According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a human being's needs can conceptualized in the form of a hierarchy with levels.
The lower levels consist of our base needs, both physiological (food, sex, sleep etc.) and safety related (feeling secure in one's environment).
Then once the lower level of needs are met, the person continues to move through the pyramid to satisfy their need for love and belongingness, and a sense of self worth and self esteem, until they reach the top of the hierarchy: their ultimate need for self-actualization, finding a higher purpose that leads to the complete realization of our potential.
I have always been particularly fond of this theory and of all humanistic psychology theories because unlike certain other schools of thought that see humans influenced solely by their sexual urges or repressed traumas, humanistic psychology sees human beings as constantly striving to do better and to get to the top of the pyramid. For example: a person might have food on their plate, a safe home, an active sexual and social life and still strive to develop self esteem..
I've always looked for a purpose. This is because of my own fear of oblivion. That one day I will vanish, and the world will go on, without me having made any sort of impact. Whenever I've voiced these fears, I always get the same response: Why does it matter? As long as you have a good life, and don't hurt others and have all your base needs met, why do you need to find a purpose? Isn't it selfish to put that much pressure on your sole existence? And more importantly what if you never find one?
Here's my problem with thinking this way. If we go by the old adage (or newish acronym: YOLO!): you only live ONCE, then why should we use this life, that for all we know we get to experience just ONCE, focusing simply on fulfilling our lower level of needs? This is not to say that our physiological, safety and belongingness needs are not important. Clearly they're the most important, the need for creative fulfillment seems incredibly trivial when you have an empty stomach, and no place to call home.
But let's say a person is lucky enough to have all these needs met, why stop there? Why not evolve and continue to question things and work on a greater sense of self awareness to uncover our hidden potential? So here's what I've come up with as a guide to working towards becoming self actualized:
1) Don't quit when things get hard
I've always been wary of stagnancy because I spent so much of my life stagnant, caught in an existential rut. Now in my twenties, I'm the opposite because I'll try anything. And one thing my friends and family have always said admiringly about me is that I know what I want. As a friend's parent once put it, "Apps doesn't hold back, she just goes for it."
As much as I wish that were true, the opposite is true. I actually quit, A LOT. All the time actually. In childhood, if I wasn't good at something immediately, I would abandon it, and just go for things I was naturally good at, like writing or public speaking. As I grew up, if friendships or romantic entanglements got messy and I felt I wasn't being respected, I'd leave without a moment's notice.
Escapism can be a good thing in hindsight, especially if the situations or connections you find yourself in no longer serve your best interests, but I can't help but think that had I pushed myself a little more to accomplish certain skills, I might be closer to achieving this lofty purpose I'm always on the lookout for.
I'm definitely getting better at not quitting, possibly because of wholesome friendships and experiences that have led me to become more open to the idea of trying new things and realizing that it's okay to fail. Things not working out is not a reflection of your self worth, and you not being picture perfect makes you, YOU, however cliche' it sounds.
2) Ask people around you what sets you apart
While trying to figure out your purpose, ask people around you what sets you apart, or what your USP (unique selling point) is. As I was writing this post, my former roommate asked me what I was working on. "Figuring out my purpose", I replied. "Hmm," she said, as she pondered on this for a while, "I think making memories is important for you, and you always try to see the good in people. I'd say your purpose is believing in people which makes them believe more in themselves."
Yikes. Those were some heavy words. But I could see why she would think that. I do believe in people, and in humanity in general. I like the idea of possibilities, and to look towards the future with hope and remember the past with nostalgia. It's why I'm so drawn towards stories, whether that be written or visual.
This can be a great optimistic trait but it can also be a little disappointing when you see the darker shades of people, or the sadder parts of life. When you set expectations for yourself and for others because you believe the best in them, you might inspire someone to strive towards their higher purpose or you might make them resent you and feel pressured. Encouraging others to fulfill their potential is a great goal, but it should be done from a distance, by setting an example and living your own life while leaving others to do what they want. Thankfully, in most instances, I have found people who uphold my faith in the goodness of people, and so I'll continue to better myself with people who challenge me to be my best.
3) Don't compare your life to anyone else's
Cannot stress how important this is. We are all making our own way through the hierarchy of needs and in achieving different milestones, and sometimes it's easy to feel a little behind in the rat race. I know I do. I'm 22, and have never had a real job, or been in a long term relationship or been financially independent and have no clue what part of the world I want to settle down in. I know I'm relatively young, and there's a lot of things I've accomplished to be proud of, but sometimes it seems like everyone knows what their priorities are, while I'm just floundering around, making it up as I go along.
But I guess I like the not knowing. I would rather have a life where each new chapter is a mysterious adventure than have everything decided for me or have a straight line life. After all, question marks leave room for answers to develop as life goes on. You don't have to find your purpose by emulating someone else's life, figure out what works for you and go on from there.
My takeaway from this?
While a self actualized existence is incredibly hard to achieve and takes years of discipline, hard work and introspection, I implore all my readers to ask themselves the difficult questions, look within themselves and strive for a purpose, whether that be as small as making someone smile everyday or working towards challenging structural inequalities. We only get one life, why not leave a small mark behind?