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  • Writer's pictureKen Kowach

Self-actualization: Stop wasting your life (and money) and start finding fulfillment

Updated: Mar 24, 2020

I’ve spent pretty much all of my life floundering in the lower levels of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, AKA the self-actualization pyramid (more on that in a second). Of course, I need air, water, and food. For me though, and I am sure many of you can relate, I have spent the vast majority of my adult life wasting away in the fourth level of “esteem”, trying to esteem build.

“What if people don’t like me? I just want to be accepted by everybody, and I want people to think I am important and successful.”

Sound familiar? I'm sure it does, or some variant.

Only in the last couple of years have I started a personal awakening. Maybe it was because I was getting tired of trying to people please all the time or mindlessly buy clothes, cars and “stuff” that I am realizing more and more that I don’t really even want, and it doesn't even make me happy.

If you are anything like me, it’s time to wake up and smell the roses. It’s time to educate and elevate yourselves. Start putting your hard-earned money to far better uses, and quit with all the purchasing of new and shiny stuff, so we can get after things that really matter a lot more in life.


Bottom Line Up Front

According to Abraham Maslow, self-actualization is the pinnacle of human needs. This is also known as the self-actualization pyramid. In this article, I’ll discuss what that is as well as two of self-actualization's most prominent characteristics. Finally, I will explain the importance of money in aiding us to seek and achieve self-actualization.


What is self-actualization?

"As easily as insurmountable debt can cripple us, sizeable wealth can assist us in seeking and obtaining self-actualization."

Let me first say this. I’m not a fully self-actualized person. Almost nobody reaches the mythical “self-actualization”. But I will say that my opinion of it is that self-actualization isn’t a light switch where you either self-actualize or you don’t. I’m on a journey, just as you may be, in developing self-actualization over the span of a lifetime. Now that that’s out of the way…

According to the dictionary, self-actualization is defined as “the realization or fulfillment of one's talents and potentialities, especially considered as a drive or need present in everyone.” You might be thinking to yourself, “Ok, I don’t get it.”

Here’s how I understand it. Self-actualization is basically when we discover something special in ourselves and we go after it because it brings us deep fulfillment and in turn provides us with profound meaning.

The idea of self-actualization comes from Humanistic Psychology, but most prominently through Abraham Maslow’s concept of it. He created the self-actualization pyramid, or hierarchy of human needs, at which the pinnacle or highest level is self-actualization.

Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs assumes that self-actualization can be achieved only after elevating above or achieving the other levels of human needs. Those needs are as follows:

Level 1: Physiological Needs: This is the base of the pyramid. It includes things such as air, water, food, and sleep.

Level 2: Safety Needs: This level includes personal security, employment, health, and property.

Level 3: Love and Belonging: This level includes friendship, intimacy, family, and a sense of connecting.

Level 4: Esteem: This is where it gets interesting. At this level of the hierarchy, respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, and freedom come into play.

Level 5: Self-actualization: This is the level at which the desire to achieve deep fulfillment through profound purpose comes.

maslow's hierarchy of needs, self-actualization pyramid

I would say that most people spend their lives largely in the fourth level of esteem. I’ve talked about this in a previous article as it relates to lifestyle creep, and you can read about that here, on how to reverse lifestyle creep in your own life.

The reason I say this is because of how common lifestyle creep actually is. It exists because of a constant draw towards building on level four, esteem. We commonly make status purchases, and most of our life is spent building up monetary wealth with the purpose of bolstering our esteem. We need to keep up with the Jones's…

What if I told you that we should be building our monetary wealth not to increase our esteem, but to increase our self-actualization? I’ll explain, but first, let me discuss the two major characteristics of self-actualization.


The two major characteristics of self-actualization

spilled ice cream

Acceptance of oneself, including flaws – This is such a major characteristic of self-actualization because without being able to accept ourselves in all our imperfection, we can never rise above seeking esteem and so may be stuck in the fourth level of Maslow’s pyramid. This is the most prominent feature of self-actualization because it is impossible to fulfill the fourth level of esteem without loving yourself.

Enjoying the journey, and not just the destination – This is also a major characteristic of self- actualization because it is a radical shift in the purpose of most of what we do as people. We have careers so that we can work and save money towards retirement. We have children so that they can one day grow up and have children of their own, giving us grandchildren. We keep our eyes fixated on the weekend. Self-actualization involves finding joy and fulfillment along the way. It isn’t about the end but enjoying both the means and the end as all-inclusive. For example, we should strive to enjoy parenting our young children, since their years as children are numbered.


How can money help in achieving self-actualization?

Since most of what I talk about is related to money in some way shape or form, I should certainly talk about it here. As I mentioned above, most people spend their life largely seeking esteem, the fourth level of needs, with money. It is the reason why lifestyle creep is rampant, and I think why millennials value life experience more than possessions.

brick wall with words

Today, the world revolves around money. It is certainly an unfortunate fact, but this is just the way the world is and has been for thousands of years. Still, as easily as insurmountable debt can cripple us, sizeable wealth can assist us in seeking and obtaining self-actualization.

I talk about passive income where I discuss why it is so superior to other forms of income. It is so powerful because it can break our bondage to being tied to a job, lest we lose our house, car, and all our possessions because we can’t pay our bills… so with enough passive income, it allows us to seek out settled work.

Settled work is related to the FIRE movement but is conceptually different because where FIRE is to retire early for the sake of retiring early and having financial freedom, settled work is found by means of early retirement or financial freedom. I wrote about that too and you can read about my article on how the FIRE movement is flawed.

Passive income isn’t the only way to achieving financial freedom. We can put away enough money to sustain us indefinitely, which is more of the traditional way to retire, such as having 401k or IRA accounts.

The point is, being able to hang up our hats and not strive for better jobs, higher salaries, and bonuses free us, not just financially, but psychologically. It allows us to seek our settled work, to find “self-actualized work”. This can bring the greatest amount of fulfillment and meaning when we can find settled work or self-actualized work.


Final Word

Money is certainly a fickle thing, not because of the nature of money, but because of the nature of humans. It can corrupt us so easily and so we need to practice constant self-evaluation to make sure we stay on target. We constantly drift, endure lifestyle creep, become distracted by shinier toys.

The key takeaway is to remember that self-actualization is a constant journey and that we don’t obtain it just once. We are constantly transforming and growing, at least that is the hope.

We need to rise above the tendency to seek out the fourth level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and change our focus to seeking self-actualization. If the reason for wanting to earn more money is to have fancier cars because we can show others we are more successful than them, that might require serious self-evaluation. More than this though, we might not even be conscious of the fact that we only want to show off our nicer car for the sake of showing success.

“Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” – Jesus of Nazarene

Find esteem through learning how to love ourselves first, not through money. Then as the cup overflows, we can learn to properly love others, further building our self-esteem and status, freeing up our money to seek and achieve self-actualization.


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Comment down below about your thoughts on wealth building to seek and achieve self-actualization. I’d love to hear your thoughts and differing perspectives if you have them.

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