At higher levels of the Maslow hierarchy, imagination is a survival skill. At the apex, where self-actualization is the primary concern, lack of imagination means death. Metaphoric death followed by literal death of the sort that tortured artists achieve through suicide. Less sensitive souls, such as earnest political philosophers and technically brilliant but unimaginative mathematicians, seem to end up clinically insane and institutionalized. Or as ranting homeless psychotics.
One way or the other, once you’ve clambered and backslid past the lower levels of the hierarchy, and found a shaky foothold near the top of esteem, lack of imagination kills as surely as hunger or guns. It just takes a little longer. We subconsciously recognize this threat, which is why we eagerly accept almost any excuse to arrest development at the esteem stage. The market for mostly harmless theaters of self-actualization thrives because we know the real thing punishes failure with death or madness. It’s the difference between a shooting video game and a war.
Which is not to say that imagination is not useful at lower levels. Presumably there are imaginative ways to escape from a bear chasing you or feed yourself. But some pretty unimaginative animals seem to manage using robotic instincts alone, so clearly imagination is not necessary. It is only sometimes useful, and often a liability.
But at higher levels, imagination is necessary for tackling life. This is because, at higher levels of the hierarchy, the problem is surplus freedom: what do you do when there is nothing specific you have to do? Where there are many sufficient paths forward, but no necessary ones?
Whatever you do, it turns out that being imaginative in dealing with the challenge of surplus freedom amounts to what Steve Jobs called putting a dent in the universe. Wanting to put a dent in the universe is not a matter of first-world entrepreneurial self-aggrandizement. It is a matter of life and death for everybody who is not killed by something else first.
Imagination and Freedom
If you’re unlucky, you’ve been cursed with the worst sort of freedom, the kind where doing nothing is one of the acceptable, sufficient paths forward. At least for a while.
If you can bring yourself to feel sorry for the rich in these 1%er times, that’s what the curse of wealth is. Lack of imagination can be a problem for the 99%, but is potentially fatal for the rich, because they have the resources to ignore the challenge of self-actualization long enough for it to become insurmountable.
If you’re luckier, there is a harsh, but non-deterministic constraint: lower-level needs dictate that you can do anything so long as it is of a certain complexity above “nothing.” At lower levels of the hierarchy, there are many areas of behavior that exhibit such a probabilistic link between doing an indeterminate something and survival.
In order of decreasing severity, we have, for instance, the following non-deterministic constrained freedoms that apply to most people:
- There is nothing you have to eat (unless you’re a koala), but you have to eat something. Not eating is not an option.
- There is no particular workout you have to do, but you must exercise. Never getting out of bed is not an option.
- There is no particular thing you have to invest in for retirement. Not saving at all is not an option.
- There is no particular work you have to do, but you do have to work. Not working is not an option.
These areas of behavior require you to navigate freedom, but not necessarily with imagination.
You can unimaginatively eat the same food you grew up eating your whole life. You can take up running because most people around you take up running. You can save cash, buy a house or invest in an index fund because that’s what your neighbors are doing. You can follow the same career track as the majority of your college graduating class. As you gain power and authority, the pattern continues: you can unimaginatively set up the same kinds of organizations your ancestors did and and perpetuate the same patterns of governance you yourself endured.
And if you’re like most people, that is what you actually do. The structure of society does not enforce imitation and conformity. The human fear of self-actualization necessitates structures that enable imitation and conformity. There would be riots demanding such structures if they didn’t exist.
No government in history has ever had to deal with the problem of too many of its citizens wanting to live so imaginatively that institutions based on conformity and imitation become unsustainable. If anything, the problem has always been the reverse one: getting enough of the population to act with enough imagination to keep the institutions alive.
Maximal and Non-Maximal Variety
You can tell when an area of human behavior involves freedom, but not necessarily imagination, by the presence of extreme but not maximal variety in solutions: there are thousands and perhaps even millions of sufficient patterns, but not seven billion.
In every imagination-optional case, we can usually solve the problem of freedom through imitation alone. The problem of making up something to do from a vacuum turns into the problem of choosing whom to imitate. That problem has an easy answer: pick people who are most like you, but a few years older.
