A Dent in the Universe

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:

  1. There is nothing you have to eat (unless you’re a koala), but you have to eat something. Not eating is not an option.
  2. There is no particular workout you have to do, but you must exercise. Never getting out of bed is not an option.
  3. There is no particular thing you have to invest in for retirement. Not saving at all is not an option.
  4. 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:


Source: unknown, found floating around Internet Feb 2015

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.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. This explains why “platform thinking” is a misnomer. The most interesting platforms provide more freedom to others to do things in new ways. The majority of “platforms” fail to provide more freedom. It seems the limiting factor in creation of a platform is the level of self actualization of the creator.

    • I’m curious as to what degree this is compounded by the fact that most platforms are created by twenty-somethings? ;)

    • Nice connection. I’ve always been very wary of the “platform thinking” evangelists like Sangeet Paul Choudary because I suspect them of losing sight of Gall’s Law effects in their fascination with seductively comprehensive seeming block diagrams that seemingly capture the operating logic (freedom surplus creation) of successful platforms, but really kinda kill it.

      John Hagel’s Pull Platform idea tries to synthesize Platonic Platformism™ with Galls’ Law type emergence dynamics with partial success. What Simon Wardley’s been doing with his mapping techniques recently I think are the right use of platform thinking: empirically unpacking the structure of existing platform-like structures. Not for synthesis of new ideas. That is authoritarian high modernism in disguise.

      I recently tweeted an aphorism that I think summarizes my view here: destroy like a consequentialist, create like a deontologist, resist temptation like a virtue ethicist. Or equivalently, analyze with goals, build with habits, decide what not do by emulating Great Men and Women.

    • I see platforms as a partitioning strategy. The stuff you want to constrain goes in a platform, and everything else goes outside and uses the platform as a shared context or reference point.

      The only way I can think of for platforms to create freedom is to define “freedom” to also include “not being hostage to base anarchic states caused by the lack of platforms”.

      Perhaps if your mental model of the world is that groups of people tend toward ill-planned chaotic states, the “freedom” gained by partitioning out these undesired states is a win.

      But if you find yourself perpetually working with poorly fitting or overly idealistic platforms, you value having more available options, so you would tend to be more wary.

      • That seems like an orthogonal concern. For similar kinds of partitioning, you could get more or less of a walled garden vs. open system on the unconstrained part (think linux vs. pre-OSX mac vs. pc on roughly the same hardware “platform”… very different kinds of freedom… or Android vs. iOS now).

        • I think this is a bit narrow. But since you brought up software and hardware:

          Linux, the canonical open system, can be pretty constraining depending on what you want to do. Actually, this applies to general-purpose operating systems as a whole. I did platform design for a currently shipping product line (now up to $3B, yay) that forgoes operating systems at all except for a small number of management cores. Worker cores run cooperatively in a shared memory space with no traditional operating system at all!

          Of course, someone might say, well this sucks because I can’t run python scripts on my worker cores, and they’d be right. But another person may say, wow, that’s really great, I don’t have to worry about interrupts, context switches, protection boundaries, processes, threads; I can write really fast bare-metal data processing and get minimal latency and jitter.

          Same is true for hardware. Are you hostage to someone else’s platform that they’re also selling to a bunch of other people? Or are you a hostage to your own hardware design team? Or do you mix approaches? Use/buy reference designs and tweak them in house? Do you want to layout your own PCB’s or have a specialty house do it? Design in FPGAs and buy IP cores? Write IP cores yourself to do ribbonfarmcoin mining? Mix all of these?

          Or, well, fuck it, I don’t feel like dealing with all of those externalities and don’t really like debugging flaky hardware, and hey, maybe I’m OK with less control over the design. And maybe that goes for apps too, I don’t want a virus and I want my kids in even a tighter garden…

          • Agree with all this. I think you can’t judge the “freedom” created by a platform up front, but only after it has developed an ecosystem and it becomes clear how free things are in practice.

            So partitioning is an activity that follows your first definition of freedom as best as it can — you don’t want to create 10 Mega-Lincolns of freedom and then immediately create a burden of 9.5 Mega-Lincolns of unwanted work, thereby creating an overhead of 9.5 Mega-Lincolns for every 0.5 Mega-Lincolns of freedom enjoyed.

            The distinction seems rather like the difference between energy and exergy. There’s probably a precise way to define the entropy of a platform process.

