July 2

Life Owes Us Nothing: The Road to Enlightenment from Entitlement

When a 3-year-old falls down and expects her already multitasking mother to come running to her, it’s adorable. A 30-year-old (adult-child) who expects people to go to her rescue every time she has a bad day isn’t a cute look. It is a sign of self-entitlement. A rapidly progressing ailment in our society. The cure to this ailment—so we can go from being entitled to enlightened—is realizing that life owes us nothing. And being okay with it.

Entitled thinking

My guess is you’ve witnessed people engaged in behaviors similar to the ones described below.

  • Someone shows up late to a meeting and then demands a recap of what they missed
  • Folks who take up more than their allotted time at meetings to ramble on about things that only matter to them
  • A person who creates a mess and expects others to clean up after them
  • Someone who blames the doctor’s office for an appointment they missed because the office didn’t call to remind them
  • A person who barges into a room and expects everyone else to drop their conversations to acknowledge their entry

Do you immediately recall names of people you can pair these scenarios with? Do you roll your eyes or curse (secretly, inwardly, of course) when you spot people exhibiting these behaviors?

These are typical self-entitled behaviors. This kind of conduct is ubiquitous. It doesn’t take long to recognize these actions in others. They are easy to spot even by our distracted-by-the-latest-shiny-object selves.

Even without any training, we are all experts at sussing out self-entitlement. In others. Not our own.

Here’s the secret sauce to enlightenment, if you’re interested.

The day we start to recognize entitlement tendencies within ourselves and understand that life owes us nothing is the day we start on our journey to nirvana (enlightenment!) It can be a long road, but, well worth the effort.

Before we get on the road, let’s see what entitlement is all about.


Entitlement is the feeling that we deserve something or require special treatment even when we haven’t done anything out of the ordinary.

Yes, we are all unique and all that. And we can find ways to justify our expectations that the world should come to a standstill and grant us special favors as we bask in our uniqueness.

The universe, apparently, has a different view on the subject. American poet and Naturalist, Stephen Crane, illustrates this point beautifully in a poem.

A man said to the universe:
Sir, I exist.
However, replied the universe,
The fact has not created in me a sense of obligation.

The essence of the above poem: Life owes us nothing. Even when we feel like it does.

The sooner we drill that into our heads and believe it in our hearts, the better off we’ll be. But like most things in life, the simplest sounding advice is often the hardest to practice.

Why even bother? What’s wrong with expectations anyway?

But I deserve it

Let’s say you work hard all year but still don’t get the promotion you expected. The one you convince yourself you deserve. Never mind that there was another equally driven and more suitable candidate who got that promotion.

The unfulfilled promotion can then lead you to explore all five stages of grief  – Denial, Anger, Blame/Bargaining, Sadness, and Acceptance. And that final stage—acceptance—is the opposite of self-entitlement. But, getting to acceptance can be a drawn-out, time-consuming process. Some (most?) never make it that far.

Why is it so hard to stop feeling entitled to results we “deserve,” especially those we work for?

That has something to do with our concept of fairness.

The world is not fair

Our desire for fairness is inherent in us.

To illustrate, here’s a must watch-video clip from a TED talk by Frans de Waal.

The researchers gave two monkeys different foods for the same task. Watch what happens!

Spoiler alert: When a monkey notices another monkey getting a tastier treat for the same chore, she goes (pardon the rude but apt expression) Apeshit! It is an entertaining video. And it drives home one point.

Evolution has wired within us a sense of fairness and the ability to spot favoritism. And apparently, this ability is built into our psyche from a very early age.

Research shows that an infant child, as young as 19 months, has a sense of fairness. The experimenters used two animated giraffe puppets and handed them an unequal number of toys while infants watched.

The researchers suggested that infants tend to watch scenes longer when they sense something is unfair. In the above study, the infants sympathy-watched the unfair scene—the one where the researchers gave one giraffe puppet fewer toys—for longer.

This ability to spot inequalities, even as infants, is a good thing. Absolutely.

But as we grow up, the sense of fairness morphs. Into a sense of entitlement.

Fairness to Entitlement

Here is the slow cycle of adaptation we go through from childhood to adulthood.

Fairness  à Deserving à Entitled


First, we start off wanting things to be fair.

If mom is handing out cookies, she better be fair and give each child the same number of cookies.


Then, we understand the effort-reward cycle.

I studied hard for the test and did my extra credit problems, so I deserve an A in the class.


And eventually, the deserved-ness becomes our baseline, and we seamlessly transition into entitlement.

The organization is lucky to have someone like me on their payroll. I’m worth it. I’m entitled to the next promotion.

As you can see, what starts as the need to be fair, transforms slowly into something you deserve and seamlessly then morphs into entitlement. It’s at that point we forget that life owes us nothing.

