Realizing Your Potential in a Society Not Built for It

Many people believe that they are not what they can be.

While this feeling persists over the course of their lives, it’s hard to know why and how you feel that way.  Sometimes, you don’t even know where to begin.

Well, there are multitude of reasons why you are not who you are meant to be.  But one of the reasons is where we are in the big picture of human evolution.  Our societies aren’t yet built to empower or encourage individuals to realize their potentials as a human being.  They aren’t mature enough to nurture such development.

Below let me illustrate why this is, so that we can collective start to envision what and how to change it.


In Psych 101, you probably learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

To explain briefly, this theory identifies priorities of needs in human psychology. The most basic, primal and important is physiological — basic needs, such as food and air. From there, it progresses up through safety, love/belonging, esteem and culminates in self-actualization.

I would describe the first two needs — physiological and safety — as the needs based on our physical survival. When one’s own survival is at stake, then these are the needs that dominate such a person’s minds. And logically so.

Earlier in our history, this was very much true for most individuals and collectives. We created many codes of conducts — from cultural customs to religious rituals, to ensure the physical survival of tribes. For example, the idea of polygamy can be argued as a system that is designed to serve a collective’s best interest for survival. In most cases, a man took multiple wives and concubines, to ascertain that the tribe had the best chance of prosperity, by increasing the number of descendants. This made sense at the time, because men fought in wars and battles and died young. Human resources (in its true sense) were the best assets of the collective, and polygamy was a system designed to meet that need when male constituents were scarce.

Now, such traditional systems were developed at a time when our needs were very different from our current needs. In the so-called “developed” societies, our physical survivals are often not the foremost concern for the majority of members. I would say the third and fourth — love/belonging and esteem — are the challenges that most people grapple with for the most of their lives. I would classify these as the needs for our psychological survival.

Here, let’s pause for a moment and let this concept sink in a little.

What we need to do to provide for our physical survival and psychological survival are very, very, very different. They are worlds apart from each other. Meeting the needs for physical survival does affect our psychological survival, of course, as the physical body needs to survive and be well in order for us to focus on our next set of needs. But simply doing things to meet our physical needs do nothing to meet our psychological needs — in fact, meeting nothing but our physical needs is inhibiting to the development of a well-rounded psyche.

Imagine being in a tribe in a hunter-gatherer society, where roles and duties are assigned strictly by your gender, physical size, and the family in which you are born in. You toil and slave away at repetitive and mundane tasks, and marry and bear children in arranged marriages that meet the needs of the tribes better than your own. You have your place in the collective as long as you remain useful to the physical survival of the overall tribe. There is no consideration given to your interests or aptitude, in terms of what you spend your life doing.

Hardly an environment for realizing your full potential, is it?

You’d think customs and rituals and other codes of conducts from such an era have been long demolished in the 21st century “developed” societies. And yes, for the most part, they have — at least on the surface.

But they actually have a much stronger hold on our society than we’d like to think.

For example, I’m sure Henry Ford didn’t mean to do a great disservice to the humanity when he incorporated an assembly line into his manufacturing process. While efficient and highly profitable, this was a system developed to meet the need of the collective before meeting the needs of individuals. In an assembly line, you become a specialist, or a cog in the wheel, and you basically perform the same repetitive task everyday. What does this do to meet one’s need for love/belonging or esteem? Not much. I’m not saying everybody who works in a factory in an assembly line are thoughtless drones — on the contrary, I think the social network in such a situation can do a great deal to meet one’s needs for love/belonging and esteem. But not the activity, not the work itself. It offers no stimulation, no incentive for true growth and expansion of one’s capacity, and little room for deviation from repetitions. Simply put, it creates material prosperity for the collective by meeting nothing but material needs of the constituents, and ignoring its psychological survival. This process can be dangerously detrimental to one’s psychological prosperity, because such a system is simply dehumanizing. It meets lower-level needs by sacrificing higher-level needs.

This is why the “developed” countries are wrestling with such issues as overworking, exhaustion, depression and suicide. Even though physical survivals are more or less assumed for its members, the old way of collective-survival-first priority is still dominating these societies, preventing its constituents from adequately meeting their higher needs. This creates an imbalance — though the bodily needs are met, the the mental ones are not and it results in lower drive to live. People who are fighting for their physical survival don’t kill themselves. At that level, they are not concerned and/or not aware of their psychological needs. But once assured of physical survival, then one’s attention turns to the welfare of their minds. Not being able to sustain a healthy state of mind, many people develop physical and/or mental illnesses, chemical dependency, and self-destructive behaviors.

