On Self-Actualisation

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

A nerdy admission: Each January, I choose a word to sum up my desired ‘mood’ for the year, and then try to set personal and professional intentions that align with it.

I started doing this back in 2013 (the first full year I lived in the US, ergo one allocated to 'discovery') and I’ve kept it up ever since. I find that contemplating the type of energy I want to carry through the year is both clarifying and perspective-enhancing: It reminds me that life shouldn’t be lost to the frantic pursuit of simultaneous social, professional, and personal goals (I have a lot of issues with the notion of 'having it all'; more on that in a future newsletter), but rather that each year is an opportunity to rebalance. To reset. To refocus my attention on whatever area of life I feel needs it most.

Or, as Zora Neale Hurston put it far more poetically than I could hope to:

“There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.”

For 2019, I chose embody; a word came to me out of nowhere but somehow just felt right. I wrote a long list of ways I intended to manifest this new, embodied energy.... and then mostly forgot all about it. That is until last week, when my friend Tierney Finster sent me this Q&A she recently conducted with the writer and artist Jenny Odell – whose new book How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy I ordered immediately, and have already torn halfway through.

I was jolted back to memory by Tierney’s observation that she feels "…disembodied if I spend too much time online, like my mind is taking over and I’m losing touch with the rest of my body unless I send intentional breath there.” This sense of detachment from the physical self is definitely something I’ve grappled with – as have many people, if the ‘mindfulness movement’ - with all its emphasis on sensory awareness - is anything to go by.

As Odell's book thoughtfully explores, our cultural disembodiment is the clear byproduct of too much time experiencing life through screens. This year I wanted to prioritise its antidotes: less social media, more time spent in nature, consistent meditation, and the deliberate pursuit of time with people and in places that I know are guaranteed to bring joy. I was also seeking to redefine the experience of being in my own physical body, having spent much of 2018 recovering from a severe back injury: an experience that left me feeling at once entrapped by, and estranged from, my physical self. On this fundamentally corporeal level, 'embody’ was a commitment to coming back to myself.

But there was more to it than that. I quietly hoped 'embody' might neatly double up as a synonym for 'self-actualise', which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "the realisation or fulfillment of one's talents and potentialities." Contemporary culture implores us to ‘find our purpose’ and ‘live our best lives’, with the unstated implication that doing so begins (and maybe ends) with the ambition to scale dizzying career heights. Despite my best efforts to resist this anxiety-inducing metric, I can't pretend that I haven't felt disheartened by the sense that my own professional efforts fall short.

In my reading around Maslow's Pyramid of Needs - which I wrote about last week - I was interested to learn, then, that Maslow's criteria for 'self-actualisation' feature almost no mention of professional achievement. Instead, his list of characteristics - "efficient perceptions of reality", "comfortable acceptance of self, others and nature", "continued freshness of appreciation" - seemingly define the self-actualised person in relation to their aptitude for having a conscious, connected - and yes, embodied - experience of everyday life.

If Maslow's definition offered an enlightening perspective on what the path to self-actualisation might actually comprise, his 'directions' still strike me as an oversight. As I've written before, I feel increasingly certain that creativity - and any correlated material success - always flourishes from a place of emotional and spiritual wellbeing, rather than the other way around. The notion that you might be able to attend to all your material, personal, and social needs before you can go on to have self-actualised experiences - such as comfort with solitude, or loving interpersonal relationships - seems like a case of the pyramid turned upside down.

In her 'pyramid-upturning' manifesto, Odell warns against our framing of mindful inactivity as a means of ultimately achieving greater levels of productivity once back at work, and calls on us to disconnect from the attention economy for disconnection's sake. As the year charges on and January's intentions are forgotten in a frenzy of busywork, it might be helpful to consider that success could be as simple (and as difficult) as figuring out how we can get back into our bodies, and just breathe.


The Woman Who Wrote The Book on 'Doing Nothing' on Why Inactivity is the Only Thing That Can Save Us, Tierney Finster Mel Magazine

How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy, Jenny Odell Penguin Random House

Self-Actualisation Wikipedia