The problem is with “others”

Here’s the kicker, though. We’re usually not self-aware as we transition from fairness to entitlement.

I would never apply the label entitled to describe myself. My guess is, neither would you. But we don’t hesitate in labeling others as entitled, do we? If not loudly, inwardly, for sure.

This is true of entire generations—you only have to pay attention to all the clickbait name-calling headlines to know what I’m talking about.

Boomers don’t miss a chance to roll their eyes at the entitled millennials. And vice-versa. The X’ers and Z’ers aren’t immune from this disease either.

Each generation thinks the other is self-centered—bent on enriching themselves in the present instead of making sacrifices for the future. Almost every major social problem of our times—the environment, health care, economic inequality—can be attributed to decisions made by one self-centered generation with scant regard for the repercussions on subsequent generations.

Is there a way to break this cycle, to go from entitled to enlightened?


The short answer? By resetting our expectations and recognizing that life owes us nothing.

The slightly longer (and practical) version? Read on.

Shedding entitlement

Here are two important concepts to understand that will help us overcome entitlement.

1. Social comparison strengthens entitlement

We base the whole concept of fairness on how we’re doing (or how people treat us) compared to how others are doing (or treated.)

Picture negotiating your salary in a new career. How do you know what to ask for? Without a framework for comparison, if you keep your basic needs in mind—food, shelter, bills—then you should have no qualms in accepting just enough compensation to meet these basic needs.

But that’s now how we negotiate salaries, right? We value our time, and we compare it to what the industry benchmark is, what others are making, and price ourselves accordingly.

As I write this, I just read about a potential data security breach at LinkedIn that could have exposed hundreds of millions of users’ records, including their inferred compensation levels. LinkedIn denies the breach. It’s a developing story with huge implications. Now, why is it such a big deal?

Companies will fight tooth and nail to keep compensation packages secret. If it weren’t for laws (at least in the US) that prohibit employers from imposing pay secrecy, almost every organization’s HR manual would contain clauses prohibiting any discussions on employee compensation. It’s still an unwritten rule in most places.

Knowing how much a colleague makes can make you feel disgruntled (or smug.) You can come to a wrong conclusion based on the limited data points you have. Feeling like you were denied what you’re entitled to can cause deep disappointment. From there, it’s a slippery slope to ruin.

I know I’m cherry-picking evidence here. The gender wage gap and pay parity issues are serious and deserve further scrutiny.

Stop comparing

But the point of this example is this: constantly comparing yourself to others can exacerbate already stressful situations. It can leave us feeling more entitled and, consequently, more disgruntled. That’s not the time for a life owes us nothing reminder.

So, stop comparing. If that’s impossible, limit how often you compare yourself to others.

2. Privilege reduces when empathy begins

A research study explored the role social class plays in whether a behavior is ethical or not. The result? Individuals belonging to a higher social class are more prone to unethical behavior.

In one of the experiments, the study demonstrated that luxury car drivers are more likely to speed through intersections than non-luxury car drivers. In another example, the study showed that higher social class individuals tend to be more dismissive and distracted when interacting with fellow humans.

The researchers attributed the unethical behavior in wealthier individuals to the independence resulting from wealth. When you’re not reliant on others for your needs, your obligation to treat them well lessens too. Remember Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good” attitude? You can draw a straight line from there to entitlement.

When we have resources that far exceed our needs and even wants, we need to know what it is like for those who can’t meet their basic needs. At a minimum.

The way to actively combat the privilege of abundance is by cultivating an equal and opposite dose of empathy. It is hard to overstate the case for empathy, probably the one behavior that makes us most human. Please read one of my earlier posts here on why empathy is critical and how to cultivate empathy.


The objective of a social research study led by economist Raj Chetty was to determine where the US is on intergenerational income mobility—a child’s chance of moving up to a higher income bracket compared to her parents.

The answer? No progress. Income inequality has worsened over time.

The US (especially the south-eastern and rust belt states) is significantly lower than most other developed countries in this regard.

The study says:

The consequences of the birth lottery – the parents to whom a child is born – are larger today than in the past.

Translation: Where and to whom you are born matters. A lot.

Bummer. All this supposed progress, but we’re going the wrong way.

In such an environment, we would all do well to restore the inequities caused by the system.

The least we can do

  • Learn to recognize entitlement by truly believing that life owes us nothing.
  • Be a bit more human in our interactions. It means talking to people who don’t look like us, talk like us, drive like us, or eat like us.
  • Stop throwing hissy fits when things don’t go our way.
  • Learn to be happy. Genuinely happy for someone else.

We may personally not be able to restore income inequality, but we certainly can work on restoring our humanity. Doing so requires a degree of self-awareness in recognizing how fortunate we are.

Just two steps—stopping ourselves from constantly engaging in comparison shenanigans and building more empathy—can help us transition from entitlement to enlightenment.

Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first – Mark Twain



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