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Self-actualization: chances we unlock when testing our limits

When Ashland, Oregon-based veteran entrepreneur Asha Deliverance explained how she had started her thriving business of modular dome tents for accessory dwellings and glamping, the story seemed out of a tale from the Vedas.

Fina Puigdevall at her home at la Vall de Bianya (Garrotxa, Catalonia, Spain). Born in small-town Catalonia, she ended up collaborating professionally with Carme Pigem from the local architecture studio RCR, an old friend from childhood. The two of them would achieve the highest distinction in their respective fields (3 Michelin stars, and the Pritzker prize)

Active during the counterculture years, she explained her life endeavors with ease and earnest innocence to the point hard things seemed meant to become achievable given the right attitude:

“I was living under a tree at the time I was pregnant.”

It all started with a basic need indeed: back in 1979, Asha was about to deliver a baby and didn’t have any permanent home, the money to rent long-term or buy one, or experience in construction.

Out of need and inspired by the work of Buckminster Fuller she’d seen in magazines, Asha used her old Singer machine to sew the canvas of her first geodesic home. After listening to the story in the video interview of our visit to Ashland, a commenter couldn’t help but add, referring to Asha’s nonchalant risk tolerance: “they don’t make them like that anymore.”

Soon, friends and acquaintances were asking for their own geodesic dwelling, but increasing demand convinced her to incorporate the first retail geodesic dome company in the US. It was 1980.

Asha Deliverance has grown her business ever since despite all sorts of contingencies (and despite the recent tragedy of losing one of her sons, killed in 2017 along with a friend on a Portland MAX train after they confronted a man attacking two black teenagers).

One’s own circumstances

What keeps us going despite the odds? Can we find meaning in the little things? What if self-actualization, or the realization of our potential, depends on attitude and perception rather than conventional social markers that make us competitive with our social relations?

Whether we call the phenomenon “conspicuous consumption,” like pioneer sociologist Thorstein Veblen, or “mimetic desire,” like literary critic René Girard, we are easily triggered by status. According to the latter, “man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.”

But avoiding the intricate rat race that keeps ordinary lives going is better said than done. For one, to quit a hyper-competitive existence with little meaning and value, one has to come to the paralyzing realization that quotidian things don’t add up anymore. Or, as expressed by writer David Foster Wallace in This is Water, to know our situation within a bigger context is as much a task of self-examination as it is one of perspective.

To realize “how’s the water,” two fishes need to find out first their world, what they give for granted as real and “normal,” convenient, consists of “water.” The little parable of the fishes that don’t know what’s water reminds us of how nurture complements nature and defines who we end up becoming.

Unable to determine with our tools at hand (reasoning, whether we call it philosophy or we want to narrow it to science) the boundaries of freedom and circumstance or fate, we react differently when we try to know the set of things that determine us and our generation: passivity, impotence, cynicism, quixotism, and so on.

Exploring our inner drive to create

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche seemed to be talking to an audience several generations forward in the future when, realizing the declining influence of tradition and the rise of new technical forces devoid of humanism, suggested the only way out of nihilism and decadence was a renovated, bigger tolerance for risk, a life affirmation that had to recognize the random, sometimes cruel nature of fate. His own formula of human greatness depended on a love of fate, “Amor fati” in Latin.

Life-affirmation needed concrete action by developing one’s own creative drives, which anybody can explore irrespective of their relative ability or “success,” an approach studied later by countercultural and fringe groups across the world, from the reform movements of the late nineteenth century to the American hustlers and utopian communities who, like the hobo-turned-celebrity-writer Jack London (and his character Martin Eden), persevere in the activities that–they think–define them.

Despite his humble upbringing in the San Francisco Bay Area, Martin Eden, Jack London’s alter ego character, pursues his self-education and, despite the constant rejection of the articles and stories he tries to sell, he perseveres, reaching a certain recognition. But he’ll feel it’s not enough. Eden has tested his limits as an autodidact, but relative fame won’t feel enough, and the character’s extreme individualism will turn into nihilism.

Others seem luckier than Martin Eden, and they discover valuable life lessons when testing their limits. A few years ago, Canadian whitewater kayaker Ben Hayward was training as hard as he could, with little time for anything else. Training for the Olympics, Hayward decided to race across Europe, traveling on his house on wheels: a 72-square-foot wooden home on the back of a flatbed truck he named “Hobbit Van” for its extensive, round door and butterfly-style windows.

The sailor and the Count

Hayward’s new home-on-wheels became a part of his aspirations at the time: it needed to be affordable, comfortable, and capable of bringing him to races in different areas of Europe, but also a reflection of the materials he liked, the utensils he needed, and the useful mechanical beauty he envisioned for a future as a creator that had not come yet. He sensed it would come. At the moment, his converted flatbed truck was all he needed:

“I live out of a suitcase so much of the year, so I’ve been kind of doing this for a long time. For many years prior to this I was really trying to figure out what are the bare essentials that I need while I’m over in Europe for a month or two months at a time. I was like, well, I’ve got my bare essentials suitcase, it was really an additive process rather than a subtractive process.”

When the whimsical side window with Gaudi-esque patterns would open with the mechanical gentleness of a butterfly flapping its wings in slow motion, Hayward knew he had achieved a fine work, overcoming previous “limits.” By pushing ourselves beyond previous limits, we realize that perceived boundaries are relative to our experience and attitude.

Confronted with the limitations we all share, those of fate and mortality, ancient philosophers such as the Stoics established a commonsensical difference between the things that happen at the macro scale that we can’t change or even affect and the small things surrounding us and our own existence that we can choose to transform. Nevertheless, to Nietzsche and those who would proclaim his influence, the main transformation begins with the most important task: having the courage to confront one’s talents and potentialities and dedicating one’s existence to their fulfillment.

