A Schema for Planning Your Self-Actualization

Last week I had to substitute teach at Grand Rapids Community College for my friend Duane, who was out for emergency medical reasons. The class is Interpersonal Communications, a summer session within the Communications department. The class focused on content about defining interpersonal communications as a concept and reviewing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Interesting thing about Maslow. A lot of younger folks think they’re at the top of the pyramid, having achieved self-actualization because they are college students or have a nice car or enjoy the affections of a hot significant other. But young people almost never summit the hierarchy. They’re deluding themselves because they don’t really know what it’s like to be at the very base of the pyramid and lack the life experience to know what it’s like to be the master of your own fate instead of merely succeeding at surfing the winds of someone else’s destiny.

I was thinking about Maslow this week as I enjoyed cigars, Scotch and pleasant conversation with my friend Rob. Rob is a smart fellow and an irritable bastard if ever there was one. He’s the kind of guy who could convincingly yell, “Get off my lawn!” and you’d believe it. But he’s also an insightful guy with a good heart lurking beneath the crust of his curmudgeonhood.

The discussion with Rob meandered across many different subjects, but one that stuck out was life planning. He has goals and the sketch of an outline for getting there, which is good. Many people never think about their Bucket List and fewer still outline a concrete plan of action for achieving any of those items. That’s where Maslow fits in; a self-actualized person won’t just wistfully regret not achieving greatness — he’ll grab it by the horns and wrestle it into submission. Indeed, Maslow himself said: “The way to recover the meaning of life and the worthwhileness of life is to recover the power of experience, to have impulse voices from within, and to be able to hear those impulse voices from within — and to make the point: This can be done.”

I started a well-defined process of life planning in 2007. I revisit my master list every few months to tweak it as needed. Over the years I’ve spoken with people who kinda-sorta understand the value of such a process, but they lack either the motivation to execute it or the conceptual framework for building it. I can’t force people to do anything, but I can offer my own thoughts about how to plan your life well enough to let the self-actualizing kernel within you to thrive. Caveat: What works for me may not work for you. That said:

  1. Disabuse yourself of the romantic notion of who you aspire to be, and start with who you are.  We’re all masters of self-delusion, legends in our own minds. The hardest part for most people is to come to an honest assessment of one’s true strengths and weaknesses without conflating them with the aura of the Ideal Self we keep locked in a deep part of our psyche. When you look at what holds you back, for example, your glance should be inward; if you find external reasons for all of your failings, then you haven’t dug deep enough.
  2. Develop a personal mission statement, a simple declaration for yourself that establishes your vision of what a self-actualized life entails.  A good exercise for getting there consists of the deceptively simple-sounding task of writing your own obituary. When you die — I hope, at a ripe old age — how do you want people to describe the quality of your character? What notable achievements do you want memorialized?
  3. Craft a bucket list of specific, achievable life goals you want to achieve before you die. No two people will have the same list, but the list is relevant. Maybe you want to be published, or climb Mt. Everest, or visit every continent, or run a marathon before you turn 40. Whatever. List at least five things that, when you’re whittling on the front porch as a wrinkled old man, you can point to as extraordinary accomplishments worthy of a well-lived life. When you finish an item, add more. Use the SMARTER approach to developing the lists — make them specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-limited, ethical and rewarding.
  4. Identify pertinent strategies that will govern how these goals should be achieved.  A plan of action requires a methodology that frames the appropriate execution of that strategy. This is the ethics part of the equation. What values color how you’ll live your life? I’ve developed six maxims that guide my own approach:  Reduce consumption; cultivate serenity; nurture relationships; exhibit insatiable curiosity; do fewer things but do them boldly; and favor action over study.
  5. Classify your goals according to some logical schema.  Choose the broad aspects of your life that mean something and set goals accordingly. You could set goals for finances, physical fitness, travel, spiritual development, academic achievement, etc. The schema — the framework — for each person will be different. But the framework lets you set goals in each category and helps you link goals among categories to help with prioritization decisions. For example, if you want to climb Mt. Everest and also reduce your body-mass index from 40 to 25, it makes sense to focus on the BMI restriction first (morbidly obese people may have trouble with mountain climbing). But knowing you want to scale Everest means your exercise program should focus on cardio and endurance instead of just weight lifting, as a strong man with weak cardiopulmonary function will have a tougher time scaling Everest than a slender man who can whip out a marathon without thinking.
  6. Break down big goals into a series of smaller, time-limited tasks.  Maybe your goal is to hike the Appalachian Trail. Good for you, but that’s not enough. You need to start with smaller tasks, like buying gear and doing day hikes and then graduating to overnight hikes in the backcountry. You need to meet fitness goals and bank enough cash to sustain you and research the trail. You need to learn about drop boxes and pick up tips about first aid and figure out how to deal with the various animals and plants you’ll encounter. Hiking the AT may be laudable; deciding to do so with no prior hiking experience isn’t, unless you set milestones to get you ready for the trip. Its also easier and more motivational to meet smaller, local goals that serve as stepping stones to bigger tasks that support a major bucket-list achievement. Divide and conquer.
  7. Track your progress.  Keep your tasks organized in Outlook or OneNote or Evernote. Maintain a journal. Log your calories or your workout routines. Start a blog. Just do something to give yourself a documented record about where you’ve succeeded or where you’ve failed. You need to know how prior performance looked so you can refine your approach in the future.
  8. Revisit your plan periodically and never hesitate to revise it.  Minimally, do a complete re-think and revision every six months. Dedicate a day or a weekend to looking at your progress and adjusting your plans. Treat it like a private in-service: Go somewhere quiet, rid yourself of distractions and continue on your journey of focused self-improvement.  Remember that there’s no shame in adjusting timelines, deleting goals or modifying tasks.
  9. Keep the big picture front-and-center in your daily life.  Print your goals list and keep a copy in a notebook or on your refrigerator. Look at it daily, or at least several times per week. Remind yourself over and over and over about what’s important so that you keep going. Even fitful progress is better than no progress at all.

As I said, this approach won’t work for everyone; it’s a right-brained strategy that favors logic over intuition. Nevertheless, I encourage everyone to follow some path that includes well-defined goals. Especially for folks in their mid-20s through their late 30s — a prime time for laying the foundation for a happy retirement — making solid, long-run choices now may pay handsome dividends later in life.