Doing What You Want
Doing what you really want to do is the essence of self-actualization. I’m not talking about eating what you want, wearing what you want, saying what you want, and other people be damned; that’s just narcissism. I’m talking about answering the higher calling within, about creative work, self-expression, and spiritual wholeness.
Self-actualization, i.e., personal growth and fulfillment, is the highest need on Maslow’s hierarchy. Only when we are well-fed, sheltered, are in a safe environment, have a sense of belonging, and have achieved a sense of self-esteem through work, responsibility, or education, are we primed for self-actualization. All lower needs must be met first. Thus a person living in poverty is less likely to ever achieve self-actualization than someone more privileged. This includes spiritual and emotional poverty, too; a child who grows up with his esteem needs poorly met is also less likely to ever achieve self-actualization.
This leaves a lot of us out, doesn’t it?
In fact, Maslow believed that only around one percent of people reach the level of self-actualization. Many researchers believe it to be even smaller than that. I’m not sure exactly what these numbers mean, if they apply to the world population or just the first world population, but it doesn’t really matter, because my point is not to discuss the dismal chances you have of achieving personal fulfillment. I just want to share some of my own experiences with the self-actualizing process.
I grew up in a very non-esteem meeting environment, with two alcoholic parents who were both unhappy and unfulfilled. Inevitably, I was also unhappy. But I didn’t want to be, and I didn’t think I was supposed to be, and I was terrified to become like my parents. That terror was probably a major catalyst for change when I was too young to know anything more. It was enough to get me into therapy in my early twenties, which was the beginning of a long journey toward wholeness.
I spent the first half of my life doing all the things a person needs to do to feel okay about herself. I stayed in therapy pretty regularly for about twelve years. I read, I journaled, I meditated, and finally, at 27, I got sober. This was when the growth floodgates burst for me. It took about another ten years of hard work to get to a point where feeling okay became natural and wasn’t something I had to consciously work at. I don’t mean that it took ten years to feel good, because I felt good a lot of the time and doing the work felt good and it was satisfying. I mean that it took this long before feeling good became my default state of mind.
Somewhere around my mid-thirties, I found myself starting to think in terms of “what do I want to do?” instead of my old “what should I do?” This was a startling change. It was the beginning of the paradigm shift from getting better to moving forward, from esteem needs to self-actualization.
I didn’t know this at the time. All I knew was that there were things I’d always wanted to do, and I started doing them.
I’d always wanted to travel, and I’d always wanted to do a meditation retreat, so I drove out to the east coast (I live in Minneapolis) for a ten-day retreat. I took a whole month off and drove around New England and spent a lot of time on the ocean, which I love. It was the first trip I’d taken alone, and it was one of the scariest and most fulfilling things I’d ever done.
I’d always wanted to learn to ride a motorcycle, so when my friend Jim offered to teach me how, I jumped at the chance. He was pretty surprised when I called him two days later, saying I met his stipulations—I got my permit and bought a helmet—and when could we get started?
Jim was in the middle of his own personal odyssey. It was the end of May, and he was preparing to leave the first week of June for an extended motorcycle trip up to Alaska. Nevertheless, he spent several afternoons patiently teaching me to ride, and he loaned me his old motorcycle to use for the summer while he was gone. By the first week in August, I got my motorcycle endorsement. By the second week of August, I bought my own cycle, a 1991 BMW K75S. The following May, after much encouragement from Jim, I took a ten-day motorcycle trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. By myself. It was one of the most exciting, spiritual, confidence-building, and funnest things I’ve ever done.
Now, I’m not saying traveling and riding a motorcycle are indicative of self-actualization. But you must understand the place of shame and fear that I came from. I spent most of my life too paralyzed by self-consciousness to do anything I really wanted to do. Transcending the fear that held me back all my life was a spiritual experience in every sense. It was around this time that my outlook shifted permanently away from feeling incomplete to feeling whole, but still growing. No longer did I define myself as someone who needed work. I now saw myself as a work in progress.
I started to do other things. I eased away from self-help books and toward subjects I wanted to learn about. I learned to get support for creative development just as I got support for getting healthy. I started writing more and more, and I started showing my writing to more and more people. (All the creative writing I’d done prior to this was locked away safely in a drawer.) I took some very big career risks from which, whether or not they pay off financially, I have learned invaluable lessons in courage and self-sufficiency. I can safely say that I will never be afraid to quit a job again.
Partly out of luck and partly out of being ready, I made another very important shift toward wholeness. I began developing friendships around shared interests and not around shared pain. Jim was probably my greatest ally and inspiration in this endeavor. I’d known him for several years before he taught me to ride, and he always, always, always encouraged me to think in terms of what I wanted. He was naturally helpful and encouraging with everybody. He was also an example of how people should always be with each other; warm, positive, honest, and encouraging. Largely from his example, I learned to have healthier relationships (or none at all) with everyone in my life. I was very, very lucky to know him, and even luckier to now have him for my life partner. Ah, but how that came about is another story.
Let’s talk briefly about spirituality. I don’t think anyone who is living their heart’s desire would describe it as anything other than a spiritual experience. They may use other words, but the meaning is essentially spiritual: a sense of connectedness, inner peace, fulfillment, and joy. Spirituality embodies all personal growth, but especially the highest levels of actualization. Doing what you want is essentially a spiritual experience, and all roads lead to enlightenment. There is much more to say about this, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
Am I self-actualized? Actualization is a work in progress and not an end result, as growth is infinite. But it is a work of your own choosing on your own terms. Having the external trappings of success does not mean you are successful. Often, true success means giving these things up because they don’t really satisfy your heart’s desire. If you have material belongings but aren’t really happy, look deep inside to find out what’s missing. If you figure it out and have the courage to pursue it, then you are on your way to self-actualization.
Do what you really want. At the end of your life, nothing else really matters.