud. They don’t want to appear selfish. But they are selfish, and you see it when they don’t get their way. Saying out loud what you really want is the opposite of selfish.

And if everyone says what they really want, and if everyone is willing to actually listen to everyone else, I often find that even when we disagree we can come up with a creative idea that’s actually better than anyone’s original idea. There is often no need to compromise. Of course sometimes it doesn’t work that way. But that doesn’t change the fact that I should never start with an attempt at compromise. When I start with compromise, I am trying to mind-read. No. Bad idea. Speak and listen instead.

Go after what you really want and give other people the permission to do the same.