  2. This is probably the first time your thinking feels like it has seriously intertwined with mine.

    Not too long ago, I was trying to understand a statement I’ve been pondering: “The essence of being deeply religious is trying to run Maslow’s hierarchy backwards.” (When I say “deeply religious” I mean it in a personal context and not a social one). In other words, it is attempting to self-actualize without and even at the expense of the lower levels.

    This is the stuff martyrs are made of. This is where you get starving people refusing food because their need for justice is unsatisfied. Where people are willing to become heretics to everyone they ever knew because they’re belief that there are right is stronger then shame. This is the stuff that people tell heroic stories about; but, it is almost always suicidal. And this post explains why.

    Self actualization is extremely hard to do properly even with every lower need met. Trying to attempt that level of imagination while simultaneously dealing with lower needs is basically impossible. People will admire your guts, but you still get splattered all over the walls.

    This would be why the number of successful prophets is extremely low (and most that made a dent in the universe had their basic needs met first).

    The signpost says:

    “Warning: Attempting to Self-Actualize Without Proper Safety Gear Can Lead To Honorable Death. Consult Your Basic Needs Before Continuing!”

  3. Brilliant and to the point. Of course, as a developmental psychology freak I notice stuff you gloss over. But I see it for what it is – you are being brave and vulerable, not sloppy. The world needs more thinkers like you. Thank you.

    • I am not a dev psych expert, so this is all based on stuff I’ve vaguely picked up randomly over the years. So if I missed some subtlety, it is ignorance, not bravery. Fortunately, I can’t get fired from this blog for being wrong about stuff :)

      Any particularly glaring flaws in my model (which I expect is 90% sloppy reinvention that you guys learn in books?)

  4. When “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and “Gödel, Escher,Bach” were our youth books, “Wit, Play, Insight” by Mr. V.Rao summarizes what was best about the emotional and intellectual lives of the (male?) Gen X-ers. In retrospect it looks strange that no one ever tried to find the closing parenthesis before but now we have it, it’s just obvious.

    • Yeah, GEB and HHG were ur-texts of sorts for 80s people (though I didn’t read GEB till like 1995). I think you’re also right that they were peculiarly male-Xer in their appeal.

      I’d say there is no closing parenthesis for that sensibility, since it is essentially an ever-expanding one driven by generative play that does not climax and converge towards closure. In a way, the blogosphere *is* the closing parenthesis, since blogs have beginnings and back-links, but no clear end point they’re working towards. Just an expanding tree of exploration that continues while the blogger has energy. I strongly suspect most serious bloggers are X’ers. Millennials seem to use it either more linearly as a journal (Tumblr) or as an ancillary to other media like instagram video that have different characteristics.

      X’ers may be the last primarily textual rather than hypertextual/hypermedia generation.

  5. I’m pretty sure that imaginatively reading this article today kept me from blowing my brains out this morning, so, thanks again for existing, brilliant Venkat.

  6. Chandrasekhar says

    very nice.

  7. I had a whole bunch of other thoughts on this, but after re-reading, I started to find the word “imagination” confusing. You allow seeming oxymorons like “creativity without imagination”, and my best guess is because imagination actually (eventually?) means something closer to Nietzsche’s will to power.

    With that in mind, I’m not sure _who_ really gets parted from _what_ when “the unimaginative?” are parted from their”surplus freedom?” Maybe these can be expanded next post. Unrelated: a simple chart of what I’m picturing you saying: http://i.imgur.com/dp1stL5.png

  8. I wonder how ‘male’ the need to self-actualize is. I have a friend of mine whose a psychologist, she has a pH.D., and has, over the last few years, been steadily divesting herself of her client base and practice, in favor of the much more lucrative and less mentally taxing work of evaluating SS applications for the government. She says all the time that if she didn’t have to work, she wouldn’t. She’d just climb, do community stuff, whatever. I suppose you could say she’s subconsciously self-actualizing but I just don’t see any of the concepts discussed here as really relevant to her life. I simply can’t imagine a mask / daemon war getting increasingly pitched as she gets older. She doesn’t seem to have that shadow side described.

    But, looking at the pyramid and going by this post, she should be really hurting right now. She’s sitting at the very top of esteem with nowhere to go but to self-actualize. They’re millionaires, she always says how much she loves her husband, everyone in the community adores them. But she seems to have a total disregard towards anything that looks to me like self-actualization. She doesn’t bother with any of the pretend self-actualization that people, particularly men, do. She cooks, climbs, and mountain bikes.

