He not busy being born is busy dying – Bob Dylan

Ever since I first had to craft whimsical epithets for my brand new Facebook page around 2006 (it took a while to reach South Africa) I have always included something about human potential.

As my career evolved in the field of corporate training, I began to study the concept deeply, and have become convinced that we are all born with unlimited potential to do almost anything we want. 

This is my purpose in life, and the driving force behind the culture of Curious Lion.

This purpose is what drives me to live a curious life centered around learning and self-actualization.

Below is a collection of the big ideas that serve as both the cornerstones of my belief and the milestones on the journey of continuous learning toward self-improvement.

Abraham Maslow defined self-actualization as our ability to become the best version of ourself.

“What a man can be, he must be.”

The beauty of this theory is that it is dependent on the individual. Each of us has unique potential.

According to Maslow, those that self-actualize have an intrinsic motivation to do so and share certain characteristics: curiosity; creativity; autonomy; objectivity; concern for humanity; acceptance of themselves and others; and the ability to frequently achieve peak performance or moments of joy and transcendence. 

Below is a map of those characteristics, with recommended reading links throughout for further exploration. I created this for myself as a guide for achieving my goals. Hopefully, you will find it useful too.

Maslov’s 7 Characteristics for Self Actualization

Inspiration for the name of my company, curiosity is one of the most important attributes for success in the digital age. To become a valuable asset, we must identify and seek out skills and knowledge to continuously improve. 

When Socrates said, “wonder is the beginning of wisdom”, he was getting at the most fundamental way children learn about the world. 

Our desire to know, to be aware of reality, to get the facts, to satisfy curiosity, is what sets us on the path to self-actualization.

Adam Grant did a great job of demystifying the creative process in his book Originals when he said that to maximize the quality of ideas, creative originals come up with a lot of ideas. They aren’t reliable judges of the quality of their own ideas either, so the key then is to get feedback from colleagues and peers, something I touch on in this post

We are all unique in what we can be creative with, but creativity as a skill can be engineered. 

It requires breaks too; breaks for contemplation and reflection, where no work appears to be done.

Da Vinci said it best:

“Men of lofty genius often accomplish the most when they work the least, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions to which they afterward give form.”

Read more about Da Vinci’s views on creativity, work, and life in Walter Isaacson’s excellent book or in this podcast summary of the book from one of my favorite podcasts, Founders. 

Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, explores how to upgrade extrinsic, carrot-and-stick motivators common in current business systems. His theory of intrinsic motivation has three elements, one of which is autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.  

For professional success and personal fulfillment (self-actualization) in the 21st century, he argues that we need to be concerned less with external rewards and more with the inherent satisfaction of an activity. To achieve this, we need autonomy. Autonomy over:

  • What we do (task),
  • When we do it (time),
  • Who we do it with (team), and
  • How we do it (technique).

I remember years ago, my brother and I were arguing, as we often did as kids. He said something particularly hurtful, and I lashed out at him with my foot. In doing so, I crushed the walkman (yes, it was the early 90’s) he was listening to. I was immediately ashamed. It was so petty. He loved that thing, and I had absolutely no intention of destroying it. I wasn’t in control of my reaction and ended up escalating the situation. How many times have you reacted to something in your life, and regretted the consequences? 

Was it your emotional reaction that dictated your actions, or a logical response divorced from your ego?

Objectivity is critical to goal setting. You have to be able to assess your life from the perspective of an outsider to be able to make better decisions about what to do next. 

Your reaction is your choice. As Victor Frankl said:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is your power to choose your response. In your response lies your growth and your freedom.”

Meditation, which helps to develop self-awareness and intuition, helps tremendously here. More on this in Flow States.

A higher purpose that doesn’t consider the interests of humanity is doomed to fail. We are bound to each other, whether we like it or not. If our higher purpose and the pursuit of our potential results in casualties, we will make enemies.

On the positive side, the law of comparative advantage teaches us that we can mutually benefit from cooperation and voluntary trade, thanks to unequal opportunity costs. 

And most basically, it is a fact that equal opportunity does not exist. If you too hold it self-evident that all men are created equal, then those that benefit from this imbalance have a responsibility to be aware of it and do what they can to bring balance to it.  

I’m constantly reminded of this aspect of the pursuit of potential thanks to this remarkably poignant quote from one of my favorite writers, Leo Tolstoy, in Family Happiness

“I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor – such is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that, you for a mate, and children, perhaps – what more can the heart of a man desire?”

A personal hero of mine, Nelson Mandela, delivered one of the most famous and important speeches of all time at his inauguration as the first black President of South Africa in 1994. 

There is a quote I want to share here that is often wrongly attributed to Madiba and this speech, although he constantly shared similar sentiments throughout his life. The quote is actually from Marianne Williamson, the author, poet and Democratic candidate for the 2020 U.S. Election. 

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness

That most frightens us.

We ask ourselves,

Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

Your playing small

Does not serve the world.

There is nothing enlightened about shrinking

So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine,

As children do.

We were born to make manifest

The glory of God that is within us.

It’s not just in some of us;

It’s in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,

We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear,

Our presence automatically liberates others.”

So don’t be afraid to be one of “the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently.

But don’t forget to recognize the potential in others either. Returning once again to Adam Grant, but this time his book Give and Take – he describes a Harvard study that showed that treating someone as if they have high potential, and having a genuine interest and belief in that potential, actually resulted in them reaching their potential. This involves supportive behaviors like giving constructive feedback, creating learning moments, giving the benefit of the doubt, enabling, encouraging. People who experience this tend to apply the effort necessary to reach that potential.

Finally, we approach the realm of mastery. The flow state Robert Pirsig calls gumption in his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Gumption, he says, was called enthousiasmos, by the Greeks, the root of the word “enthusiasm”, which means “filled with theos” or God. A person filled with gumption (in a flow state) doesn’t “sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes.” 

Do yourself a favor and relax for 6 minutes, watching this.

As the artist in that video, Michael Grab, explains, “the process boils down to contemplative vertical stone arrangement; involving patience, problem-solving, critical thinking, adaptation, slow-breathing, steady hands, and a host of other practiced skills…”

That’s gumption right there. 

Throughout his fascinating work, he emphasizes the power of meditation to understand energy states. Once you recognize the energy you can bring to a situation, you get better at directing this energy to improve situations. 

Mark Manson wrote one of the best essays I’ve read on meditation if you want to explore this topic further.

Getting back to flow states – they lead us to mastery. 

Returning to Daniel Pink, he describes three rules of mastery:

  1. It requires the capacity to see your abilities not as finite, but infinitely improvable (full circle to continuous learning!).
  2. It demands effort, grit, and deliberate practice.
  3. It’s impossible to fully realize, which makes it simultaneously frustrating and alluring.

Once you make a conscious choice to be the determined, creative force in your own life, your life is changed forever: opportunities appear; successful projects lead to other successful projects, and the practice of being true to your purpose becomes more and more effortless. 

It just flows.

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