The Climb. You clawed your way up. Maybe you were born poor, or had a rough upbringing where even some of your physiological needs like food sometimes went missing. Or maybe you had food and shelter, but your childhood was unsafe, filled with dangerous people and hidden-in-plain-sight threats emerging to force you into fight or flight. But you persevered, you were resilient, you were disciplined, committed, and eventually - through sports, music, academics, friends or community – you found stability and success. You finished school. You went to college or started your own business. You focused, put in the work and eventually developed an area of expertise and earned the financial rewards that made the worries over food and shelter a distant memory. You found love and a family, and with continued discipline and time, earned the esteem of your co-workers and peers.
Arrival: You had “arrived.” You had climbed the pyramid and by many accounts you were a “success.” But, instead being flushed with pride, you instead felt a sickening sense of vertigo. You stood, wind-milling at the top of this long climb, at a precipice with no room to move and cliffs on all sides. You sensed it: something was wrong, something was missing. Trapped by stifling conventions and muffling routines, suddenly you had become a cog in a machine and everything in your life had become “have-to’s.” I have to do this, I have to do that. I have to go to work, I have to go to the offsite meeting, I have to go to soccer practice, I have to go to sleep.
Perhaps there was a moment, quiet and alone, where you asked yourself, “wait… this is it? This is all there is?” But, mustering your stoic discipline you quickly found a host of shallow reasons to reassure yourself even as time sped up and the world whirled around you.
Awakening. Yet…there still remained an unspoken longing, a hope, a half articulated promise still lingering in the air… There must be more… There has to be more. At some point something shook up your staid routines, your complacent pace and, awakening, you recognized you had NOT arrived – instead, you were standing, blinking with eyes open, at the precipice of Maslow’s final rung. But this time it wasn’t a step. It was a giant leap – a naked tumble into the dark ambiguity of the unknown.
If you have “worked harder,” “put in your time,” if you have demonstrated “discipline,” and “focus,” “mastered your craft” and “persevered,” then you too may have arrived… to the doorstep of what Maslow called self-actualization. (Or self transcendence – a later addition to the pyramid.) Self-Actualization is the true “arrival,” though, from outside in, it may not look much different to spectators. What is self-actualization? It, simply, is achieving one’s full creative potential to make the greatest impact on the world. To be the full you, the you that you can be. But, oddly, what got you here, won’t get you there. And, sadly, most people never make that final step – the final leap.
The Leap. As it turns out, the final move up the ladder from safety, love and esteem to self-actualization is for many people a head-over-heels plunge, not a step. For a lucky few, they’ve stumbled into their path, but for most, it means abandoning all the solid and predictable mechanisms that allowed for this stability to appear in the first pace. The scaffolding that allowed many “self-actualized” men and women to achieve a level of esteem and success are actually nearly the opposite of what is required for the final outcome. The discipline, focus, expertise, risk aversion and associated routines that made you the you that you are, become the exact and perfect inhibitors of the you you can be.
Not to say those foundational characteristics are negative, or dishonorable. No: those attributes are the ante, the rite of passage, the cost of entry to self-actualization. Self-actualization without the long hard climb preceding it is a gateway drug to dissolution and self-immolation. We’ve all seen the shortcuts to transcendence (drugs, cults, madness) where the cost of exit far exceeds the cost of entry.
Getting to the Summit. So what separates the base-campers from the summit-climbers? Courage. The ability to stand at the precipice of the pyramid and with vertigo leap into the ambiguous unknown requires immense inner strength and resiliency. Courage is the final requirement to thread the “Hillary Step” of the ascent and achieve self-actualization. To invert all the learning and investment of past climbs and instead leverage that discipline in a new way: to expand openness and opportunity instead of focus, to seek challenge, novelty and risk instead of avoidance or mitigation, to let go of narrow expertise and lean into ambiguity, to find possibility absent the safety of the routine.
Self-actualization has a price. The price of vulnerability. The price of not being everything to everyone. The price of admitting weakness, of failing and falling and getting help and learning the hard way.
Not For Everyone. Self-actualization isn’t for everyone. Some prefer their safe, comfortable routines. The full pantry, the tidy neighborhood, the cloister of family and friends, and the yawning esteem of similar “step-children” waiting and wondering and disavowing that there was ever something more.
“I heard them talking to one another in murmurs and whispers. They talked about illness, money, shabby domestic cares. And suddenly I had a vision of the face of destiny. Old bureaucrat, my comrade, it is not you who are to blame. No one ever helped you to escape. You, like a termite, built your peace by blocking up with cement every chink and cranny through which the light might pierce. You rolled yourself up into a ball in your genteel security, in routine, in the stifling conventions of provincial life, raising a modest rampart against the winds and the tides and the stars. You have chosen not to be perturbed by great problems, having trouble enough to forget your own fate as a man. You are not the dweller upon an errant planet and do not ask yourself questions to which there are no answers. Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.”
Wind, Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Euxpery
Flight. But some, the rare courageous few, recognize that with big risks come big rewards. They fall, they fail, they fly. Some flyers, like in the great parable “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” end up being exiled from their former lives and friends in pursuit of self-perfection.
Other aviators, like my hero, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, risk even more and lose their lives in their search to soar to the summit. Foolish folly or noble choice? Socrates would suggest the latter, expressing at his own trial (where he chose death rather than exile,) “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Conclusion: Without the ascending apogees, plummeting perigrees, and edifying epilogues of these brave souls, the wind, sand and stars would still swirl, routine would still rule, and there would be nothing new under the sun.
Everyone dies. Not everyone really lives.