When people talk about self-actualisation they inevitably invoke Maslow with visually appealing colourful pyramids. They present self-actualisation as if it is somehow ‘self-improvement’. The reality is that this is a mischaracterisation. Self-actualisation is not self-improvement — they are not the same thing.
First, we must remember that Maslow never had a linear idea of the basic needs. He never used the pyramid diagram. This emerged later as people co-opted his quite nuanced idea of human motivation to sell Hollywood-style self-improvement.
Next, with regard to self-actualisation, Maslow defines it very carefully in his 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation:
“It refers to the desire for self-fulfilment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.
The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person. In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions.”
Self-actualisation is not self-improvement
Maslow’s description in no way reminds us of self-improvement of the snake-oil type. The type that implicitly holds that there is something wrong with you. That there is something lacking to be improved and developed, so please enrol in this self-improvement programme!
Falling victim to this, one may run after self-improvement, never believing that she is good enough. She may try to add ‘improvements’ to herself, very much like a carpenter building higher and higher in order to reach the heavens. There is always something more to be improved and still something more after that, such that it can easily become an ego game. An ego game that is about validating one’s self on the status ladder of self-improvement.
Becoming who you are
Maslow’s idea of self-actualisation is then much closer to Jung’s Individuation — the process of becoming who you are. It is about looking into yourself to uncover your intrinsic motivations. About becoming open to your unique qualities so that you can express yourself as you are!
It shouldn’t surprise us that these ideas are distorted away from their original meaning. In a sense, the more nuanced something is, the more likely that it will be distorted. At least here, we can remember that self-actualisation is not self-improvement.
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.