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The Oppression of Self-Actualization

“I am self-actualized,” a friend once proudly told me. And he was. He had a job that paid very well, and it was work he thoroughly enjoyed. Not only that, his work allowed him a lot of time off to enjoy his favorite hobby: sailing in the Caribbean. He had a nice sailboat with many modern amenities and cruised from port to port for several months a year. He had the world by the tail!

I had to ask myself: “If it were a goal for all of us to become self-actualized, what would the world be like if we achieved it in a similar way as my friend?”

To do his job well, my friend needs a good lunch in the middle of his workday. When he goes to his workplace cafeteria, he needs short order cooks and cashiers to satisfy his hunger needs. Most of these restaurant workers will never make enough money to afford a similar hobby as my friend; they are making just enough money to survive in a Canadian economy. Most of them would not see their current occupation as the penultimate goal of their working career; it is only a means to support themselves in the short term and hopefully not a long term. Most restaurant workers will never be self-actualized in their workplace. Yet my friend needs them in order to feed himself mid-day, furthering him on his quest for his own self-actualization.

My friend likes to barbeque steak. While many beef producers (ranchers and farmers) like their occupation, many beef plant workers work under some extreme conditions: hot or cold environments, noise, repetitive manual work, high production quotas, high risk of injuries, thankless and abusive supervisors, etc. These workers would never claim their purpose in life is to be a beef plant worker. This occupation only provides them with an income above a subsistence level. But without these workers, my friend could not enjoy his steak.

My friend has many more unself-actualized workers supporting his lifestyle, from the city employees taking his trash to the landfill, to the grocery store clerks stocking the shelves, to the security guards watching over his sailboat. Without these workers earning much lower pay to provide the mundane services my friend needs to be fully self-actualized, my friend could never be self-actualized.

My friend's material path to self-actualization, as advocated by many motivational gurus telling where true happiness lies, is totally unsustainable. We cannot build any economy around most of us becoming self-actualized in this way. For those few who find such happiness, they are indirectly oppressing those who have not—by needing the unself-actualized to have occupations the self-actualized would never consider.

Various surveys on the Canadian economy state that somewhere between 15% to 35% of Canadian workers are happy in their occupation. If this modern western economy leaves a majority of its citizens wishing that they were working somewhere else, what does this really say about our quest for career self-actualization?

Or is there perhaps another definition of “self-actualization” that we should be applying to our lives, a definition most of us could successfully strive for—even with a “normal” occupation?

Copyright 2013

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© 2009 Dave Volek. All Rights Reserved.