Self-Actualization: Realizing Your Potential

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’” -John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

When I read these lines by John Greenleaf Whittier, I imagine the sorrow and regret that he must have felt about what might have been. Even though the lines are part of Whittier’s poem about love (titled “Maud Muller”), the overarching theme of regret can be applicable to any areas of life.

Bronnie Ware is an Australian woman who spent many years working in palliative care. Her patients were those who had returned home to die. Bronnie was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives. She shared what she learned about their regrets in a 2009 blog post, which was later turned into a book. The most common regret of her dying patients was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

“When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made” (Ware, 2009).

“Of all of the regrets and lessons shared with me as I sat beside their beds, the regrets of not having lived a life true to themselves was the most common one of all. It was also the one that caused the most frustration, as the client’s realisation came too late” (Ware, 2012, p. 39).

The concept of self-actualization is not new. Abraham Maslow, although he did not coin the term (that honor belongs to Kurt Goldstein), introduced to the public and made famous the notion of our human need for self-actualization. Maslow described self-actualization as follows:

“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. He must be true to his own nature. This need we may call self-actualization” (Maslow, 1954, p. 46).

“[Self-actualization] refers to man’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one idiosyncratically is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming” (Maslow, 1954, p. 46).

Self-actualization is the willingness to persistently try to improve oneself and engage in the pursuit of personally relevant and meaningful objectives that lead to a rich and enjoyable life (Multi-Health Systems, 2011).

“Self-actualization is the process of striving to actualize one’s potential capacity, abilities and talents. It requires the ability and drive to set and achieve goals, and it is characterized by being involved in and feeling committed to various interests and pursuits. Self-actualization is thought to be a life-long effort leading to an enriched and meaningful life. It is not merely performance but an attempt to do one’s best” (Bar-On, 2006, p. 20).

“Self-actualization is affiliated with feelings of self-satisfaction. Individuals with healthy self-actualization are pleased with their place on life’s highway with respect to their personal, occupational, and financial destinations” (Stein & Book, 2011, p. 76).

In FYI: For Your Improvement (a guide for coaching and development), Lombardo and Eichinger talked about the importance of self-development:

“The bottom line is, those who learn, grow and change continuously across their careers are the most successful. Whatever skills you have now are unlikely to be enough in the future. Acquiring new skills is the best insurance you can get for an uncertain future. Some of us won’t face our limitations; we make excuses, blame it on the boss or the job or the organization. Others are defensive and fight any corrective feedback. Some are just reluctant to do anything about our problems. Some of us want a quick fix; we don’t have time for development. Some of us simply don’t know what to do” (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000, p. 322).

Individuals who are skilled in self-development (1) commit to and actively work to continuously improve him/herself, (2) understand that different situations and levels may require different skills and approaches, (3) work to deploy strengths, and (4) work on compensating for weakness and limits (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000).

Jim Rohn wrote (1997, p. 263-264): “All life forms inherently strive toward their maximum potential except human beings. Why wouldn’t we strive to become all we can be, to fulfill our potentials? Because we have been given the dignity of choice. It makes us different than alligators and trees and birds. The dignity of choice makes us different than all other life forms. And here’s the choice: to become part of what we could be, enough to get by; or to become all that we can be. My best advice for you is to choose the ‘all.’”

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership + Talent Development Advisor


Bar-On, R. (2006). The Bar-On model of emotional-social intelligence (ESI). Psicothema, 18, supl., 13-25.

Lombardo, M. M., & Eichinger, R. W. (2000). FYI: For Your Improvement: A Development and Coaching Guide (3rd ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Lominger Limited, Inc.

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and Personality. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers.

Multi-Health Systems (MHS). (2011). EQ-i 2.0 User’s Handbook. Toronto, Canada: Multi-Health Systems.

Rohn, J. (1997). Leading an Inspired Life. Niles, IL: Nightingale-Conant Corporation.

Stein, S. J., & Book, H. E. (2011). The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Success (3rd ed.). Mississauga, ON: Jossey-Bass.

Ware, B. (2009). Regrets of the Dying.

Ware, B. (2012). The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departed. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc.