[This post is the twelfth in a multi-part series called Everything You Thought You Knew About Meaning is Wrong. To be in touch about it, you can always reach me at [email protected] or visit me at https://ericmaisel.com/. Please enjoy the series!]
Self-actualization is a lovely word that stands for our desire to make the most of our talents, insights, interests and inner resources. Instead of using only a small portion of our total being, just enough to get by, we make the conscious, ultimately heroic decision to employ our full intelligence, our emotional capital, and our best personality qualities in the service of something: a cause, a problem, our screenplay, a way of being.
Of course, this is hard. It isn’t so easy to lead with our best personality—we’re rather shadowy, defensive creatures who find countless ways not to manifest courage, discipline, fortitude, and those other qualities that represent us at our best. Likewise, the process is complicated and arduous: we might want to use our full potential in the service of writing our novel, say, but that embroils us in the very real process of novel-writing, with all of its mysteries and difficulties.
Despite these difficulties, we know in our heart of hearts that we would love to make use of our potential and by doing so make ourselves proud. Self-actualization is the way you become your best self as, moment by moment, you make the conscious decision to tap into your potentiality and harness your power. When you do so—when you exhaust yourself in the service of something you deem important—there is every chance that the feeling of meaning will attach to your efforts. That makes manifesting and actualizing your potential one of your golden meaning opportunities.
A client we’ll call Harry same to see me, complaining that he felt as if he was leading what he called a shadow life, a life in which the sun never shined. He quickly explained that he wasn’t talking about depression or despair or a pervasive sense of the blues, but something else, something that was hard to name but that he felt all the time, but especially when he awoke and when he went to bed. “At those times,” he said, “I just feel so small, like I’m three inches tall.”
“What’s your hunch,” I wondered. “What do you think is going on?”
He shook his head. “On the one hand, I have no idea. At work, I’m given all the toughest cases, because I’m smart and reliable and resourceful. So, it’s not like I don’t have the opportunity to dive into things and do real work. But still … ”
“Interesting,” I replied. “The cases interest you?”
“Not particularly. They’re puzzles to solve and competitions to win. But beyond that, no, not particularly.”
“It sounds like you’re using a lot of yourself already when you tackle these cases. But if the cases mattered to you more or differently, is there even more of you that you would use?”
“What would the difference be? Not the number of hours you put in—you already put in a ton of hours. Not the attention you pay—you already pay full attention. What would be different?”
He thought. Finally, he shook his head. “I can’t find the way to say it. It’s as if, with my current cases, I’m sitting down, and if the work mattered to me, I would suddenly stand up.”
“And when you’re sitting down,” I nudged, smiling a little.
“I’m three inches tall.”
We both had to nod.
“So,” I continued after a moment, “the conclusion is?”
“I don’t know. What is the conclusion?”
“Well, I have lots of thoughts. But take a moment and dream up your own conclusions. Then I’ll tell you mine.”
He thought. “The conclusion is an impossible one,” he said after a while. “Right now, I already don’t spend enough time with my family. I know that. My wife complains about that. So, to spend less time with them would be a mistake and a catastrophe. But the solution seems to be to do exactly that, to spend even less time with them and to find a cause ‘on the side’ of my regular work that interests me and matters to me, one where I could ‘stand up’ and really be my full self. But that answer doesn’t work, because I can’t do my job, do that extra work, whatever that might be, and also be a proper husband and father. So, the solution is impossible.”
“No, I can’t quit my job. That would be scary and irresponsible. Plus, I would just have to find a new one, and that one would likely be worse, not better, and there I would be again.”
Now ought to come the happy ending conclusion … if there had been one. But, like millions upon millions of our fellow human beings, Harry, in his exact set of circumstances, had no easy answer available. He was tapped out, stuck in a life full of demands and responsibilities, and not really able to add that extra something that would have made him feel that he was completely or properly using himself.
“I can try one thing,” Harry said suddenly. “I can at least try to identify what sort of cause would really move me. I can’t take on cases there, wherever there is, but maybe I could come to know where ‘there’ is. Then maybe I could at least picture what feeling six feet tall would look like.”
“That is one brilliant gambit,” I replied. “Nice work!”
“You know what?” Harry said. “I feel an inch taller already!”
It’s unlikely that any of us can simply snap our fingers and self-actualize. Too much reality stands in the way. But we can treat self-actualization as a golden meaning opportunity, as a high-bar goal and possibility. Even just having that conversation with ourselves, about what manifesting and actualizing our potential might look like, might start the meaning ball rolling.
READ PART ONE HERE: Everything You Thought You Knew About Meaning Is Wrong: The Even Harder Problem
READ PART TWO: On Craving the Feeling of Meaning
READ PART THREE: Why ‘Is Life Meaningful?’ Is the Wrong Question
READ PART FOUR: Meaning Has Its Reasons
READ PART FIVE: The Cost of Meaning
READ PART SIX: Meaning Has Its Rhythms
READ PART SEVEN: Robbed of Purpose
READ PART EIGHT: Meaning as Nature’s Motivational Tool
READ PART NINE: Your Golden Meaning Opportunities
READ PART TEN: One Golden Meaning Opportunity: Stewardship
READ PART ELEVEN: One Golden Meaning Opportunity: Experimentation
This Post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: iStock