I’ve been using the phrase Self-Actualization in my thought processes and conversations to describe an amorphous goal. Just the nature of that phrase makes me pause to say: I ought to define this better.

The origin of the term is generally attributed to Abraham Maslow (wiki on the subject), and although I’ve been using the phrase colloquially for years without knowing the origin, I found reading the list by Maslow of characteristics of self-actualizers to be exactly in-line with my understanding of the meaning.

That’s the funny thing about language, isn’t it? We can come to a completely accurate understanding of a phrase purely from context. We’re amazing creatures.

Goal-setting- and systematically tracking towards one’s goals- a strategy ever-popular in the improvement-oriented literature these days- is a nails-on-chalkboard lifestyle to which I feel a core resistance. The “ideals” of goal setting and planning take one out of the intuitive moment. But: goal setting and planning are the only concrete and advice-able ways to get things done. The paradox: I want to achieve and do things- but goal-setting and related tactics feel like the wrong way to achieve anything. For me.

In pondering this, I’ve come to believe that discrete goals are easy to achieve. But evolving goals are another creature entirely.

So what is self-Actualization? What are discrete goals? What are evolving goals?

The mental states of planning and goal setting are in opposition to the mental activity of being tuned-in or intuitive. I want to live a life where most time-oriented work relies on intuition, not calendar. Goal setting and tracking towards them becomes the wrong process- for me at least.

And yet again we have the paradox. I want to achieve things and clarify my vision- be it creative or intellectual or philosophical- and create a vehicle to communicate this vision. Writing, books, and design are all the means to process and clarify vision. (While you might think making underwear is somewhat apart from this, believe me: if you’ve ever tried to buy comfortable and pretty undergarments made from nice or organic materials- you’d know it’s not common. And for all the guys out there- the lacy and wiry bras and lingerie that most girls are wearing? It’s crazy uncomfortable. Making pretty underthings that are functional and comfortable is a clarification of vision regarding femininity and the physical body.)

A way to look at this might be the re-characterization of the word “goal” to mean “desire.”

Discrete goals are easy to achieve: the objective is simple, and one tends to get better in time, regardless of process. These are along the lines of:
Learn a language
Learn a technology system
Run a marathon
Read a book

The tactics to achieve any discrete goal are basically the same:
ascertain you have the core tools (language- speaking and reading skills, marathon- functioning limbs and basic health, etc.)
Read about the basics or get advice
Keep practicing
Keep practicing
And, at a certain point in time, the goal will be more or less achieved.

But evolving goals are fundamentally different.
A good marriage or partnership
A successful business
Happy children

The tactics and strategies for discrete goals and evolving goals need to be, by definition, different. Evolving goals require constant recreation and reaffirmation. A good marriage now does not a good marriage make. A successful business last year might be a failure next.

One could also posit that evolving goals can be further pared down- some types of evolving goals- like a successful business- can be broken down to discrete parts. A good product, a good sales team, a good marketing approach, production, distribution, and a plan for evolving the product and business with time- those lead to a successful business.

But a happy marriage. Or making happy people. It’s not as simple as following the vows set up on day one. There are individuals involved, who truly may have different needs and wants, which may conflict with each other. I’m not sure happy people or partnerships can be viewed outside of their gestalt.

Daniel describes a marriage as “a contract that is being constantly renegotiated with every conversation and every action.”

So what is Self-Actualization? Is it a goal? A desire? An evolving-state?

It’s the process of clarifying oneself, making practical and real all the important elements, and continuing to evolve. It’s not a point in time, though there will be points that feel like achievement.

The practical and pragmatic grounding of this thought process is important to me. Life is practical and pragmatic, and the full majority of people must figure out how to reach their potential within the bounds of very practical realities. We all have bodies and families and so must work or care for them and ourselves in the most earthly of senses.

I get frustrated with much of the literature on self-development or self-actualization or spirituality because often, the writer has managed to remove themselves from many of the practical realities of regular work, through their success in focusing on self-development or spirituality.

You know how, on vacation or during time off, it’s easy to be your best self and feel optimistic and excited about returning to work? That removal from the practicality is what allows one to access a higher state of being. And maintaining that can be easier when all you need to do is focus on it.

I’m interested in understanding how to maintain that higher state of being while being immersed in the vagaries of normal life. That’s the objective of this self-actualization study.


Flash-forward. As mentioned, I wrote the prior part of this post before looking up the phrase-source. And I’m fascinated to find that, as in Maslow’s understanding of the concept, there is no way to view Self Actualization as a point in time. The people with these tendencies are described as “self-actualizers” – indicating the process within the word itself.

To delve a little deeper into the characteristics Maslow identifies (copied from here)
Maslow’s self-actualizing characteristics

  • Efficient perceptions of reality. Self-actualizers are able to judge situations correctly and honestly. They are very sensitive to the fake and dishonest, and are free to see reality ‘as it is’.
  • Comfortable acceptance of self, others, nature. Self-actualizers accept their own human nature with all its flaws. The shortcomings of others and the contradictions of the human condition are accepted with humor and tolerance.
  • Reliant on own experiences and judgement. Independent, not reliant on culture and environment to form opinions and views.
  • Spontaneous and natural. True to oneself, rather than being how others want.
  • Task centering. Most of Maslow’s subjects had a mission to fulfill in life or some task or problem ‘beyond’ themselves (instead of outside of themselves) to pursue. Humanitarians such as Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa are considered to have possessed this quality.
  • Autonomy. Self-actualizers are free from reliance on external authorities or other people. They tend to be resourceful and independent.
  • Continued freshness of appreciation. The self-actualizer seems to constantly renew appreciation of life’s basic goods. A sunset or a flower will be experienced as intensely time after time as it was at first. There is an “innocence of vision”, like that of an artist or child.
  • Profound interpersonal relationships. The interpersonal relationships of self-actualizers are marked by deep loving bonds.
  • Comfort with solitude. Despite their satisfying relationships with others, self-actualizing persons value solitude and are comfortable being alone.
  • Non-hostile sense of humor. This refers to the ability to laugh at oneself.
  • Peak experiences. All of Maslow’s subjects reported the frequent occurrence of peak experiences (temporary moments of self-actualization). These occasions were marked by feelings of ecstasy, harmony, and deep meaning. Self-actualizers reported feeling at one with the universe, stronger and calmer than ever before, filled with light, beautiful and good, and so forth.
  • Socially compassionate. Possessing humanity.
  • Few friends. Few close intimate friends rather than many surface relationships.
  • ———————–
    I found this list of characteristics so interesting because it is addressing, from an observer point of view, the self-actualizers. I’ve started to write, from a doer point of view, about the path of self-actualizing. This is, most likely, part one of a series.

    What do you think?

    Related posts:
    Working in the Real World, Thinking at the Peak
    Improve Your Thinking
    Origami Problem Solving

    Posted by:Brook DeLorme

    4 replies on “Self Actualization Studies

    1. I am on a very similar path. Thank you for sharing this—I’d love to talk more about this at some point if you’re interested. I’m looking for others to connect with around this journey
      Be well and shine on—

        1. Thank you! Indeed, it is refreshing to find others with like beliefs and questions–I have a small sustainable t-shirt printing and painting endeavor (www.mymainetee.com) out of a studio in Portland called “A Gathering of Stitches.” I’d love to get together for tea or a walk sometime. My husband and I moved to Portland in November and are loving the city.
          Let me know when you’re around–
          Be well, Morgan

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