    Her husband, on the other hand, certainly seems to have a bit of a death wish, he’s building an airplane in his garage, and pushes himself creatively way more than she does, he’s part of a band, runs ultra-marathons. I could see him finally getting his airplane built, and having it be his coffin as he puts more and more of his pride and self-worth into the thing.

    They’re about the same age as my parents. Just like my psychologist friend, I can’t imagine my mom having this burning need to self-actualize before she dies. My step-dad, absolutely. But when I think of what my mom keeps in the same place as I keep my daemon, that internal set of realities that fights against my mask, I think of my mom’s Christian spirituality. There’s no battle there, her spirituality can interact freely with her mask and she has no need to work out a way to integrate them.

    I wonder if this whole psychological complex simply operates more strongly in men and women find it much easier to get to the top of esteem and stay there, no need for imagination or a mask / daemon battle. That many just, for whatever reason, don’t collect a compounding set of internal realities that conflicts enough to demand release upon pain of death.

    • Yes, it looks like the woman in your examples are well anchored in mundane practices or in faith, without any significant incentive structure which drives them forth and lets them ( desire to ) progress indefinitely.

      Possibly the term self-actualization originated as a counter term for alienation and other-directedness, which withdraws something essential from humans, while keeping them human socially, economically, psychologically etc. i.e. they are kept intact on each but the top level of the Maslow hierarchy. Now it would have been pathetic to claim that on top of the hierarchy of human needs there is a need to be properly human. So the top is somewhat mystified by the quasi Hegelian notion of self-actualization.

      • Yes, this is a necessarily male-biased view and thinking of self-actualization as a sort of lemonade you make with the alienation lemons of life is a reasonable and communitarian counter-punch.

        For women, I’m dissatisfied with how the very possibility of motherhood might change things even if the woman is not a mother. The female psyche must be wired for that. By contrast if evolutionary biology is correct in modeling males as mutated females in a sense, the idea that men turn maternal instincts towards “self actualization” sounds credible.

        And especially in a species with longer evolutionary history of alpha-dominated polygamous troops than pair bonding as we likely did, it seems plausible that the median male would have adapted to being driven out of troops as an exile somewhat.

        Things to mull.

        • This is certainly consistent with the extremely popular analogy of projects being babies/children that must be let go and sent into the world at some point; one that IIRC you use yourself in Tempo.

          • That said, I’m not consigned to a gender-based analysis of this yet: it seems to me that this whole process is reliant on a universal need for humans (and complex systems in general) to enact in some way. Things like spirituality seem like a sort of pillow for graceful atrophy, where atrophy is a process by which we create some artificial gap to fill, thus keeping us essentially distracted from climbing higher.

            Also worth noting that even if someone still wants to work to keep themselves occupied, that itself can just be the same kind of atrophy. The psychological need for a job, in fact, seems to me to be arrested development on the esteem level of Maslow’s pyramid.

            To put a general theory out there, I think this kind of atrophy/arresting is the essence of addiction. Just to put an example of addictions and their general spot on the hierarchy:

            Drugs (chemical dependence): Physiological
            Dangerous thrill-seeking (like base jumping): Safety
            Abusive Relationships: Belonging
            Workaholism: Esteem

            Since “self-actualization” really stands for a generativity beyond any simple repetitive “needs”, climbing up that level is more or less incompatible with addiction; which leads me to think that maybe making it part of a pyramid level is misleading, maybe even a serious error.

          • In fact, my last bit can be generalized to a 1-1 mapping of classes of regressive behavior and levels of the Maslow hierarchy:

            Self-Actualization –> Esteem: Self Deprecation
            Esteem –> Belonging: Self Pity
            Belonging –> Safety: Reckless Behavior
            Safety –> Physiological Needs: Chemical Addiction

            One way to think about this is if you’ve ever had a video game where you got so frustrated trying to beat the current level that you just started going back and playing easier levels. Also worth noting how unsatisfying doing that is…

    • As a female for whom the desire for children has always been conspicuously absent, I lean towards the notion that self-actualization is a human rather than specifically male drive. I think many women might see it as more of a luxury that they can’t afford, having given themselves over to an ideal of selflessness.

