A view of the world from my own unique perspective

Beyond Self-Actualization

Think back to your university days, and I’m sure you’ll recall your professors introducing you to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In the 1940s, Abraham Maslow created this diagram to illustrate, classify and stratify human needs and motivations. The diagram resembled a pyramid, and Maslow postulated that human needs and motivations are divided into several levels. Our basic needs (known as physiological needs: food, water, sex) are at the bottom level, or foundation of the pyramid. Only after these are fulfilled, can we pursue the needs of the next level – and so on, all the way up the pyramid.

The highest level on this pyramid – one that can be achieved only after all of the needs and motivations below it are satisfied – is self-actualization. This has a number of definitions, including “the realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potential”, “the achievement of one’s full potential through creativity, independence, spontaneity, and a grasp of the real world” and “the process of establishing oneself as a whole person, able to develop one’s abilities and to understand oneself”.

Maslow's Hierarchy

There are several variations of Maslow’s pyramid online; this is the diagram from Wikipedia, and it illustrates five separate levels. However, the diagram from my university psychology textbook lists two additional levels above Esteem Needs, for a total of seven different categories. From lowest to highest, they are:

  • Physiological needs: to satisfy hunger, thirst and sex needs
  • Safety needs: to be physically secure and out of danger
  • Belonging/Love needs: to be with others and be accepted
  • Esteem needs: to be competent and gain approval
  • Cognitive needs: to know and understand
  • Aesthetic needs: to find order and beauty
  • Self-actualization needs: to fulfill one’s potential as a unique person

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It’s Time To Update The Hierarchy

Since the 1940s, society has tacitly accepted Maslow’s analysis and his assertion that self-actualization is the highest level that we humans can achieve. However (as you’ve probably guessed by now), I do not. When I look at his hierarchy from The Bob Angle, I see unrealized potential, and a new level to which some of us may aspire. In my opinion, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is no longer complete, and may even be limiting our collective ambition. Therefore, I’d like to propose adding a new level of human motivation beyond self-actualization, which I call “Godliness”. In order to achieve this level, we humans must anoint ourselves with God-like powers.

It’s actually not nearly as arrogant as it sounds. Many of us have already reached this state, and are enjoying it thoroughly. Calling it “Godliness” is merely a new, and (I hope) more motivating way to frame the experience. In order to reach this level, all we have to do is create our own universe, and then invite other people to live happily within it. Fortunately, this universe doesn’t have to be a physical one.

Steve's WorldA few months ago, I read an article about Steve Jobs; the final line read “It’s Steve’s world – we just live in it”. To me, there is no higher praise than that. Just think about how much our world has been sculpted by Steve’s vision. You’ve probably downloaded a few songs from iTunes over the years, and if look around, you’ll probably see within a couple of minutes, somebody using or wearing an Apple product. While admittedly these are collective effort of thousands of Apple employees, their existence depends to a large extent, on the vision of one man. In the early 1980s, Jobs’ desire was to “make a dent in the universe”. He has exceeded that goal and has defined a universe for us as well. His neural synapses have become our enduring reality, even after his death. We are still living contentedly in the world that Steve has designed for us; he has moved beyond self-actualization and has achieved Godliness. Steve Jobs built a world in his own image, and we are inhabiting it.

We are also living in the universes of other inventors and visionaries: Thomas Edison (light bulb, phonograph), Henry Ford (automobile), William Shockley (transistor), Tim Berners-Lee (World Wide Web), Mitch Kapor (spreadsheets), Steve Wozniak (the personal computer), and of course Walter Elias Disney.

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How To Move Beyond Self-Actualization

You don’t have to be a technological visionary or even an inventor to ascend beyond self-actualization and create your own universe. It’s not as difficult as you might think – in fact, there are a number of professions (and even hobbies) that will allow you to do just that.