Choosing to navigate non-deterministic challenges with imagination is a way to deal with self-actualization before it becomes a problem. Equally, choosing a non-imaginative path even when an imaginative path opens up is a symptom of the natural fear of self-actualization. The fear is based on the unconscious (and correct) belief that awakening dormant needs might kill you, and the (incorrect) assumption that not doing so will ensure that they remain asleep indefinitely.
As a result, very few choose to be imaginative.
Unlike imagination-optional life problems, self-actualization is a problem which requires imagination because it is about facing up to the part of you that is unique, whether or not you actually want to be different. The part that is one-in-seven-billion-unique. That part that can turn into a psychological cancer and kill you if you repress it too strongly.
If you look at areas of human behavior where there is maximal variety at least within some population — no two people seem alike — chances are, you’ve stumbled upon an island of self-actualization (actually the principle of maximal variety goes deeper: within an individual self-actualizing life, the future is not like the past and the person is consistently surprising to himself/herself as well as others).
Even the least narcissistic types, willing or even eager to have their individuality be subsumed into an undifferentiated collective, cannot solve the problem of self-actualization through imitation. Navigating the darkness that is the challenge of self-actualization is something you have to ultimately do alone. Collective ayahuasca ceremonies can only help you along so far.
And yes, if you live long enough, you will find you have to do it.
Self-Actualization is not a Choice
The claim that imagination is a survival skill at higher Maslow levels is implicitly the claim that self-actualization is an imperative: something you must do and something you cannot choose to not do.
You cannot dismiss self-actualization as something for hippies at the Esalen institute or Randy (heh!) entrepreneurs Going Galt anymore than you can dismiss breathing. You might be self-actualizing at a subconscious level right now, but you’re doing it. Even if you’re playing out an entirely unimaginative suburban, middle-America life script.
This is true whether you are a terminally clueless trustie born with conscious self-actualization as the top item on your to-do list, or born in the slums and forced to work your way up past the lower layers.
Maslow’s hierarchy is simplistic of course, but good enough for this discussion. The reason it is a hierarchy rather than just an random grab-bag of need-clusters is that higher layers tends to become growth bottlenecks later in life. Each need is always present, at least as a nagging sense of discomfort or incompleteness, but your life situation will make one or the other layer the urgent, high-priority bottleneck.
You might have your ups and downs, but if you’re not royally screwing up, chances are you’ll gradually take care of the lower layers and hit diminishing returns with each, causing the bottleneck to shift upwards slowly. The self actualization imperative will grow from an occasional pinprick that you only notice on unsatisfying vacations after the third pina colada, to a stab of misery every weekend, to a daily bout of angst, and ultimately into a continuously growing sense of dissatisfaction that prevents you from functioning at all. If you’re really lucky, you might get away with just a short mid-life crisis before the health concerns of an aging body drag you down to the physiological layer again. If you enjoy robust good health, financial security and satisfying relationships, you’re likely headed for a kind of psychological trouble our technologically less-advanced forebears never had to deal with in their less imaginative times.
Though very few choose to live imaginatively, I’ve found that people in their twenties often think they are doing so. What they are actually doing is taking on a cargo-cult version of self-actualization as a sort of displacement tactic. It is easier to play that game than take on the esteem or love/belonging layers where the bottleneck actually is at that life stage.
Except in rare cases, for those in their twenties, what passes for self-actualization is a comforting game with toys that help you explore your emotional range and deepen your self-awareness in relatively safe ways. It is not a dead-serious wrestling with something that can kill you if you do it poorly. The need for displacement is something that a few posts on Medium can take care of. Hence, the Silicon Valley cargo-cult version of the Maslow pyramid:
Real self-actualization of course does not look like this. In the real version, the t-shirts have no logos, you buy your own food, you have no time or resources for a sabbatical, and you quit your job for free agency rather than travel. And of course you blog on self-hosted WordPress, not on Medium.
The rare twenty-somethings who accidentally respond to the true self-actualization imperative when it is just a pinprick sign up for a ride that either puts a dent in the universe or kills them, whether or not they are documenting their journeys on Medium.
But by the time you hit your mid-thirties, the self-actualization imperative turns into an urgent and unavoidable concern, where continued neglect can be fatal. If current efforts to extend the average human lifespan to beyond a century succeed, I suspect failure-to-self-actualize will become the leading cause of death (or madness) in the developed world.
