The Key to What’s Missing in Life: Self-Actualization

The Key to What’s Missing in Life: Self-Actualization
Ever feel like your life looks great on paper, but for some reason it feels like something's missing?

For the vast majority of us, the first couple years out of college are going to be hard. Finding work when you’re young is a challenge, finding a job with stability and a livable wage all the more so. Getting a roof over your head (ideally, one without holes in it), maintaining a healthy diet– it’s all going to be tough. The only thing that’s going to be tougher is knowing what you’re supposed to do once you’ve gotten all that taken care of. There’s the unshakable feeling that something is missing- though what that might be we can’t quite seem to figure out.

The answer to that? Well, that might be a concept called “Self-Actualization”.

Largely developed by a brilliant psychologist named Abraham Maslow in 1954, Maslow mapped out what he believed were the essentials of human existence, not just in some survival sense, but in terms of being intellectually, spiritually, and relationally fulfilled. Maslow argued that the boredom, stress, depression, and angst we so often encounter (especially at times when everything would appear to be going well) is due to a “deficiency” of one or more of these needs. To address this, Maslow created a simple system for understanding what keeps us from being all that you can be.

He called it “The Hierarchy of Needs”.

maslow's hierarchy of needs

Survival and Safety

I work as a case manager at a nonprofit helping ex-felons re-enter the workforce. Employment is one of the greatest factors in preventing recidivism (re-offending), and in all my time working there I’ve noticed a strange pattern. During the time that my clients are looking to get a job – any job – they’re motivated. For many of them, failing to get a steady income in a few weeks means they’ll find themselves out on the streets, or very possibly getting rolled back up into the system. That stage is rarely ever an issue. Instead, it’s when they obtain employment that problems start. They’ve got work, they’ve got homes, they’ve got food in the fridge and even a little money to spare. But inevitably, the question comes up:

“Now what?”

Food, shelter, and safety aren’t the end goals of life, they’re the start. Those of us imagining that we just need a bit more cash in the bank or a little more food in the cabinets are going to be in for a rude awakening. We need more – it’s as simple as that. But more of what? Physiological needs and safety: these aren’t just important, they’re foundational – but they’re still not everything. Once we’re warm, well-rested, and fed it dawns on us that all we’ve really covered are the basics of existence. The answer to the question “So now what?” is actually a very simple one.

That’d be friendship.


One of the things we’re going to find ourselves missing most about college is the circle of friends we had. Out in the great, wide world meeting new people is difficult, and if you’re living away from your family things are made all the rougher. Still, this has got to be your next step. Rebuild a network of people who care about you, appreciate you, and make you feel like a real person. Significance is one of the things that gets stripped away from us out of college – meaning something to someone (heck, even if it’s just a rival) is your way of getting that back.

So now what?


Friends and family aren’t just important because of how they make us feel, they’re important because of what they allow us to feel. Show me a man with confidence and I can guarantee it’s because someone first helped make him feel that way. Pride, self-respect, self-reliance – as much as we might like to think that these things come naturally to us, chances are that we had some assistance along the way.

Of course, that doesn’t make those qualities any less important. A man without self-confidence can’t ever expect to advance in life. A man without any independence is never going to be able to truly create anything of his own. A man without self-assurance, conviction, or a personal code is only ever going to be a victim of chance and circumstance. In the words of many a wise man, “Those who don’t stand for something will fall for anything.”

Be realistic with your standards. Take pride in your accomplishments and lessons from your failings.

So now what?


This is the stage which Maslow thought only the greatest men and women in history had achieved, from Abraham Lincoln to Albert Einstein to Aldous Huxley. This “stage”, as much as we can call it that, is characterized by being all that you can be. While there are countless variations on exactly what this looks like, Maslow himself asserted that it would boil down to a few key rules:


Reaching this highest level of functioning means having a realistic view of yourself, accepting your flaws and inabilities as being every bit as much a part of you as your strengths and talents. Love yourself for what you are, not what you aren’t. Above all else, be able to laugh at yourself.


Don’t let yourself be pressured into behaving in a way contrary to who you are. Whether it’s a friend, a mob, or all of culture and tradition – do things because you think they’re right, not because someone else tells you.


As much as it’s important to have a network of friends and family to support you, you’re never going to be able to have true satisfaction unless you can do things for yourself – whether that’s cheering yourself up or changing out a flat tire.


Never think for a second that you’ve seen everything there is to see, experienced all there is to experience, or learned everything there is to learn. Always be open to new ideas, or better yet, always be seeking them out.


Maslow referred to this specifically as “task-centering”, noting that almost every one of the people he believed to be self-actualized had devoted themselves to a cause of some kind. Nobody’s saying that you have to join the Peace Corps, but there’s got to be some principle, some vision of the future that helps give you direction. What that might be is entirely up to you to discover.

So now what?

Self-actualization isn’t an end, it’s a process. As you move up through the hierarchy of being, so do the issues you’ll face. At the most basic levels we struggle against sickness, hunger, and hazards. At the love/belonging stage we have to confront loneliness, dependence, and toxic relationships. With self-esteem there exists doubt, depression, or arrogance. And then, at the final stage, we’re forced to confront the greatest questions of existence. What’s the meaning of it all? What’s best in life? What legacy do we want to leave?

The greatest individuals in history have grappled with those questions and still haven’t come up with the answers. Perhaps we never will. You can call that nothing but endless struggle, but I call it nothing but endless growth.

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown grew up in the deserts of Syria and now lives in the deserts of Nevada. Since his arrival in the New World, his award-winning work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Modern Haiku, The Ocotillo Review, 3rd Wednesday Magazine, and elsewhere. His writing has appeared in Primer for the past seven years.