Achieve Self-Actualization: Ditch Maslow’s Pyramid and Set Sail

This post on how to achieve self-actualization is part of Volume 8 of our Unconventional Monthly newsletter on the topic of Super Self-ism.

Live Life to Your Max


“To achieve self-actualization” is a fancy term meaning something so simple that Pepsi Max used it as their slogan: to live life to the max.

Abraham Maslow coined it. He described self-actualization as “to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” You, me, and everyone would love a bottomless bottle of that in our lives. Sadly for Pepsi, it didn’t fit on their label.

You’ve probably heard of Maslow’s pyramid. Each level of the pyramid is a need that motivates humans (the “hierarchy of needs”). And self-actualization is at the penthouse.

But you probably haven’t heard that the pyramid’s now considered the wrong way to look at it. A new model’s out. And there could be a whole level above self-actualization, too.

Psychologist and #1 Maslow fan Scott Barry Kaufman goes into this in detail in his excellent new book, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization. Here’s a quick, cool, and refreshing Pepsi-esque overview for those who want to fulfill their life’s potential.

Maslow's pyramid is a broken model
Life is not a video game, so we’re going to have to take away your pyramid.

The Old Model: Pyramid Scheme

Maslow’s pyramid model needs to be torn down for two reasons:

First, Maslow’s pyramid is it’s not Maslow’s.

It’s McKinsey’s. Or Bain’s or BCG’s or some other consulting firm’s creation. Always overeager to oversimplify things with pretty PowerPoints they can charge big bucks for, they invented it sometime in the 60s.

Ironically, Maslow was not consulted on the matter.

Second, life is not a video game.

The pyramid gives the impression that the goal is to move from one level to the next, like a video game. You’ve managed to scrounge up a roof, bed, food, and clothes? Congrats! You’ve passed level one and unlocked the next: Safety. Then onto the next level and so on until you join Gandhi or Eleanor Roosevelt atop the leaderboard.

Maslow never intended human motivation to be looked at this way. And not just because video games hadn’t been invented yet. Because that’s not how the game works. In life, we’re trying to play all levels at once.

Anyone who’s ever watched an action movie in their life understands this. It’s entirely possible to fall in love (level 3) while bullets are whizzing over your head (putting level 2 in serious peril).

Sailboat model for self-actualization

The New Model: All Aboard!

In Transcend, Kaufman razes the pyramids and floats a new model to explain how Maslow’s needs come together to help us achieve self-actualization:

A sailboat.

(PowerPoint that, consultants!)

Instead of multiple levels on a pyramid, our needs are made of two indispensable and interrelated sections: a hull and a sail. They combine to help us achieve self-actualization.

Sailboat model to represent Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
Source: Transcend by Scott Barry Kaufman / Sailboat illustration by Andy Ogden
self actualization tips

A Hull to Stay Afloat

The hull of our S.S. Self is made up of our three “security needs”:

  • Safety: The comfort of knowing we’ll probably survive, even when the going gets rough.
  • Connection: The need for belonging and intimacy. (And Wi-Fi.)
  • Self-Esteem: Feeling good about ourselves without being narcissistic pricks about it.

All three of these components have to be watertight, sturdy, and streamlined to have any hope of reaching self-actualization. If not, we aren’t going anywhere but down.

achieve self-actualization tips - sailboat sailing into the distance in kenya.

A Sail to Get You Moving

A hull on its own isn’t a boat. It’s a barge. We need sails to set out in search of self-actualization. These sails are made up of three “growth needs”:

  • Exploration: A sense of curiosity, adventure, and open-mindedness (and a free subscription to The Unconventional Monthly).
  • Love: Feel it regardless of what others feel about you, then exude it like “a rose emits perfume,” as Maslow put it.
  • Purpose: The “why” that puts the wind in your sail. Paraphrasing psychologist Kennon Sheldon, do good stuff for good reasons.

Weave these together, hoist them up above a sleek and sturdy hull, and you’re ready to make waves.

Where to go? Let’s look at that now.

Chris stands beside boat washed up on beach in Thailand.
Don’t compare your ship to others and focus on getting your boat sailing.