An interesting way to visualize your life is to plot the location of the moving bottleneck across a lifetime, relative to the Maslow layers. I’ve plotted a few below.
The green curve is the typical American (white, since America is a majority white country) — someone who might try some risky experiments at some point, wandering into the safety-bottleneck zone through travel, but in general starts and stays in the upper layers, as the satirical hierarchy above accurately portrays.
Purple is a typical trustie, red might represent a kid who escapes a third-world slum and succeeds enough to run into self-actualization as an existential imperative. For fun, I added Batman (blue).
This plot is a specialized, more user-friendly version of what I called the Freytag staircase in Tempo.
I think Maslow got the stacking order right. The need for self-actualization typically turns into an urgent, existential concern — one that can drive you to suicide if you don’t address it — at about the time you start feeling empty and hollowed out by reaching the limits of the esteem game. Overloaded to serve the need for self-actualization, the need for esteem metastasizes into the hell-is-other-people game we know as “self-esteem”.
This is worth a detour.
The Mask and the Daemon
If you’re an introvert, or better yet, a somewhat sociopathic introvert, you’re relatively safe, since you will tend to zip through the esteem layer like a neutrino through Earth. You will develop very little dependency on esteem, whether from others or yourself. Your dependencies will be much more material.
If you’re extroverted, even being a sociopath won’t help you. I have this rather offensive hypothesis that what separates a healthy sociopath from the unhealthy kind is extroversion. An unimaginative sociopath extrovert is almost certain to develop a taste for sadism if he or she rises high enough in the hierarchy, a toxic kind of “getting energized by interaction with others.” The example of Douglas Adams’ Wowbagger, which I have cited before, is relevant here as well. If you top out at esteem, and lack the imagination to move on to self-actualization, you’re at the top of a zero-sum esteem game where the best outcome for the rest of your life is locking onto a pattern of insulting others.
Because you stumble into the zone of self-actualization from the esteem layer, it’s easy and common to parse your new game level in terms of “self-esteem.”
Narcissism is a meaningful concept. Self-esteem (or rather “low self-esteem”) is something manufactured for Americans by talk-show producers. “Low self-esteem” is really non-convertibility of esteem into self-actualization.
The problem that makes you hit the ceiling of the esteem stage is not that you don’t have enough of it, but that it attaches to a social persona you increasingly do not identify with: the mask.
This is why we have the paradox of highly successful celebrities who are visibly swimming in gallons of esteem having “low self-esteem.” The person getting all the praise, prizes and adulation is somebody else not the “real you”.
This is why we have the paradox of fabulously wealthy or powerful 1%ers self-destructing in such astoundingly banal ways, you wish they’d at least have the decency to play out an interesting Greek tragedy narrative on the way down.
You cannot redirect the esteem of others from the mask to the interior. You cannot “esteem” yourself either. What are you going to do? Award yourself a medal? Recite daily affirmations while staring at the mirror? At best you might be able to call Mom, assuming she still understands the “real you” behind the mask as an adult (unlikely).
We live in a milieu where the idea of the “real you” is either exoticized as an elusive thing that the privileged search for via expensive retreats to Bali, or a farcical escapist fantasy constructed by the moronically self-indulgent. Eat, Pray, Love unapologetically sacralizes the former. Dave Barry accurately skewers the latter in his hilarious review of 50 Shades of Grey.
But the “real you” is neither a concern restricted to the ultra-privileged in the West (you’ll run into it at fairly modest levels of material well-being anywhere in the world), nor something that can be laughed away for long. You just need to walk through any downtown block with a decent-sized homeless population to find an uncensored “real me” ranting psychotically at a corner. The “real you” is real, not merely a Louis Vuitton bag some choose to buy or the sort of sophomoric “inner goddess” fantasy that Dave Barry makes fun of.
For want of a better term, I’ll call it the daemon. The daemon is the opposite of the mask. It is simply the accumulating pile of inner realities, which acquires form and definition to the extent that it is consciously recognized by the being it possesses.
When the mask and the daemon are not integrated, your visible behavior becomes a battleground between the two. When the mask wins, the daemon loses some form and sinks a little deeper into the subconscious. When the daemon wins, you get something between an inappropriate outburst and a psychotic break.
