By all accounts, it seems that I have finally found my place in the world—or at least the place that I have been telling myself that I should be. Compared to who I was a decade ago, my life appears dramatically different.
Things that I have longed for but feared and lamented would never happen have… happened.
- I am married and thinking about starting a family.
- I am financially comfortable.
- I have a stable, (mostly) satisfying career.
- I’ve written a book.
- I am enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live overseas.
If this were a movie, we’d probably be at the end. The last shot—sappy music swelling as our heroine nods in knowing satisfaction to herself, at last, I've made it... all the hard work paid off.
But what is it, exactly?
For some, it is the culmination of all our childhood hopes and dreams. For others, it’s a state of mind where we believe we’ll attain true happiness. For me, it’s both. It is what I have desired for so long that I couldn't really allow myself to fully enjoy life until I had those things in reach.
Now that I've made it through, I’m not really sure that I feel particularly different or fulfilled. Have I really grown into a better or different person, the person I was supposed to be? In fact, I’m pretty sure I haven’t, which is evidenced by why I’m writing this post.
How to Truly Become Yourself
What does it mean to become yourself? It depends on your perspective.
If you are seeking to become the best version of yourself, then you might consider self-actualization, a theory developed by Abraham Maslow in 1942. He described this theory “as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”
Achieving self-actualization, however, first requires the fulfillment of four basic, lower needs:
- Physiological: Things we need to survive, including food, water, and shelter
- Safety: The need to feel secure, safe, and not fearful of the world
- Love: The need to feel love and affection from social relationships
- Esteem: The need to have self-esteem for our own achievements as well as esteem or recognition from others
It is only after you achieve these first four needs that you can attempt to reach the final need:
- Self-actualization: The need to be fulfilled and reach our full potential
For Maslow, meeting our full potential means we must do the things that will make us truly happy: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be.”
But here’s the problem: What if the thing that makes you happy today doesn’t make you happy a decade later?
After all, if our taste buds can change as we age, why can’t the things that make us happy?
In fact, they do, says Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. In his TED Talk, “The Psychology of Your Future Self,” he explains:
"Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our life is change.”
He attributes this thinking to a comprehensive study finding that thousands of people—of all ages—are really bad at predicting what they’ll be like in 10 years. Gilbert found that, for the most part, people assume their present selves are who they will be for the rest of their lives. This phenomenon, also known as “the end of history illusion,” could explain why people get tattoos or questionable haircuts.
However, when people were asked to think of their former selves from a decade prior, they were able to recognize that their tastes, values, and personality traits had evolved through the years. We see change only in retrospect.
This is why I can admit that the person I was 10 years ago (along with my dreams, quirks, and hang-ups) is now someone who is somewhat unfamiliar to the current version of me.
Perhaps, self-actualization, if it’s something that we should truly be striving for, is not a goal to be met just one time in our lives. It’s a never-ending, constantly evolving, real-time acceptance that our full potential, just like our tastes and values, are strange and unpredictable—that ultimately, we are never set in stone. And at some point, you have to realize that to attain lifelong fulfillment, you can't ever retire from seeking it out.
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