Author: JRR Tolkien created Middle Earth; CS Lewis created Narnia; L Frank Baum created Oz, and of course JK Rowling created Hogwarts. These places are now entrenched in our popular culture, and references to them are understood as readily as if they had been actual places. From 1997-2007, millions of children (and adults) around the world were immersed in the Harry Potter universe. Whenever a new book was published, children, teens and adults would line up outside bookstores so that they could jump into the world that JK Rowling created, and live there for a while. Imagine the satisfaction she must have felt, knowing that at any given time during those ten years, there were countless thousands of people living in “her” universe. Even if you’re not a best-selling writer, this principle still applies to you – if you write a work of fiction, then you have created a brand new world in your own image, populated with characters who are doing your bidding.

Writer: This also applies to writing short stories, poetry, plays, movie scripts and television scripts. Personally, I’d love to be part of the writing team for The Big Bang Theory. Imagine the thrill of watching Sheldon, Leonard and the rest of the cast members exist in a universe that you helped envision, and then act out whatever you wrote in the script!

Cartoonist: As much as we love to read comic books and watch Saturday morning cartoons, it pales in comparison to the satisfaction of actually designing your own superhero and making him (or her) do whatever you want, in issue after issue. This is a rare privilege indeed.

Computer Programmer / Game Designer: Programming may seem nerdy to some people, but there is a tremendous joy in coding. I first realized this as a teenager in the 1980s, writing programs on our family computer, the Commodore 64. They were very simple programs, written in BASIC, but writing code was such an unexpectedly visceral experience for me. I was creating my own universe on the screen, and I not only got to write the rules, but I could change them anytime I liked. Anyone who used the program, was existing in a world that I created. Unfortunately, I can only wonder if today’s programmers feel that same sense of satisfaction – while modern computer games have much larger, detailed and more realistic worlds, the days of a single game designer are long over. Now each programmer works on only a minuscule part of an incredibly complex world.

Composer / Lyricist: If you can write music or lyrics (or preferably, both), then you are also creating your own universe. It also doesn’t have to be a symphony or anything grandiose – a four-minute pop song can easily transport people to another place and time. Billy Joel created a mini-universe with his song, Piano Man. This particular live version is just magical – even while sitting at home, you can feel the tremendous energy in the crowd as everyone spends six minutes living inside Billy’s world – a local bar on a Saturday night – sitting beside the piano player and getting to know the patrons. I can only imagine what an immersive experience it must have been for this audience, and also for Billy Joel who could look out over these thousands of people, all enjoying themselves immensely inside his universe.

Painter: I can admit it now – I never had more than a cursory appreciation of paintings until I watched Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting series of videos. This video series is absolutely spellbinding. When Sister Wendy Beckett casts her gaze at a canvas, she sees more than I could ever imagine. Her detailed descriptions are mesmerizing and I now understand how much there is to appreciate in some paintings, and how much the artists wanted us to absorb. Painters, through their art, are also creating their own universes, and when we visit a gallery, we escape our own lives and become a temporary inhabitant of those worlds.

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Finally, I’d like to leave you with two things.

Question everything: Disregard what you learned about Abraham Maslow in university. His framework of human needs and motivation is just a theory, and shouldn’t define your view of the world, or make you accept that self-actualization is the highest level you can achieve. As Morpheus said to Neo in The Matrix “You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe”. I believed that self-actualization was the ultimate human experience until a few years ago, when I started seeing evidence of something even better. Rather than discount what I saw, I decided to discount Maslow’s theory. I now subscribe to my own modified hierarchy, and I now aim higher than I did before.

Godliness might be just the beginning: I’m not going to suggest that this new level is the apogee of human experience – that would be arrogant. This is just the best I can offer right now; there may be many more levels of awareness and cognitive functioning beyond it. Some people believe that transcendence (an existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level) or nirvana (a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self) is the ultimate human experience. I haven’t experienced either (yet), so who am I to argue?

Godliness may be the proverbial first step on a journey of a thousand miles. Take the red pill, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes – or in this case, how high the pyramid ascends.

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