One day in 1992, when I was fourteen years old, I discovered a set of cassette tapes sitting high up on a shelf at my Grandmother’s house. Out of curiosity, I pulled them down off the dusty shelf for a closer look.
Up until that point in my life, most of my listening had included Run DMC or Bon Jovi, but for some reason, this set of tapes intrigued me.
On the cover of the set was a cranky looking older man, and the words ‘Lead The Field’. I didn’t realize it at that moment, but in my hands was a source of change that would affect the rest of my life.
I popped the first tape into my Sony Walkman, and a sonorous voice boomed out over the tape hiss: “Hello, this is Earl Nightingale, and I’d like to tell you about the magic word.”
From the moment, he started talking, I was completely enamored with the message. Over the next few hours, I listened to each of the twelve recordings.
I had never heard anything quite like it. This man was explaining the power and potential each human being had inside them to grow, achieve and impact the world.
For a reason I still don’t fully understand, I knew that his messages were meant for me. I completely resonated with his ideas, that there was more to life than simply existing or fitting into a mold created by other people.
This was the moment, back in 1992, at the age of fourteen, that I became an actualizer.
Now, if you look up the word ‘actualizer’ on the web, it doesn’t really have a definite meaning. It is derived from the term self-actualization, which was popularized by Abraham Maslow back in 1943.
I take the word ‘actualizer’ to mean a person who actively and consistently aims to improve themselves or to create and contribute to a better world around them.
It’s a pretty lofty thing to self-label myself as an actualizer, but that is what I believe I am. To this day I still have that same deep burning desire to reinvent and keep growing in new ways. While a lot of the people I know have ‘settled’ in life at some level, I feel like I am just getting started.
Maslow’s theory of self-actualization and motivation has been a significant influence on my life. The five levels of the hierarchy of needs that Maslow describes are very fascinating to me. They explain a lot about why not everyone around me has the same desire to keep growing.
The two base levels of the needs pyramid, concern physiological and safety needs. A person who is tired, sick, unsafe or hungry can’t think about much of anything else. But once these needs are met, they start to want more.
The next two levels are human-based needs, concerning love and belonging, and also the need for esteem. For a lot of people I know, as long as they feel a part of a group of friends, and have a reasonable level of status, they are okay with that.
The highest level need, to self-actualize, seems to be a rarer trait. Not everyone seems to want more than a sense of love, belonging and esteem. In fact, a lot of people are perfectly happy living their whole life at this level. It is even somewhat frowned upon in some cultures to want more than a family, a group of friends, and respect from your neighbors.
But there are those rare people, who I call the actualizers, who want something more. They want to grow, to expand, to challenge the status quo in some way. They don’t do it for popularity, or because they think it will make them rich, they do it because they must. They don’t even really care if anyone else notices, as long as they have the chance to challenge themselves through action.
I am reminded of the quote from George Mallory, the famous mountain climber who explained his motivation and persistence for wanting to reach the summit of Mt Everest in three words “Because it’s there.”
As I have drawn closer to forty years old, I have heard many of my friends start to complain that they are getting old. To me, this idea doesn’t even register. I feel like I am still fourteen years old, with the same energy and drive to actualize that those cassette tapes first stirred in me.
My biggest dream was always to become a speaker. Someone who carried on the legacy of the work that Earl Nightingale and my early mentors created. It was only around the age of thirty-five that I dared to start speaking publicly and sharing ideas of my own that could help others. It took me twenty years, but finally, I became an actualizer. I put action behind my desires and put them out into the world.
I am not sharing this to brag, nor to surmise that being an actualizer is better than not being. I am simply following my needs, just the same as those who need to belong and to feel safe.
Here is what I have come to understand. A true actualizer will risk everything – safety, security, love, connection, esteem – just to feel like they are growing. It makes no sense to anybody who is not so inclined, but to those who are it is the only way to live.
Why I chose to listen to those tapes at age fourteen, I will never know. But I am glad that I did. I am grateful that it awoke the actualizer in me, and continues to motivate me to this very day.
Why do I bother continuing to grow?
Why do I keep reaching for new heights?
Because I must.
In the immortal words of Walt Whitman:
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.