Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside, awakes.
Carl Jung

I can’t believe that we would lie in our graves,
wondering if we had spent our living days well
I can’t believe that we would lie in our graves,
dreaming of things that we might have been
Dave Matthews Band, “Lie in our Graves”

A few days ago I was excited to come across an article entitled “The path to self-actualization.” I immediately read it in the hopes of understanding the author’s perspective on exactly what steps we should take to realize our highest potential. Sadly, the article offered no strategies or recommendations. Rather, it provided a cursory review of Albert Einstein’s life and concluded that even though he was fallible and human, he had, in fact, actualized his highest potential. At first I felt disappointed, as if the title was misleading. Upon further reflection, however, I decided it would be worthwhile for me to take a stab at writing a short blog that examines this path, and provides some insight on the necessary steps we must take if we are to actualize our potential. So, here goes …

First, let’s define self-actualization. Essentially, it is the process by which we become motivated to achieve our highest potential. Coined by the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1950s, self-actualization is the highest need that motivates our behavior and represents our ultimate potential. It is often associated with the notion of purpose or calling; it is having something greater than our basic needs that drives our decisions, our behavior, and our lives.

So, is there “a” path to self-actualization? The answer is no. There is no one, singular path for each of us to take to realize our highest potential. Having said that, I do think that there are some common elements that each of us must experience if we are to develop our highest potential, and live a life of purpose and meaning.

This entry starts with a very powerful quote from famed Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. It’s easy to look outside of ourselves and wish we were richer or thinner or (fill in the blank) when we are comparing ourselves to others. However, Jung reminds us that looking outward only allows us to dream about a future. If we want to awaken our psyche to the action required to realize our dreams, we must start by looking inwardly. While there are any number of activities that can be involved in this process, I think there are three that are universal.

First, we must meet our Shadow. The Shadow is the dark side our personality; it is the “Mr. or Mrs. Hyde” counterpart to the “Dr. Jekyll” that we try so hard to portray to others. Rather than acknowledge and own our negative qualities, it’s easier to project them onto others so that we can blame acquaintances or the universe for our failings. To loosely quote Jung again, he said that we do not become enlightened by pretending to be perfect; rather, we become enlightened when we embrace our darkness. When we own our Shadow and take responsibility for our decisions and our behavior, we are liberated to achieve our highest potential.

Second, we must connect to a sense of purpose that defines our life with a sense of calling. When we connect to purpose, we gain a reservoir of persistence that sustains us, even when the logical thing may be to give up. I believe that anything great in life must be accomplished with passion, and a sense of purpose. Individuals who are led by purpose often exhibit many of the other qualities of self-actualized individuals, such as independence, objectivity, and intense focus.

Third, we must be willing to get out of our comfort zone to take the risk that is often necessary to realize our highest potential. In my 20-plus years of research, I think this step may be the most difficult. So often we find ourselves in a rut, but our “orbit” serves others. When we decide to break out of our self-imposed prison and step into our highest potential, we often disrupt the gravitational pull of others who like us right where we are. It requires courage to break the relationships that no longer serve our highest potential, and sadly, that’s a price many of us are simply not willing to pay. 

I recently read a definition of “hell” that I had not heard of before: On your last day, the person you are will meet the person you could have become. I believe that in this sense, salvation is available to those who have the courage to take the necessary steps to close the gap between our current state and our ultimate potential, so that in the end we will find eternal peace instead of a restless mind wondering what might have been.