First posted on Huffington Post 11.6.12
Self-actualization? Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid with “being all you can be” at the top (co-opted by the U.S. Army as a marketing slogan) was a wake-up call for Americans in the 1950s when personal behavior and goals were so influenced by predominant societal ways. Abe’s humanistic psychology theory was made for the 60s with the advent of hippie culture and the idea that we should all “follow our bliss.”
Unfortunately, Maslow died young in 1970 at age 62 and the “Me Decade” turned “self-actualization” into “self-absorption.” His legacy got lost in the academic psychology world and, for some, the Hierarchy of Needs represented more of a Tyranny of Wants. I was fortunate to be gifted with Maslow’s journals written in the last ten years of his life. In his writing, it’s very clear that Abe’s desire was to see how his iconic theory could apply to the collective, not just the individual, as he pondered, “Can an organization or a society actualize?” And this is partially why, later in his life, he introduced a seven- and an eight-level pyramid with “self-transcendence” at the top.
It’s been more than five years since I wrote PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow where I outlined how my boutique hotel company reinterpreted Maslow’s theory to transform our organization at the bottom of a deep economic downturn. I’ve had the good fortune of introducing my theories in PEAK to diverse groups on five continents. And, as I spend more time with younger leaders – and more time in Asia – it’s clear to me that it’s time to change the language at the peak of this pyramid.
I see just how important Maslow’s theory was in reaction to the stifling social rules of mid-20th century America. And I deeply believe that all of us aspire on some level when we’re trying to be all we can be in our lives. But, the times and the calculus of how the world works have changed.
I propose we start imagining “social-actualization” at the top of the pyramid. We’re moving from an era when “rugged individualism” was foundational to how we defined success to an era when collaboration is essential for both personal and societal success. Some of my transition may be due to spending so much time in Asia with its historical predilection toward collective rather than individual success. But, it’s even more influenced by what I learn from talking to young people all over the world. And the fact that in many business schools the most popular classes today are on how to become a social entrepreneur focused on solving the world’s collective problems.
So, what qualities distinguish someone who is social-actualizing as opposed to self-actualizing? Abe Maslow suggested that a “peaker” (someone self-actualizing) had a tendency to get lost in the love of what they were doing. This losing oneself can also be prevalent in a social-actualizer, but what’s different is that this person’s purpose is focused on a collective good rather than just a personal good (although a longer discussion with the Ayn Rand-ers might suggest these are the same). So a “social peaker” focuses on systemic effects and social gains in their actualization. Additionally, as more research shows the social and emotional contagion that connects us, a social-actualizer also imagines the ripple effect they may have on others. For example, a self-actualizer might pursue their passion – whether it’s being a triathlete or learning how to give great speeches – with the primary focus being on how it makes them feel. A social-actualizer might choose to enter a triathlon that supports a cause or use their speech-giving to make a difference.
We may feel the glow from someone who’s in the midst of self-actualizing and that can move us to greatness as well. But, when we’re in the orbit of a social-actualizer, we feel drawn to a higher calling and one that can create a sort of “collective effervescence” of a group. A self-actualizer rower can win individual speed records, but a crew, when they’re in the midst of social-actualization, can experience what is called “swing” in rowing circles. It’s that miraculous moment in physics when a group is so connected and in unison of a common purpose that the boat literally elevates in the water – diminishing friction and increasing speed. Here’s to the 21st century being one swinging era in the history of mankind.