“The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” – Carl Jung
The American culture around work and education emphasizes performance over purpose. Instead of encouraging children to welcome their idiosyncrasies and to deeply embrace the things they find innate joy and talent in, we enforce conformity.
Standardized tests, standardized courses, and standardized degrees produce standardized kids who go on to become standardized adults.
Over the course of two decades, a spirited child full of creativity and wonder is gone, replaced by a drone that’s proficient in Excel macros. It’s great for a vibrant economy, yet it comes at the expense of individual expression.
Nonetheless, our childlike spirit remains in us, trapped under layers of societal conditioning that have drawn us so far away from ourselves that we’ve lost touch with our inborn interests and who we once were.
Yet, it pings at us from time to time throughout our young adult lives, and into the depths of our careers. It’s a dull yet persistent sense that something is not quite right.
This is a common outcome for many of our culture’s brightest minds. So many of us struggle to find a greater sense of meaning, fulfillment, or validation in our work. Although it feels like we need to attain more to be satisfied, that’s a conflation of the feeling. The ping from our soul that something isn’t right is the dormant child inside of us asking to be let loose.
So, how do you avoid the trap of successful-yet-not-fulfilled? How do you design a life that activates the needs and desires you had as a child? How can you think through this intentionally before it’s too late?
Using my own career as an example, I’ll walk through a popular model of human needs and describe how to apply it to making more meaningful career decisions. You’ll see how easy it is to fall into the trap of what I call False Actualization.
By the end, you’ll have hopefully gut-checked yourself before making the next move down a potentially incorrect career path.
And, I hope, find your way back to doing something that speaks to your innermost needs.
Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs
American psychologist Abraham Maslow is responsible for one of the earliest and most contemplated models for understanding human needs: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It spurred the creation of many other models for meaning since it was first introduced.
There’s something about it that hits home, not only with the clinicians in the world of positive psychology but for the average person seeking a framework to understand their feelings of meaninglessness.
As such, I’m going to use this model as the centerpiece for demonstrating the prior missteps I made with my own career.
First, let’s do a quick refresh of the model. Maslow’s theory attempts to categorize a broad set of human needs and their relative hierarchy to one another and has commonly been visualized as a stacked pyramid (even though Maslow didn’t create such a visualization himself).
- Physiological. We first need to fulfill our basic physiological needs that account for our species-level survival, such as food, sleep, and sex.
- Safety. Secondly, we must also feel safe and have conditions that ensure our ongoing safety. This is especially true for children.
- Love. If both the physiological and safety needs are well met, then love, affection, and belonging needs will emerge.
- Esteem. People need a stable, firmly-held, high evaluation of themselves and others. First, we desire strength, achievement, adequacy, independence, and freedom. Then, we desire reputation, prestige, recognition, attention, importance, or appreciation.
- Self-Actualization. Even if all the aforementioned needs are met, some individuals may develop discontent or restlessness about their lives. These individuals need to actualize their unique potential and capabilities.
An essential aspect of Maslow’s theory is that each type of need can occupy a different position in the human psyche at any time. For example, all other needs fade into the background when basic physiological needs are not met, such as a person dying of dehydration or starvation.
On the other hand, when all physiological needs are consistently fulfilled, the need for Love or Esteem can take center stage as physiological needs drift into the background of consciousness.
I like to think of the sequence of needs falling into two broad categories: Survive and Thrive. The bottom of the pyramid houses the essentials for an organism to survive. Above those are the needs that lead to a subjective sense of thriving and fulfillment beyond basic survival.
The purpose of this post is to examine the tradeoffs that we make within the zone of thriving as we push deeper into our careers.
Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Your Career
We can think of our careers relative to Maslow’s hierarchy. As an example, when we begin our careers, many of us are focused on fulfilling our basic Physiological and Safety needs.
When I was 21, I got my first full-time job. It didn’t pay much. I earned $18,000 per year and had $30,000 in student debt. Consequently, survival was a primary need at the forefront of my psyche. I needed to have enough money for rent, food to eat, and enough left over after those needs to slowly chip away at my student loans.
The debt overhang felt like a threat to my safety as an organism so getting my net worth out of negative territory was a fundamental safety need for me. Consequently, that became the primary thrust of my career in its early days.
