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Tearing down Maslow’s hierarchy: why self-actualization is impossible

If you want to be an authentic person, embrace reality. Don't try to clamber your way up Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
self-actualization
Credit: ivector / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • “Self-actualization” — the realizing of one’s full potential — is at the very top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
  • Not only is the concept vague, but it may also be entirely unachievable.
  • According to Martin Heidegger, accepting reality is the best path toward authenticity.

What does it mean to be authentic? In the ordinary sense of the word, authenticity consists of a positive sort of non-conformity and transparency.

Consider an aspiring musician. They are often considered authentic because they have chosen an unconventional path. However, in many places, becoming a professional musician might render you the laughingstock of your social circle. Likely, you will be financially crippled because of this decision. Yet, most musicians are aware of these challenges and pursue this unconventional route anyway. Therefore, “authentic” acts are those taken as going against what is customary. Instead of the easy 9-to-5 job with pay and benefits, the musician authentically opts for late nights, ramen, and floors in place of beds.

Many see the word authentic as connected to self-actualization. For example, professional musicians reflect a self-understanding that the 9-5’er does not. In other words, the musician really knows themself and therefore acts with freedom. Authentic people do what they want when they want, and their actions reflect who they are deep down. They have summited Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

That is not how philosophers view authenticity. Existential philosophers like Martin Heidegger, for instance, believe that we cannot wholly escape customs. We can, like the musician, exist uniquely but not apart from the norms of our society. Musicians cannot just do what they want whenever they want. While they can deviate from societal norms by making a living through their art, they still must abide by laws and treat others with common decency.

The tragic authenticity of Sid Vicious

Taken to an extreme, being truly authentic can have disastrous consequences. Consider the Sex Pistols’ bassist, Sid Vicious. “I’ll probably die by the time I reach 25. But I’ll have lived the way I wanted to.” (He was off by four years.)

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Sid almost entirely split from what we would call the “norms” of his time (or even our time, for that matter). If he was indeed authentic and self-actualized, it was at the expense of his life — living as he wanted ultimately led to his demise. To totally deviate from norms is in some sense to commit social suicide, if not literal suicide.

Likewise, according to Heidegger, the self-actualization commonly associated with authenticity is impossible. To be “self-actualized” isn’t just vague, but it rests on the assumption that humans aren’t susceptible to radical changes. To be self-actualized suggests that one has it all figured out — that all of one’s potentials have been fully realized now and forevermore. But is that true?

Consider, for instance, a very successful athlete. What happens when they grow older and their career is over? Are they still self-actualized? Change is integral to life, so self-actualization is undoubtedly subject to modification.

Embrace reality: self-actualization is not possible

Instead of self-actualization, what guides the actions of most people are norms, according to Heidegger. In America, empirically speaking, most of us do indeed wake up and go to our 9-to-5 jobs, not doing much outside of this norm-based routine. Deep down, we know that we cannot entirely escape our society’s norms, so we can never be fully self-actualized. But frankly, this is neither possible nor desirable. Sorry, Maslow, but nobody wants to end up like Sid Vicious.

If we cannot do everything we think that we want to do, then what is left of authenticity? According to Heidegger, the answer is simple: cease refusing to face the facts. Yes, it’s true: the norms of society can be arbitrary and inescapable. Yes, the path we choose comes at the expense of other paths that we may have selected. I, for one, would have loved to have been a professional musician, but lo, I am a writer. The first step to authenticity is to genuinely accept these facts.

For Heidegger, embracing reality can give you a sense of relief and a sense of resoluteness about your life’s trajectory. Moreover, such acceptance is an opportunity to reflect upon your unique potentials, permitting you to choose one to act upon as a path into the future. This will come at the expense of other paths, for sure. But accepting this will allow you to plow forward with seriousness, clarity, and enjoyment, which would otherwise be spoiled through worry and denial.

Do not toil over what could have been, but instead, look with determined delight at what you could become. This is what Heidegger means by “authenticity.”


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