Chances are, you’ve heard of Abraham Maslow, and if you don’t recall hearing about him, you’ve probably at least heard of his Hierarchy of Needs. If you haven’t, let me briefly introduce you – everybody has basic needs for food & shelter and a few other things. As your needs are met, you go higher up the hierarchy until you reach the pinnacle: self-actualization.
A lot people will never reach that peak. And it’s not that they are lacking in the basic needs. In some cases, they confuse their Esteem Needs with their Basic Needs and they end up on a treadmill of not-enoughness and status-seeking.
And therein lies the problem with this concept: self-actualization is not a destination to which a person arrives in a linear manner. In fact, even though this pyramid makes it look like once you get your needs met in the other levels, you’ll move up to the higher echelons, the truth is that pursuing the psychological needs can take up your entire adult life.
After reading Maslow’s Motivation and Personality I’m left with the impression that he isn’t suggesting you can take a linear path to self-actualization; it’s not his fault that people look at the graphic and decide they understand the concept entirely.
And that would be ok, except that the path you choose to self-actualization actually matters a great deal. Just like most routes, it makes the difference between arriving at your destination and just getting lost.
The path to self-actualization is different than you may think. In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker J Palmer illustrates this perfectly. He writes, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”Parker J Palmer
Let’s assume for a minute that there are 4 different types of lives you can live: Authentic, Actualized, Affirmation-seeking, Escapist. And, as an over-simplification, let’s say that some of these are active approaches and the some are passive.
If you’re spending most of your life in the top half of this quadrant, you’re letting your heart guide you. You’re living intrinsically. If you’re in the bottom half, you’re living extrinsically. d
And to Parker’s point, even if you think you’re living the values that you’ve told your life you’re going to live, there’s still a high likelihood that those values are ideals you’ve adopted because you think the acquisition of them will lead to more affirmation, status, or affection. The values we try to force ourselves into are generally handed to us by parents, church groups, peers, and society. It requires years of experience, trials, failings, pain, suffering, and courage to figure out what fits. If you’re in your 20’s and you think you have it all figured out, just go with that – no, really, don’t try to figure this all out in a month, or a year – go hard in the direction you’re inclined to go, don’t try to play it safe or smart – you’ll get to where you need to go. Eventually.
…trying not to try
Someday, you may feel like you’re waking up. It will probably happen multiple times in your life. And when it happens, you’ll want to understand everything all at once, and you’ll judge your former self and be a little embarrassed about the silly things you thought you knew. Don’t be embarrassed. We’re all learning in life. The best you can do is make the best of the time you have. And you’re awake now, so move in some direction that feels like forward. Learn to look beneath the surface of your immediate wants and your goals. Practice the art of planning, of moving slowly toward a deliberate direction. Practice the art of letting your conscious will overcome your default programming. This is done bit by bit. If you don’t succeed on a grand scale, start small – try taking a cold shower in the morning – the body will tell you no, but your determination can get you through it – remind yourself that while it is uncomfortable, it isn’t going to kill or even hurt you. In fact, afterwards, your skin will feel amazing, and you’ll feel pretty good about building the habit of showing your fears who’s boss.
Lastly, remember that pursuing actualization can actually keep you stuck in the lower square of affirmation-seeking. This is because being self-actualized is a desirable characteristic. Who wouldn’t want to consider themselves self-actualized? But like so many good things in life, this is like catching a butterfly, or patiently letting a garden grow. You do not tug on the sprouts to help them grow. Instead, you focus on the things that make up fabric of your life. Rather than seeking actualization, an actualized person immerses themselves in life, in others, in causes, in education, in exploring the richness of life and the fruits of deep work and deliberate planning. They are interested in being as well as becoming. They let their authentic voice speak, and learn not to confuse it with the default, fear-driven, egoic tendencies that would prefer to disconnect and play small.
The difference between authentic and actualized
But being actualized is nuanced from being authentic. An authentic person may live in a state of peace, appreciation, enjoyment and acceptance – and let their life be like a leaf floating down a river. They live a peaceful, passive life. Their contribution to others comes from acceptance, of kindness, of adapting to life as it comes to them, and responding in a manner consistent with who they continue to discover themselves to be.
But there are others who choose to interact with life in a playful, active manner. They reach out for expression and connection. These are the builders, the planners, the artists, the dreamers. They can’t help but connect with others and share their gift as they simultaneously discover and develop it. They are not seeking to be actualized, and yet, through the quiet listening to their heart, and their courageous muddling through of authentic, intent-based action, they can’t help but craft a self-actualized life.