Intro to Self-Actualization
Imagine walking into a room and seeing a group of people huddled around one man. As you move up close, you see what they see -- there's something remarkable about this man; he's different from anyone you've met before. When it's finally your turn to shake hands, you look in his eyes and realize the difference. It's subtle yet powerful. He is not acting out of fear, lack, or need. He is living life by giving his greatest gift.
Self-actualized people have this instantly noticeable quality about them. They are also rare, deeply fulfilled with life, and tend to be materially successful.
Why You Should Care About Self-Actualization
I have a silly question for you: Are you a human being? Seriously, what does it mean to act like a human being? How much of a human are you being? Do you even realize what your potential is? Let's see.
One of the greatest feelings in the world is that clean "high" of knowing that you're living up to your greatest potential. It's a combination of pride, aliveness, high awareness, gratitude, and action-taking.
Have you ever thought about why you get teary-eyed during an epic movie like Braveheart, 300, or The Gladiator? Or why you get choked up watching athletes perform in the Olympics? One theory is that when you see another human being achieving excellence and living up to his full potential, you cry because you get a brief glimpse of how great you can be. You feel yourself living up to that same level of excellence, in your own way, and you are proud of what it means to be human.
Think back to a time in your life when you accomplished a lot, felt proud of yourself, and felt completely fulfilled. You probably weren't squabbling about petty matters with co-workers, caught in your head worrying about how to pay the bills, or retreating from a challenge in fear. Rather you were kicking ass, taking action, realizing your full potential, and feeling powerful, excited, and thankful to be alive. Wouldn't it be great to feel this way more consistently?
I would argue that life is chiefly about self-actualization and that the feeling of growth and accomplishment that comes with conscious self-development -- and owning life in general -- is the greatest feeling you can have.
But let's be real. Let's not kid ourselves. It's not a question of "Do I self-actualize or not?" Self-actualization is already your default pattern. You're here, you're alive, and life will force you to grow and adapt. The real question is, do you like being life's bitch? Are you satisfied with growing unconsciously, without any resources or skill -- like a first-time cook flailing desperately to put out a pan fire.
Wouldn't it be better to acknowledge the big picture, take control, and use your awareness and natural gifts to create a greater, more fulfilling, more successful life for yourself and everyone else around you?
Here's what taking conscious control of your personal development gets you:
Amazing Emotional Experiences: Not only does it feel good to be excellent, your life is also generally richer: experiences are richer and more meaningful, accomplishments are greater and become awe-inspiring, value and the greatest-good are being honored. You experience high-level feelings and enjoy material rewards more deeply.
Freedom from Negative Emotions: No more getting bogged down in fear, anxiety, jealousy, anger, inadequacy, powerlessness, frustration, disappointment, guilt, stress, or loneliness. You are secure, emotionally stable, and not acting out of lack.
Massive External Accomplishments: Tons and tons of real-world success. You are empowered to create lots of tangible value for others and to get lots of value in return. You get more money, more rewarding relationships, more creative expression, more impact, better health, and better mental development.
Avoiding Massive Pain: While self-actualization might sound new-age, frivolous, and ra-ra, it's actually a biological imperative, innate to every human being. If you ignore your self-actualizing tendencies your life will be miserable on some level and you are likely to develop neuroses.
So the choice is yours. I'd just ask, if you decide against growing, contributing, and kicking ass, what else are you going to do with your time? What is a sustainable alternative? Seriously.
What is Self-Actualization?
In the 1950's, visionary psychologist Abraham Maslow dedicated 30 years of his life to studying innate human potential... his conclusion was that the psychological make-up of human beings is such that everyone has a deep need to live to their highest values, and if this drive is thwarted, will lead to dysfunction. Maslow called this drive self-actualization.
Self-Actualization: the expression of your true self, your potential, and your capacities. Functioning at your peak.
Self-actualization, growth, realizing your full potential... what does that really mean? It sounds mushy, like it could mean anything, but in fact Maslow defined it concretely. The above definition barely does the concept justice. The best way to get a feel for what self-actualization entails is enumerate common characteristics of self-actualize individuals.
When we ask questions like, Who is the evolved and fully authentic you? What does your greatest self look like? We are talking about following. Here's a full-featured list describing a self-actualized person:
- Have a superior perception of reality: they see or perceive in an objective, accepting way without intruding themselves upon what is being perceived.
- Have an increased acceptance of self, others, and nature.
- Have increased spontaneity in behavior. They can be unpredictable and outrageous.
- Are more focused on the problem than themselves.
- Have increased detachment and desire for privacy.
- Have increased autonomy, a sense of individuality. Take full responsibility for achieving their goals and being happy.
- Are resistant to enculturation. World-citizens not beholden to any one culture. Pick and choose what they like from culture.
- Are comfortable being themselves even if it means being unpopular. They just don't give a shit about what others think of them.
- Have a good sense of what is real and unreal. Value truth and facts over beliefs.
- Have great freshness of appreciation and richness of emotional reaction.
- Have a higher frequency of peak experiences. Being in flow; being in the zone.
- Have an increased identification with the human species.
- Have improved interpersonal relationships.
- Have a more democratic character structure.
- Have greatly increased creativeness.
- Have a deep knowledge of themselves.
- Are constantly moving towards unity and integration of their personality and world view.
- Are actively nurturing their talents.
