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Maslow, Labor, & Self-Actualization

At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, past the basic needs that people have in order to stay alive & stay mentally healthy, he puts a little triangle right at the top of the pyramid that represents “self-actualization.” It’s a vague term of which most people have a pretty good approximate idea, but nobody seems to have a nailed down definition. The Greek concept of “telos,” an “end goal” is similar, as well as the French “raison d’etre,” but they seem to miss the more spiritual, enlightened part of self-actualization.

Defining it in any kind of good way sounds a little corny, but it is really about becoming all you can be. It means understanding and fulfilling a purpose you have in life. If it sounds unattainable, that’s because it’s rare for somebody to really achieve it. Most people get stuck on lower levels of the pyramid. But at the same time, most people have glimpses of self-actualization, they have the big dream or vision of themselves doing something and they think of all they can be. It’s an idealized version of ourselves, and of people in general that this is our goal in life. It’s such a perfect vision that we want it above almost anything else, it is, according to Maslow, the pinnacle of human achievement, so naturally we want it. Humans are always wanting all kinds of things that they know deep down they often won’t get. But the striving is part of all of our lives.

Over time, it has become more and more common for people to reach higher levels of the pyramid, which causes people to become more and more entitled — and not necessarily in a bad way. It’s literally a good thing that more people are satisfying more of their needs, but something else happens too. As we can satisfy more of our wants, we expect the higher levels of the pyramid at all times. Typically, people were used to having very basic things met every day like eating food and not being murdered. We now not only expect these physical comforts, but we expect certain psychological comforts all the time, like love, belonging, community, and esteem. It’s become generally so easy to satisfy physical needs that psychological needs become basic.

The idea of work, in the Marxist sense, is actually very interesting historically. At a certain point (before Marx and certainly before “capitalism,” but framing it in a capitalist sense makes it easier to dichotomize) work was not a separate category. There was no “work life” and “home life.” The entire point of a person’s life was to just survive. All of somebody’s existence was about getting the resources they needed to stay alive. People are smart, so we got really good at staying alive. We could grow food, make houses, and create life beyond survival. We now had room to grow as people, to build on top of the basic things we needed to survive. We had room for love, community, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. The better we get at satisfying our underlying needs (look at how little people work today or how short the work week has gotten) we can have more room to build on top of it for everything else.

The thing is, somewhere along the way, we got this idea of work not as satisfying these essential needs in order to have time to self-actualize, but as a means to self-actualization itself. This is a tragic misstep. Neo-Marxists and paleoconservatives have this in common. Most people with a good grasp of economics can see why they are both mind numbingly wrong about free trade, theories of economic value, or the function of the state, those are just descriptive issues which are pretty black and white. But they can always resort to the cultural criticisms (which libertarians and free market fundamentalists often incorrectly ignore.) They give (often very interesting) critiques of work and the economy, but they rest on one simple misconception that needs to die, that work, because it takes up a significant portion of your life, should be what makes your life worth living. But here’s the truth:

Economics is not about self-actualization.

If work is this boring rote process that doesn’t do anything for you beyond getting paid, then don’t ask it to be anything more. Stop looking for the meaning of life at the factory, if it’s not there, then it’s not there. There are a lot of other beautiful places to look, I promise you.

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