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Self Actualisation - To Work or Not to Work?

I wanted to share my thoughts on a new book I’m reading - actually, I requested this book as a gift for Christmas 2021 (the year I was sick with Cancer) but then never got around to reading it because I went back to work... The book? It’s called Not Working - Why we Have to Stop. Oh the irony.


The book is written by Josh Cohen who is a psychoanalyst and wants to pull back the curtains on a life of overwork, chronic exhaustion and this continuing pressure to be “always on” as well as this pursuit of happiness in the context of conventional lifestyles in the conventional work-then-retire model (and THEN supposedly live your best life…). He uses the world of art as the antithesis to the conventional world of work, due to the fact that oftentimes people don’t figure this as a viable career and as such artists can be deemed as lazy or ‘the great unworking’. As a personal lover of art and a fellow creative I actually think this is a pretty fulfilling way to live, but unfortunately (in most cases), it doesn’t pay the bills. As a child I wanted to be a singer or write poetry or lyrics, then ended up in a 25 year HR career - go figure! Life pulls us to ‘conventional’ in the main, yet a good percentage of us probably had childhood dreams of being a rock star, a racing driver, an astronaut or a magician, yet somehow we ended up bankers, buyers, accountants or electricians!


Back to the book; the nice thing about it is that he wrote it pre-pandemic (this will always be a reference point in the life/work balance debate), whereas now, post-pandemic, the need is potentially even greater to consider our purpose and vision for life, and the potential and possibility to achieve this. Breaking from the conventional and following our dreams and our passions seemed to get a bit more of a reality check when we thought that the world would never be the same again, yet sadly it’s slipping back to some of its old ways.


But the main reason I wanted to write this post today was that whilst I was reading the book on my commute to ‘work’, it reminded me of two other poignant books in my life that surprisingly have the same theme. The two books; What Should I do with my Life by Po Bronson and The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris, both of which I read a good 10-15 years ago. These two books really inspired my motive for Vital Vibe and to help myself and others to live their best lives - you get out what you put in and I’m determined that people’s cups are going to get fuller, and indeed no less than half full!


But it’s probably not a coincidence that these three books all have the same theme - living our best life and following our passions to have a fulfilled existence that works for us. Po Brosnan used his book to follow his own dream, which was about writing a book, but as he had no subject matter he decided to advertise for people to share their stories so he could publish their quests to achieve their dreams in his book (the then version of podcasting I suppose). Tim Ferris wrote his book after selling his soul to the devil and reaching chronic distress both in employment and as an entrepreneur, with a clear message and hacks on how to educate people on achieving freedom and possibility of escaping the rat race to live their best life. Josh’s book is all about escaping the world of work and looking at the options we have if there wasn’t this conformity towards work (as I said, I’m still reading it so can’t judge the entire book yet).


However, each book talks about escaping the hum-drum of life and with that the hum-drum of work. But is work hum-drum? Are we all loathing our days in the office (or wherever the place of work is) or do we feel content in the main for the most part? And, it also begs the question, in some circumstances, that if life outside of work was amazing would work then be just a means to an end rather than everything, i.e. a way of getting income to service the needs to the rest/best of your life, so that work was then the vehicle rather than the actual journey?


When we look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (my favourite model) we can see that self actualisation sits firmly at the top. The definition of which is “the realisation or fulfilment of one's talents and potentialities, especially considered as a drive or need present in everyone.” This was the first definition from Oxford Languages (Google’s online dictionary), but here’s a few others too:


  • “Self-actualization is the complete realisation of one's potential, and the full development of one's abilities and appreciation for life” reference article here.

  • “...Abraham Maslow, a humanistic psychologist. He described self-actualization as the process of becoming “everything you are capable of becoming.” reference article here.


As a People & Culture expert and consultant (who is hell-bent on supporting employers to help their employees live their best life) it might seem strange that I’m reading and talking about books that coerce and convince people to ditch employment. Maybe so, but I’ve yet to see a book about how people can live their best lives at work (please share if you know of one), so it seems that most people concur that self actualization and ‘living your best life’ does likely come from a place far superior to employment or, in some cases, even running a business. And of course, there are only a select and lucky few that could possibly and feasibly not work through choice without financial disarray.


But, I’m not making any judgement here as choices and actions are like a piece of art; it’s in the eye of the beholder and therefore the same thing will show up differently to people - one person's poison is another person's medicine so we can’t judge or hold bias here about how work sits in the grand scheme of life. I know many people who for the most part feel safe and secure in employment and it actually ticks a lot of boxes for them in terms of achievement and life goals. So we can’t pooh-pooh work. But are people REALLY happy at work? And are they all of the things that self actualization says we should be; authentic, fulfilled, at the top of our game? Sadly, there are many employees who are not here, and sadly again for them (from my HR/People & Culture experience) it’s impossible to give everybody what they want. That’s why I always prefer to educate employers on the importance of churn - having a healthy churn is good for the business as employers can’t be all things to all people and when people’s desire for their job or the company has gone then it’s best they leave and employers should accept that with gratitude. Personally I think of 2-3 years as a healthy tenure in one role.


But to labour a point, studies and surveys happen all the time to test if employees are happy and engaged (and rightly so, it’s an important metric for both parties), but if it was a foregone conclusion that people loved work then this level of assessment may not be necessary. This study in 2019 from Greater Good (USA) looked at happiness at work and gives some clear findings and advice on how to make employees happier and engaged at work, but as said, it's nigh on impossible for an organisation to be all things to all people, so be prepared that this won’t be a catch-all panacea. This more recent research from the University of Warwick (UK) also shows that happy employees create better business, which most employers should already recognise (I’d hope). But this final article from Forbes piqued my interest further because it talks about self actualization at work and it’s author shares a concept of work mindsets that employees will have in their role; job, career or purpose, which makes a lot of sense in relation to the mix of both ‘steady-eddies’ and ‘trail-blazing talent’ in the workplace. Any HR person worth their salt will remind you that this is a perfect mix of employees as most organisations just can’t cater for a full-count of ambitious employees, some employees need to let the others lead the charge, and they will.


So the purpose of this blog was really just to dwell on the prospect of “is there more to life than work?” as well as what does/can work constitute i.e. humdrum activity which only serves to pay the bills, or your dream job playing to your ultimate brilliance? And if the latter is true then why can’t being an artist or whatever your heart desires be your job?


Personally, I believe that if people (employees and business owners too) lead a balanced life then there is absolutely room in our lives for work of any type, but to make it more than just ‘humdrum and paying the bills’ we need to be able to operate our lives from a holistic place of balance, brilliance and resilience so that we can live, be, and give our best in all areas of our life!


I’d love to hear your comments on this matter; to work or not to work, that is the question.


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