- Place get value on truth, beauty, goodness, uniqueness, wholeness, justice, simplicity, richness, effortlessness, and playfulness.
- Are motivated by growth rather than lack, which snowballs rather than diminishes as it's satisfied.
- Generally enjoy most aspects of life, not just achievement, triumph, or peak experiences.
- Take pleasure in functioning at their prime.
- Take a non-valuing, non-judging, non-interfering, non-condemning attitude towards others.
- Are more loving. Need love less but are able to give love more.
- Embrace conceptual dichotomies, polarities, and conflicts by fusing, transcending, or resolving. Are comfortable with paradox, contradiction, and not knowing.
- Have desires and impulses that correlate with what's good for them.
- Have solid psychological health.
- Live on purpose with a sense of mission.
- Involved with improving the world.
- Willingness to admit and correct mistakes.
- Have an easy self-discipline which comes hard to average people. Duty and pleasure are the same.
- Gratify themselves moderately rather than abstaining through harsh self-discipline.
- Express impulses more, yet use less control. Controls are less rigid or anxiety-driven.
- Are able to express their aggression in a healthier way, as a sort of righteous indignation rather than a lashing out.
- Have a different, new set of concerns: being-challenges vs. needs-challenges.
- Live to experience joy rather than avoid pain.
That's what full human potential looks like, for EVERYONE! It's psychological, and ultimately biological. This is what it means to function at your peak and be an excellent human being.
Puts things into perspective doesn't it? Think of someone you really admire or think of as excellent in their field, chances are they check off a lot of the characteristics from this list.
Does this sound like someone you'd like to be? How much more productive, happy, and successful do you think you'd be if you hit even just 50% on all these points? How well do you stack up against the list?
Not So Fast: the Challenge of Being Human
The human predicament is the gap between human aspirations and human limitations. You are both actuality and potentiality.
Growth has not only rewards and pleasures but also intrinsic pains and always will have. It often means giving up a simpler, easier, and less effortful life in exchange for a more demanding, more responsible, more difficult life.
There are two key forces at play in your life: safety and growth. They are in tension. When you decide to settle for safety, opportunity is limited but you feel comfortable. When you decide to spring for growth, opportunity is maximized but you might feel uncomfortable. The choosing growth over safety is one of the key ways to self-actualize and requires an attitude of fearlessness on your behalf.
Conscious self-development isn't a tactic or a get-rich-quick-scheme. It's a life-long path one undertakes understanding that there will be effort and work ahead. It's not easy to put your authentic self on the line. It's not easy to take full responsibility for your actions. It's not easy to hear unsightly truths. It's not easy to suspend judgement of others. And so on...
How to Self-Actualize
This entire site is dedicated to answering this question because it's not self-actualization deeply personal and a simple 1-2-3 process. However, developing abstract aspects of your self isn't as challenging as it seems.
Man's higher nature rests upon man's lower nature. The best way to cultivate higher nature is to satisfy lower nature.
Working off of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, your big-picture strategy to achieving self-actualization is satisfying more basic needs. You will be more secure taking bold, big moves in your life if you build a solid base of operations that gives you a sense of comfort. If you lack any of the following in your life, find ways to put it in place, with greatest priority on items at the top:
- Food, water, sleep, shelter, sex
- Health, financial security, stable environment
- Friendship, love, family
- Success, respect
The more you secure the above, the more comfortable you will feel pursuing the really exciting and rewarding stuff:
- Creative expression
Don't let this big-picture strategy limit you. If you don't have financial security in place at this point in your life, that's okay, invest a majority of your energy towards satisfying that while you invest a minority into satisfying a higher-level need like gaining respect or even creative expression. There is no rule saying you can't pursue higher-level needs before satisfying lower ones, it's just going to boil down to what your preferences are and how much discomfort you're willing to tolerate. There are many cases of the starving artist.
Maslow's 8 Suggestions for How to Self-Actualize
Here are 8 things you can start doing in your life to get a taste for self-actualization. These are still fairly abstract, so you want to think of ways you can apply each principle somehow to your life.
Example: if you want to apply the principle, "Listen to your own tastes. Be prepared to be unpopular", you might start to notice that you don't wear the clothing you really want to wear because you're afraid your friends will think you're weird. As you notice this, you decide to resist peer pressure and summon the courage to buy new clothing, wear it in front of friends, and take the criticism that comes your way.
- Experience things fully, vividly, and selflessly. Throw yourself into the experience of something fully. Let it totally absorb you.
- Life is an ongoing process of choosing between safety out of fear and need for defense and risk for the sake of progress and growth. Make the growth choice a dozen times a time.
- Let the self emerge. Try to shut out the external pressure for what you should think and feel. Let your experience enable you to say what you truly feel.
- When in doubt, be honest. By being honest you take responsibility. Taking responsibility is self-actualizing.
- Listen to your own tastes. Be prepared to be unpopular.
- Use your intelligence. Work to do well the things you want to do, no matter how insignificant they seem to be. If it's worth doing, isn't it worth putting in the extra attention? Your work should manifest to others that you cared about it.
- Make peak experiences more likely. Get rid of illusions, idealizations, and false notions. Learn what you are good at and what your potentialities are not.
- Find out who you are, what you are, what you like and don't like, what is good and what is bad for you, where you're going, what your mission is. Opening yourself up in this way identifies your defenses so you can find the courage to give them up.
- Redesign your life to align with your purpose
- Mindsets and tools for exceptional success