Self-Actualization: Our Ongoing Journey


“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be.

This is the need we may call self-actualization… It refers to man's desire for fulfillment… to become everything that one is capable of becoming…”

- Dr. Abraham Maslow

What does it mean to have a successful life? This is one of those big questions that I often ask myself — “What does success mean to me?” It's a topic that I've explored before on this blog, and it was definitely on my mind as I wrote my book, The 10 KIDmandments. I didn't want to tell anyone what success should mean to them or what the blueprint is for raising a “successful” child, because success means different things to different people.

As we grow and experience the world, we all develop our own idea of what success is. Some people associate success with money, some with achievement, some with pleasure, or happiness, or knowledge, or meaning. Through my own personal development, I've formulated my own beliefs about what success means to me. These beliefs tend to come into focus when we begin to raise kids. Whether or not we feel we've achieved our own idea of success, we want more than anything for our kids to grow up and achieve theirs. So how do we teach them what a healthy definition of success is?

Success and Self-Actualization

One of the greatest articulations of the meaning of success that I've ever been exposed to comes from Dr. Abraham Maslow. I began this blog with his quote because I strongly believe that it provides a great way of thinking about success. It isn't about earning money or gaining fame — it's about becoming our “best selves,” experiencing fulfillment by embracing and working toward our full potential.

Dr. Maslow is most famous for his “Hierarchy of Needs,” which he first defined in 1943 and quickly became a foundation theory in the fields of human psychology and sociology. This hierarchy beings with so-called “basic needs” (physiological, safety, social, and esteem) and concludes with the “growth need” of self-actualization at its peak. It is visually represented like this:


Maslow's theory is that our basic needs must be met before we are able to achieve our growth needs. That is, someone without access to food, water, or shelter will pursue those needs before pursuing education or self-actualization. As noted in an explanatory article on Simply Psychology,

“Every person is capable and has the desire to move up the hierarchy toward a level of self-actualization. Unfortunately, progress is often disrupted by failure to meet lower level needs. Life experiences including divorce and loss of job may cause an individual to fluctuate between levels of the hierarchy.

Maslow noted only one in a hundred people become fully self-actualized because our society rewards motivation primarily based on esteem, love and other social needs.”

Even in Maslow's day, people were defining success through material gain, recognition, or influence over others. Maslow recognized that many people reach a plateau and never continue on to “self-actualization.” However, he recognized that the highest state of fulfillment comes from continual self-improvement and growth.

Never Stop Growing

“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” – Benjamin Franklin

Notice that I don't say “finding fulfillment” or “achieving our full potential.” That's because I don't think of “success” as something that you either have or you don't have. Like happiness, I believe success is a journey, not a destination. That's why Maslow's ideas about self-actualization remain so powerful. As I've written previously, I believe the love of learning is the key to sustainable joy and growth.

Maslow's theory of self-actualization encourages us to continue to learn and grow over the course of our lives. When we've identified our path in life, we take great joy in following that path and becoming better at doing what we love. We also make meaningful contributions to the world as we better ourselves. Whether our gift is motivating others, making beautiful music, inspiring others through physical achievements, teaching valuable skills, or nurturing children as they become happy adults, we make the world a better place when we embark upon the journey to self-actualization.

So don't sit back and wait for happiness or “success” to find you. Seek to become “everything that [you] are capable of becoming” and you will experience fulfillment and share your gifts with the world!

I am glad to share our family's definition of success — if you would like more information, please contact me.

What is your definition of “success,” and how does your journey bring you fulfillment? Tweet your inspiration @JeffOddo!