When the mask wins, you are treated like a person, but don’t feel like one (what I called gollumization is a special extreme case). When the daemon wins, you feel like a person but are treated as less than one by others.
Either zero-sum outcome is the beginning of the end. The only way out is to integrate the mask and the daemon in a non-zero-sum way. This is self-actualization and it takes imagination.
Shaving the Shadowyak, Creatively
We need a little sidebar on a process that looks very similar to self-actualization but is actually distinct from it: projection.
Projection is a case of the daemon getting too big for your mind, sneaking undetected past the mask, and inhabiting whatever it finds to inhabit in an uncontrolled way. The truly unconscious version of the process, which is always going on, is what Jungians call the projection of your shadow. You cannot see your shadow while it is inside, but you can when it is outside. A shadow is a daemon that can be seen when embodied in external form, but not necessarily recognized as a part of yourself. The only sign you get is an obsessive attachment to a part of your environment (often an evil twin or a nerdy interest) that you cannot explain.
Dealing with your shadow is a necessary prelude to self-actualization, but it can turn into a massive yak-shaving introspection exercise that then turns into an addiction if you don’t level up. I call it shaving the shadowyak.
I won’t get into it here, but there’s a fairly decent bit in Be Slightly Evil with my take on dealing with your shadow (see the chapter Shadowboxing with your Evil Twin). Shadowboxing for too long though, is simply arrested development at the esteem level.
You have to deal with your shadow just enough to turn it into a friendly daemon that you can then begin integrating with your mask. More work on shadows than that is a kind of banal dark narcissism that I am starting to find incredibly tedious when I encounter it these days (which is about 100x more frequently than I want to).
Get your tattoo and piercings, write some gothic-emo poetry and move on. The optimal amount of shadow to have in your head is not zero, but the minimum amount that allows you to move on to the life-or-death game of daemon-mask integration. So long as your inner experiences are strengthening your daemon more than your shadow, you’re good to go.
Conscious work with projections and shadows cannot serve the integrative function of harmonizing your daemon with your mask. There is a crucial missing ingredient required to turn the zero-sum game into a non-zero sum game, which cannot truly operate at the level of shadows: imagination.
Imagination is not the same as creativity. If it were, artists would not commit suicide as often as they do.
Creative expression that lacks imagination is often the result of shadowyak shaving. A dead giveaway is when the primary consumer of a kind of creative output is other creators of similar kinds of output (often true of small, artistic subcultures or writers of Medium self-actualization posts). The creativity of the shadow acts as a sort of internal terrorist insurrection against the tyranny of the mask. It is never strong enough to defeat the mask, or open enough to integrate it, but is strong enough to prevent the mask from winning. This makes shadow creativity no more than a controlled, self-limiting and aestheticized version of the homeless man’s rant on the street corner. It serves to create a unique identity for the speaker and signal that the mask is not dominant, but it does not actually have much effect beyond that. The reason such creativity only attracts similar creators is that the shadows of similar people are similar, and tend to project onto shared external realities. The result is shared meaning and patterns of mutual esteem that exclude those who are dissimilar.
Such creativity does not put a dent in the universe. At best it puts a dent in your bank account.
This is not really surprising. Creativity is a finite-game instrumental capacity you develop in a particular domain through practice. There is no reason to expect it to achieve unexpected daemon-mask harmonization. Expecting creative capacity in one domain to trigger breakthroughs in an unrelated one without additional effort is basically wishful thinking. We do not expect creativity in painting to allow an artist to randomly prove a difficult mathematical theorem. There is no reason for us to expect it to randomly integrate your psyche.
Without imagination, all you can do is creatively shave the shadowyak until the angst becomes unbearable. Then you can dispense with the creative control and aestheticization and simply go rant on the streets (you’ll make about the same amount of money both ways, in the median case).
With imagination though, you can play a new game.
The Freedom-Imagination Equation
I’ll offer a definition: imagination is the ability to create unpredictable new meaning while generating more freedom than you consume.
The experience of being imaginative is simply the experience of being alive to possibilities, in an open-ended way. The experience of seeing many possible meanings and futures in any given fragment of external reality (and not just the ones your shadow has chosen to inhabit).
