There’s a famous pyramid most of us would recognize, thrown around often as it is to explain why we are the way we are, and why we do the things we do.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a visualization of the stair-step path up which our quest to fulfillment takes us. A race to the top of a pyramid, upon which we’ll find enlightenment and immense satisfaction.
Of course, Maslow wasn’t really a pinnacle of scientific rigor. His Hierarchy is a concept that makes sense upon initial inspection, but quickly falls apart as soon as you consider cultural bias, biology, and numerous other inconvenient perspectives. It also seems to claim that a person can reach an end point, a finish line, after which they are a fully realized individual.
“I’m fed, clothed, had some sex, am safe, feel loved, have the respect of my peers and myself, am moral, creative, and have gotten rid of my prejudices and dependence on unsupported pseudo-facts. Done! Time to die,” said no one ever.
The lack of philosophical mass doesn’t mean there’s no value to be had in Maslow’s metaphor, however. I prefer to look at his chart not as a pyramid, but as a perspective drawing. Something that starts where I stand and leads off into the distance toward a goal that’s always on the horizon. A horizon that I can someday reach, but which will bring with it further horizons. A perspective that offers no end, but plenty of finish lines to cross.
No matter how you view the world and your future pursuits, however, I find most people do tend to view said pursuits as something they’ll involve themselves with ‘someday.’
This theoretical day never comes, in many cases, or doesn’t come until late in life, at which point a person has more time to ponder such things but less incentive or means to apply it. It’s wonderful to understand what makes you happy in life at age 90, but you’ll get far more use from that discovery if it’s made at age 30.
The pursuit of self-realization, a deep understanding of the world and where you fit within it, knowledge of what makes you happy (and what doesn’t), and an outline of how you want to spend the time you’ve got as a conscious, sentient being is not a chase you have to put off until the bulk of your life is lived. It’s an investment worth making sooner rather than later, and an investment I view as the ultimate self-indulgence. And although it can be mentally demanding, it needn’t replace your other activities and responsibilities. This isn’t a pursuit reserved for the wealthy or elderly.
I set aside a little time each day, just 20 minutes, to do nothing at all. I sit and think. No listening to music, no chatting with a friend or staring at a poster or reading. Just me and my thoughts and a blank wall. I let my thoughts go wherever they like, and it’s amazing the kinds of things that rise to the surface when you give your thoughts the time they need to percolate.
There are as many ways to approach this process of self-discovery as there are people, but mine is a starting point you’re welcome to use if you’ve been looking for an excuse to get started on your own philosophical deep-dive and don’t have an existing structure that works for you.
What’s more important than how you ask these questions, though, is that you’re thinking about them to begin with. From there, the amount of time, energy, and focus you put into answering them depends on what role you want the answers to play in your life moving forward.
Update: April 12, 2017
Giving ourselves time to think about the big stuff, the things that don’t feel like they impact us day to day but which absolutely do, is one of the best long-term investments we can make. It informs everything we do and try to do, and helps shape our paths through life. And it absolutely helps to get started sooner, as you can enjoy the benefits for a longer duration, but there’s no age-limit on this kind of thing. I’ve noticed immense benefits from it, and it didn’t cost me a cent or require any skill beyond the ability to sit and not do anything for a spell.