      • To be certain, it’s not self-actualization itself I think of as particularly male, it’s Venkat’s idea of self-actualization as something you either do well or it eventually kills you. That it beats on the brain until it comes out in whatever way, shape or form it finds psychically. I think this idea is deep and poignant, but very, very male. Almost quintessentially so.

        That woman *can* see it as a luxury that they perhaps could or couldn’t afford, that one could possibly give it up out of selflessness, means they don’t see self-actualization quite the same way. Men have to find a way to self-actualize no matter what. You can hide from the beast, but since it lives inside your head, you can’t escape it completely.

        There is this emerging notion as sex and gender as being remarkably fluid at the biological level, which may explain some or all of these differences.

        • Hrmph. Let’s agree to disagree. Fluidity at the biological level suggests to me that it is all role play. That’s how I see it anyway. Gender role identification is acting out a culturally acceptable part. If men stayed at home to care for the children and women were the breadwinners, I believe the existing gender role masks would change hands. Women would become the cool rationalizing pragmatists and men the sensitive caring idealists. Who can say, but that’s how I subjectively envision it playing out in a parallel universe.

  9. A lot of good ideas here – but I’ll join the crowd wondering how culturally relative this description is. I have a hypothesis that a mark of a “healthy” culture is the extent to which a herculean effort of “imagination” is NOT necessary to achieve self-actualization; that a healthy culture/tradition has institutions that effectively mediate between inner and outer realities, sort of clearing promising ground that people can fill in and grow into. A “merely technical” example is an adviser giving a grad student a list of tractable/fruitful areas in a fuzzy-boundaried new subfield. I don’t have concrete anthropological examples on hand. But I would point to Jungian(/Jungian-esque) observations asserting that, say, the “modern” worldview has, for better or worse, destroyed many of the social/cultural functions that performed that mediation. And for looser examples, I’d imagine that something of that sort happened in, say, Native American societies, other tribal societies, at least some social classes for periods of most of the “great” civilizations. Yes, in all the examples that we have access to, if the culture wasn’t obliterated first, its institutions eventually got to the state of ossified “blindly repeating formulas, desperately wondering why they have lost their potency”- which sounds like at least one thing you’re responding to. But to even get to such phases of exhaustion and ossification in artistic, economic, religious, military culture require a long period of people “following their nature” in a variety of differentiated functions, emotionally contextualized with cultural/religious significance. I do wonder to what extent there is such a big distinction between “imagination” and “creativity” (per your definitions) in these cases.

    Another quibble is about being able to recognize the difference between self actualizing and non-self-actualizing work based on the PRODUCTS of the process. On going over personal examples in fields that I’m familiar with (fields which would make a ribbonfarm-heretic yakshaver, I’m sure :-P ), I don’t see a relationship as simple as “self actualizing products achieve greater cultural significance”, even as a broad tendency. I don’t want to claim that there are any patterns, though – just nothing so simple. Some of the most self-actualized people I know are avant-garde jazz musicians, playing to tiny rooms of nerdy fans. Some neurotic yakshavers there, too, of course. Both neurotic and self actualizing types seem capable of creating broad reaching and important work WITHIN those subscenes – that is, reaching over and out to integrate equally obscure subscenes, among other things. And yakshaving types, it seems to me, are capable of creating work that has people reading all sorts of different “meanings and possibilities” in it, creating waves at various scales of cultural significance. I admit, I’m just using psychological feel/intuition to judge “self actualization” and looking at the work afterwards to see how it relates – didn’t do the “exercise”! As I got caught up in this quibbling. I’m wondering to what extent YS/SA classifications on the basis of product can come about as a result of gerrymandering boundaries… not sure if you had ribbonfarm itself in mind as such an example, but: seen one way, ribbonfarm draws together the seemingly unbridgeable worlds of engineering and the humanities, and no reader walks away without a fertile thought to bring back to their highly differentiated, specialized world; seen another way, the nerdy yet hyperliterate sensibility of its readers – who apply their insight porn to their lives in one of several semi-predictable manners – could be readily caricatured on Parks and Rec, etc.

    Another fun example: Dr. Luke(http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dr._Luke) as self actualizing in the process of creating music that certainly must retard self actualization(http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=F57P9C4SAW4) and reveals depths of meaning-LESS ness. (though is FUN). I could see the argument that this is “merely creativity”. But some of the jumps in his career certainly seem like “imaginative” moves. I don’t know him or his psychology well enough to make the final assessment. But I guess that is my point: it really does seem like a case by case holistic psychological assessment.

