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Self Actual Engineering

Design for the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy, rather than the bottom

Thomas P Seager, PhD
6 min readOct 4, 2021


I’ve been organizing more of my writing around a new a concept that I call Self Actual Engineering. The term is a reference to the famous American psychologist Abraham Maslow, who described a theory of human motivation that placed something called “self actualization” at the top, as far back as the 1940’s. The simplest way to describe it is as a desire to realize our fullest human potential.

The problem is that nobody knows what that means.

Modifying Maslow

Taking Maslow as a point of departure and updating his Hierarchy somewhat creates an informative guide to the different desires that drive our behavior or motivate us to improve our lives.

At the base of this updated hierarchy are the physiological needs (sleep, food, water, shelter), and just above them the hedonic pleasures (sex, entertainment). These two levels of the hierarchy belong to the Freud, for whom all human motives are driven by the will to pleasure.

However, just above these levels we find interpersonal relationships, which we all can understand are powerful drivers of human behavior, too. According the Adler, all psychological problems are interpersonal problems. Thus, for Adler the higher motivation is not the will to pleasure, but the will to power.

Maslow went further up, placing his “self actualization” at the top. Here, I’ve associated actualization as the development self-efficacy, including mastery (e.g., expertise) and the freedom from control that comes with autonomy.

Nevertheless, I believe there is an even higher level. In his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl was inspired by his experiences in the Nazi death camps to observe that human beings can survive almost any deprivation at the bottom of the hierarchy when they believe in a reason why.

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Daniel Pink offers a summary of the hierarchy in his book on human motivation Drive. He claims that when the basic needs like salary are taken care of…