After 5 years of working hard and squirreling away money, I managed to pay off my debt and establish some career momentum. That translated into a sense of security, which made room for a new set of needs to take center stage in my psyche during the next leg of my career push.
But as my career grew, so too did the demands of the job. In turn, this changed which needs were met, and which were neglected.
I call this the demand dimension.
While some jobs allow the separation of your work and life into two separate realms, others require a near-complete integration of the two, like being the CEO or an early employee of a growing startup. These are demanding positions that typically make it difficult for your life not to be dominated by work.
When I was VP and President at Wealthfront, my Safety and Physiological needs were more than compensated for, and my Esteem needs were met due to the prestige that accompanied the position.
However, my Love and Self-Actualization needs were majorly neglected due to soaring career demands.
After several years of putting Esteem needs above other needs, I was paying the price spiritually and emotionally.
This may look familiar to you: it’s typical for high-achievers entering mid-career. Disproportionately high work demands will come at the expense of your other needs.
As Maslow stated, each need may occupy a different position in your psyche at any point in time. It’s essential to understand this attribute instead of thinking that each need on the ladder of needs is a box to be checked. And, once checked, it is perpetually satisfied.
That is not the case. Rather, the needs in the hierarchy tend to trade off with one another, especially when one need is heavily emphasized versus the others.
Perhaps this is at the heart of why active duty military members have the highest divorce rate of any profession in the country, with a divorce rate twice the national average. Members of the military relinquish many of the freedoms that civilians have and face stressful or traumatizing situations regularly.
These situations place significant stress on their relationships. Love, Esteem, and Self-Actualization needs can fall by the wayside in exchange for serving the country.
For many high-achievers, the need for respect, admiration, and achievement can swoop in and occupy the psyche once physiological and safety needs are met. However, it’s important to anticipate the unintended consequences of a rapid and primary focus on meeting Esteem needs.
I have a very close friend that works in tech who once said, “I have zero desire to become an executive. It looks awful. I’d like to make it to Director level, at most, and stay there for as long as possible.”
I deeply respected this, because it highlighted an approach to a more balanced life. He already felt respected and appreciated at work, and would rather have more space to fulfill his love needs with friends, family, hobbies, and more.
His pyramid probably looks something more like this:
His career demands are still high, but he stops himself short of demands that consume other aspects of his life. As a result, he’s one of the most emotionally stable and fulfilled friends I know in the technology industry.
You, too, can have the same. Unfortunately, within the ultra-competitive tech world, high-achievers are often enticed to keep climbing up and up, only to then fall into disrepair once they realize how many of their other needs beyond Esteem may be neglected.
The Trap of False Actualization
“You'll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you're doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you'll hear about them.” – Bill Waterson, Cartoonist and Creator of Calvin and Hobbes
If you’ve been conditioned over decades to follow linear paths of success, you may be prone to going down a path of achievement that is not your own.
Self-Actualization is not the same as achievement. Achievement is typically defined by external measures and expectations from others.
Self-actualization, on the other hand, is not measured according to the opinions of others. It is becoming your authentic self and realizing the full spectrum of your unique interests and capabilities. The end result of self-actualization may be external success, but that’s an unintended consequence, not the objective.
A child may have natural math ability but not actually enjoy math. Still, their teacher or parents may push them to accelerate further in math simply because they are good at it, or because it’s “necessary for success.”
However, that child may be better off in the long run by pursuing literature and writing if those align with the child’s own subjective view of fulfillment and meaning.
I fell quite easily into the trap of False Actualization, which is defined as the path to success based on others’ expectations of you, but not what you genuinely want for yourself.
I was a straight-A student, went to a great college, built a great career, and made great money.
And then I was miserable. That wasn’t the outcome I expected.
Eventually, I understood why. I had succeeded over and over again at doing things others expected of me, a pattern that had been internalized from a very early age. Truthfully, I didn’t enjoy a lot of the work I did. Still, I suppressed the unhappiness and continued onward.
In colloquial terms, False Actualization means that you’ve climbed to the top of someone else’s ladder.
This happens when smart people in Silicon Valley are hellbent on starting a company because that’s the most prestigious thing one can do. It happens when ladder-climbers are determined to become high-ranking high-paid executives without asking “is this what I truly want?”