But “becoming what one is” can be a very subjective endeavor, to say the least: “What does your conscience say?” asks the German philosopher in The Gay Science. “You shall become the person you are” is the response. Following this reasoning, the tragedy that hits Edmond Dantès, the innocent merchant sailor depicted by Alexandre Dumas, is the fate that allows him to become the person he is, fulfilling the potential in the shape of the Count of Monte Cristo.

To little girls with their respective, intermingled mighty dreams

Decades after Nietzsche’s work, American psychologist Abraham Maslow vulgarized such ideas and made them practical for the masses through the concept of self-actualization, or achieving one’s elevated potential by first taking care of basic material and relational needs. Other authors, from Carl Jung to Alfred Adler, also tried to follow Nietzsche’s steps when, quoting Goethe, he recommended a practical approach to life affirmation:

“I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly invigorating my activities.”

If personal fulfillment depends on relentless dedication to achieving one’s potential, how can one know whether he is on the right path to self-actualization? To Nietzsche, it’s impossible to know such certainties since human existence is a work in progress that doesn’t have a terminus, only moving boundaries that turn unreachable limits into goals accomplished.

The many things that may influence one’s odds to align abilities with life-affirmation (or appreciation for life) are subject to contingencies, yet once in a while, excellence and self-actualization seem to sprout in talent clusters that, on rare occasions, receive their deserved attention by people and media. Consider, for example, the story of two childhood friends growing up in small-town Catalan Pyrennées, far from the traditional influence centers in Catalonia and Spain.

Already secondary school friends, the two girls growing up in a mountain region known for its traditional farmsteads, or Masies in the Catalan plural, beat the odds in the fields of creation they would end up choosing: Fina Puigdevall would become a talented chef, while Carme Pigem would open with two partners a small architecture studio. A few things would relate to the two friends’ character: their attention to detail, their ability to focus, and a boatload of perseverance —a stubbornness necessary to thrive in mountain valleys with harsh weather and little access to convenience.

What Fina Puigdevall and Carme Pigem wouldn’t have known growing up was that they wouldn’t only remain loyal to their friendship but would recognize, time and again, each other’s abilities. So when Fina, already an acclaimed chef at Les Cols, her restaurant in Olot in the Girona province of Catalonia, wanted to open it to the outdoors-—and also build a home that would blend into the Garrotxa landscape in their side of the Pyrennees–, she hired Carme’s studio RCR.

Adjacent possible and reaching one’s own potential

A little time after, Fina and Carme kept pushing their own boundaries, testing their respective limits, and bringing their fields of expertise to fresh perspectives. What happened next was a mere byproduct of an exploration that continues: Fina Puigdevall earned three Michelin stars, the highest honor in her field, and Carme’s RCR would earn the Pritzker, arguably the finest distinction any living architect can achieve.

A coincidence? What’s up with Olot, Fina’s and Carme’s families and upbringing, or their character and innate abilities? What were the odds of both friends reaching the height of their fields without ever really leaving their hometown?

Formative years can take different shapes, and authors such as Steven Johnson have argued that it’s not only our education but the social interaction what makes ideas and careers thrive. Some places, like thriving cities (or dynamic online communities), become the ideal ground for experimentation —the building blocks of what is yet to come, or what American biologist Stuart Kauffman called “the adjacent possible.”

Almost a decade ago, New York City roommates Adam Finkelman and Evan Garfield decided to make the best of their economic constraints, converting a Brooklyn loft into a shared apartment with the possibility of co-living, as well as their own version of old social clubs and restaurants: the coffee houses (epicenters of the Age of Enlightenment) of our time.

The space they found needed a complete revamp but showed the kind of potential they were looking for: a place to customize to their needs and current stage in life. When they began customizing the space by themselves, mainly with DIY hacks and salvaged or inexpensive elements, they felt they were already reflecting on where they wanted to be in the future and who they aspired to become. Despite the shortcomings, they knew their home/venue would have plenty of social interaction but also their aspirational room of one’s own.

Stages of life and self-actualization

Self-actualization looks different from a single father living in a high-rise apartment in downtown Vancouver with his five children. When he separated from his wife, Adrian Crook sought an arrangement better aligned with his values and challenges, so he left the suburbs with the children, trading the North-American backyard for the views and city services accessible within walking distance from his 29th-floor penthouse in the very dense Yaletown district.

Crook grew up in the suburbs but chose the vibrancy of city living as an adult, returning to an urban setup after giving a chance to conventional suburban life. To him, apartment living is compatible with a fulfilled life —one conducted by a single dad raising five healthy, autonomous kids.

The perspective of fulfillment and self-actualization can be very different from elder age, but Californian retired engineer Dave Orton has found a way to keep exploring his own potential and interest in useful, sturdy industrial design. Having more time than before, Orton used the garage shed of his Occidental, Northern California country home to convert a Ford Transit van into an off-grid van home-on-wheels that sleeps two, seats four, and includes a toilet, kitchen, and indoor shower.

Orton used his experience to find a new, refined use for conventional 80/20 aluminum extrusion bars, which have become the building block of the sturdy, highly modular interior. When thinking about arranging two fold-out tables with an indoor-outdoor setup or creating a living room that doubles as a bedroom or cargo space, Dave Orton keeps pushing himself.

His blog on the travel van has become a go-to resource for DIY enthusiasts, some of whom could be Dave’s grandchildren yet recognize Dave’s ability to make very complex decisions that look easy.

No matter our age or circumstances, we share a tendency to challenge ourselves and eventually become our potentialities.