For white-collar workers, this still may not ring the bell, because their tasks are not quite as repetitive. Yet, specialization continues among these people as well. Specialists are much more in demand than generalists. We spend a great deal of effort reducing our specialty into a finely-focused niche, so that we can carve out our place in the greater whole. This still results in each person performing rigidly-defined and narrow range of tasks each day. Many offer little to no stimulation or incentive for growth. We’re simply getting by by reducing ourselves to a much smaller and shallower versions of ourselves.

Look at schools, for another proof. Schools are a well-oiled system designed to instill knowledge in children so that they become functional and useful members of the society. Let me say that again. We want them to become useful members of the society. Or useful to the society.

We all know that every child is different. He/she has different needs, has different developmental pace, vastly varied interests and learning styles — the variations are as many as there are number of children. Yet, we put them through a system that teaches them in uniform manner. We give them same information using same curricula and judge them based on how well they ingrain that information within that one approach/teaching method. If the particular method that schools employ fail to enforce children memorizing the information, then that child is labeled as “problematic” or “learning disabled.”

We do this because this is an efficient and convenient system for churning out little cogs that are designed to spin on one direction for the rest of their lives. It’s easier to turn them into little specialists, when they don’t fully experience self-actualization. We teach them that our collective physical survival is our utmost priority.

We do this, because we don’t know any better. We’ve never experienced what it’s like to have a society where most individuals achieve self-actualization.

So we’re stuck recreating systems that ensure our collective physical survival, at all cost.

This last 100 years or so (maybe less) is the first era in the human existence, where some portions of the population have been able to look beyond the needs for mere survival. To actually flourish wholesomely, to realize the entire potential of what we as human beings are capable of.

But we’ve never achieved that state on societal level.

We’re stuck in the state of distrust, having to put systems in place to ensure that everyone become “useful” to the society by suppressing their individuality.

No wonder not many of us actually rise to fulfill our highest and most mature need for self-actualization. Our society’s evolution hasn’t reached to that point yet.

I’m not saying that we should ignore the needs for our physical survival, both as individuals and as collectives. Many systems are necessary for larger societies to function.

But if we create a society in which every individual is empowered to realize their potential, many “enforcing” mechanisms will no longer be needed.

Think about it. Self-actualization, or peak performance, is a state of euphoric joy. When one achieves that state consistently and regularly, there’s no need to go rob a bank or plan a terrorist attack or take out your anger on your children. You just simply don’t feel the need. You feel so abundant and generous that the natural outpour of your happiness will drive you to do something that is good for a greater group of people beyond yourself.

So, how do you create a society where every individual can experience this?

This is the question those of us who have realized our potential will have to wrestle with. I’ll be writing on my ideas on how to achieve this in an on-going basis. This is part of the reason I started this blog.

But it’s safe to say that we need a fundamental paradigm shift as a collective. Instead of the belief system where we are motivated by material gain and collective physical survival, we need to switch to a system where everyone’s self-actualization is the main goal. Living comfortably shouldn’t remain a privilege of the few, but a fundamental human right of all, so that we are free to go explore deeper into our own potential, instead of toiling away on earning our right to live.

Deepak Chopra apparently embodied this concept, when he told his children to not worry about having to earn a living. He told them that he, the parent, will pay for their expenses for as long as they want. What he urged his children to do instead, was to go find what they wanted to do in their lives, and pursue it without worrying about whether it’ll make enough money to sustain them or not.

His children became very successful in their own right.

When the higher needs are taken care of, the lower needs are not only met also, but they exit the circle of concern — they don’t even enter one’s mind.

So, in the end, why this elongated essay on what’s wrong with the society? Because it helps to understand where the challenge, or the opposing force, is coming from. The reason why it’s been hard to realize one’s potential is because the society is not particularly set up to allow or encourage that.

But achieving self-actualization is still very possible and a worthy goal. In fact, it’s worth pursuing because it’s challenging. All changes must begin with self — so each of us need to focus on our personal self-actualization first. But when enough of us achieve that state, I believe there will be a change in our societies. They will change, so that more individuals can experience the height of fulfilling the promises we’re born with.

And that is the ultimate goal. Idealistic it may be, we all have to keep our destination in mind.


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  3. Outstanding article, Ari.

    One thing in particular that I’d like to comment on is your use of “collective survival” to diagnose why our society does what it does. I think that clearly, this is the case. What’s also interesting is that most people probably don’t actually think of it in these terms.

    And that might actually be a good thing 🙂

    1. Hi Derek,

      Welcome to OBV! Glad you got to read this essay.

      I realize that this type of pondering may be nothing more than “food for thought” but I still like to reflect on these things — really big-picture stuff about the whole humanity. Call me a megalomaniac. 😉

      But really, our needs have changed, at least in developer countries. I think we need to frame and identify those needs in new ways. This is the first time in history when some of us can begin to explore the realization of our innate potential. It’s understandable that some people can’t understand this, but that doesn’t mean that we should look for ways to think about this new pursuit.


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