Psychology Sociology

Reflections on Self-Actualization

The Trek 1055

“…to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” – Abraham Maslow

The above image is me standing on top of a mountain in British Columbia during the summer of 2008. It was the peak of a three day hike off the beaten path, into the middle of the Purcell mountains.

We were completely detached from modern civilization and without technology. Just myself and two other guys, we were isolated from the social world, living off the food we could carry and the water we found in mountain springs along the way. Upon hearing this story, some may say this sounds like a peak experience, potentially bestowing insights that lead to self-actualization, as if reaching the top of the mountain was metaphorically comparable to reaching the top of Maslow’s pyramid. This could not be further from the truth. Although the adventure was intensely exciting, I was twenty years old and more confused than ever.

That summer as a lifeguard at a mountain resort, I decided to abandon my goal of becoming a police-officer to pursue a career in personal-training. Having finished two years of my sociology undergrad, I even briefly contemplated whether or not it would be necessary to go back in the fall. It was that summer I had also read my first non-fiction book –  for some reason until that time the only books I had read were Hatchet novels in  seventh grade. The book was Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth,” a book that had recently come out and had claimed to be able to “awaken your life’s purpose.”

Here I was, in the midst of the picturesque image of nirvana, working as a lifeguard at a hot-springs pool, reading Eastern mysticism and wandering the nearby mountains in my spare time. There was no shortage of introspection. But despite all of this, I was far from walking the path toward my potential. I was a lifeguard, potential police-officer/ potential personal-trainer, and a semi-knowledgeable sociology student who got by on memorizing theories and definitions before the exam. I was at a cross-roads of sorts, having to decide which path I would take.

The summer of easy-living eventually came to an end and I returned to the flat world of Ontario, surrounded by traffic and thick mildly polluted air. Sitting in my first sociology class, the summer’s contrast made the experience of the next two years of undergrad look bleak. Influenced by parental concern over the career prospects of personal training, I decided to finish the degree and apply for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Over the following year I made progress on my policing application and received mediocre grades, largely due to the lack of reading any course content until the evening before an exam. Popular career advice said to “follow your passion,” so I decided to go with the broad default passion of “helping people,” since I couldn’t think of anything else. The way I saw it, I was helping people as a lifeguard, helping people personal training on the side, and some day I would help people as a police officer. Studying sociology didn’t quite fit into the equation of helping me help people, so it wasn’t particularly meaningful.

Without the opiate of picturesque landscapes the following summer, combined with spare time away from school, I fell into a vicious existential search for the meaning of life – no small task. I began watching a documentary or two every day, listening to lectures, and started my old blog I originally called “Atheist Spirituality.” I stopped writing in it a few years ago before starting this one, but you can have a look here, if you’re interested.

That summer’s feverish search for existential insight may not have yielded the answers I was looking for, but it had an unexpected impact on my final year of school. Returning back to my classes, that summer’s intellectual curiosity and existential urgency carried over to the classroom. I began reading more than ever and was obsessively listening to philosophy podcasts in my spare time and during commutes. What began as an existential crisis turned into a high degree of skill in sociology, adding further fuel to the fire. I had built a passion in the area without even realizing it.

My final year I ran on passion and curiosity alone. I didn’t read course material that wasn’t interesting and I didn’t take notes in class. Rather, I took an active interest in the ideas and used Wikipedia to learn about related interests. Without focusing on the grades, I finished my fourth year with nearly straight A’s.

The end of my final year came to a close and I remembered that I was in the middle of my policing applications. Everyone around me seemed to be excited to finally graduate, but all I could think about was how I wanted to learn more. I hadn’t yet found the meaning of life, but I didn’t care anymore since I loved the pursuit of knowledge and had developed a level of skill in the area that surpassed my potential in other areas. It felt like my passion was about to be ripped away too shortly after I had just developed it.

One afternoon during an aqua-fitness class I was instructing, a women asked me the question that changed everything. After telling her I had planned on joining the national police force, she asked me why I wanted to pursue that career. I was caught off-guard by the comment since no one had asked me directly. I replied with a lackluster response citing the high degree of job security, benefits, and good pay. My answer made me realize I was just going along with what I had always said I would do, before I had developed my sociological passion. I decided, right there on the pool deck, that I was going to continue in the field.

I applied to a masters program and my transition out of undergrad was quickly met with an acceptance letter. Since then, I have developed my skill in the area, deepening my passion along the way. Without actively pursuing this path, I feel that I would have been sacrificing potential for security. As Abraham Maslow states:

“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization.”

Self-actualization does not happen while introspecting on a mountain-peak. Passion is not found when wandering a picturesque utopia while reading about how to “awaken your life’s purpose.” Through this journey I have discovered that self-actualization is not necessarily something you attain, but something you pursue. I implore you to actively develop your skills in areas that peak your interest, then narrow your focus to the area that has the greatest potential. This way, your passion will serendipitously emerge with your efforts, driving you along a journey of self-actualization.

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    1. Thank you. I agree that I often write on the level of ideas and concepts rather than personal narratives. Perhaps it is the academic side that skews my writing in that impersonal direction. I’m far better at writing about the experiences of others, rather than my own. Do you have any suggestions?

      1. Maybe you do not need to have a narrative. But I feel it depends on your innate reason for your blog – mine is self reflection. I let how I feel direct what I have to say. This may come out as an incoherent mess to some and reasonate with others.
        Yes, your writing is academic in style. I understand ideas and concepts, I teach, but, what I love with my students is listening to their thoughts, their intrepretations, their take on these. You are insightful, but a little reserved perhaps? Difficult to answer your question. But will follow you to see if you succeed!

  1. “Through this journey I have discovered that self-actualization is not necessarily something you attain, but something you pursue.” You’ve said it all, right there. Very well written and presented. My high was based on Maslow’s principles as best they could. It anything it inspired us to keep pointing. You have never stopped pointing. And we will all be pointing again if we are lucky to reach 80. Thanks for the personal testimonial.

  2. I went to law school. Kind of like if you had become a policeman. Twenty years later, I see law has killed my passion. Okay, maybe killed is a bit strong. It has seriously maimed it. My current object is to coax it back to life. Better to have followed passion to begin with. Good job, you.

  3. I found this very interesting and well written. It reminded me of whe. I walked away from a masters degree in education… I really did not think I would be a very good teacher so I got married and eventually got a masters in community psychology when I was in my forties. Had a great career in the substance abuse field and found my passion doing prevention. Not telling kids not to use but teach g comminities how to change the accepted behaviours and to give your opportunities, skills and recognition which helps them make healthier choices. Sounds like you. Found that same passion..

  4. Its a great piece Steve, I always enjoy reading your posts. The conclusion her though is maybe one of your best. I for one think youve chooses the right path…..for now at least

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