12 August, 2016

On interpretations of "self actualization"

In management lessons, we are taught about "Maslow's hierarchy" that details the different layers of human endeavours. Human needs are layered in this model into five layers: physiological needs, security needs, social needs, esteem needs and finally self actualization.

Self actualization is said to be the highest endeavor where the person is concerned with personal growth and with fulfilling one's potential. Self actualized people are less interested in social acceptance or esteem and are more focused towards unleashing their potential.

The theory as a whole is profound and very pertinent. The notion of self actualization as the ultimate endeavour is also a profound thought.

However, the nuances lie in what constitutes "self actualization" and it is here, where I have some issues about how it is interpreted.

Self actualization is often interpreted in a crude sense as the dominance of one's self over the environment. Such an interpretation for instance, glorifies the ego and venerates "strong" leaders who build large empires (of either the social or the capitalist variety) and "commands" a huge following.

Some of my experiences with folks who swear by Ayn Rand and her theory of the "virtues of selfishness" belong to that category (not saying that Ayn Rand herself interpreted self-actualization that way).

At the core of such an interpretation is the paradigm of territoriality, where "liberation" is equated with dominance and ownership. Hence liberation of the self happens only when one's self no longer needs to be driven by other's diktats and instead itself dominates and marks its environment as its property.

In contrast, if one were to read the works of Ramana Maharshi, Adi Shankaracharya and other Indian philosophers, their notion of "liberation" is when the Atman (Self) resonates with the Brahman (Universal self), and discovers that the "seed" that forms the entire universe lies within itself (tat tvam asi).

The self in this model, does not impose itself on the world, but discovers itself and develops itself so that it can resonate with the universal self.

That there is such a thing called universal self or global consciousness is central to this model. Something, which AI theories like superintelligence is coming to terms with. Conjecturing the existence of an entity that is unverified, by itself does not make it fallacious -- string theory and dark matter theory adopt such methods too.

Self-actualized people in this model do not necessarily "do" anything -- but act in a way as though things are done "through" them.

At the core of this latter theory is the paradigm of "harmony". Self-actualization happens only when the self is able to resonate or harmonize with the universal self. It is facilitated not necessarily by accumulation of wealth and/or overcoming the other lower needs in the Maslow hierarchy, but by an inner exploration and obviates the importance of the lower level needs.

This paradigm also has no notion of dominance or ownership. The liberated self does not "realize its true potential" by manifesting itself in the outside world, but "realizes the seeds of the universe within itself". Both look similar, but there are subtle differences. Realizing one's true potential does not need a notion of harmony. One could realize one's strength and resilience in tough times. This is not the same as self actualization of the latter variety. To realize the seeds of the universe within oneself, one needs to think not about oneself, but of the essence of the entire universe. The self needs to explore beyond itself in order to find the essence of the entirety within itself.

For the purposes of argument, let me call the former model as "selfish actualization" and the latter one as "self actualization".

Another recurrent meme, especially among artificial intelligence (AI) researchers is the concept of self-aware robots and machines. And for some reason, there is a popular belief that a self-aware computer program would start dominating or taking over the world. The self aware computer program called VIKI in the movie "I, Robot" is an example.

This is something which I again find strange to accept. Self awareness is an important element for developing a compassionate, empathetic and wise worldview. Why then, would self aware robots want to take over the world when they may as well turn out to be wise and compassionate?

The problem here again is with "selfish actualization" masquerading as "self actualization" driving the thought process. The problem is with the paradigm that assumes that every self necessarily tries to impose and dominate over the world, and that peace in the world exists only in the form of an emergent equilibrium between disparate dominating selves.

Similarly, a lot of what is taught today in business schools and what is practiced by businesses is "selfish actualization" rather than self actualization. Businesses are taught to "capture" a market, rather than "participate" in it. Amazon wants to upstage Flipkart as part of its India strategy, Uber wants to upstage Ola, Starbucks wants to have no place for Cafe Coffee Day (and Cafe Coffee Day ensures that Starbucks face lots of hurdles in entering India), and so on.. Businesses today want to dominate and "own" the market, rather than participate and blend into the market adding to its flavour.

So, all I am saying... is give "harmony" a chance.. in our paradigms.