It’s the continuation of the process of standardizing humans that began early in our lives.
I know about this because I have been one of those ladder climbers. At Wealthfront, I was promoted three times in three years. Had I not had a heart attack scare, I would have been on track to be promoted again to CEO — the fourth time in four years.
This is a high-achiever on auto-pilot. I was on auto-pilot headed toward false actualization. I said yes to each new role because I didn’t want to disappoint others, and the esteem was compelling.
By the end of that long journey, my hierarchy looked like this:
I was held in high regard and proud of myself for what I had accomplished, yet I was emotionally, spiritually, and physically bankrupt.
Because I went through all of this, I discovered that there is a better way of doing things.
Avoid the Path of False Actualization: Find Your Model for Meaning
During a recent trip to Northern Thailand, I met a farmer that was a practicing Buddhist. During our conversation, he said something simple but critically important for anyone searching for meaning.
“Everyone wants to get to Bangkok. The problem is that people try to follow other people’s roads to Bangkok. You must find your own road to Bangkok.”
His catchy metaphor is the antidote to False Actualization. You must spend time carving your own path that provides you with your own internal sense of meaning and fulfillment.
Self-Actualization is the output of finding your own way to Bangkok.
For one person, meaning may come through manual labor that pays the bills enough that their family is well-fed and secure. For another person, meaning may come from ditching the rat race to set out on their own path in life separate from the masses, which is my chosen path. Others derive a great sense of meaning by being part of a once-in-a-generation company doing inspiring work, happy to play a small part in a purpose they wouldn’t be able to fulfill on their own.
The question remains: how do I find my authentic purpose so that I avoid False Actualization?
I’ll share my personal process, which I pulled together from various pieces of spiritual wisdom. It involves the following:
- Use Spiritual Autolysis to Examine (and Discard) False Beliefs
- Protect the Mind to Avoid Toxic New Beliefs from Entering
- Develop a Practice That Provides the Heartbeat for Your Life
Examine (and Discard) False Beliefs
Jed McKenna, the pseudonymous author behind the Spiritual Enlightenment Trilogy, coined the term Spiritual Autolysis. Autolysis in biology means to “digest itself”, so it refers in this context to relentlessly assessing all of your existing beliefs to understand what is true.
Ultimately, this is a process to break down and discard old beliefs that are no longer serving you. As Jed McKenna put it:
"Here's all you need to know to become enlightened: Sit down, shut up, and ask yourself what's true until you know. That's it. That's the whole deal - a complete teaching of enlightenment, a complete practice. If you ever have any questions or problems - no matter what the question or problem is - the answer is always exactly the same: Sit down, shut up, and ask yourself what's true until you know."
Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements also provides a repeatable method for Spiritual Autolysis. I’ve taken the approach laid out in his book and adapted it to this particular challenge:
- Understand your beliefs and where they came from
- Practice eliminating those beliefs
- Practice adopting new beliefs
- Try your best every day
To kickstart the autolysis of your beliefs regarding work and building a career, start with the following questions. Pick one, sit down, shut up, and whittle it down until you find what is true.
- What is the purpose of a career?
- What does “success” mean in a career?
- How much does money matter to me and what would I use a lot of money for?
- Should I work until I die, or should I not?
- What do I think of the concept of work-life balance?
- What did my teachers often tell me about careers?
- What messages did my parents give me about a career?
- What do careers look like in different parts of the world?
- What have careers looked like at different points in human history?
- What role does a career play in my overall life fulfillment?
- How have my friends influenced my career decisions?
- How have my bosses influenced my career decisions?
When I went through this process, I underestimated the depths of the delusion I was living.
The financial insecurity I felt as an adult had its origin in the financial insecurity I felt as a child in a low-income family that went through bankruptcy. This realization helped me shed false beliefs still present in my adulthood that I needed to make more money in order to be safe and secure.
Examining, and then discarding, this belief set me free from sacrificing my physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being in pursuit of yet another unnecessary paycheck.
I also realized the insanity that is the American ideal around retirement. It was no longer true to me that the American way was the only way to work.
