“What a man can be, he must be” – Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)
Hey guys! Hope all is well with you! Today’s post ended up being more conceptual than my usual stuff. As someone with a Type A personality (anxious, proactive, rigidly organized, ambitious), I’ve always struggled to balance my hunger for improvement with being present and enjoying the moment.
It’s hard to “stop and smell the roses” when you feel like you’re falling behind anytime you take a break.
This post is as much about me sorting out this struggle on paper as it is about putting out good content for you guys. If you’ll indulge me a little, I hope that reading through this helps those of you who, like me, have trouble with this.
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who conceived of the idea of “self-actualization” – which refers to a person’s realization of their full potential. Maslow believed that all humans have a “hierarchy of needs.” He envisioned this concept in a pyramid, with physiological needs like food and water laying the foundation, and safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization stacked atop the basic needs of the human body.
Many of us are lucky enough to have the bottom brick accounted for. The abundance of modernity means that finding food and water no longer dominate our day-to-day lives. If you are lucky enough to live in America, or any of the countries that we include in the “first-world,” you are relatively safe. You don’t have to worry about being eaten by a tiger, or bitten by a cobra.
The very fact that I’m able to write a blog about optimizing the human potential speaks to this good fortune. If I had to worry about where my next meal was coming from, I doubt I would have time to be concerned with becoming the best version of myself.
The Upper Layers of the Pyramid
With our physiological needs and safety more or less met, our need for love, belonging, esteem from others and ourselves, and self-actualization rise to the top of our concerns. But unlike the bottom two bricks , the upper three layers of Maslow’s pyramid are not sequential in nature. That is, while we need to have food, water, and safety to even start worrying about love, esteem, and self-actualization, we do not need to have love to yearn for esteem, nor esteem to yearn for self-actualization.
Despite this, we cannot reach self-actualization without having the preceding layers in check. That’s because the fulfillment of our human potential is interconnected with loving and being loved (love and belonging), being cherished by others (esteem), and cherishing ourselves (self-esteem). You cannot reach your maximum potential without loving, belonging, being praised, and having a sense of self worth. There would be “something missing.”
My own belief is that this is because humans are social animals – most of the levels of the pyramid are interpersonal in nature.
The stereotypical “highly successful person who is miserable” embodies this idea. He or she could have superhuman levels of productivity and performance yet it would be inaccurate to say that they have reached their human potential.
If you ask me, being our best selves is not just about maximizing our skills, productivity, and performance, but also about having a sense of wholeness. True self-actualization requires the ability to stop and reflect on your life and say: “I am enough. This is good. I am happy.”
This is not to say that you shouldn’t be driven. Actually, it is one hundred percent possible to be hungry for the highest level of achievement and at the same time be fully satisfied with your life.
This might seem paradoxical. The question is, “If I were fully satisfied, then why would keep striving for higher peaks?” Some of us (myself included) are actually afraid of becoming satisfied with our lives, and for a (seemingly) good reason, it feels an awful lot like settling.
The truth is, it’s not settling. It isn’t even a paradox. The reason it seems paradoxical is that we are looking at “our best selves” as a destination to be reached. It’s a definition issue.
As humans, we are wired to feel a brief sense of satisfaction whenever we complete something. This is an impulse that we evolved to help us get motivated to forage for food, track game, and build shelters. Whenever we successful complete one of these tasks, our brains get a hit of dopamine, making us feel good and forming an association between pleasure and performing tasks that ensure our survival.
It is this same association that drives us to do more, be better, and reach higher, but we run into problems when we start thinking that completion can be found through accomplishments. We do feel a brief feeling of satisfaction whenever we see the fruits of our efforts, but it would be a problem for the human race if we became satisfied for good upon completing a task.
Imagine it! If our ancestors had stopped after building a shelter and said, “Well yeah.. I’m hungry, but I feel pretty good after making this hut so I’m not going to go looking for berries,” we would’ve died off for sure! Most likely, the cavemen and women who were wired this way did die off! As such, after our brains taste that dopamine rush, the pleasure quickly fades and we are driven to search for more ways to spike dopamine.
Given this neurological mechanism, it’s natural for us to think of self-actualization as a goal to be reached, but it is this same mechanism that makes it impossible to do so. However, if we look at ALL of the other layers of the pyramid, it’s clear that we don’t think of them as destinations.
Take the bottom layer for example, it would be laughable to think that we could just eat food or drink water once and be done with it. Having our physiological needs in check doesn’t mean that we no longer have to meet those needs. Instead, it means that we have structures and resources in place so that those needs can be addressed as they arise.
The same goes for safety, love, and esteem. Why would the topmost layer be any different? Following this line of thinking, self-actualization is not just about “becoming our best selves,” but the establishment of robust structures that allow us to keep striving to become “our better selves.” This redefinition requires that we change the language we use to that of a fixed point (because there is only one “best”) to that of a continuum (always getting better).
Distilled down to its essence, this entire concept becomes a simple mantra: “Become better today than you were yesterday.”
I hope that this post gave you some food for thought about the drive to improve. I of all people can understand the desire to be better, but I’m slowly learning that “being better” is not a destination to be reached but a path that we choose to take. Thank you for reading.
Till’ Next Time