    My overall take is that I suspect that there are at least a few intertwining notions here, incl “self actualization”, “following one’s own nature”, “achieving uniqueness/individuality”, etc, and that’s all complicated by cultural factors. All of that said, I enjoyed the piece!

  10. Some alternative suggestion in order to pin down “self-actualization” which seems to be a problematic concept given its openness and abstractness. I’d like to make a proposal compliant with my “youth book” references I mentioned above:

    HHG: the universe is a chaotic and somewhat silly place to have awful lots of fun with.

    GEB: the self-symbol exists to anchor the strange loop of meta-level reflection and object level activity.

    Since the universe is chaotic the self loop is contingent as well. It builds theories for insight and for directing action but those turn out to be mostly abstract nonsense, ambiguous and incoherent or childish projections. Even if we get them to work we become easily addicted to their productivity and create yet another arrested self.

    What can the self do about it? A possible meaning of self-actualization is the enhancement of its own innate hygienic routines. It is mostly hair and skin washing, finger nail cleaning, dressing in clean and dry clothes … It isn’t developmental in the sense that you start with your childish self and bootstrap it into God or some being in Ron Hubbards cosmology. This just adds to the shrill silliness aspect of the universe which deserves to make fun of. Mindfulness exercises, refactorings and occasional hair splittings might contribute to your self-actualization just like morning gymnastics and hygiene contribute to your body-actualization. You might or might not advance them into a professional activity or an art form but artistic creativity isn’t the point as the article argued convincingly.

  11. Venkat, are you familiar with Heidegger’s concepts of Dasein, Das Man, and being-in-the-world in his work Being and Time?


    It seems to me that “Daemon” maps to “Dasein,” “The Mask” maps to “Das Man,” and “self-actualization” maps to “being-in-the-world.”

  12. Self-actulization is a grand idea that can be summed up thus: chop wood carry water in your own unique way. “In your own unique way” requires imagination, finding the right work requires creativity; then one is faced with work. Work is work, no matter how you put it. Work is not a lot of fun. Which explains why the 1% doesn’t seem particularly happy. They’re self-actulizing alright but they’re working like any slave digging ditches. Shiva’s joke on the universal dent-makers, the artists, the freedom fighters and the daring-doers.

  13. Senthil Gandhi says

    “All communication fails, except by accident”, well we can increase the probability of those accidents by peppering the article with much more examples as you go along, I understand that it will sully the article and might even distract from your points as people start picking on your examples as and when it steps on their toes. But feel free to put some examples here in the comment section (which I am hoping no one reads :)

    For eg. Would the movie Birdman qualify as shadowyak shaving? Or do you think it falls some where else?

  14. Jenny Funkmeyer says

    Self-actualizing in action can be translated to following one’s highest joy moment-to-moment. After a while it seems like joy is the carrot dangle in front of us so we will run after the work that is necessary to put dents around the universe.

  15. > “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.”

    I’m sure you’ve read it, but this precise point was exactly what makes reading “The War Of Art” (Pressfield) so harrowing for anyone currently occupying a psychological position from which the drive to “self-actualization” can be felt. His thesis is almost exactly what you’re saying here, expressed in different terms. For him, the “war” (inner psychological dynamics) of “art” (personal acts of creation) maps directly onto “self-actualization” as you use the term. Most importantly — so much so that the author places it at the literal forefront of the book — this process is literally a life-or-death struggle; albeit a subtly-disguised one that is very easy for most people to overlook, as you yourself have noted.

    If you haven’t read this book, you surely must — as should anyone else who has found themselves interested in the subject of this (excellent) post.

  16. Vinod Khare says

    Have you tried doing a close reading of House of Cards in the light of this article? This one is to House of Cards what The Gervais Principle was to The Office.

    • I am not doing any more of those :)

      Didn’t really get into House of Cards. Quit after Season 1.

  17. Vinod Khare says

    Ha! Then maybe I should make an attempt. Would be a good exercise.

  18. Any comments or thoughts on Soren Kierkegaard in relation to these concepts? Sickness unto Death seems to correlate in many ways to these concepts of self actualization and the stages involved.