Japanese wisdom has a different approach known as Ikigai, which roughly translates to “a reason for being.” Retirement has no place within this ancient system for living a fulfilling life. Carriers of Japanese heritage understood that our lives are cut short when we have no reason for being.
Instead of destroying ourselves with overwork until the age of 65 so that we can fall purposelessly into the grave, we can instead find work that satisfies our soul and feels delighted to do so until we take our Big Sleep.
These are just a few of the false truths I was able to deprogram myself away from via Spiritual Autolysis.
Protect the Mind to Avoid Toxic Beliefs From Entering
The second step in my method is about preventing fast food information from entering your mind – which is most of the highly processed information you receive each day. Your mind is already full of many harmful beliefs because you were brought up in a world that indoctrinated you with information before you had awareness and a choice.
Whereas Spiritual Autolysis helps break those beliefs down and get rid of them, this next step is about preventing more bad ideas from taking root in your mind.
The first step I recommend is getting rid of all junk sources of information. Or, if you can’t get rid of them entirely, use whatever tools are available to filter out most of the noise.
For me, that meant all non-work social media and cable TV news had to go. Unless I can hear directly from the source, I ignore the information. Once you’ve limited the firehose of junk food information, continue to listen critically to everything that you hear.
There’s a reason I only follow just a few accounts on Twitter. One is an account that posts pictures of dogs, the other is a non-profit that I’m on the board of that helps military veterans, and another is Mike Tyson, who has undergone one of the most beautiful spiritual and emotional transformations in recent history.
I try to ignore everything else because, at best, it’s second-hand information. The vast majority of public information has been rinsed, washed, and processed as much as the American diet. To understand what is true for you, you need to create enough space to listen and observe for yourself. Most of what we consume is the noise that prevents us from accessing that signal.
Develop a Practice That Provides the Heartbeat for Your Life
The life you envision for yourself doesn’t happen because you think hard enough about it. The life you desire unfolds as the result of daily practice.
As the psychotherapist Eric Fromm once said, “The first step to take is to become aware that love is an art, just as living is an art... we must proceed in the same way we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art, say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering."
I implemented two types of practices in my life. I call them Type 1 and Type 2 Changes.
Type 1 Changes refer to the primary pillars of your life: where you live, the type of work you do, your friendships, romantic relationships, family relationships, diet and exercise, sleep, and any other major affiliations such as a religious practice. These are big rocks where new practices may need to be established.
Type 2 Changes are the small rocks. These are the incidentals that fill out a daily routine, such as the use of a meditation app for a brief morning meditation, fitness trackers to count daily steps, etc.
Most people who are hungry for a change in their life tend to dabble in Type 2 Changes while avoiding Type 1 Changes. This is another big trap.
Type 1 Changes have made the largest and most sustained impact on my sense of peace and fulfillment.
I moved away from a stressful city. I quit a stressful and unfulfilling career. I dropped old friends that were not supportive of my new life direction. I picked up participation in a 12-steps program so that I could be around others that were working hard to transform themselves. And now I’ve shifted my career focus to helping others after stockpiling enough savings from my prior work.
I also use Type 2 tools. I have a habit tracker app that helps me stick to a daily routine to log exercise, sugar, and processed food consumption, morning meditations, nighttime journaling, and pleasure reading.
Both types of change are part of my practice. Some are small, daily patterns. Others are monolithic shifts. The magic is found in the combination of both and you must be willing to combine both types of changes if you want a substantial and lasting shift in your overall sense of well-being.
Make Your Next Move
If you already feel in alignment and fulfilled by your current life, keep it up!
But if you’re nodding along while reading, or feeling the ping that something’s not quite right, it may be time for you to listen inward.
Take the sabbatical you’ve been putting off over and over again. Carve out time in your schedule to do the creative project that you’ve put on the back burner. Stop seeking career advice from others. Talk to people that live very different lives than you do. Travel to parts of the world where making a lot of money and having high-profile careers aren’t part of the cultural lexicon. Don’t stop until you discover your own road to Bangkok.
Charles Bukowski captured the spirit of this best when he said, “Find what you love and let it kill you.”
What Inspires Me Right Now
Meet David Bamberger of Selah, Bamberger Ranch. It’s a story of transformation, patience, commitment, and a love of the natural world.