Unlike creativity, imagination is an appreciative skill with an external locus, rather than an instrumental capacity with an internal locus. To notice a pattern in current events that could serve as a premise for a movie is imagination. To be able to develop that premise into an actual screenplay with compelling characters, fresh dialog and an engrossing plot is creativity. You feed creativity by making things. You feed imagination by being curious about things beyond your own shadow.
Self-expression and increasing uniqueness of identity are results of such use, but are not the objective of it.
You can tell self-actualizing apart from shadowyak shaving because the consumers of the output are often very different from the producers, and often read very different meanings into it. Meanings that often surprise the creator.
What is created during self-actualization is free in a sense: it is not owned by the creator’s shadow or identified with it. Others have the ability to read or project their own, highly dissimilar meanings into it.
That ultimately is the sine qua non of self-actualization: the creation of a net return on invested freedom, or what is usually called generativity. Everything else, good or bad, is an accidental side effect.
Let’s try an ambitious definition.
Self-actualization is the imaginative embodiment of internal realities (what the daemon feels) in the form of a dent in the universe: a surprising and free external reality that actualizes a new possibility for all.
Unlike creative projection, the process operates through the mask instead of sneaking past it, and the new external realities are recognizable as being authored by the integrated part of the self, but not exclusively claimed by it. Such a surprising, new and free reality is a dent in the universe. An example is a new technological artifact that might be put to wildly different uses by a kid in Mongolia and an executive in New York, with very different shadows.
A creative projection by contrast, is a new external reality that is exclusively claimed by the unintegrated part of the self, without being properly recognized by it. A highly personal piece of artwork that is deeply meaningful within a small subculture, but meaningless outside it, is likely a creative, but unimaginative projection. The psychological significance of the work might even be entirely opaque to those most invested in it (when I was a kid, and already atheist, I once deeply offended a very religious friend by pointing out that the usual representation of Shiva as a lingam is a stylized phallus. He refused to believe me).
I’ll give you a moment to process the basic distinction between creative projection and a dent in the universe with your own examples. Try to classify things like iPads and Teslas, songs by obscure versus famous bands and various kinds of art as projections or dents in the universe. Also think about the kinds of traditional cultural production that anchor group identities and resist appropriation (such as styles of music), versus kinds that prove remarkably resistant to exclusive claims (such as scientific or mathematical discoveries).
Let’s put this all together as a pseudo equation.
The second line, the generativity constraint, is crucial. You must create more freedom than you consume, either during the creation or after. If only you find relief in the creation, it is projection. If only people very similar to you find relief in the creation, it is still projection. If surprising people find surprising sorts of meaning in the creation, it is self-actualization.
An unmistakeable sign is that you are able to make money off such creation from strangers who share no tribal affinities with you, without investing significant effort in signalling shared priceless values.
If you do not create enough returns from the freedom you possess, you lose it. The unimaginative and their surplus freedom are soon parted. This process is made socially visible by the mask (one of its many necessary functions that you dispense with at your peril if you really decide to bypass it to express the “real you”).
Here’s how this works.
The mask operates in either an impressionist mode (letting more information in than out) or expressionist mode (putting out more information than it is letting in). Generativity is lost by letting one mode dominate.
The impressionist mode can be fatal if the external environment is too chaotic for the daemon to process — this is why we seek out familiarity and beauty when the daemon is weak. If we fail to take such restorative actions, the mask deadens and the light starts to visibly go out behind the eyes. That is one kind of death of generativity.
The expressionist mode operates in exactly the reverse way. It seeks to create unfamiliar new beauty. When the outflow of imaginative creativity is not strong enough to conquer the chaos in the environment with a sufficiently large dent, it backslides into projective authoritarianism. If we fail to rein in ambition when such overreach happens, the mask of authority turns cruel, demanding and grasping. The eyes turn a cartoon-villain red. That is the other kind of death of generativity.
When outflow and inflow are in a dynamic balance, harmonizing mask and daemon continuously, in an environment with just enough surplus chaos to occupy surplus freedom and drive the process, you get sustained generativity: the process of manufacturing more freedom than you consume through the act of living. The mask comes alive and the daemon shines through.
The longer you are able to do that, the bigger the dent you leave behind in the universe.