Tips to Achieve Self-Actualization

No book, and definitely no blog post, has a magical step-by-step solution to achieve self-actualization. (I imagine anyone with the answers has better things to do than write blog posts.) But here are some tips you can’t go wrong with.

Maslow's pyramid is a broken model
Life’s not fair and we’re not all born with the same quality hull. All we can do is make the most of what we’ve got.

Keep It Together

Life gets stormy sometimes. We get dumped, fired, injured, and ravaged by actual storms (or pandemics).

When it happens, forget about worrying about life’s purpose, exuding love, or being adventurous. Focus on keeping the rest of your shit together—the “hull” needs of safety, self-esteem, and connection. Regroup and reinforce those so that when things settle back down again, we’re ready to let our sails loose and self-actualize ourselves silly.

Go In the Right Direction

We’re fighting against the wind when we set our sights on socially desirable, but individually unfulfilling values like wealth, power, popularity, and influence.

Try a can’t-lose mindset instead. That means steering toward values that don’t need to be competed over. Maslow suggested truth-seeking, authenticity, creative spirit, and humanitarianism, among others. And Kaufman reports they have been found to contribute more to well-being than wealth, power, popularity, and influence. These uncompetitive values aren’t as sexy, but then again sexiness is not a self-actualizing value to chase after either.

Focus On Your Own Ship

Worrying about what others think of us, the values we’re going after, and how well we’re doing it doesn’t get us anywhere. First, poor them for having such boring lives to find ours so interesting. Second, worrying what others think does nothing but blow holes in the self-esteem and connection components of our hulls and distract us from more important things.

Collaborate rather than compete and compare. It’s not possible to out self-actualize one another anyway.

Sunken ship to represent our inevitable death
Enjoy the ride because we all have the same destination: to sleep with the fishes.

Enjoy the Ride

“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.”

Carl Rogers

We can all reach self-actualization, but we can’t touch it. It’s not a destination; it’s an action. Focus on the ride itself, make it meaningful, and self-actualize your little heart out until it stops beating.

Pink skies in South Africa.
Transcend your little S.S. Self to go beyond self-actualization.

Beyond Self-Actualization:
Why Sail When You Can Fly?

Achieving self-actualization can seem a bit selfish. Literally, the term has “self” right in it. That’s why later in Maslow’s career he realized there was a whole new level for humans to aspire to:

Transcendence.

Hence the title of Kaufman’s book. As he explains it, transcendence is “harnessing all that you are in the service of realizing the best version of yourself so you can help raise the bar for the whole of humanity.”

It’s selfish and selfless. It’s getting outside our little egos to reach harmony with the outside world.

If you’re thinking this is getting a bit woo-woo, you’re right. It kind of is. For instance, being high on psychedelics can be a transcendent experience. But so too is the feeling of climbing a mountain and seeing nature stretch out before you, holding a newborn baby and appreciating the miraculousness of life, or getting the chills from seeing a teenager stop to help a frail, elderly person load groceries into their car. That feeling is awe, “the everyperson’s spiritual experience,” as David Yaden puts it.

Our brains would explode into a firework show of tie-dye if we experienced non-stop transcendence in life, so don’t bother trying. Simply be on the lookout for moments of it in life. By striving to achieve self-actualization, we’ll find more of them.

More Detailed Instructions for Achieving Self-Actualization

For more detail from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, read Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, by Scott Barry Kaufman.

I felt I win in over my head with his extensive descriptions of each need in the middle of the book, but the early chapters on the new model of self-actualization and the final section on transcendence were plenty enough to float my boat.

Kim and Chris setting out to reach self-actualization
We actually have no idea where we’re going…

Explore With Us on The Unconventional Route

“Even though you’re alone in your boat, it’s always comforting to see the lights of the other boats bobbing nearby.”

Irvin Yalom

Hop on your S.S. Self and accompany Kim and me on our endless quest to take life on an extraordinary ride.

Start by subscribing to our once-a-month newsletter, The Unconventional Monthly, for ideas like this one on a new topic every month:.


Thanks to Tomas (check out his new content writing job platform) and Mom (my life editor) for their input!

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Chris and Kim

Kim and Chris are exploring better ways to do... everything. Think, travel, exercise, work, relate, you name it. Every week-ish, we share a new idea in our newsletter, "Consider This."