Purpose And Self-Actualization: A Leader's Guide And Introspective Query

Originally published on Linkedin on January 26, 2015 By Dr. Mario Barrett, PHD
Dr. Mario Barrett, PhD
Most of us question our life’s purpose or direction from time to time. Sadly, many of us are so preoccupied with the daily routines of life or navigating one crisis after another that we don’t give our life’s purpose or direction serious consideration. Even for those of us that do contemplate our life’s purpose or direction, often times a void still exists. This void is deep in our soul and lays at the heart of our subconscious, becoming conscious every time life’s distractions give way to those brief moments of clarity. In these moments of clarity, all is quiet, it is just us and our thoughts, dreams, and desires. These are the times when our subconscious allows those questions of purpose and direction to surface into our conscious mind. When that happens to you, what do you do? Do you run to turn on the television or jump on the telephone to distract yourself, hoping that the new stimuli will force these uncomfortable questions back into the recesses of your subconscious mind? Or do you get depressed and turn to mind altering drugs and self-destructive behavior to replace your fears of not knowing how to address these questions?
You may say to yourself, that you don’t have these kinds of thoughts. No, you just simply go along with life and live day to day, not thinking about your purpose, future, or reason for existing. Well, I know that to be a lie. If this were the case, the majority of society would not turn to religion for meaning and direction, nor would people go to school in search of careers that they believe will give their lives purpose and meaning.
The truth is that most of society yearns for a greater purpose or understanding of what he/she could do to make his/her life more meaningful and purposeful. I have always lived my life inside of this introspective query. Ever since I was a teenager, I was not willing to accept poverty, violence, and despair as permanent conditions for my life. I believed that there was much more out there for me. I just had to do what was necessary to grasp it. Like many, I instinctively knew that my life (the way I wanted it to occur) was within my grasp. However, the problem is, most of us do not know what to do to grasp it. What is it that allows a select few in our society to attain the life they want, while the masses do not? Why can some of us identify our purpose and stay focused on it, while others can’t even identify theirs?
The answer, those that attain the life they want do something most of us are too fearful to do, they allow their natural curiosity pertaining to their relation to the world guide their development/existence. I know I just said a mouthful, but think for a moment. When we look at world leaders, entertainers, artists, scientists, what do they all have in common? A natural curiosity that pushes them to try new and different things and to take risks and make sacrifices that most of us would shy away from. Instinctively we know that it is the willingness to try new things that leads to great new experiences, and it is the risk taking that provides the greatest rewards overtime, along with building a sense of confidence that most of us never develop. Eventually (even with the typical ups and downs of life), those that find themselves in this stage of human development, have realized self-actualization.
Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory utilized a pyramid to demonstrate the ascending sets of needs that human beings work to fulfill as they move through their development. On the bottom of the pyramid are the basic needs, and as one fulfills these needs he/she ascends to the next level of the pyramid or the next stage of human development until he/she gets to the final stage (a stage that few human beings every get to: self-actualization). Now, I’m not going to delve into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory in detail. I leave that research up to you, but I want to focus on self-actualization and how the ascension to this level of human development will lead you to uncovering your life’s purpose.
Self-Actualization’s Role In Finding Our Purpose
You see, what made me different from most of the people that I grew up with was not my “intelligence,” no it was my willingness to follow my natural curiosity to new experiences until I found something that really caught hold of my spirit (my purpose). My curiosity led me to joining the United States Air Force, which took me all over the world in my late teens-early twenties, working for large and small companies, persevering through school to achieve a Ph.D., writing and publishing a book, teaching in college, buying a home, starting a family, and starting a personal leadership and organizational development firm. Now you must realize that all of these experiences were not in my predicted future, but unlike many of my childhood friends, I chose to ask, answer, and be guided by the answers to the following questions that constantly ran through my mind:

  • Am I happy with my life? If not, why?
  • Can I do better? If so, how?
  • What can I do to change my life for the better starting today?

I allowed my natural curiosity pertaining to my relationship with life guide my being and uncover my purpose. I think we all instinctively are aware of our ability to do this, but we allow fear and doubters to deter us from following our unique path and end up following the path that others have laid for us. Do you remember the main character of the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy? Well, she had an purpose in mind (to get back to Kansas), but she allowed her natural curiosity to guide her because she did not know what she would encounter or how it would turn out as she took off on the yellow brick road to see the wizard (the individual that could help her achieve this purpose). All Dorothy knew was that she had to allow her natural curiosity guide her as she followed the yellow brick road. There were many times when the path seemed scary and dangerous, but in the end, she arrived exactly where she needed to be in order to get back to Kansas. Now ask yourself, where are you heading? Are you on the path to self-actualization, or are you on a stagnant path to unfulfillment? As with Dorothy in her journey, you have to surrender to your natural curiosity if you want to uncover your purpose and achieve your dreams. This includes becoming comfortable with not knowing, but continuing to explore and examine until you do know. You have to become comfortable with not understanding, but learn and internalize until you have an understanding. This way of living will lead you to unexpected, wondrous, and exhilarating places and experiences.
You may be saying to yourself, what is he talking about? I’m talking about self-actualization. I’m talking about living your life in such a way that you are fully self-expressed and are doing what inspires you. I’m talking about living a life that is in alignment with who you are and what you have identified (through the process of being guided by your natural curiosity) your purpose to be. Some of you may ask, how will I know what my purpose is? You will find out during your life’s journey, one led by your natural curiosity. In time, you will learn what experiences makes your energy level rise, lifts your spirits, and fills you with excitement. But, you can only find this out through trial and error, which is what makes curiosity key. Only one’s desire to know or learn something will make him/her push through failure/errors. I know that the thought of making a mistake scares many of you. Sadly, our society has made “safety” a priority, even though most of us are “safely” living a life that is unfulfilling. So, you have to make a choice, what kind of life are you going to live-a “safe” one without fulfillment or one with stops and starts from time to time, that will eventually yield self-actualization and a sense of purpose?
Understand that self-actualization is sustainable, unlike engaging in artificial and temporal highs such as drugs and alcohol. Facilitated by self-actualization, the activities within your life becomes your addiction. You begin living a life where you can’t wait to wake up in the morning and continue what you were doing yesterday. You become filled with joy, as your life takes on the role of helping or assisting others, giving you that warm fuzzy feeling inside. Finally, you know that when you turn in for the night, you made a significant difference in the world, and that you will do the same tomorrow. This is self-actualization. This is living inside of your purpose. Sadly, few of us every reach this stage of human development or find our purpose because we are too consumed with the distractions going on outside of ourselves and not about what is going on within.
Do understand that self-actualization is not an end to your human development, but rather a high level conversation about who and what one has to do be fully self-expressed in this world. Throughout history, society has had great introspective thinkers such as Plato and Socrates, who asked thought provoking questions pertaining to humanity’s interaction with life and its sense of purpose. We seem to have lost that inquisitive nature in our society, as we constantly consume a steady diet of entertainment and materialism. My question to you is, are these distractions providing you with the kind of life that you want, one where you are fully self-expressed, one where you can’t wait for the next day to begin? If the answer is no, I challenge you to allow your natural curiosity to guide your life. I guarantee, that along the way, you will find what drives you and what inspires you, leading you to your purpose.
Dr. Mario Barrett, PhD is the Founder and CEO of The Barrett Center for Leadership Development, LLC