Becoming: Self-Actualization or Self-Transcendence

pensive man writing in notebook and reading book

As we enter December a question you may hear often is: 

What do you want for Christmas? 


What did you get for Christmas?

Please consider turning that question around by asking yourself, “What will I give of myself to others for Christmas?

With regard to this question, my perspective and life forever changed when I first read Man’s Search for Meaning

“Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.” 

(Foreword, Man’s Search for Meaning

Most of us are on a quest to be happy. But happiness is too often about what we can take in from the external world to make us feel good. Frankl argues that the best life is a life in search of meaning.

In a world set on consumption, pleasure, and superficial happiness, Frankl wants to flip the question, “What can I get?” to “What is wanted of me?”

This is a paradigm shift that takes us from the realm of self-actualization to self-transcendence.  

Self-actualization: the realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities, especially considered as a drive or need present in everyone. Its end is a focus on self and perhaps captured in the question, “Am I happy yet?” 

Self-transcendencethe overcoming of the limits of the individual self and its desires in finding meaning in life by using our gifts to bless other people. This exponentially magnifies our happiness.  

I believe life is about “becoming.” Working towards becoming the kind of person you want to be. The outcome of an outward mindset produces a servant-leader.

Socrates is noted for this statement: The unexamined life is not worth living. Let’s be unafraid to examine our lives. To do so, I offer a list of 12 questions you can answer for yourself. You could record your thoughts in your mind, or better yet, in writing:

  1. What do you expect of life?
  2. What does life expect of you?
  3. What do you live for?
  4. Will it sustain and motivate you throughout your life?
  5. What would you die for?
  6. What do you think about when you don’t have to think?
  7. What has given you meaning in your life?
  8. Are you free?
  9. Why or why not?
  10. What is your greatest dream?
  11. What is the highest goal to which you aspire? Why?
  12. Are you becoming who you were meant to be?

Frankl answered these questions early in his career as a psychiatrist. As the Nazis were destroying his family and the community around him, he received an invitation to come to the American Consulate in Vienna to pick up his immigration visa. His parents were thrilled that he could escape and leave Austria. Yet he was conflicted at leaving his aging parents alone to the fate of the Nazi menace. He asked himself, 

“Where did my responsibility lie? Should I foster my brainchild, logotherapy, by emigrating to fertile soil where I could write my books? Or should I concentrate on my duties as a real child, the child of my parents who had to do whatever he could to protect them? I pondered the problem this way and that but could not arrive at a solution; this was the type of dilemma that made one wish for ‘a hint from Heaven’ as the phrase goes. It was then that I noticed a piece of marble lying on the table at home. When I asked my father about it, he explained that he had found it on the site where the National Socialists had burned down the largest Viennese synagogue. He had taken the piece home because it was a part of the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. One gilded Hebrew letter was engraved on the piece; my father explained that this letter stood for one of the commandments. Eagerly I asked, ‘Which one was it?’ Honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land. At that moment I decided to stay with my father and my mother upon the land, and let the American visa lapse.” 

This was a self-transcendent choice and act. A lesser act of self-actualization would have sent him to America. He would have never experienced the breadth or depth of finding meaning he found in the concentration camps.  

“Becoming” begins with our freedom to choose. The freedom to develop our special gift or excellence. Stephen Covey puts it this way, “Between stimulus and response is a space and our greatest power—the freedom to choose.”  The freedom to change, thus allowing us to discover self. I found this stimulus through cultural decline, from reading and careful study, and from mentors, either living or speaking to me from books like Man’s Search for Meaning

“The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.” 

Victor Frankl

December is the month with the least amount of daylight. Yet it can be a month with the greatest “heartlight,” to coin a word from Neil Diamond. My invitation to you in December is to transcend self by using your gifts and virtues to bless others. 

During this month I will share parts of this book that taught me about self-transcendence and servant leadership. I invite you to join the journey of becoming. 

It is the quest to discover, “What is wanted of me?

Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education®. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

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